It seems almost unbelievable that after demolishing Swansea 0-5 at the Liberty stadium with a phenomenal performance just over a week ago that we would be heading in to the second leg of our league cup semi final with a little trepidation after two abject performances.
Whilst in the context of the tie a draw at Anfield was a decent result, the defensive performance in the second half was akin to that of the one offered up at White hart lane. Without wanting to revisit that disastrous evening, some individual performances in the backline were quite frankly abysmal, and it was the same in the second 45 at Anfield. Some fans have since expressed opinions deriding particularly Cahill and Ivanovic. Personally at the time I felt some of the stick they were getting was a huge over reaction, especially when looking at the season as a whole so far. At Tottenham the whole side turned in an awful performance, with the exception of Eden Hazard, but there was no getting away from the fact that they both had shockers at Anfield. Just looking at the statistics of that match could lead some to believe that we were lucky to escape without defeat, and Liverpool did have sufficient chances to win the match. But although we only mustered one shot on goal, until they equalised through some shocking defending from us, we looked relatively comfortable. Mourinho had set the side out with key directives as to how we were going to defend against the 3-4-3 Brendan Rodgers used. In reality it was more of a 3-5-1-1 from Liverpool, with Sterling and Coutinho afforded the chance to play with freedom in the system. Some of the commentary during the match alluded to the fact that Mourinho had set up defensively and packed the midfield. What actually happened was that Mourinho utilised the best methods to defend against a team in this shape. He played Matic and Mikel with Fabregas just in front, these three then picked up Gerrard, Lucas, and Henderson centrally. Liverpool’s only source of width came from wing-backs Markovic and Moreno, who were left for our full backs Ivanovic and Luis to pick up. Hazard and Willian either stepped inside to further crowd the midfield, or if Coutinho or Sterling pulled wide to occupy a full back, they would then need to mark the Liverpool wing-back. With this shape Liverpool often enjoy large amounts of possession. This is nothing new. Anyone who watched their match against Arsenal at Anfield would be able to draw comparisons with what was seen in our first leg tie. Large amounts of possession, without being able to create much. With Sterling supposedly playing as their centre forward, he rarely received the ball in an attacking area. He had to drop off or pull wide to get involved. Now at 0-1 we were quite happy to allow them this possession, as we were set up defensively to deal with them. The problems only arose when individuals lapsed and errors crept in. The equaliser was a prime example. Sterling had become so neutralised that he dropped at least 20 yards off our centre backs to pick the ball up. Not a problem, this was expected as I’ve already pointed out. Although this time Matic didn’t deal with him in his area, he let him run off the back of him. Sterling could now run at Cahill, who continued to back off and allow Sterling a free shot on the edge of our own box. 1-1.
Ivanovic began to defend poorly at right back, midfield runners weren’t tracked, and all of a sudden we were hanging on in a match we were in control of before the equaliser.
I’m sure Mourinho will not permit the same lapses in the second leg, and we at least have time to analyse the errors and rectify them. Our record at home and the confidence that brings also meant that a draw was more than adequate.
The second part of that statement has now been tested after Saturday’s defeat at home to league 1 Bradford City in the FA cup. Although the side had been changed around, for my money that is no excuse for the performance. This is mainly due to different problems arising to those already discussed. Bradford matched us in the first ten minutes. But after that we were in control till half time for the most part. This is the time in the match when we should have put it to bed. The reason we didn’t do this was mainly due to our midfield, Oscar in particular dropping so deep when we were in possession. It is no good enjoying large amounts of the ball if you do nothing with it. Oscar was dropping into our own half to pick the ball up on most occasions. This left us with no link to Drogba, and no one in a position to create any chances. Whilst Bradford defended admirably, you cannot fail to be worried by such a toothless attacking display against a league 1 team. Granted, Hazard and Willian, two great creators only came on late, but in our system the central role behind the striker is so important in chance creation that it can’t be overlooked.
The next issue, which resulted in Bradford getting back into the match, and going on to win it, was set pieces. Not a problem until Saturday, but now something else to worry about. Goals conceded from a free kick and a long throw, preceded by Cech having to make a great save from a corner. These were the area’s that cost us dear.
We obviously lost some organisational qualities without Terry playing, but it is not a worthy excuse for those that were on the pitch.
When we have gone through periods of poor set piece defending before, Mourinho has managed to stamp it out quickly, as you would expect from a manager of his quality, so hopefully it is not a problem that will be revisited.
So, back to the match in hand, and the second leg against Liverpool. Expect them to line up in a similar fashion to the first leg. Even though we are at home, it may be that they are afforded the opportunity of more possession again. As was shown on occasions in the first leg, and in our league win over Liverpool this season, our devastating counter attacking capabilities can really expose their back three in wide area’s, and Hazard and Willian can be used to exploit this. This is another reason why we will probably use the same system defensively as the first leg, as Hazard may not be required to defend on all occasions, so will be an outlet for the counter attack.
Better individual performances will be needed if we are to see it through though, and Liverpool have already shown us that they can punish our errors. More is needed from Ivanovic, Cahill and Matic than they displayed in the first leg, and Oscar needs to be found in more advanced area’s, this is both his responsibility, and that of our deeper midfielders, be it Matic, Fabregas, Mikel or Ramires.
There is no doubt that Mourinho will be looking for a big reaction. If he doesn’t get it from certain players, we may be seeing a lot less of them for the remainder of the season.