What do we want from a ninety minute bout of football devotion? A win, obviously. Maximum points from a league fixture. Advancement from a draw. But beyond that we want a strong performance. We want reassurances for the future. Points and advancement get us closer to the goal, but a pure display of great football gives us so much more. A convincing win assures us the result isn’t a one off. A convincing win says, “There’s more where this came from…”
The scrappy win, on the other hand, inspires clashing emotions. We ride a boat of conserved glee atop a current of hushed doubts. We tell ourselves a win is a win and that the points count the same no matter what. But when the final whistle blows we are left with the painful truth that things need to improve for the results to keep coming. Luck won’t always be so kind.
Liverpool’s trip to Bolton was a true scrappy win.
Red defending against set pieces has been shocking. Every league goal scored against Liverpool this season (apart from Aston Villa’s penalty kick) has been from a free kick or a corner. Liverpool can shut down the most diligent of attacks in open play, but once the whistle blows and ref points to the spot, the Reds are reduced to a timid and easily duped throng.
I have a small heart attack every time an opponent steps to a dead ball. Watching a free kick or a corner against United or Chelsea seems like a whisp of a chance. Against Liverpool it looks nearly as likely as a penalty against a nearsighted keeper who’s run out of contact lens solution. The ball sails in and I just pray the taker is off target. I pray the ball falls right in front of a red noggin to be cleared quickly. Even if the clearance falls to a sure-footed oppenent just outside the box, we are far better off than it finding a hungry attacker three feet in front of Reina’s goal.
So when the Bolton ball blew in from the corner over the addled sea of red and white shirts in the box, my throat tightened up. My arms grew stiff. I almost couldn’t watch. When the ball didn’t pop out of the box immediately, everything seemed to stop. The Liverpool players looked frozen in time. The ball found Knight’s head then it found Davies’s foot. Davies tapped it in. I couldn’t believe this was happening. There must be an offside flag raised somewhere. But nothing. There was no one to blame but ourselves. Liverpool simply can’t defend from the corner these days.
As we saught the equalizer, the same problems that plagued us during the Spurs and Villa fixtures looked embedded in our play against Bolton. With Xabi gone there was no clean distribution from the midfield to the attackers. We searched for inroads, but we were constantly mired by Bolton’s overcrowded back line. Torres took too many touches. Gerrard looked drowned by defenders. Heavy touches and bad passes abounded.
Glen Johnson was one of the few players who looked up for sparking a Liverpool comeback. Tireless and inventive, he kept twisting his way up the pitch, looking for a way through Bolton’s crowded backfield. Sure enough, on 41 minutes, Johnson came up on a loose ball just outside the box. He fired powerfully, keeping it low, and it flew into the net.
Any remaining concern I had over Johnson’s hefty price tag was buried, mourned and forgotten with that strike. Two goals in three matches and loads of convincing service from out wide. I am sold on Glen Johnson.
I was sure the tide had been turned. Liverpool had rounded the bend and would keep Bolton on the back foot and swipe the lead. But on 47 minutes Jaaskelainen sent a free kick hurling toward our box. Jamie Carragher got hung up and an unmarked Tamir Cohen (son of a former Liverpool player no less) smashed it home.
We looked on the verge of giving up three more points. Our attacks were uninspired. Bolton hung back and smothered all our attempts to break down their door.
Then on 54 minutes, Lucas got the ball and pushed forward. Sean Davis was on his heels – literally. Davis caught Lucas’s boot and Lucas tumbled.
My new thing is to look at this type of situation from both sides. There is the initial emotional judgment of me screaming “Book him!” But once I calm down, I try to ask myself, what would my take on it be if that was a Liverpool player clipping a Bolton man? The ref produced the yellow card. This was Davis’s second and he was sent off. If it had gone the other way, I know I would have felt it beyond harsh. Many a ref would have granted the free kick while keeping his card in pocket, especially since Davis was already on a yellow. He only just caught the back of Lucas’s boot. It did not look malicious. But Davis took the walk and Liverpool took the advantage.
I admit: Liverpool were fortunate to see Bolton reduced to ten men.
But I cannot complain.
This was the spark we needed to take the match by the throat.
Soon Torres came upon the ball and worked it inside the box. The Bolton players couldn’t stop him without giving up the penalty and Nando found his angle and put us level.
Later, on 83 minutes, we got The Quintessential Steven Gerrard Moment.
When I think of Gerrard, I think of a man coming on to that loose ball and blasting it home. His clutch goal against Olympiacos in 2005 to save Liverpool from group stage death. His stoppage time bomb against West Ham in the 2006 FA Cup final. This goal had that tinge. The ball fell to him, unmarked just inside the box, and he hammered it into the top corner.
In the pub where I was watching, we lost it. We jumped. We shouted. We sang: Steve Gerrard Gerrard! He’ll pass the ball forty yards! He’s big and he’s f*cking hard! Steve Gerrard Gerrard!
But when the final whistle blew, the overwhelming feeling was relief. I don’t want relief after a win. I want pure satisfaction. But this win was not satisfying. My joy was timid, hesitant. The feeling of gratification was unsure. We were fortunate to gain the man advantage. Fortunate to find the roads in to Bolton’s goal. Fortunate to recover after such a dismal show from our defenders.
The scrappy win leaves one with almost the same feelings that come from a draw or a loss. Your side didn’t play their best and you sit pondering what they need to do to overcome their problems. With Liverpool it is a matter of solving the dead ball condundrum. Figuring out how to smother the chances from free kicks and corners. At this rate, opposition players will be flopping like salmon on a dry river bank every chance they get, hoping the ref blows the whistle and points toward our end. They know if they get that chance, they can fire the ball into the mess of Red shirts that make up our porous barricade . They can fire a ball so determined to find its way home.
We need to learn how to manage set pieces. Especially on the defensive end. Until then I see more scrappy wins in our near future.