Modern wide-men a priority as Benitez looks to strengthen

May 24 2007

Steven Gerrard - one player who should survive the anticipated cull...It was hard not to feel a little bit sorry for Liverpool last night.

For almost the entirety of the first half they cowed Milan into submission. Mascherano and Alonso successfully nullified the twin threats of Kaka and Seedorf, presenting Gerrard, Zenden and – in particular – Pennant with the opportunity to make inroads into the Rossoneri’s much-vaunted back four.

But for all their territory, they didn’t once stretch Dida, and paid the price with that cruel Inzaghi goal on the stroke of half-time.

The second half was distinguished by the lack of any discernable onslaught from the men in red. They poked and probed, but Milan stood firm. Gerrard spurned
Liverpool’s best chance when he tried to work the ball too hard when faced with Dida one-on-one, and the nearest they came to breaking the deadlock before Kuyt’s late header was Crouch’s speculative 25-yard effort.

The problem with Benitez is that he didn’t have the players for the formation he wanted to play. Mascherano was excellent, and Alonso supported him commendably. Gerrard was typically influential, and Kuyt’s link-up play was customarily efficient, but it was on the flanks that they were found lacking.

Paradoxically, Pennant was Liverpool’s most dangerous player in the first half, but the limitations of his play meant that he was unable to make the most of the advanced positions he found himself in. Zenden, likewise, was heavily involved but frustratingly ineffectual.

The problem with Pennant and Zenden – and this is no personal criticism – is that they are both conventional wide midfielders (although Zenden has learnt how to play as a combative and disciplined central midfielder).

The 4-4-1-1 that Benitez deployed last night requires wide men capable of cutting in and heading for goal. Joe Cole and Arjen Robben are one of the most effective wing partnerships in this context, with both players placed on the ‘wrong’ flank (Robben on the right, Cole on the left) so that they can cut in and shoot at goal with their stronger foot.

Ronaldinho and Lionel Messi assume similar roles for
Barcelona, and Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo are sometimes asked to do the same for Man United.

With touchline-hugging wide-men like Pennant and Zenden in the team, all you get are a succession of high crosses delivered in the general direction of a solitary striker (in this case Kuyt) who, given the sheer number of defenders around him, is unlikely to get many headers on goal.

If Benitez is intent on improving his team, attacking players whose target is the goal rather than the byline should be a priority, although it must be said that subtlety is as much a necessity as raw pace in these positions.

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