Whatever happened to the once fortress Anfield?
Liverpool FC is a club with a proud and decorated history, a tradition stretching back decades, with Anfield a major cornerstone of the club’s strength both home and abroad, but under successive managers now, the teams out on the pitch have come to struggle at their spiritual home. But why?
The club currently sit in eighth place in the Premier League, a full ten points off Tottenham in fourth place and despite expectations being lowered to coincide with the dawning realisation that this is a side in transition, without the world-beaters of yesteryear, there is still a sense that under Brendan Rodgers that they are under-performing on home turf.
Liverpool have picked up a respectable tally of 18 points out of a possible 33 at home so far this campaign, winning five, drawing three and losing three, hitting just 17 goals and keeping six clean sheets. Wins against Reading, Southampton, Wigan, Sunderland and Fulham are precisely the sort that you would expect the team to register, and they’ve disappointed whenever a challenge has been put in front of them through a combination of profligate finishing, bad luck and poor performances.
For every defeat against Arsenal, where the side were outplayed throughout their 2-0 loss, there has been a 2-2 draw against Manchester City where the side should have emerged victorious were it not for a calamitous error from Martin Skrtel. Aligning consistent displays with victories proved to be Kenny Dalglish’s undoing last term, with the side far better than their points tally in the league suggested for the majority of the campaign and they appear to be following a similar inconsistent path to upper mid-table obscurity this season under Rodgers. The 61-year-old Scot managed just 22 points from a possible 57 during his tenure, tasting victory just six times at home which went a long way to contributing to the club’s eighth-place finish, costing him his job.
Rodgers addressed the issue back in August before the home game against City, telling reporters: “There can be a number of reasons why that (a poor home record) can be and sometimes it can play on players’ minds. They certainly had enough opportunities last year where they could have gone on and won games, and through whatever reason it didn’t materialise.
“It is a combination of everything. If you continually have bad luck and don’t quite get the result your confidence level can be affected.
“When the opponent comes there is a greater motivation than any other ground because of the history around the club and people want to play there. For us you have to fight against that; you have to work harder and give a little bit more.
“We know that if we are going to have any sort of success this year, we’ve got to make sure we can win as many of our home games as we possibly can. Anfield is somewhere we want to make sure is a real fortress and there’s no better game to start working towards that than against the champions.”
Could it be that the pressure and expectation on the players is having a negative effect? Take the 1-1 draw at home to Newcastle back in early November for example, when after a bright start, with Liverpool bossing proceedings, they fell behind against the run of play to a corker of a goal from Hatem Ben Arfa; this saw Anfield resemble a morgue, bereft of atmosphere, with the tense finger-nibbling attitude of the terraces clearly spilling out onto the pitch, with the hosts nervy from then on.
That it took a goal of truly world-class proportions from Luis Suarez to haul the hosts back into the game and preserve their 18-year unbeaten record against the Magpies in front of their own fans spoke volumes for the psychological impact continually outplaying your opponents but failing to secure the results their displays deserve can have on a group of players. It must be disheartening.
Directly after the game against Newcastle, it had seen the club pick up just 29 points from 29 games at Anfield during the whole of 2012 so far. When you compare that to the 51 points gleaned in 2011, the 45 in 2010, 58 in 2009 and 65 in 2008, it is the tell-tale sign of a team in decline and more than a downwards trend which Rodgers has done his best to halt with recent dominant performances during the 4-0 win over Fulham and 3-0 canter over Sunderland.
In the past calendar year Liverpool have suffered defeats at the hands of Wigan, West Brom and Fulham while also slumping to disappointing draws to Aston Villa and Stoke, while the 3-1 defeat in the Capital One Cup to Swansea at the start of the season exposed how fragile and thin the depth of the squad is. The nadir of their loss of invincibility must be the 3-1 home defeat to a truly awful Aston Villa side back in December making sure, if ever there was any doubt, that 2012 has been a year to forget at Anfield.
In 2008-9, Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool side won 63.1% of their games at home, during 2009-10 it was 68.4% despite the club finishing a lowly seventh in the Spaniard’s last season at the club. In 2010-11 it was 63.1%, which seems relatively healthy considering the short-lived and disastrous reign of Roy Hodgson before dropping off to just 31.%% in 2011-12 under Dalglish. There is a malaise around the place; a cloud hanging in the air based around a desperate need to return to the top which appears to be making some players nervous when things aren’t going according to plan at home.
There’s no denying that expectations have been lowered and the masses have accepted this fact. This period away from the top four should be treated above all else as an opportunity for the club to get its house in order without the pressure to pursue silverware, the effects of which are already being felt with the emergence of a whole host of talented youngsters into the first-team picture. Rodgers has stated in the past that there is ‘no quick fix’ to the broader, deeper-lying problems at Liverpool and that sustainable, long-term leadership from top to bottom is what’s required and it’s hard to disagree with that viewpoint.
Nevertheless, despite the patience of the club’s fans while Rodgers enjoys his first full campaign in charge, the wider problem of the club’s patchy home form has been prevalent for quite some time and needs fixing. Grinding out results even when the team isn’t playing well is going to be key to Liverpool’s progress over the next few years and will play a large part in whether the side compete for silverware at the higher end of the league.
Arresting the slide into mid-table mediocrity is not only important, it’s crucial to any lofty ambitions both fans and manager may have for the future and the regularity with which opposing forces plunder this once great fortress must be brought under control. It’s not going to happen overnight, but having a clear issue ahead of you to tackle and influence is a start.