Tuesday, 17 August 2010

LIVERPOOL FC: Solid start but same old problems

Aug. 16, 2010 - 06332121 date 15 08 2010 Copyright imago BPI Steven Gerrard of Liverpool Thanks The supporters AT The End of The Game PUBLICATIONxNOTxINxUKxFRAxNEDxESPxSWExPOLxCHNxJPN men Football England Premier League 2010 2011 Liverpool Action shot Single Vdig 2010 horizontal premiumd Football.
Gerrard applauds the Kop after Sunday's draw with Arsenal
AFTER the tantalising but tiresome takeover talk that has made two months feel two years, it was just nice to get back to the football - for a couple of hours at least.

Everyone connected with Liverpool FC has finally joined forces in recognising that the club must lance the boil of the current owners to put the club back on track.

But as club managing director Christian Purslow stressed hours before the showdown with Arsenal, it's not a process that can be rushed. After having its fingers burnt so badly by the hot air of Tom Hicks and George Gillett, the club has to get it right this time.

The situation has rightly led to a lowering of expectations, for now at least. And while any Liverpool manager will be under pressure - the history and the standing of the club will always ensure that - Hodgson will perhaps be afforded more time than his predecessors before fingers are pointed in his direction.

The signings of Joe Cole, Fabio Aurelio and Christian Poulsen show exactly where Liverpool are on and off the pitch. A free transfer, a player deemed injury prone and a Danish destroyer in the twilight years of his career are hardly the signings of a club with real title ambition.

Talk from some had been that Hodgson may 'let Liverpool off the leash' - imaginary shackles that the players were forced to play in under Rafa Benitez, according to many.

That's a point that can be argued ad infinitum - and is on almost every Liverpool forum.

Shackles or not, Hodgson needs to be released from his own handcuffs - the club's lack of finances - before he can truly stamp his mark on the club.

With that in mind, it was no surprise to see a safety-first approach adopted against Arsenal.

The circumstances were unfortunate given an incident as rare as a sighting of the new Everton away kit on County Road - a Pepe Reina mistake - but Hodgson would surely be the first to admit that he would happily have taken a draw before a ball was kicked against Arsene Wenger's side.

The fixture computer wasn't kind to Hodgson, and that continues to be the case with a trip to Manchester City next up, so to get a point on the board at the first attempt was undoubtedly a huge comfort for the new manager.

Liverpool's performances against Macedonian minnows Rabotnicki had prompted some to suggest that a gung-ho approach could be adopted at Anfield.

A glance down the teamsheet quickly dimissed such talk as fanciful - the line-up was first and foremost solid: Steven Gerrard and Javier Mascherano in front of the defence, two workers on the wings in Dirk Kuyt and Milan Jovanovic and a back four that contained only one player with any thoughts of attacking in Glen Johnson.

It was Arsenal that started the stronger, dictating the play, looking more like the home side and adopting a much higher line than Liverpool who doggedly defended the edge of the 18-yard box for most of the match.

Across the 90 minutes the Londoners had a huge 64 per cent of the possession.

Thomas Vermaelen was the first to worry a goalkeeper, his fourth-minute free-kick fisted away by Reina who at that stage was hoping for his first-ever clean sheet against the Gunners.

Cole had lifted spirits with his performance against Rabotnicki but he was given little chance to shine on his Premier League bow for the Reds. Abou Diaby snapped at his heels at every opportunity and the Arsenal team generally didn't give him a second to settle.

Aside from a neat backheel in a build-up to a Reds' move, Cole did little else other than pick himself up off the floor before he was harshly sent off for a challenge on Laurent Koscielny.
Aug. 15, 2010 - 06330404 date 15 08 2010 Copyright imago Liverpool s Joe Cole Gets Sent Off AS Arsenal s Arsene Wenger looks ON Barclays Premier League Liverpool v Arsenal 15th August 2010 PUBLICATIONxNOTxINxUK men Football England Premier League 2010 2011 Liverpool Vdig xsk 2010 Square premiumd.
Cole heads for the dressing rooms after his sending off

Despite the gospel preachings of Jamie Redknapp and Andy Gray on Sky, Cole did not jump in with two feet off the floor and the connection that brought the player down was more with his trailing leg than the leading boot.

Liverpool can rightly point to challenges from Jack Wilshere on Mascherano and Tomas Rosicky on Gerrard as being equal to that of Cole's yet both Arsenal players merely saw the inside of Martin Atkinson's notebook rather than the inside of the Anfield dressing room.

Jovanovic was the more impressive of the new signings, a bustling seventh-minute run in which he swatted Bacary Sagna to the ground suggesting his tough-nut, hard-working style will soon endear him to the Anfield faithful.

Arsenal were cuter in possession for most of the game, albeit - as is so often the case with Wenger's side - without any real cutting edge.

Liverpool's attacking threat was also limited, the Reds regularly resorting to hopeful early balls to Ngog who, like so many times last season, was too often left isolated in a lone attacking role.

The Reds are desperate for another striker and with Fernando Torres still searching for full fitness - and now possessing a worrying recent injury record - a reinforcement before the transfer window closes at the end of August is a must.

Ngog, though, is doing his best to take advantage of his opportunity. And after a frustrating first half which saw him starved of service and caught offside three times by the Gunners' quickly advancing and well-drilled backline, he lit up the game with a wonderful near-post drive, his eighth Premier League goal - all of them at Anfield.

Aug. 15, 2010 - 06330589 date 15 08 2010 Copyright imago Color Sports Football Barclays Premier League Liverpool vs Arsenal Liverpool s David n GOG Celebrates His Goal AT Anfield in Liverpool PUBLICATIONxINxGERxSUIxAUTxHUNxPOLxUSAxONLY men Football England Premier League 2010 2011 Liverpool Action shot Vdig xsk 2010 Square premiumd.
Ngog celebrates his impressive strike
That Torres was pictured grinning his approval from the bench said it all. It was a strike that he, arguably the best striker in the world, would have been proud of.

The Frenchman, just 21 and looking more and more a snip at just £1.5million, also had a header cleared off the line in the first half and while his detractors continue to point out his failings, it's worth considering just what responsibility is being placed upon his inexperienced shoulders.

Arsenal can boast Van Persie (27), Chamakh (26), Nicklas Bendtner (22) and Carlos Vela (21) as frontline strikers.

Liverpool have Ngog, Torres, then players that are either inexperienced  - Lauri Dalla Valle (18), Nathan Ecclestone (19), Dani Pacheco (19) - or not out and out strikers (Jovanovic, Kuyt, Ryan Babel).

To put it into perspective, Ngog and Vela are both 21. Vela has 28 caps and nine goals for Mexico yet in four years as an Arsenal player he has twice been farmed out on loan and has started just three games in the Premier League, appearing as a substitute 22 times, scoring two goals.

Ngog has been at Liverpool for two years, started 13 Premier League games, made 26 substitute appearances and scored eight goals. In all competitions for the Reds he has scored 15 in 59 appearances - better than one in four, and many of those appearances were as a substitute and for a matter of minutes.

As a rookie forward he has arguably been overused - a victim of circumstance. Strikers of a similar age and ability at clubs of a similar stature are simply not being called upon as much as he is because of the greater strength in depth.

Glen Johnson, who in the first half had linked well with Kuyt before testing Manuel Almunia with a fierce left-footed effort, again linked with the Dutchman in the build up to Ngog's goal.

The move broke down but it was the excellent Mascherano who revived it, stealing the ball and threading it inside the Arsenal defence for Ngog to finish confidently.

That 46th-minute goal set the tone for a battling second-half display, one which outsiders can only guess as to whether it was fuelled by Hodgson's half-time team talk or a burning sense of injustice at Cole's sending off.

Liverpool showed great spirit and effort throughout, but we knew this team had that in them - even during the nightmare that was last season Everton were beaten by ten men and Spurs were defeated with an Anfield display that was more fight than finesse.

Jamie Carragher and Gerrard were both superb against Arsenal, the skipper clearly cutting a much happier figure under Hodgson. The statistics show he was the Premier League's top tackler at the weekend, winning eight for a 75 per cent success rate. But it remains to be seen how he will perform long term in a deeper role if that is where Hodgson chooses to employ him.

Martin Skrtel, too, made some crucial blocks while Daniel Agger clearly played on autopilot for the best part of 20 minutes, the Dane concussed from a ball to the face in the 67th minute with TV pictures appearing to show the defender saying 'I don't know what I'm doing'.

Liverpool effectively played from that moment onwards with nine men and inevitably Arsene Wenger's side came more into the game and carved out opportunities, particularly when the manager went for broke with his substitutions, leaving his side pressing for a goal with Van Persie, Chamakh, Walcott, Rosicky and Arshavin on the pitch.

The Reds battled on valiantly before sickeningly succumbing to the last-gasp equaliser via Reina's fumble. It was a bad error, a costly mistake - one of many by goalkeepers in the Premier League this weekend.

But to attach blame, point the finger or question the Spaniard's ability would be churlish in the extreme - Reina was clearly handicapped by the sun as the ball came across, his glove across his eyes as he strained to pick out the flight of the cross.

A truer example of his ability came from his superb save from Rosicky, tipping over when it seemed certain the Czech would score after a tidy one-two with Van Persie.

Those with even the smallest inkling of doubt about Reina should ask Wenger what he makes of the Anfield No.1. He must have seen something he likes in the five years Reina has plied his trade in England - he bid in the region of £23million for him after all just a week or so before this clash.

So the match finished all square, a Gerrard free kick too close to Almunia to repeat his trick of 2007 when a piece of last-gasp set piece brilliance claimed all three points on the opening day of the season at Villa Park.

In truth not too much could be gleaned from the performance. That Hodgson could get a team defensively organised was never in doubt. That Gerrard, Mascherano, Kuyt, Carragher and Skrtel could defend, show spirit and battle with the best of them was also well known.

Javier Mascherano Liverpool 2010/11 Liverpool V Arsenal (1-1) 15/08/10 The Premier League Photo Robin Parker Fotosports InternationalTest Photo via Newscom
Mascherano was superb for Liverpool
The test for Hodgson is to squeeze more creativity, more attacking threat out of the current crop of players. Perhaps a bigger test, a more telling conundrum for the manager, will be when teams arrive at Anfield with no intention of going for the win. The buses are already ticking over, ready to park. It's up to Hodgson to come up with a way of moving them - a task that has frustrated a succession of managers at Anfield.

Hodgson himself concluded that while Sunday was a good result, it was too early to judge the team - or him.

He said: "I’m still learning about this team. I think the fans can expect the players to run round and chase and show the same spirit as they have always done. If we can add a bit of tactical awareness and organisation the supporters can expect a good season."