If nothing against Brighton or Wolves was going to convincingly answer the questions left behind by the Tottenham debacle, at the least fans could hope nothing that happened would make the players involved look any worse. And if Andy Carroll's first positive performance of the season at least set out a convincing blueprint for the player moving forward, Charlie Adam's only left more questions despite forcing a Wolverhampton own goal. Certainly he did look better against Wolves than he had the week before at Spurs, where he'd recorded the second worst pass completion rate of his Premier League career, but clearing that low bar still left a lot of room to be far from convincing.
|vs. Wolves: Low pass totals, playing it safe,
and failing to influence the match.
More interesting than the performance itself, however, might be the way it compares to his other displays so far this season, and the way those compare to the Charlie Adam who was on display at Blackpool last year. Given his reputation, it was a game where the "good" Charlie Adam should have been a shoe-in. A game where even those who might rather see Jay Spearing's committed, low-key style deployed against heavily pressing sides would have said to give Adam a shot. The sort of match even those who doubted him thought he was brought in for: At Anfield when he would be given the space to break down a stubborn defence.
Only Adam didn't do a whole lot with that space, completing a middling 75% of a surprisingly low 32 passes from open play. That he didn't attempt many Hollywood balls might be commendable, but at Anfield against a bottom-half side that didn't put pressure on him, his ineffectiveness on the day was summed up perfectly by that final number: 32 largely safe attempted passes across ninety minutes.
The week before against Tottenham, of course, had provided an example of what often happens when a talented side puts a great deal of pressure on Adam: he completed just seven of 13 passes in his twenty-odd minutes on the pitch before being sent off for a rash, frustrated challenge that led to his second yellow of the day. Over a full match that would have resulted in passing numbers in the neighbourhood of 21 of 39 for 54%.
|vs. Stoke: High pass total, but too many
forced long-balls hurt his game and Liverpool.
And if those recent matches have done little but put the two flavours of "bad" Adam on display, one in fact has to go back to the start of the season to find Charlie Adam successfully influencing play. Against Spurs and Stoke he was pressured into making poor decisions or flustered out of the game. Meanwhile against Wolverhampton and Bolton he was given more space but simply failed to influence proceedings from open play, showing that even when he isn't put under heavy pressure it's a bit of a toss-up as to whether the Charlie Adam who walks onto the pitch will control proceedings in attack or be little more than a passenger, albeit one with an extremely useful left-peg for corners and free kicks.
Against Arsenal and Sunderland, however, he managed high total pass attempts while keeping the most foolish long-balls to a minimum, reflecting that those were the games he seemed the player everyone hoped Liverpool were signing in the summer. He may not have put in a particularly convincing defensive shift, but at least he helped control play and build the attack. If he'd managed to keep that up, everybody would have been talking about how brilliant Dalglish's diamond in the rough had become since switching sides. Unfortunately, at the end of the day Charlie Adam's first six games for Liverpool—with the highs, lows, and even lowers caused by pressing opponents—is exactly the same inconsistent Charlie Adam who played for Blackpool last season in a three-man midfield to compensate for his defensive shortcomings.
Adam may have scored one goal, forced another, and created six chances largely through his set-piece delivery. And those sorts of creation stats that Damien Comolli and FSG value so highly might seem quite positive in a bubble. But they don't take into account his wildly inconsistent passing even at the best of times, that inability to perform more often than not when under pressure, and the defensive issues that seem to cycle between an inability to tackle effectively and a complete disinterest in doing so. Because no matter how you rearrange his attacking statistics to make them appear anything from below par but acceptable (pass completion rate from open play) to exceptional (chance creation from dead ball situations), there's no sugar coating the other side of his game:
|vs. Arsenal: High pass total, minimal long-balls,
and a hugely positive display.
Third in both fouls committed and total yellow cards in 2010-11, and running a strong second in fouls committed already in the 2011-12 season. In fact, Adam has so far with Liverpool committed more fouls than he has attempted clean tackles, successful or otherwise. And while a high number of fouls could be explained away for a player with a strong defensive game, it's that fouls to attempted tackles ratio that points out just how much of a liability Adam is in his own third, as last season he attempted 75 tackles while committing 68 fouls, or 1.1 clean challenges for every foul committed. Lucas Leiva, by comparison, made 172 tackle attempts while committing 62 fouls, equalling 2.77 clean challenges for every foul he committed in 2010-11.
Also of note when it comes to examining the defensive side of his game is that he only attempted a tackle once every 41 minutes last season, while in the early going this year it has dropped to once every 43 minutes. Even if he's not expected to be a defensive stalwart, that pales in comparison to Lucas, who attempts a tackle every 14 minutes.
In fairness, it does have to be mentioned that in open play he has improved his pass success rate in the early going with Liverpool, raising it from 72% to 76%. He has also improved his ball retention: He now loses the ball in possession once every 68 minutes, where last season he would concede possession once every 58 minutes. Lucas has only been caught in possession once in this season's 540 minutes of league play, but last year's larger sample size had him only losing possession once every 102 minutes—less than once per match.
Some will point out that comparing Adam to Lucas and his 82% pass completion rate isn't comparing apples to apples—they're different sorts of players expected to do different sorts of things. In which case, one might look to Jay Spearing, who last season attempted a tackle every 28 minutes while he was on the pitch as the more adventurous player paired with Lucas during a very successful stretch for the club. Additionally, Spearing was caught in possession once every 89 minutes and completed 80% of his passes from open play. And before he was injured, Steven Gerrard attempted a tackle every 32 minutes, completed 80% of his passes from open play, and was caught in possession once every 58 minutes—the same as Adam, though Gerrard carried the ball into attack more while Adam is more often caught in possession in midfield while searching for a pass.
If Adam is indeed a project, then he has a long, long way to go to match the numbers racked up by other Liverpool midfielders in the past two seasons. And when it comes to any argument that he might need more time to settle, those numbers at least suggest otherwise: They suggest that the Adam Liverpool's seen in the first six games is fairly close to, or even a slight improvement on, the Adam Blackpool got last season. Far from being a sample size too small to judge, put next to last year his first six games with Liverpool appear a microcosm of what can be expected from the player unless he radically changes his game.
And perhaps he'll do just that, as Kenny Dalglish certainly saw something in him that made Adam seem a worthwhile project. If he can learn to take the quick, simple pass instead of forcing it, then at the very least he should be able to boost his passing rate into the same territory as Gerrard and Spearing while cutting down on being caught in possession, especially against high pressure sides. That would still leave his worrying tendency to commit fouls nearly as often as clean tackles—successful or otherwise—and that the visual evidence so far has backed up the idea that, as with Blackpool, he's a player who needs to be part of a midfield trio, and that he needs to be the player with the least responsibility in that trio. In any case, one has to hope that Adam can make a massive leap forward, and fast. Because the Charlie Adam on display so far has been the same Charlie Adam who was on display at Blackpool, and that Charlie Adam clearly doesn't seem the man to help carry Liverpool where they want to go.