After Dirk Kuyt stormed through the Newcastle defenses and beat Tim Krul inside the far post to bring Liverpool level, it seemed almost inevitable that Saturday's tie at St. James' Park would turn the Reds' way.
Liverpool had already nearly equalized in the first half with a free header by Sotirios Kyrgiakos — who really could have had a multi-goal game — and they seemed a constant threat to score. Somehow, though, they couldn't.
Fernando Torres couldn't finish on a breakaway. David Ngog missed a free header of his own. Maxi Rodriguez was denied a penalty. Balls were saved off the goal line. Numerous set pieces left balls boucning around the area dangerously, but to no end. No matter what, Liverpool just couldn't get a bounce.
Just as it seemed as though Liverpool couldn't get any closer to scoring, Newcastle was forced into a 63rd minute substitution when Shola Ameobi fell injured, and his replacement, Nile Ranger, greatly disrupted the Liverpool defense, leading the team to concede twice in the 3-1 defeat. As much as Liverpool's inability to score may have been luck-related, the side's ability to concede surely wasn't — even if Newcastle netted their only three on-goal efforts. Liverpool's back four looked slow and mistake prone — and that's not new news.
It is true that Liverpool won't face an aerial threat like Andy Carroll every week, but with Kyrgiakos and Martin Skrtel in central defense, you'd expect the side to be relatively able to cope with a physical striker. That couldn't have been less true, as Carroll repeatedly won headers on set pieces and longballs — generally creating for his teammates instead of putting efforts on net. Liverpool knew this would be exactly what Newcastle would do, and they still weren't able to do a thing about it. While Carroll may have created the goals, it was Ranger who created the opportunity for Newcastle and truly exposed the Reds' back line.
From the moment of Ranger's introduction, he was repeatedly able to get behind Liverpool's back four of Skrtel, Kyrgiakos, Paul Konchesky and Glen Johnson. He forced the defenders into fouling, and he nearly scored on multiple occasions. For the previous two-thirds of the match, Liverpool had looked the team more likely to score. Thereafter, they looked completely flustered. What was Ranger doing that so bothered the Liverpool defense? Simply playing with pace and high workrate — not using world-class skill of any sort.
Why was this able to work? Liverpool are slow at the back, and the midfield doesn't do a great job of covering such up. Clearly, Johnson is the exception to the rule, but his forward-roving inclinations often make it difficult to include him in the discussion of the defense at all. As far as Kyrgiakos, Skrtel and Konchesky go, it's hard to argue that they won't be exposed by just about any pacy, tricky player if given the opportunity. The returns of Daniel Agger and Jamie Carragher and the fuller fitness of Fabio Aurelio will surely help remedy such, but the transfer market may have to come in to play. In the short term, the midfield may have to do what they had been so criticized for doing earlier in the year — playing a deep line. Newcastle continually found space between the midfield and defense, and were able to make runs or have longballs controlled accordingly. Carroll's late clincher came from range because neither a midfielder nor a defender was close to closing down on him. Raul Meireles — who has become a strong offensive threat of late — and Lucas were nowhere to be found.
Earlier in the campaign, the team looked passive and back-footed with the midfield playing close to the defense. As a result, Fernando Torres looked frustrated by a lack of support, and the midfielders looked to lack creativity. On the flipside, however, was the fact that the midfield was supporting the defense, and goals against weren't all that frequent. The Newcastle match did not see such a midfield line for Liverpool, and as a result, the team couldn't prevent scoring chances. Basically, each way of playing has its flaws, and the best solution may simply be to put different players on the pitch.
The 2008 team featuring the Javier Mascherano–Steven Gerrard pairing in midfield was able to help a defense that lacked elite speed, and they were able to create forward as well. Meireles and Lucas just aren't Mascherano and Gerrard.
Gerrard will be back soon enough, but as is also true of the defense, health can only solve so much. Roy Hodgson may have to look for an impactful midfielder to pair with Gerrard centrally in the first team to completely remedy the issues in midfield.
Liverpool have looked nearly flawless on occasion this season — such as against Chelsea and Aston Villa — but they've also looked totally unable to score or prevent goals at times as well. You never know if the team is going to play aggressively or defensively, and you never know if either strategy is going to work out.
There were, however, the positives as well. Meireles' delivery on set pieces has looked drastically improved, Kuyt scored a wonderful goal, and the side did outshoot their opponents 21-7.
Liverpool have a dead rubber against FC Utrecht at home on Wednesday to work out some of the kinks, but it's hard to believe that they won't resurface at any moment — at least until the squad itself is improved.