Brendan Rodgers strengthened his squad to good effect, but his side’s performance in Russia showed that further attacking reinforcements are needed to take the team up a level
By Alex Hess
Another fixture passes for Liverpool, and Brendan Rodgers’ side now face a desperate uphill battle to advance in the final cup competition in which they remain.
The Reds’ lengthy trip to take on Zenit St Petersburg on Thursday evening saw another two goals conceded, and yet another achievable result dragged away from them by a cyclone of poor defending and profligate finishing. To anyone who was watching on Monday evening – let alone on countless other dates since August – it was a familiar sight.
While the defence will rightly come in for a share of criticism for failing yet again to shut the opposition out away from home, perhaps the more worrying facet of Liverpool’s performance on Thursday was the lack of responsibility and productivity on display from two-thirds of their attack.
Luis Suarez, as is his wont, found himself wriggling through on goal on a number of occasions – especially during the first half – but the Uruguayan failed to put away at least three presentable chances. Instead, Suarez used the evening to revert to his older, more wasteful self as opposed to continuing this season’s newfound ruthless streak.
But alas, with 20 goals to his name already this term, Suarez can be forgiven for a reckless showing such as tonight’s, and to his credit the striker never once shirked responsibility, always looking for the ball and always looking a threat.
Those who are less exonerated from their underwhelming showings were the pair that flanked Suarez: Raheem Sterling and Stewart Downing, neither of whom imposed themselves anywhere near enough on proceedings to have justified their selections. Their performances are symptomatic of the fact that Liverpool’s wide attackers are simply not of the required standard for a team with ambitions of re-entering the Champions League elite.
Sterling, of course, can quite rightly point to mitigating circumstances that supercede a mere bad spell of recent form. The winger is only three months into his 18th year, and has featured in a staggering 32 games so far this season. That his early tenacity and vitality has been replaced by a creeping leaden-footedness is completely forgivable, and surely a more sparing rationing of his appearances by Rodgers’ will have a welcome effect on his form, both short- and long-term – something that looks more likely with the arrivals of Daniel Sturridge and Coutinho. There can be little doubt that the Jamaican-born winger has huge potential, and he should not be expected to fulfil it at only 18.
Downing, however, has no such excuse – but before the criticism must come the caveats. Despite a nightmarish debut season, the Teesider has proved himself a useful squad member of late, his positional discipline vital in stretching the pitch to its utmost width, and his functional wingplay can be practical if far from exhilarating. He may well be a handy squad player.
However, a first-rate winger must offer more than discipline and functionality. A tangible output is crucial, and – while the subject has been breached many a time over the past 18 months – Downing’s goals and assists tallies are desperately short of the required standard.
Although Downing – along with Jordan Henderson and Charlie Adam – was signed under the Kenny Dalglish/Damien Comolli regime based on his ‘chance creation’ rate for his previous employer, the outcomes have shown up the fallibility of such number crunching, as the opportunities laid on by the players since at Liverpool on have been few and far between. The Liverpool shirt is a heavy one, and cold hard data cannot signify the sort of mental shortcomings that Downing has shown since he joined the club.
Henderson himself has been used as a wide attacker in recent weeks, notably on the left flank away to Arsenal, but his value lies in energy and short-range distribution as opposed to raw creativity. Meanwhile, Coutinho cannot be expected to make a large impact this campaign, while Fabio Borini is a player in the wide-forward mould – a man to seek out the archetypal ‘poacher’s chance’, but not to unpick the defensive lock.
The fact remains that Luiz Suarez’s so-called supporting cast continue to offer him insufficient support.
Of course, in Suarez Liverpool are blessed with a forward who can create his own chances, but that gift should represent a luxury rather than a necessity.
The January acquisition of Sturridge was undoubtedly a shrewd one, and the England man has impressed hugely in his first few outings in red. Indeed, he does provide a certain degree of remedy to Rodgers’ shortcomings in attack, having offered flair, pace and most importantly goals to the side so far. He was missed in Russia.
That said, though, if the blueprint – as seems the case – is to deploy Suarez as the second striker, behind the focal point of Sturridge, the applicants for the two wide berths remain the usual suspects: Downing, Borini, Sterling, Coutinho. Between those four, there is no shortage of promise, graft and willingness.
But again, these are intangibles. What the side needs is goals, assists; productivity. Not to mention confidence, arrogance even.
Rodgers looks to have used his January well, and has reinforced his frontline to an extent. Until he does so further, though, his star man may still be left with too much weight on his own shoulders, as far too little is guaranteed from his supporting cast.