Sunday, 16 January 2011
Why Hodgson’s squad must learn from the Chelsea success stories
As far as weeks go, this has been a good one.
On paper, three wins from three represents perfection. In truth, the nature of these victories puts a gloss on an already positive seven days. Whilst the victory at Bolton was reward for a mixed performance, the second half performance in the Europa League demonstrated the re-emergence of the spirit that has been missing for too long.
However, the highlight of the three wins must be Sunday’s win over Chelsea. Not only was it the best all-round performance but an undeniable barometer of progression. Three scrappy wins would have sufficed but the game on game improvement witnessed in Hodgson’s side has given fans a reason to be cautiously optimistic.
If evidence was needed of the role confidence plays then this week has provided plenty.
Over the course of three games, one moment of inspiration has been the catalyst for the lifting of collective spirits at Anfield. One Fernando Torres flick at the Reebok Stadium released Maxi Rodriguez to give Liverpool a vital three points.
On Thursday, a 45 minute cameo from Steven Gerrard provided a timely reminder of what the captain remains capable of.
By Sunday, the confidence spawned from two individual contributions provided the platform for an impressive performance from everybody in a Liverpool shirt.
If this week really has been the start of Liverpool’s sustained rise under Hodgson, several players must take credit. In a Liverpool squad that is often described as being short of depth (and this remains the case), the success stories from this week can be placed into three critical categories.
• Great players who have not been performing.
• Average players who should not be at a club with aspirations of challenging at the top.
• Youngsters who are not ready for first team football.
If the collective performance displayed against Chelsea can become a regular occurrence, many critics will be forced to rewrite their damning assessments. What is more, those who have not fulfilled their potential must now realise that there is an opportunity to progress at Liverpool, before it is too late.
Many will correctly point out that Liverpool are lacking in great players.
Just three names stand out as being in the top bracket of players worldwide. Whilst Pepe Reina’s performances have remained at a high level, both Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard have disappointed in the opening months of the campaign. Torres in particular, has seen his every move scrutinised by everybody to claim an understanding of the game.
In the last week, both have indicated that they are able to rediscover their best form to drive Liverpool forward.
The fact that Steven Gerrard was one of the better performers throughout an awful start to the campaign and yet received criticism only demonstrates how significant his impact upon the side has been. If Gerrard is not performing miracles and successfully fighting fires all over the field, he is not seen to be doing his job.
In the first half against Napoli, Liverpool were mediocre. It would have been easy for the captain to sink to the level of his teammates as the team stuttered towards another disappointing defeat and the return of the negativity surrounding the Hodgson reign. It is the ability to raise the performance of an entire team that marks Gerrard out as one of the finest players of his generation.
Gerrard has transformed matches on a regular basis in the past. Is it possible that this performance here transformed his club’s immediate future?
In the 45 minutes that he was on the pitch, Steven Gerrard sent out a message to everybody that was willing to hear it. Liverpool Football Club is not going to be a fading force on his watch. By giving everything he had whilst on the field, Gerrard left his teammates in no doubt as to what is expected of a player in the Liverpool shirt.
Steven Gerrard will always lead by example. If anybody doubts the skipper’s influence on those around him, they need only look at the team’s performance against Chelsea. From front to back, Liverpool’s players replicated their captain’s example.
Whilst Gerrard has always been able to fall back on his all-action style, Fernando Torres is judged on his ability to change games in the final third. Undeniably, Torres has been underperforming since his injury at the end of last season. When everybody tells you that you are not playing well, it is very easy to fall into line with their observations.
Torres needed a break and this came against Bolton. The Spaniard’s clever flick was his best contribution in another poor performance. However, just seven days later, his entire performance was on a different level to everything that had gone before.
When things are going against you, you lose the belief in your own ability to execute your strengths. Watching Torres spin his marker and drive towards the Chelsea goal was a sight that fans have been desperate to witness for months. Following a second goal that exhibited the class we all know Torres possesses, there is little doubt that Liverpool still have one of the most potent striking weapons in the world on their side.
It was vital for Hodgson to lift Gerrard and Torres from their respective slumbers and however small a role the manager may have played in doing this, it will benefit him in the long term. Liverpool have two of the finest footballers this planet has to offer wearing the red shirt and as they improve, Liverpool’s fortunes will invariably follow.
Whilst they perform at the levels shown in the past two games, nobody will accuse them of underperforming.
This is a category that the naysayers are quick to push forward.
To many, Liverpool’s squad is packed with players who are not good enough to take the club to where they want to be. Whilst remains accurate in relation to the likes of Poulsen and Babel, the constant scapegoat since his arrival has been Lucas Leiva.
If you had written Lucas off as a flop years ago then you might want to reconsider your assessment.
It is important to point out that the Chelsea match was simply one performance but if the Brazilian can continue to perform at the standard that he has now set, Liverpool have a good player on their hands. Lucas summed up the Liverpool performance with his endeavour and determination. When I spoke of players replicating Steven Gerrard’s midweek performance, this is exactly what I meant.
It is not only in terms of workrate that Lucas has impressed. In truth, Lucas has always been a willing worker. The quality of his ball retention was often used as the justification for his immediate sale. Whilst this may have been the case in the early part of his Liverpool career, it would take a short-sighted fan to insist that this was still accurate.
Lucas’ improvement has not been as sudden as many would have you believe. In the last 18 months, his progress has been substantial. In the aftermath of the Chelsea match, statistics have revealed that Lucas has misplaced only 8 passes in the last four games. For any player in the world, that is a phenomenal statistic.
Cesc Fabregas misplaced 27 passes against Newcastle. You do the maths.
If any other player had performed in this manner then the praise would be widespread. It is only fair that those who criticised Lucas now acknowledge his improvement.
The Brazilian international is clearly thriving in the role that he has been given under Hodgson. Giving credit where due, the manager has not tried to turn him into a Javier Mascherano tribute act. With the licence to play with slightly more freedom, Lucas has been able to keep the ball moving more efficiently than in previous seasons.
Furthermore, his defensive work for the team against Chelsea was nothing short of exceptional. Lucas was everywhere. His willingness to win the ball high up the field gave Liverpool a great platform to build attacks (as seen by the second goal) and his endeavour prevented Chelsea from playing. When Ancelotti praised Liverpool’s defensive efforts, it is Lucas who should have taken much of the credit.
If the performance of Liverpool’s best players sets the standard for everybody else, Lucas’ rise to prominence should act as a lesson to others in the squad. If Ryan Babel could exhibit half the character that Lucas has, he would be a better player.
Being criticised shouldn’t result in the end of your Liverpool career. Failing to commit to the cause will.
This is another category in which many would say Liverpool are short of players. Many youngsters have threatened to make it into the manager’s plans but Martin Kelly is one of the few to actually maintain his place there.
Kelly’s performance in itself was solid and when considering the quality of opposition, worthy of high praise. However, the most impressive aspect of his performance was how he dealt with an unexpected challenge.
Hodgson had planned to line up with Kyrgiakos at centre back with Carragher filling in at full-back once more. When the Greek was struck down by illness, Martin Kelly was thrown into the team to tackle the Premier League’s most potent attacking force.
Kelly’s performance was not that of a 20 year old who had not known of his selection until the morning of the game. To perform as he did showed great mental focus – an asset that will serve him well in the future.
Glen Johnson may well be a full England international but could he have matched Kelly’s defensive performance? I am not so sure.
Just as Kyrgiakos has given Hodgson a headache in his centre back selections, Kelly may have given the manager a decision to make at full-back. Regardless of Johnson’s pricetag, Hodgson must pick on performance and in this respect, Kelly has done himself no harm whatsoever.
Furthermore, Kelly’s involvement sends a message to all the young players at Liverpool. The door to the first team is not closed if you show that you can handle life at the top level. The likes of Pacheco, Spearing, Wilson and Shelvey must use Kelly’s emergence as an indication of where there efforts could take them.
The standard has been set
A victory over Chelsea was something that nobody would have predicted following the defeat to Blackpool.
Although Liverpool have recorded four wins in a row, this was the most complete performance thus far. Now that a standard has been set, every player must match their previous level of performance and do everything that they can do improve it.
John Henry’s post-match comments highlighted the emphasis of everybody at Liverpool pulling in one direction. Even if critics will insist on breaking the Liverpool squad down into categories, this should not act as a rigid evaluation of the players.
Hodgson must strive to get all facets of the club working for the cause with the understanding that improvement will be acknowledged.
If the best players in the squad can perform at their optimum levels, the much-maligned players step away from the mediocrity to push themselves into the limelight and the youngsters push for a spot in the first team, the squad will suddenly not be as weak as it initially appears.
Those who fail to buy into this mantra will be shown the door. Anybody who makes the grade will have the opportunity to be a part of Liverpool’s future.
As strange as it may seem after all that has gone before, if Liverpool’s management and players continue to take things one game at a time with the right mentality, that future might not be so bad after all.