17 November 2012

Liverpool 3-0 Wigan

Suarez 47' 58'
Enrique 66'

The death of the Wigan curse. It's been a long time coming. Five matches, in fact. A comprehensive victory, a clean sheet: the first three-goal clean sheet in the league at Anfield since beating Everton last March, only the third league clean sheet this season.

After that, there are two big talking points: Brendan Rodgers' early tactical substitution and Liverpool's left flank. Well, and the consummate genius of Luis Suarez, but that's almost always a talking point following a Liverpool victory.

The starting lineup was the same which finished the match against Chelsea aside from Skrtel recovering from last week's virus: Suso as an orthodox #10, Enrique as a left-sided midfielder, but otherwise the same personnel we've become accustomed to. And for 36 minutes, it was the same Liverpool we've become accustomed to. A decent amount of the ball, a couple of concrete chances, but more disappointment, not enough ruthless, and too much disconnect in attack.

Suarez's mazy runs nearly forced a couple of own goals, Suso had two excellent opportunities – a long range strike and mishit header – and Agger nearly scored from an early corner, but Liverpool weren't clicking on all cylinders, even to the level we saw in draws against, say, Sunderland and Stoke. Wigan were very Wigan, cohesive, intelligent, and canceling Liverpool out more often than not, bettering the home side in both possession and passes.

So, with 10 minutes left in the first half, Rodgers had seen enough. Even though Suso had two of Liverpool's best chances, he was the man to make way. It might have had something to do with the fact he had more shots than passes, but it's not as if he was playing poorly, and it was somewhat confusing to say the least.

I guess there's a reason Rodgers is a professional manager and we're sat at home or in the stands. Henderson, seemingly behind both Shelvey and Şahin in the midfield hierarchy, came on instead, with Liverpool shifting to a 4-3-3 which looked more like a 4-1-4-1 formation rather than the usual 4-2-3-1.

During the midweek internationals, I'd wondered why Henderson hadn't been able to replicate his England u21 performances for Liverpool, whether under Dalglish or Rodgers. So much for that question. Despite playing just 55 or so minutes, only Gerrard, Allen, and Johnson completed more passes than Henderson. He ran the length of the pitch, always available for a pass, and added two tackles and two interceptions, all in Wigan's half. Rodgers gambled that Henderson's pressing from the front and link play would contribute more to Liverpool's attack than Shelvey's dynamism or Şahin's calming influence, and the gamble was absolutely correct.

Liverpool made the breakthrough soon after the restart, a goal which propelled them to the much-needed win at a canter. And while a Wigan mistake had a lot to do with the opportunity, it stemmed from pressing the opposition in Wigan's half. Sterling hassled Beausejour into a soft back pass, latching onto the loose ball and driving at the defense, delivering a perfect cutback for Suarez in space, rammed into the roof of the net from ten yards out.

Wigan tried to respond with a couple of direct attacks, but Di Santo's shot from distance was comfortably deflected to Reina, then Johnson defended Maloney's early cross brilliantly, in the right place to head behind with Kone lurking dangerously at the back post. And 11 minutes after the opener, after defending well enough to not concede a cheap equalizer, Liverpool got the crucial second to kill the game.

That crucial second came from the aforementioned left flank, where Johnson and Enrique often linked to excellent effect. Enrique had seemingly ignored the fullback's foray forward into space, instead deciding to cut inside, a decision that had me screaming at the television. Ten seconds later, the ball was in the net after Enrique ran past two defenders before providing an immaculate throughball for Suarez, timed to the nanosecond and put on a plate with all the trimmings, the striker charging onto the pass before beating Al Habsi into the far corner.

From there, there was only going to be one winner. Suarez had two chances at a hat-trick, scuffing a shot wide then seeing a second well-blocked from close range. Unsurprisingly, he was central to Liverpool's third goal, in the middle of a delightful one-two with Sterling, which saw the 17-year-old's shot saved, spilling fortunately for the on-rushing Enrique to tap in. Not only providing the crucial assist, but scoring his first Liverpool goal. Hell has frozen over. Josemi Enrique is dead, long live Jose Bale, who nearly set up Liverpool's fourth just seconds later when Henderson ballooned a volley from Enrique's chipped cross.

Then, cruise control, the opportunity for Liverpool to settle into the calm possession Rodgers has drilled into his side, for the first time in the match. A period of the game which saw Liverpool's possession total go from 47.8% in the first half to 50.2% in the second. Wigan's attempts at a consolation were limited to a single set play, Reina punching clear a corner only for Wigan to lump the ball back in the danger area for Kone, who hit the post from point-blank range but was also offside due to Liverpool's well-marshaled defense. Patient control led to three chances for a fourth, but Johnson shot narrowly wide of the far post after more impressive combination play with Enrique, Suarez scuffed another attempt wide, and Shelvey – on as a substitute for the talismanic Uruguayan in the 84th – sent a tame shot directly at Al Habsi in the 90th.

Rarely has a Liverpool match been so satisfying after 90 minutes, especially this season and especially in the league. Beating a side that's caused convulsions for the last three seasons, scoring three, and comfortably keeping a clean sheet. Rodgers coming out of the match with full credit, making an (arguably overdue) early, intelligent tactical change in using Allen as a single holding player at Anfield rather than relying on two controlling midfielders, adding an extra body in attack and an extra body to press the opposition in their own half instead of settling for the sometimes listless possession dominance in non-threatening areas.

While it was disappointing to see Suso hauled off so soon, I can't help but be pleased for Henderson, whose work ethic gave Liverpool extra impetus in the middle. Even though the switch ostensibly made Allen the lone defensive midfielder, Henderson's running allowed the Welshman a calmer match, giving him more support rather than having to shoulder the load in starting Liverpool's attacks while stopping the opposition's. In addition, using Enrique as in midfield also worked a treat, an always-willing runner who'll get up and down the touchline and see a lot of the ball, combining well with Johnson as one player could cut inside while the other stays wide. Enrique remains a frustrating player at times, completing just 73% of his passes (only Suarez was less accurate), but he was also Liverpool's most creative – responsible for four chances, while Suarez, Sterling, and Gerrard each had three. Still, he was far less frustrating than some of the other options Liverpool's tried in that position (*waves at Stewart Downing and Joe Cole, then realizes the former isn't even in the squad*).

And, of course, no matter the impressive performances from Henderson and Enrique and others, the star man remains Luis Suarez, with 10 of Liverpool's 17 goals through 12 games, scoring in four consecutive matches, the hub of everything good in the opposition's half of the field. No controversy, no petulance, just permanent threat and goals goals goals. Exactly what we want to see.

More of that please. The players need to take confidence from the result, in both defense and attack, while the manager will hopefully remember how his clever adjustments helped Liverpool win today's match.


Ben said...

Great article. A minor point, but Kone was actually onside, and we were arguable pretty lucky not to concede there.

nate said...

Yep, you're right Ben, missed that on the stream, didn't catch until MotD. Liverpool were lucky there; looked like Johnson didn't step up far enough after Reina's punch clear.

Liverpool were due some luck. Sadly, between that, Suarez not getting a yellow for his tackle on Jones (never a red, shut your mouth MotD), and the incorrectly decided throw-in which led to the third goal, Liverpool probably used up all its luck for the foreseeable future.

It was, however, hilarious to see Ramis charge halfway across the pitch to scream at the referee about the throw-in, then see Enrique score from his area of the pitch because he was late in getting back in position.