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Hopes and Unanswered Questions

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hodgbow
To infinity and beyond.

Yesterday, something like a modern 4-2-3-1 made its first appearance for Liverpool since Rabotnicki, and as much as such an occurrence is reason to celebrate it's also something to scratch your head over. For the last few months, many have taken to remembering that outing against a gawking Macedonian side as being little more than what one would expect against over-matched opposition more interested in going home with photos of themselves on a famous pitch than with a famous result in hand. Throw in the short lived buzz surrounding a new manager who was going to fire up the squad with some much needed man management and it wasn't so much a question of how Liverpool could have looked so dominant against a weak side, as how it could have been otherwise.

Of course, Liverpool would later go on to lose to Northampton, likely the widest gulf in position between LFC and

any club they had ever fallen to. After all, Worcester City may have been the lowest opponent to beat them back before Shankly dragged the club out of the second division, but Liverpool itself was far further down the pyramid at the time and it was also on the road. So blame it on those rugged, rough and tumble lower league players who wouldn't have the same tourist mentality, perhaps. Blame it on the "b-team" even if the first leg against Rabotnicki had been very much a weakened side. Blame it on the rain, even.

Or blame it on playing two passive banks of four against Northampton: lying deep and inviting pressure while refusing to get drawn out by pressing the opposition in turn. Because that was the biggest difference between Rabotnicki and Northampton, confirmed by a depressing re-watching of the extended Rabotnicki at Liverpool highlights late last week in an odd confluence of nostalgia for a fluid, winning performance and guilt at being one of those calling for Roy Hodgson's head. Overlapping wingbacks, lonely center halves pushed up into the center circle, feisty attacking midfielders closing down possession. Somewhere in the striving fight of ten against eleven when Arsenal came to town that was lost, and no matter what one called the formation those core components of a pressing, possession-based game never returned.

Even against Napoli they didn't come to the surface, despite a passive opponent. In that match both sides seemed more than willing to accept a well earned point against what they saw as a tough opponent--both sides came into it with a loser's mentality of defending in numbers and hoping to nick a goal from the small handful of chances that might pop up either on the counter or from set-pieces. In the end it may have been a tough venue, but neither side really did enough to win all three points. One would have expected different against Blackburn, but when Sunday rolled around it appeared that Sam Allardyce had, like his Napoli predecessor, not gotten the memo about what happens when you put Liverpool under pressure. Either that or he's given up on Madrid and is now angling for work in the typically slower paced Serie A.

robotnik
Maybe next year, Doc.

Only this time around Liverpool didn't match a passive opponent in their style of play. Some might write it off as being at home, though to do so would be to ignore that passive and organized has been the cornerstone of every Liverpool match in every competition since the league started. No, this was unusual: for the first time since Rabotnicki the fullbacks were regularly pushed up past midfield--and with one of those fullbacks being Carragher it seemed an even less likely thing to bear witness to--while the ball was passed out of defense and Torres was actually, finally, given a bit of support instead of being left to feed off long balls played six feet above his head. At times, with its lack of width from midfield, Liverpool might have previously appeared to be setting out in some kind of 4-2-3-1 or 4-2-2-2, but if so it was a formation hobbled to the point of uselessness under Hodgson until yesterday.

***

It's been talked about often enough before, but the cornerstone of a functional, possession-based 4-2-3-1 variant is a high defensive line and passing it through the middle rather than bypassing the midfielders to send long balls to the striker. It's a cornerstone because without these two elements it becomes almost impossible for those fullbacks to get down the pitch and provide width. It's not rocket science: make them regularly run twenty yards further while getting the ball downfield in half the time and no fullback in the world is going to be able to provide decent, natural width in attack. And without proper wingers this is exactly the situation that had everybody following Liverpool ready to rip out their hair against Everton and City and Birmingham. At some point, it stopped being about the results and became about how the team looked hopeless--both in their play and in their body language.

And yesterday it all changed.

After rants about 35 years of experience and not needing to change his approach, it's difficult to understand what we saw even if it's what--in a general, tactical sense--we've been asking to see for weeks now. When, after the match, Hodgson then talked about taking the game to the opposition, pressuring and controlling the park, it seemed even more at odds with every tactical choice we've seen made since that game at Anfield against Rabotnicki. Inevitably, this seemingly unexplainable sea-change has resulted in rumours to try and explain it all away: mainly that the players got together and demanded a different approach, or alternately that Sammy Lee has been hammering away for the past month and finally got Hodgson to change.

hodghole
...one in the hole, you say?

These seem odd, to say the least, especially in the wake of Hodgson's determined display with the press after Napoli and talks of never stepping down. He didn't seem to be a man prepared to make any concessions to try and save his job, in part because he showed no signs of realizing his job might be in need of saving. Beyond that, they also don't line up with earlier ugly rumours of a growing English clique that helped push Benitez out. Before it was supposed to be player power saying that the side would set up with a deep line to satisfy Carragher, and that Gerrard would play in the center of the park with Cole having been brought in to play in the hole. Now it's Carragher, in at right back, helping to push for a high line with overlapping fullbacks while Gerrard goes to second striker and Cole plays on the left? For those rumours to be at all true would require a bigger shift than Hodgson suddenly deciding to approach things a different way after steadfastly defending his approach all year. Even if you discount the earlier rumours completely you still run into Hodgson's recent defense of his methods--as well as then having a situation where the players now decide the tactics, and they're tactics the manager isn't comfortable with.

The Sammy Lee idea is at least easier to get one's head around, though it still seems an odd situation that doesn't add up any way you look at it. Which is why some people feel the need to pull on threads--threads that say, "The only match we looked at all like yesterday in was right at the start, before Roy Hodgson managed to 'install his ideas' fully." The problem is that even if the players calling some kind of meeting and requesting that they be allowed to set out with different tactics seems unlikely in all of this, it doesn't seem all that much more so than in the course of two days Roy Hodgson deciding he's suddenly going to become a convert to the modern, high-pressure 4-2-3-1. Because yesterday looked a hell of a lot closer to them playing against a Macedonian side with no new "system" installed than it did to anything else we've seen so far this term.

So now we cross our fingers and hope, even if we aren't sure what we should be hoping for, because no matter why yesterday happened it only makes it harder to judge the kind of job Roy Hodgson is doing. We don't know anywhere near enough to know what that anomaly of a match against Blackburn really means. And meanwhile we're still in the relegation zone.

But at least we have hope. Maybe. Depending on what the hell happened yesterday.