If Liverpool’s much improved second half performance at Old Trafford left onlookers hungry for more, the five-star destruction of a hapless Norwich City wasn’t so much a meal to simply satiate their hunger than a full-blown feast for them to savour for at least a few days to come.
The home side was simply irresistible on the day, bringing Brendan Rodgers his finest win as the Reds manager and a very tangible measure of the progress that is so often questioned by fickle detractors straight after a defeat.
The same detractors may point to the fact that it was only Norwich City, a side that now accounts for 25% of Liverpool’s league goals this season and one that had been on a major downward slump. The Canaries had earned only a point from a possible fifteen over a disastrous festive period and were certainly there for the taking. But Liverpool’s last three home wins point to an encouraging pattern.
The Reds have scored twelve times and conceded none in beating Fulham, Sunderland and Norwich. This team, which is still carrying the stigma of not beating any of the top ten sides yet, seems to have at least regained their ability to dispatch the minnows at Anfield.
It is no coincidence that such an emphatic performance came after the two obvious faults from the previous weekend were rectified. Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez were paired up from the start for the first time and Jordan Henderson returned to the first eleven at the expense of Joe Allen.
And the impact was a predictably positive one; so much so, in fact, that you are tempted to re-question Rodgers’ team selection and negative approach at Old Trafford. With the energetic duo of Henderson and Sturridge drafted into the line-up, Liverpool’s pressing, passing and movement were exemplary. This wasn’t totally unexpected but the magnitude of its impact perhaps was.
|Daniel Sturridge does his 'dance' celebration at Anfield
Norwich set up with their backline to defend deep and narrow. But unlike the Villa side which had previously succeeded with a similar tactic, the Canaries had plenty to contend with, especially the presence of another striker in the Anfield side’s ranks.
“Daniel's got pace and power but he's also clever. That was important for us today. It gives the opponent someone else to really worry about,” acknowledged the Liverpool manager after the match.
Indeed, Chris Hughton’s decision to set up in the manner he did must have been influenced by the potential threat of a pacey Sturridge running in-behind the defence. Norwich’s game plan was to control the space in their own third of the field which meant letting both deep-lying centre midfielders Steven Gerrard and Lucas Leiva time on the ball in addition to allowing full-backs Glen Johnson and Andre Wisdom room to advance forward.
A similar strategy, one with no pressing and defending deep, had backfired miserably at Carrow Road earlier in the season when Liverpool ran away as 5-2 winners, attempting a club-record 700 passes (90.1% accuracy) in the process with 67% possession. This match wasn't much different as 694 passes (90.3% accuracy) were attempted by the home side with 68% possession.
Hughton clearly did not account for Liverpool’s versatility and fluid formation. On reading Rodgers’ line-up, the visiting manager must have been counting on one of either Sturridge or Suarez to be situated as a wide forward for the majority of the game, especially since the midfield trio of Henderson, Gerrard and Lucas were also in the starting line-up.
But both Suarez and Sturridge attacked primarily through the centre (their average positions in the match virtually coinciding), with the former playing off the latter. Their link-up play was excellent and the two seem to have developed an instant understanding, which was most evident in the build-up to Suarez’s goal when Sturridge’s vision and subsequent dummy took two players out of the equation for the Uruguayan to run into acres of space and slot the ball home. It’s a pity that Lucas will get the assist for the goal because Sturridge played the most crucial part.
The positional flexibility and incisive movement of Liverpool’s players made it virtually impossible for Norwich to track their counterparts. The home side’s pair-wise positional switching was extremely effective.
Suarez and Henderson took turns to intelligently drift towards the left but were largely central (average positions of both were very central) due to the presence of Johnson in a highly advanced role on the left (Johnson’s average position was nearly as advanced as Downing on the other wing).
Sturridge drifted towards the right when Downing roamed inside. And Liverpool’s two strikers would often take turns in dropping deep into midfield to collect the ball, triggering a forward run from Gerrard.
The transitions were seamless and Liverpool were in no immediate danger of being exposed due to Norwich’s lack of pressing and the fact that they were camped so far from their attacking end.
Suarez, especially, played with the imagination of a man who has been afforded extra freedom on the pitch. The former Ajax man is at his liveliest best with energetic players around him. Under Kenny Dalglish’s management, the combination of him and Dirk Kuyt upfront along with Henderson and Downing, or Maxi Rodriguez, on either flank resulted in Liverpool’s best performances – a three-nil win against Bolton at Anfield an apt example.
|Suarez thoroughly enjoyed the company of versatile players|
When played with the likes of Jonjo Shelvey, Andy Carroll, Suso and Joe Allen, the Uruguayan has often not reached the level he wishes to. The reason behind it is evident. The energy, versatility and movements of only certain type of players complement Suarez’s actions on the pitch which, in turn, is crucial to Liverpool’s overall performance.
In Daniel Sturridge, Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson and second half substitute Fabio Borini, Liverpool may not have the most technical of players, but they’re certainly effective in getting the best out of the Uruguayan forward who once again created the most number of chances for his side.
The same set of players and their energies also play a major role in getting the best out of Gerrard. The skipper’s range of passing flourishes with so many runners to pick out from. He completed the match with an astonishing 115 passes (93% passing accuracy), which was far and away the highest in the match. He also completed 20 of his 23 long-ball attempts – an indication that with the right kind of movement ahead of him, his love for ‘Hollywood balls’ isn’t a hindrance to the system.
There were plenty of other positives for Liverpool like Henderson’s brilliant volley and his ever-growing confidence, Jamie Carragher’s flawless display, a glimpse of Wisdom’s attacking side and Sturridge becoming the first Liverpool player to score in his first three matches for the club since Ray Kennedy did it back in 1974.
But the most significant takeaway from Saturday should be the coherent movement of this specific starting eleven.
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