Finnan Carragher Hyypia Arbeloa
Benayoun Gerrard Mascherano Riise
That would be the third consecutive draw in the league, fourth in all competitions, and outside of a moment of brilliance from Fernando Torres, it could have easily been a loss.
Once again, Liverpool was simply not good enough. The first 45 minutes saw Liverpool about as bad as possible, and it seems like that’s been written often lately.
All the recent criticisms apply. Liverpool struggled to string two passes together or show any coherency in possession. Too often the ball was given away cheaply, while the defense continued to look vulnerable and stretched by Boro’s width and pace.
Liverpool may have started the brighter over the first 10 minutes, but the opposition again grew in stature, and Boro opened the scoring with their first shot on target after Liverpool again failed to clear. Downing got into space on Boro’s left, Arbeloa headed the cross across his own goal towards Aliadiere, who headed it into the path of Boateng, getting there before Hyypia and scrambling it over the line.
And honestly, although Boro hadn’t gotten a shot on target before the goal, they probably deserved their lead at the break. Liverpool really were playing that poorly, and outside of Gerrard’s shot from distance forcing a decent Schwartzer save in the 11th minute, failed to create much of their own.
Thankfully, Benitez saw as much, and brought Babel on at halftime; given how rarely Rafa makes halftime substitutions it showed how frustrated he was with Liverpool's offering.
And Babel for Arbeloa, with Riise moving into defense, and Alonso for Benayoun less than 15 minutes later, did improve Liverpool, but it couldn’t really have gotten worse. Liverpool still gave the ball away, still floundered in attack, and still struggled to carve out opportunities.
And again, it took a moment of brilliance from either Torres or Gerrard to save Liverpool, this time Torres supplying the moment of magic in the 71st minute. Torres took possession a good distance from goal (and honestly, he was isolated as if a lone striker for much of the match), strode towards the box, and unleashed an unstoppable swerving shot from distance.
Unsurprisingly, Liverpool supplied more pressure after getting the goal, with Babel and Gerrard narrowly missing the target, and Gerrard forcing another save from Schwartzer on a shot from distance, but again, the winner wasn’t coming. And again, unlike against City and Wigan but reminiscent of the last match at Luton, Liverpool’s probably lucky to come away with the draw.
Despite my distaste for singling out players, Voronin and Riise have to be called out after performances today. No one played anywhere near their best, but Voronin and Riise were by far the guiltiest in losing possession and wasting opportunities in attack. Neither deserved to be near the field today, even if one can argue for their inclusion thanks to the recent play of Kuyt and Kewell and the injury to Aurelio. However, other than Reina, Torres and Mascherano, no one really played remotely well.
But my other biggest complaint is tactically. I have no idea why the team is content to pump long balls up the field as if Crouch is playing when he’s not even in the squad. It’s one thing to suggest that Crouch can’t have a successful partnership with Torres; I’m not fully convinced, but that’s another discussion. But I have no idea why Liverpool’s playing route one football with a front line of Voronin and Torres.
Wheater and Huth, who are both big centerbacks, absolutely ate up the long balls from Carragher and Hyypia. Admittedly, the midfield wasn’t giving the defense enough options and either Benayoun or Riise needed to supply more width, but Middlesbrough dealt with it all game long, and it’s when Babel came on the pitch and both he and Torres ran at defenders that Liverpool looked more threatening.
That’s what’s so frustrating about the results over this spell. Admittedly, my expectations may have been too lofty at the start of the season, but we’ve seen that the team is better than this, and more importantly, smarter than this. There was absolutely no intelligence in Liverpool’s play today. They were rushing passes and touches, leading to possession lost, and too often resorted to the long ball, which wasn’t working.
More and more, I’m feeling the need to reiterate my faith in Benitez. I’d like to think that this spell is just growing pains, and the good performances and scorelines early in the season set the bar too high. And I’m deathly frightened of what could happen to the team were Benitez to leave. There’s the Newcastle precedent, and what can happen to a club when they start firing managers, but also questions over what would happen to the Spanish contingent, including that man Torres, were Benitez to depart. Also, the control and importance Benitez has in overhauling the youth set-up, and the potential in the reserve and under-18 teams. Plus, the memories of the growing pains both Ferguson and Wenger suffered before establishing themselves at their clubs.
But I’m keenly aware just how bad Liverpool is playing. And more frustratingly, there’s little progress evident from the poor spells suffered during all four of Benitez’s seasons. Despite the quality introduced to the side, we’re still suffering through disjointed performances where Liverpool struggles to score against weaker teams. Tactically, Liverpool’s still got little answer when teams pack the defense and make it difficult for Liverpool to establish the tempo. And this season's points total is approximately equal to this time last season.
But at the end of the day, I do still believe that this is a spell, and the team will start showing the improvement we though possible in the fall. But I am questioning it more and more.