Liverpool lose 2-4 on penalties
Kelly Kyrgiakos Agger Wilson
Pacheco Lucas Spearing Jovanovic
This won't be a standard review, because of its tardiness and as I'd imagine everyone's seen the wrist-slitting/condemnation/schadenfreude by now. I completely missed this match – either on radio or via stream – because of a seven-hour power outage yesterday. Evidently Liverpool had one too. But I still felt the need to watch this fiasco, in the hopes of deducing just why the side were so comprehensively awful. The short version is "shit rolls downhill," but bear with me anyway.
Let me start by saying that Northampton – the 17th-placed side in League Two – deserved to win. At Anfield. If I didn't know better, I'd suggest the Liverpool players had never met each other before. The home side started brightly enough, with Agger's excellent deep throughball allowing Jovanovic to slot in his first goal before 10 minutes were up, once again demonstrating the benefit of playing the ball out of defense. But with Liverpool unable to take the game to their opponents, Northampton grew in confidence. The Reds resorted to hoofs in the direction of the ineffective Babel and Ngog, once again bypassing midfield, and were frequently crowded out by the six men guarding the edge of the box. Only one shot – a tame Lucas effort from distance – tested Northampton's keeper in the first half. Meanwhile, the away side increasingly threatened, especially on crosses (as per usual), with chances in the 25th and 37th coming far too close for comfort.
It's long been established that Liverpool's never safe with a one-goal lead, even when in-form. They clearly weren't in-form today, and McKay punished them soon after the interval: Liverpool didn't close down after a throw-in, giving time and space for a left-wing cross, Kyrgiakos – probably the tallest player on the pitch – couldn't prevent the flick-on, and McKay stole in behind Agger and Kelly. Despicable. Yet again. So much for past as precedent; the team "improved" after the break for less than 10 minutes and Northampton deservedly equalized against the run of play. From there, the Cobblers were simply better, full of confidence, with Liverpool unable to rebound and drained of what little belief they might have had. It was nearly impossible to tell which was the Premiership team. Around the 75th minute, the traveling fans saw fit to rub salts in Anfield's wounds with a chorus of "olés" as Liverpool were unable to reclaim possession. I don't think the home side had a shot on goal in the entire second half.
Unsurprisingly, Hodgson again waited until late to make changes – Northampton made all three substitutions before Liverpool made their first. That it took until extra time seemingly means that the manager either expected the added 30 minutes or somehow hoped that the team would pull itself together despite any evidence of doing so. Neither's a heartening prospect. And Northampton were first on the score-sheet in extra time, with Wilson absolutely bamboozled by Herbert before Jacobs tapped-in after a blocked first shot and Jones save on the second.
The League Two side finally tired enough for Liverpool to get a last-ditch equalizer – Ngog heading in Kyrgiakos' flick-on from Shelvey's corner four minutes from full time – but it proved another false dawn: first, Kelly had to make an unbelievable clearance off the line when Jones flapped at a cross, then Ngog and Eccleston missed their spot kicks while Northampton converted four of their five to deservedly win the lottery. And here we are, yet again wondering if this is as low as the sky can fall. More than 12 hours after the fact, and it's still hard to keep the acidic taste of bile out of my mouth.
At times 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1, with Babel coming from deeper, Liverpool were 4-4-2 for longer stretches. That sort of fluidity can be a benefit, with defenders unsure who's attacking from where, but it was a sign of the total lack of cohesion and the lack of tactics yesterday. Liverpool does not have the players for that formation, especially on the flanks, and it's baffling to see Hodgson continue with it. Players like Jovanovic and Pacheco (as well as Cole and Kuyt for that matter) are not 4-4-2 wingers. They are attacking midfielders/forwards who can threaten from wide positions, which is why the 4-2-3-1 (or even 4-3-3 if Liverpool becomes bold at some point) should be preferred.
Self-belief is crucial in this sport, and only one side had it yesterday. And that's the side that won. There's no easy answers for Liverpool's array of problems, especially when there are so many culprits. The majority of Liverpool players were dire yesterday. Pick your metaphor – the team looked like horny teenagers fumbling with a bra, fish flopping around on dry land, a blind squirrel foraging for a nut, whatever.
Showing far more awareness than we're used to, Ryan Babel perfectly assessed his own performance on Twitter this morning: No excuses for last nite .. We weren't good enough.. And I #failed personally .. Haven't lost faith, so I keep working. His strike partner also had one of his worst performances in a Liverpool shirt, but at least notched another goal. While it's somewhat unfair to pick on an 18-year-old on his debut, Danny Wilson also had a forgettable debut, especially when beaten all-ends-up on Northampton's second. Spearing was useless, Pacheco was often invisible relegated to the right flank (and deeper than he's used to, as is Roy's style), and Kyrgiakos – wearing the armband – barely looked bothered. The list is endless. It's easier to name the players who didn't disappoint: Shelvey. In a 20-minute cameo. And maybe Agger other than his defending on Northampton's equalizer.
And once again, the manager's liable for an awful lot. I want to give Hodgson a pass because of off-field drama and the brevity of his tenure, but results are making that incredibly difficult. It's doesn't help that he threw his players under the bus in the post-match interview, after bigging-up Manchester United following a game where the players did well and Liverpool could have taken at least a point. You stay classy, San Diego. A masterclass in how to win friends and influence people.
For how happy the players supposedly are, as stated in multiple interviews, you couldn't tell it from the match. Liverpool looked tactically inept, to say the absolute least, and there was no Plan B when Plan A inevitably failed. And when Hodgson finally made substitutions, they made little sense: Jovanovic for Eccleston is understandable, but Shelvey for Babel, with the central midfielder playing on the right, and then Ince for Pacheco, moving Shelvey central but putting a left-winger on the right, only increased the discontinuity. And at 1-2 down, Hodgson's solution was to send Kyrgiakos forward, which led to Liverpool's "most threatening" play. Words fail me.
Comparisons to Liverpool's recent Cup disgraces, such as the loss to Burnley in Benitez's first season, don't seem valid. Yesterday's starting XI contained six full internationals (one retired), three players capped at the u21 level, and one highly-regarded u19 international; only Spearing has never played for his country at any level. The majority of them have played together at some point. The 04-05 team that lost in the FA Cup contained the likes of Zak Whitbread, David Raven, John Welsh, Darren Potter, and Antonio Nuñez, among others. Burnley was in the Championship; Northampton's currently struggling in the lowest tier of the Football League. And yesterday's match was at Anfield, which is the height of embarrassment.
Yes, this was an unfamiliar side despite the inclusion of Agger, Kyrgiakos, Lucas, Babel, and Ngog, with eleven changes from Sunday's match. But it was also a side that led to optimism prior to kickoff; we wanted to see most of these names on the team sheet. And when the same old problems persist, you can't help but question the manager, as well worry as to what this bodes for the future. This team, from top to bottom, has become a bungling mess; they've forgotten what "pressing the ball" even means, there's been no pretense of the promised 'pass and move,' and "disjointed" doesn't even come close to summarizing yesterday's debacle. And I can't find enough scapegoats to blame for it.