Thursday, 27 April 2017

Iago Aspas: The Hometown Hero

To many in England, Iago Aspas is something of a joke. His name is used synonymously with poor corners after the infamous incident against Chelsea, and his failure to make the grade at Liverpool has led to a presumption that he is simply not very good. Talk to someone in Galicia, however, and you will get a very different impression. His first spell at Celta de Vigo saw him contribute heavily to promotion and then almost single-handedly keep them in the top flight. Since 2015 he has picked up where he left off, now spearheading a successful European campaign.

Iago Aspas was born in Moaña, a small municipality with a population of just under 20,000. It was there that he embarked upon his footballing career, briefly playing for local youth side CD Moaña and then for Santa Mariña. He quickly outgrew the clubs, but did not stray far from his hometown: at the age of eight he made the half-hour journey to Vigo to join up with Celta’s youth ranks. Such was his drive, he lied about his age to be admitted to the side: at the time Celta were only willing to recruit players who were at least nine years old. Wracked with guilt by his deceit, he immediately got his parents to call the club and confess what he had done: the coaches, having seen Aspas more than hold his own against the older boys, were happy to waive their rule. Aspas made sure they did not regret their decision. He made steady progress; at the age of sixteen he was considered good enough for a loan move to another local side, Rápido Bouzas.

The then-director of the club was Javier Maté, who enjoyed a short stint at Real Madrid in his playing career. He spoke highly of his loan star, but also questioned his attitude and temperament at times. He said that “I had to accept him with virtues and defects” – as a raw, talented youth, Aspas may have had some issues with discipline and temperament. That side of his game still exists, but it is safe to say he has worked hard to control it: now it is easier to see the little boy who didn’t want to lie than it is to see the fiery youth who caused a stir at Rápido.

That is not to say that Aspas has ever lacked drive. Certainly he had the motivation to make the grade at Celta – on his return from his loan spell he quickly made his way into Celta B. There, he continued to impress and develop: two years later, in 2008, he was handed his senior debut. He was made to wait for his next appearance, but on 6th June 2009 he cemented himself firmly in the senior squad. Brought on as a substitute against Alavés, he scored in the 81st and 94th minutes to secure a vital 2-1 win for his team. Indeed, the three points proved crucial to Celta’s survival in the second tier of Spanish football. After this he featured with some regularity, but it was not until the 2011/12 season when Aspas truly became the figurehead of his boyhood club. This was the campaign where Celta returned to the top flight, following a five-year absence: Aspas scored 23 league goals along the way. He was outscored only by Leonardo Ulloa, who at the time was playing for Almeria. Aspas was voted the best forward in the league, and on this personal high he entered La Liga.

His progression did not stop there. Any fears that the talismanic forward would struggle with the step up were quickly allayed: in fact, he thrived. The same could not be said of the rest of the team, with the result that Celta had a massive struggle on their hands to avoid relegation. They managed to do it, however, confirming safety on the last day of the season with the help of an Iago Aspas assist. Staggeringly, Aspas had a goal contribution for 50% of the goals scored by Celta across the campaign – he had dragged his team to safety. This was in spite of a four-game ban he picked up for a headbutt in the Galician derby against Deportivo; it looked for a while as though Aspas’ old ill-discipline literally rearing its head might cost Celta their La Liga status, but all was forgiven in the jubilant scenes following the confirmation of the team’s safety. Far from the villain, Aspas was the hero of his hometown club.

As it happened, he was to be a departing hero. His performances had not gone unnoticed by the footballing community, and then-Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers swooped to sign the Celta man. The deal was rumoured to be worth around £9 million. Based on his pre-season, it looked as though that was going to represent a bargain for the English giants – Sturridge had picked up an injury on international duty, and Aspas stepped up to the plate with a succession of good performances. On his debut against Preston North End he notched up a goal and an assist: by the end of pre-season there were plenty of fans clamouring for him to be accommodated into the first team. Initially, he was: he got the assist for Sturridge’s goal in the 1-0 win over Stoke on the opening day. Sadly, things went dramatically downhill from here. In many ways, Aspas was a victim of circumstances. He had the misfortune to come to Liverpool at a time when Suarez, Sturridge, Coutinho and Sterling were all at the club: the four of them rapidly secured a lockdown on the attacking positions, meaning Aspas was presented with limited opportunities. He was never really given a chance to adapt to the Premier League. This was only exacerbated by his limited knowledge of English – the man who still ate daily in his parents’ house during his time at Celta found himself thrust into an entirely new world, and was never truly given help to acclimatise.

This lack of patience was epitomised by the deal Liverpool made at the beginning of the 2014/15 campaign. Suarez had moved on to Barcelona, so on paper it was the perfect time for Aspas to show what he could do – instead, the club shipped him off to Sevilla on a loan with an obligatory purchase clause. Perhaps the damage done by the fateful corner against Chelsea was irreversible; whatever the reason, Aspas’ time in England was prematurely over. In Sevilla, he showed glimpses of his quality once more. He scored hat-tricks in both legs of the Copa Del Rey tie against CE Sabadell FC, the second of which was completed in just four minutes. Indeed, he ended the competition as joint top-scorer alongside Neymar. However, his league minutes were once again limited. By a stroke of misfortune he once again found himself at a club with an unusual array of attacking talent: he struggled to regularly displace Carlos Bacca and Kevin Gameiro. In consequence, having bought Aspas at the end of the season as per their agreement with Liverpool, Sevilla sold him back to Celta de Vigo on the very same day.

In many ways, it was as though Aspas had never been away. He immediately settled back in at his boyhood club, and in September bagged a brace in a shock 4-1 victory over Barcelona at the club’s Balaidos home. Five more goals followed in October, leading to Aspas winning the Player of the Month award. He ended the season with 14 league goals, even more than in his last season in La Liga three years previously: it was enough to secure Europa League qualification for the team that had been languishing in the second division when Aspas burst onto the scene. The team have impressed, managing to reach the semi-final stages of the competition this year: they will face Manchester United. Even if they fail to upset the odds it will still be their best ever finish in a European competition – unsurprisingly, Aspas has been instrumental. He scored in a group stage draw against Standard Liege and netted a crucial goal in the late victory over Shakhtar in the round of 32. He also got on the scoresheet to put the tie against Krasnodar to bed, and found the target in the eventual 4-3 aggregate win over Genk. This means he is yet to fail to score in a knockout tie: he will be looking to continue that streak in the semi-final.

He will not need to draw on any remaining vestiges of loyalty to Liverpool to find motivation for that tie: he is a Celta man through and through, and will be determined to earn his side a historic victory. It was unfortunate that things did not work out for him during his time in England, but his eventual return to Celta has enabled him to cement his place as a hometown hero. Ultimately, Aspas has always been comfortable closer to home – when he can focus purely on his football, he is truly a force to be reckoned with.
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Monday, 10 April 2017

Mignolet: The Gloves Are On

Simon Mignolet has every right to be thoroughly fed up. He has been forced to endure endless criticism from the vast majority of the Liverpool fan-base ever since his first season. His great moments are constantly overlooked, while his errors are scrutinised closely. Any run of consistent form he gets going is disregarded as soon as he makes one mistake. The Belgian stopper has not got fed up, however: he has got his head down. A model professional through and through, he has continued to work hard and concentrate on doing the best he can. Even the signing of a keeper who was surely meant as his medium-term successor did not outwardly faze him, and Mignolet has actually produced his best season for Liverpool to date. He has not undergone a ‘transformation’, as his old vocal critics would have you believe – his class, particularly when it comes to shot-stopping, has always been apparent. However, his game has become more well-rounded and consistent: he is finally managing to garner some respect from the fans who, frankly, have mistreated him.

Mignolet’s finest attribute was very much on show in the invaluable victory against Stoke. He is a truly world class shot-stopper, which is of course the primary prerequisite of any goalkeeper, and he pulled off two frankly remarkable saves. The first came with Liverpool 1-0 down: Charlie Adam was denied brilliantly from point-blank range. The second, coming after the Brazilian duo of Coutinho and Firmino had succeeded in turning the game around to 2-1, was even more spectacular. Saido Berahino received a square ball and was faced with what appeared to be an open goal: not so. Mignolet somehow scrambled back across the goalmouth to deny the striker with his legs – it was reminiscent of Dudek in Istanbul, and combined with his earlier save was responsible for 3 precious points. Even his most ardent critics had to give him praise for such a monumental performance, but they treated it as a flash in the pan. This is far from true: admittedly the Stoke game provided an extreme example, but these are by no means the first exceptional saves Mignolet has produced. Had he played in the Chelsea team for the past three seasons, where the system does not require excessive ball-playing from the keeper and there is a competent defence that provides at least some screening, he would likely be receiving the same plaudits as his compatriot Thibaut Courtois.

This is not to say that Mignolet has done nothing to warrant the criticism he has received: that sort of claim would be entirely unsustainable. His game was littered with stupid errors in his first couple of seasons, reaching a true nadir, at least in my mind, with his concession of an ultimately costly indirect free-kick through holding on to the ball for over twenty seconds. Even the world’s best shot-stopper would not be immune from criticism for some of the mistakes he made – the errors were definitely over-stated to the exclusion of all of his excellent saves, but they were nonetheless there. This is the real area where Mignolet has improved: what many are mistaking for a ‘transformation’ is really just an ironing out of some of the brainlessness that marred his start at the club. He has matured to a point where he puts his defenders under needless pressure much less than he used to, he can judge which high balls to come for, and his handling has improved no end. I have always defended Mignolet, but at the start of this season even I was of a mind that we needed to replace him if we wanted to be consistent title challengers; it is a huge testament to his progress that a significant minority amongst fans (myself included) now do not believe this to be the case.

How he has managed to achieve such growth in a ridiculously hostile environment is beyond me – fans have been slating him relentlessly. Perhaps the vitriol can be partially explained through a reluctance to acknowledge wider issues: it is strangely comforting to pin all the problems on the man between the sticks rather than acknowledge the significant defensive frailty that has plagued Liverpool for years. Is it a coincidence that Mignolet’s upsurge has coincided with the installation of Matip in our back line? Perhaps not. There is still plenty of work to do before the defence is at the level it needs to be, but as improvements continue to be made it may be that Mignolet shines more and more. As such, to my mind, a new goalkeeper is far from a priority in the summer – the money would be better invested in the people in front of the stopper. Whatever happens, we can be sure that the Belgian will take it in his stride like the model professional he is. Some respect for Mignolet is long overdue: if he can thrive this much when everybody is writing him off, maybe it’s about time to find out what he can do when we remember what YNWA stands for.
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Liverpool 3-1 Everton: Post-Match Analysis

Liverpool extended their excellent home form against Everton with a comprehensive 3-1 victory. Klopp’s men were clearly superior, and at times left their opponents embarrassed. Certainly the visitors from across Stanley Park have cause for some embarrassment: resigned to being outplayed, they rapidly resorted to trying to take chunks out of their Liverpool counterparts. A casualty of this physical play was Sadio Mane, whose injury marred an otherwise wholly satisfying victory.

It was Mane who opened the scoring, picking up where he left off with his late winner in the reverse fixture at Goodison. He cut inside and ran parallel to the defensive line, drawing Everton’s back three hopelessly out of position. While they tried to reorganise and cover the central run of Coutinho, Mane unleashed an early shot – the left-footed drive caught everyone unawares, and Robles could only watch as the ball ran past him into the far corner. It was a goal that highlighted exactly what Mane brings to the side: directness, ingenuity and a clinical streak. There is no denying that he will be sorely missed if the injury he later picked up results in a prolonged absence - January demonstrated just how integral the former Southampton man has become to Klopp’s side.

Everton, too, are currently struggling with injuries. Given some of the tackles they put in yesterday it is hard to feel too sympathetic for their plight, but in any case a series of injuries on international duty resulted in Pennington featuring in the back line. Briefly, things were going very well for him. Despite almost total Liverpool domination he managed to bag an equaliser, capitalising on more dreadful defending of the second ball at a set piece to slot home. His jubilation turned to frustration just three minutes later, however; Coutinho, who looked revitalised in this fixture, left Gueye for dead before cutting inside Pennington and curling a beauty into the top corner. The Brazilian will need to maintain this kind of form if Liverpool are to cope with any long-term Mane absence – it is at least a possibility that Coutinho was only able to thrive because of the makeshift nature of Everton’s defence, but hopefully he has found the confidence to replicate this kind of magical form against better opposition.

It was at this point that the nasty challenges really started to fly. Of course everyone wants to see a bit of passion in the derby, but that means committing to 50/50s: it does not mean flying in with specific intention to injure. A Williams stamp on Can and a potential leg-breaker on Lovren by Barkley were just two of a number of unpleasant incidents – neither player should have been allowed to finish the game. To their credit, Liverpool maintained their composure; they refused to be dragged down, and instead continued to outclass their local rivals. The third goal looked an inevitability, and it came through substitute Divock Origi. As with Coutinho’s performance, this goal gives cause for some hope that Klopp’s team might be able to cope without Mane this time around – it took the Belgian striker barely any time to step up and increase the lead. It was a good goal as well: Coutinho slotted him in with a lovely pass, and Origi blasted it home beyond a very suspect Robles.

Coutinho, who featured a lot for Brazil over the international break, was given a well-earned break with about twenty minutes to play. Alexander-Arnold replaced him: this is the first time he has been given such an attacking role in the first team, and he thrived. Perhaps he, too, was making a pitch to replace Mane in the event of a serious injury – if so he gave Klopp food for thought, managing three shots on target in his cameo. The first of these was particularly good, forcing an excellent stop out of Robles. Derby experience is the next step on the road for the youngster, who is slowly but surely being eased into first team action. Many young players that have made it to the fringes of the first team in recent times, but Alexander-Arnold looks like he has what it takes to cement a regular starting spot before too long.

He could not extend the lead, however, and the game ended 3-1. This was not really a reflection of the superiority of the hosts, but they will nonetheless be satisfied with a thoroughly professional win. Special mention should be given to Lovren, who kept Lukaku almost entirely quiet – the Croatian has his faults, but has always excelled against physical forwards. Lucas, too, was surprisingly impressive back in his natural role of defensive midfielder: even his more vocal critics were forced to concede that he had a good game. The challenge now is to maintain the momentum: with United dropping points as well, the top four is starting to look very achievable. Although the lack of title challenge is disappointing given how Liverpool began the campaign, securing a Champions League spot would undeniably be a success.
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Liverpool 3-1 Arsenal: Why Are The Big Games Easier?

In a pleasing but head-scratching result, Liverpool once again triumphed over a top four rival with a convincing 3-1 win over Arsenal. It was the latest in a trend that is now far too prevalent to ignore: Klopp’s men can beat the big sides with relative ease, but struggle horribly against weaker opposition. The win came less than a week after a woeful showing against Leicester, and the results against Burnley, Swansea and other such teams remain fresh in the memory. Many have accused the side of lacking the right mentality – this does not seem right. A mentality issue may explain a few more off-days than one might like against smaller teams, but it doesn’t satisfactorily account for a systematic failure to break down teams from the bottom half of the table. Something else is definitely at play here; it is a tactical issue, and it needs to be resolved rapidly for Liverpool to reach their goal of top four this season.
The issue is Liverpool’s inability to break down the low block. The weakness was not regularly exposed during the first half of the season – it had not yet become apparent that the team struggled so much against deep lines, so opposition such as Watford came (laudably) to play an attacking game and got comprehensively overturned. This period of grace inevitably came to an end, however: opposing managers started to realise that sitting deep and springing counter attacks often yielded results against Liverpool. Of course, the vulnerability to counter-attacks would be partially alleviated by improving the defence: this is a personnel issue, however, and it gains little to point out such flaws when Klopp must work with what he has until the summer. What can possibly be dealt with is the consistent failure to create good chances against sides that sit deep. First, it is worth discussing why the low block causes Liverpool more problems than other big teams. Essentially, it flies directly in the face of the kind of football Klopp likes to get his side playing – it couldn’t exactly be characterised as counter-attacking, but certainly the element of suddenly breaking with pace to get in behind the line is a prevalent feature. The combination of runners from deep such as Lallana and Wijnaldum, the pace of Mane in a fluid front three and the accuracy of Coutinho and others in picking out the runs creates a team perfectly suited for exploiting gaps. Against the bigger teams, this works well. The excellent Leroy (@LFCImpulse) has made a video from the Arsenal game demonstrating how excellent off-the-ball movement leads to creation of space, which is then lethally exploited. This can be seen here:
However, against sides determined to sit deep, all of this off-the-ball movement takes place in front of a solid bank of defenders. Thus nobody gets drawn out of their defensive position, and any space that is created is in an area which does not carry much danger for the opposition. At this point, Liverpool generally draw a blank. Occasionally Coutinho will bail the side out with a trademark long-distance strike, but these can hardly be relied upon as a consistent solution. What generally happens is a recycling of the ball out wide, where James Milner or Nathaniel Clyne will receive it. They are left in space deliberately, as they are unable to create chances with any regularity. Milner is playing on the wrong side, so tends to have to cut back inside; by the time he has done this, someone has generally been able to get out to him. Clyne lacks composure in the final third, and in general contributes little to nothing going forward. In any case, a wide threat will generally only be potent when there is a target man to aim at – Liverpool have no such player, so shifting the ball out wide is not really a viable solution for breaking down the low block. Quite the opposite: almost everyone else, sometimes including the centre-backs, come through the middle in support but find that it does not make a perceptible different to the threat level posed. Instead, gaps are left: this allows opposition to pick their moments and catch Klopp’s men on the counter.
The solution is two-fold. Firstly, and straightforwardly, a more direct style must be adopted. This does not mean direct in the sense of long balls, but rather assertive runs with the ball that force the opposition to close down in numbers. Even if the take-on fails, the run creates some much-needed space for others: if the runner can offload the ball before getting tackled, there is a genuine prospect of getting in behind the deep line. This would just require a simple instruction from Klopp: stop looking out wide so often, take a risk and take on the defenders. It is not as though there is an absence of technically gifted players in the Liverpool attack. Secondly, and perhaps more radically, is a switch to three at the back: specifically, a 3-5-2. Mane and perhaps Moreno would function in the wider roles – while this would be questionable defensively against a bigger side, it makes no material difference against the low block. The only threat comes on the counter, and currently when this happens Clyne and Milner are high up the pitch anyway. As such, it makes sense to have more attack-minded, direct players in the wider roles. This would mean that recycling out wide would not be an almost automatic waste of possession – Mane in particular has a tendency to cut inside and run at the defence, creating the possibility of space for others.
Naturally, such changes come with plenty of risks and no guarantees. However, the current form against bottom-half sides is so woeful that it surely has to be worth trying. Even if Klopp is reluctant to make a change to the formation, the reduction in balls out wide in favour of more on-the-ball runs should increase the chances of getting in behind and creating clear-cut chances. The ability to seamlessly ease pass our main rivals is a more than solid building block to be starting from – if the tweaks can just be made to fix the form against the lesser outfits, Liverpool will be title contenders again in no time.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Lallana Signs New Deal: New Contracts and Negativity

The club recently announced that Adam Lallana, 28, has signed a new long-term contract. Some doubted the former Southampton man in his early days at the club, and although a lot of the criticism was unwarranted he has undoubtedly come on leaps and bounds since the arrival of Jurgen Klopp. He has been one of our most important players over the past 12 months, and as such this new deal is good news.

This has not prevented a significant minority within the Liverpool fan-base from vocally questioning the decision, however. The new contract, initially rumoured to be 150k a week but now reported as 110k, undeniably represents a significant amount of money – some have suggested that this is too much to be spending given the combined factors of Lallana’s age, quality and demand (or lack thereof) in the transfer market. This is highly questionable: Lallana remains in his prime years, and is one of the most important members of the team. His pressing and energy are second to none, and his finishing has improved a lot this season. Furthermore, the wages of footballers long ago reached a point where the numbers were so incomprehensible as to preclude particularly insightful value-for-money judgements. As fans, the most important thing is surely that a player who helps the side has been tied down for the long term.

That said, questioning the Lallana deal is not inherently wrong – there is at least some validity in the arguments laid out above. It is the underlying hypocrisy which is damning; at the risk of tarnishing a large group with one brush, most of those who are outspoken against Lallana’s new deal are also fans who dislike FSG. This begs the question: what exactly do these fans want? They constantly complain that funds are not being made available, despite the ample evidence that it was Klopp who opted not to spend in January, and then baulk when big sums are involved. The claim is that Lallana is not good enough to warrant the big money, and the new contract thus shows a lack of ambition. But these same fans complain that we simply cannot compete with the top sides in the transfer market. If this is the case, the option of spending this money on a better player is simply not an option. In other words, there is a worryingly large subset of fans who would only be satisfied by signing a world-class player who happens not to be wanted by any other big teams, preferably at a low price although not so low as to suggest lack of ambition. This is, of course, highly implausible – it would seem as though some fans simply seek out negativity.

This is an issue far bigger than the new deal for Lallana. This is about the nature of support, and the dawn of an unnecessarily demanding culture. Of course all fans want success, and it is right and natural to be frustrated if this success does not come. However, this should be accompanied by an appreciation that success is not something that can be instantly delivered by following some magic formula. Particularly at a club like Liverpool, where the historic standards for what constitutes ‘success’ have been set so high, some serious framework has to be put in place before this success can be achieved. The waning Anfield atmosphere, once so famous, is symptomatic of the modern demand amongst fans for instant gratification: the support has become dependent on achievement. In other words, unless the team are winning, they lose the backing of these so-called supporters. This of course leads to a vicious cycle whereby the lack of support demotivates the team, thus affecting the quality of performance. Some might try to dispute whether crowd noise really impacts the players; Klopp clearly thinks it does, given his repeated pleas in press conferences for the creation of a better atmosphere. In the same way, all fan negativity translates to the squad and is ultimately counter-productive.

This is not a plea for fans to overlook everything wrong with the club. There are some clear problems, and there is nothing wrong with highlighting them. However, seeking out issues to the exclusion of appreciating the positives is both foolish and contrary to the very essence of being a fan. Fans back their team, they cheer them on; it is hard to reconcile this with relentless criticism. Furthermore, it is hard to fathom why anybody would want to do this: is it not more enjoyable to remain at least vaguely optimistic than to create problems that do not exist? At the end of the day, Liverpool have a world class manager at the helm, consistently good results against the top sides and very realistic top four prospects this season – it is pure fiction to pretend that there is nothing to be positive about! If the team miss out on top four it will be a huge disappointment, just as it was a huge disappointment to see the title hopes all but disintegrate in January, but it will not change the fact that the club is slowly getting back into a position that will make it a force to be reckoned with again.

I take the view that tying down Lallana to a new deal is one step along this path. This is not an undisputable fact – you are more than entitled to argue that he is being overpaid or has been signed on for too long. What is ridiculous is to almost gleefully take the new contract as more ammunition to rally against FSG, the club or even the Liverpool Echo when the mood takes you. Support requires patience, especially support of a club like Liverpool. Many people would do well to remember the true meaning of YNWA – they may even find that a more unconditional support helps to bring the success they craved in the first place.
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Liverpool 1-1 Chelsea: Post-Match Analysis

Liverpool put in a much-improved performance against league leaders Chelsea, but were unable to get the victory. The hosts were the more positive of the teams and created the most chances, but in the end it was Chelsea who came closest to snatching the win, denied only by a penalty save from Simon Mignolet. On balance a draw was probably the fairest reflection of the game – failure to win is undoubtedly a further dent in Liverpool’s rapidly fading aspirations of a title challenge, but the strong showing against the title favourites has at least given fans reason to hope that the recent awful run is coming to an end.
The quick start was reminiscent of the Liverpool side we saw in the first half of the season. Chelsea barely had the ball in the first ten minutes, and when they were in possession they looked rattled by the high press. Clear-cut chances proved elusive, however: the organised back three repeatedly forced Klopp’s men wide, and as usual the crosses didn’t carry all that much threat. Nonetheless, it was a start that gave reason to be hopeful for a breakthrough; this made David Luiz’s opener on 24 minutes all the more frustrating. It was the visitors’ first shot of the game, and it came from a highly dubious free kick – Hazard and Lallana clashed legs and the Belgian threw himself down. To be fair to Luiz it was a wonderful free kick, flying over the wall and in off the post from a fair distance out. The circumstances, though, were almost comical – Mignolet was still trying to organise his defence when the ball was struck, and had barely had time to look at the ball before it was in the back of the net. This was undoubtedly an error on his part, but it is hard to see why the referee blew the whistle while the keeper was so patently not ready; it was also Mignolet’s first significant error of the entire season, and he certainly atoned for it later on.
This left Liverpool with a big task. The team has been struggling for goals all month, and now faced the challenge of finding a way through one of the most organised defensive units in the league. They continued to push after going behind, but for the rest of the first half were unable to create anything of any real quality. After the break, however, they came out with almost tangible determination. The game slowly but surely started to open up, with some quick passes creating space that hadn’t been available in the first period. One such pass found Firmino in vast space in the box, but the Brazilian panicked, took it first time and blazed it well wide. Not too long afterwards Liverpool were in again, and this time they took the chance. Jordan Henderson played a lovely first time ball to James Milner, whose header across the box was met emphatically by Gini Wijnaldum. At this point the momentum was firmly with Liverpool, who continued to push – it would have been nice to get Mane on at this point, but having played 120 minutes so recently it isn’t hard to understand why he was only given fifteen minutes.
Although Liverpool were firmly in the ascendency, Chelsea had begun to look dangerous on the counter. Hazard was replaced by the rapid Pedro, and at times the hosts’ back line looked stretched. Were it not for Jordan Henderson, Conte’s men would surely have retaken the lead – substitute Fabregas looked to be clean through, but a last gasp sliding challenge from the captain dispossessed him. Matip had less luck with his tackle – faced with an onrushing Diego Costa, the Cameroonian centre-back stuck out a leg and brought him down. It was probably the right call to give a penalty, but it was undoubtedly soft – it would have been a kick in the teeth to lose to goals from a dubious free kick and penalty. Step forward Simon Mignolet. The keeper has a marvellous penalty-saving record at Liverpool, dating back to his dramatic 90th minute stop against Stoke on his debut, and he pulled out another one at this crucial moment. Usual taker Hazard had been substituted off, and Costa’s effort wasn’t good enough to get past the Liverpool stopper.
So, a point gained or two lost? There was certainly a feeling of frustration after the game, but it was coupled with a begrudging recognition that a draw against Chelsea represented a decent point. It is agonising to see yet another title challenge seemingly fade away, but the realistic aim for Klopp in his first full season was always going to be to get us back into the Champions League. In any case, with fifteen games to go, anything could still happen – after the game the manager urged fans and players alike to keep believing and keep pushing, and this is definitely the right attitude.
The performance certainly gave reason for renewed belief: the three central midfielders in particular put in much-improved performances. Mane’s return is also bound to be a big boost, and Coutinho is slowly getting back up to pace following his long lay-off. January is over now, and there is a feeling that Liverpool can now leave their horrible form behind them. Nobody wanted to crash out of both cups, but what the team is left with now is a clear run. Fifteen games to make the fans proud – let’s keep believing.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Plymouth 0-1 Liverpool: The Kids Are Alright

Liverpool avoided an embarrassing early exit from the FA Cup with a fairly comfortable win in their third round replay away at Plymouth. The scoreline ended up being a narrow one, but the visitors looked in control for most of the game – no mean feat for what was not far away from being an u23s side. Some of the young players to whom Klopp gave a chance have come under criticism following the match: this is extremely harsh. To put in a professional display and come away with the desired result against a senior football league side desperate for a result is a testament to the calibre of the players.

As in the initial game at Anfield, Klopp selected a second-string starting eleven. This included a handful of senior players – Origi, Sturridge, Coutinho, Moreno and Lucas – but was largely made up of products of the youth system. In fact, it was the youngsters who impressed the most in the early exchanges: Alexander-Arnold and Woodburn looked particularly assured, whereas Moreno floundered and Sturridge and Origi struggled to influence the game. Daniel Sturridge must be getting increasingly frustrated; he has now failed to take the last few chances he has been given to impress, and in a squad with as much attacking talent as this one he cannot bank on getting too many more. Fortunately, his lack of goals was compensated for through the most unlikely of candidates – Lucas Leiva of all people opened the scoring midway through the first half. Coutinho showed the benefits of having a competent set piece taker back in the side, and Lucas got on the end of his teasing corner to power the ball into the net. It was his first goal in seven years, and in the end proved to be the goal that saw Klopp’s side safely through to the fourth round.

There were chances to add to the lead – Origi had the most blatant of these, seeing a tame penalty saved late on. However, the failure to extend the gap never really looked like being punished. Alexander-Arnold had to make one excellent last-ditch challenge and Karius had to be on his toes to keep out a sweetly struck long-range effort, but on the whole Plymouth were contained professionally and effectively. This makes some of the criticism of the performance even more odd: it wasn’t the most exciting, end-to-end game of all time, but if anything this is a testament to the temperament of our young talents. The questions asked of Sturridge and Origi are a little more valid – they would undoubtedly have wanted to have made a bigger impact against a League 2 outfit – but facing a deep line who undoubtedly had specific instructions to keep close tabs on them, the performances were certainly forgivable. In any case, performance was always going to be secondary in this fixture; nobody really wanted the extra game in an already congested schedule, so the goal was simply to get through it with minimal fuss.

The next round sees Liverpool host Wolverhampton Wanderers. It will be interesting to see what kind of team Klopp puts out – it will be an even tougher challenge for the young players than Plymouth, but it seems likely that they’ll be given a chance. Perhaps Harry Wilson will have won himself a long-awaited start: he has been in excellent form for the under 23s side all season, and impressed after coming on in the Plymouth game. Whatever the exact personnel, on paper at least Liverpool have been handed a strong chance of progressing further. The FA Cup is clearly not the priority, but it serves the dual function of blooding youth talent and giving the team a shot at some silverware. In the meantime, Liverpool return to the test of league action: a win against free-falling Swansea is a must in order to keep title ambitions alive.
-James Martin
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