COS Contributor Danny Minj asserts that Liverpool are much more than a two-man team but are nontheless a side with glaring weaknesses.
Lazy punditry, it seems, is now the standard for televised and radio broadcast football regardless of which channel you choose to watch football on. There was a time when listening to a pundit or reading an article would offer some fascinating insight or tell you something new about the game you’ve watched all your life. Even Hansen in his early years on MotD would dazzle you with something as mundane as his analysis of a defence’s positioning for a drop ball. Maybe there’s less to learn once you’re in your thirties or maybe pundits these days play to the mass market audiences with sloppy soundbites and sensationalism. The latter seems to be the main factor.
One of the best examples of this slapdash and clumsy analysis, is the universal perpetuation that Liverpool are a ‘two man team’, those two men being Gerrard and Torres. Two man team. We’ve heard those words so often over the last 2 years that it would be no surprise if the Oxford English Dictionary included it in their next edition as a colloquialism.
When it comes to Liverpool, it seems the pundits and journalists want it both ways. According to them, the Anfield outfit are a two man team and have been for at least 2 or 3 years, yet they also love to point out that the team really, really misses Xabi Alonso. So that’s at least a three man team last season, then? Perhaps two man team has a nicer ring to it. It does trip off the tongue nicely.
But it doesn’t really end there. Even the most one-eyed Premier League fan would admit that Pepe Reina is amongst the top three goalkeepers in the league, and arguably the best given what he contributes to Liverpool beyond his keeping ability and the fact he won the Golden Gloves award for three consecutive seasons. So, Liverpool are currently a three man team at least surely?
Then ask any Liverpool fan, or any keen observer of football in fact, what would happen to the team if Carragher and Mascherano were removed from the spine behind Gerrard and Torres. Collapse and chaos at worst, or a severely weakened midfield and defensive unit at best. Both Carragher and Mascherano are integral to their respective units in the team.
Carragher has, for many years, marshalled and managed the defenders around him in a manner reminiscent of Tony Adams is his pomp, whilst maintaining a consistently high standard against Europe’s elite attackers. He may be struggling for form this season, but remember that he has been at the heart of a defence that has been the 2nd or 3rd best in the league for the past 4 seasons, and similarly stingy against the best the Champions League has to offer. So at least a four man team then?
Mascherano too, is now integral to the midfield with his seemingly tireless running and tackling. He may not be the finished article but the 25-year old has been key in Liverpool’s best performances in recent seasons, particularly victories over Manchester United and Chelsea where winning the midfield battle usually dictates the outcome of the game. Really, Liverpool are a five man team, we could conclude.
In reality, the list could go on. Glen Johnson, England’s right-back. Daniel Agger, the partner of choice for Carragher and a cultured young centre-back. And so on. Try taking Carragher, Agger, Mascherano and Johnson out the team and Liverpool would be a mess. But ‘Liverpool are simply a seven man team’ doesn’t really have the punchiness or impact required for modern media work.
Conversely, most of the learned observers we are subjected to miss the other key point with alarming regularity. Whilst the current Liverpool team has accomplished players of the standard required to win trophies throughout the team, they are lacking horribly in one vital area – the wings.
Much criticism has been levelled at Benitez’s tactics and team choices, some of it undoubtedly deserved and some of it way off. His main folly though, has been to play the robust formation that is currently in vogue with only two real attacking options – yes you guessed it, Gerrard and Torres. The 4-2-3-1, or 4-5-1, depending on which way you see it, is pretty much the favoured choice for the Premier League and Europe’s best teams, it’s principal benefit being the ability to accommodate modern all round attackers who can move fluidly anywhere on the pitch such as Rooney, Kaka, Messi, Ronaldo. Even Spain’s resurgence and dominance has deployed a version of it, although usually with just one in front of the defence in a 4-1-3-2 formation.
What this currently fashionable formation requires in order to be successful in both attack and defence, is devastating attackers across the three playing behind the lone striker offering genuine outlets and posing an unpredictable goalscoring threat, whilst the holding midfielders provide adequate cover. Chelsea do this well picking from the likes of Lampard, Ballack, Deco, Kalou, Joe Cole and Anelka behind the world-class Drogba. Man United and Arsenal have a similar wealth of options including Giggs, Scholes, Valencia, Fabregas, Arshavin and Walcott. Liverpool’s best options are currently Dirk Kuyt and Yossi Benayoun, although a fit Rieira would probably challenge too.
And there’s the rub. There is much that is admirable and effective about both Kuyt and Benayoun. Both are disciplined and hard working, with Benayoun also particularly adept at carrying the ball and occasionally picking a pass and Kuyt tireless and physical. But to describe either as devastating attackers would be laughable. Neither has any pace. Neither can regularly beat defenders, particularly on the outside. Neither scores or creates many goals. And Kuyt in particular seems to possess astonishingly poor control of the ball. The performance against Aston Villa was a case study in Liverpool’s weaknesses – Benayoun was bullied out of a scrappy and physical game, rarely offering anything with the ball other than cutting inside and looking for a pass. Kuyt was at his worst, sitting deep on the right flank, always passing sideways or backwards and never beating his marker. Benitez has, it seems, invented a new position – the holding right midfielder.
Worse, what Benitez has really done is create the illusion of a two man team. With the defenders and midfielders knowing that a ball out wide will most likely come straight back to them and rarely see an attack down the wing, Liverpool’s play in possession then becomes an exercise in trying to find Gerrard and Torres. This undermines the abilities of an undoubtedly talented team. Simply imagine Liverpool’s best team but replace Kuyt and Benayoun with Arshavin and Giggs. Suddenly, it would not be so difficult to imagine them as genuine title contenders.
Much of this comes from Benitez’s stubbornly defensive philosophy but also a lack of funds to buy genuine attackers of real quality. Until a solution is found for these and the two wide positions, Liverpool will continue to betray the talented players they have throughout their squad. They are, in fact, a nine man team but since when was that enough to win trophies, or make a good soundbite?