Sunday, 16 January 2011

Why Steven Gerrard's absence may have shown Liverpool the way forward

When I heard that Steven Gerrard had sustained an injury whilst away with the national side, my immediate reaction was to consider the impact that this would have upon Liverpool’s midfield. Although the removal of a player of Gerrard’s quality will always be detrimental, there was a feeling that Raul Meireles may benefit from his captain’s absence.

The signing of Meireles following Javier Mascherano’s departure was greeted with enthusiasm but only now is the Portuguese international showing his true credentials. Having been forced to play from a wide position early in his Liverpool career, Meireles has stood out in a more central role. Rather than being viewed as a direct replacement for Mascherano, Meireles is better suited to attempting to fill the void left by Xabi Alonso.

Since Gerrard was sidelined, Meireles has developed an understanding with the impressive Lucas. Rather than having two rigid defensive midfielders, as seen previously, Liverpool now have a fluid midfield pair that understand their individual contributions to the team. When one ventures into the opposition’s final third, the other is willing to sit deeper to protect the back four. As a result, Hodgson’s side are looking a far more cohesive unit when attacking.

This system is clearly bringing the best out of Lucas. Heavily criticised under the previous manager – despite a vastly improved effort last season – the Brazilian is relishing the freedom to attack. In the last two games, Lucas has been a vital creative influence, always looking to utilise the pace of Babel, Ngog and Torres by turning defences. Whilst also proving to be a formidable destructive unit in defence, Lucas is obviously enjoying his football.

However, it is the role of Meireles that will be up for debate once Gerrard returns to the team. By studying the chalkboards below, we can see the subtle improvements in Meireles’ game.

In both the defeat to Everton and the victory over Aston Villa, 9 Meireles passes were unsuccessful. Somewhat surprisingly, he completed 7 more passes in the away defeat. However, it is the nature of his completed passes that has marked the vast improvement in his performances.

Since being asked to move more centrally, Meireles has been able to keep the tempo high whilst initiating attacks. From the Villa chalkboard, it is clear that Meireles was successful at both ends of the field.

Working with the combative Lucas, Liverpool’s midfield was able to win a lot of second balls. The impressive feature of Meireles’ distribution in this respect was his willingness to send his team on the attack with his first touch. Although many of the passes within his own third may seem unspectacular, they were crucial in Liverpool’s fluid counter-attacking play. With his first touch – often the first Liverpool touch following a tackle – Meireles would spread the ball wide to Maxi and Kuyt. With two quick strikers willing to run in behind the opposition defence, Liverpool’s midfield were able to capitalise at key moments.

Furthermore, Meireles was effective in the attacking third of the field. The Portuguese international is very good technically and this is clear in the way that he links play when attacking an organised defence. The passes that failed against Everton – mainly passes into feet on the edge of the area – are now finding their mark and allowing the likes of Ngog, Torres and Babel to threaten the goal directly.

Admittedly, Aston Villa’s midfield was limited in the extreme but this should not detract from an impressive midfield performance. The fact that Stephen Ireland has slightly less determination than he has hair should not be used as a way of discrediting Liverpool.

Meireles is very good at keeping the ball moving and relying upon his instinct to direct operations. The last player that Liverpool had with these qualities was Xabi Alonso. Nobody is expecting Meireles to match Alonso – and there are very few players in the world who can land a football on a postage stamp in a neighbouring postcode with the precision of the Spaniard – but Liverpool have missed an instinctive ball playing midfielder since his departure.

Steven Gerrard had his best seasons playing ahead of Xabi Alonso. The captain trusted his midfielder’s ability to provide him with a quality supply and as such, Gerrard remained higher up the field, where he is most dangerous. If Liverpool return to a 4-4-1-1 when Gerrard returns, it must be Meireles partnering Lucas and Gerrard occupying the role behind Torres. It is unfortunate for Joe Cole but Gerrard’s return must not be an excuse to send Meireles back to the flanks where his ability is wasted.

Admittedly, a return to the bench would be harsh on David Ngog. The Frenchman has improved by the game as part of a front two and no longer looks as if he is outclassed by opposition defences. He still has some way to progress but with plenty of time on his side, the signs are encouraging. Ngog and Babel have shown their manager that they are a capable pairing and give Liverpool options should they need flexibility in formation throughout the season.

Game by game, Hodgson’s Liverpool are becoming more enjoyable to watch. Fans are enjoying watching the more attacking, fluid Liverpool and the Meireles – Lucas partnership is a considerable factor in this. Steven Gerrard’s return will be welcomed but the Hodgson must build upon the lessons learned in the captain’s absence.

Liverpool looked a good side against Aston Villa (who were admittedly poor) and if managed correctly, the return of Gerrard and Torres can only enhance Liverpool’s dynamism.

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