Five games, fifteen goals conceded.
Whatever way you look at it and regardless of the standard of opposition, that is not a welcome statistic, nor one which would usually be associated with Liverpool Football Club.
It’s just a couple of weeks before the 2011-12 Premier League season kicks off and Liverpool appear to still have more than just one or two creases to iron out within the side.
Often during a period of change for a club, on-the-field performances can take a hit as a result of new faces, changing targets and fan expectancy. However, none of this really should be affecting the Reds.
Liverpool’s target this season is what it has always been – finish in the top four and qualify for the Champions League, so that hasn’t changed. Don’t confuse ‘targets’ with ‘aims’ – the eventual aim is of course to win the league, but the minimum requirement, the target, is to break back into the top four.
Fan expectancy can fluctuate wildly, but again, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to people that Liverpool fans expect success; that is what we have been brought up on and that is what we aspire to get back to. In the main part, fans realise that success is not an instant reward and that there is a long process to get through, though of course some demand immediate returns in the form of constant silverware.
And changing faces? Well, unlike previous summers, I don’t think we’ll be seeing the back of too many people who we wouldn’t really want to be rid of, Alberto Aquilani potentially aside. The new players, Henderson, Adam, Downing and Doni, have settled in well and quickly and have arguably been some of the most consistent players during this pre-season, so that doesn’t appear to be much of a factor either.
So why is it that Liverpool have conceded three goals every match this summer?
Sunray Cave, Malaysia XI, Hull City, Galatasary, Valerenga; probably not a list of teams which have an awful lot in common with each other. Each of those five sides have put three past the red (and grey, and white) of Liverpool this pre-season. Valencia await in the final friendly and with the likes of Soldado, Mata and Aduriz providing the ammunition there is every chance that the nets at the Kop and Anfield Road ends will bulge again for the away side.
A week later Liverpool face Sunderland at home – the beginning of the new season and the first full term in charge for Kenny Dalglish since his return.
Will the Reds be ready in defence? Will they find their resolute performances which saw four clean sheets in February, three in four games in March, and three more in four games in April and May?
If they will be, why can’t they do it now, only a week or two before hand?
Let’s look at this objectively:
In five friendly matches, Liverpool have fielded five goalkeepers. Peter Gulacsi, Brad Jones, Martin Hansen, Alexander Doni and, finally last night, Pepe Reina.
The constant changing of a goalkeeper behind a defence – any defence – will always have a degenerative effect on the organisation of the team. We all know Reina excels at commanding the players in front of him and ensures that areas are properly monitored at set pieces. Brad Jones is the opposite of that, preferring to remain rooted inside his six yard area letting a more deep-lying defence do its job before he has to.
Hansen and Gulacsi are untested at first team level and nerves will no doubt have played a part in them attempting to direct the more experienced players in front of them – certainly Hansen’s spill on the Asian tour betrayed hints of that inexperience.
Then Doni, the new arrival from Roma, was only making his debut against Hull City. I don’t know how good his command of English is but I’m sure that after only a couple of training sessions he isn’t quite yet up to speed with how Dalglish and Steve Clarke like to organise the defence, where they hold the line, how they mark and many other facets of the defensive system.
Pepe Reina only returned to the fold against Valerenga after sitting out all summer recovering from a double hernia operation. He’s a great ‘keeper but even the best might take more than twenty minutes into their first game back to shake off the rustiness, even in something as automatic as communication.
Next we can look at the defenders who have played.
How many defenders would you expect to feature during the league campaign in a run of five matches? Just four, repeated each match? Throw in a few subs and make it six? An injury, maybe seven?
In these five matches no less than TWELVE defenders have featured at various times; John Flanagan, Jamie Carragher, Danny Wilson, Jack Robinson, Martin Kelly, Danny Agger, Soto Kyrgiakos, Andre Wisdom, Emiliano Insua, Dani Ayala, Glen Johnson and Stephen Sama have all played in different defensive roles, while outcast Philipp Degen also played, though in midfield.
While you could argue that the full backs have the same role regardless of who plays left or right, some of them have played on both sides. They have all played next to different team mates and with alternating players ahead of them in midfield. They have played different amounts of minutes and some, such as Johnson, have only just returned from injury. Fabio Aurelio, arguably the first choice left back at present when he can keep himself fit for more than five minutes at a time, hasn’t even made the pitch yet this summer.
Centrally, last season’s ever-present Martin Skrtel has yet to play as he recovers from a calf injury. The pairing in the middle has been asvaried and mixed up as a lucky dip fantasy football team. Kelly and Wilson barely played in the centre at all between them last season and have both been asked to feature there in the pre-season.
Throw in the added fact that ahead of the defence, the first choice organiser, water-carrier, ball-winner and loose-ball-picker-upper has been absent all summer through international commitments (along with the energy and determination that Lucas Leiva brings to the side) and it is clear that there are more than enough circumstances surrounding the defence at present that we shouldn’t be surprised that goals are being conceded.
Look also at the times that lots of the goals have been conceded: vs Malaysia, goals went in after 79 and 80 minutes; against Sunray on 90 and 91, Galatasary scored one after 83 minutes and Valerenga equalised last night three minutes into stoppage time.
Six goals out of the fifteen scored in or around the last ten minutes of the game.
This is pre-season; aside from the fact that the games mean nothing, the players are having to get through an awful lot of fitness and conditioning work prior to and after matches. Late on in essentially meaningless games there is a high chance that due to tiredness, lack of concentration or just that small edge of sharpness which comes as standard in Premier League games is missing – leading to goals needlessly conceded.
Of course we shouldn’t be happy that the Reds are conceding a lot of goals, nor should we ignore the fact. But it also shouldn’t be made to be a bigger issue than it is.
Its not an elephant in the room that nobody wants to see – Reina, Kuyt and Dalglish himself have already all alluded to the need to improve and I’m sure that the whole squad will get a thorough work out in the finer points of defending back at Melwood this week.
There are more than four weeks left of the transfer window and it is still possible that defensive reinforcements will arrive. But even if they don’t, it is not that big a deal.
Come Saturday 13th August, Reina will be in goal, Carragher and (presuming he stays injury-free) Agger will play in the centre and Glen Johnson will man one full back area with Dalglish likely to choose between Kelly, Flanagan and Robinson for the other, assuming nobody new arrives before then.
Lucas will be back, the formation and playing system will be decided upon, set and practised endlessly and the Kop will be so busy roaring Kuyt, Carroll et al on to score goals that the defending will take care of itself as Liverpool seek to start the season with a win. Hopefully there won’t even be that much to be done as Sunderland will have their own problems in integrating an entire new XI to play together.
Personally speaking, I am more concerned with Liverpool stepping things up with their movement, ball retention and energy, as well as getting more support to Carroll so things don’t have to be fired towards his head every time, rather than worrying about conceding goals and bringing in a new centre back. If Agger is fit he is better than anybody else we can bring in so I’m not bothered about arguing over Dann, Shawcross or anyone else.
But if you still aren’t convinced and think that stemming the flow of incoming goals before the match against Valencia is definitely, absolutely, can’t-possibly-be-anything-more-important-to-focus-on more essential, then ponder on this:
In the summer of 2006, Liverpool’s last friendly was against lowly German opposition Mainz. They battered us 5-0.
Later that season, we went all the way to the Champions League final in Athens.
So do pre-season issues and problems reflect on how the season is going to pan out? Not a chance. Just look at Bruno Cheyrou’s heroics before the serious games started.
So don’t worry about it. Don’t panic. Don’t criticise and write off the experienced stars and the promising youngsters, just because a bunch of players you’ve never heard of scored a few goals one month against us.
After all… it’s only pre-season.