I was a little concerned coming into the last fixture. It wasn’t because Burnley has already beaten United and Everton. It wasn’t because Burnley aren’t afraid to attack. I saw these things as healthy signs for Liverpool. Liverpool usually do well against attacking sides. And Liverpool have a habit of playing to the level of their opponent. This is what saw us convincingly beat United and Chelsea twice in the League and dispatch Real with prolific comfort in Europe while being completely unable to break down Stoke City. If Burnley had come to play the let’s-park-ten-men-behind-the-ball-and-pray-for-a-chance-at-a-breakaway-anti-football that helped teams strip points off Liverpool throughout last season, yes, my football ulcer would flare up as I anticipated 90 minutes of crashing against the Burnley wall. But Burnley came to attack. Everyone knew they would. This should bring out the best in Liverpool, I said.
But I was concerned. I was concerned because Javier Mascherano was out. He’d picked up a knock with Argentina. Rafa would be forced to pull Gerrard back into a more defensive role. With Aquilani still unready and Mascherano out, Gerrard was the only choice for holding down the midfield.
Now, I’ve been screaming for Gerrard to be pulled back into the midfield. With Xabi Alonso’s bag of long passes gone to Spain, there’s been no electricity coming out of the central areas. Lucas sprinkles short passes about when what we need are long balls sprayed to the attackers so they can launch themselves at goal before the defense knows what’s happening.
Dispite the brilliance of the Gerrard/Torres partnership, I want to see Stevie in the midfield again, at least until Aquilani comes in fit and proves himself in a Red shirt. But I want to see Gerrard next to Mascherano. Not in place of him. After Pepe Reina, Mascherano is the player who will give me the largest heart attack if he picks up a serious injury. Liverpool have done big teams without Torres and Gerrard. It’s not ideal to lose one of those two, but it is manageable. But there is no suitable cover for Javier Mascherano. The midfield loses its backbone when he’s out.
My concern was Gerrard being forced to help Lucas keep down the midfield and not allowed to get forward often enough. If he’d been next to Mascherano, we could trust Masch to hold down that fort and give Stevie freedom. But not Lucas who is about as resilient as a Fabergé egg.
Then one wonders where the goals will come from. If Torres is too isolated, the defenders will simply swamp him out.
Enter Yossi Benayoun.
Yossi Benayoun was on fire. Part of it was all that space the attacking Burnley left for him to eat up. Part of it was he has a knack for coming up big when needed.
He simply refused to give up or slow down at any point. His hunger for goal was all-consuming. He easily could have had five or six goals to his name Saturday rather than just a hat trick and a brilliant assist.
Like, Torres, Benayoun gushes forth unpredictable movement. His body language is such that defenders can’t know which way he’s going to twist at any given moment or when he’s going to pull the trigger. With Torres this is a series of fluid motions – Torres paints his way across the pitch. With Benayoun it is a series of jerky ones. Yossi carves out a zig-zagging trench to goal. But both approaches work when these men are in form.
With his first goal Yossi twisted two defenders out of the way and pulled the trigger without really setting up the ball. None of the defenders, the keeper or myself thought he was near the moment of finishing. But before anyone realized it was a shot, the ball was in. The Yossi Benayoun Sucker Punch™.
He did the same thing with his deflected shot that turned into the Kuyt goal. He fired out of nowhere. Most strikers would have taken one more touch (and how we curse them when they take too many), they would have teed themselves up a little before firing. But Yossi just swept the ball toward goal. It was a great shot. Powerful. Dangerous. The keeper was fortunate to keep it out. Thankfully, Kuyt was there to tap in the rebound.
Last season, Yossi, a player I’ve always rated, had to fight for his place. It was between him and Kuyt on the right and Kuyt was just too integral and the team was playing too well to make a change. And Yossi had some injury concerns as well. But when he finally got a chance, Yossi exploded. It seemed he was always there to make a difference. Even if he wasn’t scoring he was keeping defenders off balance and drawing them away from Torres and Stevie. When he was scoring the goals they were brilliant and essential. Culminating, of course, in his stoppage-time winner against Fulham. The desktop of my computer is still the picture of everybody jumping on Yossi after that goal. You have to know there’s an Israeli international under the heap to appreciate the meaning of the image.
The real joy I take from this is Liverpool have a killer formation even without Aquilani being ready for action. When Mascherano comes back, Lucas can be benched. Masch and Gerrard can hold down the middle. Masch will allow Gerrard to get forward, but even if Stevie tough sides force Stevie to stay deep and distribute, his vision – parallelled only by Xabi – will seek out the open attackers. Benayoun and Kuyt are both in great form along with Riera and Torres. The goals will come.
If Aquilani comes in and lives up to expectations, the worse case scenerio for Rafa is he goes back to having to choose between Kuyt and Yossi. Both can do the job. There are worse problems to have.
I feel great after the Burnley result. Liverpool will still have to prove this system can work against more experienced sides, but I have faith. Bring on the Champions League and bring on West Ham. I am excited for the upcoming fixtures.
Thank you, Yossi Benayoun: my football ulcer is, for now, abated.