1) A Mersey killing
Well that’s pretty much that then. Technically it might well still be possible to finish strongly and even sneak into Europe. But this was a performance that screamed ‘it’s over’. There are too many players out, and the ones that remained are a disorganised rabble. Ring the bell, blow the whistle, unfurl the towels, wax your bikini line. See you in August.
There were some big names on Mark Hughes’ teamsheet in every sense of the word, with Ryan Shawcross back in the starting XI and Peter Crouch restored up front, the manager hoping for a repeat performance of our memorable showing at Anfield in January.
With no Butland, Johnson, Whelan, Walters or Arnie available, it looked a big ask, but The Reds had one eye firmly on Thursday’s Europa League Quarter Final and rested a number of key men themselves. With youngsters like Ojo and Stewart starting for the hosts, maybe this was our chance.
It took just seven minutes for Liverpool to ladel out a big, lumpy spoonful of frothing, putrid reality. Phil Bardsley gave away a needless free kick near the touchline on the Liverpool left. He then compounded the error by switching off at the resulting free kick, joined by fellow sleepyheads Bojan and Shaqiri, and the ball was quickly worked to Alberto Moreno, who unleashed a powerful, swerving effort into the net from 25 yards. Jakob Haugaard will be desperately disappointed not to have done better.
Stoke were still very much in the game at this point however. There were times when we looked powerful and dangerous. The direct route to Crouch was again proving productive, with Shaqiri and Bojan buzzing around him and the full backs getting forward. The big man was winning everything in the air, and when he won a free kick around 40 yards from goal, we actually made the most of a set piece for a change. Shaqiri’s delivery was impeccable, and who should be left all alone as he ran in but Bojan, the 5ft7 maestro nodding in the unlikeliest of headers to level things.
We were well worth our equaliser, and things looked set to get even better when a magnificent cross on the run from Erik Pieters was headed in by Crouch, only for our joy to be instantly (and correctly) punctured by the linesman’s flag.
If our attacking play showed promise, our defence remained remarkably rickety, and we paid the price. Switched to the left after being roughed up by Pieters, debutant winger Sheyi Ojo picked up the ball and charged, and with Bardsley AWOL, he effortlessly jinked round Shaqiri before delivering a teasing ball across the six-yard box. Daniel Sturridge, all alone, punished Stoke’s hesitancy.
Nevertheless, Stoke remained in the contest for the remainder of the half. Incongruously, we still looked a danger from set pieces, with Shawcross flicking a header just past the far post. Embarking on one of his trademark runs, Giannelli Imbula, dug out a shot from just outside the box that stung the palms of Mignolet. Disappointing though we’d been at the back, there was hope we could still nick something after the break.
It took five minutes for that notion to be well and truly flushed, the decisive third goal being the most embarrassing of the lot from our perspective. Milner’s hopeful ball was ignored by our entire defence, who (rightly) expected our goalkeeper to claim it. He however, was expecting them to head it away. In the end nobody reacted apart from Origi, a Divock among the divs, to head home.
Now we did crumble – but not before another set piece gave us our last good chance of the afternoon, Shaqiri find Cameron, who saw his header pushed over the bar by Mignolet.
We conspired to almost concede an even more embarrassing fourth when Pieters cannoned a clearance into Firmino with Haugaard stranded, the ball thankfully rebounding over the bar. The same player had a fierce near-post effort well saved by the big Dane, before Moreno’s fizzing cross was headed wide by Origi when it looked easier to score.
It was but a stay of execution though, and when the lively Origi collected the ball on the left and cut inside, his sweeping cross/shot, from a tight angle, sent Haugaard fruitlessly scrambling before nestling inside the far post.
It’s a miracle that the scoring ended there, and even then it was largely because The Reds eased off. Stoke, for their part, downed tools altogether.
Our attacking play offered a Blade Runner-esque grim, rainy, post-apocalyptic glimpse at an Arnie-less future, loose and anaemic in the absence of the Viennese virtuoso, with neither winger displaying any of his defensive willingness either. It was as poor a half of football as we have produced away from home this season, with passing and decision-making poor, goal threat non-existent and the defence requiring its own Benny Hill soundtrack.
By the end our players were openly sniping at each other, with a classic Dutch barney between Pieters and Afellay before our left back, who’d spent the entire second half seemingly on the verge of breaking out the Toblerones and driving to Dundee in bare feet, apparently spoke out of turn to the bench and found himself swiftly hooked.
Crouch lashed a late chance of a consolation just wide and then it was over, and we shuffled off home, grateful that no further embarrassment was dealt us. What felt at the start like our best chance of a first league win at Anfield for 57 years ended with our worst defeat there for seven. A team looking bereft of confidence and, at times, motivation, needs to prove it hasn’t given up for the season. After talk of Europe and the top six, we’d make a pact with Satan for our warm, familiar, comfy ninth place as things stand.
2) Crouch’s selection made sense, even if it didn’t work
There were mutters before and after the match about Mark Hughes’ decision to start with Peter Crouch, the striking merry-go-round going into overdrive with a third different centre forward in the space of five games. The manager’s logic, however, was clear; Crouch had played a key role in our on-the-night second leg victory in the Capital One Cup on the same ground in January, and direct football and plenty of crosses into the box have already shown themselves to be the mongi mongeese mongooses to the coiled cobras of gegenpressing. Rough them up, get our little creative players feeding off the striker’s knock downs, get high balls into the mixer, and see what happens.
It worked well enough at first. Crouch predictably won three times as many aerial duels as any other player, and he positioned himself, as he did in January, quite deep, creating space for the likes of Bojan and Imbula to run into.
His presence also brought chaos to dead ball situations, against perhaps the one side worse at defending them than us. That Bojan was able to plant that collectors’ item header past Mignolet unattended owed much to Crouch taking at least two defenders away from him at that free kick; Geoff Cameron very nearly repeated the trick early in the second half in very similar circumstances.
It was unfortunate, if not wildly surprising, that Klopp’s men cottoned onto our cunning scheme after the interval. Realising that they could starve the supply line of our attacks by crowding Crouch out, they promptly stuck two and at times three defenders on him every time we launched the ball in his direction, and he wasn’t heard from again until the end, when he flashed a snapshot just wide with the game well and truly beyond us.
The other big difference from January is that Stoke were much more compact and tight defensively, with Arnautovic and Walters, deployed on the flanks, each putting in lung busting shifts that saw them do a boatload of defensive work as well as causing trouble at the other end. On Sunday, Stoke were the antithesis of that. Nobody in midfield offered the hapless defence any semblance of protection. Shaqiri and Bardsley linked well at times in the Liverpool half but were practically ghosts in their own, with three-quarters of the goals coming from their side of the pitch; Afellay on the left was nothing short of appalling and looks as if he needs a rest. Our own vulnerability to crosses was exposed and ruthlessly capitalised on.
None of that was Crouch’s fault, of course, but that weak foundation meant the game plan he was a key part of was doomed to fail.
At this stage of his career, Crouch is, like Liam Neeson in Taken, a man with a very specific set of skills. He’s someone you only break out of the glass in times of extreme emergency, and it wouldn’t be an almighty shock if that turned out to be his last start for the club. It’d be nice to think there’s at least one more goal in there for the road between now and May, regardless.
As for the centre forward slot, God alone knows who plays there against Tottenham.
3) Geoff Cameron is no Glenn Whelan
Geoff Cameron was the only option for the holding role when it became clear that Glenn Whelan was finally going to succumb to injury and miss his first league game of the season. On this evidence, that essentially means there are no viable alternatives to the Irishman.
Some continue to question Whelan and the holding role in general, but he and its importance are underlined when someone else plays there. As it has with other pretenders to his flinty throne, the discipline the role requires proved too much for Cameron. The US international left huge gaps every time his wanderlust got the better of him, and while the full backs are dreadful, he singularly failed to plug the space when they went forward. This was something as a surprise, as when he was playing centre back earlier in the season, his mobility was important in covering for Glen Johnson when he went surging up the pitch.
To be fair, Cameron has had fitness problems of his own and still may not be 100% himself. However, the off-the-ball nous and intelligence required in that position was simply not there at Anfield, and Whelan can’t come back soon enough.
The defensive capabilities of our central midfield are cause for concern. If you’re going to find a role for Bojan – and the last two games suggest we’d be stupid not to – then the two behind him have to get involved in the muck and bullets. The fact that Imbula, who has otherwise been a revelation, has thus far shown no aptitude for the defensive side of the game has only heaped further pressure on the holding midfielder. And if he doesn’t hold – as Cameron didn’t on Sunday – then we really are in for a world of pain.
An heir to the number 6 has been needed for a while. This summer it is a raging, screaming priority.
4) Shay Given is the day’s big winner
Crikey. That didn’t go well did it? It feels a bit like kicking a puppy to even bring up Jakob Haugaard’s Merseyside misery, but the finger could conceivably be pointed at him for at least two if not all four goals.
Certainly he should have done better with Moreno’s opener. Yes, it swerved late, but it was still at a good height for him and well within reach, and yet he didn’t get near it. The second is a debatable one, but there was clear hesitation from the custodian, as he started to come and then stopped.
The third was the worst of the lot. He simply had to come out and claim a fairly routine ball from Milner. Clearly, that is what his defence was expecting. It’s what Butland or Begovic would have done. Yet he stayed velcroed to his line, offering no communication to his defenders, and in stole Origi to deal the killer blow.
The fourth was a great finish by the same player (assuming he meant it), but one could raise questions about Haugaard’s positioning as he was sent scrambling across goal in vain.
It wasn’t all bad – he made one fine save from Firmino’s powerful, deflected effort – but his defenders by the second half had clearly lost confidence in him. It was painful to watch.
It’s easy to criticise the decision to pick Haugaard over Shay Given with hindsight. However, Hughes’ decision to go with the future rather than looking to the past was understandable. The decision to do likewise this time last year with Butland paid off handsomely, and Haugaard in his limited showings had impressed, both in pre-season and in the FA Cup.
That said, the Dane is hugely inexperienced – not just in English football, but in top level football generally. He only played one full season in Denmark with champions Mitdjylland, and even there he was dropped partway through the campaign due to form issues.
He was given the benefit of the doubt against Swansea, with two deflected goals (though the first of those again looked reachable), but he didn’t really look confident throughout.
Given will now surely get his chance. The kindest thing to do would be to remove the shell-shocked Haugaard from the firing line, then next season send him out on loan to gain plenty of exposure to English football – something both Begovic and Butland benefited from before taking the number one jersey here.
Haugaard is still a baby in goalkeeper years, and he hopefully will find his Anfield experience character building. With his huge frame, and the promise he had shown before Sunday, there’s every chance he’ll turn out to be a first-class goalkeeper and a shrewd investment for less than a million quid.
The experiment was worth a try, but experience over youth is the answer for now.
5) A set piece threat!
Scrambling desperately for positives, this was one of the few games this season in which we managed to pose a threat from dead balls. They produced not just our goal, but most of our best chances.
Shaqiri’s delivery was greatly improved, and his assist for Bojan’s header was his best since his debut at Norwich in August. His free kick had plenty of whip on it and was sent into the perfect area for someone to get on the end of. His corners had a similarly pleasing pace and trajectory to them, with Shawcross heading one just wide before a beautifully dinked second half free kick was almost looped in by Cameron.
There was also greater movement in the box at free kicks and corners, with Crouch’s presence causing considerable discomfort.
The extent to which this was a result of the opposition’s vulnerability or our own quality is unclear. As discussed, Liverpool are hideous when it comes to defending set plays, as the likes of West Brom have found to their delight this season. They look no closer to sorting this out than when Klopp arrived, the German’s reaction being instead to ‘Wenger it’, basically pulling his face and crying that it isn’t fair.
That the players who posed the most danger in the air were Shawcross, Cameron and Crouch was apt, three holdovers from a time when set pieces were pretty much the only threat we did pose. A happy medium has eluded us in the years since.
As this blog has stated many times however, we are in no position to turn our nose up at any source of goals, especially when we’re giving goals away so cheaply at the other end. Hopefully Sunday signalled a set piece revival on our part.