Liverpool 0 – Stoke City 1 (5-4 On Penalties) Match Report & Analysis

A first leg performance that should have been rewarded with more than a slender 1-0 lead; a manager that has never lost a semi-final in his managerial career; a Stoke team that changed the way it’s been playing in recent times, a way that has led them to some degree of success, in order to challenge Liverpool’s obvious defensive weaknesses: what could possibly go wrong?

It’s completely understandable that some people don’t value the League Cup. It’s totally fair that, given the fixture congestion that the Reds have suffered in recent times, some would have happily abandoned this competition in order to favour a challenge in the league. There is, after all, a reason this is known as the Mickey Mouse Cup.

Yet a trip to Wembley shouldn’t be sniffed at. The players wanted to be in the cup final, of that there’s no doubt whatsoever.

Liverpool didn’t play well. In fact it would be fairer to say that Liverpool were dire for vast parts of the match and were lucky that Stoke were equally as poor, even if they did get a fortunate offside goal to take the game to extra time and, eventually, penalties. But does it really matter how well or otherwise the Reds performed given that we’re now on our way to Anfield South? Maybe, maybe not. One thing is for sure, however: now we need to go and win the thing.

(Sort Of) Winning Ugly

I was speaking to a non-football fan friend of my family’s after the 5-4 win over Norwich at the weekend. They said ‘it must have been a great game to watch’ and the only response I could think of was ‘not really’.

There’s a truth that is rarely spoken about football matches and that truth is that the vast majority of them aren’t much fun to watch. Even in some of Liverpool’s best performances in recent times (the 5-1 against Arsenal, the 6-1 v Southampton) there have been long periods of nothingness.

Football games are often like boxing matches that go the distance: the highlights reels can look really exciting when they only show you the flurries of activity, but if you watch it in real time there’s loads of two fellas just hugging each other.

As far as Liverpool are concerned you can replace two blokes hugging each other with ten outfield players shooting from ridiculous positions and a goalkeeper doing nothing useful whatsoever. Depressingly enough as far as yesterday’s game goes the manager screaming at Alberto Moreno pretty much sums up the highlights reel.

Let’s be clear about this: the game against Stoke last night was a terrible spectacle. Zero shots on target over 90+ minutes is criminal. Yet goals not only change games but they also change your perception of a game. If the Reds had had, say, three shots on target and scored all three of them – as any opposition team seems to be able to manage against us – then we wouldn’t be talking about a poor performance but a relentless march towards Wembley.

The Reds Warm-Up

The Reds Warm-Up

As it is we have to admit, if we’re being totally honest with ourselves, that it could just as easily have been Stoke that made it through to the cup final. True they didn’t deserve it over both legs and Liverpool should have been out of sight by the end of the first half of the first leg, but in the end it came down to the lottery of penalty kicks and it could have gone either way.

Mark Hughes’ assertion that his team felt ‘hard done to’ was slightly laughable. Other than a goal that should never have been allowed to stand his players didn’t really do anything of note. Lucas Leiva played a good portion of the match at centre back and yet he was never really tested. Liverpool should also have been awarded a penalty for handball, but weren’t.

Both teams were pretty poor last night, the only difference being that Mark Hughes abandoned his principles to play a Tony Pulis style of Stoke performance in order to be poor, where Liverpool just looked tired after 3000 games in a month and a mammoth match against Norwich at the weekend. To finish the boxing analogy, Liverpool’s highlights reel didn’t feature a knockout blow but they still managed to win on points.

Midfield Question Marks

Before the match Jurgen Klopp praised Jordan Henderson’s performance against Norwich and I was delighted to see as much. It amazes me that some people still don’t rate the captain when he so clearly makes a huge difference to our performances, adding drive and intelligence to a midfield that is otherwise devoid of both.

In typical fashion Henderson then had a dreadful game, as though the manager’s words had gone to his head or else he was intentionally trying to make me look a fool for singing his praises. He was hardly the only midfielder to under-perform, however, with Lucas perhaps the only member of the group that emerged with all that much credit.

The question must be asked, then: what does Joe Allen have to do to earn a place in Jurgen Klopp’s starting XI?

Emre Can is full of potential and at times you can see exactly why he’s being picked on such a regular basis. He is a good runner, is comfortable on the ball and is willing to push forward when needed. Yet his immaturity is still there for everyone to see and there are other occasions when it’s really not fun to be watching him learn how to play. As someone tweeted last night, he’s the German Jonjo Shelvey.

Unlike our bald friend with his little bald friend, I can actually see Emre being an important player in Liverpool’s future. That doesn’t mean, however, that he should be a de facto starter in the Liverpool team at the moment. He is, like Alberto Moreno, completely braindead at times and seems totally unaware of the play going on around him at others. His potential is great, his current play is not.

Emre Can In The Centre Circle v Rubin Kazan

Emre Can In The Centre Circle v Rubin Kazan

Adam Lallana proved against Norwich just what an impactful player he can be when he’s used in the right way and at the right time. Against Stoke, though, he also showed why so many people get so frustrated with him. Loads of touches, lots of twists and turns that see him go past a player and then have to front him up again. He’s also so weak in possession that he’s knocked off the ball by a strong breeze.

Lallana has threatened to adapt to the demands of a life playing for Liverpool so many times but he has yet to actually achieve it on a regular basis. Perhaps he would be better used as an impact sub in a game when the opposition players have started to tire and are feeling mentally drained, much like he was at Norwich. I wouldn’t mind him being part of our squad moving forward, yet I just can’t see that Klopp considers him to be a regular starter once he’s been able to bring in more of his own style of player.

almonfoto / shutterstock.com

almonfoto / shutterstock.com

James Milner is another one that looks as if he’ll have a limited shelf-life under Jurgen Klopp. I’ll confess that I was extremely excited when Liverpool signed him in the summer. I remember the performance he put in for Manchester City at Anfield in ’13-’14 when his appearance off the bench changed the game in their favour and nearly saw them win the match.

To suggest he hasn’t quite lived up to that would be a gross understatement. Yes Milner is a grafter and a good runner and he puts an incredible shift in, but what else is he offering this current Liverpool team? He doesn’t really appear to being leadership to the table, for example. He isn’t popping up with important goals or regular assists in the way that you’d hope a regular starting midfielder would do either.

Graft, energy, running and ‘putting a shift in’ are all well and good, but they’re also the cornerstone of a Klopp pressing team so it’s pretty much the minimum I’d expect to see moving forward. Milner’s not getting any younger and, much like Lallana, I can’t really see him being anything other than a squad player this time next year.

Which brings us back to Joe Allen. The player that is tainted by the brush of being Brendan Rodgers’ Head Boy hasn’t really done a lot wrong when he’s been called upon recently; in fact he’s done an awful lot right. Goals, assists, tactical yellow cards and match winning penalties have all come in his last few performances.

He’s another player that won’t be a regular starter as we move forward, of course. But right now there is a solid argument that he should be starting in place of pretty much any of Liverpool’s current midfielders. Emre Can might benefit from a rest, for example. Jordan Henderson could do with being back to full fitness before he keeps getting picked. Adam Lallana might be better coming on for Allen rather than the other way around.

Adam Lallana

Adam Lallana

There are no guarantees in football and I’m certainly not going to argue with Jurgen Klopp, but Allen’s recent cameos suggest he should be an automatic starter for the match against West Ham. I don’t care who he comes in for, I just care that he comes in.

In my last piece, by the way, I said I wouldn’t comment on Simon Mignolet any more and I am to try to keep that promise. I will say this, though: his penalty saves were excellent and I pray they’re a springboard onto better performances. His overall match was once again pretty dreadful, though, and he conceded from the first shot on target in the match for about the 700th game in a row. The following tweet wasn’t true by the end of the 120 minutes but it was by the end of the 90 so I’ll just leave this here and say no more about it:

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