We have now seen Liverpool play a few times under Roy Hodgson and the most surprising thing about their season so far is how familiar it all feels. Their only win this season in the Premier League has been at home against West Bromwich Albion, a team destined for a relegation dog-fight. Of Course in the other games 3 teams who finished in the top half of the table, the disappointing aspect has not been the results (which could’ve been predicted) but the manner of them.
Tactically Liverpool have lined up in the same manner as they have over the last 4 years under Benitez. The 4-2-3-1 formation is not something Unique to Benitez but his style of play was distinct. The ‘2’ part of that formation would be 2 defensive midfielders (ignoring Xabi Alonso’s advantage in his ridiculous passing range), which is precisely how Hodgson has the team playing. The problem with this is that when placed against a similar formation or one where the other team are packing the midfield is that it can get bogged down in the middle allowing the defence to plug any gaps and not allow any space behind them for Torres’ searing pace to exploit. Hodgson cannot be blamed for how teams play against Liverpool, much in the same way Mancini cannot be blamed for this at Man City, however the key is to adapt your own tactics to overcome.
As the game dragged on at St. Andrews Liverpool dominated possession but did not have a single clear-cut opportunity. It was a familiar sight as it was something that happened under Benitez frequently, it was their inability to break down teams at home that ultimately cost them the title in 2008/9. Hodgson had shown at Fulham that he was adept at changing his team to suit the situation it was this flexibility that allowed his Fulham team to get to the Europa League final. However at Fulham his team was usually the underdog who could expect the other team to put pressure on them higher up the field therefore exposing themselves at the back. At Liverpool it is a different game, teams will try to bring Liverpool forward and exploit their lack of pace at the back.
On the player front Liverpool still rely (too) heavily on three players. Steven Gerrard ( who is now playing better for his country than his club), Fernando Torres (who is far from his imperious best) and Pepe Reina (who has won back one of the two points he dropped on the opening day). It is too early to judge the worth of new players yet but on first impressions Liverpool have regressed since even last season. Christian Poulsen was very quiet at St. Andrews and because of his lack of movement, passing and energy seems to be a step down from Javier Mascherano. Raul Meireles was lively but ineffective and Milan Jovanovic does not have the pace necessary to be effective in the Premier League. If Stephen Carr can keep him quiet then it is promising when Liverpool meet better clubs. Maxi showed Liverpool fans what they are missing in Dirk Kuyt as Liam Ridgewell was able to move forward effectively with little worries about the Argentinian.
If anything personnel has been the only thing to change for Liverpool over the previous seasons as players have left for big money with their replacements either being crocked or inferior. Liverpool lined up in 2008 for a match away from home against Blackburn with Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano supporting Steven Gerrard. This afternoon it was Lucas and Poulsen. Yossi Benayoun and Robbie Keane sat on the bench, today it was Babel and N’Gog. This is not a comment on Roy Hodgson who has been left this problem from the previous management and the current owners, speaking of which.
In the board room things haven’t changed much at all. The news this week regarding Liverpool’s ownership has been good for the fans but bad for the club. Bloomberg report that RBS has moved the Liverpool owners loans to their Restructuring team, whilst this doesn’t mean anything immediately a deadline is approaching for repayment or modification. A prospective buyer of the football club could take the loans off RBS and demand payment from Hicks & Gillette’s enterprises and try to seize control this way. In effect this would not be a clean process with many different permutations for the club, too many to go into here. What the entire thing means though is that Liverpool Football Club is still being crippled from the inside out with the machinations of Hicks, Gilette and their banks.
Liverpool had a decent result this afternoon, a draw at St. Andrews is not something to take lightly. However their performance overall was pretty poor; Birmingham had a simple game plan, get the ball in the air and it was effective. Liverpool by contrast tried to move the ball through midfield, however as they passed the half way line it often turned into 4 on 8 and they couldn’t get any clear cut opportunities. In the end a draw was probably a fair result but should it be something Liverpool settle for this type of result was exactly that which had some sections of the Liverpool support calling for Benitez’ resignation.
From my (neutral) perspective I expected more from Liverpool this season, as I watched the game this afternoon I was struck by the negativity on display. Chelsea and Manchester United who Liverpool used to consider their peers both played away this weekend but both played attacking football, for Manchester United it came back to haunt them as they tired terribly at then end of the 90 minutes. United in particular have shown flexibility in how they play opting for one forward against Everton but using two against Fulham. With a lack of progress on the field and off it so far for Reds fans this season it has unfortunately been more of the same from their club.