Johnson Carragher Agger Insua
Benayoun Gerrard Aurelio
I probably shouldn’t be so pleased with a mediocre win – mainly thanks to playing against ten men for the last 40 minutes – over Wolves at Anfield. But that’s this season so far. Three points are three points, and a clean sheet makes me even happier.
Like in recent matches – even when Liverpool’s underperformed and lost – the team started brightly enough. Hahnemann twice came to the rescue early on, in the 6th and 7th, pushing aside Gerrard’s low shot before an even better save on Torres’ blast after the striker danced around Stearman into space.
But four chances for Wolves in quick succession after the 20-minute mark highlighted recurring problems. As usual, the opposition grew into the game as Liverpool were unable to put good early possession to full use. First, Reina had to save Ebanks-Blake’s low shot after the striker turned Carragher with Johnson out of position. Two minutes later, Wolves almost scored on subsequent set plays: Reina had to tip over Miljas’ fierce free kick prior to Doyle heading the resulting corner wide from three yards out when the marking went to shit. Not long after, Milijas screwed a half-volley wide from just outside the box after Lucas' hesitant clearance.
After those ten or so minutes of pressure, Liverpool reestablished the tempo, but it was a far slower tempo than before. You know the routine. Torres had the ball in the net on the half hour mark but was rightfully ruled offside, and from there, passing often broke down in the final third. Liverpool didn’t trouble Hahnemann until the 45th, when Johnson luckily received the ball in the box only for the keeper to parry well. Again, you know the routine.
The second half started similar to the first, with Hahnemann again pushing a low Gerrard shot around the post in the 51st, before a red card changed the game. Thankfully, this time it was an opposition player sent off. Ward, who had just picked up a yellow for pulling back Benayoun, did similar to Lucas after Gerrard’s delightful throughball. After Marriner stupidly booked Berra, the resulting furor saw the ref finally make the right decision after consulting the linesman.
And while Liverpool continued to press with no reward for a few minutes, Gerrard finally broke the deadlock in the 62nd. Deservedly so; the captain had conjured almost all of Liverpool’s decent efforts, was far more influential throughout thanks to more support, and rose beautifully over Milijas to head in Insua’s tasty cross.
Once a man and goal down, Wolves were rarely going to trouble Liverpool. Admittedly, that’s an unconfident statement given recent form, but thankfully it held true, and Benayoun doubled the advantage eight minutes later after almost constant pressure. Aurelio’s cross eluded the men in the middle, but it found Benayoun in acres of space at the far post. With time to settle (and make a cup of tea), Yossi cut inside and shot on target, with Elokobi’s deflection taking it over the keeper. Yet other example of why I’m so emphatic about intangibles like “luck” and “confidence,” but it also shows that you make your own luck.
Foot off the gas and with Villa on Tuesday, I was surprised substitutions weren’t made sooner, especially with Aquilani clearly tiring and far more prone to giveaways. I guess Benitez wants to give him as much time as possible in preparation for Mascherano’s continued absence.
Kuyt came on for Aurelio in the 75th (and he went out to the left) before Aquilani exited for Pacheco ten minutes later (Spearing replaced Benayoun in the 89th). And other than some flashes of brilliance from the diminutive Spaniard (I guarantee Pacheco continues to see more and more time off the bench), there was little to write home about as Liverpool passed it around in an Arsenal-esque manner.
A 2-0 win is exceptionally warmly welcomed, even if it’s over the newly-promoted 15th-placed side at Anfield. Any port in a storm and whatnot. But Liverpool made hard work of it, and should be extremely grateful for Ward’s two “tackles” (and Marriner realizing his idiotic mistake), which is what gave Liverpool the impetus to break through. An opener against 11 men would have been deserved, and might have been coming, but Ward’s dismissal made it loads easier.
Other than that ten-minute spell, Wolves offered less than recent opponents, but Liverpool’s conceded in stranger situations. And there wasn’t nearly enough cutting edge until Ward’s exit, even with the more attacking central midfield. Gerrard assuredly played some of his best football for over a month, but still wasn’t firing in tandem with Torres, not helped by a subpar performance from a striker sick of being kicked with no repercussions. Liverpool finally played some good football in the second half, but they needed a man-advantage to do so, as Wolves dropped as deep as possible with only Ebanks-Blake regularly out of his own half.
I’ve drawn it up as 4-2-3-1 (probably mostly out of habit), but it was 4-1-4-1 just as often, especially when Liverpool had the ball in the opposition half. It was a more malleable formation, that’s for sure. And it was probably down to Aquilani, who did as advertised playing between Lucas and Gerrard. Aside from the obvious arguments for either flank, this was probably Liverpool’s strongest XI – at least the strongest possible. It asked an awful lot of a player who’s very early in his Liverpool career and of questionable fitness, but he came through more than sufficiently.
I’m tempted to suggest Aquilani and Lucas would have played in central midfield even if Mascherano were available. It’d fit with the theory that the more attacking pair would see time against bottom-half clubs, especially at Anfield. And for the most part, it was successful. Both Lucas and Aquilani got forward to decent effect, and it’ll work even better once Aqua gets used to his teammates. We saw some tantalizing cross-field balls, backheels, and a willing to pass and move forward as quickly as possible. We even saw the Italian complete a few successful tackles. You can’t pick anyone other than Gerrard for man of the match, but he was definitely helped by Lucas and Aquilani.
It may not have been the best performance. It may not even give us as many positives as hoped. But it’s a win – three points and a clean sheet – before a trip to fourth-placed Villa in three days. I’ll certainly take that as a late Christmas present. You can’t ask for much more.