“You drive for show but you putt for dough.”
The quote, above, is by South African golfer Bobby Locke. You can bask in all the applause for a 300 yard drive off the tee, but there’ll be no one clapping when you miss from 2 feet. But how it applies to Liverpool so often this season in the Premier League. Most Liverpool fans will have said at least once in the last week or so, “it wasn’t the greatest performance but we’ve got the Cup”. And yet in a paradox we have had to suffer all this season from dominating teams but not being able to put them away (no pun intended).
A hot bath. An expletive ridden rant. A punch of the sofa. Nothing cured the sense of disappointed indignation I felt as I watched us control and out play the opposition in another game from start to finish, and come away with nothing but a sense of what might have been. We racked up another 2 strikes of the woodwork against Arsenal at home. Dirk Kuyt and Luis Suarez only troubling the Anfield goalpost painters and not Woijcech Szczesney.
The clichéd “one of those days” was coming into mind when the usually cool Dirk Kuyt placed his penalty to Szczesney’s right, but well within reach. The cliché seemed to ring true even more when the rebound couldn’t be scrambled home. Yes Kuyt missed against Everton but still he would’ve had my vote as penalty taker. My heart sank just a little as Charlie Adam appeared to be nominating himself to take the penalty. Not just because of the wildly misdirected spot kick in the Carling Cup final, but his inconsistency shown all season. We are far from seeing the game changer we saw in an orange shirt. Free kicks, bullet shots on target from outside the box, pin point corners, were all part of the expectation of Adam coming to Anfield. This has not been in evidence, an instead we do tend to see only flashes of his vision, interspersed with being caught out for pace and giving away free kicks in dangerous areas when trying to recover.
We started with 3 key losses: Johnson with a hamstring problem; Agger sustained a rib injury, his second of the season following the one suffered in the early season defeat to Spurs. Let’s hope he is back in less time than his previous 4 week recovery period. Gerrard with a hamstring tweak sustained on international friendly duty. I am sure this grated with Dalgish given the importance of the upcoming game against Arsenal. He hid it well, saying it might as easily have happened in training. But it must have irked when penetrating forward play has been one of our Achilles heels this season.
So who stepped in? I have been advocate of Martin Kelly at right back for some time over Glen Johnson. He has power and pace and his final ball had previously been good. Against Arsenal it wasn’t, with Suarez venting his frustration at the defender’s sometimes poor decision making on final delivery. This is not something Johnson would’ve been accused of, often choosing to cut inside and present a threat of his own (The marvellous curled shot on to the bar against Cardiff in the cup final for example).
More: van Persie, Aguero, Rooney, Ba, Suarez, Bellamy, Carroll & Kuyt compared on pages 3/4…
Daniel Agger’s presence in the side and thriving partnership in the centre back positions has certainly been the foundation on which much of Liverpool’s revival under Kenny Dalglish has been based. Agger so often reminiscent of an advancing Alan Hansen when he brings the ball out of defence would be most Reds’ chosen centre back. Jamie Carragher’s place in the history of Liverpool FC is already firmly established but he was never blessed with pace and previously his football brain has done much to make up for that. But the fear was Arsenal’s speed of attack and movement, would expose our previously undefeated home defence. In fact seeing Enrique struggling against United and more specifically Valencia, I was worried given the fact he was facing Walcott. But Walcott is no Valencia, not as assured on the ball and Enrique easily used his experience and power to boss the Arsenal speed machine.
It was in no way disappointment I felt seeing Jay Spearing in the starting line-up. Much as Gerrard is our most consistent game changer, has been there on countless occasions when we needed just one more push, he doesn’t have the energy of the young Spearing. The occasional rash challenge aside (he got away with the high late challenge against Arsenal) his passing is good and accurate and provides the harrying sometimes needed to boss the midfield. At 83% pass completion his percentages were only beaten by the equally impressive Stewart Downing at 86% pass completion.
Possession wasn’t the issue. Yes we were at home but we were playing the best passing team in the league season on season. A team that had just humiliated the previously impressive Spurs. But the stats show Liverpool dominated the game in terms of possession, retaining 53.9% of the ball, far from the counter attacking team we are often purported to be. In Wenger’s own words, “Liverpool had a very good first half and we were not in the game.” Indeed they weren’t. We had dominated all over the pitch and it was only when we seemed to doze off that Bacary Sagna’s near post ball was effortlessly met by Van Persie’s head to beat Pepe Reina. It was almost in slow motion it was so against the run of play. Van Persie has a conversion rate of 20.8% and 2344 minutes playing time and already on a total of 29 goals in all competitions for the season prior to this game. We should have been closer to him, Carragher should’ve been goal side of him, he wasn’t and we paid the price.
Taking the game as a whole, we out passed Arsenal. No mean feat. 200 forward passes to their 174. 205 accurate attacking half passes to their 152. We crossed the ball 8 times to their 1, of which 21.1% were accurate compared to Arsenal’s 12.5% accurate crossing. In midfield we regained possession 26 times to their 14. Liverpool forced 12 corners. Arsenal didn’t force 1. But as another footballing cliché says, stats don’t always tell the whole story. Yes we bossed the game in all but the vital area. Van Persie had 2 chances, 2 shots and 2 goals. His completion percentage is up there with the best, being equalled by Demba Ba, who seems to be suffering a slight post African Nations drought. Van Persie will surpass the Newcastle forward in pass completion in no time at this rate. Be interesting to see the next game when the 2 are head to head at The Emirates.
We watched Luis Suarez extolled by pundits and commentators alike as he evaded tackle after tackle only to prod the ball within grasp of the Arsenal keeper who tipped it round the post. He was probably the only player on the pitch that could’ve done that and we have seen it before and love it. When he did it in the 3-1 demolition of Manchester United almost a year ago to the day it was with elation LFC fans greeted the Uruguayan. But ironically also on that day, all his dexterity and skill still required a practical Dutchman to get it over the line. With a shot conversion rate of just 6.7% Suarez has to improve. All the close control skills in the world are no use unless it helps secure the points.
Shot conversion rate
[table id=45 /]
More: Graphical analysis next…
As the stats show, Liverpool’s other strikers are barely weighing in either. Craig Bellamy’s holds his own amongst the premiere league’s top strikers in terms of conversion rate. But Kenny Dalglish is being careful not to overplay him. It would have been good to see him at least make an appearance at 60 minutes to give us a chance of making use of that superior finishing. Indeed, given Liverpool’s dominance in crosses and corners during the game, it’s hard to see why Carroll also wasn’t thrown into the mix earlier.
Suarez has shot more times than Aguero, Ba and Adebayor. We can but hope the goals come. Suarez is Liverpool’s focal point and arguably gets closer attention in the last 3rd than his peers in other teams. Team facing Aguero have to be bothered about Ballotelli, Dzeko and even Toure and Silva, who can all put the ball away, and have. Liverpool are suffering a goal drought across the board and it continues to show. There are only so many ways of saying we need to score more.
The spectre of Roy Hodgson is looming up behind us in the form of West Bromwich Albion being only 4 points and a game in hand away. But, and it is a big but, I for one am so much happier with what I am seeing on the pitch from Liverpool than back in those dark, face rubbing Hodgson days. We are playing football. Pass and move was so much in evidence even Arsene Wenger had to admit his team was being played off the park. Goals will come. We have a cup in the cabinet and another heart stopping moment or 2 in the memory banks courtesy of Kenny Dalglish.
It may be too late to secure 4th. But longer term this team needs to be looking to loftier ambitions than merely be qualifying for Europe. Everton qualified and fell at the first hurdle. A team has to not just scrape into the Champions League but put in performances that show they deserve to be there and progress. That is the team I saw on the pitch against Arsenal. Our scoring does not reflect the displays we are putting in. As Shankly said of Roger Hunt, we are getting in the right place to miss those chances. And when it comes right, I’ll still be there, heart in my mouth, always a Red. YNWA