04 March 2012

Why Can't Everything Be Like Last April?

There has been lots of talk around the internet and in the comments of yesterday's match review about this side regressing from last season's run-in. And Dalglish (and Comolli) is obviously at fault and I'm an idiot for holding fire on the manager. Instead of replying under the fold, I figured I'd ramble here on the front page. The short version is that Liverpool weren't as good as you remember last season and aren't are bad as you think now. There. I saved you 1500 words.

But if you're still here...

A five-match stretch from April through early May is used as definitive proof of regression. 3-0 v City, 1-1 at Arsenal, 5-0 v Brum, 3-0 v Newcastle, and 5-2 at Fulham. All very good results. But those results also blind some to the memory of Liverpool losing 1-3 at West Ham, 1-2 at West Brom, 0-2 v Spurs, 0-1 at Aston Villa and insipidly going out of the Europa League, both before and after than five-match stretch.

Regardless, there was some very good football played over that stretch. Some very good football and even better results, which seemingly raised expectations for this season more than a little bit too high. There are also, unsurprisingly, some vast differences between the end of last season and Liverpool's current state.

Goals, goals, goals
Conversion of chances. Pretty much the alpha and omega of Liverpool's problems, as has been written since September. A handful of draws this season (and at least one of the losses) were just about as impressive as last season's large wins in everything but the goals. Liverpool pummeled Sunderland, United, Blackburn, and Stoke, among others, but drew, drew, drew, and lost. Aside from Maxi, who I mentioned in yesterday's review, it's the same players who were scoring at the end of last season who aren't scoring now: Kuyt, Suarez, even Carroll (against City). And not playing Maxi is not the reason Liverpool are tallying fewer than 10% of their chances. At the same time, Liverpool usually played 4-4-2/4-2-2-2 through that run-in, but 4-4-2/4-2-2-2 this season is the devil and should be killed with fire, whether it's Kuyt-Suarez or Carroll-Suarez up front.

As for chances created, the focus of last summer's spending. During that Brum-Newcastle-Fulham stretch, with 13 goals scored, Liverpool created 35 chances – 13 against Birmingham and Fulham, nine against Newcastle. Compare that to three of the eminently-frustrating results mentioned in the previous paragraph. Liverpool created 12 chances against Sunderland, 18 at Stoke, and 19 against Blackburn. And these aren't cherry-picked numbers. Chances created in other disappointing results: 12 at Wigan, 17 at Fulham, 15 against Swansea, 20 against Norwich, etc. All via FourFourTwo's StatsZone.

Two of Liverpool's summer signings, Adam and Downing, have created the most Liverpool chances by some distance. The reason each was purchased. The obvious logic is that more chances created leads to more goals created. This season's done much to kill that notion. Liverpool's attack at the end of last season was ruthless in front of goal. The same front players, on the whole, are the opposite of ruthless this season, and it's not because of fewer opportunities or where they're getting said opportunities.

And it's a problem that grows as the monkey on strikers' back grows. Each miss makes the player think longer and harder about the next. Confidence drains with every post hit and penalty spurned. At the same time, it's far easier to score after scoring. Hot and cold streaks happen in every sport, even when they're sustained over the course of a season. After all we've seen, I still believe one or two ruthless demolitions like we saw 11 months ago changes an awful lot. Much like a fortunate hat-trick against United pushed Kuyt on for the rest of the campaign or, further back, Crouch's first Liverpool goal after a long barren stretch led to him scoring seven in the same month. And Liverpool's current players have ruthless demolitions in them, whether for Liverpool in the past or at their previous clubs. As unfulfilling as it as to credit intangibles like confidence and luck, both go a long way in determining form. Single spark, prairie fire. Yes, still.

Short-term v long-term
Last season's attack during the run-in was consistent; Carroll played against City and Arsenal, but otherwise it was Suarez, Kuyt, Maxi, and Meireles in Liverpool's big wins. That consistent front four was also getting on in years. Kuyt, Suarez, Meireles, and Maxi's average age at the time was 28.5; Kuyt and Maxi were 30, Meireles 28. Keeping the latter and using Kuyt and Maxi more might have led to a few more points this season (although, given Kuyt and Maxi's form when they have played, that's in doubt), but it would also put Liverpool in a worse position long-term, even if Liverpool's most recent signings don't pan out. It's also probably churlish to mention that Meireles has had a stinker of a season for Chelsea.

The damage which Hicks and Gillett inflicted required a massive overhaul, no matter a five-match hot streak with Champions League qualification a lost cause. Liverpool made six summer signings not counting Doni, four of whom usually start if available. The average age of Adam, Bellamy, Coates, Downing, Enrique, and Henderson is 25, which drops to 23.6 without free-transfer Bellamy. Because of Hicks and Gillett (and because of Hodgson's signings), Liverpool had to get younger. And fast. With four to six changes to the first-team, growing pains were inevitable. At least now Liverpool have a foundation for the future. Downing and Adam may have disappointed more than they've impressed, Henderson remains more potential than potent, but those three players still put Liverpool in a better position for the future than Maxi and Meireles did. The squad is now deeper, younger, and more valuable.

Liverpool are in transition. We'd hoped the transition would go more smoothly. We arguably had a right to expect it. It hasn't. Nonetheless, again, aside from that five-match stretch, Liverpool weren't radically better during last season's run-in, simply more ruthless in front of goal. Performances this season, while massively inconsistent, remain better than under Hodgson and 'nearly' as good as during last season's run-in, even if results don't measure up. Because of goal-scoring. Because Suarez and Kuyt and even Carroll aren't scoring as they did at times last season. It's not Adam, Henderson, and Downing's fault those players, in position to score, aren't scoring more.

I love you, Lucas Leiva
Also, this. Goal-scoring may be the alpha and omega, but missing the Brazilian midfielder has been almost as much of an issue. Admittedly, Comolli and Dalglish deserve criticism for not replacing him; Spearing is a useful squad player, but nowhere near Lucas' level, and has played his best football for the club when partnered with Lucas. Spearing's not as effective holding in front of the back four, setting the tempo, starting the attacks, etc. In retrospect, no other absence could have hurt Liverpool's more: not Suarez, not Gerrard, not Agger. Maybe not even Reina.

Also, a lack of Lucas has assuredly hurt Charlie Adam. I maintain what I've said all season: Adam has his faults and his benefits, and the former frequently obscure the latter. Without Lucas, those faults are magnified. That partnership was increasingly potent as they formed an understanding, a near-archetypal blend of creator and destroyer. And without Lucas, Adam (or Gerrard, for that matter) necessarily has more defensive work to do. Which isn't his strong suit in the slightest. Still, it's hard to blame Adam's frequent inability to tackle for Liverpool's problems when conceding goals isn't Liverpool's problem. Liverpool miss Lucas as metronome much more than Lucas as wrecking ball. Which is the one facet that Adam, Gerrard, and Spearing can't replicate.

Liverpool could and should have planned better, but there's only so many fingers to stick in the dike's numerous holes. And Liverpool couldn't have predicted that Lucas would have missed 2/3rds of the season thanks to a freak injury.


There are other, less important excuses. Suarez's stupidly-incurred suspension(s). Gerrard's continued injury problems. Reina conceding a handful more goals because of arguable mistakes. And, yes, a handful of mistakes from the manager: tactical, selection, or substitution. Still, I'm content laying most of the blame with goal-scorers, transition, and a lack of Lucas. One facet at the foot of aforementioned players, two thanks to the cruel hand of fate.

The easiest recommendation is adding an out-and-out scorer, either replacing or in addition to Carroll. As much as I hate writing it, that purchase looks Liverpool's worst business by some distance, record fee or no record fee. I really want to like the player: young, multi-talented (even if he doesn't show it enough), and with a physicality that most defenders can't handle when he's on his game. But goals are the problem and Liverpool's most-expensive striker rarely looks like scoring. When he can even get in the side.

But then again, Andy Carroll is just 23. It could also mean, much to our chagrin, that Liverpool still needs more time to adjust to the past year's overhaul, made with an eye on the future despite short-term hopes for an immediate return to the Champions League.

I'm not exonerating Liverpool's player recruitment or certain team selections. Despite the above excuses, there's still a chance Downing, Adam, Henderson, and/or Carroll don't work out. It was a calculated gamble, one we still can't fully judge. Liverpool's pre-FSG state, Chelsea and City's oil money, United's insane commercial revenue, Financial Fair Play regulations, and no Champions League football means Liverpool have to gamble. But Liverpool also gambled when paying £10m for Alonso, taking West Ham-outcast Mascherano on an expensive loan, and breaking the club transfer record on an unproven-outside-of-Spain Torres. And gambled on Pennant, Gonzalez, Riera, etc solving the non-stop problem on the flanks. Sometimes gambles work and sometimes gambles don't.

All I meant by yesterday's review was that things aren't as bad as some make out and Liverpool's tactics against Arsenal worked well everywhere but in front of goal. We all mock Chelsea for failing to give Villas-Boas time and leeway to make necessary changes, then demand Dalglish return to what worked for a month almost a year ago. No one likes suffering through the short-term in the hopes it'll eventually pay off, but patience remains a virtue. Yes, even when the sky is falling. Which it isn't at the moment. Even if/when Liverpool miss Champions League qualification for next season, there's still a very good chance that patience pays off in the future.

10 comments:

Elizabeth said...

I think today's firing of AVB over at that other team in transition really underlines the main point: you can't completely overhaul a team in nine months no matter how much money or talent you have at your disposal. I flail my hands and gnash my teeth in frustration as much as the next person but I agree completely that these things take time.

Look at City: it's taken them years of recruitment and gazillions of pounds to build a team that is only now challenging for domestic titles and European championships (and it may be several more years of patience and investment before they win in Europe). I don't know any City fans because they don't seem to exist outside Manchester, but I wonder if their fans were as obsessed with the Instant Results Now™ approach during their transition as LFC fans are this season.

purify_the_body said...

Sign crap players, get crap results. Sign better players, get better results. It's very simple.

Dalglish has made signing these poor players even worse by playing them out of position: Adam is not a defensive/holding midfielder and Henderson is not a winger. Play them in their natural positions. That's simple, too.

Then sign quality players at the positions they're in now in midfield. It's not rocket science.

Peter Elwood said...

@Purify

John O'Shea, Silvestre, even Fletcher for a lot of his career weren't great players. As much as I hate giving him credit, Sir Alex built a team by buying young and buying players that build chemistry. If it was simple, he wouldn't be a remarkable manager. That being said...i do hate him.

Anonymous said...

If you change manager every bloody season you will win fuck all.

Dalglish is a decent manager and deserves more time, not because he is a legend, but because it is the sensible thing.

People calling for his head look around and look at the league, the managers who progress with their teams are the ones who get given time.

Anonymous said...

still feel so different when liverpool not in champion leagues

champion leagues : should attract more "interesting" players. more revenue. champion leagues will give u feel something different even though were still not epl champion. right now we already not been there almost 4 years. every body will look at us when we play there.

and of-course we like to hold on 19th epl champion :) (but this is should be more patient)

the problem is that our king/management buy expensive player but not showing result that we hope.

if andy carroll, henderson, downing cost each almost 10m, people will not say something bad.

most likely players below than 10m showing unexpected interesting result like adam, bellamy and (if there are players i forgot to mention).

people already comparing lucas phenomenon. form zero to hero. but lucas price tag is half less than 3 flops that i mention above.

and yet our king still using them with same position. from my view our king already favour expensive british talent (and yet there not so much talented compare to other players)

sorry for my long comment;

Michael said...

We have a program when King Kenny came in in Jan 2011.
-Program 1;- Fourth spot is our goal which we MUST achieve this season
-Program 2;- Next season we will be fighting for the title of which 2nd spot is the ultimatum.
Whether we get the first program(4th spot) or not in May, that does NOT mean program 2 will be rescheduled or re-programmed.Next season 2012/2013 we should be fighting for the title whether we achieve program 1 or not.That is our goals.
Now with the calibre of players we hbought last summer,I am still in doubt if program 2 will be achieve if KK still plays the likes of Hendersen,Downing and neither replaces of add to Carrol.I think everyone will agree with me that if we finally get the 4th spot comes May,players like Hendersen,Downing and maybe Carrol are not worth the Champions League status.Adams can play the CL IMO but I still doubt the former trio.That wise we still need to buy a striker and some midfielder(s).
As of now I wont join those calling for King Kenny's head for i believe he will soon(est) come to his senses and reason that we cant detrimentally be building Hendersen and forgo the CL spot as Rafa did with Lucas.
In conclusion if I were KK with my limited brain I will return with those we had when he came in in Jan 2011 till May 2012 for IMO the summer signings including Carrol have changed our tactics likewise scoring chances.
Thank You

Edward said...

Thanks for the level-headed thoughts, nate. I have nothing to add that hasn't been said. Come back soon Lucas. YNWA.

dARkDevX said...

"But Liverpool also gambled when paying £10m for Alonso, taking West Ham-outcast Mascherano on an expensive loan, and breaking the club transfer record on an unproven-outside-of-Spain Torres."

First, excellent write up but to call the acquisitions of Alonso, Masch & Torres gambles is a bit of the mark. Astute is more apt. When a manager spends spends over 20 million on a player, it ceases to be and cannot be a gamble. That player must be proven to deliver. Pure promise doesn't cut it. Take City: Aguero, Balotelli, Dzeko, Tevez weren't potentials. They came with a reputation. We might snicker at Man U for paying through the nose for Berbatov but he still delivers when he gets off the couch in a good mood. Of those we purchased, Bellamy & Enrique were proven and have rightly lived up to their tags. The team badly needs at least 5 more players. Proven to be exact. When Benitez's purchases are gone, i shudder to think how our bench will compare to other teams.
The Carling Cup win papered over the cracks but the problem was glaring: a championship team largely outplayed us and only cruel luck ended their spirited challenge.

Anonymous said...

What a very well-thought out and composed post, I agree with Edward entirely. I think a lot of how this season will be perceived is just how quick fans can be to accept that things could be a fair bit different with a handful of cherry-picked crossbars and goalposts bouncing in rather than bouncing out...shame Lucas had to play (outstandingly, mind) twice in 48 hours leading into his injury, I think I will have a hard time forgetting that one.

TimC

roger said...

just curious nate, when are you getting off the carroll wagon (barstool). let me know when that occurs, ill start reading again.