By Jim Kostecki
Let’s be honest, it has not been the greatest of months for Liverpool. While I realize that progress in both the FA Cup and Carling Cup at the expense of both Manchester teams does not give weight to my argument, it is still worth pointing out the unsettling issues that have emerged in the New Year.
To be clear, these issues may not necessarily make or break Liverpool’s remaining 16 games. Adversity can often unify teams struggling to find identity and character. However, it is how this adversity is addressed that will be crucial to Liverpool’s success in 2012.
As brilliant and refreshing as Dalglish’s tactics are, you can’t help but wonder if he tries too hard. His implementation of left-footed players on the right side of midfield and vice-a-versa for right-footed players has proven useful at times. However, when he takes the squad experimentation a step further, problems arise.
The match against Stoke City saw Dalglish deploy three centre-backs, and use José Enrique and Glen Johnson as the two wing-backs. While this formation – a tactic that Liverpool seemed uncomfortable with from the start – provided width, it resulted in excruciatingly few chances. Furthermore, a majority of those chances fell in the hands Johnson and Enrique – two defenders that cannot be relied on to score goals, regardless of their offensive abilities. Liverpool suffered a dull 0-0 draw and wasted a valuable opportunity to gain ground on the five teams above them in the table.
Another prime example of Dalglish’s tactical flaws is the use of Jamie Carragher as a defensive midfielder during the FA Cup game against Manchester United. Rather than risk using the young Jay Spearing to fill the defensive midfielder role left behind by the injured Lucas, Dalglish instead deployed Carragher in a quasi-defensive stopper role. It didn’t work to plan. Instead of providing a defensive lifeline to Skrtle and Agger, Carragher often looked confused on which players to defend. When Liverpool would counter a Manchester United attack, he seemed reluctant to push forward and in turn would be caught out of position.
I expect Dalglish to continue to experiment with tactics and formations, a testament to his desire to get the best out of his players. However, as the season winds down, Liverpool cannot afford to drop points due to tactical deficiencies.
I hesitate to fully criticize John Henry & Co. for their lack of spending this January. Transfer activity has been relatively non-existent across Europe due to overvalued players and the pending UEFA Financial Fair Play Rules.
With that said, any failures at the end of this season can certainly be attributed to Lucas tearing his ACL. A replacement for his defensive midfield position – even if temporary – is dearly needed. The consistent defensive performances from the Brazilian are missed and hard to internally replace. Jay Spearing has failed to fill the void, rarely featuring this month after his abysmal Manchester City game on January 3. Charlie Adam’s performances have also sharply declined without the defensive assuredness of Lucas. Remember – it was Adam that was supposed to lose his starting role when Gerrard returned.
Being the second lowest-scoring team in the top half of the Premier League table, one would have thought an additional striker would have been added to the ranks. Dirk Kuyt’s production in front of goal has been sub-par, Andy Carroll can’t seem to hold his place in the team, and Bellamy’s fitness will always be a concern given his age. Oh, and who can forget the eight-game suspension Suarez is currently serving? However, the ownership has stuck to their guns and demonstrated austerity rather than imprudence.
Some Things Never Change
Regardless of ownership, managers, and players, Liverpool always seem to counterbalance their strong performances against top clubs with poor displays against weak clubs. In a month that has seen wins against the Premier League leaders in the Carling Cup semi-finals and rivals Manchester United in the FA Cup, Liverpool have only taken one point from a possible nine points in their first three Premier League games of 2012. I don’t need to remind Liverpool fans that the second place finish in 2008/09 could easily have been a first place finish if points were not dropped against inferior teams.
It is never too late for adjustments, and if recent seasons are any indication, the race for fourth place will come down to the final few games. The return of Suarez will be a boost to a side that, although have struggled in the league in his absence, have also marched on to an easily winnable Carling Cup Final. After this season’s worst display against Bolton a week ago, Liverpool need to seriously re-evaluate their ambitions in the Premier League. A win against Wolves on the last day of January was a nice start.
Follow Jim Kostecki on twitter @jim_kostecki