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Rhythm and Recital

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I saw this in the broadcast. This is just about the coolest thing ever, no? I would buy that poster. (Photo by Alex Livesey /Getty Images)
I saw this in the broadcast. This is just about the coolest thing ever, no? I would buy that poster. (Photo by Alex Livesey /Getty Images)
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The Everton Derby always provokes a strange set of emotions. I'm not from Liverpool, so it's hard to get well and truly riled up before the match. I don't hate them nearly as much as I hate whatever team Big Sam is coaching, for instance, or Real Madrid. For as long as I've been a fan, Everton have been the little brother, casually beaten down in matches more brutal than entertaining, usually twice in the same year. In all honesty, in all matches other than the Derby, they play an open attacking style which the Premier League needs to see, and Moyes has built a team from the ground up that has a bright future, particularly when the "financial fair-play" rules come into effect.

Going beyond this, there's also the small matter of my youth team being briefly owned by Everton and training under some of their traveling coaches. Mind you, they showed little commitment to our squad, only sending one guy who installed their training regimen and moved on- Tottenham has shown far more interest in our team and youth program, probably because some of the European kids I grew up with are popping up in domestic leagues (no hope for American kids- you basically had to hold a coach at gunpoint to get a look in college). However, they did come over, and they really were trying to revolutionize youth preparation and training. So for me, I kept my Liverpool loyalty quiet, but did enjoy the real thought and consideration put into the program.

(more after the jump)

It's hard for me to get infuriated for these matches then. I was nervous, mind you, but only because we need the points in a big way. I found that I was far more frustrated with the way we played than with any "Everton-ness" exhibited by Everton. I do hate Neville brothers in principle, however. Sewer rats shouldn't be allowed to play in League football, honestly.

Liverpool and Everton are usually matches with a violent level of antipathy among the players, although, honestly, the fans don't seem to be as violently inclined as the players. It's funny- speaking with some level of experience (both from playing and interacting with pros), it's hard for professionals to get all that worked up for matches. You play, win or lose, and you have to keep things in check because the wrong move can get you suspended, and your next match is now your most important match. Soccer is different- players show a great deal more passion than in other sports (basketball, I'm looking long and hard at you), but that passion can burn pretty short- if you let it get in the way of playing the game it becomes harmful. People joke about disrespect being the only motivator that gets teams to play with fire, but it creates a "victim-hood" in a sense that one, never dies out, and two, convinces a group of well payed athletes to function at a high level of emotional intensity without backing off. You'll find managers discourage this though- you want to approach every match as if they're the same. You'll notice that guys like Mourinho and Ferguson don't disrupt the squad flow or get too worked up on certain matches to regulate the way their players approach the match (except Anderson, who I enjoy watching really only to see how creatively he can start the counterattack for the other team)- hoping their constancy and professionalism transfers to the players. The season's too long to fight on emotion, and for every spike in a match with Arsenal there's a mental lapse at Blackpool or Wigan.

However, Liverpool and Everton is usually a bloodbath despite the prevailing professional dispassion in the league. This is due to Carragher acting rather foolishly in a lot of matches, or somebody from Everton losing their mind (Pienaar does this with surprising frequency- honestly my money's usually on the Neville brother, but he's so ineffectual at this point that he can't even do something idiotic with any level of competency, so Pienaar or Cahill have to pick up the slack). I know Pienaar didn't play yesterday, Carragher isn't in the squad due to his injury, and Neville played like he was in dire need of a cigarette, so there was a distinct lack of anger in the match, leaving it to the typical style of play for this season for both teams- acute nervousness.

The fans felt the same way, I felt. Both sets seemed far too preoccupied with the match's effect on the table than with the match itself. The players were tentative and unemotional on both sides, perhaps feeling the mood in the stands, despite both managers exhorting them to go forward and press. In some ways this was good- Lucas was particularly fantastic, showing that he really doesn't need a holding partner. You want a Lucas, Mascherano, or Makalele in this match, not really a Roy Keane. In other ways, well, our defense was a catastrophe. Neither of their goals came from a long string of open play (our midfield owned the match) but from unbelievable lapses by the back line. Clearly, Agger needs to play in every match and it's all too clear that Kyrgiakos is no longer fit for the Premiere League, if he ever was. I think his substitution was one of the most direct negative changes I have seen on a match in some time, and responsible for both goals and for the draw. First off, and Sam points to this a lot, Skrtel loses all confidence in the other back covering for him if it's Kyrgiakos or Carragher, leaving him to shade towards the other back's man and recovering late to his own (the first goal, for instance). Second- Johnson had to stay further back, limiting his involvement on the left and not allowing Rodgriguez to get forward. This forced us to go down the right almost exclusively, and Kuyt did not have the pace or the help to effectively get the ball into the final third on that side. Finally, this left Torres stranded somewhat, and brought the press further down the pitch than we would have liked it, putting the match on the back foot and exacerbating our problems.

Nervous teams do poorly under pressure, and Everton is a nervous team. For that matter, so is Liverpool, and this match really shows how badly nervous teams play when forced to defend. The back line of Liverpool did a magnificent job of dismantling a quality performance by the midfield and wing backs. Johnson and Kelly are playing pretty well. Johnson is much, much better defensively this season, and is part of the reason we only need one holding midfielder. I've been hard on him in the past, and he's been very, very good the past few matches. Kelly is fantastic and might need to be moved to the middle if Agger is going to be sliding in and out of the squad (Kelly is more suited to CB than Aurelio, the other option). The less said about Kyrgiakos (and Skrtel after Agger's substitution), the better.

Our biggest problem besides the middle of the back line is the lack of rhythm in the midfield. We do a great job of getting the ball back in the midfield, but we don't build up the rhythm we need moving the ball forward. Alonso is a great example of a player who builds rhythm perfectly- he doesn't make the final pass, but he puts the ball into a position where that pass is an afterthought. Right now, our searching passes are not getting through, mostly because the ball is in a tough place to make that play and gets cut out. In terms of play, Lucas was awesome. He's very consistent and very intelligent in tackling and fouling (he's starting to resemble Denilson, high praise in my book). His passing could use some work, but our lack of a metronome in midfield is not entirely his fault or his job. In turn, Meireles has been real class since he was moved to the middle, and his goal was long deserved, but he is not the trequartista or metronome this team needs in the middle. Spearing was somewhat nonexistent- good in defense, not a good enough passer on the attack. Kuyt needs to get the ball further up the pitch- people close to him too quickly up the touchline. In all honesty, he might be the player most suited to the metronome role, but he does important things defensively on the right. Maxi is a final move player, not a midfield creator. Shelvey showed the most promise in that role against Everton. I would have liked to see him start instead of Spearing- Lucas is showing that he doesn't really need that much help. Really, Cole should be perfect for this, but he's really out of form. Once we start putting the ball in smart places the attacking class of this squad really shines through- see the first goal.

There are three ways to fix a problem on a team. A new player,a squad guy in a new position, or a tactical shift. I think that we will get a striker before a central midfielder, where there is a surfeit of players, so that cuts out the first. The third, a tactical shift, is plausible, but our team is playing fairly well in this new setup, and other formations that fix the problem of rhythm (putting it simply: by adding players to the midfield and increasing the passing lanes) would compound the problems in defense.

I think the second way might be how we fix this. In our 4-1-4-1 (which shifts into a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 depending on the situation, or even a 4-2-4), Kenny would put Lucas, Meireles, and Gerrard in the middle. In Gerrard's absence he decided to give Spearing a run about in a more defensive role, leading to continuity and rhythm problems in midfield. Even with Gerrard in, however, the second pass wouldn't really be made. He's a runner, not really a cerebral player, and while he passes very well, he can fall in love with the long searching ball at the cost of the short pass. I actually think our best option for building the rhythm of passes in possession is Kuyt. Moving him to the middle minimizes the effect of his lack of pace. He's probably the team's smartest passer. Babel and Ngog are fine stand-ins on the right, particularly with Kelly or Aurelio behind them, and could naturally shift into a 4-3-3 if the match calls for it. Adding Kuyt to the central rotation also reduces our dependence on Lucas- you could feasibly pair Meireles and Kuyt, Kuyt and Cole, and Kuyt and Shelvey (all with Gerrard in front of them). As long as the players maintain some defensive discipline (only a problem with Cole, really) we can actually rotate Lucas out on occasion. Kuyt is a natural support striker, one of the best in the world, only let down by a lack of pace, with a great defensive sense as well. Moving him to the middle might allow us to find a rhythm that we sorely lack.

I'm somewhat displeased by the result, but believe this is something we can build on. There are things beyond the back line that need work, but I think if we establish a consistent rhythm in attack to pair with our rather effective midfield press we will see much better chances and more goals. I hope the next match is less exciting and a comfortable win. It would be nice to have one of those for a change.