Yet another somewhat disappointing result on the back of another international break. Back in September, Liverpool went into the first international break of the season beating Manchester United at home, but returned and played out a bizarre 2-2 draw with Jonjo Shelvey and Swansea City at the Liberty Stadium. This time around, another 2-2 draw was played, this time at St. James’ Park against Alan Pardew’s French Toon army.
It appeared right from the beginning that Pardew got his tactics right, stifling Liverpool’s possession play and snuffing out Brendan Rodgers’ 3-4-1-2 formation. The Reds looked leggy too, tired from all the traveling and the two international games in the past week or so. Daniel Sturridge looked off his game, his heavy involvement in the two Wembley qualifiers seeming to take a toll on him. Luis Suarez returned from South America – always a long trip no matter how you look at it. Victor Moses involvement in the African continent also meant he had a tiring plane ride back.
Add on to all the traveling, Glen Johnson and Aly Cissokho returned to the starting eleven for the first time since their respective injuries around one and a half months ago. Both were still looking for match fitness and were deployed in arguably one of the major roles in this formation, wing-back. Loic Remy and Yoann Gourcuff, along with their respective overlapping full-backs Davide Santon and Mathieu Debuchy, were always going to outnumber Liverpool’s unfit wing-backs whenever they doubled up on them.
This inevitably pulled either Jordan Henderson or Steven Gerrard to either flank to help out number-wise, but this in turn left space for Yohan Cabaye and Moussa Sissoko to exploit, one that Cabaye did to perfection. His long range shot could have been better defended by Mamadou Sakho, whose tame attempt to close down Cabaye’s effort only served to block the view of Simon Mignolet, leaving the goalkeeper with no chance whatsoever.
Liverpool got the upper hand late into the first half, when Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa held Suarez back in the box as the Uruguayan was about to bring a racking pass down. Being last man, Yanga-Mbiwa had to choice but to be sent off, and Steven Gerrard slotted home his 100th league goal of the season. 1-1 at the break with the prospect of a full half with a man advantage. Rodgers’ side should have gone on to win.
Instead, Liverpool’s frailties at set-pieces proved their undoing again. Cabaye’s lofted free-kick evaded everyone before substitute Paul Dummett sneaked around, escaping the attentions of Sakho and Cissokho in the process, to slot home from close range.
With Sakho arguably having a role to play in both goals, and in part as he picked up a knock, he came off for Luis Alberto as Rodgers switched to a 4-4-2, pushing Moses from number 10 to the left wing. It was a good move by Rodgers as now Liverpool could double up on each flanks, with Cissokho and Johnson providing more threat and width.
Only the brilliance of Suarez in the box got Liverpool their equalizer as he dribbled his way towards the byline before lifting the ball over Tim Krul to allow Sturridge to head home. Though the Englishman did not have his best game for Liverpool, at least he managed to be at the right place at the right time to head home the equalizer. By then there was 20 minutes to go, Liverpool should have grabbed the winner.
Instead, like in the first half, though their many corners found the heads of a Red, none could direct their header towards goal. Krul had no saves from any of Liverpool’s headers from the many corners during this game. A number of long shots from Henderson and then Alberto close to the end summed up Liverpool’s afternoon. The return of Philippe Coutinho could not have come much earlier.
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Liverpool really need to improve their set-pieces in both penalty boxes. The marking and concentration levels during defensive corners or free-kicks are just not good enough. Dejan Lovren, Javier Hernandez, Dwight Gayle and now Paul Dummett can all claim to have exploited Liverpool’s weakness at set-pieces with a goal from one. This ever-growing list has to stop. At the other end, Martin Skrtel, Sakho, even Suarez amongst others were able to connect to deliveries from corners, but all could only head wide, not even on target. It just seems Liverpool has no threat from set-pieces. Every time the Reds have a corner, the opponents have nothing to fear, really.
Steve Clarke’s West Bromwich Albion will definitely look into this weakness of the Reds at Anfield next weekend. Rodgers will definitely want to stick to this 3-4-1-2 formation for at least one more game, especially with Coutinho back and hopefully getting a start, to see if this formation is any good with his full strength side. Rodgers will hope to have Jose Enrique back again, the Spaniard’s offensive abilities sorely missed in this draw as Cissokho looked one-dimensional while on the attack.
However, Rodgers will need to fine tune his plan A and plan C. The more orthodox 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 he used to deploy will need to be revisited on the training ground again. Whether Suarez out on the left or in behind, or Sturridge on the right to accommodate for Suarez up front, Rodgers will have to figure something out. As for plan C, a 4-4-2 like the one he switched to today, he will have to look for the right personnel to fit into the wide midfield berths.
Alberto deserves more of a chance too. Moses should miss out even if Coutinho is not fully fit, one of Joe Allen or Alberto should take his place, or Henderson pushed forward with Lucas Leiva back in the side. Sakho should be dropped as well, giving Daniel Agger a chance to win back a permanent place in the team.
FF’s MotM against Newcastle, Skrtel, should be allowed to continue his fine form – personified by his two last-ditched tackles that bailed Liverpool out twice. Liverpool, now back in 3rd, will need to find a way to avenge their 2-0 home loss to Clarke’s West Brom team last season, in order to keep their top 4 aspirations well and truly alive.