Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers must have breathed a sigh of relief when Martin Skrtel rose to head home his side’s equaliser in their 2-2 draw against Arsenal on Sunday. The Merseysiders’ lack of zest and options upfront are well documented – Daniel Sturridge is sidelined with a thigh injury - and although the Reds drew level after having Fabio Borini sent off, their profligacy in front of goal is still concerning.
With only 21 goals this season they rank as the second-lowest scorers in the top half of the Premier League behind Newcastle, one place ahead of them in ninth. No Liverpool striker has scored a league goal since November 23rd when Rickie Lambert, the underused England international, notched a consolation in a 3-1 slump at Crystal Palace.
Indeed, more worryingly, Rodgers is exiling his centre-forwards. Lambert and Borini came on late after starting on the bench. Once Borini came on he was dismissed for two silly yellows within sixteen minutes, plus Mario Balotelli was suspended. So why not reshuffle in the January transfer window? A run of three wins in twelve games, across all competitions, suggests Rodgers might not last until then.
The Northern Irishman has always championed fast, free-flowing, attacking football and against Arsenal, like the 3-0 defeat at Old Trafford last weekend, he opted for a front-line based on technique rather than force. Raheem Sterling was flanked by Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana, and although Coutinho grabbed the opener in style, Liverpool wasted their chances. Of their 27 shots 10 were on target, while Arsenal were more economical with three on target – including two goals – from seven attempts.
You have to feel for Sterling though. The little winger is quick, nimble-footed and can unlock defences with one burst of those muscular legs. Rodgers has a problem however: Sterling is not a striker, nor is he a natural finisher. The 20-year-old repeatedly shot straight at Wojciech Szczesny, showing his lack of guile when bearing down on goal. Against Manchester United he lost a similar battle with David De Gea. Scoring goals is something that comes naturally to some players - you either have it or you don’t. Thierry Henry, the former Arsenal and France magician who retired this week, had it, but Sterling doesn’t.
Still, Rodgers can be thankful that upcoming fixtures against Burnley, Leicester and Swansea – and indeed AFC Wimbledon in the FA Cup Third Round – might provide Lambert and company with more of a chance to hit the net. What is worrying, though, is Liverpool’s recent slide to tenth in the table.
Compare their situation with the leading pack. Chelsea, who visit Stoke tomorrow, are top on goal difference ahead of Manchester City – who are missing Sergio Aguero, Edin Dzeko and Stevan Jovetic through injury. But City have rallied together as a group, defeating Leicester and Crystal Palace without their goal-getters by an aggregate score of 4-0. Manuel Pellegrini’s side are settled. They have blooded in new signings to remain a cohesive unit - unlike Liverpool who are going backwards after last summer’s extravagant, scattergun signings. And then there’s Manchester United in third. Falcao, the Colombian assassin, returned from injury on Saturday against Aston Villa to score United’s equaliser in a 1-1 draw.
In that sense the Christmas period – throwing up three Premier League fixtures in seven days - could be make or break for Rodgers. The former Reading and Swansea boss has a tough job on his hand as well as the pressure of coaxing the best out of Balotelli. While Lambert has struggled and Borini will never be first pick, it seems the only question is how far Liverpool and Rodgers will slip by the time the year is out.
By Alistair Hendrie