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Jan 21, 2012

Liverpool losing their Way

Supplying a code to insiders while appearing an impenetrable anachronism to outsiders, the 'Liverpool Way' is given mythical meaning by tales of the bootroom and past glories. Those with most experience of it seem the most fervent believers.

There are times when Kenny Dalglish's every decision appears informed by the 'Liverpool Way'. Never publicly criticising his players is a central tenet of his management, informed, it seems, by ideas he encountered in the 1970s. Yet when his charges broke others of the code's commandments - never disrespect an opponent, no matter how lowly; never get distracted by future fixtures when there is a more immediate match - the Scot made a rare break with tradition.

In a potentially season-defining week, Manchester City and Manchester United appeared the major obstacles in Liverpool's path. That overlooked Bolton, who put in a barnstorming performance to extricate themselves from the relegation zone and enrage Dalglish sufficiently to threaten to end some of his players' Anfield careers.

"There's nobody that has been at this football club that didn't have respect for other people," he said. "If that's what the problem was, that they thought this wasn't as important as the other games, then they'll not be here.

"It's not the way to go about representing this football club. The foundation of the football club has always been built on respect for other people. If they just think they can turn up and get a result, not be as competitive and match the opposition for effort and commitment, then they have got a lesson."

They were unusually strong words from a manager whose public pronouncements had tended to be noted for vocal defences of his charges, whether the controversial Luis Suarez or the underachieving Stewart Downing and Andy Carroll.

No names were mentioned at the Reebok but it scarcely takes a huge leap in thinking to assume that Maxi Rodriguez and Charlie Adam, the two men removed, incurred the anger of their manager. The outstanding Craig Bellamy apart, they all may have done.

It was probably Liverpool's poorest performance since September's hammering at White Hart Lane, but a second successive abject display. They have been completely contrasting. Insipid in attack seven days earlier against Stoke, they fell apart at the back in Bolton. In the league, the great achievement of Dalglish - or, perhaps, Steve Clarke - has been the solidity of the defence. Here, however, the Italians they evoked were the leaky cruise liners, not the purveyors of catenaccio.

In the fourth minute, Mark Davies waltzed through a gap in the middle to slide Bolton into the lead. Just before the half-hour, Chris Eagles nonchalantly chipped a ball over the top for the surging Nigel Reo-Coker to add a second. Then, when Bellamy's goal had hinted at a Liverpool comeback, David Wheater met Martin Petrov's corner with a towering header back across goal and an unmarked Gretar Steinsson spun to volley in.

Before then, only Tottenham and Manchester City had even struck twice in a game against Liverpool this season; within 50 minutes, Bolton had three goals. Two came from midfield runners, prompting the question if Lucas would have tracked either, were he not injured; retreating with responsibility is not Adam's forte.

A set-piece frailty was rare but telling: this was a side cracking under the pressure Bolton applied. Had Pepe Reina not flung himself to his right to repel Petrov's free-kick or had any one of a hat-trick of opportunities for Eagles gone in, the damage would have been even worse.

"The great thing wasn't just the win," reflected Owen Coyle. "It was how we won. Sometimes when you play elite clubs like Liverpool you can get a result and it is fortuitous but nothing can be further from the case today. It was a terrific performance."

On an afternoon of illogical beauty for Bolton, it was. While they had been stripped of their best defender, Gary Cahill, Liverpool's rearguard was found wanting. A side with the worst home record in the country overcame - indeed, overwhelmed - one with among the finest of the road.

For Bolton, there was a welcome blend of old and new. With wind blowing debris across the pitch and Wanderers charging across it, the Reebok regained its reputation as an intimidating place, even if only for 90 minutes.

Yet it was a win with Coyle's stamp on it. Take the opening goalscorer: technically gifted and naturally attacking, Mark Davies is the Scot's idea of a footballer. Far more than his namesake Kevin, who personified the Sam Allardyce and Gary Megson eras, this Davies epitomises Coyle's ethos. Slick passing, high energy and winning football is, he hopes, the Bolton Way.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Nigel Reo-Coker - Together with Mark Davies, he is one of the success stories of Bolton's season and the captain was a driving force throughout, whether bursting forward to score or conducting a running battle with Bellamy.

BOLTON VERDICT: Terrific. This was their best performance of the season and offered them genuine hope in the relegation battle. The 4-4-1-1 system seems to suit them, with Fabrice Muamba and Reo-Coker offering the back four energetic protection and Davies, the excellent Eagles and Petrov providing invention. However, Zat Knight and Wheater, the centre-backs in the post-Cahill era, had their lack of pace exposed by Bellamy.

LIVERPOOL VERDICT: Awful. The dream of a return to the Champions League is slipping away and dropping points against lesser sides has been a feature of their season. The defence has often impressed, but when they didn't, their reliance on individual inspiration is made all the more apparent.

Only Bellamy, Steven Gerrard and the suspended Luis Suarez have supplied it this season, which highlights the failings of other attackers and midfielders, many of them expensively recruited. Daniel Agger, who hit the bar with a wonderful strike, continues to look more of a threat than several of them. The most expensive of all, Carroll, turned in a curate's egg of a performance that included a wild miskick when he could have shot and a 50-yard back-pass.

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