James Lawton: Attack not the best form of defence for Houllier

Liverpool's collapse at Charlton highlights shortcomings of piecemeal approach to building a side capable of competing at highest level

Gerard Houllier broke new ground this week when he included himself among those responsible for Liverpool's defeat at Charlton. However, as mea culpa goes, it was never going to blister the walls of the confessional. Indeed, it was rather in the spirit of someone who, having just smashed his car through a police road block, owns up to a couple of unpaid parking tickets.

Nothing new here, of course. Houllier may still be in search of a serious challenge for the Premiership title, but no one sells his critics a dummy quite so adroitly as the master of Anfield. His offering at The Valley was a collector's item. "We let ourselves down as a team," Houllier said, "and that includes the manager. We will not change the attacking style but we still have to be on our toes, defending when it is needed."

The point is not that Houllier's rhetorical footwork in the shadow of defeat remains a matter of relentless application. What must be more worrying for the Liverpool board is the latest implication from the manager that building a great team is something you do piecemeal.

He says that Liverpool will not change their new, more expansive football because the normally reliable Sami Hyypia defended as though someone had put valium rather than sugar into his half-time cup of tea. Of course you don't jettison an "attacking style" if you are serious contenders for a place on the terrain shared by Manchester United and Arsenal. You don't have an attacking style. You play integrated football. It's a bit like building blocks.

To be fair to Houllier, the loss of first Stéphane Henchoz, then Jamie Carragher has been a serious blow to Liverpool's security. Carragher doesn't exactly lift the heart when he gets on the ball but in the weighty opinion of the World Cup winning full-back George Cohen he is, as a defender who has taken the trouble to learn his trade, head and shoulders above his more eye-catching England rivals Ashley Cole and Wayne Bridge. Similarly, Henchoz provides the kind of presence which can be best evaluated by the gaps at the back which appear so promptly when he disappears.

Even so, a team which has had just short of £120m lavished on it in six years shouldn't become prey for the hitherto unremarkable marauding of Kevin Lisbee because of the loss of two senior players. The fact is the picture that emerged at Charlton, despite evidence of increased flexibility going forward, remained one of a Liverpool team still only philosophically half-formed.

Houllier only highlights the problem when he vows to press on with his new adventurous style. What kind of attacking policy is he talking about? What other kind of football would you play if you had El Hadji Diouf - an electric presence in the last World Cup for Senegal - on the right, Michael Owen in the middle and Harry Kewell, mostly, on the left. There would have been no purpose in signing the hugely gifted Kewell if Houllier seriously contemplated the narrow, self-defeating game which brought exclusion from the Champions' League running last season.

As speculation mounts that Tottenham would have to step over Liverpool if they really wanted to tempt Martin O'Neill away from Celtic Park, the concern for Houllier must be that he is even now still pursuing the sense of a team capable of combining fluency at the front and solidity at the back.

When Houllier talks of attacking policy, he leaves himself open to the suspicion that he is part of the supreme illiteracy of English football - the one that good attack and defence is not an ideal but a choice. The great Liverpool teams Houllier is so desperate to emulate never flirted with such a flawed concept.

Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson were accomplished defenders, whose eyes and instincts were attuned to attacking possibilities. Graeme Souness both destroyed and created. Free roles were simply not on the menu.

It is only in England - and perhaps at Real Madrid - that the idea of drawing lines between defence and attack is countenanced. It is maybe the reason why Arsenal are still trying to absorb the impact of Internazionale's recent brilliant, dissecting performance at Highbury and why English clubs generally performed so unimpressively in the last round of European competition.

With Hyypia and Henchoz in tandem, Liverpool have in the past operated with impressive defensive security. But their lack of assurance going forward, the painful waste of Owen's extraordinary scoring prowess, was the most obvious barrier to serious progress at the top of the game.

Now with Diouf operating naturally on the right and Kewell being persuaded to spend at least some of his time on the left, there is much more balance and life about Liverpool going forward. Unfortunately, this means nothing if the defence capsizes as it did at The Valley.

It leaves Liverpool still reaching for a settled, coherent way to play. And Houllier, for all his word play, is still some way from absolution.

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