Split second decision does little to dampen spirits

Posted by Kristian Walsh

No one said it would be easy. In a split second, an excellent afternoon against the Premier League champions became a nervy encounter; three points turned to one, and one could have easily become zero. Such fine margins can make for big differences. Perhaps, as Skrtel received the ball in the 80th minute, he should have taken one touch and found Jose Enrique on the left-hand side; perhaps he should have taken a touch and passed the ball to Shelvey. Or perhaps, as some tactically astute individuals debated after the game, the Slovakian international should have found Goodison Park with his hoofed clearance.

But short-term pain, long-term gain has been the Anfield mantra since Brendan Rodgers was appointed Liverpool manager. Transforming the club both on and off the pitch will take a while; no masterpiece was ever created without a few erratic strokes. It is a masterpiece Rodgers strives for too, with every angle covered, every ball pressed, every option explored. At times against Manchester City, it looked picture perfect. But then came Martin Skrtel’s gift to Carlos Tevez and the pain alongside it; Rodgers knows the gain will be felt eventually.

“It's not frustrating. It's all part of the journey. I commend the courage,” said Rodgers when asked about Tevez’s equaliser. “The easiest thing is to get the 'keeper to smash it up the pitch, then the opponents have the ball and are on the attack again.”

Liverpool supporters of a nervous disposition should look away now. They would be best advised to do so all season. Skrtel’s misplaced back pass was one of many moments which left Anfield with its heart in its mouth. The magnificent Joe Allen pinged a 45-yard pass back to Pepe Reina; Glen Johnson beat two men in his own penalty area before releasing the ball to Raheem Sterling. The new style of play will take some adjustment – both on the pitch and in the stands. Rodgers, in the meantime, will not allow players to be scapegoated as the transformation begins.

“Martin Skrtel was immense. A wonderful first header. He's been a real stalwart in this first period of time I've been here,” said Rodgers. “The angles in front of the ball will be the thing we work on, because for us to dominate games we need players with courage to have the ball, and Martin was very courageous. There is no blame on him. It's all part of our learning.”

His words are similar to those he said of Angel Rangel’s mistake against Manchester United; the mistake, too, was similar. Rangel dwelt on the ball allowing Ryan Giggs to take the ball from him deep in the Swansea half. Four seconds later, Swansea had conceded. As Rodgers says, it’s about angles and domination. It’s also about split second decisions. Swansea were nearly two years into their journey under Rodgers; for Liverpool, it’s just two league games.

There is a strong correlation between making the right split second decisions and intelligence. For all his physical prowess and reading of the game, Skrtel is not a centre back that exudes intelligence; that, without doubt, falls upon the shoulders of Daniel Agger. That is no bad thing either; brain only fully shows when complimented by brawn. But Rodgers is building an intelligent squad at Anfield, typified by his capture of Joe Allen. The 22-year-old Welshman appears to play in a different time zone to others, his elegance on the ball matched only by his awareness off it. He repeatedly offered a pass against Manchester City, dropping deep and playing Rodgers’ vision to a tee. For all the excitable passing statistics, the true marker of his quality is seeing his body contort, his feet and mind quickly working in tandem, to keep Liverpool on the front foot.

It isn’t just in defence that split second decisions make a difference. The front three of Suarez, Borini and Sterling have more intelligence than a MENSA convention and gelled marvellously at times against City’s ever-changing defensive shape, but just lacked the all-important final ball. They, too, will benefit from the learning Rodgers speaks of. Borini’s passes to Suarez were just delayed ever so slightly; Suarez’s crosses to Borini were just a tad overhit.

But both performances, full of running and endeavour, were put in the shade by the 17-year-old Sterling. If Hearts was the hors d'oeuvre, Manchester City was the meaty main course leaving gluttonous Liverpool fans wanting even more. He took on both Kolarov and Toure at will, and neither will have faced many tests like this in the World Cup or Champions League. Sterling is as quick as he is clever; as technically-gifted as he is hard-working. At one point in the second half, he plucked a 60-yard Jonjo Shelvey ball out of the air and onto his instep; the Kop barely had time to gasp in astonishment before Sterling was running towards goal, putting the champions on the back foot.

Liverpool were the better side for large parts of the game, an impressive feat given the talent in City’s side. The full realisation of the depth of their squad came when David Silva appeared as a second-half substitute. Rodgers was quick to remind everyone of a good afternoon’s work.

“I thought the best team didn't win. I thought we were outstanding against a top side, the champions,” said Rodgers. “We're disappointed not to win the game but there were a lot of young players giving us great hope for the future. The fight and the quality we played with today - and the atmosphere - was incredible.”

It was indeed a young team – the youngest Liverpool side since December 2003, which became even younger when Jonjo Shelvey, 20, replaced 25-year-old Lucas Leiva after the Brazilian suffered a thigh injury in the early stages of the match. The results of his scan are expected to be released on Tuesday; the only positive to take is that the loan signing of Nuri Sahin looks even more astute right now.

But even the injury of one of the Kop’s favourite players could do little to dampen the atmosphere. The applause at the full time whistle was appreciation tinged with slight disappointment, but as people emptied out of the stadium and onto the streets of Anfield, there were few grumbles about poor performances or misplaced tactics – just one misplaced pass with 10 minutes remaining. No one said it would be easy, but similar accomplished, entertaining performances at this early stage will certainly keep everyone onside. The next step is to turn the draws into victories. Performances like the one against City makes that an inevitability.

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