Carragher Skrtel Agger Insua
Benayoun Gerrard Mascherano Aurelio
An egregiously stupid goal given up in the second minute of second half injury time takes some gloss off a workman-like performance, one which saw a bit of normalcy resuming with a deserved win.
Yes, Liverpool were sloppy at times, and should have pushed on from a well-taken 10th-minute Ngog goal. Kirkland made some two very smart saves to keep the margin at one, and a ten-minute lull after the hour mark almost saw Liverpool concede yet another unfortunate equalizer. But this time, Scotland’s shot caromed off the crossbar. Inches make differences.
Torres’ goal four minutes later looked to seal the victory, but N’Zogbia’s late show made the last two minutes much more nerve-wracking than they should have been. Liverpool certainly could have done with a clean sheet, but you can’t complain about three points. I’m almost happier that Liverpool had to hold on and work for those three points than if Wigan had rolled over after the early strike. The team had to show some character, and that’ll go some way toward raising confidence.
It certainly wasn’t the expected line-up or formation, though. Whether for precaution or rest with three games in six days, Torres, Aquilani, and Lucas all began on the bench, with Johnson not even in the squad. And I don’t think we’ve seen the 4-4-2 since the 4-4 against Arsenal last season.
Gerrard sat far deeper with both Ngog and Kuyt operating as strikers, and it was the young Frenchman who struck first, glancing Aurelio’s deep cross past Kirkland with the keeper foolishly rushing off his line. At times, it was not entirely unlike a coherent attack. At others, we saw a sloppy side prone to giveaways, leading to some end-to-end action, with Wigan unable to profit mainly thanks to Mascherano’s constant presence.
The 4-4-2 formation led to a more open game than we’re used to, with Liverpool giveaways contributing to said openness, but the home side always looked more likely. Both sides were happier on the break, and Liverpool deserved their 1-0 lead at halftime. They probably should have been further ahead. Wigan demonstrated their intent, and Liverpool’s potential problems, when the defense was caught sleeping on Rodallega’s deep cross less than a minute after the opener, but Scharner couldn’t get power on his header, making it easy for Reina. Five minutes later, Kirkland did well to parry Kuyt’s near post shot from Ngog’s clever pullback.
Benayoun was a constant threat down the right, Ngog was clearly emboldened by his goal, and Mascherano was an absolute terror in midfield. But chances should have been easier to come by; Liverpool probed well down the flanks, but most crosses or centers failed to find the target. The best came right before halftime: another tempting Aurelio cross narrowly missed by Benayoun and a ball breaking to Ngog in space hit just wide of the far post after terrific pace from the striker.
The second half started with more of the same, only Kirkland provided an even better save six minutes in. Kuyt started the move with a lovely pass to Ngog down the right and got into space for the striker’s cutback, only with the keeper able to keep out the well-hit shot.
Wigan sent on a second striker, Scotland for Diame, in the 58th, before Lucas replaced Aurelio, with Liverpool reverting to the usual 4-2-3-1. Torres soon followed for Ngog, and Liverpool should have gone two up when Agger mishit an absolute free header in the 65th, before Wigan began to reply. Two out-and-out holding midfielders seemed to invite Wigan into Liverpool’s half, and they turned increasing possession into a clear-cut chance in the 74th. When Reina flapped at a free kick in, Scotland found the ball at his feet, but thankfully his rising shot hit the bar. Every other time Liverpool’s been in a similar circumstance, it’s ended with a goal. Maybe this actually is a turning point.
Five minutes later, Torres made it certain, his 11th goal in 12 league games. The ball broke to the striker in space after Gerrard challenged Boyce on a long ball, and Torres rounded Kirkland only to see his stabbed effort blocked by Bramble. But he collected himself to round the defender and backheel into the net. You just can’t exaggerate Torres’ importance. It’s not possible.
Aquilani replaced Benayoun soon after, moving Gerrard out to the left, and Liverpool looked marginally more inventive. Aquilani even had a chance for his first goal, collecting smartly and insolently attempting an overhead kick in the area, only to see Kirkland claim the effort. But Liverpool were caught out in the 92nd when lazy defending saw N’Zogbia cut in from the right past four half-tackles (Insua, Agger, Carragher, and Lucas) before slotting under Reina. Just despicable. Thankfully, it was too late to do real damage to the result or morale.
The 4-4-2 was either forced because of the spate of games this week or an audacious attempt by Benitez to shake up the team. Either way, it worked. As said above, Mascherano was a monster, much needed in this formation, while Benayoun was impressive and Ngog looked better having a second striker in support. Saturday’s game will give us more insight as to whether this will be a real change in tactics, but I’m betting we’re back to 4-2-3-1, and I’d even bet Aquilani starts (along with Torres).
Either way, it’s the result Liverpool needed. And I’m glad they had to work for it. Keep working for it. Pompey on Saturday.