Monday, 25 October 2010

Liverpool start on the long road to recovery, but the corner they’re turning will take some time.

Yesterday, Roy Hodgson steered his misfiring Liverpool team to their second League win of the season. It seems that the immediate pressure on the former Fulham man has eased ever so slightly, and rightly so. What Liverpool have been needed, as much as anything, is a change in fortune. Less experienced men than Hodgson are aware that these tend not to come through miraculous turnarounds but through hard work and on a steady gradient. Hodgson will hope that the result at Anfield yesterday was the first small step taken by his side on the road to recovery.

Against Blackburn, the first thing Liverpool remedied was the movement of Fernando Torres. When he is not performing up to his own high standards, people correctly identify the lack of goals in the team as a major problem and there is no denying that this is the case. However, probably as significant as the goals he scores are the opportunities he opens up for those playing behind him. Most notably, Steven Gerrard, who remains Liverpool’s driving force, really struggles when Torres fails to stretch defences. It is particularly telling that this season Liverpool have played no better with him than with his deputy, David Ngog. Until the Blackburn game, he had failed to regularly pull defenders out of position and create any space for those behind him to move into. Sunday was reported as the crucial piece of luck, a goal that could finally boost Torres’ confidence. However, getting on the score sheet was more like the reward for a slightly-overdue hardworking performance, in which he contributed far more than one finish in the second-half.

Secondly, Lucas’ performance yesterday marked a clear departure from the side who had so toothlessly capitulated against Everton, Blackpool and others. The young Brazilian is regularly derided both for giving the ball away cheaply in the middle of the park and for lacking creative ambition. More often than not, these criticisms are richly deserved. However, against Blackburn, 40 of his 41 passes were successful and, furthermore, many were made into the final third. Hodgson, who has sent out some very defensive sides so far, needs to ensure that Lucas continues to operate in this manner and develops into a creative, disciplined midfielder who contributes to his own side’s attacks as well as disrupting the opposition’s. This is something he is clearly more than capable of doing.

Yesterday, Liverpool were unrecognisable from their previous eight games. However, they only beat a rather average (the inspirational Paul Robinson apart) Blackburn side at Anfield, a result which should have always been par for the course. If Hodgson is to avoid running out of time he still has a huge amount of work to do, and two painful facts will no doubt be keeping him awake at night. Firstly, many Liverpool fans would still like to see him replaced and for the club to turn to Kenny Dalglish. More importantly, Liverpool still sit in the bottom three.

To start to resolve these, the first thing the manager must address is the way his teams approach in the first-half of games. So far in the League they have scored only one first-half goal and that was the rather farcical affair in the opening stages of the game against Sunderland. This statistic is troubling in itself, but the deeper underlying cause that displeases Liverpool fans so much is the attitude that Hodgson has equipped his team with. Rafael Benitez, although at times criticised as overly cautious, knew how to fire up his side and see them come out of the Anfield dressing room at 100 miles-per-hour. This approach was responsible for some of the finest performances under the Spaniard, it was how Liverpool overcame Juventus and Chelsea en route to the 2005 Champions League final, and Hodgson could benefit from revisiting those famous nights to see how Liverpool fans would like to see their side walk onto the pitch.

Hodgson also needs to recreate the organisational discipline he conjured at Craven Cottage. Fulham were such a hard team to break down, especially at home, because of the shape they maintained whilst without the ball. Some of the best teams in the world struggled to pick holes in his well-drilled side, but when Hodgson’s Liverpool are forced to defend, organisation is bizarrely lacking. It is one thing for an under-fire manager to send out a defensively-minded team, but to do so and then to watch them fail to defend is simply unacceptable. The Liverpool players are clearly not responding well to the new manager’s training methods, and it is down to him to sort this out.

Finally, one problem that the Blackburn result did nothing to address is the team’s away form. Hodgson himself has not won an away game in the Premier League since August 2009, when Fulham went to Fratton Park and overcame a very poor Portsmouth side. He has not yet cracked a winning formula away from home, and with a tricky trip to Bolton next weekend he must think fast. Does he revert back to type, set up a side that should be hard to break down but risk inviting on pressure or settling for a 0-0. Conversely, does he attack the game as he would be expected to do is Liverpool were at home? Coyle’s Bolton play a good brand of football, and might pick holes in Liverpool if Hodgson adopts too cavalier an attitude.

It is hard to predict where this Liverpool side will go from here. As we all know, it is easier for players to say that one result will turn their form around than it is for them to convince themselves of the same assertions. One thing is for certain, that on the long road to recovery, the corner Liverpool are trying to turn is a slow one. They must keep their eyes on the rocky path ahead, where the next stop is the Reebok Stadium.