Monday, January 16, 2012

Three's A Crowd

Paul Merson felt Liverpool boss Kenny Dalglish got his tactics wrong in their 0-0 draw with Stoke.

The Reds went into the match with three central defenders - Jamie Carragher, Sebastian Coates and Martin Skrtel - looking to deal with Stoke's lone striker Peter Crouch.

Merson said it became quickly apparent that Liverpool didn't need so many bodies at the back, but Dalglish persisted with the formation throughout a frustrating 90 minutes for the Anfield crowd.

The Soccer Saturday expert said those tactics might work in the second leg of Liverpool's Carling Cup semi-final against Manchester City, but felt they should have switched to a flat back-four against Stoke.

Merson said: "Stoke were playing Crouch up front, who's brilliant at holding the ball up, but he's not going to have the pace to hurt you behind.

"They probably thought if Stoke got the ball they'd start playing diagonal balls into Crouch and he's bigger than the three that did play there - and hopefully they could win the second ball.

"But after 10 minutes you knew that wasn't going to be the case. Liverpool played all of the game in their half and they were still playing three centre-halves marking Crouch on his own. It should have been changed, no question it should have been changed.

"I don't know if they're playing like that to get ready for Man City in two weeks' time. They're already 1-0 up so that's the time I probably would play it.

"But I didn't see why they had to keep with it and even when they were chasing the game and Stoke were getting deeper and deeper they still played three at the back.

"It was a strange decision for me."

Dalglish also utilized Dirk Kuyt as a lone striker before bringing on Craig Bellamy and Andy Carroll in the second half and Merson felt that was also a mistake.

He felt Kuyt didn't have the pace or the presence to suit that system and his lack of pace meant captain Steven Gerrard struggled to deliver any killer passes.

"Steven Gerrard was the player who was trying to get things going," Merson added.

"But it doesn't matter how good you are. You can be the best player in the world at number 10 or the player who is going to provide, if you ain't got the players up front and you've got no movement you've got no chance.

"They were paceless. Until Craig Bellamy came on, nobody was quick.

"I thought Carroll was the player who would definitely play on Saturday. When you play three at the back and five in midfield with the full-backs making a five, I thought he would be the player who would go up front, hold the ball up and let people like Gerrard, Charlie Adam and Jordan Henderson run off him.

"That wasn't the case. In the first half Kuyt was coming back further than the midfield. He was coming shorter and shorter and they had nobody up front."

Merson admitted he was unimpressed with the home side, but said Stoke deserved to go home with a point.

"I was disappointed with Liverpool on Saturday," he added.

"The only good thing to come out of it was that Stoke never looked like scoring in a month of Sundays. As a defensive unit they were a different class.

"But Stoke, defensively, were unbelievable. They went there for a draw and they got a draw - and they got it very, very easy bar one chance for Kuyt.

"I don't care if you're Man United or Man City, to go to Anfield and keep Liverpool down to one clear-cut chance is very surprising."

Toothless Liverpool Miss Suarez

"I think I'm in danger of repeating myself here," said Kenny Dalglish when asked one question too many about his team's failure to break down a stubborn Stoke City side.

Over 44,000 Liverpudlians might have thought something similar after seeing their team's seventh draw in 11 league matches at Anfield this season.

Liverpool may rank alongside Manchester City as one of only two teams unbeaten at home in the 2011-12 Premier League but where City have accrued 30 points, for the Merseysiders the figure is 19 – fewer than all six teams above them.

Jose Enrique, one of their brighter performers on Saturday, acknowledged that this home discomfort was damaging Liverpool's Champions League qualification prospects. "If we start to take our chances then we can be in the top four, but if we don't then we will make it more difficult for ourselves," he said. This latest disappointment was down to a worrying lack of creativity. Besides a late free header missed by Dirk Kuyt, there was little serious threat to Stoke's goal.

On the weekend when Liverpool's managing director, Ian Ayre, both in a BBC interview and the match program, conceded that their handling of the Luis Suarez affair had damaged people's "perception" of the club, the on-field consequences of that case were only too evident: Liverpool desperately lacked the spark of the suspended Suarez, who may miss opportunities but also creates them. Stoke's manager, Tony Pulis, who saw him score twice at the Britannia in the Carling Cup in October, admitted: "I could not have picked a better player for us not to play against than Suarez."

In his absence, Kuyt led the line, supported by Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing, but they toiled against a Stoke side who flooded the midfield and defended resolutely. Andy Carroll's introduction for the last half-hour made things more interesting, if only for the fact Stoke risked conceding a penalty when first Robert Huth, then Ryan Shawcross grappled with him at corners, but the referee, Howard Webb, ignored the Kop's loud appeals.

"It is difficult to understand when they [the match officials] talk to the players and explain something to them and they commit the same [offence] immediately after it," said Dalglish, though he acknowledged his team's failings first and foremost. "We have got to be more creative and the deliveries into the box have got to be a lot better than they were."

Stoke's physical approach may infuriate opponents but they had every right to celebrate a point at a ground where they have never won in 49 top-flight visits. Pulis's team sits eighth in the table, having lost just one of their last nine League outings, but the Welshman is not getting carried away. "This is only our fourth year in the Premier League and we shouldn't lose sight of that. The aim is to get to 40 points as quickly as we can and then push on from there."

Anfield In Danger Of Losing Its Fear Factor

The once-formidable Anfield fortress now resembles a welcoming visitor centre. The sense of overwhelming intimidation, so integral to Liverpool’s success during their prime, is in danger of becoming a memory.

It is revived for special occasions – no doubt the double header with the city of Manchester this month will reawaken passions – but too many Premier League encounters have failed to raise beyond the humdrum.

Stoke City, like the six previous clubs to leave Anfield clutching a point which was generously offered as much as hard earned, have long shaken off any fearful inferiority felt by those passing through the Shankly Gates.

Fourteen points have been squandered by Liverpool on their own turf this season. Recruiting a striker is considered the obvious solution, but given the number of accidents they are encountering at home, a new health and safety officer would not go amiss, either.

Twelve months on from Kenny Dalglish’s appointment, a sweep of the Premier League landscape reveals Liverpool are exactly where they have been for three years.

They are the sixth best side in the division, and although they are consolidating themselves by taking a more scenic route towards a top-four challenge (although not in this game), it must concern the American owners that they have been unable to take advantage of the mediocre standards of Arsenal and Chelsea.

A season has unfolded which confirms the view that whatever methods are employed and changes made at Anfield, the gains and losses have a habit of balancing each other.

In Rafael Benítez, Liverpool possessed the most tactically astute manager in their history – a trait which was magical when he outwitted Jose Mourinho but infuriating when he would select teams to cope with the elaborate formation of Barnsley.

Under Dalglish, broadly speaking the philosophy has been based on the traditional Anfield mantra of ‘letting the opposition worry about us’.

This rather ignores Dalglish’s occasional forays into the strategy room. During his first spell, he was not averse to surprising his own supporters as much as rival managers by using full backs in central midfield, or midfielders in defence. Often with mixed results.

If Wednesday’s rearguard action in the second half at the Etihad Stadium was a reminder of Dalglish’s often underestimated capacity for pragmatism, his choices here marked it in bold capital letters.

There was wisdom in lining up with three centre-halves to combat Stoke’s aerial threat, repeating a successful idea from last season, but few could identify the merit of persisting with it once Tony Pulis reacted by amending his own line-up to play one up front.

It was like watching someone’s cunning plan being undermined by the opponent’s irritating refusal to let it work. In chess terms, Pulis emerged as the grandmaster.

Dirk Kuyt was left to play the Andy Carroll role as a lone striker, and engaged in a perfect impression of the Geordie. Kuyt’s touch deserted him throughout and when the game’s single chance fell on his forehead he somehow missed the target.

As with Carroll at Manchester City, the Dutchman was often isolated against a robust Stoke defence, a problem compounded when he hunted deep for possession. This had the effect of making it seem as though Liverpool were playing with seven midfielders and no striker.

Clearly Liverpool missed Luis Suárez. “I was absolutely delighted not to see him on the pitch,” said Pulis. Since Suárez was present for the previous six Anfield draws suggesting his absence was the difference is simplistic.

A greater loss in such a system was the rested Daniel Agger whose capacity to bring the ball out of defence could have turned a redundant extra defender into an attacking weapon.

When the change did come after an hour, it was Stewart Downing who mystifyingly made way for substitute Carroll, while the assortment of centre-backs was retained, at least two of them marking thin air.

Asked how he thought his plan worked, Dalglish pointed out that his defence looked strong, but admitted “they had only one striker to mark”, which simply added to the bewilderment. Liverpool had evidently identified their problem, but failed to react and rectify it until it was too late.

If they do not sign a striker to turn home draws into wins within the next fortnight, the same will also be true of this season’s attempts to return to the Champions League.

Reds Legend: Liverpool Close On New Striker

Liverpool is on the verge of signing a new striker, according to legendary goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar.

Liverpool struggled to hit the net again this weekend with a 0-0 draw at home to Stoke and have scored just eight goals in their last nine Premier League games. With Luis Suarez suspended for eight games, strikers Dirk Kuyt and Andy Carroll have come under pressure to perform but Carroll has only scored twice this season, while Kuyt has yet to break his drought.

Manager Kenny Dalglish is believed to be ready to dip into the transfer market to boost his side's attacking threat and Grobbelaar is sure a deal will happen soon.

"There are two strikers [Liverpool are interested in]," Grobbelaar told talkSPORT. "I know that [Kenny Dalglish] is looking at a South American striker who is playing in Holland and I know that he's quite close in getting another striker.

"I'm not going to be the one to actually tell you who, but I'm sure that the striker will be arriving soon." According to the Daily Mirror, Dalglish is ready to offer £10 million for Tottenham's Jermain Defoe, although Spurs boss Harry Redknapp has said recently that he does not want to let the striker depart.

Liverpool Consider January Bid For Scott Sinclair

Liverpool are considering a January move to sign Swansea City attacker Scott Sinclair after a succession of glowing scouting reports left Anfield boss Kenny Dalglish readying a potential bid for the former Chelsea man.

Dalglish has been monitoring a number of prospective attacking additions as the Scot looks to beef up Liverpool’s fire-power after seeing his Merseyside club struggle to find the back of the net. That need to bring in another forward has been accentuated by Luis Suarez being handed a lengthy ban and Andy Carroll’s continued inability to find his feet almost a year since his £35m move from Newcastle United.

Scott Sinclair spent five years trying to make the grade at Chelsea, being sent out on loan moves to no fewer than six sides before the Bath born adaptable forward opted to make a £500k move to South Wales and hasn’t looked back since. The 22 year old knocked in 27 goals in his first season to help Brendan Rodgers’ into the top flight via the play-offs.

The former England Under-21 international has continued to impress in the top flight notching up six goals from a wide role out on the left, offering support to summer signing Danny Graham and pushing Swansea City into the top half of the table.

Liverpool spent over £100m on new players in 2011 and Dalglish and director of football Damien Comolli have been committed to purchasing youthful players in order to build for the future and Sinclair certainly fits the bill in that respect and the top four chasers may feel they can tempt the Swansea City man to consider a move, especially as he has less than 18 months left to run on his current contract.

The fact that Sinclair can play out wide will also interest Dalglish who will feel that the adaptable Swansea City man can add an extra direct dimension to an attack that has struggled to break down opposition sides, managing just 24 goals in 21 Premier League matches.

United And Liverpool Warned Off Zaha

Manchester United and Liverpool have made enquiries about Crystal Palace star Wilfried Zaha, but have been told the teenager is not for sale.

Eagles boss Dougie Freedman has put together an exciting young squad, with 19-year-old forward Zaha the cream of the crop.

Palace moved to offset a potential January exit by tying Zaha to a long-term contract, but that has not stopped the speculation.

Newcastle have been credited with an interest, but recent speculation has suggested the Red Devils and Liverpool are also tracking the forward. This has been confirmed by Freedman, but he stressed that the enquiries were politely batted away.

"I've had chit-chats with Kenny Dalglish and Alex Ferguson, but he is not going anywhere," Freedman said of Zaha.

Carra: Football Is My Focus Now

Jamie Carragher is flattered by talk of a role at LFC after retirement - but insists extending his playing career for as long as possible is his top priority right now.

Fellow Scouser Steven Gerrard signed a new deal at the club last week which will see him adopt an ambassadorial role once his playing days are over.

Kenny Dalglish later claimed that similar talks may be held with Carragher, who made his first Barclays Premier League start since sustaining a calf injury in October as Liverpool drew 0-0 with Stoke on Saturday.

While Carragher would love to stay at the club for as long as possible, his focus remains on adding to a tally of appearances which currently stands at a staggering 684.

"If the manager has mentioned that role, I'm sure we will discuss it in the future," said Carragher, who turns 34 this month.

"Of course I'd like to stay on but that's not something I want to talk about at the minute.

"I still want to concentrate on playing. I want to get as much out of my playing career as I possibly can.

"I'm the same as Steven - we love playing for the club and we just want to help in any way that we can. Last week was about Steven and rightly so. He is the figurehead of the club as Kenny was 20 to 30 years ago.

"Steven is a legend of the club, known throughout the world and synonymous with the club. He totally deserves what he has been given by the club and I think it is a fantastic gesture."

Jonjo: Why I Look Up To Jay

Jonjo Shelvey has spoken of his admiration for fellow central midfielder Jay Spearing and commented: 'I look up to Jay'.

Liverpool's No.33 netted his first goal in a red shirt during the FA Cup 3rd round victory over Oldham Athletic as he partnered Spearing at the heart of the Reds' midfield.

"Jay is a top, top player. I think he has proved that when he's in the team," said Shelvey.

"I felt really sorry for him against Fulham when he was shown the red card. I thought it was a proper old fashioned tackle.

"I look up to Jay, even though I've played more games in my career. He's been around the Liverpool squad for a long time where it's harder to get games."

Shelvey played 42 games during the two years he spent at Charlton and he is making great progress under the tutelage of Kenny Dalglish.

He enjoyed an outstanding spell on loan at Championship club Blackpool on including a debut goal in a 5-0 win against Bristol City at Bloomfield Road.

A hat-trick against Leeds in November coupled with a handful of stand-out performances for The Seasiders lead to him being named Championship Young Player of the Month for November.

Shelvey said: "It was a big thing for me. It's nice to win it. I've never won anything like that before; I think the only other trophy I've ever won was for a golf tournament!

"It's good to know people are noticing what you can do."

After injury ruled Lucas Leiva out for the remainder of the season, Liverpool recalled their starlet as cover on November 30, 2011 and he made his first ever Barclays Premier League start with an impressive outing for the Reds in the 2-0 win at Aston Villa.

He added: "In the Premier League you get a little bit more time and space because it's a more technical game.

"You don't get as much time on the ball in the Championship. People are always in your face. If you try to take a touch you usually get tackled straight away. You get pressed all the time.

"Hopefully I can stay playing in the Premier League."