There has been lots of talk around the internet and in the comments of yesterday's match review about this side regressing from last season's run-in. And Dalglish (and Comolli) is obviously at fault and I'm an idiot for holding fire on the manager. Instead of replying under the fold, I figured I'd ramble here on the front page. The short version is that Liverpool weren't as good as you remember last season and aren't are bad as you think now. There. I saved you 1500 words.
But if you're still here...
A five-match stretch from April through early May is used as definitive proof of regression. 3-0 v City, 1-1 at Arsenal, 5-0 v Brum, 3-0 v Newcastle, and 5-2 at Fulham. All very good results. But those results also blind some to the memory of Liverpool losing 1-3 at West Ham, 1-2 at West Brom, 0-2 v Spurs, 0-1 at Aston Villa and insipidly going out of the Europa League, both before and after than five-match stretch.
Regardless, there was some very good football played over that stretch. Some very good football and even better results, which seemingly raised expectations for this season more than a little bit too high. There are also, unsurprisingly, some vast differences between the end of last season and Liverpool's current state.
Goals, goals, goals
Conversion of chances. Pretty much the alpha and omega of Liverpool's problems, as has been written since September. A handful of draws this season (and at least one of the losses) were just about as impressive as last season's large wins in everything but the goals. Liverpool pummeled Sunderland, United, Blackburn, and Stoke, among others, but drew, drew, drew, and lost. Aside from Maxi, who I mentioned in yesterday's review, it's the same players who were scoring at the end of last season who aren't scoring now: Kuyt, Suarez, even Carroll (against City). And not playing Maxi is not the reason Liverpool are tallying fewer than 10% of their chances. At the same time, Liverpool usually played 4-4-2/4-2-2-2 through that run-in, but 4-4-2/4-2-2-2 this season is the devil and should be killed with fire, whether it's Kuyt-Suarez or Carroll-Suarez up front.
As for chances created, the focus of last summer's spending. During that Brum-Newcastle-Fulham stretch, with 13 goals scored, Liverpool created 35 chances – 13 against Birmingham and Fulham, nine against Newcastle. Compare that to three of the eminently-frustrating results mentioned in the previous paragraph. Liverpool created 12 chances against Sunderland, 18 at Stoke, and 19 against Blackburn. And these aren't cherry-picked numbers. Chances created in other disappointing results: 12 at Wigan, 17 at Fulham, 15 against Swansea, 20 against Norwich, etc. All via FourFourTwo's StatsZone.
Two of Liverpool's summer signings, Adam and Downing, have created the most Liverpool chances by some distance. The reason each was purchased. The obvious logic is that more chances created leads to more goals created. This season's done much to kill that notion. Liverpool's attack at the end of last season was ruthless in front of goal. The same front players, on the whole, are the opposite of ruthless this season, and it's not because of fewer opportunities or where they're getting said opportunities.
And it's a problem that grows as the monkey on strikers' back grows. Each miss makes the player think longer and harder about the next. Confidence drains with every post hit and penalty spurned. At the same time, it's far easier to score after scoring. Hot and cold streaks happen in every sport, even when they're sustained over the course of a season. After all we've seen, I still believe one or two ruthless demolitions like we saw 11 months ago changes an awful lot. Much like a fortunate hat-trick against United pushed Kuyt on for the rest of the campaign or, further back, Crouch's first Liverpool goal after a long barren stretch led to him scoring seven in the same month. And Liverpool's current players have ruthless demolitions in them, whether for Liverpool in the past or at their previous clubs. As unfulfilling as it as to credit intangibles like confidence and luck, both go a long way in determining form. Single spark, prairie fire. Yes, still.
Short-term v long-term
Last season's attack during the run-in was consistent; Carroll played against City and Arsenal, but otherwise it was Suarez, Kuyt, Maxi, and Meireles in Liverpool's big wins. That consistent front four was also getting on in years. Kuyt, Suarez, Meireles, and Maxi's average age at the time was 28.5; Kuyt and Maxi were 30, Meireles 28. Keeping the latter and using Kuyt and Maxi more might have led to a few more points this season (although, given Kuyt and Maxi's form when they have played, that's in doubt), but it would also put Liverpool in a worse position long-term, even if Liverpool's most recent signings don't pan out. It's also probably churlish to mention that Meireles has had a stinker of a season for Chelsea.
The damage which Hicks and Gillett inflicted required a massive overhaul, no matter a five-match hot streak with Champions League qualification a lost cause. Liverpool made six summer signings not counting Doni, four of whom usually start if available. The average age of Adam, Bellamy, Coates, Downing, Enrique, and Henderson is 25, which drops to 23.6 without free-transfer Bellamy. Because of Hicks and Gillett (and because of Hodgson's signings), Liverpool had to get younger. And fast. With four to six changes to the first-team, growing pains were inevitable. At least now Liverpool have a foundation for the future. Downing and Adam may have disappointed more than they've impressed, Henderson remains more potential than potent, but those three players still put Liverpool in a better position for the future than Maxi and Meireles did. The squad is now deeper, younger, and more valuable.
Liverpool are in transition. We'd hoped the transition would go more smoothly. We arguably had a right to expect it. It hasn't. Nonetheless, again, aside from that five-match stretch, Liverpool weren't radically better during last season's run-in, simply more ruthless in front of goal. Performances this season, while massively inconsistent, remain better than under Hodgson and 'nearly' as good as during last season's run-in, even if results don't measure up. Because of goal-scoring. Because Suarez and Kuyt and even Carroll aren't scoring as they did at times last season. It's not Adam, Henderson, and Downing's fault those players, in position to score, aren't scoring more.
I love you, Lucas Leiva
Also, this. Goal-scoring may be the alpha and omega, but missing the Brazilian midfielder has been almost as much of an issue. Admittedly, Comolli and Dalglish deserve criticism for not replacing him; Spearing is a useful squad player, but nowhere near Lucas' level, and has played his best football for the club when partnered with Lucas. Spearing's not as effective holding in front of the back four, setting the tempo, starting the attacks, etc. In retrospect, no other absence could have hurt Liverpool's more: not Suarez, not Gerrard, not Agger. Maybe not even Reina.
Also, a lack of Lucas has assuredly hurt Charlie Adam. I maintain what I've said all season: Adam has his faults and his benefits, and the former frequently obscure the latter. Without Lucas, those faults are magnified. That partnership was increasingly potent as they formed an understanding, a near-archetypal blend of creator and destroyer. And without Lucas, Adam (or Gerrard, for that matter) necessarily has more defensive work to do. Which isn't his strong suit in the slightest. Still, it's hard to blame Adam's frequent inability to tackle for Liverpool's problems when conceding goals isn't Liverpool's problem. Liverpool miss Lucas as metronome much more than Lucas as wrecking ball. Which is the one facet that Adam, Gerrard, and Spearing can't replicate.
Liverpool could and should have planned better, but there's only so many fingers to stick in the dike's numerous holes. And Liverpool couldn't have predicted that Lucas would have missed 2/3rds of the season thanks to a freak injury.
There are other, less important excuses. Suarez's stupidly-incurred suspension(s). Gerrard's continued injury problems. Reina conceding a handful more goals because of arguable mistakes. And, yes, a handful of mistakes from the manager: tactical, selection, or substitution. Still, I'm content laying most of the blame with goal-scorers, transition, and a lack of Lucas. One facet at the foot of aforementioned players, two thanks to the cruel hand of fate.
The easiest recommendation is adding an out-and-out scorer, either replacing or in addition to Carroll. As much as I hate writing it, that purchase looks Liverpool's worst business by some distance, record fee or no record fee. I really want to like the player: young, multi-talented (even if he doesn't show it enough), and with a physicality that most defenders can't handle when he's on his game. But goals are the problem and Liverpool's most-expensive striker rarely looks like scoring. When he can even get in the side.
But then again, Andy Carroll is just 23. It could also mean, much to our chagrin, that Liverpool still needs more time to adjust to the past year's overhaul, made with an eye on the future despite short-term hopes for an immediate return to the Champions League.
I'm not exonerating Liverpool's player recruitment or certain team selections. Despite the above excuses, there's still a chance Downing, Adam, Henderson, and/or Carroll don't work out. It was a calculated gamble, one we still can't fully judge. Liverpool's pre-FSG state, Chelsea and City's oil money, United's insane commercial revenue, Financial Fair Play regulations, and no Champions League football means Liverpool have to gamble. But Liverpool also gambled when paying £10m for Alonso, taking West Ham-outcast Mascherano on an expensive loan, and breaking the club transfer record on an unproven-outside-of-Spain Torres. And gambled on Pennant, Gonzalez, Riera, etc solving the non-stop problem on the flanks. Sometimes gambles work and sometimes gambles don't.
All I meant by yesterday's review was that things aren't as bad as some make out and Liverpool's tactics against Arsenal worked well everywhere but in front of goal. We all mock Chelsea for failing to give Villas-Boas time and leeway to make necessary changes, then demand Dalglish return to what worked for a month almost a year ago. No one likes suffering through the short-term in the hopes it'll eventually pay off, but patience remains a virtue. Yes, even when the sky is falling. Which it isn't at the moment. Even if/when Liverpool miss Champions League qualification for next season, there's still a very good chance that patience pays off in the future.