Damage limitation puts the focus on West Ham (Liverpool report)

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Liverpool 2-0 Latics
Saturday 21st April 2007

In realistic terms, this was a game that Latics couldn’t really expect anything from.  If you had any doubt about it then there was a cavalcade of people waiting to remind you.  At the front of the queue was the manager, as always, ready to tell us how wonderful Liverpool are, how romantic their history is and how he’d so love to manage them one day. 

Ok, so that last bit may be made up, but it never ceases to amaze how ready Jewell is to wear his scouse on his sleeve.   Whether that is to the detriment of Latics is a matter of opinion, what’s more clear is that it does him no favours with an increasingly frustrated set of fans.

Unless we’re to believe that Liverpool are a significantly better side than Arsenal, then there’s a fair comparison between this game and the one at the Emirates.  Jewell will be the first to tell you that we should have beaten the Gooners so why take such a different approach against his hometown team?

The party line seems to be “damage limitation”, which can only mean keeping the goal difference down, but you have to ask why.  On more than one occasion this season Latics have proven that, when they apply themselves in the right way, they can hurt the top teams.  They’ve equally proven that they can’t even defend a lead for any length of time, let alone a hold on to a 0-0 draw.

The argument is going to be that the tactics worked.  If Latics had gone out to attack, they could have been beaten by 3 or 4 goals, more even.  At kick off, Latics held 15th place on goal difference and with Charlton and West Ham closing the gap goal difference could prove significant.

You can see the truth in that, but it doesn’t make things any better.  Considering we’re supposed to be in a relegation battle the whole thing felt a little flat, in fact it felt more like Latics were one of those middle of the table sides, more content to maintain their position by boredom than actually winning anything.

The thing is, that sort of tactics just plays into the hands of a team like Liverpool.  They can actually play football you see.  As you would expect, they just bided their time, waited for their chance and took it.  As it was they had to wait half an hour before a cross from Pennant found the head of Kuyt and the back of the net was bulging.

In keeping with recent weeks, the goal was avoidable.  Or at least the striker should have been made to work harder for it.  As the cross came in Filan decided to come off his line.  He could have gone in to challenge Kuyt, but no, he decided that the Dutchman wasn’t going to win the ball and was waiting for the easy catch a yard behind him.  If the keeper had stayed back, or gone for the punch, then who knows what would have happened.

Latics’s only real moment of note of the first half came when Heskey was knocked over in the box when chasing after a ball with Reina.  It was one of those challenges that would be a free kick anywhere else on the pitch, but hardly ever result in a penalty.  To carry any complaints against the decision would be clutching at straws, but even the softest of spot kicks would have been more than welcome.

The second half saw Jewell take an, arguably, more positive approach with Camara replacing Taylor.  The more cynical amongst you may argue that it’s no use putting two strikers on the pitch at the same time as withdrawing your most likely line of supply, but what do you know?  A lot it would seem as the substitution had little to no effect on the overall pattern of the game.

As we’ve now come to expect, the next player to leave the pitch was Emile Heskey, replaced by Caleb Folan after completing his 60 minute shift.  You can only assume that Heskey is carrying some kind of injury, as usually his absence is extremely noticeable.  As it was, Latics’ second notable attacking moment fell to Folan who wasn’t able to capitalise on a practically free header in the box.  The only shot of the game for the visitors and it failed to trouble the keeper in any real sense of the word.

If the chance buoyed Latics somewhat, Liverpool’s second some five minutes later confirmed what we’d suspected since kick off and killed the game off.  At least they were made to work for this one and Kuyt’s turn and finish were worthy of the three points. 

In the end it was all too easy for the Reds.  Of course they are a much better side than Latics, but to stand back in awe has to be a mistake.  When faced with a top side the trick is to play to your own strengths.  We may be uncertain what those are at the moment, but they are certainly not defending or retaining possession, necessities when you play the way Jewell had them set up at kick off.

Now there will be people out there who feel that Jewell’s approach for this game was correct but it could come back to bite him.  Yes Latics could still survive without winning any of the last three games, but it seems wrong to have to rely on goal difference at this stage of the season.

From here on in, the only real path to safety lies in the pursuit of points, and a win against West Ham could be enough to, all but, guarantee another season at this level.  At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, what do you reckon is the best way to get those points?  By defending and playing five in midfield?  Or sticking to what we know, playing 4-4-2 and getting at people?

It’s hardly rocket science is it?

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