Liverpool turned the screw on their title rivals with a crucial three points against relegation-scrapping Cardiff City. It was a topsy-turvy encounter with some early scares for the Reds, and going behind twice eventually turned it into an out-scoring contest which Liverpool felt confident they could win.
Cardiff shaped up with 3 at the back, and two wing backs in Declan John and Fabio Da Silva, with a view to sitting back and remaining compact. With a midfield 1-2 of Gary Medel sitting, and Jordon Mutch and Kim Bo-Kyung ahead of him, they looked to counter quickly and directly into the spaces behind the Liverpool full backs, and for the first half hour it worked.
Fraser Campbell and Craig Bellamy peeled out to the right and left respectively to carry the counter-attacks, and they were able to push the Liverpool back line deeper than they needed or wanted to be. A perfect example of this was the opening goal from Mutch:
The counter starts by breaking in behind Johnson in the wide area with Bellamy, who then switches it out to the other side at a good tempo.
Fabio also highlights how keen they are to start the attacks wide – he picks up the ball centrally from Bellamy, and sprints with it to the touchline instead of towards goal.
A mistake from Allen allows Campbell to get right down to the by-line in the corner, and the aggressiveness of the counter has forced the Liverpool defenders into excessively deep positions. There are three attackers in space for the cut-back in very dangerous positions, and when this flies in you can see why Gerrard is angry with Daniel Agger. His positioning is so deep, if he was even a couple of steps higher up he could have closed down Jordon Mutch as the ball came into him – instead he left Gerrard to make up the ground, which he wasn’t capable of doing.
Liverpool (again in the diamond) however, did pick themselves up, and their first goal was a work of art. The patience for the equaliser from Suarez illustrated the remarkable ability of the Reds to hold their nerve, pass carefully, with calculation and eventually score. In period of intense pressure, each pass was used to poke and prod at the Cardiff defence to see what they could work out.
Sometimes it was a cross – if it was cleared it was immediately recycled to maintain the pressure in the final third. Sometimes it was a through ball, if it didn’t come off the ball was won back and the attack started again from wide. The ball was shifted side to side, punched centrally into feet and back out again, flicked around corners until a quality chance came about. It finally did with a brillant move:
Everything about the way Coutinho shapes up here says that he is lofting that ball into the run of Suarez in behind the Cardiff defence, and this alarms them, shifting Cardiff to the right in movement with Suarez. When this move turns into a dummy:
A quick shift to Henderson, and Glen Johnson spots his opportunity to burst in behind, and a massive gap between the defence opens up for Jordan Henderson to slide him in behind the defence. Once this pass is complete it is a simple route into goal for Johnson to lay into Suarez.
These two opening goals from Liverpool and Cardiff shed a lot of light on the teams individual approaches. Cardiff played with an aggressive and unsettling counter-attacking strategy, while Liverpool had a good blend (despite Solskjaer calling them a counter-attacking side) of prolonged possession, directness and counter-attacking.
Statistically the key figures reflect a performance of dominance with the ball for Liverpool, with 66.6% possession and 650 attempted passes. Of these 650 Steven Gerrard attempted 108 of them and completed 100 (93%), while Philippe Coutinho and Jordan Henderson attempted 72 and 81 passes respectively, way above average for the Reds.
For chances, Cardiff had 9 and Liverpool had 14, which gives you an idea of two things. Firstly how direct Cardiff were – when they did get the ball they tried to get to goal quickly and carve out an opportunity. Secondly, how patient and clinical Liverpool were, with only 14 chances it was important that they were quality chances. I certainly remember the notorious ‘woodwork season’ in which Liverpool would take around 20-30 shots on goal only to hit the post 5 times and convert 1. The hair trigger is now a thing of the past, and each chance created was methodical and ruthlessly executed.
For a change, instead of summarising the current climate as I tend to, I will instead throw in a few (probably terrible) predictions of my own, and please tell us yours!
The way I saw Liverpool’s remaining ten league games, led me to conclude that they have perhaps the toughest run in of the top four, and therefore finishing anywhere near 1st would deserve the highest praise for Rodgers. Southampton and Manchester United away are two fixtures that nearly all fans would have written off, yet they have come away with a 0-6 aggregate from those games.
I predicted Liverpool will get 10 points from the remaining 5 away games (and 10-12 from Anfield), which means picking up anything more than 4 points at West Ham, Norwich and Crystal Palace will set Liverpool firmly on course for 80+ points.
For the remaining 5 home games, the first factor to consider here is what Brendan Rodgers has turned Anfield into – the Reds have lost once at home all season, a 1-0 defeat to Southampton. The next factor to consider is the opposition, and in Sunderland, Tottenham and Newcastle they have three opponents with notoriously poor records on Merseyside, all experiencing stuttering ends to their season.
The other two opponents are the ‘cup finals’, and will decide the title (if there are no red stutters in the next 5 days). It will probably sound strange, but the first thing I thought is ‘I can’t see either side doing the double over Liverpool this season’. Rodgers has proven very good at learning from his mistakes, not to mention the dominating performances in the away fixtures. Everything points to a simply fantastic opportunity for Liverpool that they are not really expected to come out on top of. At least a point from these two, possibly 6.
My final thought was on Rodgers historically, his teams always finish the season strong – perhaps some Liverpool fans would say this is strong enough with a winning streak of 6 on the bounce, and no defeats since City and Chelsea back in December. If he continues at this rate – wow.
It’s now a crucial week of games – enjoy!