FULL TIME AT ANFIELD: REDS DOWNED BY RE-SURGENT HULL CITY.
“You cannot write this script with the way we started the season, no one can!”, a Reds fan retorted about the last 30-something days that has seen us slide from title chaser, treble contender to battling for a top four finish after getting knocked out of the other two domestic majors.
Really? Anyone who adores the beautiful game and takes a little time to follow its evolution knows that any and every successful tactic beautifully executed on the pitch WILL get figured out and a successful counter implemented easily by even the smallest teams. Brazil’s samba got knocked off its perch after the ’94 World Cup, the successful man marking of the 90s got washed away easily leading to most teams implementing the zonal marking of which fewer teams implemented it better than Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool 2005-2008. That too got exposed and teams found and implemented the counter against it. Even Pep Guardiola’s tiki-taka is seeing its final moments as a successful tactic in this season’s EPL.
Arsene Wengers ‘03/04 invincible twinkle-toes possession football got countered fast leading to a title drought for the Gunners as a result of the foolhardy decision to stick to a style that the English League and pretty much all of Europe has figured out. There even was the Man United way which was successful for so long because it was built on a foundation of grizzly resilience – doing whatever and changing tactics both upfront and in their backline to get the win which is why with a seemingly average team on paper, Sir Alex’s United kept winning making final after final in the Champions League with the brass-balled Scot even starting an average side in the 2011 UCL to get through the knockout stage before succumbing in the final to a fiery Barcelona side. That United style got figured out too with Ferguson’s retirement.
Liverpool’s tactic this season if you’ve read my earlier posts from the first half of the 17/18 EPL has been one of rapid overwhelm, let’s call it “RED RAIN”. Now this style of play is a mix of 2002 Real Madrid and 90s Brazilian samba, not for its beauty and speed in raining down attacks from all corners but the sole reason for it – an unpredictable backline. You could get one or two goals in but Liverpool would get three or four in before you know what hit you and the idea was after making it rain Red, everyone would get behind to shore up the backline while looking to counter and score more in the off-chance the opposition got too close for comfort in the score line.
Burnley were the first to expose the weaknesses in Klopp’s Red Rain posting a smart double-decker bus in the middle of the park that quelled every Liverpool build-up before their strikers got into any dangerous positions further up the pitch and pushing for quick effective counters taking advantage of Liverpool’s unsure backline and that did it as they walked away 2-0 winners over a dangerous Liverpool side that put 4 past Arsenal the previous matchday.
Klopp’s idea of a fix to this was changing it from Red Rain to the Red Typhoon as we committed every one not in defense to crowd out opposition build up to win the ball back while speeding up to attacking positions to give our opponents very little time to adjust and it worked quite well getting us the our final win of 2016 with a brilliant display over City to leave us just 5 points behind league leaders, Chelsea.
Then came the second counter to Red Rain – Mourinho’s long balls and suddenly everyone in the league started implementing variants to Burnley’s smartbus and Mourinho’s long balls and with our triple threat getting split up with Coutinho’s injury layoff and Sadio Mane heading off on international duty at AFCON, Liverpool has not quite recovered seeing the Reds winning just one in their last 10 matches, losing four in their last five (today’s Tigers’ mauling included).
And so with hope, in our first away game after a dreadful January, Klopp started the triple threat of Sadio Mane, Firmino, and Coutinho to the delight of the Kop looking for an easy 3 points against this Hull side. But apparently the ghosts of January crossed over into February as the Reds failed again to implement Red Rain in the first half and when our defenses started crumbling as they usually do there was no cushion of goals to buffer our defensive failings. Such was the manner of Liverpool’s 2-0 defeat to Hull City as we suffered a fourth Premier League loss as goals in each half from Alfred N’Diaye and Oumar Niasse sealed our fate at the KCOM Stadium leaving the Klopp and the Kop seething with rage and bewildered at the thought that we still haven’t reached the bottom with this poor run of form with our title hopes in tatters and our top four finish under threat.
Adam Lallana headed back to the middle while Lucas Leiva started in our backline after a minor knee injury ruled out Dejan Lovren. The first half was notably meek as the Reds found little joy in their build-ups and with halfhearted appeals for a penalty waved away by the official when Firmino’s deflected attempt struck Andy Robertson’s arm it pretty much signaled how our Saturday was going to go.
Our captain did his best to get some momentum going with a promising long pass that released Firmino, whose cross was bundled by Jakupovic and fell kindly to Coutinho but our striker did little to write home about focusing more on the recovering Jakupovic and eventually turning his attempt out for a set play.
Coutinho had a chance with a free-kick but the Brazilian couldn’t get his effort past the wall and subsequently Hull capitalized on some woeful defending to take the lead just before the halftime whistle. Grosicki whipped in a nice corner that got headed down by Harry Maguire, the onus was on Mignolet to do the mop-up but the Belgian under pressure from Abel Hernandez slipped in his focus to gift the chance to N’Diaye who made no mistake in getting Hull’s opener. The Reds wretched positioning as the corner came in really was the let down as it left Mignolet with ‘a lot’ to do.
The second half saw the lads put the Hull backline under some pressure but were remarkably poor in their finishing with Coutinho having a glorious chance to equalize from six yards but the Brazilian could only steer his effort wide to the surprise of many.
As Liverpool looked to force the issue upfront, little was done to secure our defenses and as the lads took more risks they left themselves open on the counter and as fate would have it, the Reds were undone with a trademark Mourinho-esque “long ball” as Hull substitute Niasse raced through to reach the long ball over the top and calmly slid his effort under Mignolet to double the home team’s lead in the 84th minute.
There was no way through as that goal all but sealed our disappointing afternoon in the KCOM Stadium as soft goals resulting from wayward defending and lack of focus left us undone and our Champions League hopes out of our hands as we now look to Swansea to do us a favor with an unlikely win at the Etihad on Sunday.