1. Teams & Formations
With the exception of Agger the team’s formation and personnel lined up exactly as EB predicted on Thursday evening with Carroll starting through the middle with Suarez in a 4-4-2 setup with the Blues sticking with their usual 4-4-1-1.
2. Flank woes
Moyes selection for the game was dubious. Yes, Magaye set up Jelavic’s goal in the Quarter Final and yes he was influential last week against the same opposition but in terms of the team his selection was wrong for me. Our attacking setup is focused on our key asset Leighton Baines and Gueye’s selection for me compromised this. In our setup you need a ‘righty’ playing there who can dart inside, create space by dragging his marker and enable Baines the freedom of the flank.
Magaye is very much a ‘leftie’ and thus hugs the line and inhibits the space for Baines to manoeuvre, i.e Magaye is the opposite to Pienaar. With Drenthe out due to disciplinary issues & SP cup tied there were limited options though. Perhaps the closest fit to Pienaar was Osman on the left cutting inside on his right foot and Coleman on the right flank which Moyes eventually reverted to in the second period.
3.Suarez v Distin
Liverpool – like many teams have done against us – targeted our offensive left flank and Suarez who usually focuses his runs down the left channel appeared to be under instruction to focus his runs down the right channel in the space in behind Baines. This put him basically in a personal duel with Distin leading to the Frenchman’s booking and the eventual gaff which led to the equaliser. The Uruguayan’s incessant movement makes him incredibly difficult to mark – post match Martin Keown comically compared him to a rat – and given that you can’t get too tight due to his ability to buy fouls it resulted in Distin having to stand off him which can be just as dangerous.
4. Malnurished Jellyfish
Our service to Jelavic was pretty much anaemic all afternoon. Whilst the hitman opened the scoring after capitalising on some comedy defending with a cool finish he was forced to feed off scraps for the most part. All 5 of the Croatian’s goals prior to Wembley had been plundered from crosses from wide areas and its no secret we attack down the flanks more than any side in the top flight (75%). Liverpool also attack via the flanks rather than though the middle, making more crosses (30) per game than any side in the league yet whereas Liverpool were potent from wide areas we rarely got into decent crossing situations, being out crossed by 21 to 13. The below image is an example of how limited the support was to Jelavich when on a rare second half foray into the opposition half he is outnumbered 3 v 1 with Liverpool’s supporting players also outnumbering us 4 v 2.
5. Sitting on the lead
Our share of the ball and retention of it both dwindled as the game went on, with our share dropping to 42% in the second period with just 69% of passes completed. In context this is way down on our average (and comparable in the top flight with Stoke City). This was nothing new though. The recently deserved wins against Man City, Chelsea, Spurs & Swansea were achieved with an average possession of just 35%. For me, the game plan was similar as the home wins in this sequence, i.e. score and then ‘what we have we hold’. As mentioned many times before, Moyes is a defensive minded, reactive manager and won’t necessarily worry if we are spending more time off the ball given that our strengths lie in having good defensive shape and endurance to withstand such pressure. The ball retention stats though were key as when we did get on the ball possession was lost too cheaply putting constant pressure on an overworked defensive unit.
6. Creative Spark
A key factor in our upsurge in form since January has been the creative talents on the flanks whether that be Donovan, Pienaar or even Royston who have been able to supplement the hard work and endeavour with some flair and incision to carve out an opening. Statistically the 3 make the most dribbles and win the most fouls in our squad. Without their incision and ability to win fouls or prolong play in the opposition half we are just far too ordinary; we are one of the lowest scorers in the division with just 38 league goals. Donovan, Pienaar and Drenthe have contributed 18 assists from the combined 26 starts they have made. With non available we pitched in Osman (who always looks uncomfortable wide right as opposed to centrally or even left side) who has 1 assist this season, the unproven Gueye who has started just 3 league games and Coleman who has just 2 assists from 50 games playing in an offensive midfield position.
7. Make a change Moyes
Moyes response was to replace the completely ineffectual Gueye with Coleman meaning Osman moved across to the left flank. Sadly, the Irishman’s contribution was in keeping with his season – abject. As was the case in the Sunderland quarter final at Goodison, on the hour Fellaini switched roles with Cahill to make us more of a 4-4-2 which led to a more direct approach. The switch had minimal impact however due to Liverpool having decent aerial coverage with Agger, Carragher & Skrtel in their defence.
Despite having most of the ball Liverpool had created little and it was looking like we were going to close the game out before 2 huge mistakes turned the game on its head. First the usually reliable Distin’s back pass was way too short and enabled Suarez a gimme goal. With the game heading towards extra time Seamus Coleman’s ill judged lunge gave Liverpool another crossing opportunity via a free kick which Carroll dispatched. The Irishman’s 20 minute cameo featured numerous calamitous fouls, the second of which could have seen him sent off moments after his slip had enabled Carroll another opportunity which he dragged past Howard’s left hand post.
9. Final thought
This was clearly a massive opportunity missed against our local rivals and one that was predominantly of our own making. Recriminations and the finger of blame have been pointed at everyone from Moyes to Drenthe but the problems faced at Wembley were self inflicted in terms of selection and silly mistakes against an ordinary looking Liverpool side who were there for the taking. Moyes has taken stick for his cautious strategy and this is a legitimate gripe but it’s the same approach which has beaten a lot of the top sides in the league this season and arguably with the lack of creative talent available he probably thought at 1-0 that containment was his best chance of success in this match.
In terms of perspective we aren’t in bad shape in the league and have arguably solved the biggest conundrum of the last 2-3 years with Jelavic clearly an ace buy and the 20 goal a season man we have craved. Major surgery may not be required but senior pro’s like Neville and Cahill -whilst great servants to the club – had the look of players who have little more to give at this level. Replacing them and securing the services of an incisive player such as Pienaar will be a step in the right direction for sure.