Sunday 26 March 2017

Dalglish facing fight to restore Fortress Anfield

LIVERPOOL 0 STOKE CITY 0

Chris Bascombe

The once-formidable Anfield fortress now resembles a welcoming visitor centre. The sense of overwhelming intimidation, so integral to Liverpool's success during their prime, is in danger of becoming a memory.

It is revived for special occasions -- no doubt the double header with the city of Manchester this month will reawaken passions -- but too many Premier League encounters have failed to raise beyond the humdrum.

Stoke City, like the six previous clubs to leave Anfield clutching a point which was generously offered as much as hard-earned, have long shaken off any fearful inferiority felt by those passing through the Shankly Gates.

Liverpool may rank alongside Manchester City as one of only two teams unbeaten at home in the Premier League but, where City have accrued 30 points, for the Merseysiders the figure is 19 -- fewer than all six teams above them.

Liverpool have squandered 14 points on their own turf this season.

A sweep of the Premier League landscape reveals that Liverpool are exactly where they have been for three years -- 12 months on from Kenny Dalglish's appointment.

They are the sixth best side in the division and, although they are consolidating themselves by taking a more scenic route towards a top-four challenge (although not in this game), it must concern the American owners that they have been unable to take advantage of the mediocre standards of Arsenal and Chelsea.

A season has unfolded which confirms the view that whatever methods are employed and changes made at Anfield, the gains and losses have a habit of balancing each other.

In Rafael Benitez, Liverpool possessed the most tactically astute manager in their history -- a trait which was magical when he outwitted Jose Mourinho but infuriating when he would select teams to cope with the elaborate formation of Barnsley.

Under Dalglish, broadly speaking the philosophy has been based on the traditional Anfield mantra of 'letting the opposition worry about us'.

This rather ignores Dalglish's occasional forays into the strategy room.

During his first spell, he was not averse to surprising his own supporters as much as rival managers by using full-backs in central midfield, or midfielders in defence. Often with mixed results.

Last Wednesday's rearguard action in the second half at Manchester City was a reminder of Dalglish's often underestimated capacity for pragmatism, his choices here marked it in bold capital letters.

There was wisdom in lining up with three centre-halves to combat Stoke's aerial threat, repeating a successful idea from last season, but few could identify the merit of persisting with it once Tony Pulis reacted by amending his own line-up to play one up front.

Dirk Kuyt was left to play the Andy Carroll role as a lone striker, and engaged in a perfect impression of the Geordie. Kuyt's touch deserted him and when the game's single chance fell on his forehead -- he missed the target.

As with Carroll at City, the Dutchman was often isolated against a robust Stoke defence, a problem compounded when he hunted deep for possession.

This had the effect of making it seem as though Liverpool were playing with seven midfielders and no striker. Clearly Liverpool missed Luis Suarez.

"I was absolutely delighted not to see him on the pitch," said Pulis. Since Suarez was present for the previous six Anfield draws, suggesting that his absence was the difference is simplistic.

A greater loss in such a system was the rested Daniel Agger, whose capacity to bring the ball out of defence could have turned a redundant extra defender into an attacking weapon.

When the change did come after an hour, it was Stewart Downing who mystifyingly made way for substitute Carroll, while the assortment of centre-backs was retained, at least two of them marking thin air.

Asked how he thought his plan worked, Dalglish pointed out that his defence looked strong, but admitted "they had only one striker to mark", which simply added to the bewilderment. They had identified their problem, but failed to react and rectify it until it was too late.

If they do not sign a striker to turn home draws into wins within the next fortnight, the same will be true of attempts to return to the Champions League. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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