Five lessons from Fulham 2-3 Liverpool: Can Gerrard keep on bailing out his defence?
Stevie G saves the day again
As the clock ticked onto 90 minutes, Liverpool supporters were staring at another disappointing result on the road, a failure to beat the bottom-of-the-league side with the worst defence and worst home record in the Premier League.
But once again the England captain stepped up when it mattered, nonchalantly dispatching a stoppage-time spot-kick to seal a potentially crucial victory in the race for, at the very least, fourth place. It was Gerrard's third pivotal penalty in six league games, after netting the crucial fifth in an eight-goal thriller at Stoke before rescuing his side who had trailed 2-0 at home to Aston Villa.
This was no convincing win akin to their dismantling of Arsenal four days earlier - far from it. Despite dominating possession, emphatically in the second half, defensive blunders had threatened to undermine the Merseysiders once again. However, with half-time approaching, the skipper carved the Fulham defence open with an exquisite outside-of-the-boot through ball to set up Daniel Sturridge to level proceedings.
"Steven is peerless in many aspects of football," oozed boss Brendan Rodgers afterwards. "His performance again was (brilliant). His pass for the first goal, that penetration he has that he's shown all his life and then the composure at the end. It's no coincidence, he studies the goalkeepers and which side they dive. The professionalism he's showing at this stage of his career is still there. There's no more ideal person than Steven Gerrard when you have a penalty in the last couple of minutes in games, he stuck it away brilliantly."
Gerrard now has 9 league assists this season, level with Wayne Rooney at the top of the chart. He also excelled defensively at Craven Cottage with 9 ball recoveries, bettered only by Raheem Sterling, and won 5/5 tackles.
Title challengers? If they tighten up
The Reds’ free-flowing forward play may continually wow the watching millions; their 66 league goals this term is second to only Manchester City. But at the back it’s a different story. None of the top 13 teams have leaked more away goals than the Anfield outfit, who have now kept just one clean sheet in their last 12 Premier League away games. You could see why.
Kolo Toure followed up his inexplicable pass to Victor Anichebe at The Hawthorns by slicing Kieran Richardson’s cross into his own net, rewarding Fulham’s lively start.
Partner-in-crime Martin Skrtel fared little better, swiftly going from hero against Arsenal to zero by gifting Fulham their second goal when the Cottagers had barely had a kick in the attacking third after half-time.
The mistakes summed up a shaky night in general for the duo, who looked uncomfortable any time Fulham got the ball into the box, particularly in the first half. Toure and Skrtel hoiked clearances here, there and everywhere, with the visitors totalling almost double the number of clearances as their lowly opponents.
Daniel Agger, Mamadou Sakho and Glen Johnson can’t come back soon enough to provide competition.
Fulham were up the fight from the off
Buoyed by the draw at Old Trafford that manager Rene Meulensteen hoped would be the “catalyst for resurrection”, Fulham made a bright start and didn’t let Liverpool settle in the early exchanges. Home debutant Ryan Tunnicliffe’s first-minute stinger forced the first of three Cottagers corners in the opening four minutes, culminating in Toure’s calamity.
Richardson was a regularly used outlet on the left flank as he combined with Lewis Holtby to good effect, and although Liverpool dominated possession in the opening 45 minutes, goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg hadn't really been tested by any of the 7 efforts that preceded Sturridge’s well-taken leveller.
“The tactics worked well in the first half by stopping them getting into a rhythm and stopping Gerrard spraying those key passes," mused Meulensteen. “That's why we kept them at bay quite well in the first half.
“In the second half they made changes, pushed people further up the pitch which means we drop further back. We got away with it because we got 2-1 up, (but) there was a momentum where they put us under pressure.”
It was attack vs defence after the break
Sturridge’s 41st-minute equaliser knocked the stuffing out of the home side. Liverpool ended the first half with a flourish and showed no signs of slowing upon the restart as the Reds surged towards the away supporters.
The opening 15 minutes of the second half saw Fulham complete just 6 attacking-third passes (3 of them from long balls) while Liverpool’s tally was an imposing 48 as they continually probed in and around the danger zone. As a result, Luis Suarez's impact on the game grew stronger; the Uruguayan received the ball 40 times in the second half compared to 22 before the interval.
By full-time, the home side had only added another 14 final-third passes to their total as they struggled to get out of their own half after the break, yet they were moments away from picking up another precious point only for Sascha Riether to scythe down Sturridge.
"The third goal is a silly challenge from Sascha," lamented his manager. "He shouldn't have done it. The first thing he said when he came into the dressing room was 'sorry I shouldn't have done it'. We lost 3-2 which is hard to take, with the effort the boys put in they should have had a point I think."
Holtby gives Fulham half a chance
The Cottagers are now effectively five points adrift at the foot of the table, given the goal difference, and a return to the Football League for the first time since 2000/01 looks increasingly likely. However, Meulensteen will have taken plenty of positives from the performances of his January recruits against the Reds.
Having set up Steve Sidwell’s Old Trafford opener on Sunday, Holtby stood out again. The Spurs loanee made more attacking-third passes than anyone else on the pitch in the first half, completing 10 out of 14, while over 90 minutes he was the contest’s best ball-recoverer (12) and Fulham’s best tackler (4/6).
Club-record signing Kostas Mitroglou bagged a brace in the reserves’ 5-3 win over Aston Villa on Wednesday, and in a Premier League as unpredictable as 2013/14 – at both ends of the table – Fulham will feel they have the resources to pull off another great escape with games against West Brom, Cardiff, Newcastle, Aston Villa, Norwich, Hull, Stoke and Crystal Palace to come.
"You can see there is definitely improvement. The new players are making a difference within that," added Meulensteen. "We are working hard to get (Mitroglou) fit and up to speed."