Liverpool suffered their first defeat in nine matches at Upton Park yesterday as the Reds’ faint hopes of snatching a top-four spot were surely extinguished.
Having seen Spurs lose to Blackpool midweek, and with Chelsea not in league action until Tuesday evening, Liverpool had a chance to put pressure on the two sides immediately above them against a bottom-of-the-league West Ham outfit, who had won just once in their past six league fixtures.
However, Liverpool were second best for the majority of the game and the home side deservedly took the three points; goals from Scott Parker, Demba Ba and Carlton Cole proving enough despite a Glen Johnson tap-in with five minutes left on the clock which brought the possibility of snatching a point.
In truth, Liverpool looked sluggish and devoid of ideas for too much of this game. The passing and movement at the club has improved considerably over the past month or so, paving the way for many of the victories during this period which Liverpool have amassed, but yesterday it was in scant evidence. Too many players, especially in midfield, wanted to take too many touches on the ball and did not look to move it on quickly. With little or no movement up front for large portions of the game, the midfield battle was all too easily won by the Hammers, with Hitzelsberger and Parker overrunning Lucas Leiva at times, not helped by the obvious lack of match practice from Steven Gerrard.
Gerrard was beyond poor; his passing and set pieces were well below the high standard expected of him. His shot from twenty yards in the second half, which was tipped over by ‘keeper Rob Green, was one of the few positive contributions the skipper managed during this match as he struggled to find the rhythm of his play and resorted to trying to do too much himself. It has been remarked in many places that Gerrard’s most effective position is not in the centre of midfield but in a more advanced role behind the forward; not only is it his most effective area but it is, it must be said, also the area where he affects Liverpool’s defensive wall the least.
Liverpool’s captain is a great player, but his awareness at times when his team is without the ball is poor. For the first goal, he could certainly have done more to protect a large area behind him, which an opponent utilised to set up the goal for Parker. It’s not the first time Gerrard’s lack of tracking back has come at the expense of a goal, and playing in a central midfield “2” he cannot afford to do this.
Dirk Kuyt and Martin Skrtel are two first team players for Liverpool, but both had poor games against the Hammers, which follows a pattern set over much of the past season and even before.
While Kuyt’s ability to pop up with an important goal at times, as well as his often-cited work-rate, tactical responsibility and professionalism, makes him a likely figure to remain at the club beyond the end of the season, his technique and decision making can leave a lot to be desired at times.
Martin Skrtel has no such redeeming qualities in the goalscoring department, which you might expect from a defender. However, his constant and unerring ability to give away pointless free-kicks by jumping in front of attackers to win ‘nothing’ balls, his sub-standard aerial ability and his surprising lack of strength at times – showcased by Carlton Cole, of all people – mean that while he is a ‘good’ defender, he will never be a great one. And to become a great team again, Liverpool need to re-build a great defence.
Further forward, Luis Suarez was a bright spot in an otherwise murky Liverpool display yesterday. This is not coincidence. On Thursday evening, Liverpool fielded nine players from the start who played a large part in the game against West Ham. Of the others, Gerrard was returning from injury, Suarez was ineligible for the Europa League game, while Agger missed out versus West Ham through injury sustained in the Sparta match. With Martin Kelly and Raul Meireles picking up injuries at Upton Park as well, fatigue and tiredness will be taking its toll on the team around this time of year. Another factor towards that was the lack of rotation of the first team under the previous manager Roy Hodgson, who fielded a “full strength” eleven almost every league game.
While this defeat in no way should undo all the hard work put in by the team over the past month or so, it is important Liverpool get back to winning ways as quickly as possible. Of course this will not be easy, given the next match is at home against league leaders Manchester United – but then again, what better game to do it in?
For all the negatives to take out of yesterday’s game, and there were unfortunately quite a few, it is worth acknowledging that the understandings being built up all over the pitch between Meireles and Suarez, or Kuyt and Kelly, were still in evidence at times and are still very much in their infancy. Suarez played only his third game for the Reds and already he has scored once, set up one goal and struck the woodwork twice; his footwork and swift changes of direction make him a real handful for defenders and he has shown enough in this short time to suggest that once his team-mates get to know his runs, Luis will be a great supply of goals for the Reds.
In addition, record signing Andy Carroll is yet to figure for his new club and will be another option for the team which is still trying to find its way in attack.
I suppose overall this has been rather a negative article – though not exactly my intention, it does certainly show that while Liverpool are improving – and they still are, regardless of one defeat – there is still a lot of work to do. From the moments that Rafa was replaced by Roy, Aquilani and Insua were loaned out and replaced by the likes of Konchesky and Poulsen, this was always going to be a season of recovery and patching up. The important thing is to build as many positive relationships on the pitch throughout the club as possible, and carry these over into next season.
If Liverpool finish the season in sixth place in the league – where they currently sit – it will have been an improvement on last season’s placing and a huge improvement on when Dalglish took over in January. Though the Europa League is not the target for the Anfield club, qualifying for it again next season (which is not, by the way, guaranteed with a sixth place finish) will provide the chance of competing for a trophy, one which we must lay a claim to winning this year too, the chance of blooding further the promising youngsters at the club in the atmosphere and environment of Continental football, and will still lure quality players to the club in the summer transfer window.
The decline of the club over the past twenty months has been halted. One defeat does not alter that. It will take some time, a lot of hard work and dedication and some very smart and brave decisions to reverse it entirely.
But the club is back on the rise now, everyone is pulling in the same direction, and good times are surely still ahead.