22 March 2010

Kuyt or Maxi, Babel or Benayoun

In lieu of more macro-level wrist-slitting about the club and manager's prospects, I'd rather investigate one of the tactical areas that irritated me yesterday (yeah, there were more than just this, but I'd rather write about the wingers than the fullbacks or Gerrard).

For the fourth straight game against 'top-level' opposition, Maxi's started on the left. Admittedly, I didn't see a ton of him at Atletico or for Argentina, but when I have, he's been deployed on the right every time.

Maxi on the left: 1-2 United (a); 0-0 City (a); 0-1 Arsenal (a); 1-0 Everton (h)
Maxi on the right: 4-1 Pompey (h); 0-1 Wigan (a); 2-1 Blackburn (h); 0-0 Wolves (a)

If Maxi starting on the left when either Babel or Benayoun (or both) has been available isn't the perfect demonstration of Benitez's conservatism, I don't know what is. It's ostensibly "worked" in two of those matches, Everton and City (as both sides were clearly content with a draw at the Eastlands), and Liverpool could have eked at least a point out of United or Arsenal if other things went differently, but I can't remember Maxi making much impact in any of the four.

Despite Liverpool's record when Maxi's started on the right, that's where he's done the most, and it's led to Liverpool at least looking cohesive going forward. He was excellent against Pompey and good against Blackburn. The entire team was dire in the two losses, and Maxi's excusable for a poor game in his first start, at Wolves.

It's symptomatic of how Benitez uses the flanks, trying to control the game out wide as he does in midfield. There are multiple pros and cons to the 'keep it tight' method in certain matches; it's one of the ongoing endless debates about Rafa's tactics. It's led to some brilliant performances in Europe and the league in previous years, but few if any in this one. We can argue about how many ways this season's gone wrong; I've come up with multiple excuses over the past months. And I'll unashamedly admit to stretching for ways to defend Benitez, but I've at least come to the conclusion that his thinking about the wings has to change.

The flanks have been at or near the top of the list of Liverpool's weak spots since Rafa arrived, mainly manned by Nuñez, Luis Garcia, Kewell, Pennant, Gonzalez, or Zenden prior to this crop. Of course, the combined cost of those players not including Kewell (bought by Houllier) is less than £15m and almost all in the fees for Pennant and Garcia. The cliché of not buying championships in bargain bins yet again rings true. And money's yet again the root of all evil, but Rafa hasn't helped himself in prioritizing other areas. And to compare to Benitez's Valencia, set out in a similar formation, Liverpool's never had a Vicente (or even a Rufete), and for some reason, hasn't gone out and got one.

The point of this isn't to single out individual players (although I clearly am), bash Benitez, or again snipe at the owners for not having any money. But it's apparent, even to a sycophant like me, that Liverpool and Benitez need to stop undervaluing the flanks.

I've written countless words about how the fullbacks ideally provide the width in Liverpool's system, but this season's made clear we're not in an ideal world. Johnson and Insua are a whole different kettle of fish, but suffice it to say that fullbacks bombing forward have been problematic for multiple reasons.

I try not to let solitary games affect me, especially solitary games where I pretend to expect Liverpool to lose, but Valencia might have been what finally prompted this post. Having a player who can create that sort of threat from out wide, drawing defenders and pinning wingers, absolutely can change a game. And you have to pay the premium for that presence. At the same time, you need workhorses and piano-carriers – just like Kuyt (who I'll continue to defend until the singularity reemerges) – which is why I'm focusing on the left flank.

I'm also well aware that both Babel and Benayoun are right-footed players probably best in other positions. I still question whether either can be a full-time starter on the left, and that Benitez has used Maxi there against United, Arsenal, City, and Everton means he does as well. It's a pity Riera's napalmed his bridges, but it's not as if he's done much of anything this season either. Although, to be fair, the combination of the three did lead Liverpool to its highest points total in years last season.

At the least, we've seen some continued attacking cohesion when Babel and Benayoun have been on the left, as we have when Maxi's been on the right. Kuyt's obviously going to start most games, but Maxi has and should continue to spell him at times, especially against lesser opposition, as against Pompey and Blackburn.

Long story short, pick a flank and stay there, at least for the rest of the season. And in the off-season, no matter what turmoil goes on (and there assuredly will be some turmoil), this is again the position I most want to see addressed.


Tom Foolery said...

Couldn't agree more. Maxi Pad is starting to serve the same purpose as a maxi pad. He's there to soak up the leaks left by Insua, he's a precautionary measure, he doesn't start on the left to come out and play, he starts on the left to protect. Same as LL in the middle. I for one don't think the squad is that weak, I think the manager has no balls. Its been a constant question for me (and many others), why does Rafa use negative tactics? Negative is probably not the right word, but constantly playing for a counter attack against any opposition (bar the Pompey game) is not gonna work. We wait instead of create. Rafa is stubborn and patient, competent too, but when something is off, I think he lacks the courage to change a tactic, or a player, or a gameplan. Subs not coming on until after the 65th is good evidence of this, so is waiting until the last 10 mins to actually attack an opposition (something that has always confused me, what are we waiting for all game!!?). I don't really give a shit about the champs league when it comes down to it. I just wana watch my team PLAY. Hope we get something fresh in the summer (preferably a left-footed winger who can start).

drew said...

We've flogged Riera to Moscow, that didn't take long. (If he agrees terms, that is.)

I do wonder what we could've done with Simao, or if we had gotten Alves who is absolutely irrepressible up and down the wing.

CSD said...

I like Kuyt's work rate, but he can't beat defenders as well as Babel or Benayoun. Maybe we should stick him at left back. =)

Anonymous said...

Good point. You just made me have to write a blog post in semi-counter argument and semi-agreement to it.

It's sad that a cultured Left Footer is leaving for Russian soil, and one wonders how much of an influence did his Russian Wife had in that decision.

Rosco said...

Clearly Mrs Riera wear the trousers as the descision seems mad even for someone who's slightly out of favour at the moment. I say this as it appears CSKA have ruled themselves out and he seems to be heading to ''lower'' flying spartak. Now not that Liverpool are vying for greatness currently but it still seems ludicrous to exit so close to the end of the current campaign, why not stick it out and plan for next season? If the world cup is mentioned as a factor I think that ship sailed long before liverpools "sank" I do believe albert riera didn't give enough to warrant a first team place but as we all know injuries can come ten a penny so some back up would still be welcomed.

drew said...

Blues did us a big big favour tonight. Spurs will be dropping points coming up and them and City still have to play each other in the next to last game. With Villa fading it's still not a stretch for us to grab fourth.

You know, if we can actually win some fucking matches.

nate said...

When I did the BBC predictor after losing to United, I had Villa winning and City drawing today. And I had Liverpool getting to fourth regardless with 5 wins and draws against Chelsea and Brum. So huzzah, I guess.

Key is obviously still winning some matches. So thanks Everton, and we'll wait until Sunday to see if we thank Steve Bruce's big fat head. But today shows why I refused to completely write the chances off after last weekend. Points will be dropped left, right, and center, and it seems certain to go down to the last day.

Sadly, Spurs have looked pretty shit hot in the last couple of games.

drew said...

This would be an absolutely thrilling season to experience as a neutral.


Anyway I'm crossing the Mersey tonight (tube, not ferry, incidentally) to watch the reserves, will see what I can see.

drew said...

Not a damn lot, is the answer. Bad weather, waterlogged pitch, sluggish play (coming off a game on another bad pitch just two days ago). Kelly scored off a header in a goalmouth scramble (but wasn't all that good otherwise) and Wigan equalized immediately after on a free kick.

LDV could've won it at the end but it got taken off him just at the last. On straight out chances though 1-1 was more than fair.

Good news: Francisco Duran is working his way back into the squad after his nightmare run of injuries, and he's class if he can just keep fit. Also I think we get Pacheco back from the Spanish camp soon.

Bad news: Plessis gets worse with every day that goes by.

Ed said...

What happened to the rumors about Plessis leaving for Italy either permanently or on loan? Obviously nothing worked out, but I'd have thought that some sort of first team football would be beneficial, as he's clearly not breaking in any time soon.