22 December 2012

Liverpool 4-0 Fulham

Skrtel 8'
Gerrard 36'
Downing 51'
Suarez 90+2'

That was the perfect response to last Saturday's loss. No exaggeration. Perfect.

But after matches like that, it's hard to know how much to credit Liverpool's improvement – which there was a lot of, all over the pitch – or Fulham's comprehensive atrociousness.

With Gerrard in a deeper role and Shelvey as an orthodox attacking midfielder, shifting Liverpool to a 4-2-3-1 formation for the first time since Lucas' return, the midfield balance was vastly better. But Fulham's makeshift midfield clearly suffered from Sidwell and Diarra's absence; that was just Karagounis' second start of the season, while Richardson played as a left-winger in all six of his previous appearances.

That change in personnel led to a change in formation, the first time Fulham have played with five in midfield this season (unless you count Ruiz as an attacking midfielder rather than a second striker, which is basically semantics, and even then it'd be 4-2-3-1 rather than a orthodox 4-5-1). Liverpool's defensive improvement could be credited to the better balance in midfield and Gerrard providing more support for Lucas, or to Berbatov's supreme isolation in the first half. By the time Rodellega came on as a substitute for the second half, Liverpool were two up, looking about as safe as a side can ever be with a two-goal lead.

And Liverpool were two up because Liverpool's finishing was about as good as it gets – even considering Agger's remarkable miss from two yards out in the 25th minute. Just under half of Liverpool's shots were on target, and just under half of its shots on target found the back of the net. But that's not necessarily surprising when the side grows in confidence after an early goal; Liverpool's scored in the first ten minutes in just two matches this season: the 5-2 at Norwich and the 5-3 at Young Boys. And while Skrtel's control and volley for the opener were outstanding, especially for a defender, an awful lot of credit goes to Hangeland's horrific defending, leaving his man wide-open to "help" Hughes close down Agger even though the corner went over all three.

Maybe most surprising was that Downing played his best game in a Liverpool shirt: setting up the second goal with a wonderful throughball and scoring the third after cutting inside. But he might have faced the worst left-back he'll face all season; Riise – sadly for those of us who remember him fondly – is a dim shadow of the Liverpool version, and he was already declining by the time Benitez sold him more than four years ago. The Norwegian's defending on Downing's goal is a textbook example of exactly what you shouldn't do against an inverted winger; yes, Downing had to find the target, which he hasn't done anywhere near enough, but it was an "easier" goal than those against Gomel and Anzhi.

Three up after 51 minutes, Liverpool could play keep away, preventing any meaningful Fulham opportunities then countering at pace. Shelvey, Johnson, Downing, Sterling, and Gerrard all had chances against a clearly demoralized opponent – a couple were blocked, a couple narrowly wide, and Gerrard's effort well-saved by Schwarzer.

Meanwhile, six of Fulham's eight shots came after Liverpool's third, with four in the final ten minutes. Three were easy saves for Reina, two were well off-target, and one was blocked. And finally, in injury time, Liverpool's counter-attack bore fruit, tearing down the pitch after a Fulham free kick, winning a quickly-taken corner. Enrique ran at Fulham's unready defense along the byline before cutting back for an on-rushing Suarez, hammering in the goal he deserved to break a month-long, six-match scoring drought. It was his 11th in the league so far this season, the same total he scored in last season's 31 appearances.

As awful as Fulham were, Liverpool fully merited that, both because of Rodgers' tactical changes and individual players' performances. Downing deserves all the praise he's receiving, with his first assist and first goal in the league. Even more important was his movement in the final third; he varied between cutting inside and staying wide for crosses, clearing space for Johnson rather than statically waiting for the ball. Shelvey linked play between the lines to excellent effect in addition to his work rate pressing from the front – as did Suso. Other than Lucas, Shelvey and Suso made the most tackles for Liverpool, with nine of Liverpool's 21 total tackles in Fulham's half. Enrique's return was more than welcome, a constant threat down Liverpool's left, even more impressive considering I doubt he slept much after the birth of his first child yesterday.

It's also another example that when Gerrard plays well, Liverpool do well. Lucas clearly benefited from the captain playing in a deeper role, with seven tackles and three interceptions, not relied upon to cover the entire width and breadth of Liverpool's half. In contrast to some performances in this position, Gerrard's passing was mostly excellent, not overly reliant on the long ball but usually completing it when attempted, creating five chances and tallying two assists. And his run for Liverpool's second shows the damage he can do from deep, making the perfect dart behind the defense to receive Downing's excellent throughball, a run that's far more difficult to make when playing in an advanced position. I'm honestly amazed – and fearful – that he remains Liverpool's only player to feature for every minute in the Premier League.

After two dismal 0-1 losses against this opponent, Liverpool run riot, similar to the 5-2 demolishment during the impressive end of the 2010-11 season.

But as much as it's a cause for optimism, further proof that there's an excellent team in there somewhere, we've been here before. It's just one match, like the 5-2 victory over Norwich or 3-0 win over Wigan was one match. That Fulham were so insipid should be an additional caution. We'll see how much effect it has going forward in just four days, against another side that's caused Liverpool multiple problems in recent seasons. One swallow isn't a summer, once burned twice shy, etc etc.

Still, after the year we've had, it's certainly not a bad way to finish 2012 at Anfield.

Merry Christmas.


Sonny badger said...

Gerard had two assists? One, no?

Anonymous said...

G man was credited with an assist on Stewie's goal.

That reverse ball for Gerrards goal was really nice. Completely cut out 3 Fulham defenders.