Instead of moving forward, Liverpool take steps back. Further from contention for a European spot in the Premier League, and not really in a good position to turn their Europa League knockout tie on its head, as Brendan Rodgers learnt once more that playing with Steven Gerrard and Joe Allen together isn’t good for a team that simply doesn’t know how to play defensively.
Every time Liverpool try and play the cautious game, it backfires. True, not every time they get dozens of chances they end up winning, but at least they look good. Luis Suarez cant always be on fire, and leaving him alone up front, while Stewart Downing is isolated on the wing and a midfield that doesn’t consist of Lucas forces Steven Gerrard to drop back instead make himself much more useful just calls for a loss, and worse than that, a terrible performance.
Zenit are a strong side, playing at home, on an awful pitch. Away matches for clubs that aren’t so deep with talent like Liverpool are always a scare, especially with the league always more important in the eyes of everyone than the Europa League, who just can’t seem to arouse the interest UEFA expected it to.
Rodgers’ options are sometimes limited; not playing with Daniel Sturridge immediately puts a lot of pressure on Suarez to make plays on his own. It also forces the Liverpool midfield to contribute much more to the attacking game. The return of Lucas gave Gerrard and lately Jordan Henderson a chance to play a bit closer to the front 2-3 (depending on the formation) and cause a lot more problems for defenses. By leaving the fragile Lucas on the bench and bringing on the declining Joe Allen (he’s actually gotten worse as the season moves along), Rodgers sealed the fate of his team – no team effort in pushing forward, while not having an actual defensive midfielder, as both Gerrard and Allen don’t fit the bill.
And still, this wasn’t the sort of match that Liverpool kept fending back attack. Only for the final 20 minutes. Before that, individual talent spurts from Glen Johnson (with one of those moments when yo remember just how good he can be with the ball) and from Luis Suarez, who was quite sharp in his motion and with the ball, but had no one to play with near the box did give Liverpool a few chances to grab a vital away goal. That didn’t happen, and when you don’t take care of the few chances you get, the story usually says you’ll concede on the other side.
Zenit are not an impossible side to beat or handle, especially not at home with the right kind of lineup. Their defense isn’t a rock solid fortress and the attack relies a lot on Hulk’s ability to draw attention and leave space for others. Playing with an actual DM might stop his cuts from the wing to the middle being so effective. Once he gets his rocket-launcher of a shot going, there’s not much anyone can do. The key is to deny him that, while still fielding a side that allows Liverpool to win and score goals. We thought Brendan Rodgers knew the trick by now.