For 51 minutes, Liverpool looked a lot like the team that drew 0-0 against Villa and Manchester City recently. Again, they came out with Gerrard in Kuyt’s usual role as a deep-lying forward and with Mascherano and Sissoko paired in central midfield. And they infrequently looked like scoring.
The second half started out better than the first, with a Mascherano header off the bar from a corner, but the real change took place in the 51st minute when Sissoko was withdrawn for Kuyt and Gerrard moved into a deeper position. It took seven minutes to break the deadlock; within 15 minutes, Liverpool had a two-goal lead.
In criticizing the line-up, which I am loath to do anyway, it’s going to sound a lot like a criticism of Sissoko. I don’t really mean it as so; Sissoko plays a big role in the side, and there are a number of games where I’ve thought him the man of the match. I just do not understand the role being asked of him when he’s partnered with Mascherano, with Gerrard farther up the field almost as a second striker.
Throughout the first half, Sissoko would receive the ball a lot higher up the pitch than he has when he’s played well, and he was being asked to create a lot more in attack. And not much came of it. The few times Momo had a scoring opportunity it went asking, and I couldn’t help but think that if Gerrard was in those positions Liverpool would have gotten at least one. Meanwhile, with Stevie in the role being asked of him, play was frequently passing him by and he didn’t see much of the ball.
After Kuyt came on, Gerrard popped up a fair bit more, and in the 58th minute, received a pass from Zenden where he was able to take another stride and unleash a fierce dipping shot that Schwarzer had no chance on. Seven minutes later, Crouch was held down by Andrew Davies after Pennant had again gotten open and gotten the cross in. On the resulting penalty Gerrard sent Schwarzer the wrong way, and the match was pretty much done. Viduka immediately came on for Boro, who saw a bit more possession in the final 25 minutes, but they never really threatened, and Liverpool saw the game out fairly easily.
Despite Gerrard winning headlines and the match with his two goals, Pennant was the most consistently threatening Liverpool player. While at times the end product wasn’t up to the standards we’ve seen this season, Pennant was perpetually open down the right flank, and used it to very good effect. It’s been excellent to see Jermaine grow in strides through the season, becoming more comfortable with his role in the side throughout, and giving Liverpool the first threatening option from the right wing in a while.
Again, Mascherano was also very good, and it seems to be getting repetitive singling out his work-rate and defensive capabilities. Just as Carragher and Agger were typically solid, a statement that can be said after nearly every match. All three also showed a decent range of passing today, especially in finding Pennant in acres of space. Kuyt also did well after coming on; his first touch (something frequently criticized during this goal drought) was improved, and although he seemed to pop up in the box more often, he really does need to get more attempts and maybe even show a bit more selfishness.
Arbeloa also merits more than a mention, he’s proving worth that £2.6m and more every time out. He and Mascherano are looking utterly brilliant signings. True, with five in midfield and Yakubu as a lone striker, Middlesbrough didn’t offer much in attack, but Arbeloa’s acclimated to the defense as well as can be expected, and has done it on either side of the pitch (right back today). He also showed his capability getting forward, linking up well with Pennant, especially on counter-attacks.
Liverpool certainly made hard work of it at times, but a 2-0 win will do more than nicely. Another 3 points in the bag, against a team that’s given Liverpool problems in the past, and back into 3rd place with a two-point advantage and +4 on goal difference. It’s necessary to keep up that momentum and morale through the Wigan game (without looking past the Wigan game) before the Champions League clash that’s on everyone’s minds in a week’s time.