Benitez blunts Gerrard's drive in bid to find cutting edge

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The Independent Football

There was presumably no trace of irony meant in Arsène Wenger's programme notes when he remarked: "I feel that Rafael Benitez has made a bold move this season by moving to 4-4-2 so you cannot accuse them of being defensive."

The response of the Liverpool manager to his team's lack of goals? He reverted to the lone striker formation of last season, dropping both Fernando Morientes and Robbie Fowler to the bench while £14m Djibril Cissé - granted a mis-firing forward that he inherited - was not even afforded a place in the squad.

But then Liverpool are in the middle of a striker crisis. With so few of them scoring Benitez reasoned that he may as well give another midfielder a go. In came Luis Garcia but it meant shuffling Steven Gerrard across from right to left - not even giving him a sniff of a chance to play, as he prefers, through the middle. Again the captain was the victim of his own dynamic versatility but by doing so his manager merely blunted his effectiveness and caused further distraction.

Between them Liverpool's four strikers have 21 goals in all competitions - albeit with Fowler having only arrived in January - while Gerrard alone has 17. Add in Garcia's eight and it is clear where Benitez relies. Furthermore, no Liverpool player has had more shots and more assists than Gerrard. And yet, for 45 minutes, he was shuffled into a role he is far from comfortable with for club or - when he was forced to play it - country either? It did not figure and, for almost the entire contest, neither did Liverpool. Too much was reliant on Peter Crouch who, with his confidence ebbing, appeared unable to fulfil the demands. The way he reacted nervously to plant a free header, after Steve Finnan's precise cross, woefully wide spoke volumes about a player who is currently questioning himself.

It was no surprise that Liverpool came closest through shots from distance by Gerrard and Xabi Alonso. Their approach contrasted sharply with the incision with which Arsenal pulled ahead and it was predictable that Harry Kewell was introduced at half-time and Gerrard reverted to the right flank from where he can deliver to more devastating effect.

He did. It was from his shot that Liverpool scored, their first goal in three games, but the demands upon him increased. By now Gerrard had played in three different positions - also being asked to eventually move behind the striker - and a fourth came with Alonso's dismissal. It did not help the rhythm of Gerrard's game or his influence. His intercepted back-pass could have happened no matter what the circumstances. Wenger later suggested it was a knock-on effect of being down to 10 men but it could also have been a result of being switched around so much.

It ended a difficult day for Gerrard who had spoken about the need for Liverpool to invest in new strikers, concurring with suggestions that Michael Owen should be re-signed. "We need him," he said of his friend. "We need someone along the lines of Michael, yes." That probably was not what Benitez wanted to hear, even if he knows it, especially in the midst of his angry exasperation over the circumstances surrounding Alonso's dismissal. "He is in another team," Benitez said when asked about Owen, the player he decided against acquiring last summer. "He cannot play against Fulham [his team's next opponents]." Benitez conceded that he had erred in his tactics and formation in the first 45 minutes. What, it was put to him, could his team have done better in the match? "Score more goals," he said. It is a problem they still have not addressed and, until they do, they may not always get the best out of Gerrard.