Fullbacks hindering Liverpool attack

Posted by David Usher

It's fair to say that a lot of things went wrong against Aston Villa. Top of the list would be the initial team selection, although I have to be honest that I would have picked that same side and prior to kickoff I was certainly not anticipating things going the way they did.

That said, it was clear after about 10 or 15 minutes that it needed changing, as Villa were outnumbering the Reds in the middle and looked like scoring any time a Liverpool attack broke down. The lack of personnel in the centre of the park was hurting Liverpool with and without the ball, and I would be hugely surprised if we saw manager Brendan Rodgers go into a game with just two players in his engine room again this season.

- Walsh: Midfield lesson in Villa draw
- Report: Rodgers defends Suarez

The attack was blunted due to the lack of possession needed to patiently build attacks, and it was a very un-Liverpool-like display. In fact, it was far worse than the Villa game last season, which the Midlanders won 3-1. Rodgers' Liverpool are at their best when moving the ball and dragging opposing players around until an opening appears, but against Villa it was all too frantic and hurried and the Reds were trying to score too quickly any time they had the ball. As a result, they had absolutely no control of the game as they couldn't get their foot on the ball or sustain any kind of possession.

The defence was exposed because there were huge gaping holes in the centre of the park where Steven Gerrard was often swamped by three marauding Villa players. The pace, energy and athleticism of the visitors on the counter simply overwhelmed Liverpool, who didn't have enough bodies in there to cope. Villa were just waiting for the Reds' front men to lose the ball, and then they would spring their counterattacks to devastating effect.

Liverpool were completely shell-shocked in that first half, and it wasn't until Rodgers belatedly introduced Lucas Leiva at halftime that the tide of Villa attacks was stemmed. The Anfield side was also helped by Villa having to replace speedster Gabriel Agbonlahor with veteran target man Grant Holt. That was akin to swapping the Road Runner for Foghorn Leghorn.

My colleague Kristian Walsh summed up the midfield and tactical failings excellently Saturday, so I'm not going to dwell on that point. Instead, I want to focus on something that was not only an issue against Villa but has been a problem for Liverpool for some months. I'm talking about the fullback spots. If it were just the one flank not producing, it wouldn't be such a big deal, but Liverpool are getting zero attacking production from either fullback position.

Glen Johnson's form has been worryingly poor for several months, while if Aly Cissokho is the answer on the other side, then I dread to think what the question is. Since Jose Enrique was sidelined, the only satisfactory play Liverpool have had at either fullback position has come from youngster Jon Flanagan, who can't return quickly enough. He has been desperately missed, as has Enrique.

Generally, the lack of production from the fullbacks has not proved too costly for Rodgers because of the outstanding play of the forwards, but it must surely be a big concern for a manager who places so much emphasis on his fullbacks playing high up the pitch and providing an attacking threat.

Johnson has earned a reputation as one of the best attacking fullbacks in Europe; on his day, there are few better. When was the last time he had one of those days, though? Indeed, a more relevant question may now be: "Has he had his day"? When on form, Johnson can offer so much in an attacking role that you can overlook the occasional defensive lapses that he's been prone to, but recently he's offered next to nothing in an attack sense. If you go back over the past dozen or so games and picked out Liverpool's weakest performers, Johnson's name would be front and centre. He is one of the club's biggest earners, but he simply isn't delivering.

Cissokho, on the other hand, is a somewhat different case. I'm more sympathetic toward the Frenchman. Unlike Johnson, I don't think Cissokho is underperforming; he's just not good enough. He tries, and against Villa he did as much as he could. It's just that "as much as he could" is nowhere near enough. Cissokho offers almost nothing in the attacking third. He looks to have no confidence when he crosses the halfway line, and the shot he sliced into the Anfield Road end in the first half was just pitiful. He's getting into forward positions and knows what's expected of the position. He just doesn't have the ability to contribute anything when he gets there.

At least he crossed the halfway line; it's more than can be said for Johnson. In fairness to the England man, he gets a pass on that for the Villa game as Rodgers switching to a back three meant it was difficult for him to get forward as he was essentially playing as a central defender. What's his excuse for the past two months, though?

Former Liverpool star John Aldridge claimed on Sunday that Liverpool were offered the opportunity to sign Seamus Coleman but Rafael Benitez wouldn't entertain the idea. Everton snapped him up for just 60,000 pounds while Liverpool then paid 18 million pounds for Johnson. At those prices you could get 300 Seamus Colemans for what Liverpool paid for Johnson, yet if you offered Rodgers a straight swap now I'm sure he'd snatch your hand off.

Johnson's form may well pick up as the season continues. After all, he is effectively in a contract year and Liverpool will have to make a decision on his future this summer one way or another as he'll have only 12 months remaining. The reality of the situation is that he's no longer worth the money he's being paid, and the Reds need to be looking at finding a replacement at around half of Johnson's present salary. What's more, they should be looking to do it now if possible.

Given the issues on the opposite flank, fullback is arguably the biggest area of need for Liverpool. The Merseysiders have to finish in the top four this season; to fail to do so would put the club in a real bind as they may never have a better opportunity to do it than this year. The Reds have a lot of things going for them and are well in the hunt for a Champions League spot, but the lack of production from the fullback spots could cost them in the months ahead.

The injury Lucas sustained against Villa means that another midfielder is also a pressing need now, and the club insists money is available for the right players. With over half of the transfer window passed already, that "transfer committee" of Liverpool's needs to start earning its corn, as failure to do so could cost the club millions in lost revenue and will make them vulnerable to offers for Luis Suarez.

The clock is ticking.

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