20 October 2012

Liverpool 1-0 Reading

Sterling 29'

So, Liverpool finally win a league match at Anfield, but a better opponent probably would have punished Liverpool at least once, and maybe multiple times.

Admittedly, Liverpool have lost and drawn far too often when playing "weak" opposition, so I probably shouldn't complain. But Liverpool were very, very lucky that Reading were that impotent in attack.

Rodgers' style is to control the tempo, to take the sting out of the game by playing keep away. That would have been helpful today. However, this looked a lot more like last year's team, or even – god forbid – Hodgson's side. Liverpool increasingly retreated as the match went on, and the last ten minutes most likely did major heart damage to a fair few fans. The home side barely out-possessed Reading in the second half, from 60-40% at half-time to 56.8-43.2% at full time, meaning Reading almost equaled Liverpool's time on the ball after the interval. 85% passing accuracy in the first half, 78% in the second half. Liverpool dominated the ball in the second half against the likes of Sunderland, Norwich, and Stoke, but were increasingly penned back today, eventually holding onto the one-nil lead by fingernails. Rodgers' substitutions in the final 20 minutes reinforced this trend – Enrique for Suso, Henderson for Sterling – both for defensive solidity, to keep Liverpool's narrow lead.

At the same time, Liverpool finally won a game when Suarez couldn't find the target with a map. He took ten of Liverpool's 27 shots, and tested McCarthy with just one. Although, credit where due, he also set up Liverpool's opener after the home side's strong start. After nearly 30 minutes of good pressure but with Liverpool unable to break into Reading's box and resorting to long-range efforts, Wisdom won a clearing header, directing it perfectly for Suarez. A quick touch then outstanding pass over the top to release Sterling, then an excellent finish low into the far corner. His first for the club, and now Liverpool's second-youngest Premiership goalscorer.

Liverpool continued to monopolize the ball until half-time, with Reading restricted to one Leigertwood shot from distance that was nowhere near threatening, but couldn't find the needed second, with Suarez shooting wide and McCarthy saving Johnson's blast before the interval.

Maybe Liverpool's counter-attacking goal was the template for the second half. Draw Reading out, allow Suarez and Sterling to find space to operate, and attack at pace. But it didn't quite work that way, mostly thanks to Liverpool's horrific finishing. Suarez spurned five outstanding chances – straight at the keeper, over the bar, wide, over the bar, and wide – but also continued to set up opportunities: the first for Sterling, also directed too close to McCarthy, the second a jaw-dropping cross-field pass that the substitute Shelvey (on for Şahin in the 63rd) couldn't control. But beginning around the 72nd minute and reaching its apex in the last 10 minutes, Reading took the game to Liverpool in desperate search of an equalizer.

A lot of credit for today's win goes to Brad Jones, who secured back-to-back clean sheets in the league for the first time since facing Wolves and Tottenham at the end of January and beginning of February. Reading had 14 set plays in Liverpool's half – nine free kicks and five corners – and didn't come close to testing Jones on any of them, many punched clear or claimed. The stand-in keeper also made two excellent saves early in the second half, first blocking McCleary's chance when Reading quickly countered, then smartly parrying McAnuff's long-range blast five minutes later.

Unsurprisingly when a clean sheet's kept, all of Liverpool's defense played well. Skrtel and Agger marked the dangerous Pogrebnyak out of the match, while Wisdom and Johnson limited Reading's wingers; both Kebe and McAnuff are crucial to the Royals' attacking play. Johnson was probably Liverpool's man of the match, more for his efforts going forward, but also contributing three or four crucial defensive headers on crosses and set plays. Wisdom had his shaky moments, which isn't out-of-character for an arguably over-played 18-year-old, but still kept McAnuff quiet for long stretches.

Otherwise, Liverpool's midfield was decent even if none of Gerrard, Allen, or Şahin were at their best – Şahin was especially disappointing, while Gerrard was refreshingly disciplined in his positioning. Sterling scored an outstanding goal but was otherwise well-marshaled by Cummings; similar goes for Suso against Shorey on the other flank. Suarez took more shots and created more chances than in any other match this season, but rarely found the target, although he has a valid excuse thanks to playing a tough international match at altitude on the other side of the ocean just four days ago. While it's reassuring to see Liverpool make at least one breakthrough against a deep, diligent side – something that hasn't happened often enough in the last two seasons – this match was won with defense.

But this is a season built by increments. That Liverpool's defense improved, and Liverpool finally took all three points at home are strong steps forward, no matter how shaky the overall performance may have seemed.


Stephen said...

It's concerning that Sahin played this poorly against a poor side like Reading. It's critical that someone step up at CAM. I had hoped it would be Sahin as Shelvey & Gerrard have been inconsistent in that role. After a few good 'final third' passes and runs in the early going, Sahin was absent. Ugh

Stephen said...

Shelvey's brain fart on Suarez brilliant pass was the most frustrating moment out of the many poor shots taken. How does he fail to get a melon as big as his on a ball so tailor made for a header?

llamakoolaid said...

I'd like to note that for someone who has been so roundly criticized this season (mostly deserved) Enrique played well when he was brought on.