Top of the Table- It’s only down from here
1-0. 1-0. 1-0. 2-2. Pretty decent results by any standards, and ones which have Liverpool sitting at the top of the Premier League table as they approach game number 5 of the season. So why do I feel so pessimistic about the rest of the season?
Well, let’s examine those results a little more closely. In the first game, Liverpool were brilliant in the first half, dominating the game against Stoke and creating a whole host of chances, before fading badly in the second half and requiring the Mig (as in, Simon Mignolet, not a specific Cold-War era Russian fighter plane) to make a penalty save from John “how do I keep getting picked” Walters in the dying minutes. In the second game, they were brilliant in the first half, pressing Aston Villa relentlessly, dominating the possession and creating chances, before fading badly in the second half and requiring a great Mig save in the dying minutes. In the (incredibly satisfying) game against Man Utd, game number 3, they were dominant in the first half, out-passing and out-classing the champions, before fading badly in the second half (although admittedly defending pretty solidly, aided by the fact that Moyes decided creativity was for chumps and didn’t play Kagawa). In the third game, which shall be known forevermore as the Jonjo Shelvey Show, hopefully one that will be commissioned and air on ITV as a replacement for the utter shite that is the Jeremy Kyle Show, they were brilliant in the first half, dominating possession against a side noted for their ball retention and making chances, then faded badly in the second half; and this time even Mignolet couldn’t prevent a Swansea equaliser. Seeing the pattern here?
So why are Liverpool basically only playing football in the first half? The answer’s simple, and given that he is the scorer of four of their five goals this season maybe a bit surprising; but the problem is Daniel Sturridge.
Before you lynch me (figuratively, obviously), let me justify myself. I really like Danny, so much so that I’m comfortable using his first names despite having never met him and being unlikely ever to do so; he’s incredibly talented, and it’s not his really fault that he’s causing a problem. But a problem he is causing (to channel Yoda), and here’s why. The two things that have differed between Liverpool’s first and second halves this season have been the levels of pressing and the levels of possession, which of course are themselves interlinked, and the dip in both that they’ve experienced in the second 45 of every Premier League game this season can be traced, in the main, back to Sturridge.
First off, pressing. Given Liverpool’s style of play-attempting to press high, get the ball in dangerous areas and play swift transitions, only dropping off if the first press is bypassed, a la hipsters’ favourite Borussia Dortmund- it’s important that this pressing starts from the front, with the three players furthest up, plus whoever is playing the Number 10 role, pushing forward quickly to prevent the opponent having easy possession at the back and letting Liverpool’s own midfield and defence push up and compress the playing area. When it works, the opponent is forced either to play long balls that are fairly easily dealt with by an experienced defence (plus, apparently, Andre Wisdom), or lose the ball in dangerous areas and give Liverpool the chance of either a quick attack or the ability to play it around while the opponent rushes back into position and so conserve a bit of energy. Perfectly simple, and pretty damn effective.
Except when your centre-forward is injured, so he can’t press from the front for more than the first half. This isn’t Sturridge’s fault, really, because after all he didn’t ask to be injured and he has to play as his only replacement in the squad is suspended for his impromptu homage to “Jaws” last season; and he’s not the only one who seems to tire in the second half, although again this is partially attributable to Sturridge, because the other players are having to essentially play with ten men after half-time. But what his inability to start off the pressing means is that either the Red’s pressing is disjointed, easy to bypass and therefore energy-sapping and pointless, or just simply non-existent, which is really the better of two options because it means that at least the team can keep its defensive shape even though its attacking potential is essentially blunted. They have been forced to defend deeper and deeper in each second half, ceding more and more possession, because our front-pressing has had to disappear, and so the opposition has been able to push up further and further and so push Liverpool’s players back. It isn’t helped by the fact that Lucas looks a bit unfit, Gerrard already looks pretty tired, and Henderson is being asked to essentially play two positions at once (right midfield and centre midfield to cover Gerrard and Lucas when they drop deep), so that the press right behind Sturridge loses effectiveness in the second half naturally with or without the striker; but the main problem is being created by the goalscorer, and it’s totally not his fault.
Now on to the second problem: possession. It’s linked to the first, obviously; because there is less pressing in the second half, it’s harder for Liverpool to get the ball back, easier for the opposition to keep it, and easier for the opposition to push up and press Liverpool themselves. But there’s another factor in Liverpool’s dramatic fall in possession stats in every second half, and that is the fact that their injured centre-forward is unable to provide an out-ball.
Usually, Sturridge would actually be the perfect centre-forward to have when your side is sitting deep and the opposition is pushing up high; he’s really quick and really clever with his movement, and when you have deep-lying passers of the quality of Gerrard and schemers as good as the beautiful bouncy-haired Coutinho (for whom I have a massive man-crush), he’s perfect for running the channels, relieving pressure and quite probably scoring a few goals in the process (I give you Fulham last season as an example). But, currently, he’s injured, and can’t run properly; in other words, Liverpool essentially don’t have a centre-forward on the pitch in the second half of games, and so the opposition can push up as high as they like in the knowledge that even if they do lose the ball they’ll be getting it straight back. And because they can push up as high as they like, the Reds can’t even keep possession in their own half because there’s no space and they aren’t Barcelona; they are forced, again, to just sit back and defend waves of attack.
Granted, once Moses has gained a bit of fitness this problem might be alleviated a little (I can’t wait for the first “Parting of the Red Sea” headline; I was gutted that Moses’ thunder was stolen by a Lord Voldemort lookalike at the Liberty, however entertaining it was); and I’ll grant also that Iago Aspas, who has featured in every game so far, should be helping Sturridge a bit in this regard but is way too lightweight to keep the ball. But at the moment Sturridge’s lack of mobility is a massive hindrance; it’s even stifling our attacking play in the first half at times, with Sturridge unable to keep making his usual clever runs and so making Coutinho’s usually chameleon-like vision (look it up) look more like David Blunkett’s. I’m not blaming him for every shortcoming Liverpool has at the moment; as I’ve said above, a few of their players look a bit unfit, Aspas is just not ready for the Premier League yet and it doesn’t help that Mignolet couldn’t pass a parcel let alone a football, but right now Liverpool desperately need Suarez back. Let’s just hope he doesn’t fancy another mid-game snack…