Saturday 22 July 2017

Ronnie Whelan: Fair-weather players a big problem for Liverpool

Read Ronnie Whelan every Monday in the Herald

Ronnie Whelan

Ronnie Whelan

CHELSEA went to the wild and cold North yesterday and didn’t play well. But they kicked, scrapped and fought for a point and impressed me all the more for that.

Burnley helped make it a dogged but entertaining football match and deserve great credit for their performance but it was Chelsea’s resolve which stood out.

I couldn’t help think while I was watching that I could never expect to see Liverpool take a point like that.

If I look back on the results so far this season, I find that Liverpool lost 2-0 to Burnley at Turf Moor on the second day of the season and that illustrates the point nicely.

If you want to win the title, you can’t afford to lose at places like Turf Moor and it doesn’t matter how many top six teams you beat along the way.

Chelsea scored early but Burnley pulled six across the back when they didn’t have the ball and Antonio Conte was stuck in a defensive strait-jacket.

A moment of sheer class from Robbie Brady gave Sean Dyche’s men something to hold into and more than that, they were always willing to have a go on the counter.

They are better than an ordinary Premier League outfit, Burnley, but in their part of the table, there are plenty of teams equipped to create a defensive dynamic relatively easily.

They don’t have to do anything else except defend and in the end, Chelsea couldn’t find a winner.

But they didn’t lose and they were determined not to. Right up to the fourth minute of injury time, Eden Hazard was driving at Burnley trying for a winner even though like many of his team mates, he was below par on the day.

Usually, against teams outside the top six, Liverpool can take a lead handy enough but they often fail miserably to protect it.

During the last six weeks, we’ve seen it happen time and time again. Smaller clubs roll up their sleeves, fight for points and they get them.

If I scroll through memories of the last ten seasons, I can find many, many games like that which sit very uncomfortably beside all the big wins over Top Four clubs we like to talk about.

For a few weeks now I’ve been highlighting the absence of quality but there is another deficiency which is probably even more important and the weekend highlighted that clearly.

PANews_P-103aecc9-a840-4aea-a8ea-175db4d48327_I1.jpg
Sadio Mane scored twice against Tottenham

On Saturday, Liverpool played well to beat Spurs and it was if the previous six weeks had never happened.

How can that happen? I think Klopp is baffled by it and looked as much many times in the last month.

This soft centre, lack of bottle, character flaw – call it what you want – will not go away until it is addressed.

It’s not just this group of players or this manager. It goes back years and I wish I could put my finger on the reason for it.

I can only assume that the club has acquired some sort of mental block about winning and when I look at the names on Conte’s team list yesterday perhaps there’s a clue there.

He has a group of winners, players who have a choice of medals to display in their trophy cabinets and they understand that the point you get in a semi-blizzard in Northern England on a grim February day is the one that will win you the title and not necessary three at home to Spurs.

Klopp tells his players to always try for the front foot, always think about attacking. This gives them the freedom to make mistakes while they are trying to do that.

But it also brings a responsibility to defend when it is needed. They shouldn’t have to be told that.

These are professional footballers and surely they know that there are times when you just have to dig in, win the tackles and the physical battle and then win the match.

There is no lack of effort from the Liverpool players, I’m faulting nobody for that but I often wonder about internal communication within the squad.

In my day, we sorted it out among ourselves. The manager was never involved if we all had a very bad day.

They don’t seem to know what to do as a group when a team like Burnley throws down a challenge and refuses to cooperate with the Klopp way by smothering his team or for want of a better phrase, parking the bus.

Count the points Liverpool dropped in just this segment of the title race beginning with an awful 2-2 draw in early January against Sunderland at the Stadium of Light a few days after they beat Manchester City.

In total, 11 if you count a home defeat by Swansea and away to Southampton and three more lost at Hull and that’s exactly the gap to Chelsea.

If they had even ground out draws in those games, the gap would be eight points and not insurmountable.

Grinding, however, is not what they do and the coach must address that.

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