04 February 2015

Liverpool 2-1 Bolton

Guðjohnsen 59' [pen]
Sterling 86'
Coutinho 90+1'

A nearly full-strength XI, with only the midfield rotated: Gerrard and Allen replacing Henderson and Lucas. Some disappointing performances, but mostly the same positives and negatives we've seen lately: Liverpool excellent until reaching the final third, Liverpool struggling to break through a deep defense that packs the middle of the pitch, Liverpool regretting more than a few of the referee's decisions, Liverpool fairly safe at the back but a bit vulnerable on the counter and often one mistake away from calamity.

It's just a little bit of history repeating.

Bolton's line-up surprised: struck by injuries and with multiple new players unable to feature, the home side still deployed the same formation as in the reverse fixture but used center-back Matt Mills up front, flanked by Guðjohnsen and 19-year-old Zach Clough, who'd scored three goals in his two previous starts. And that set-up gave Liverpool just as much trouble as last time, with David Wheater reprising Mills' role: a frequent source of Bolton's blocks, tackles, and clearances, the main offender when it came to fouls both called and uncalled. But it's not as if Ream, Dervite, Feeney, or Danns were lacking in any of those regards.

That Rodgers barely altered his line-up both did and didn't surprise. He's much more aware of the players' fitness levels than we are, but I'm always slightly amazed (if less amazed that I used to be) when Liverpool doesn't make changes in cup matches before more important league matches. Like the Merseyside Derby that's to be played in a little less than three days.

But the two changes changed Liverpool radically. Gerrard is not the box-to-box midfielder than Henderson can be. Allen does not hold the way that Lucas holds. The last time Gerrard played in midfield was the last time he played with Joe Allen: the 0-3 loss to Manchester United, where Liverpool played well but couldn't score and were torn apart on three occasions.

Bolton is not Manchester United, obviously, but it was again a little bit of history repeating. All too often, both Gerrard and Allen were caught upfield when Liverpool lost possession: neither adding much to Liverpool's attacking play but neither assuming the needed defensive responsibilities either. It's the main reason why the first half ended with five Bolton shots to Liverpool's six despite Liverpool dominating possession and controlling play.

Bolton's goal – unsurprisingly against the run of play – came after Henderson had replaced Lallana, with Gerrard moving further up the pitch, but the midfield problems remained. Sterling was muscled out of possession by numerous Bolton defenders, Henderson and Allen were out of position, Allen chased Feeney down Liverpool's left but couldn't prevent the cross, and Clough won a penalty when that cross wasn't fully cleared. The midfield wasn't the main reason Liverpool conceded – Skrtel, the referee, and probably Rodgers as well (who against switched Skrtel and Can, to less effect, at halftime) bear much, much more blame – but I guarantee that Lucas is in position to either foul or tackle (probably foul) Feeney before he attempts the cross.

Let's be honest. Clough dived. Clough obviously, blatantly dived. But Skrtel didn't fully clear the cross, then Skrtel hung out a leg. He impeded Clough's run and, honestly, Clough should dive in that position. Whether the referee should still give the penalty is debatable, but Skrtel should never have given him the option. And he did. And Guðjohnsen stepped to the spot and Guðjohnsen sent it straight down the middle while Mignolet dived to his right and Liverpool had a mountain to climb despite all their good play without reward.

A mountain to climb, and little sign of the summit. That Borini, rather than Sturridge, replaced Markovic in the 65th minute seemingly demonstrated that Rodgers wasn't willing to risk Sturridge despite the deficit. Not with Bolton fouling like Bolton was fouling. Not with Everton imminent. But a minute after that substitution, Neil Danns rightfully picked up a second yellow for his second red card-worthy "tackle" on Joe Allen to give Liverpool hope, and Sturridge soon replaced Allen. There'd be no escape for Rodgers had Liverpool exited the competition against ten men with Sturridge left on the bench.

And then came the onslaught. But Liverpool remained Liverpool: twice hitting the woodwork via a deflection and a Lonergan save (having already hit the post in the first half), too many shots from distance, multiple shots blocked by last ditch Bolton defending. We were another marvelous Lonergan save and a penalty shout ignored from completing Liverpool bingo.

But Emre Can, Raheem Sterling, and Philippe Coutinho – ages 21, 20, and 22 respectively – would not let Liverpool lose.

The equalizer came in the 86th minute: sustained build-up before Emre Can's Hope Diamond-flawless chip over Bolton's eight defenders, Sterling running through the line from deep, with a left-footed volley that nutmegged Lonergan taken at just the right moment. Sterling's done manfully as a striker – more than Liverpool feasibly could have hoped – but that's where he's best: coming from slightly deeper to out-pace his marker to get on the end of a wonderful pass. Those passes usually come from Coutinho, but Can's was as good as an assist as the Brazilian's ever delivered. And, as I'm sure you remember, he's delivered some beauties.

So, great. Extra time. Just what Liverpool need before Saturday's match. Better than an outright loss, I guess.

Not quite. Because Philippe Coutinho pulled an absolute rabbit from his hat. Yes, we know the name, son.

Coutinho's shot – and we've said an awful lot about bad Coutinho shots, which this was the opposite of – would have never happened without Coutinho's work ethic in the build-up. Bolton had cleared Moreno's cross: Wheater headed out then Trotter headed out, and all Feeney had to do was get to a ball he was favored to get to and then hoof. Somehow, Coutinho got there first instead, flicking to Moreno, getting the ball back after Moreno then Gerrard then Henderson didn't see a way through, cutting inside around Trotter and hammering an absolutely unstoppable no-matter-if-there-were-11-goalkeepers shot from 25 or so yards. He's scored some important goals: against City last season and against Arsenal this season, among others, but that was without a doubt the best shot he's ever hit in a Liverpool shirt.

There was no way Liverpool were going to extra time after that. Not with Bolton down to ten men. Not with Bolton having been eviscerated body, mind, and soul by that strike.

In the fourth round of the League Cup, Liverpool conceded a sloppy goal to Swansea around the hour mark but scored in the 86th minute then injury time to advance, aided by an opposition red card.

In the fourth round of the FA Cup, Liverpool conceded a sloppy goal to Bolton around the hour mark but scored in the 86th minute then injury time, aided by an opposition red card.

It's just a little of history repeating. Although, admittedly, goals from Sterling and Coutinho are a lot more fun than goals from Balotelli and Lovren.

Credit where due. Bolton made it very, very difficult for Liverpool. It's not great that Bolton – currently 14th in the Championship – were able to make it so difficult for Liverpool. I'm annoyed that Bolton were able to make it so difficult for Liverpool. And, yes, Liverpool got a little bit of help because of Neil Danns' idiocy. But Brendan Rodgers is absolutely right to credit Liverpool's "winning mentality."

Does this happen if Liverpool have lost just once in the last 13 matches (and that one loss only came after extra time against the league leaders on the league leaders' ground)? Maybe. But it's awful lot harder without that self-belief.

Liverpool – finally, after a very difficult first few months – have that self-belief. That's a bit of history I could bear to see repeating.

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

Thanks for these great write ups Nate.

Now we have 4 very, very important matches ahead of us.

Everton at the weekend when one of or both Tottenham and Arsenal lose points directly ahead of us.

Then Spurs directly ahead of us with Southampton and West Ham who are close to us facing off.

Then Southampton with Spurs playing West Ham - again teams in and around us potentially dropping points.

Then of course, the big test of how far we've come....Man City.

I'd be a bit unhappy with 6 pts; I expect 7/8/9 points and dream of all 12!