I’m more confused than anything else.
In my last post I asked that we maintain the good form, no matter what the outcome of the season. I should have added we must cling to clear-headed decision making from now to the end. The last two outings for Liverpool were derailed by bad judgement by Ryan Babel and (and I rarely say this in writing) Rafa Benitez. We cannot afford such setbacks. Our remaining season goals were brittle enough going into these two matches. Now what?
The first is an easy one. The first Benfica leg. What the hell were you thinking, Babel? The whistle was blown. The free kick was given. The player who tackled Torres was booked. Why would you ever put a hand to his face when you know the consequences? Alright, go in there and give him hell for roughing up your teammate. Yes. But keep your hands to yourself! Suddenly a match we were stamping our mark on (an offbeat, handsome goal from Agger already in and other chances in the works) was now in Benfica’s control. Of course the attention-starved ref might have been determined to change the match for Benfica later on, calling strange infringements while letting Benfica continue to beat up Torres without too much in the way of punishment. But nevertheless, there was no excuse for Babel to give the official such a simple excuse to reduce us to ten. If Babel had stayed on, I can’t swear that we would have beaten Benfica at home, but I’m confident we’d have at least one more away goal in our bag going into tonight. We’re still in good shape, but we should be better off and still have Babel to choose from for this evening’s match.
Now: as for Birmingham, every pundit I’ve heard or read this week has been questioning Rafa’s decision to take Torres off. I’ll get to that. My real problem with Rafa came hours before when I went online to hunt down our starting eleven before that match. Agger benched. Mascherano benched. Babel benched. What is happening?? For Liverpool part of any good run of form these last couple of years comes when player rotation is minimal or nonexsistent. These players should have been instrumental in securing all the points against Birmingham.
While I’m still angry at Babel for going all Godfather part I on the Benfica man’s cheek, the kid is still playing some of the best football I’ve ever seen him pull off in a Liverpool kit. (I think Sammy Lee pulled him aside and mentioned that football is actually a team sport and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to pass the ball from time to time rather than running at three defenders whenever he get’s possession. Nobody’s ever thought to mention this to Babel.) And Rafa certainly can’t argue he’s resting Babel for Benfica since Babel is suspended from that match. Instead the kid plays the supersub role once again which usually lends itself to the tunnel-visioned, I’m going to do it all by myself side of Ryan Babel that is useless to us. I would have started him. Rest somebody else for today’s match that he can’t play in anyway.
Then there’s Agger. Our defense it at it’s best when we play the same back four as much as possible and allow their chemistry and understanding of each other’s positioning dictate how we break up the other side’s attack. Now I love Soto Krygiacos. He’s been massive. He’s been dependable. He’s made the difference when we’ve needed him. He’s pulled the spirit of Sami Hyypia out of the Anfield ether and made some essential stops when we’ve needed them most. But if Agger’s fit enough to be on the bench, he should be in there with Carra, Insua and Johnson, carrying on the rapport they’ve enjoyed since Agger came back fit. That chemistry and understand is the glue that keeps our defense tight and impenetrable. The marking and awareness against Birmingham was dismal. With Agger in we would have had a lot more coherence back there and Birmingham wouldn’t have had that ridiculous chance.
Mostly though, why rest Mascherano? Let me rephrase. Why start Lucas? I know Rafa has endless faith in Lucas that comes from somewhere invisible to the rest of us when we watch him on matchday, but if we look back at this miserable season, much of our struggling involved having Lucas as a starting midfielder, and our recent results (which apart from Benfica and United have been positive) have relied on him returning to his (proper) role as a squad player. To thrive, this side needs backbone and spark in the midfield. Lucas provides neither. Mascherano lays down the former. Aquilani is starting to show of the latter. Gerrard has both in vast supply, even when he’s not at his best. We should have started Mascherano against Birmingham. Alongside Gerrard. He was fit enough for the bench, he could have come off later on. With Mascherano in we wouldn’t have had all that space on the right when Birmingham got there strange goal (yes, the dude scored with his crotch). With Mascherano there we would have had someone to track back and cover for Johnson who then could have gotten forward and given us the width to break down a ten-men-behind-the-ball side, which was, I thought, the big reason for paying all that money for Johnson. We certainly don’t get that insurance policy with Lucas.
Yes, I was taken aback by Rafa bringing off Torres for N’Gog ( Torres couldn’t seem to figure it out either, looking somewhat confused when he came off and outright irritated when N’Gog missed three clear chance that Torres would have buried), but I was already perplexed by the Gaffer’s plans to rest key players for Europa when we need the points for fourth and when Birmingham has already given so many headaches to the top sides, Torres coming off just added to my confusion. It didn’t generate it.
Ultimately, these men play better when they are playing a lot. In past seasons we’ve worried about Liverpool being in too many competitions, but some of the best performances come when they’ve got a heavy workload. See: 2005. Not only did resting players against Birmingham do us damage domestically, I think everyone would be far sharper for tonight had something near tonight’s expected starting eleven been run out on Sunday. I know Rafa’s got a lot on his mind with the struggles we’ve had, wondering how he’s going to afford new players this summer, and so on. But it’s time to look at our strengths and play to them. That means putting the best starting eleven we have available out every fixture. If a top player starts from the bench, we’re in trouble. We’ve got no more room to slip up this season. And that scares me.