Are Liverpool simply too slow to crack the top four?

Liverpool FC: Shankly GatesThe latest rumours doing the rounds involving Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool side include bids for both Tottenham’s Jermain Defoe and Swansea’s Scott Sinclair. It has become clear over recent weeks what the club’s achilles heel will be in their race for fourth and where their focus lies for the remainder of the January transfer window – adding pace to a side completely devoid of any.

Liverpool are still a club in transition it’s worth remembering. Frustrating results like the countless home draws this season, the weekend’s latest example against Stoke merely adding to the mounting evidence, are unfortunately just par of the course. Those fans that expected a top four finish were in dreamland. The rebuilding project entrusted to Roy Hodgson at the beginning of last season is now only beginning to truly take form and get back on track – Hodgson’s tenure was but a bump in the road, albeit a fairly hefty one.

The expensive acquisitions of Andy Carroll, Jordan Henderson, Stewart Downing and Luis Suarez in the last year have prompted an overhaul of what was a deeply average and somewhat threadbare squad inherited by Dalglish’s predecessor from Rafa Benitez.

As will inevitably happen when so many fresh faces move to a club in a relatively short space of time, a period of leniency has to be afforded to those gelling into their new surroundings. Of Dalglish’s signings for instance, Enrique, Suarez and Bellamy have flourished; Henderson and Adam have been decent whereas Carroll and Downing have struggled terribly, to put it politely.

The main problem Liverpool have had this season has been being able to put the ball in the back of the net on a consistent basis. The club have scored a measly 24 goals in 21 league engagements this campaign so far. That is less than Bolton, Blackburn and Sunderland. The club’s top scorer is Luis Suarez with just five goals to show for all of his talent and ingeniously dynamic play. Something is clearly awry.

A mixture of poor finishing and mesmeric goalkeeping has been laid  as reasons partly responsible for the club’s laboured home form which has seen them draw seven of their eleven games. While both of those are certainly true to an extent, perhaps they’re only two factors in part of a wider, more systematic problem.

Liverpool are an almost chronically slow side. They are by far the slowest side in the top half of the Premier League table at present. That in turn makes them far easier to play against and makes it far more difficult for them to break you down, exploiting space in behind the defence.

The one thing we are often told that defenders don’t like playing against is raw pace. Would the likes of Obertan, Walcott and Wright-Phillips even be professional footballers without it? In today’s modern game, pace is essential to the success of any side. Indeed, the foundations of Swansea’s efforts to compound their pre-season expectations has been, above all, their pace out wide with the likes of Dyer, Sinclair and Routledge crucial. For without it, they are merely a toothless side with lots of possession and no cutting edge.

Look around the Liverpool squad – where does the pace come from? Who is the club’s quickest player? Are they even a regular? The side that started against Stoke included five defenders, three central midfielders, and two wingers in a variant of the 3-6-1 formation which had proved so successful in the same fixture last season.

An attacking line-up of Dirk Kuyt, Charlie Adam, Steven Gerrard, Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson, with Johnson and Enrique in support as wing backs offers no plan B. It relies in creativity, clever movement and the ability to create space. In short, three things Luis Suarez is fantastic at which is why he is so crucial to Liverpool’s style of play. Without him, plan A doesn’t work as well and plan B, which is apparently lumping it up to Carroll, has shown no signs of working so far.

Craig Bellamy has been superb when called upon this season, but a knee injury prevents him from playing two games in quick succession. He is undoubtedly quick and direct, two characteristics in short supply elsewhere in the squad. When Bellmay doesn’t play, there is no like-for-like replacement, rather a slower, watered down version instead and the side looks far less dangerous as a result.

Rafael Benitez always seemed inherently distrustful of any player with any semblance of pace. It was like he couldn’t fully control them and factor them into his tightly-knit tactical plans and so they were left by the wayside in favour of steadier, more disciplined disciples.

Dalglish has assembled, at great cost, a side without a get-out ball. However, the difference is, is that you get the feeling that with Dalglish, it was somehow done by accident, which is why they are rumoured to be looking at quicker players this transfer window.

Liverpool are still a club in transition; a salient point worth remembering and reminding those emplacing lofty expectations on this side. What is also worth noting, though, is that the way Dalglish has been backed in the transfer market to date has all been based on the precondition that the club achieve Champions League football this season, therefore heading off any losses that they may incur along the intervening period. Failure to do so would be a huge blow and certainly prompt the boardroom to cut their cloth accordingly in terms of investment in the playing staff.

In order to turn those draws into wins and ensure a place in Europe’s top club competition next season, Liverpool must add a degree of pace to their side, whether it be out wide, up top of through the middle, otherwise, they will continue to frustrate as often as they delight, they will continue to fail to deliver on their undoubted promise and they will continue to struggle to break down some of the league’s lesser lights and more stubborn opponents.

You can follow me on Twitter@JamesMcManus1


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