by Will Nichols
Perhaps it is a strange time to be highlighting failings now Liverpool top the Premier league in December for the first time in seven years, but problems were evident in the lacklustre home draws with Stoke, Fulham, and now West Ham.
Width and goal scoring are the issues to concern Benitez. Whilst the defence remains resolute, Liverpool have only managed 21 goals in 15 games – less than Hull – which compared to Man Utd’s 26 and Chelsea’s whopping 33 is a real problem.
Liverpool are struggling to partner an injury-hit Torres with an out of form Robbie Keane, who may well end up as the latest big name striker to be pushed to the Anfield flanks. It could not have helped Keane’s fragile confidence to be hauled off for the untried David Ngog on Monday but the truth is that two league goals so far is a poor return for £20m.
On Monday Keane was adrift, lacking support admittedly, but failing to create anything of note against a decidedly poor West Ham defence. Calls for Ryan Babel to be partnered with Dirk Kuyt up front floundered as the Dutchman put in a non-performance after replacing Riera for the last 15 minutes.
Riera plodded through a largely unspectacular spell with new rich kids on the block, Manchester City, but the left-winger has been excellent this season. However, he has looked fatigued in the last few games and the width he provides has been lacking.
The narrowness of Liverpool’s recent play is as much to blame for the goal-scoring woes as the strikers’ collective dips in form. Anfield is not the largest pitch, and teams coming to defend find closing the space down far easier than they would do on the green expanses of The Emirates or Old Trafford. Having players stick to the flanks pulls defenders wide creates more space for the talents of Gerrard and Alonso.
Riera, Aurelio and to an extent, Babel, provide this width down the left, but on the right, options are limited. The willing but desperately limited Dirk Kuyt, out of position Yossi Benayoun and defensively minded Arbeloa cramp up space by cutting inside. Benitez dropping Mascherano on Monday was a positive move to free up the centre but chances were still scarce with so little coming down the right hand side.
Perhaps the solution is a player rumoured to be on his way out of the club. Jermaine Pennant’s stock has sunk so low at Liverpool that he was omitted from the Carling Cup squad that lost to Spurs. He even surprised the serial burglars of players’ houses by being at home when they attempted a break in. Mind you, as a popular football site has pointed out, with reasons as good as this you might stay at home too.
A slow start followed his move from Birmingham, but Pennant became more and more involved with the first team, scoring in the win over Chelsea culminating in an excellent performance in the 2007 Champions’ League Final. He was unfortunate to get injured and has never had the run in the team that could have seen him return to that form. His four appearances this season amount to just 159 minutes of action and his entire Liverpool career has seen him play just 79 games.
Pennant has been effective, if not eye-catching, when used, but what more can you expect from a player so rarely started? No less a player than Fernando Torres has pointed to Pennant and Riera as players he likes to play with as they alone provide width at Anfield. Importantly, Liverpool have won each of the four games Pennant has played, including tight home matches against Wigan and Portsmouth.
Pennant may not be a world-beater, but it is against the lesser teams where Liverpool have come unstuck. There are still some decidedly average teams in the Premiership that will come to defend at Anfield and Pennant’s fleetness of foot could be the difference between a draw and a scrappy victory. Vital points in a charge for the title.