Brendan Rodgers may be upbeat but Liverpool still have problems

Draw against Arsenal notwithstanding, the last three games have represented a step in the right direction, but they are still too low down the Premier League table, writes Richard Jolly.
Martin Skrtel was the solution at the end of Liverpool's draw against Arsenal, but he was the problem earlier, writes our columnist. Alex Livesey / Getty Images
Martin Skrtel was the solution at the end of Liverpool's draw against Arsenal, but he was the problem earlier, writes our columnist. Alex Livesey / Getty Images

The temptation is to brand Martin Skrtel the hero. Needless to say, Brendan Rodgers did.

“He is a real warrior, Martin,” the Liverpool manager said as he considered his bandaged, bloodied and brave defender. Skrtel rescued a point in dramatic and emphatic fashion, powering a 97th-minute header past Wojciech Szczesny. Liverpool’s 10 men had spared themselves an eighth defeat and an umpteenth inquest of the season.

That Skrtel, who had suffered when Olivier Giroud trod on his head, was the scorer offers credence to Rodgers’s suggestions that Liverpool are displaying character in troubled times. Yet sometimes narratives can be too one-dimensional. This was one such. Skrtel was the solution at the end, the problem earlier.

Because both Arsenal and Liverpool conceded from set-pieces, one in the final seconds of the first half, the other at the conclusion of the second.

Each were examples of how not to defend. Both involved Skrtel. He was left utterly unmarked to meet Adam Lallana’s corner to salvage a draw. His defensive deficiencies were apparent as Liverpool squandered the lead following Alexis Sanchez’s free kick.

It scarcely ranked as a surprise. Skrtel’s inability to defend set-pieces is a recurring theme. He is a 6ft 3in centre-back whose height brought him seven league goals in the opposition’s penalty area last season but who acts like a 5ft 7in winger in his own box.

Size does not matter where Skrtel is concerned. Mathieu Debuchy is shorter than him but out-jumped him, partly because the Liverpool man barely left the ground. The Slovakian’s only contribution was to inadvertently apply the slight touch that took the ball in.

“We lost three one-v-one headers,” Rodgers said, rueing earlier errors even before the ball came to Debuchy and accepting there is plenty of room for improvement at the back. “A lot of our goals we give away are poor goals,” he said.

This was no exception. The classier strikes came in open play. Philippe Coutinho drove Liverpool ahead via in the inside of the post, capping his fine first-half display. Olivier Giroud lent lustre to an Arsenal fightback with a neat finish to Santi Cazorla’s cross.

It was a day that provided different conclusions. Liverpool’s late leveller represented an escape. Arsenal’s display at the start rendered the half-time scoreline an injustice.

“We had problems to get our flow going,” Wenger said, attributing it to “bad memories” from Arsenal’s February hammering at Anfield. They had difficulties getting the ball, registering just 36 per cent of possession. They departed disappointed.

“It is a fair result but frustrating for us because they came back when we had plenty of defenders on the pitch,” Wenger said.

They also had a numerical advantage, following Fabio Borini’s needless dismissal.

“Unfortunate,” said Rodgers, who otherwise sprinkled superlatives on his side. Liverpool were effervescent, and energetic. They led 4-0 after 20 minutes on Arsenal’s previous trip to Anfield and, if they lack the firepower to secure a repeat, at least they have a renewed attacking impetus. “We have played better and dominated more than we did last year when we won 5-1,” Rodgers insisted.

If that was hyperbolic, Liverpool were at least encapsulated by Coutinho, one of their underachievers this season and a player whose talent ought to dictate that he starts but whose performances have meant he has spent some of the campaign on the bench. Yet he was liberated by a licence to rove in Brendan Rodgers’ 3-4-2-1 system.

The Brazilian has a fondness for the bigger occasions and his goals tend to come in defining games. He scored against Everton, Tottenham and Manchester City last season. If Lallana will never be a £25 million player he, too, is exerting more of an influence in this recalibrated side.

And at least Liverpool are not as ponderous or as one-paced as they were in the stultifying stalemate against Sunderland.

Seven days earlier Rodgers said they needed to recapture the ethos of last season. They also need to rediscover the excitement and, with chances being created, the last three games have represented a step in the right direction in that respect.

Yet the table shows them much closer to bottom club Leicester than leaders Chelsea. After Rodgers’s upbeat words, the standings should provide a reality check.

sports@thenational.ae

Follow our sports coverage on Twitter @SprtNationalUAE

Published: December 21, 2014 04:00 AM

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