Arbeloa Carragher Hyypia Riise
Pennant Gerrard Mascherano Babel
I’m speechless. That was just awful.
Draws away at Portsmouth and Porto are one thing, and the suggestion of problems seemed almost laughable. But this was insipid. Dropping 2 points to Birmingham at Anfield, where the team had scored 10 goals in the past two games, is just inexcusable.
Let me get one thing out of the way. The rotation, other than the questionable decision to leave out Torres (more later, believe me), wasn’t surprising, although it’s assuredly going to be a favored talking point. While Benitez is impossible to predict, the line-up was pretty close to as guessed.
For me, there are two sources of Liverpool’s problems today. One, and most importantly, was the injuries to Alonso and Agger. Throughout the first half, the passing from the back was dreadful. Agger brings the ball out of defense better than both Hyypia and Carragher (Hyypia’s usually better, but his passing was off today). Mascherano hasn’t looked a replacement for Alonso in the passing department in either game he’s started.
It led to either misplaced long balls or too many passes along the backline while waiting for an opening. There was no cutting edge to Liverpool’s passing, and that Birmingham sat back and kept it incredibly tight in their own half didn’t help matters.
Two, that Torres started on the bench. I’m frequently an apologist for nearly everything Benitez does, and even though I understand the reasons for his omission, I’m still angry over it.
Benitez is both pragmatic and obsessive over fitness levels. It’s clear that he’s trying to keep Torres fresh for the long season, knowing his importance to the team, the amount of games Liverpool are going to play, and Torres’ unfamiliarity with Benitez’s training regimen.
And you know what? Liverpool should be able to beat Birmingham at Anfield without Torres. But when they don’t, and Liverpool with Torres is demonstrably better than Liverpool without, it is immensely frustrating. And if you’re dropping points this early in the season, those games that he’s fresh for in April and May mean a lot less.
Credit to Birmingham, angry as I am. They came for a 0-0 draw, packed 10 men in their own half, and defended like their lives depended on it. Only Taylor, Kelly, and Larsson are left from the 7-0 drubbing in 2006, but Birmingham clearly remembered it. There were many opportunities and half-chances for Liverpool snuffed out because of the number of players in the box. Stephen Kelly’s last ditch tackle on Crouch in the 83rd minute was a standout moment, but more often than not, it was a defender shutting down a Liverpool player in the final third, with three of his mates next to him in case he didn’t. And Birmingham have been a bogey team in the league in the past.
But Liverpool still had opportunities, none spectacular, but opportunities nonetheless. Riise carved out the most in the first half from distance, but rarely looked like getting them on target, which isn’t a total surprise given his match fitness. Liverpool was better in the second half, with Kuyt getting a couple of sights at goal, Torres clearly improving the team after he came on (and coming very close with a well-hit overhead kick), and Kelly’s aforementioned tackle on Crouch. But Liverpool never really carved open Birmingham, tested Maik Taylor, or made the most of the chances they got. And at the end of it all, that’s why the game ended in a draw.
If I have to pick a man of the match, it’s probably Mascherano. His passing wasn’t great, but his tackling was superlative, and he put himself about everywhere in mopping up when needed. Pennant tried hard and played smartly, but the end product, which has been discussed in the past, was clearly missing and much needed. Gerrard looked fitter and worked hard to try and forge an opening, but he's still not back to his best. Other than a few missteps by Arbeloa, the defense ate up what little Birmingham offered offensively (although Brum did more in attack as Liverpool was pressing in the final 30 minutes). That’s about all that struck me as positive as player performances go.
Not much more to do but pick yourself up for the next match and use this as motivation. And it is still early in the season, although that’s a crutch that’s been used all too often when the team’s dropping points in the first couple of months. The title race may be closer than in previous years, and winners may need less points, but two points foolishly dropped are two points to be rued.
Many if not all of the players who started today will sit out the Carling Cup match at Reading. But I expect all will have a point to prove at Wigan on Saturday.