28 February 2011
It's Still The Defense, Stupid
Above is the chalkboard which stood out the most. Seven interceptions in a 90 minute span. None in the center of Liverpool's half. Two from Lucas, one from Cole, Gerrard, Johnson, Kuyt, and Skrtel.
For comparison, in the last three league matches, Liverpool had 19 against Wigan, 26 against Chelsea, and 10 against Stoke (where Liverpool were rarely under threat). In the last loss under Dalglish, his first league match at Blackpool, Liverpool had 17.
West Ham had a smart strategy yesterday, whether Liverpool used three at the back (in the first half) or four (after Kelly's injury). Keep the ball out of the middle and attack the flanks. Central midfielders Hitzlsperger and Noble both looked to spread the play wide, as did Parker in more of a holding role. All three of their goals came from crosses or runs down one of the channels. That pattern of play is also evident in the tackles chalkboard.
The majority of Liverpool's tackles, either attempted or successful, were on the left. It's no coincidence that two of the Hammers' goals came from that side. First, West Ham worked the ball down that flank before Hitzlsperger and Parker played a one-two for the opener, leaving Suarez, Meireles, and Lucas chasing shadows. The crucial second, right before half-time, saw Ba beat Wilson to a hopeful punt, Carragher slow to close down the crosser, and Johnson and Skrtel flat-footed in the box. Both goals were comprehensive failures. The third, sealing the game, was an embarrassment shared by Skrtel and Reina, singularly beaten all ends up by Carlton freaking Cole. Again, the goal started on the flank, this time Liverpool's right, cutting in after Skrtel was easily shaken off before beating Reina at his near post.
Liverpool seemed to have put defensive frailties in the past over the last seven games, conceding just once (dubiously, I might add). Deploying three at the back against Stoke and Chelsea wholly blunted those sides. And it's not as if both Stoke and Chelsea played the similarly while West Ham found a novel way to exploit the tactic. Chelsea's narrowness suited a packed defense, but Stoke relies on long balls and crosses through the likes of Pennant, Etherington, and Walters (as well as set plays, obviously). Liverpool played three at the back for approximately 40 minutes because of Kelly injury, only conceding one of the three during that spell, and no one system is a comprehensive solution, but yesterday's failings unfortunately lead me to blame the personnel more than the tactics (in addition to crediting the opposition).
Yesterday, injuries finally caught up with the side. Agger – whose importance can't be overstated, despite his fragility – was ruled out before the match, as was Aurelio. The imperious Kelly pulled up right before West Ham's second goal. It left Liverpool reliant on a 19-year-old center-back at left back and the increasingly shaky Skrtel-Carra pairing in the middle. It's no coincidence that when exploring who played when Liverpool conceded last week, Agger and Kelly had the best goals against average. Incidentally, Liverpool also started a different backline for the 23rd time in 41 games. Not having a settled defense continues to haunt the club.
Lack of depth has been punishing the team all season long. Yesterday is just yet another example of that. Writing that Liverpool need to upgrade at both center-back and left back is stating the obvious in the extreme.
This defeat simply proves that Liverpool still has a long road to travel, no matter the positives from the previous seven or eight matches. Those positives can't be forgotten, and as I wrote in yesterday's match review, how Liverpool reacts to this setback will define the final 10 games of the campaign.