Six lessons from Cardiff 3-6 Liverpool: SAS can improve, Mutch could star for England
Liverpool can't win the league with this defence... can they?
"And now you're gonna believe us – we're gonna win the league" sang Liverpool supporters with their team leading 5-2. It finished 6-3: a rugby score, a tennis score, a particularly rubbish cricket score, and a very dramatic football score.
However, the 6 in one column shouldn't make Liverpool forget the 3 in the other. Luis Suarez may have scored more goals than Cardiff as a team this season, but his team let them score three of their own, and every one was preventable.
First, Joe Allen gifted Cardiff possession in a dangerous area, with Steven Gerrard neglecting to track Jordon Mutch's run into a shooting position and Jon Flanagan also failing to recover. Then the Bluebirds took the lead again, when Allen allowed Mutch too much time in midfield, Gerrard missed Fraizer Campbell's run and Daniel Agger made it too easy for the striker to cut inside and shoot.
Finally, for Cardiff's consolation third, Glen Johnson didn't challenge Kenwyne Jones in the air and Martin Skrtel lost Mutch for the tap-in. These are individual errors rather than a problem inherent in Liverpool's system, but there are simply far too many of them. Brendan Rodgers' side have already conceded more goals than most title-winners do over a full season. Mathematically speaking, they're on target to concede 48 (and a bit); nobody has won the English top flight while shipping that many since Derby County in the mid-'70s.
So can Liverpool win the league despite their defensive lapses? It's what everybody's asking, everybody apart from Cardiff manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, whose post-match response was: "I couldn't care less."
The Reds would be the most entertaining title winners in years. They've already scored 82 goals, some 20 more than leaders Chelsea, and have conceded 38, only one fewer than Crystal Palace in 17th. Two parts class to one measure incompetence, for neutrals they've been a joy to watch. But unless they tighten up at the back, Liverpool may only end up as scintillating silver medalists.
Jordon Mutch could star for England
OK, we don't mean right now, alright? Hear us out.
Having been in and out of the side before bulking up over the summer, Mutch has began to realise his potential upon promotion to the Premier League. Burly but skilful, strong in the tackle and with a handy knack of timing his runs into the box just right, he's probably the closest thing there is to an English Yaya Toure.
Against Liverpool, Mutch not only scored twice, the first a precise finish with his weaker foot; he also assisted Campbell's goal with a slide-rule pass and broke up opposition attacks with 3 interceptions. His passing has improved, too: in the win over Fulham the midfielder found a team-mate with all bar 1 of his passes (which seems to have travelled about an inch) and created a frankly ridiculous 8 chances, 5 of them from open play.
Mutch isn't destined for Brazil 2014, of course, and there's still a lot he can improve. But with the 22-year-old showing he can pass, tackle, shoot, cross and beat a man, it may be worth Roy Hodgson keeping an eye on him.
The SAS can still improve
They netted four of Liverpool's six goals, have now scored 47 goals between them and are on course to break a record for Premier League strike duos, but Suarez and Sturridge's partnership can get even better.
So far, the pair's joint goal threat has mostly come not from a psychokinetic link-up as such, but from their individual attributes: the Englishman's quick feet, attacking movement and clinical finishing, and the Uruguayan generally being a phenomenon.
They clearly have a connection on the pitch – at the Cardiff City Stadium, Sturridge set up Suarez beautifully with an improvised backheel and Suarez repaid the favour by assisting his partner for Liverpool's fifth – but they seem to operate on separate planes, less SAS than SPS: Suarez Plus Sturridge. These are two highly talented, goal-hungry individuals thrown together, rather than a pair operating in a ying-yang symbiosis.
On several occasions this season a chance has been spurned by one or the other's natural on-pitch selfishness, choosing to go for goal instead of passing to a team-mate in space – space they had often created themselves. For all Suarez's brilliance, Liverpool still score more goals through their slick interplay than by him doing something extraordinary. Both he and Sturridge are superb players, but both could benefit from looking up more often. Against Cardiff, Sturridge completed 2 of his 6 take-ons; Suarez, just 2 of an attempted 10. Would they have been better off trying to find a team-mate in these situations?
This isn't to say that two players sharing four goals in an away game is in any way disappointing; it's not that they should have scored eight. It's merely the case that against other, better clubs, the pair will get fewer opportunities. And in a title race this tight, they need to take every single one – whether it's them or a team-mate getting the final touch.
Bluebirds must bring big-game mentality to upcoming pair of six-pointers
The Bluebirds have scored a measly 26 goals in their 31 matches but, incredibly, nearly a third of those have come when hosting Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool – 8 in all, with another couple more at the Etihad to boot. Who knows: the final-day showdown against Chelsea might not be a write-off after all.
What are these improved performances at home to the big guns down to? Tactical ambition? Unlikely given Malky Mackay's defensive setup followed by Solskjaer's five-man back-line. It may simply be that players raise their levels against better teams, but whatever the reason: these aren't the games that matter for Cardiff.
While they've recorded important home wins over Norwich and Fulham, other six-pointers in 2014 have seen them thrashed at home by a clinical Hull, outplayed by a then-rudderless Swansea and frustrated at home to Aston Villa, only rescued from defeat in injury time by David Marshall's contender for save of the season.
Those are the matches requiring the 'fire and passion' Cardiff have often shown against the Premier League's best teams. Their next two opponents are West Bromwich Albion and Crystal Palace. Solskjaer commented that his team "can't [afford to] lose" to the Baggies, but that's not enough: if Cardiff are to stay up, they must win both. But for that to happen...
Cardiff impact subs need to start making one
After 65 minutes, Wilfried Zaha - loaned at much expense from Manchester United – came off the bench, completed all 3 of his take-ons, made 5 passes and dragged a shot wide.
At the same time but on the other wing, teenager Mats Daehli – who has impressed this season and, whisper it, may be a more exciting prospect than Zaha – came off the bench, completed all 11 of his passes but offered little in the way of penetration.
Neither player put in a bad performance. However, contrast them with Craig Bellamy. In only his 11th start of the campaign, the 34-year-old completed all of his passes (a la Daehli) and both of his take-ons (a la Zaha) but, more importantly, created 3 chances.
Daehli and Zaha are still learning and it's not easy to be told as a 19 or 21-year-old that you have half an hour or less to change a game, but at the moment they're looking occasionally exciting but rarely threatening.
All the talk these days is about goal-line technology and, in the wake of Kieran Gibbs's sending-off against Chelsea, players to carry photo ID at all times. However, there's a simpler rule change that may be required.
Having surrendered the lead twice, Cardiff faced a corner. Mutch and Kevin Theophile-Catherine were both off the pitch, having both required treatment on the pitch after falling prey to a pair of Suarez howitzers. They were ready to come back on but had to wait for the ball to be in play, leaving the home side without two tall players to defend a set-piece. Liverpool took full advantage, Skrtel heading home his second of the game to make the score 3-2.
Solskjaer said after the game: "That rule is absolute nonsense. How can you defend a corner with nine men? And two of your men haven't faked any injury, they've not dived; they just want to get on the pitch. I said to the fourth official: 'They're going to score here.'"
Leaving aside his spurious claim that the goal marked the turning point (it may have given Liverpool the lead but they looked likely to win regardless) and the Graham Taylor-esque 'Tell your mate he's cost me my job', you can understand the Norwegian's frustration. There was no reason that Mutch and Theophile-Catherine should leave the field except that it's in the rulebook – and why? They wouldn't be fooling the opposition by coming back on before the corner is taken; it's actually sneakier under the current system, as they can rejoin play – and a potential counter-attack – without the opposition being alerted to their reappearance.
One to look at, perhaps.