x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Carragher paints a picture of calm

It is more than five years since Liverpool sacked their only French manager, Gerard Houllier, but deja vu remains a much-used phrase in their vocabulary.

Having made his debut against West Ham in 1997, Jamie Carragher, right, visits Upton Park today the epitome of level-headedness.
Having made his debut against West Ham in 1997, Jamie Carragher, right, visits Upton Park today the epitome of level-headedness.

It is more than five years since Liverpool sacked their only French manager, Gerard Houllier, but deja vu remains a much-used phrase in their vocabulary. Opponents come and go, results change and time passes by, but certain issues reoccur with a wearying predictability.

Tom Hicks and George Gillett's continued ownership, the shortfall in Rafa Benitez's budget, the manager's beloved zonal marking, the importance of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres and the captain's role: all are unavoidable. Jamie Carragher knows as much. The defender speaks with a perspective produced by almost 600 games for his hometown club. Two defeats in the opening three fixtures did not cause a crisis, in the vice-captain's view, and now three successive victories - against Bolton, Burnley and Debreceni - have not brought undue celebration either. Having made his debut against West Ham in 1997, he visits Upton Park today the epitome of level-headedness.

"Losing two games doesn't mean we're totally off track but I don't think winning three means we're totally back or on fire," he said. "If we're maybe 10 or 15 games unbeaten, we can say we're on a great run, but three games isn't a lot." Victories may not excite the 31-year-old. Clean sheets do and a pair in five days served to bolster the confidence of a previously porous rearguard. After having three central defensive partners in the first four games of the season - a semi-fit Martin Skrtel, the rookie Daniel Sanchez Ayala and the new addition Sotirios Kyrgiakos - Carragher has been reunited with the Slovakian and an improvement in Liverpool's record has followed.

"We've had a problem not in general play and defensive positions, just with set pieces; that's been the difficulty up until now," he added. "Over the last couple of games hopefully we've rectified that a bit." Set-pieces, for Liverpool, means zonal marking: an effective technique, according to Benitez; a method for defenders to abdicate individual responsibility, in the eyes of his detractors. It is not a controversial issue in the eyes of the players such as Carragher, among those out-jumped by Curtis Davies for Aston Villa's second goal in their 3-1 win at Anfield. The prescription is simply one of hard work. It is evolution, rather than the revolution that opting to man-mark would entail. His faith in the system remains.

West Ham, with such able headers as Carlton Cole and Matthew Upson, should test that recovery. Another managerial decision concerns Gerrard. Reinvented as an auxiliary attacker by Benitez, the Liverpool captain has been majestic in central midfield after the extended absence of £20 million (Dh120m) signing Alberto Aquilani was compounded by Javier Mascherano's pelvic injury. The Argentine is available again. Benitez's preference for two defensive midfielders should see his recall. Restoring Gerrard to his more advanced role may make it a straight choice between Albert Riera and Yossi Benayoun unless Lucas is demoted.

Gerrard's position, whether on the right or as a second striker, has been a cause célèbre in Benitez's reign, often to the manager's annoyance. Carragher added: "I don't think it matters where he plays; he can play anywhere, he could play centre-back or right-back and he would still be our best player. That's how special a talent he is." Today marks a return to their former club for Benayoun and Glen Johnson. The latter's defending has come under criticism for England. For Liverpool, however, he has proved as prolific as Gerrard thus far. Jose Reina said: "He has given us some attacking options, which is good for us."

He may have to combat new foes. West Ham have two recent recruits in attack. The Mexican striker Guillermo Franco was signed by Gianfranco Zola on Thursday while the Italian Alessandro Diamanti debuted at Wigan last week. As player and manager, Zola provides a comparison with Gerrard and Benitez. With more delicacy and less dynamism than the scouser, he supported the main striker in his younger days. With a shortage of funds, he - like the Spaniard - has had to be resourceful in the transfer market.

Zola's team were among those who frustrated Liverpool last season, drawing at Anfield in December. For Carragher and co, the task is to prevent further mentions of déjà vu. rjolly@thenational.ae Showsports, 2, KO 8.30pm