After 25 minutes, Avram Grant would’ve been relatively happy with his side’s stifling of an under-pressure Liverpool side – before his side hit the self-destruct button.
If we lived in a world of ifs and buts, it would be easy to point to Jamie Ashdown’s gift wrapped opener for the Reds and wonder what might have been had Pompey continued to frustrate their hosts and their edgy crowd. As it was, Ashdown – deputising for the injured David James – threw away Grant’s game-plan in an instant, handing the Reds not only a goal, but a timely boost to their confidence. Indeed, Ashdown’s error changed the whole dynamics of the game. Liverpool’s confidence suddenly hit heady heights while Pompey’s heads dropped instantly leading to an immediate barrage of goals thanks to some atrocious defending. For the first time this season, the spirit seemed to leave the players with it abundantly clear they saw no point in fighting once their game-plan had unfolded. If the side still had any chance of survival, the goal would have been an almighty setback, but one the players could realistically have fought back from. However, they are in no relegation scrap – their league campaign has already bitten the dust. The signs were there last Tuesday when Birmingham came away from Fratton Park victorious at the second time of asking in just four days.
It was duly noted the large difference in performance in both games against the Midlands outfit, and the worry of there being more displays like the league encounter instead of the FA Cup tie was a very damning one indeed. The simple truth was, everything rode on that FA Cup quarter-final tie, while any league match from now until the end of the season is merely a procession before the inevitable happens. Although Pompey’s fight and spirit seems to be on the wane, their Anfield display offered a number of other worrying side notes – namely in the defence. Since the loss of Younes Kaboul, the defence has lacked leadership, pace and any genuine defensive positional sense. Even Tal Ben-Haim has been a long way short of what he once was a Bolton, and with his defensive partner often being the slender Marc Wilson, or sluggish Hermann Hreidarsson or Ricardo Rocha, Pompey have something of a soft centre. With that injury to Ben-Haim, Wilson was partnered with Rocha in the central pairing while Hreidarsson slotted in at left-back.
All three spent most of the match stood about two yards off the player who had the ball whenever Liverpool threatened. Fernando Torres even had a little fun with Rocha as he teased him this way and that before rifling home for his second and his side’s fourth goal. For the Reds’ second goal, twice was the ball out on Pompey’s left, and twice the player with the ball was allowed an absolute age to control the ball, look up and pick a cross. The age, and subsequent lack of pace of the likes of Hreidarsson, Rocha and Steve Finnan, means they like to give themselves a few yards in case the attacker tries to beat them. It is a ploy that can save them getting embarrassed but one which also allows the attacking player far too much freedom when in possession. Another cause for growing concern is the inability to involve the wide-men in this 4-3-3 system. This time it was Nadir Belhadj and Aruna Dindane who spent the night isolated on the wings. Indeed instead of being the side’s outlet ball and main source of penetration, the wingers are something of a luxury who get into the action far too little.
The likes of John Utaka, Danny Webber and Quincy Awusu-Obeyie have all tried their luck in the wide-berths, but all three – along with the two who started there last night – have delivered more anonymous displays than they have threatening. If Grant wishes to use this preferred system of his he needs to start finding the right kind of service and support to his wingers in order for them to have the desired effect. For a start, it would do them no harm to anticipate any flicks that Frederic Piquionne might win in the air. The Frenchman has barely lost a header in the last three games but it is only Jamie O’Hara who seems to have any belief in the on-loan Lyon man’s aerial ability. On the mention of Piquionne, the Frenchman was the only player to leave Anfield with any real credit.
If the whole side had displayed his kind of workmanship and effort, Pompey may have given a struggling Liverpool side something to think about. Instead it is Grant who has the thinking to do. Just how does he go about motivating his side for their remaining league fixtures?