Tuesday, 19 October 2010

It's Time For Under-Fire Hodgson And His Players To Take Some Risks

We have all been there. Whether it is a way to pass time in school or a pub debate, we have created an all-star football eleven. Variations within the definition of the team can range from the best players you have seen in person to the best eleven to have played in your lifetime. I’m sure you’ve done it.

I may be younger than many to have played this game but I would still have some formidable names in my side. Roberto Carlos and Cafu might get contracts under my stewardship. Zidane, Messi and Rivaldo would have a chance of a trial at the very least and I might even consider the fat Ronaldo if I could pretend that his career had finished at Barcelona.

In times like these where frustration continues to grow after each substandard performance, I would urge you to give it a go. At the very least, it should remind you that you do like football and it is not always this painful to watch.

When you have finished your team, have a look at your full-backs, your central midfielders, your wingers and whoever is leading the line. They were good to watch weren’t they? I’ll bet they were successful as well.

Looking at my team, one thing is clear. Aside from my goalkeeper and central defensive pairing, these players were risk-takers. They were not the kind of players to allow a game to pass them by in the forlorn hope that they would be fortunate enough to make a significant contribution.

To a man, these players were willing to take the game by the scruff of the neck when times were tough. They would be brave enough to try something a little different and often, this brought great rewards. If something were to go wrong, they wouldn’t retreat into a shell and wait for the final whistle, they would simply try it again.

Glance back to your own fantasy eleven and I am sure that you will see similar characteristics.

At Micro LFC, we love statistics and analysis. Many will have noticed one particular stat in the analysis of the Everton defeat. Liverpool successfully completed 446 passes at Goodison Park in comparison to Everton’s 163 and yet the home side were comfortable victors. When you have that much of the ball and fail to create clear-cut opportunities, something is going horribly wrong.

All over the pitch, Roy Hodgson’s Liverpool are lacking risk-takers. Many will be quick to suggest that this is reflective of Hodgson’s own, safety-first approach to management.

In a post-match interview Hodgson spoke in response to the number of goals conceded saying “with the offensive line-up we have that is going to be a risk”. Liverpool are making it crystal clear that the naming of offensive players on the team sheet does not naturally correspond with an attacking style.

Look at the positions where you would like to see players taking the initiative for Liverpool. The side is strewn with players who are too content to play a passive role in the team.

In the modern game, the full-backs are no longer exclusively defensive. In reality, they play a crucial role in the team functioning as an attacking unit. The modern full-back is constantly on the move, overlapping his winger when in possession to threaten in the opposition half and physically fit enough to be effective in protecting his own goalkeeper.

When you watch the likes of Ashley Cole and Jose Bosingwa play for Chelsea, they consistently provide attacks with width and pace. Furthermore, their presence in the opposition final third has a significant effect on the opposition winger’s performance. As the winger is called upon to provide defensive cover for his full-back, his threat at the other end of the field is nullified.

Liverpool currently have two full-backs who are failing to add to the team.

Although it is early in Paul Konchesky’s Liverpool career, his defensive work has been sloppy and his attacking intent has quickly fallen into line with the timid approach adopted by his teammates.

On the other side, Glen Johnson continues to prove himself limited defensively and infuriating in attack. Although absent from the Everton defeat, Johnson’s play is consistently hindered by an insistence on cutting inside. Liverpool’s football is narrow enough as it is. Hodgson’s full-backs must be brave enough to back their own ability, stay wide and attack the byline.

In the centre of midfield, Hodgson is having all sorts of problems. Aside from the miraculous statistic that Raul Meireles failed to complete a single tackle against Everton, the majority of problems exist when Liverpool are in possession.

Whoever is in the midfield, whether it be Lucas, Poulsen, Meireles or uncharacteristically, Gerrard, the static nature of the play is staggering. There is a reliance upon receiving the ball in a passive position, usually to the side or behind the passer. This goes a long way to explaining Liverpool’s high pass count. Having large amounts of possession is great but it means nothing if the ball is not used effectively.

Those who watched Lucas’ international appearance for Brazil last week would have been amazed by his performance. He was superb. He was always on the move, wanting the ball and spraying passes all over the field. A matter of days later and the same player is a pale imitation of his international self.

Why is it that players look so much more adept playing for their country than they do for Liverpool? Meireles is another to look more accomplished in a Portugal shirt than in the Premier League. When you consider the number of Liverpool players that went to the World Cup, it is clear that this isn’t a squad totally devoid of talent.

The climate at Liverpool is different to that within international squads and this is resulting in the removal of self-belief.

On paper, Liverpool should be a good team. It is only when they are asked to play as a team that they become a static, lethargic and predictable unit.

Liverpool’s midfield must lose the ‘safety-first’ attitude and be brave enough to make a difference. By remaining static, nothing will happen. That much is obvious. By making a positive run, whether receiving the ball at the end of it or not, a player can have at least have the chance of making a positive impact.

Movement forces the opposition to adjust their shape. Where there is no space to play, a simple ten yard burst into space can open up a progressive pass for a teammate.

The baffling thing is that we are saying this in regard to a Premier League football team packed full with internationals. Who or what is convincing the players that a motionless midfield is a good idea?

Liverpool’s wingers have similar problems. Kuyt, Maxi and Jovanovic will do a job for their manager in terms of work rate and defensive shape but they will do little to worry opposition defenders.

In Cole, Liverpool have a creative influence. He has been largely disappointing thus far but it is hard to understand the insistence on playing a man crying out to be deployed centrally on the left hand side.

Cole’s first instinct is to drift infield, thus narrowing Liverpool’s attacks further. The maddening Ryan Babel aside, Liverpool lack a winger who can beat a man out wide. With Johnson cutting in from the right, Konchesky lack of attacking conviction on the left and two ‘wide men’ heading into the middle of the field, it is no surprise that Liverpool’s attacks become congested.

No wonder Moyes was happy for Everton to sit deep on Sunday, this Liverpool team are an opposing backline’s dream! Everton formed two disciplined banks of four and Liverpool were comfortably nullified.

We have all heard the expression about old-fashioned wingers ‘getting chalk on their boots’. Why is this so inappropriate nowadays? It is effective and Liverpool have nobody to provide this service. The fact that Ryan Babel can’t force his way into this side tells you everything you need to know about his inconsistency.

Whatever system Liverpool adopt, they need wingers who will be disciplined and provide genuine width. Maintaining this width will pull the full-backs away from their central defenders and create gaps for the likes of Torres and Gerrard to exploit. Steven Gerrard will benefit hugely if the traffic that is blocking his trademark runs is removed in this way.

Once more, it is a case of the wingers being brave enough to back their ability to do the job asked of them and take a chance trying to beat a man.

Come January (whoever the manager may be), Liverpool must address this issue. If you can’t instill the understanding of the position in the player’s mind, find another player who will give you what you need.

At the top of the field, Fernando Torres has come in for substantial criticism for his performances and on occasions, his attitude. I have sympathy with the Spaniard. When considering all of the aforementioned faults in Liverpool’s play, it is understandable that he is becoming frustrated at the scraps he is feeding off.

The fact that Torres is off colour is not up for debate. However, Liverpool are woefully off form and collectively, are doing nothing to help him. He is often receiving the ball in total isolation from his teammates or in a congested area with three defenders surrounding him, it is no wonder that his ball retention is poor.

Three of the key lines of supply that Torres feeds off are lacking from Liverpool’s football. With no width, there is no quality ball from wide. We know that Torres has excellent movement in the box and can header a ball. He hasn’t had the opportunity to do this in recent times.

Secondly, he likes to receive the ball early so that he can get one on one with his defender and head to goal at pace. With Liverpool failing to press the ball high up the pitch, the prospects of a quick counter-attack are non-existent.

Finally, where has the Torres-Gerrard partnership gone? With Gerrard trying to initiate attacks from deep and becoming lost in a congested midfield, Torres’ partner has been removed without any replacement.

Furthermore, the lack of width removes Torres’ ability to lay the ball off and spin his marker to find space. Steven Gerrard isn’t totally blame-free and neither is Torres. However, the inadequacies of those around them are highlighting their deficiencies.

Until Torres has a supply line and support arriving with attacking intent, he will continue to struggle for form

A large proportion of the blame must lie with the manager and if Roy Hodgson wishes to remain as Liverpool manager, this must change immediately. It is evident that Hodgson’s Liverpool have problems all over the field.

Having asked for ten league games in which to judge his performance, Hodgson has two remaining (if he is lucky) to turn his players into a cohesive unit.

Now is the time for Hodgson to change the habit of a lifetime to save his job (if it isn’t already too late). He must instill a belief in his players that they are good enough to make a positive contribution.

The fans will be far more supportive of players who are trying to make things happen than players who are simply trying to avoid criticism.

If both the players and the manager begin to take risks, Liverpool may be able to halt the dramatic slide. If Hodgson refuses to adopt a positive style and attitude, it won’t be long before NESV are appointing a manager who will.

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