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Raul Meireles is Still a Central Midfielder

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Meireles

"I think you can see there's a bit of belief now coming back into the players," he said, and it's nice that after six months of having a Liverpool manager manage to say one wrong thing after another to the press there's finally a man in charge who isn't quite so fond of putting his foot in his mouth and throwing players under the bus.

Dalglish may not always say exactly what fans and supporters are thinking, of course, but it isn't his job to be a fan or supporter or to speak his mind as such. It's his job to be a manager, and in his various interviews and press conferences throughout his first week back he's done exactly that. Right now he's the manager of a deflated, struggling club punching well below its weight, and that showed when he went out of his way to praise Raul Meireles' goal and the boost in confidence it would provide following the derby draw on Sunday. Because right now, the entire team and just about every individual player more than anything needs a boost to their confidence, not public reminders of any possible shortcomings. For those not quite so worried about being the manager of Liverpool Football Club, on the other hand, it might have been more in order to offer a hesitant, "Well, sure, it was a nice goal, but..."

Which brings us around to one of Liverpool's biggest problems in fully turning the corner since Dalglish's return: As much as there has been the very real problem of overcoming a global lack of confidence to address, the sudden and precipitous drop in performance from the man who up until a week ago had been one of Liverpool's few bright spots has made finding success that much harder. Even if Meireles' well taken strike against Everton was just reward for all the hard work he has done this season, outside of that one moment of magic he was one of Liverpool's worst players on the pitch, sloppy and slow to react, careless in possession and aimless in attack. Though much of the rest of the squad has been showing increasing signs of life, Meireles has appeared to do the exact opposite, though his plummeting form didn't actually coincide with Dalglish's return. Instead it went hand in hand with Steven Gerrard seing red against United. In the two an a half matches since then--most of Dalglish's current tenure at the club, of course, though this seems as good a time as any to remember that correlation does not equal causation--Meireles has been forced to push higher up the pitch as the most attacking central player behind Torres in a one striker system, and that has increasingly placed him in positions to receive the ball with his back to goal, under pressure from defenders by the time he turns. It seems clearly a role as unfamiliar and uncomfortable as the wing for a player more used to facing forward and picking out a pass, and in that more advanced role against both Blackpool and then Everton he gave the ball away with distressing frequency while looking off the pace.

Raul v. Everton and Blackpool

Against Blackpool, he and Lucas roughly shared responsibility for getting forward, and with more of his time spent slightly deeper he had a less wasteful showing against the Seasiders on the whole, even if it's easy to recall the misplaced pass that led to Blackpool's first. The further forward he moved, however, becoming an active part of attacking moves rather than a builder at the base responsible for starting them and switching play while occasionally joining late and from deep, the less effective he became. Then against Everton, an almost exclusively advanced role--playing as a second striker at times, while Lucas and Spearing largely sat back--saw him starved for touches, and when he did get the ball he was harried and slow in his decision making, leading to frequent giveaways.

Raul

Admittedly chalkboards, as interesting as they are, can be fairly vague and open to interpretation, but as an examination of a player--one of the only players--who has looked out of sorts almost since the moment Kenny Dalglish returned, they offer an interesting insight. It's even more informative when you look back to one of his most productive days in a Liverpool shirt: the Aston Villa match before Chrsitmas. It's not just about giveaways and his pass completion percentage, which goes from a high of 87.5% against Villa to 75.9% against Blackpool to 58.5% against Everton, it's the way the total number of passes attempted reflects the number of touches he had and the corresponding role played in maintaining possession and helping to build a foundation--primarily alongside Lucas--from which the rest of the side could attack. While Meireles has personally looked below his best in the last two outings, such hobbled performances by one of the starting eleven also obviously hinders Liverpool's ability to look as good as they otherwise might. Given that they've looked far better the last few games under Dalglish than at almost any time under Hodgson--at least against top competition-- makes one wonder what could have been if only Meireles had been able to play from deeper, in the areas he has had the most success from so far this season.

It's hard to believe that he has suddenly become a horrible player after being perhaps the only good thing to come from Roy Hodgson's time with the club. As such it is less than a stretch to suggest that he has simply been deployed nearly as poorly by Dalglish against Blackpool and Everton as he was early on by Hodgson when he often found himself camped out on the right touchline. The problem this time around, however, isn't a manager unwilling to play him in something like his best position--the midfield triangle of Lucas, Meireles, and Gerrard seen at the start of the United match seemed to signal a clear intent as to what Dalglish saw as his ideal starting midfield--it's a lack of obvious options and an attempt to make the best of such paucity with Gerrard suspended. As clear as it is has become that Meireles is rather specifically suited to building play and arriving late as secondary support in the role of reserved midfielder, with Gerrard out for three matches pushing Meireles forward likely seemed the safest gamble. Joe Cole continues to work his way back slowly from yet another injury and hasn't been "Joe Cole" for going on three years now; Shelvey has had some decent moments but hasn't done enough to convince he's ready for a full 90 in the derby; and Pacheco has hardly gotten any first team football, and for all that he's shone with the reserves, expecting him to start against Everton would have been an even bigger ask than Shelvey. After that, one is faced with the option taken against Blackpool on Wednesday: bring on Poulsen and ask Lucas to take a larger share of the attacking duties. Meireles in an even more advanced role than he had played against Blackpool might never have seemed a great option, but in the circumstances the other options available seemed decidedly worse in all but retrospect.

Perhaps, with Gerrard still out, it will mean a chance to see one of Pacheco, Cole, or Shelvey start in front of he and Lucas against Wolverhampton next weekend. Certainly it would be a far easier game to start any of them in--or to move Maxi central and bring in Babel on the wing--than against Everton, and while Dalglish can be forgiven for thinking that Meireles was the best of his imperfect options for the role against Blackpool, the two subsequent performances suggest that he cannot be considered ideal back-up for Gerrard in that most attacking midfield role.

It's not that he's suddenly become a terrible player, unable to link play and create attacking moves. It's just that he's a central midfielder. It's what he was when he was brought in from Porto only to be played on the right, and it's what he was against Everton when he was forced by circumstance to play as a second striker. Maybe, with time, he could learn to excel in a new role, but Liverpool doesn't have the luxury of time any more, and the sooner he moves back where he belongs the sooner the club will get back one of its few bright spots. There's good reason to hope, too, that when he does move back into the center of the park it could help push Liverpool over the final hurdle on the hard road towards renewed confidence and success.