Lee Dixon: Overweight Johnson and slowing Carragher give Liverpool a real problem at the back

The Weekend Dossier

Tuesday 27 March 2012 10:07

As a teenaged Manchester City fan, I once stood on the Kop at Anfield at a Liverpool-City match with my City scarf hidden, only to betray my allegiance by screeching when City scored.

The classy reaction from the Liverpool fans (more of which in a moment) is only part of the reason I admired their club so much, and I have an enduring affection for everything they stood for in their heyday.

But looking purely and simply at the way they're functioning as a football team this season, I have to be fearful on their behalf. As a defender for 22 years you'd expect me to say that any great team should have solid foundations at the back, and I do believe that, emphatically.

Yet I look at Liverpool's defence and I don't see a cohesive, strong unit. Both full-backs are struggling, Glen Johnson for form, for Liverpool and for England. He looks sluggish, as if carrying some weight, and a shadow of his former self. Paul Konchesky is a decent full-back, but he is now, rightly or wrongly, being judged by a different, higher standard. Being decent is not enough to fans that have questioned the signings of many a recent player and asked, "Are they Liverpool quality?" That in itself brings its own pressure.

Jamie Carragher has been a great servant to Liverpool and indeed has been rewarded quite rightly by a contract extension. However, he is slowing down and I'm not certain the combination in the middle is always good enough to compensate.

Given that part of Liverpool's indomitability in the '70s and '80s was a solid defence, it's not reassuring for fans to look at the current line-up and detect weaknesses.

I was fortunate to play in an Arsenal back line that earned itself a reputation as being OK. I'm not trying to be overly modest in saying that, as individuals, we weren't the best players in the world. But certainly all my weaknesses were compensated for by Tony Adams, Nigel Winterburn, Martin Keown and Steve Bould, and vice versa. If one of us wasn't playing well, the others picked up the slack. We were far more than the sum of our parts and Liverpool, frankly, aren't.

Liverpool find themselves in a position that's so alien, but their demise has been unfolding for more than a year. Not long ago, they were in a great position and really should have won the league in 2008-09. But they lost some good players, in Javier Mascherano, and especially Xabi Alonso. The gap left by Alonso leaves one heck of a weight on Steven Gerrard's shoulders and it's been a burden on him. He's played heroically at times but players around him haven't stepped up. As for some of the signings of the past few seasons: Alberto Aquilani jumps off the page as a mistake, but there are others over whom the jury remains out.

In such an extraordinary situation as Liverpool's, at some level the off-pitch stuff will filter down: the fans have certainly been restless. No manager can remain entirely unaffected with what's been going on. Roy Hodgson hasn't known who the owner will be in an hour, let alone in a month or for a season, and all that will transmit at some level. But you can't use what's happening as an excuse off the pitch to justify what's happening on it. The owners aren't the ones kicking the ball, and any new owner won't either.

It's not as if we didn't have distractions at Arsenal when George Graham was the manager. The problems off the pitch of Paul Merson and Tony Adams were well documented but George used to bring us together and reiterate the strength of being a unit. You get your head down and work at that because that's your job.

Which brings me to Everton. Liverpool's drop into the bottom three is more surprising than Everton's into the bottom four but I'm surprised at Everton nonetheless. I had them pegged as top-four contenders this season and yet they haven't won at home yet, drawing 1-1 with Wolves, 3-3 with Manchester United and losing 1-0 to Newcastle in their games at Goodison.

I've seen them a few times and they're not playing too badly, and the noises I've heard from David Moyes tell me he thinks the same – and he's not one to make false assessments of his own team. The win at Birmingham last time could be the turning of the corner.

The pressure will be greater on Liverpool tomorrow; for Everton it's a hugely important derby, for Liverpool it's that and then some. My prediction for the result is below with the other games.

There is a part of me that really wants to see Liverpool turn things around. I'm a football fan, with lots of Liverpool-supporting friends and colleagues, including Alan Hansen. And, of course, there has been a rich seam to mine in taking the mickey over their situation and their results, including the home defeat against Blackpool. But I've got a real soft spot for them, and growing up as a fan in the '70s, then as a player making his way in the '80s at Burnley, Chester and Stoke, you aspired to the pinnacle, and Liverpool were the pinnacle. It almost made you want to be a Liverpool fan.

I wasn't, of course, I was a City fan, and that's how I found myself on the Kop that day, with a Liverpool-supporting mate. I had my blue-and-white scarf safely tucked away inside my coat as I listened to Liverpool songs and swayed with the masses.

Then City scored and I screeched and this big bloke, a Liverpool supporter, made towards me and I thought he was going to throttle me. But he just pulled my scarf from under my coat so it lay on the outside, and said: "You should always be proud of your colours, lad."

And that was it, the Kop mentality. So there is a little bit of me that really does want Liverpool to be great again.

Five Asides

1. It's dance companies not pubs for ex-players

Note to cabbie: former footballers ain't what they used to be. My wife, Yolande, is the director of a contemporary dance company, the Yorke Dance Project, and I've been busy helping to produce the next show (Americana, at the Bloomsbury Theatre on Monday and Tuesday). I needed to get a taxi on Thursday to the Royal Opera House. The cabbie asked why. "I need to collect a dancer's costume," I replied. "Blimey," he said. "I remember when ex-footballers ran pubs."

2. Capello's inability to change tactics stuns me

England's Euro qualifier on Tuesday was hugely disappointing. I expected a performance but instead got that horrible "Capello ache" deep in my chest. His stubbornness in sticking with 4-4-2 when it's not working, with Stevie Gerrard playing deeper than the centre-halves at times, baffles me.

3. Murphy wrong to put boot in on managers

Danny Murphy was wrong to blame managers for bad tackling, it's not their fault. It's up to players to make good decisions.

4. Scotland and Spain show England the way

England were so boring I switched to Scotland-Spain. Some of the World Cup holders' football and movement was sublime to go 2-0 up, then Scotland's passion (and play) led to a 2-2 comeback. Both sides played their part in a great spectacle.

5. 'No fear' Blackpool can give City a problem

Blackpool have won away at Wigan, Newcastle and Liverpool this season but haven't won at home. It could be the "nothing to lose" mentality that's helped them on the road. With no negativity they could challenge City.

Lee Dixon's verdict on all the weekend action

Arsenal vs Birmingham City

Dixon's verdict: Arsenal are generally strong at home, the wobble against West Bromwich aside. Birmingham, with Alexander Hleb likely to play against his old team, are solid but haven't yet won away.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC1, 10.30pm)

Prediction: 2-1 to Arsenal

Bolton Wanderers vs Stoke City

Dixon's verdict: Bolton have three draws from three at home this season but they've been scoring goals and Kevin Davies' confidence should be high after England duty, ankle permitting.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC1, 10.30pm)

Prediction: Home win

Fulham vs Tottenham Hotspur

Dixon's verdict: Two footballing sides, one of them unbeaten in the league this season (and it's not Spurs) should provide some decent entertainment. You don't know which Spurs you'll get but expect goals.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC1, 10.30pm)

Prediction: Score draw

Manchester United vs West Bromwich Albion

Dixon's verdict: The visitors have made a bright start and already have as many points as Arsenal, who are inside the top four, but United at home are a formidable obstacle in any season.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Setanta Ireland; Highlights BBC1, 10.30pm)

Prediction: Home win

Newcastle United vs Wigan Athletic

Dixon's verdict: Newcastle are normally good at home and they started that way with a 6-0 win over Aston Villa. Since then they lost on their own turf to Blackpool and Stoke, but I think they can beat Wigan.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC1, 10.30pm)

Prediction: Home win

Wolverhampton Wanderers vs West Ham United

Dixon's verdict: This one's a race to see who climb above Liverpool and/or Everton and I think Mick McCarthy's side – maybe bolstered by Stephen Hunt and the return of Kevin Doyle – can edge it.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC1, 10.30pm)

Prediction: Home win

Aston Villa vs Chelsea

Dixon's verdict: Villa have concerns about strikers with doubts over Emile Heskey, and Gabriel Agbonlahor is out. Home advantage is a positive but it's a rash move ever to tip against Chelsea.

Kick-off: Today, 5.30pm (ESPN; Highlights BBC 1, 10.30pm)

Prediction: Draw

Everton vs Liverpool

Dixon's verdict: The referee is going to be busy; there's a history of red cards in this one. There's a huge amount at stake for both sides and I expect it to be physical. But I'm also expecting goals.

Kick-off: Tomorrow, 1.30pm (Sky Sports 1; Highlights BBC2, 10pm)

Prediction: 2-2 draw

Blackpool vs Manchester City

Dixon's verdict: Blackpool have found some decent form on their travels as I've mentioned elsewhere but not yet replicated it at home. So I'm going for Man City – showing my true colours after all!

Kick-off: Tomorrow, 4pm (Sky Sports 1; Highlights BBC 2, 10pm)

Prediction: Away win

Blackburn vs Sunderland

Dixon's verdict: Blackburn haven't looked as strong at home as last season – they have won just once at Ewood Park this term. Sunderland are yet to win away but are dangerous on the break.

Kick-off: Monday, 8pm (Sky Sports 1; Highlights SS1, 1am Tues)

Prediction: Score draw

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