A shot that was parried by a desperate goalkeeper after crossing the line but wasn’t given as a goal. A goalkeeper who made three or four outstanding saves. A very good penalty appeal turned down. The woodwork struck four times. For most teams, it would have counted as an afternoon of miserable luck, but for Liverpool, Saturday’s 1-1 draw against Aston Villa was just another home game.
The statistics are barely credible. Liverpool has hit the woodwork 27 times in the league this season. It’s missed six penalties – and has been awarded only half as many as Manchester United. Eight of the last 10 shots opponents have had on Liverpool’s goal have flown in, while Liverpool itself scores with fewer than 10 per cent of its shots - less than half Sunderland’s conversion rate under Martin O’Neill.
The question is whether this really is just bad luck, the sort of thing that will even itself out over time, or whether there are more fundamental problems. Pundits seem to have been queueing up recently to say that when a side hits the woodwork that often over such a protracted period it’s not bad luck, it’s bad finishing.
But is it? It’s two or three inches from being excellent finishing and if a player regularly misses by slim margins, the chances are that sooner or later he’s going to get it right - it simply makes no sense that a player accurate enough to hit a four-inch chunk of aluminum on a regular basis wouldn’t eventually be able to recalibrate. Luis Suarez clearly isn’t a bad finisher, as his record for Ajax and Uruguay shows; whether a player of his creative gifts should be leading the line is another matter. The fact remains that if even half of those shots that have hit the woodwork had gone in, if Liverpool had scored even half the penalties that it has missed, it would be challenging for a top-four spot.
It seems impossible to speak of Liverpool and its owner John W. Henry without reference to ‘Moneyball,’ although the extent to which statistical analysis was used to plan last summer’s transfer spending remains unclear. Perhaps sabermetricians can explain the points at which a blip becomes a trend.
As it is, with one win in its last nine league games, Liverpool risks slipping out of the top half of the table for the first time since it returned to the top flight in 1962, and needs a further 15 points from the remaining six games to avoid its worst points tally in a 20-team Premier League. The previous worst came in 2005 and that season, of course, there was the very major consolation of the Champions League. This season, the club is again left to find solace in other competitions.
The Carling Cup, Liverpool’s first silverware in six years, might have been expected to provide it and in the days when the pursuit of glory meant more than the approval of the accountant it would have done. As it is, the FA Cup has come to seem like the only route to salvation. A club with a tradition of patience, whose directors are supposed to soberly consider spreadsheets before acting, surely won’t be swayed by the result of one match. But Saturday’s semifinal, has come to feel like the game that will determine Dalglish’s future.
It’s not just that it’s a semifinal, of course - it’s also the fact that it is against Everton.
This rivalry, that in Dalglish’s first stint as manager was relatively friendly, has become increasingly hostile in recent years. Interestingly, no Premier League fixture has produced as many red cards. Everton could finish above Liverpool in the table for only the second time since the advent of the Premier League (the previous time being that 2004-05 season when their achievement was rather overshadowed by events in Istanbul), but beating its city rivals at Wembley would surely take precedence - particularly given Everton’s habit of slipping up against Liverpool in the biggest games. The Merseyside rivals have met in six finals or semifinals (seven if you include the League Cup); Everton has won only one, and that in 1906.
David Moyes, performing miracles on a shoestring yet again, has already demonstrated the value he places on the Cup by fielding a weakened side against Liverpool in the league in preparation for Everton’s FA Cup quarterfinal against Sunderland. Steven Gerrard scored a hat trick in that game, as Liverpool won 3-0. That game remains the only league game Liverpool has won this season of the 12 Gerrard has started; a scarcely credible statistic that might hint Liverpool’s problems lie less, as many have assumed, with the new signings, than with a player who feels like part of the fabric of the club.
While Liverpool has been unlucky this season, it’s also true that it has often appeared better in the highlights than in the reality. Over the past month or so, it has lacked rhythm and a sense of cohesiveness. That, in part, like the finishing, is probably down to diminishing confidence. Charlie Adam and Jordan Henderson seem particularly afflicted. Neither was exactly challenging for Player of the Year in the run-up to Christmas either, but it’s hard not to wonder whether the return of Gerrard has unbalanced the side.
It’s widely accepted the Cup has declined in importance over the past 20 years: what is less clear is why. Perhaps it’s simply to do with the amount of money available in the league, but that shouldn’t worry fans or casual viewers. Although it has an indirect impact on how much players are paid, it shouldn’t really affect them. For Everton, which lost to Chelsea in the 2009 FA Cup final, the Cup is the biggest competition it can realistically expect to win. Liverpool may have greater aspirations, but this too is a chance to add a trophy, to enjoy one of the glorious afternoons that, frankly, a battle for fourth place in the league simply can’t conjure.
The FA Cup might not have the magic of old, but on Saturday at Wembley it will indisputably matter. It might give Everton its first silverware in 17 years and reward Moyes for his patience and inspired work on a tight budget. It might even decide Dalglish’s future.