Birmingham City 0 Liverpool 0: Report and Reaction to Hodgson Decisions

Karl Matchett@@karlmatchettFeatured ColumnistSeptember 13, 2010

Reina kept Birmingham at bay
Reina kept Birmingham at bayRoss Kinnaird/Getty Images

Liverpool claimed their first away point of the Premiership season with a stalemate at St. Andrew’s yesterday, after having ‘keeper Pepe Reina to thank for making some outstanding saves.

From the start the Reds had lined up with more of a solid than spectacular team, with Christian Poulsen and Lucas Leiva paired in the centre of midfield and new signing Raul Meireles having to make do with a place on the bench. Captain Steven Gerrard was pushed forward in support of Fernando Torres, with Maxi Rodriguez coming in to replace the stricken Dirk Kuyt. Paul Konchesky came in to make his competitive Reds debut at left back in place of Danny Agger in the only other change for Liverpool.

The Reds started brightly, having a good deal of possession in Birmingham’s half but they never really threatened Ben Foster’s goal; and for all Liverpool’s neat passing in the opening 20 minutes there was no clear sight of goal for Torres and co.

Indeed, as the half wore on it looked like Birmingham would be the more likely team to score, as Pepe Reina was called into action three times in the latter period of the first half. As Liverpool failed to deal with high cross after high cross that the home side threw at them, Cameron Jerome, who scored a stunner against Liverpool last season at Anfield, must have thought he’d given his team the lead with a fine downward header which seemed to be heading for the back of the net, until Reina produced a fine flying save to claw the ball away from goal.

Not long after he had to be alert to thwart the forward again, this time punching clear just as Jerome looked to nod in at the near post from a right wing cross. Then came an even finer moment from our Spanish custodian, as he somehow flung himself to his right again to stop another header from point blank range, this time from Gardener. Skrtel and Carragher were losing almost every high ball into the box towards the end of the first half, and neither Konchesky on the left or Glen Johnson on the right seemed to be able to prevent the ceaseless onslaught of crosses.

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Stern words were needed at half time to lift Liverpool out of their slumber and within seconds of the restart it looked like Hodgson had gotten his message across, Torres racing forward to put the home side under immediate pressure. However, again it didn’t last and Liverpool again failed to produce any sustained pressure on Foster’s goal.

In the second half Liverpool again enjoyed plenty of possession and, with Birmingham more content to try and hit the Reds on the counter, should have made it count more, but a few efforts from distance from Gerrard was the best they could muster. Torres had a fierce drive well beaten away at the near post and Maxi dragged a shot wide when he might have done better, but a real cutting edge was lacking from Liverpool.

Raul Meireles came on for his debut with 15 minutes left in place of the ineffective Lucas, seconds before Konchesky’s own debut was curtailed through injury; Agger his replacement. Meireles immediately improved Liverpool’s passing and movement in the final third but several times was not found quick enough by his team mates when well placed. With Gerrard having moved back into the centre of the field to accommodate the new Portuguese number 4, the Reds looked more menacing and controlled the midfield far better, but there was not enough real firepower to seriously trouble the Birmingham defence and Liverpool had to settle for a point.

Underperforming players

While Pepe Reina was making extraordinary saves to keep Liverpool in the game in the first half, and Jamie Carragher had a pretty solid game at the back, too many Red shirts failed to produce the goods in Sunday’s game.

Maxi, given the chance to impress in the absence of Kuyt, did nothing to suggest he should have been given more game time up until now, while the central pairing of Lucas and Poulsen, as with against West Brom, utterly failed to dominate the match and looked disjointed and ill at ease playing alongside each other; at one point in the first half even colliding with each other mid-air as they challenged for the same high ball.

Jovanovic drifted in and out of the game and Torres, starved of service for much of the match, took it upon himself to try and take on the whole Birmingham defence instead of looking for the easy pass once too often.

And Martin Skrtel, who suffered a shaky spell at the beginning of last season, had a thoroughly disastrous match, failing to win most of his aerial battles and giving away a free kick which almost led to a Birmingham goal through one of his trademark challenges, attempting to get in front of the forward to win the ball before it arrives when there was no immediate danger on at all. Until Skrtel learns not to jump into this kind of challenge, he will never become a top class defender. On the evidence of yesterday's game, it should be fervently hoped that Agger regains his place in the centre of defence for next week's tussle with Manchester United.

Disappointment with Hodgson

While the Reds are undoubtedly a work in progress, it seemed to me in the run up to this game that it was vital to have a strong midfield to play against Birmingham, who pride themselves on working hard for each other and pressing quickly, something which necessitates the ability to pass quickly and accurately in the middle of the park, which neither Lucas nor Poulsen regularly showed they can do yesterday. While Hodgson’s decision not to throw Meireles straight in at the deep end was perhaps understandable (if a tad frustrating), surely a deeper role for Gerrard would have benefited us immeasurably more? Playing further up the field Gerrard is a great threat – if he receives the ball. But as we saw far too often last term, if the midfield isn’t good enough to get the ball to the front 3 or 4 in the first place, his effectiveness is taken away and Poulsen and Lucas did not do well enough in that regard against Birmingham. Playing Gerrard in the middle would surely have resulted in a greater presence for the Reds in midfield and would possibly have allowed another attacking threat – Babel, Ngog, Pacheco, take your pick – to offer support and supply to Torres and Jovanovic.

Allied to this perceived error, for me Roy Hodgson persisted far too long in the game with the same initial eleven players, changing neither the roles nor the personnel and allowing the game to drift away from Liverpool. After the first half, where the Reds were admittedly lucky to escape to the sanctuary of the dressing rooms at 0-0, they should have used the opportunity to take the game to Birmingham more and try to take the three points.

Before the game, many people might have taken a point from St. Andrew’s as a good result and taking into account their recent home record, plus Liverpool's away record of late, they might have been right. However, as the game wore on it was increasingly obvious that the game was there to be won and with a little more adventure and belief Liverpool could have been travelling North on Sunday night with three points in the bag instead of one.

Instead, Hodgson waited until just 15 minutes from time to release new midfield man Meireles and, aside from the enforced change of Agger, did not turn to his substitutes again.

What does this say to the opposition, the fans and Liverpool’s future opponents when Ryan Babel, Dani Pacheco and David Ngog stay sitting on the bench at 0-0, with Liverpool in the ascendancy as the game grew late, without the manager willing to throw on one of these forwards to try to win the game?

Would Babel’s pace down the right flank really have been worse, with ten minutes to go or so, than the fruitless and countless runs down blind alleys of Maxi Rodriguez? Maxi is a talented player and on his day can be a very useful wide man, but against Birmingham he was completely anonymous in an attacking sense and offered nothing as an outlet or as support to Torres.

Ngog is our current top scorer and should be full of confidence; would it not have been a wise move to turn to him for a few minutes in the hope that one chance fell to him? Even Pacheco, who although is yet to play more than a handful of Premiership minutes at a time, has already shown he has the creativity to unlock defences packed with more experienced players than himself.

All three of those attackers named on the bench yesterday have something to prove to Liverpool and all are trying to cement their place in the first team on a more regular basis. What message is conveyed to them when NONE of them get even a look in late on in a match which was there to be won?

Hodgson is very early on in his Liverpool tenure of course and will know better than anyone at this point who is fit and mentally ready to take part in each game, but for me he needs to adjust his own mentality – and fast.

This is Liverpool Football Club.

If they get a point away from home, then fine, they get a point. But Liverpool should not and do not, ever, SETTLE for a point when it possible to go for all three. If the players brought on make a mistake and end up losing the game, of course it’s easy to say the manager would be hammered for it, but to do nothing at all is infinitely worse. We didn’t so much as see Maxi and Jovanovic swapped flanks to try and unsettle the defenders, let alone re-fit the attack with substitutions.

A most disappointing end to a frankly forgettable game which, if not for Reina Liverpool would have lost but which, given the second chance from his saves, they also should have gone on to - or at least try to - win.