Shortly after Stan Collymore joined Liverpool, for a then-record £8.5m in 1995, he gave an interview in which he observed that most companies, if they spent millions on a new piece of equipment, would have had a plan as to how they were going to use it. Liverpool, Collymore said, had bought him without realizing his style of play and theirs were incompatible. The partnership did not last long.
At first glance the club would seem to have made the same mistake with their latest record signing, Andy Carroll, for Liverpool have a squad which is totally unsuited to the centre-forward's strengths.
For much of their first defeat to West Bromwich Albion in three decades on Saturday, Liverpool were narrow and devoid of any crossing capability. Largely through injury and lack of alternatives Kenny Dalglish mostly deployed four centre-halves in defence, and three central midfielders and a striker in midfield. There were wingers on the pitch, and overlapping full-backs, but they all played for West Brom.
As a result Carroll's aerial strength was negated in open play. "Carroll is an excellent player," said Roy Hodgson, Albion's manager, "one of those who is a real handful when the ball is played into the penalty area." He added that when facing such players "you have to accept you won't win every ball" but should focus on the knock-downs and flick-ons, and keep them away from the box.
Hodgson said Albion had concentrated on preventing a supply of crosses – a task made easier by their opponents' lack of width. As a consequence Liverpool began to play long, towards Carroll's head but, observed Hodgson, "were struggling to get their midfield players up in support of the long balls". It was, he concluded, "a really satisfying performance for us tactically."
Dalglish bristled when it was put to him that Liverpool played long, and he correctly noted that Abion's second penalty followed "a launch which travelled 50 yards", adding there was nothing wrong with hitting the long ball at times. Liverpool's problem was that it was done too often and without appropriate support for Carroll.
With Raul Meireles drifting inside, Dalglish eventually sent Luis Suarez on to the left wing but Carroll remained unserviced. That, however, will not be the case next season, insisted Dalglish "We signed Andy Carroll for five-and-a-half years, not for three weeks. [In the summer] we'll analyse what we need. Andy is going to be part of our team, so is Suarez, so we need a combination of players who are going to be complementary to what we have."
For now Dalglish must make do with what he has, and his squad has been further depleted by the loss of Glen Johnson (hamstring tear), Daniel Agger (knee) and Steven Gerrard (a new groin problem). With none likely to return quickly, Liverpool's pursuit of fifth, and a place in Europe, may fade. They had looked like closing the gap on Spurs when Martin Skrtel headed in Meireles' corner early in the second period but Peter Odemwingie twice outwitted Sotirios Kyrgiakos to win a brace of penalties converted by Chris Brunt.
For Albion the task remains avoiding relegation – with 36 points they are four clear of the drop zone with seven matches remaining. "This is an important win psychologically but I think relegation will remain in question until the last game," said Hodgson, who added: "I feel the magical 40 points safety mark will be well and truly shattered this season."