The team sheet and formation had a fair few confused, including yours truly, so I’ve been dwelling on Benitez’s possible rationale. Beware, this is going to get extra sycophantic.
Obviously, most important was the freshness of the team. It may have been a “second string” side, but it still included eight internationals (Carragher, Aurelio, and Ngog were the others) and on paper was better than Portsmouth at pretty much every position. It also included a few players with a point to prove – mainly Agger, Babel, and Ngog.
It may have included six defenders – again, more out of necessity – but that too had a purpose: congest the area around Crouch in an attempt to prevent any flick-ons, a plan that worked until the 62nd minute when Basinas hit an outstanding pass, both Carragher and Skrtel failed to close down the former Liverpool man, and Arbeloa couldn’t get back to cover Nugent. Both Arbeloa and Dossena did well to support the attack and stretch the field from wing-back, and Agger and Skrtel also got forward, bringing the ball out of defense when they had the space (which is why those two featured instead of Hyypia).
And even though Liverpool didn’t get the early goal, it’s not as if they weren’t creating more than in recent draws, even those against the likes of Stoke and Fulham. Benayoun, Aurelio (twice) and Mascherano all came close within the first 30 minutes. I’m sure Tony Adams didn’t expect this formation either, and catching the opposition unprepared had to be in Benitez’ mind.
Portsmouth most likely planned for what I’d guessed: most likely the 4-2-3-1 with a fatigued Torres up top, or possibly the 4-4-2 with Kuyt and either Babel or Ngog. And if either of those formations were the case, the home side would have attempted to strangle the life out of the game and hoof it up to Crouch, like we’ve seen from so many other sides so far this season.
Portsmouth may be gash of late, but they were always going to come to terms with the changes – the hope was to score before that happened. At this point, it started to look a bit like all the other games where Liverpool’s struggled to break down the opposition, even when they’ve had a full-strength squad.
And when Liverpool didn’t get the goal, Benitez made substitutions which changed the game: Kuyt to stretch it with his work ethic, Alonso to unlock it, and then the genius Torres, who was the most fatigued, in the last 15 minutes to provide that spark. I love it when a plan comes to fruition.
Now, two defensive mistakes almost made all that logic moot– but that’s football. And it’s not as if Liverpool were solely lucky: Nugent was arguably offside for the opener, Kuyt was arguably onside for the disallowed goal, and the foul that led to the free kick for Pompey’s second sure was arguable.
It is, after all, a thin line between genius and insanity. Crouch or Kranjcar could have deflected Aurelio’s free kick, Distin could have cleared prior to Kuyt’s goal, or Distin could have stayed closer to Torres instead of edging closer to his goal line. You know, all the normal moments that a game can turn on.
At the end of the day, what matters are the three points. And to think, at 1-2, I was worried Benitez was on pace to be questioned more than after any other result.