Are Liverpool just flat-track bullies?
Liverpool FC’s 5-0 demolition of Norwich at Anfield on Saturday saw the side move up to seventh in the league table after a dominant and energetic team display, but is it merely papering over the cracks of the team’s form against some of the top flight’s bigger sides?
If we take a look at the team’s form against other sides currently in the top 10 and Liverpool’s main rivals for a top six Premier League finish or higher then it doesn’t make pretty ready one little bit. In 13 games, Brendan Rodgers has only managed to register one win across all competitions, the 2-1 victory away from home against WBA in the Capital One Cup, followed up by five draws and six defeats, having scored 12 goals, conceded 21 and kept just two clean sheets. That just simply isn’t good enough.
Rodgers stated after the 2-1 defeat away at Old Trafford about the quality of his side compared to the opposition: “We are 24 points behind Manchester United but we are not 24 points behind in quality. The difference is down to the squad. Once we close the gap in the squad I have great hope we will be able to challenge. Today’s an example of that.” While there is certainly an element of truth about the lack of depth to truly challenge at the higher end of the table, it doesn’t quite explain the shocking record against teams in and around Liverpool.
The target this season above all else is simply not to regress any further and slide back on last season’s lowly eight-place finish and at the moment, Liverpool look likely to hover between 6th and 8th place between now and the end of the campaign, which is about par. Nobody expects a top four finish simply because with the club seeking to trim the wage bill, Rodgers has had to rely on youngsters to pad out his squad, and even the club’s signings have been made more with a long-term objective in mind given that Joe Allen, Fabio Borini, Daniel Sturridge and the next potential man through the door, Inter Milan’s Philippe Coutinho are all under 25. A period of transition is not only essential but advisable, but why are the club failing to pick up results against the league’s better teams?
One reason is that Rodgers, while he has shown a knack for changing up systems and personnel during a game often gets the nature of his starting line-up wrong before kick-off, leaving his side less time to claw back the initiative. The defeat away at United is testament to that, with the side lacking any sort of coherent plan or tempo to their game, struggling with the hosts pressing game high up the pitch.
After the break, the introduction of Sturridge and Borini gave the side more attacking options in the final third, with their fluidity alongside Suarez causing plenty of problems. The selection of Allen over Jordan Henderson, considering one is clearly out of form and the other is enjoying a rich vein of it, spoke of a dogmatic approach to team selection and that his favourites will always win out and it was a needlessly cautious move on the manager’s part, with the latter’s energy hugely missed.
The club have recorded six home victories in 12 games at Anfield this term, beating Reading (18th) 1-0, Wigan (19th) 3-0, Southampton 1-0 (15th), Fulham (14th) 4-0, Sunderland (11th) 3-0 and most recently Norwich (13th) 5-0. What is clear from that record is that Liverpool are proficient at beating clubs in poor form or those struggling at the lower end of the table in front of their own fans.
The three draws at home came against Manchester City (2nd) 2-2, Newcastle 1-1 (16th) and Stoke 0-0 (10th) while the three defeats saw them lose 2-0 to Arsenal (6th), 2-1 to Manchester United (1st) and a surprising 3-1 loss to Aston Villa (17th). Not every club you face during a league campaign will be a fantastic side and the top flight is made up of plenty of deeply ordinary outfits, with the difference in quality between the top end of the Championship and bottom end of the Premier League shortening each and every season, but it’s when Liverpool are tasked with beating a side of similar ability or better that they truly struggle and that’s a worrying trend.
There have been mitigating factors, mind you, in some of those results. The 2-2 draw with Everton saw a perfectly good goal disallowed in the last minute to hand them a victory, the 2-2 draw against Manchester City only came about courtesy of a glaring individual error from Martin Skrtel late on, while Jonjo Shelvey’s red card against United back in late September changed the entire complexion and flow of a game that up until that point they had been dominating.
Much like with Roy Hodgson’s 1-1 draw with Arsenal in his first league game at Anfield, with Pepe Reina spilling the ball into his own net from a Tomas Rosicky shot in the final minute of normal time after Joe Cole had already seen red, you wonder how much different the league campaign would have been had the side secured a morale-boosting three points there, just like Rodgers side could have against the deeply out-of-sorts reigning champions this term.
A combination of a lack of squad depth, poor luck with officials and Rodgers’ own poor judgement in selecting the right starting XI in games of importance has held Liverpool back this term and while performances on the whole have been pleasing, being merely competitive, even during a period of transition, is not quite good enough. If the club harbour any aspirations of moving up the table or even just consolidating it as the campaign wears on, they are going to have to become something more than just the tallest dwarf in the race for a top half finish.