Steven Gerrard came up with the goods with a last gasp penalty winner for Liverpool at Craven Cottage, keeping their title or top four (depending on your persuasion) aspirations alive and kicking, and taking them to within four points of the summit.
Fulham sat rock bottom of the league, however, they have shown recent faint glimpses of hope under Rene Meulensteen. They have reinforced, and attempted to reinvigorate, bringing in Lewis Holtby on loan from Spurs and Ryan Tunnicliffe from Manchester United. William Kvist has formed the new midfield with Sidwell, while the young giant Dan Burn has entered the scene at centre-back alongside Jonny Heitinga.
This has made Fulham a completely different side personnel-wise (so much so that our tactics board required manually adding 6 of the starting 11), and their objective to add points to the board got off to a thrilling start at Old Trafford last week.
Against Liverpool they aimed to be solid defensively, with a similar set up to the United game. Meulensteen wanted two defensive-minded wingers in Richardson (who has played fullback this season) and Tunnicliffe. They would drop back in a bank of four with Kvist and Sidwell, then drift into the backline to track runners when required to help out the full backs.
Liverpool were in a position when their season could be elevated to a new status, or broken and reduced to a simple all-out scrap for the top four. The win against Arsenal was the stuff dreams are made of for the Reds’ fans, with many admitting they have never seen anything like it since the famous 5-0 demolition of Nottingham Forest back in the 80’s.
Brendan Rodgers admitted that his words to the players ahead of this game, was that the Fulham game was now far more important than the result against Arsenal. Arsenal could be the flash in the pan, the win that stands out in a blemished record. ‘Fulham away, these are the nights where you make the Champions League’, he claims to have told them.
He set up as he did against the Gunners with the same starting eleven, and just a couple of subtle switches. Suarez started on the left this time (started on the right vs. Arsenal), with Sturridge through the middle to exploit his pace. As mentioned in the last couple of articles, this has a bearing on the midfield three. Perhaps Sterling was put on the right to deal with the attacking threat of John Arne Riise (he is always put on the side of the more attacking full back).
This meant a switch from right to left for Henderson to continue to cover the spaces behind Suarez, and left to right for Coutinho to continue his defensive link with Sterling. Everything else remained unchanged.
Liverpool did manage to get off to an explosive start. They moved the ball quickly and played at a high tempo looking for early chances. The only problem was they didn’t have the high line Arsenal gifted them, as Fulham set up in a low block in the early minutes, looking to counter. As result Liverpool were without a shot in the opening 10 minutes.
Liverpool Defensive Frailties
When analysing the Arsenal victory from the other day, I used the following image to demonstrate how Liverpool look to close down defensively in the wide areas, with the full back taking their designated winger, Gerrard coming across from the centre, and then either a Liverpool winger or central midfielder coming across to close from a third angle:
Look at the position of Kolo Toure as the centre-back, he has a responsibility here to stay as tight as possible to Martin Skrtel to restrict Arsenal space in the areas they specialise in capitalising on. His distances here are good and he doesn’t get tempted into coming across.
Now let’s compare this to the Fulham game, and in particular Fulham’s opening goal (which many will put solely on Toure, I’d throw the blame on Skrtel and Gerrard here):
So compare this to the Arsenal picture, we have Flanagan (2) working at full back, Coutinho (1) coming back from midfield (maybe on another occasion it might be Sterling working back). All in place there. Gerrard (3) has worked his way across from his wide position as he should, while Skrtel (4) has also been drawn out to this wide position (in fairness to him he had to do this to prevent an initial break into that space).
The mistake Skrtel makes is that he doesn’t immediately back off to re-fill that gaping centre-back space he has vacated, which allows Richardson to sprint into it and become a threat. The first mistake Gerrard makes is that he doesn’t get across to the initial through ball from Dan Burn (which forces Skrtel out wide in the first place). The second mistake he makes is that he doesn’t recognise the danger of Skrtel coming out and fill the space for him (which is part of his role responsibilities) – instead he gets caught ball-watching as Richardson takes the space.
I feel Rodgers will be more concerned about this defending than Toure slicing a bobbling windy ball.
As you can see, Liverpool dominated possession in both halves and finished with 69%, notching up a massive 572 passes (which nearly wasn’t enough to convince). They were very accurate with 87% to Fulham’s 63%, while 77% in the final third is a good improvement away from home.
Both teams scored their clear cut chances, with two for Liverpool and one for Fulham. However, Liverpool committed more defensive errors with another two slip ups; a statistic which looks to be tarnishing an otherwise fantastic season. The Reds won the aerial and ground duels by 67% and 56%, and it proved to be an eventually scrappy and hard-fought win.
Of the high pass count, Jordan Henderson was Liverpool’s top passer with 88 passes and a 93% accuracy. Meanwhile Raheem Sterling led the team in key passes (4) and dribbles (4). Sturridge and Gerrard however, will both be delighted to come away with the vital statistics of a goal and an assist each, while Coutinho also notched a rare goal.
Upon this victory, Brendan Rodgers appeared to finally cave into the media pressure and accept that Liverpool are at least relevant in the race for the title. They sit 1 point behind Man City (game in hand), 3 behind Arsenal (who face Tottenham away, Chelsea away then City at home at the end of March), and 4 points off Chelsea at the top.
Positives for the Reds will be their run-in of fixtures, which they have to capitalise on to stand any chance, and also keep Tottenham off their heels. They face Swansea at home, Southampton away and Sunderland at home in their next three, Rodgers would hope to win them all (or at least get a point from Southampton).
As the season climaxes, the Reds welcome Chelsea and Manchester City to Anfield, and if they are still ‘in the conversation’ come April when these two fixtures arrive, they stand a very real chance of doing something extraordinary this season.