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Liverpool v Braga – some thoughts

March 19, 2011

Having had over 24 hours to consider Liverpool’s Europa League exit, it is clear that much work is needed in the summer. That much was evident before Thursday night’s game, but the performance against Braga again highlighted deficiencies in certain areas.

1. The big man and the easy option

Andy Carroll’s first start in a red shirt confirmed a certain fear – we could be seeing the return of the long ball. It’s an easy way to play, particularly for centre-backs like Jamie Carragher and Martin Skrtel who don’t have Agger’s passing ability, but it’s very one-dimensional, not to mention ugly. When Peter Crouch signed for the club in 2006 he acted as a magnet for the ball. Defenders were quick to look for him when they had possession. The presence of a lanky giant up front allowed laziness to creep in.

The signing of Carroll certainly allows for aerial balls to be played to him; he wouldn’t have been signed were Dalglish unprepared to play that way. But it is important that the team varies its style of play. This will make it harder for opposing teams to defend against and mean that Carroll’s ability in the air is just one aspect of the team’s attacking play. It is also worth bearing in mind that, as Liverpool learnt to their cost this season when playing at St James’s Park, there is more to Carroll’s game than heading.

Liverpool’s style of play on Thursday night points to two further conclusions…

2. Width and crossing

Obviously moments will arrive when a cross into the box for Carroll and others is the best option. Indeed, it was a shame that the number 29 (thanks UEFA) was dealing with so much with his back to goal against Braga, rarely having crosses from open play to attack. Liverpool lack width. The team has lacked excellent wingers for years, although in recent seasons the likes of Albert Rieira, Jermaine Pennant and Mark Gonzalez have attempted to give the team some attacking influence on the flanks. With Joe Cole, Dirk Kuyt and Maxi Rodriguez doing no more than flirting with the touchline on Thursday, Liverpool were always going to struggle to prevent their play from becoming narrow.

On the left both Maxi and Cole routinely cut inside onto their favoured right foot. On the right Kuyt – assisted by Glen Johnson at times – attempted to get crosses in, but ultimately that’s not the strongest part of his game. Kuyt definitely has a role to play within the squad, but if we’re looking for someone who can hog the right touchline, beat the opposing left back and put in a good cross, he’s not the man. This is an area that needs to be addressed in the summer. With such an excellent header of the ball up front, it would be a shame if his forehead only ever connected with long punts from the back.

The final point about width relates to the full-backs. Johnson offers genuine width down the right-hand side when playing on that flank. The left is a different matter. When Johnson has played there this season (when Martin Kelly has been on the right) he has got forward but, being right-footed, he has looked to come inside. Against Braga, Danny Wilson played at left-back. He’s a fine young player, but he’s not a full-back who bombs forward like Ashley Cole. Indeed, he’s more comfortable in the centre. Fabio Aurelio – the alternative in that position – is often injured, and is slow when fit. A left-back who can offer support to whoever is playing left-midfield is a priority in the summer. (It will be interesting to see what happens to Emiliano Insua, currently on loan at Galatasaray and whose contract at Anfield expires at the end of the season.)

3. The importance of keeping Agger

Daniel Agger is Liverpool’s best centre-back. His superiority over his contemporaries in that position is most noticeable when it comes to the use of the ball. I am not talking about his goals here, although they have been impressive – the goalkeepers of Cardiff, West Ham and Blackburn will attest to that. I am talking about Agger’s passing ability. Whether it be a long pass out to the wing, a short ball to move the play along or bringing the ball out of defence before moving it on to a teammate, Agger is comfortable. The evidence from Thursday and in the past is that Skrtel and Carragher do not possess these skills. Agger is too good a defender to lose.

And finally, it is worth considering…

4. The contrasting fortunes of Cole and Aquilani

Alberto Aquilani was a typical Benitez transfer failure, Joe Cole was a very good English player who just needed an arm around the shoulder and a stage on which to prove himself once and for all. Or so the story went.

Cole’s season has not been helped by injury, but when he has played he has failed to live up to expectations. His supporters argue that he has been played out on the wing – a reason his career stalled in the first place – rather than ‘in the hole’ behind the striker(s). Yet Liverpool supporters still expected more from their number 10. He has played from the left plenty of times before – for club and country – and often had success there. The success of Gerrard in that central attacking role in recent years coupled with the joy Raul Meireles has found there this season mean that Cole is unlikely to find a chance to shine anywhere other than the wing. His failure to nail down a regular starting position could see him leave the club in the summer.

Aquilani, by contrast, has enjoyed something of a revival this season. His only season at Anfield was hit by injury, but he looked as though he was approaching something resembling form towards the back end of the 2009-10 season. He was beginning to show off his passing ability and his goal against Atlético Madrid in the Europa League showed he could be a threat. Loaned out to Juventus this season, he has played 23 games in Serie A, scoring twice and impressing many. With his future unclear – Juventus have an option to buy him should they wish – it would be interesting to see if he would fit in with Dalglish’s plan for next season should be return to Liverpool. There should certainly be a place for him.

The game against Braga is likely to be the last European game Anfield hosts until 2012 at the earliest. Had common sense formed a part of UEFA’s rules then Luis Suarez could have played. The result may have been different then, as indeed it might have been had Steven Gerrard been fit. Let us hope that next time the Reds entertain a team from the continent, they are playing a more refined game.

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