I had been highly critical of Brendan Rodgers’ handling of Liverpool in the game at Basel in mid-week. There was a flurry of criticism all over the interwebs after that game, and no doubt a lot of it reached Rodgers. And in last night’s win against West Bromwich Albion, he seemed to make some amends.
There were a number of things in last night’s game that showed that Rodgers is again showing some imagination, after having stalled (along with the rest of the team) in recent times. For starters, Philippe Coutinho played deep, almost like a regista (deep-lying playmaker) next to Steven Gerrard. This meant that the two box-to-box midfielders Jordan Henderson and Adam Lallana could actually play box-to-box than being boxed in. This led to much better cohesion in Liverpool’s play.
Then, Rickie Lambert offered something different up front than what the static Mario Balotelli had been offering in recent times. Lambert moved – more than Balotelli, though nowhere as much as the injured Daniel Sturridge would have – and provided the focal point of attack. His touch and finishing were poor, though, and he still looks nowhere close to the player he was at Southampton. But his presence helped in another way – in that his long-standing understanding with Lallana helped them play a beautiful one-two which ended up in Lallana scoring Liverpool’s opener.
One of the great tactical games of Liverpool I’ve watched (it’s unlikely anyone else will call the tactics of this game “great”, though) was the FA Cup final against Chelsea in 2012, in what turned out to be Kenny Dalglish’s last game in charge of Liverpool in his second coming. At the hour mark, Chelsea led 2-0, and Liverpool had struggled to break past the buses that Chelsea had parked. And that’s when Dalglish introduced Andy Carroll, who had long been out of favour at the club following his GBP35m transfer from Newcastle United.
Carroll is a big guy, and he suddenly offered another route for Liverpool to attack – the first ball would be played by Brad Jones (the reserve goalie) long, and Carroll would invariably get to it, and hold it up – this turned out to be a surefire way of getting past Chelsea’s buses (and Chelsea didn’t know how to react to this change in tactic), and Liverpool pulled one back, and could have had more.
Following Carroll’s sale to West Ham United, though, Liverpool have lacked this “route two”. Last season especially, when teams proceeded to park buses in front of Liverpool, there was no way to get around them apart from the usual quick-pass-and-move route. And Liverpool suffered.
The coming of Lambert and Balotelli, though, has reopened the “route two”, and it was interesting to see Liverpool take that route several times during the game yesterday. It will be interesting to see when Sturridge comes back if Liverpool might play two up front and play the same route, but it would work better as a Plan B (IMHO).
Coming back to yesterday’s game, Balotelli’s dropping seems to have inspired him and he put in a much better performance than midweek when he came on for Lambert two-thirds into the game. He held the ball up well, acted as a great focal point and tried hard not to be caught offside. Hopefully we’ll see this side of Balotelli more as we go along.
The most interesting thing about last night’s game, though, is that in the last fifteen minutes, Steven Gerrard was back to playing in the old “Gerrard role”, with Lucas having come in to the holding midfield role. Gerrard played his old role well, and created a couple of chances following interplay with Balotelli. It showed that Gerrard is still good at what we’ve known him to be good for, except that he can’t play that way (it’s a very demanding role) for ninety minutes. Given that he’s much better in attack than defence, it’s a good ploy to get in a specialist holding guy (Lucas or Emre Can) for the last part when Liverpool is trying to close out the game.
It was only a very close win, and it came against West Brom, but it was an important three points and showed that Rodgers has started thinking again. Hopefully with the return of all the injured players after the international break, Liverpool can start playing again like they did against Spurs.