14 February 2013

Liverpool 0-2 Zenit St Petersburg

Hulk 69'
Semak 72'

Stop me if you've heard this one before.

Despite not playing to their full potential, Liverpool create and subsequently spurn multiple excellent chances. Little by little, Liverpool start to dominate the game. And then Liverpool concede against the run of play. And then quickly concede a second. And then pretty much fall apart and hardly threaten the opposition's goal for the rest of the match.

The only difference was Liverpool were lucky not to fall behind during the first quarter of the match, where only Reina's agility and awareness prevented an early Zenit goal. The Reina of the first 28 minutes was the Reina we'd missed, somehow parrying Kerzhakov's 2nd minute effort after a post-corner scramble, denying Hulk from distance in the 5th, then keeping two more efforts from the Brazilian out of his net around the midway point of the half. Time and time again, Zenit found space between the lines, taking advantage of Lucas' absence, running circles around both Allen and Gerrard.

But Liverpool had chances of their own. Unfortunately, as against West Brom, we got "bad Suarez." Or, at least, supremely wasteful Suarez. Countering after Zenit's first excellent chance, Suarez fired wide from Johnson's excellent ball over the top. He couldn't even get a shot off after intercepting a lazy Lombaerts pass deep in Zenit's half, rounding the keeper but losing the opportunity thanks to a heavy touch. And five minutes before halftime, Suarez missed the best of the bunch, a cheeky back heel from two yards out bafflingly wide of the near post after Sterling picked up then laid off Allen's deflected cross.

Liverpool were both direct and disjointed, but that seemed by design. At least the former quality; the latter was an effect of relying on long passes and counter-attacks through a frequently isolated Suarez. As expected, Liverpool knew they'd have to be both cagey to prevent Zenit from breaking through and direct to keep Zenit's midfielders from getting behind the ball, hoping to spring Suarez or Sterling on the counter. Which they should have done at least once. Liverpool's first half passing was subpar and Liverpool had an unusual lack of possession in the final third, but Liverpool were always going to have to adjust to Zenit in St Petersburg rather than vice versa. And Liverpool did improve after 30 minutes, plugging the holes in the dike which led to Zenit's early opportunities, mostly because Gerrard smartly held his position while Allen attempted to chase down Witsel and Shirokov coming forward from midfield. As Dan Kennett astutely noted at halftime, it was a lot like most of Liverpool's other Europa League matches so far this season in that it could easily have been 2-0 Zenit or just as easily 2-0 Liverpool.

Liverpool were even better after the interval, demonstrating some semblance of control, keeping possession. And actually getting shots on target. Well, shot. Johnson went coast to coast in the 49th minute, running by two defenders then nutmegging a third, but was unable to fully nutmeg the keeper, as Malafeev made just enough contact to deflect the shot wide. On the hour mark, bad Suarez reappeared, curling a shot inches wide of the far post after Downing's strong run across the top of the box.

And, because it's Liverpool, you just knew they'd concede once finally obtaining a foothold but still failing to take their chances. It was only a matter of time. This Liverpool side is nothing if not depressingly predictable.

The first came when Henderson was dispossessed by Denisov near the center circle, the holding midfielder cleverly choosing when and who to press then quickly laying off to Hulk, who charged forward and rifled an utterly unstoppable shot past Reina. It was the type of goal that's hard to complain about despite the mistakes leading up to it: a flawless, jaw-dropping strike that wouldn't have been saved with three keepers in the net. However, it's much easier to complain about the second.

Sterling had come inside, chasing the ball, trying to make something happen in Zenit's half even though Henderson and Suarez already had the position covered. Okay, it happens. Less forgivable was the fact that Sterling wandered aimlessly through the middle after being dispossessed for a good 20 seconds before tracking back; with Henderson and Suarez also still central, it left Liverpool's left flank open wider than a pervert's trenchcoat. And it goes without saying that Zenit were smart enough to take advantage, immediately spreading play wide to Anyukov, who had all the space in the world to play a deep cross. Skrtel's close marking ensured Kerzhakov couldn't make contact, but Johnson, caught ball-watching, switched completely off, allowing Semak to ghost in at the back post for a tap in. Infuriating, from start to finish.

And has become all too common, Liverpool rarely looked like responding after the set-back. Rodgers' surprising alteration, bringing on Lucas for Sterling despite the two-goal disadvantage, allowed Liverpool to send men forward more comfortably knowing the Brazilian safety blanket was in place, but the only time Liverpool tested Malafeev was on a set-play. Suarez finally put a shot on target from a free kick, but Malafeev parried just far enough so that Henderson was unable to make an immediate rebound, needing to lay off for Downing, whose tame shot was blocked. And that was the sum of Liverpool's "response." And now Liverpool are micrometers away from being eliminated from a third cup competition in the same week that its slim league hopes were dashed.

I've no complaints about Rodgers' team selection or tactics. The strong squad demonstrated the manager's intent, and we'd be reveling in those tactics had Suarez taken one of his four outstanding chances before Zenit scored. Unlike against West Brom, using Borini as a like-for-like replacement for Sturridge made little sense; Suarez as a #10 against Zenit's midfield would have been banging furiously on trouble's door then asking trouble could come out to play for a while. Liverpool would have gained little in attack, but lost much, much more in defensive solidity. However, I continue to have complaints about both Liverpool's mentality and Liverpool making the same mistakes over and over and over and over.

In the last three months, Liverpool have conceded in 12 of 19 matches. In 11 of those 12, they've conceded at least twice; only Mansfield tallied a single goal, and had they scored that single goal earlier than the 80th minute, odds are that they would have gotten a second given how those final ten minutes went.

For all intents and purposes, Liverpool's European campaign is now in a world of shit. Because of the same problems we've seen all season long.

Yes, stranger things have happened. But this is not 2005. Individually, on paper, Liverpool don't look that far off from the side that won in Istanbul – at least the strongest XI – but this team isn't even on the same planet, let alone ball park: less experienced, less balanced, more fragile, more naive.

In the next leg, Liverpool will have to press and press and attack and attack, and it's highly likely that in the process, Zenit will pull their pants down on the counter at least once. Not only are Liverpool prone to that at the best of times, but we saw just glimpses of how dangerous Hulk, Danny, and Kerzhakov can be. Now imagine those three are given additional space by Liverpool's dire need for goals.

Here's hoping that the script doesn't go according to form, to Liverpool's benefit, at least once this season. Unfortunately, having hope this season has been a dangerous proposition.


suley said...

I can take not being able to score despite all the good chances... but the way we continually get caught out in defence is just unacceptable.
Game after game it is becoming increasingly clear something is either wrong with Brendan's philosophy or that his philosophy would only be successful with the calibre of players that Barcelona have.
Whatever it is the fact that it is still not being rectified in any way shape or form this late into the season suggests to me that he either doesnt know how to rectify it or he is too stubborn to depart from his philosophy.
I reject the argument that its the players faults. I believe your only as good as the system you play in allows you to be and Brendan's system, at least on the defensive side of things just doesnt work at present.
Here's hoping he proves me and everyone else wrong. RANT OVER.

Biggestfandownunder said...

Excellent article Nate. Thanks mate.

@ Suley
I agree with the sentiment that BR seems unable to get the balance between attack and defence right, but come on, the players are at fault in a big way this season.

I don't know the stats but many, far too many, goals have been gifted to the opposition through individual errors ... And we have too many players who are prone to these kind of errors ... It seems, this season, they're all queuing up to make a mistake. No matter what system you play, if defenders don't defend, you're going to suffer.

And because of this, among other things I'm sure,, the pschycology or mentality isn't right.

Unknown said...

At any rate, I think BR understands the situation exactly as Nate describes it.

Here's a statement from his pre-Swansea game, which I think goes hand in hand with what the Zenit game shows. There's some sort of missing grit and experience:

BR on the Zenit loss:
"It has probably typified our season. We arrived into the last couple of games on the back of two outstanding performances - away at Arsenal and Manchester City. Going into the game against West Brom we were very confident, didn't take our chances and got punished late on in the game; likewise last night. It's not a tactical or technical issue, it's not physical - it's one where more maturity in our performances can give us the results that we need. That's something that we need to improve, and will do."