Anyone who witnessed the pitiful surrender by a Liverpool side who seemed their worst enemies more than anything else at times on Sunday to title favourites Chelsea, will have noticed how poorly Argentina captain Javier Mascherano played at right back.
I completely understand the rationale behind the move – Mascherano is fairly quick, snappy in the tackle and comfortable on the ball aswel as being positionally aware, surely all the characteristics that are behind the makings of a top notch full back?
Well this would most definitely have to go down as one of those ideas that are better on paper than in practise because his performance was quite frankly dreadful and time and time again he was exposed as a weak link in Liverpool’s backline and targeted by the Chelsea attack.
He was completely pulled apart by Malouda and even the inconsistent and largely inept Soloman Kalou at times. He rushed into challenges and gave away silly and needless free kicks in dangerous areas, he got turned all too easily and he was rarely goal side.
This would not be the first time though that a manager has tried to shoe horn a nippy defensively minded midfielder into the right back slot though. Last season in Liverpool’s 5-0 win at home to Aston Villa, Villa manager Martin O’Neill placed Nigel Reo-Coker there, he too possess a fair amount of pace whilst being strong in the tackle, but like a lamb to the slaughter he was ruthlessly exposed by Albert Riera all day long, as the Spaniard laid on three of the goals whilst bagging one for himself in what will go down as one of his best performances whilst at the club.
It has to be said that the introduction of Ryan Babel in place of the injured Maxi Rodriguez did play its part. Maxi for all his faults, at least does have the ability to track back, something which Babel, and Benayoun, who was switched to the right hand side in the second half in a deliberate move by Benitez to give the Argentine some more cover, are not the best at.
The real crux of the problem though is not that his performance at right back was woeful (it was though), but that he was sorely missed in the middle of the park. Up until the suicidal back pass by Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard on 33 minutes, the Merseyside outfit looked the better side in possession and whilst not containing the thrust and dynamism of their opposition, they played some neat one touch football, particularly on the right hand side.
But once the goal had gone in the whole Liverpool side became severely deflated and bereft of ideas, two qualities that have spread like the plague throughout the side as the season has worn on. They constantly surrendered possession to Chelsea and as the game wore on Ancelotti’s side just began to exert their dominance more and more. Mascherano’s menacing presence would have been a fine tool to utilise under these circumstances. His urgency and ability to spread the play were notable in their absence.
I also understand that Benitez was forced into the change before the game with Glen Johnson missing because of a recurrence of a thigh related injury, but what is even more frustrating was that the Liverpool manager couldn’t recognise his tactical failing halfway through the match and switch it.
Phillip Degen, a specialised right back, sat on the bench twiddling his thumbs waiting for another second half 20 minute came down the right hand flank, Daniel Ayala, a youthful yet recognised centre half sat on the bench too. Ayala may be a bit on the slow side, but the same could be said of Daniel Agger at left back and he couldn’t have done worse than Mascherano did.
I’d hazard a guess and say that even Lucas could have perhaps done a better job at right back on Sunday than Mascherano, because for all the Brazilian’s faults, he’s certainly positionally aware and solid in the tackle, I very much doubt whether Lucas would have been caught so side on trying to anticipate a tackle in the same way that Mascherano did throughout the game, as that’s simply not his style.
Jamie Carragher too could have been shifted out right and Agger brought into the middle with Ayala on the left, at least in this respect you have four recognised defenders who know where to stand and how to react to certain situations. Carragher has also been the victim on occasion of Didier Drogba’s brilliance and some of the Liverpool captain’s worst games in a Liverpool shirt in recent times have come against the Chelsea striker. He did go on to have a decent game at centre half nontheless, but the switch to right back would have at least made more sense than putting Mascherano there.
Mascherano did play there against Atletico so it’s not as if the move was a wholly untested stab in the dark, Benitez certainly has previous with concerns to putting him there when Johnson has struggled with injury, and he’s probably the quickest of the defensively minded options available, so it’s obvious that he used to counter Chelsea’s pace out wide.
But with the prickly midfielder missed so much in the middle of midfield, perhaps its best that in future Benitez try to cater a side to his best players positions in future rather than just their adaptable qualities, and hopefully with this in mind, he’ll also put to bed the Mascherano at right back experiment, because it doesn’t work for him and most importantly, it doesn’t help the side.
Written By James McManus