Sunday, October 7, 2012
Reds frustrated by physical Stoke
Richard Jolly, Anfield
This isn't Anfield. Or not as Liverpool used to know it, anyway. It isn't the venue where many an opponent was beaten before they arrived, the ground that was a guarantee of victories, the stadium that gave them an aura of invincibility.
• Liverpool 0-0 Stoke City
• Pulis wants ban for diving Suarez
• Blog: A well deserved point
Rather it is the place where they have taken two points from four games this season, where they have won just two league games in 2012 and only six in their last 24 attempts. Brendan Rodgers, like Kenny Dalglish before him, is finding few comforts at home.
Problems predated his arrival but, despite Rodgers' faith in the new, there is an element of repetition about Liverpool's travails. A series of obdurate opponents, a demanding fixture list and woodwork that, for the last 14 months, seems have exerted magnetic properties by keeping Liverpool's efforts out of the net: all are recurring themes.
So, too, is Stoke's resistance. This was a second stalemate in 2012 and if survivors of the first, a truly tedious afternoon, are still undergoing counselling, this was a more promising performance from Liverpool. There were glimpses of the talent of the teenage wingers, Raheem Sterling and Suso, a lovely penetrative pass from Steven Gerrard to the overlapping Glen Johnson - who lifted his shot over the bar - and a lively cameo from the recalled Joe Cole.
"We had so much dominance in the game," said Rodgers. "The attitude and application of the players was terrific. We stood up to the real physicality of Stoke." If the reality is that the Merseysiders are the bigger club, the sight of a little Liverpool team and a sizeable Stoke side suggested it was jockeys against basketball players. It was the technical against the physical.
"There's no right or wrong way to play football," Rodgers added. "We choose to play a totally different type of game. We stood up to the physicality of Stoke." Much of it was legitimate, even if tactical fouling irritated the Anfield public, disrupted Liverpool's rhythm and rendered the first half a stop-start affair.
Stoke incurred six cautions and an automatic FA fine, although that may prove a better use of £25,000 than paying the wages of the injured Michael Owen, but their major miscreant escaped sanction for his worst offence. Robert Huth trod, if not stamped, on Luis Suarez, who had stud marks on his chest. "I haven't seen it," said Rodgers. "I've no complaints."
Stoke had one, however. Victim then, Suarez was offender later, guilty of a dive. "Retrospective decisions are made on a Monday and Luis Suarez should be punished," said Tony Pulis. "The one in the penalty box was an embarrassment and how he wasn't booked I don't know."
The Uruguayan also sashayed through the Stoke defence on a superlative solo run, only to shoot wide. As Liverpool's front three includes two teenagers without a senior goal, their fortunes rest more and more on whether Suarez scores. The striker is accustomed to life under the microscope but his importance is magnified in a side who need an end product to accompany their endeavour.
The forward was one of the men denied when they hit the woodwork; first Daniel Agger with a toe-poke to Suso's cross was thwarted and then the Dane, with a cultured pass, picked out Raheem Sterling, who clipped the outside of the post. Then Suarez, from an acute angle, did likewise before Martin Skrtel's last-minute, close-range effort bounced back off the upright. "We are disappointed not to score but a lot of positives," said Rodgers after a first clean sheet of the league campaign.
It was endangered by Liverpool themselves as much as Stoke. There are still teething troubles as players struggle to adjust to the manager's ethos while a problem of a philosophy set in stone is that opponents can predict it and tailor their tactics accordingly. Pressing is part of Rodgers' plan but Pulis borrowed it, Stoke working high up the pitch to prevent Liverpool building from the back. Twice it produced chances, misplaced passes from Nuri Sahin and Pepe Reina allowing Charlie Adam and Michael Kightly opportunities. The goalkeeper saved both but it nevertheless continued a season-long theme of generosity; however many chances Liverpool create for themselves, they fashion far too many for opponents.
"I thought we had the best chances in the first 20 or 25 minutes," Pulis said. "Then they came into it. We had to defend resolutely." That is a forte of Stoke's; their manager is as likely to salivate about a rearguard action as Rodgers is about precocious passing.
"It was brilliant to see the young players cope in that environment and it really bodes well for us," he said. In the broader scheme of things, he is right. In the short term, however, few things would provide a greater tonic than a victory at home, no matter how scrappy or lucky. Instead, the field of Anfield Road has been barren turf for too long for Liverpool's liking.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Dean Whitehead. The Stoke substitute displayed an uncanny ability to be the right man in the right place at the right time with a series of interceptions and tackles. After Tony Pulis signed three central midfielders this summer, Whitehead lost his place in the pecking order. This was a fine response.
LIVERPOOL VERDICT: The impressive Agger, who excelled at both ends of the pitch, was probably their outstanding player. Gerrard provided some fine passes while the two wingers, Suso and Sterling, each showed their promise but it was telling that Fabio Borini was not brought on in Liverpool's pursuit of a goal. Two of Dalglish's costlier signings were invoked after the game though Rodgers said that Andy Carroll, had he not been loaned to West Ham, would not have provided an alternative anyway as he is reluctant to abandon his passing principles in the quest for a goal, and that Stewart Downing, who had complained about the manager in an interview, was not omitted for disciplinary reasons. It means that Suso, Sterling, Joe Cole and Oussama Assaidi have now leapfrogged the £20 million winger in the queue for places.
STOKE VERDICT: Hard to beat but not the most inventive, they have become the Premier League's draw specialists. This was the fifth time in seven games they have finished level, a result that owed much to a well-drilled defence. Ryan Shawcross was particularly solid. Further forward, however, Adam did little to suggest Liverpool will regret selling him.