"What do you mean you've hurt 'your' knee, it's Liverpool's knee" - Bill Shankly.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

This season's defense - an Attack!


Liverpool have started every season under Rafa with a worse defence than their main rivals. There are several reasons why we haven’t put in a serious title bid in the last four seasons and most of them fall easily off the tongue – lack of money, injuries, lack of depth in the squad, off the field public suicide. But the main reason has been our defence.  

I say this in full knowledge that Rafa’s teams have conceded fewer goals than Arsenal (three times) and Man Utd (once). I also know that Pepe Reina (deservedly) has won the Golden Gloves in his first two seasons here. But I’m not talking about blocking attacks, which we’ve been supremely good at. I’m talking about our relative inability to attack from the back. Unlike the other three we have been poor at creating plays from the defence. This season, hopefully, things will be very different. This season our defence might become an effective first line of attack.

The theory
There is, of course,  an old-fashioned view in football that the prime job of the back-4 is to defend. If there’s anything left over after the opposition striker has been shimmied off the ball or the winger bundled into touch, then that’s very nice. But only in the sense that the packaging on a birthday present is very nice. You can do without it. Well, this idea may have been valid a few years ago in English football when a centre-back was judged purely on his ability to clear his lines and marshal the offside plan (Eye-Ore!), but not anymore. Today the job of the back-4 is to do both – to defend and attack. A successful back-4 has to be able defend and attack equally well and to switch between the two without pausing, taking a mental breather, or acquiring an alien mind-set. This means everybody. If a single part of the unit is not happy on the ball that simply increases the burden on the others and reduces the potency of the whole. 

In the modern game defenders spend a longer time with the ball at their feet than anyone else in the team. It’s a crime if they can’t use that time to cause the opposition problems. A back-4 of Finnan-Carragher-Hyypia-Riise could be heroic in defence. It often was. But ask it to attack and you could almost see the thought-bubbles full of agonised question marks floating free from the players’ skulls.  

The tradition 
We know what it takes at Liverpool because we’ve had what it takes. We developed creative defences far earlier than anyone else in England. Cloughie’s teams – especially the Derby one – could be creative at the back but it was Liverpool who possessed a near-monopoly of defenders who took their offensive duties seriously. Thompson, Smith, Hughes, Lawrenson, Gillespie and – of course – the great Alan Hansen. Hansen often jokes today that he never crossed the half-way line. First of all that’s not true. Jocky sometimes carried the ball at high speed into the opposition penalty area where more often than not he’d bump into four or five unmarked attackers queuing up to shoot. But even in his later years, when the knees had gone, Hansen could still attack from the back. A skilful centre back, as Agger has repeatedly shown, doesn’t have to move a great distance with the ball to delete two opponents from the game and set up an attack. He just has to do it quickly. 

On the wings, too, we’ve had entrepreneurial full-backs. Lawler, Nicol, Neal, the criminally underrated Lindsay and the long-lamented Rob Jones. Rolls-Royce footballers in unglamorous positions, they were key to whatever success the teams they played in enjoyed. What other right-back has turned up in open play in an inside-left position to put a team 1-0 ahead in the European Cup final? For that matter what other left-back has blasted his way into the penalty box to fire his team 1-0 ahead in a European Cup final? The answer to both, of course, is our full-backs, Zico and Barney – players of varying talent, I think, but both holding a similar belief that the team they played for was flexible and ingenious enough to cover for an inspired moment’s walkabout. 

The inheritance
I admire what Rafa has achieved with our defence since 2004. Under Houllier the back-4 was valiant but it was not equipped for the modern game – especially in Europe. Even when Liverpool had the ball the defence was square! I mean, what better way than a square defence for saying to a colleague “for Christ’s sake don’t pass the thing to me”? Rafa changed all that. He staggered the defence when we had possession. He took an inadequate full-back and made the best centre-back stopper in the world out of Carragher. He freed up big Sam’s game and allowed him to try and work his way out of a problem rather than just whack the ball up the field all the time (something that Houllier seemed to have red-lined ever since Henchoz once screwed up at White Hart Lane). He made a European-Cup winner out of the lamentable Riise and he turned Finnan into the marauding right-back he’d once been at Fulham. 

But it was still not enough. Not enough to win the league anyway. That back-4 made a great defence, but it was not an attack. Not by a long way. 

The competition
I don’t want to dwell too much on the others. We can briefly admire them, especially the full backs. Evra, Clichy, Sagna, Ashley Cole (Christ, I said it) – all of them add such attacking dynamism to their teams. The centre backs too are, on the whole, quick with the ball and happy to have it at their feet. Carvalho, in particular, is a master at turning defensive play into an attacking play in a blink of an eye. 

We saw in the Euros how some of the most eye-catching players were positioned at full-back. Boswinga, Zhirkov, Lahm, Ramos, even van Bronckhurst – all of them (apart from maybe Lahm) did well at the back. But mainly they did well in attack, stretching play, frequently getting beyond their own ‘wingers’, always looking to drive into the opposition half. I don’t know if it was Guus Hidddink who pioneered this style of full-back play but he certainly perfected it – at South Korea, PSV, and now Russia. And not one of his full backs, at any of these teams, was an established star. 

The future 
Clearly Rafa has made the full-back positions his priority over the summer. Both Degen and Dossena are meant to be attacking full backs with plenty of pace – men who think about the offensive side of their game as much as the defensive. Degen, it’s even been said by Dortmund fans, isn’t that much of a defender (something he seemed a bit too keen to prove against Lucerne) – a fact that Rafa seems uncharacteristically blasé about at the moment. It’s possible, of course, that Degen will end up being Kuyt’s understudy on the right of midfield rather than a proper right-back, but I doubt it. It’s more likely that he and Arbeloa will be vying for the number 2 spot.  Spain’s squad player versus Switzerland’s squad player. It ought to be no contest. We’ll see. 

Dossena looks a safer bet and comes with a reputation for having elite pace. I like the sound of that. If Babel continues on the left hand side then we shall need a left full-back who can attack that area on the wing that Babel always vacates when he’s running with the ball. This is a great opportunity for the Italian lad. My guess is that a lot of opposition right-backs will have a wretched time against the Babel-Dossena combo this year. I’m a Fabio Aurelio fan. He sees passes, especially infield passes, that other full-backs fail to spot. But, as always with Fabio, he’s likely to prove more of a handful for the physicians than the footballers. 

And then the centre backs. I think Rafa will soon have to make the hardest decision of his coaching career. We now have four excellent centre-backs – all of them with proven ability, all of them keen to play. No one likes to rotate centre-halves. It’s not done. Barring injuries, therefore, Rafa will probably end up with a consistent centre-back pairing for the league. Who will be in it? 

I said earlier that “if a single part of the unit is not happy on the ball that simply increases the burden on the others and reduces the potency of the whole”. For that reason I would look to play Agger and Skrtel. For me they are the best centre backs we possess. They are both quick, decisive and positionally aware. They both recycle the ball quickly when they get it. They are the most attack-minded centre-back pairing we have and may quite easily turn out to be the best in the Premier League. They are also both at a stage in their careers where they will be wanting regular first-team football. Treading water at this point in their careers is no good at all – especially for Agger who’s already missed out on a whole season of football. 

Agger’s ability to attack space with the ball is already famous. He knows it’s a crime to dawdle even if there’s bags of time, and he has the pace to make for a gap in the opposition’s front line if he’s invited in. He’s also the consummate ‘picture-changer’. If nothing appears on in front of him, Agger is happy to move a few yards with the ball (rapidly) to see whether the picture is different from somewhere else. That’s when gaps open up and that’s why Liverpool are able to build quickly from the back when Agger plays. Of course Agger and Skrtel have yet to play together. It’s possible that there’ll be absolutely no rapport between them. But that’s highly unlikely. My own guess is that Skrtel, because of his similar ability to move with the ball at his feet, will actually make things a lot easier for Agger – pretty much as Lawrenson made things easier for Hansen. When you get two centre backs who have the ability to carry the ball it doesn’t half make things difficult for the opposition attack. You can’t sit back and let them come on to you – as teams do with Carragher and Hyypia – because they’ll just keep coming forward at pace. Instead of the floated nothing-ball into a crowded forward area you’ll probably end up with an extra, unmarked, man joining the attack at high speed. That’s usually fatal. 

Of course I feel like a regicide in relegating Carragher. Carragher is the King of the Kop. The player who has most defined Rafa’s first age at Anfield. But there are two reasons why he might not play such a prominent role in the second age. Firstly, he’s already playing to the maximum of his ability. He has been for several years. But with wear and tear – and let’s face it Carra has acquired a hell of a lot of it over the years – he’s now straining to keep in touch with the standards he’s set himself. Jamie is the sort of defender who, even at the peak of his powers, was all about stretching that extra impossible yard to nick the ball away or block a shot. Some of the blocks he produced echoed round the football world. Like the one against Robben in the first Semi at Anfield or the cramp-defying block in extra time in the Final. They were miraculous. But Jamie is all about driving the machine to the extreme – he was so good, at his peak, because he left nothing in reserve. So the question is ‘what happens when Carragher can no longer push himself to these physical limits?’ A long time ago a similar all-action defender, Emlyn Hughes, held the European Cup aloft twice in two years. Twelve months later a kid called Hansen had nicked his place. It happens. 

The second reason why Jamie might lose his automatic spot is to do with the back-4 as an attacking unit. Jamie does dawdle on the ball when he gets it. He cannot run into the gaps and once he’s stopped he finds it difficult to start again. Rather than attack open space and dishevel the  opposition Carra prefers to wait for Alonso or Mascherano to come back and start the attack themselves. This means we often start moves with 5 or 6 men already behind the ball. No wonder our wingers have such a thin time of it. No defender is better suited to a siege than Carragher. No question about that. When Liverpool are under the cosh for most of the match, defending deep, you want him in your side. But with the team – hopefully – playing more in the opponent’s half this season, and with a high line, his qualities are a bit less important.  

And what of Sami? Until Skrtel found his groove I thought he was our best defender last season. But I don’t think Hyypia responds well to rotation either. He can take an age – sometimes 4 or 5 games – to get up to speed once he’s a missed a few. That’s no good for a centre back. You either give Sam the lion’s share of the games or you use him in an emergency. 

So
I’m excited by what lies ahead. I honestly don’t think that any of our other main rivals have such an obvious way of improving as we do. If the boys can inject more pace and adventure into our defensive unit then the whole team will begin to change character. If the ball gets recycled quicker then there will be more space and time for players like Babel and…..whoever ends up on the right-wing.  But I don't want to fly that kuyt. 

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Quote of the moment

Defying belief however, is a market Benitez has cornered quite well. The moment you think Benitez is clueless, he defies it by pulling off a result of majesty, like the one achieved in Madrid. The moment he is hailed a genius, he masterminds toothless surrender to a team going nowhere. In the ongoing Anfield power struggle, just when he was cornered by the firing squad, the Spaniard's demise at Liverpool looking practically assured with the ominous suspension of betting by the bookmakers, he squeezes out through a narrow trapdoor and eliminates Rick Parry. Rafa Benitez is Keyzer Soze.
- Just Football blog: The Curious Beast that is Football 28 Feb 2009