Are Liverpool up to the physical challenge?
Liverpool’s recent thrilling 2-2 draw against Manchester City came hot on the heels of an equally promising performance against Arsenal, but does Brendan Rodgers’ side struggle to impose themselves more when there’s a real physical battle to be had? And is striking this balance between style and substance still a real cause for concern?
The club’s recent 3-2 defeat at the hands of Oldham in the FA Cup served to highlight the creeping suspicion that when the going gets tough, that this current squad just doesn’t quite have what it takes to fight back. Of course, Rodgers chose to blood several youngsters in the side during that occasion with an obvious eye on the aforementioned league challenges, but the 3-1 defeat away at Stoke back in December, the 3-1 defeat at home to Aston Villa, the 2-2 draw against Everton in the Merseyside derby and 3-0 loss on the opening day away at West Brom point to a longer, more systemic trend.
When you cast your eye around Liverpool first-choice starting XI, it lacks a degree of physicality when compared to teams in years gone by which is what you obviously forsake in the pursuit of a more dynamic aesthetic. The midfield triumvirate of Jordan Henderson, Steven Gerrard and Lucas Leiva that has been responsible for some of the club’s better performances over the course of the past two months are all about their energetic style and probing passing game.
However, when faced with a genuine direct threat so far this season, far too many have wilted under the spotlight, most notably Joe Allen who appears to be suffering a major crisis of confidence. Individual errors have held the side back from getting the most out of games of importance, but Jamie Carragher’s recent integration back into the starting eleven must be seen as a direct consequence not only of Martin Skrtel’s poor performance away at Boundary Park, but also the desire to give the side more bite and leadership, which at times they have looked bereft of.
Rodgers has often sought to combat physical sides by trying too much to go the other way, with needlessly cautious team selections that look to dominate possession rather than trying to match up to them. Jonjo Shelvey, who hasn’t started a league game since the Stoke defeat on Boxing Day, is one of the more combative forces within the squad, yet has been marginalised in recent weeks, even going as far as to complain that he had been made a scapegoat for the loss, while Andy Carroll, perhaps the club’s only real viable plan B for an alternative plan of attack was quickly shipped off out on loan to West Ham in the summer and the club needs to be careful that in chasing this fluid, attractive dream that is Rodgers’ vision that they don’t lose their competitive edge.
Moreover, this lack of aggression has not been solely the midfield’s fault for cutting off the supply line from further ahead and keeping hold of possession in the right areas when they do have the ball, with Skrtel’s centre-back partner in crime Daniel Agger also enduring one of his worst seasons at the club. Aside from being beaten in the air by Olivier Giroud far too easily against Arsenal, he was responsible for letting Edin Dzeko simply drift past him to tap home at the Etihad last weekend. At the moment, while he may be a fine ball-playing defender, he is just as responsible as anyone for the club’s soft underbelly when put under any sort of pressure.
Uruguayan Sebastian Coates is another major cause for concern and he looks half the player that the club signed under Kenny Dalglish and for a 6ft 5′ sized player, he looks worryingly fragile in the air and easy to get the better of, with no great leap behind him and a lack of pace making him something of a liability whenever he has been called upon, as the Oldham defeat further highlighted.
Kenwyne Jones, Marouane Fellaini, Romelu Lukaku and Carlton Cole have all enjoyed success in the air and on the deck against Liverpool this season with a very simple plan that the side have struggled to either cope with or counter, while Christian Benteke absolutely destroyed the back four, running them ragged by sheer force of will and strength during the surprise 3-1 home defeat before the turn of the year to Paul Lambert’s woeful outfit.
The reason this weakness has been exposed so cruelly, though, is because the team is still grappling with Rodgers’ new style and methods and they often run the risk of losing the ball in dangerous areas, thus inviting an aerial bombardment of sorts, whereas against better teams, they’re granted that crucial and often telling extra yard of space to impose their own style on the opposition.
There is a casual relationship between lack of size and strength and teams that struggle against more physical opponents. In Lucas Leiva, they have one of the more determined holding men in the league, but he simply cannot do the job all on his own. By forsaking physicality for energy, Liverpool have left themselves open to a very deliberate type of attack, which until they seek to address it, perhaps with a few new acquisitions, they will continue to flounder against.