Stevie and El Nino having fun at last
Finally, Liverpool fans have reason to believe again, even if our beloved football club is currently the object of a bizarre game of chicken between rival billionaire investors. On the pitch, we’re finally producing the goods, in a sometimes poetic, sometimes tidily efficient manner that suggests the players have finally found the confidence to prevail and kill games off. It’s too late now, to actually win the thing, but there are glimmers, finally, of a side that plays like champions.
One reason, of course, is the fact that Fernando Torres is such a ruthlessly efficient finisher that even when he showed up for work sick, last Wednesday against West Ham, he completed a hatrick because of the half-chances that came his way. With a striker like that in the ranks, you can always pull a victory out of the hat in the dying seconds. He has, in every sense, made all the difference this season — without his goals we’d not be in with a shout even for Champion’s League qualification. Rotation be damned, Torres needs to play whenever he’s fit. And, of course, his performance has revealed two other uncomfortable truths: None of the rest of our strikers, Peter Crouch, Dirk Kuyt and Andrei Voronin, is fit to lead the line. Kuyt remains very useful as a support striker, his tireless running and ability to create chances for his more illustrious partner invaluable — particularly in our new formation. (See more below, because I think the formation is the key.) Crouch is valuable only as a kind of novelty act, an impact substitute who can change the game when introduced late on and cause havoc in a settled defense by the Route 1 options he offers. But much as I love the lad, Crouchinho doesn’t have the pace to unsettle top-drawer defenses. He’ll have to get used to the bench if he wants a future at Anfield, because in the new system, he doesn’t have much to offer in a first-choice lineup.
Other individuals have stepped up their game late in the season: Stevie G is finally enjoying himself, having established the kind of magic intuitive partnership with Torres that he once had with Michael Owen, and that will produce bucketloads of goals. Xabi Alonso is back, and, I would argue, indispensable to the new system — I know there’s going to be a strong move from Real Madrid to tempt him away, but he really is essential to our new system and must be kept at all costs.
And, of course, Javier Mascherano has been immense all season — Torres would get the nod for the greatest bag of goals for the club since Robbie Fowler, and deservedly so — but I can’t help thinking that El Jefecito should be a contender for our player of the season.
Of the wide players, Ryan Babel has made the difference in recent matches, proving that Harry Kewell should be sent to the knacker’s yard as he presents a real threat on the left that can beat men for pace and guile, and score goals (albeit only when he transfers the ball onto his right foot, which smarter full backs are going to figure out quickly and force him outside). Yossi Benayoun is a mixed back, although also a useful impact sub. Jermaine Pennant, not yet convincing, although a lot better now than a year ago.
We’ve suffered badly without Danny Agger, the sort of mobile central defender who can bring the ball out of defense and pass like Alonso rather than like Carra. (Agger, like Alan Hansen, is the sort of center half who would be more likely to score with his feet than with his head.) Sami Hyppia has been a marvelous servant to the club, and has not failed us, but his lack of pace at 34 has forced us to defend very deep, to our cost… Not surprising that the quick adaptation of Martin Skrtel to the English game has seen us look more convincing when he’s alongside Carra than when Sami is. Steve Finnan and John Arne Riise look to have become squad players rather than first-teamers, now, having to make way for Alvaro Arbeloa and Fabio Aurelio.
The real difference in recent weeks, though, has been that Rafa has finally settled on a formation that gets the most out of his best available players — a 4-2-3-1. Having Masch and Xabi patrol at the base of the midfield not only screens the defense, it allows Xabi to do what he does best and orchestrate our game, setting its pace and rhythm with his passing. It also resolves the problem of how to play him, Masch and Stevie in the same side without forcing Stevie on to the right — by giving Stevie the free role behind the strikers, a role he is clearly relishing. The attacking trident allows the winger on the dead side of play to drift in to support Torres, along with Stevie. And we’ve seen plenty of games now in which Arbeloa and Kuyt, and Aurelio and Babel, have combined outstandingly going forward. When we’re on the attack, this formation quickly gets five men in and around the opposition box — Torres, the wide men (Kuyt and Babel), Stevie and one of the full backs, with Xabi and Masch securing the perimeter. Besides the return to form of some of the players, that system — versions of which have been used by Chelsea in their best Mourinho times, Man United, sometimes Arsenal — as well as by France in the last World Cup — has made all the difference in recent weeks. It also makes a lot more sense of rotation, because there’s a more clearly defined system into which the players can be slotted (as when Lucas replaced Masch last weekend).
At the end of the storm, there’s a golden sky… and we’ll get there with Masch, Xabi, Stevie and Torres (not to mention Carra and Agger) as the spine our our 4-2-3-1…