Monday, 11 December 2017

Liverpool 1-1 Everton: Post-Match Analysis

Despite playing some of their worst football of the season, Liverpool nonetheless dominated an Everton side who had come to Anfield with no attacking intent whatsoever. The visitors are entitled to do this, of course, but it also wasn’t a particularly accomplished defensive display; Liverpool let them off the hook by lobbing cross after cross into the box instead of attempting to pick apart the holes in the back line, and were ultimately punished for only managing to score once. Calvert-Lewin dived for a late penalty after Lovren had got too tight to him, meaning Everton came away with a point from one of the poorest-quality derbies in living memory.

Jurgen Klopp raised some eyebrows by continuing his policy of mass rotation. The variation of personnel is not in itself a problem – it helps to prevent injuries building up over a busy period, and Klopp has some good squad players at his disposal. However, the changes for this game made it near-inevitable that the style of play would also alter. So it was: Milner and Henderson continually shifted the ball out wide, where Robertson and Gomez were on hand to swing hopeful crosses in towards Dominic Solanke. This is not a criticism of any of them – indeed, Joe Gomez put in yet another exceptional performance – but it must be asked what Klopp expected to happen when fielding all of these players together. He did Everton’s job for them: the quality was dragged right down, and Allardyce’s tactic of shoving everyone behind the ball and just launching it clear when they won it back was made at least partially effective when it should have been ripped to shreds.

This was exemplified by the manner in which Liverpool did make a breakthrough – it was a moment of pure quality, not a high ball into the penalty area. Mo Salah provided it: he swivelled past his man, jinked inside another and whipped the ball sumptuously into the top corner. It was a piece of individual genius, further cementing Salah’s status as signing of the summer and instant fan favourite. However, he was often the only one trying these things. Milner and Henderson are hardly notorious for driving at defenders; Solanke is pretty good with his feet, but his stock in trade is holding the ball up then passing it back to someone else. Again, the fault lies on the team selection – the sheer exploitability of Everton’s back line, as exemplified by Salah’s humiliation of Cuco Martina, was left largely untapped because of the type of players sent out by Klopp. To make such a call in the derby is criminal if you fail to deliver the result.

Of course, not all the fault lies with the manager. Sadio Mane must also take a significant proportion of the blame. Just after Salah had netted the opener, the Senegalese winger found himself through on the keeper with men over to his right – instead of teeing up the tap-in he went for goal himself, skewing it wide and wasting a golden opportunity. Had the team gone in at two up, it would surely have been game over, particularly given Everton’s ineptitude going forward. As it was, the margin remained at one goal – Allardyce’s side still weren’t really threatening for most of the second half, but nor did Liverpool look like adding a second. It was more of the same in terms of style, and to be frank it didn’t feel like watching Liverpool: the monotony of ‘shift wide, cross, repeat’ was extremely frustrating, and there was always a nagging doubt that the failure to actually get at the defence and add a second would end up costing us if something went wrong at the back. So it was: Dejan Lovren got far too tight to Calvert-Lewin, who chucked himself to the ground upon feeling contact and won himself a penalty. It was a clever dive, but a dive nonetheless – the referee can thus join Klopp, Mane and Lovren on the list of reasons why the team somehow failed to take all three points. To add insult to injury, it was Wayne Rooney of all people who smashed the penalty home: it left fans asking how their team could have possibly let this happen.

On another day, the referee wouldn’t have pointed to the spot and the questions about team selection would be subject to much less scrutiny. However, the result doesn’t change the fact that the team that was put out produced some pretty unpleasant and ineffective football for much of the 90 minutes – the domination stemmed from Everton’s determination to contribute nothing going forward, not from any inherent quality in the hosts’ play. It is not something that many fans can be eager to see repeated: Liverpool play some of the best attacking football in Europe, so to decide to shelve that for a week and instead punt balls at a target man is inexplicable. In a derby match, it is nigh-on unforgivable. Again, it is not the rotation that is the issue – it is the change in style to which it led. Fortunately, the next game is just around the corner; it would surely have made more sense to rest the players in this West Brom clash rather than the derby, but it does at least give Klopp and the team a chance to immediately bounce back.
- Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Liverpool 7-0 Spartak Moscow: Reds Rampage Through to Knockouts

Liverpool went into their final group stage game knowing that a win would see them progress as group winners, regardless of results elsewhere. This feat has eluded the team since 2008, a staggering nine years ago – it was imperative, therefore, that Klopp’s men got the job done. They delivered in the most emphatic way imaginable: Spartak became the second team to be hit for seven during the campaign, and Liverpool broke the record for the most goals scored by an English team in a Champions League group stage on their way to booking a place in the last sixteen.

After a few weeks of rotation here and there in the front line, Klopp finally treated the fans to the full compliment of attacking talent. The quadruple threat of Salah, Mane, Firmimo and Coutinho would be enough to blow away better teams than Spartak; the Russians were helpless in the face of the onslaught. Philippe Coutinho opened the scoring after just four minutes. Mo Salah’s movement immediately caused panic at the back, and he was hauled down while trying to reach Coutinho’s pass. The Brazilian stepped up to take the spot kick, and converted it with supreme coolness – replays revealed that he didn’t look at the ball once during his run-up, keeping his eyes on the goal and sending the goalkeeper the wrong way. 

There was no looking back in the game either. Liverpool were playing very nicely, undoubtedly aided by the huge pockets of space left open by the Spartak defence – at times it was like an exhibition game, as the attackers put on a show for the Anfield faithful. The second goal came after fifteen minutes; a delightful passage of passing brought the ball to the feet of Firmino, who calmly and selflessly shifted the ball across goal for Coutinho to slot home his second of the night. A third was added just minutes later. Firmino took this one for himself, slamming the ball emphatically home with the outside of his right boot after Mane’s effort fell to him in the box.

Mane had chances of his own in the first half, but it was not until the start of the second period that he managed to get his name on the scoresheet. He did so in supreme style, scoring arguably the pick of the bunch. Milner, who had come on for an injured Alberto Moreno, delivered a lovely cross to the far post which was met sumptuously by Mane – he volleyed it venomously past the Spartak keeper, who was once again a helpless observer. Three minutes later, it was five. Philippe Coutinho jinked round multiple defenders with ease before curling one goalwards; it found its way in via a big deflection, making Coutinho only the third ever Liverpool player to net a Champions League hattrick. It was a truly remarkable performance, particularly on the back of his goal and three assists at the weekend: it is not difficult to see why FSG were so desperate to keep him at Anfield over the summer. Fresh rumours are inevitably beginning to heat up as January approaches – at the moment, however, it is difficult to see why Coutinho would be particularly eager to leave the hottest attack in Europe.

This is particularly true given his strong relationship with the other forwards: Mane, Salah and compatriot Firmino. There appears to be a genuine camaraderie there; each wants the others to succeed, and all of them share the common goal of bringing success for the team. None of them seem too fussed about who gets on the scoresheet, just as long as the goals come; the resulting linkup is astounding at times, and has led to some truly beautiful attacking football. The talent does not stop at these four players, either. Firmino was replaced by Sturridge with about twenty minutes to play, and the Englishman made his mark almost instantly. He worked some space for himself on the right-hand side of the pitch, before squaring the ball for Mane – the Senegalese international showed great inventiveness to turn the ball home from an awkward position, and Liverpool had six.

The referee seemingly felt sorry for Spartak Moscow at this point, and so denied Sturridge a second assist in as many minutes by refusing to award a fairly clear penalty after the striker nicked in ahead of the keeper. This was not enough to stop the rampant reds. Salah ended his one-game drought five minutes from time – Milner delivered another nice delivery from the left, and the Egyptian showed great composure in the box to buy some time before firing it in. In another act of kindness, the officials added no time on at the end; it was only this that stopped Liverpool equalling or bettering their own record of eight Champions League goals in a single game.

The performance will undoubtedly give Liverpool great confidence going into the draw on Monday – their first-place finish leaves them best-placed to avoid a tough draw, but they will feel as though they can beat anyone in their current attacking form. With the likes of Real Madrid, Juventus and Bayern Munich all possible opponents, this may well be put to the test; the constant question mark is of course the defence, but going forward, at least, there is no reason not to believe that Liverpool can’t go toe-to-toe with Europe’s elite. Before they do this, however, there is a derby to look forward to: Sam Allardyce cannot be relishing the prospect of that fixture right now. Teams are rightly scared of us again: regardless of what pundits might have been saying earlier in the season, Liverpool are undoubtedly a team moving in the right direction.

- Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Friday, 1 December 2017

Modern Football’s Attack on the Number 10 Role

To many football fans, the archetypal number ten represents the sport at its purest. Tasked with playing in whatever tiny pockets of space they can find behind the striker, their role is to create. This duty is, on the face of it, at odds with the inevitable congestion in a central and advanced position; to carry it out, therefore, the number ten must be the most inventive man on the pitch.

Sumptuous skills and perfectly-weighted passes that most wouldn’t even have spotted are the bread and butter of the number 10 – the end is to create space where there is none, and this necessarily makes the means beautiful to behold. In the modern game, however, such a player is a rare breed. The raw skills are still there, but the increasing tactical insistence that space be created through fluid off-the-ball movement means that the position itself is under threat. In an age of ‘juego de posicion’, the system as a whole meticulously works the space that the number ten once conjured from nothing. There is undoubtedly beauty in this, too, but where is the magician left once the circus shuts down to make way for the factory?

A common trend is for those who cut their teeth in the number 10 role to be shunted out into a wide position. The fluid front three has become the system of choice for many of the top teams: Messi, Suarez and Neymar led the way on this in their time together at Barcelona, spawning many pale imitations around Europe. Messi has never been a traditional number ten – he is more of a creative forward than he is an attacking midfielder, although to label him is to risk doing an injustice to arguably the greatest player that ever lived.

Regardless of what he is best defined as, it is beyond dispute that he spent much of his early career working chances for himself and others from ‘in the hole’ - even he, a generational talent, found himself shifted to the wing in order to accommodate the irresistible rise of the modern incarnation of the 4-3-3. The wide position was notional in as much as the whole point of the system was to give Messi and his fellow forwards freedom to interchange, but this was how space was to be generated: markers were to be shaken off prior to receiving the ball, and the room to work a goal opened up by virtue of this off-the-ball movement. Of course, this takes admirable levels of tactical awareness and skill in and of itself; it would be folly to detract from the brilliance of the system when properly executed.

Nor could it realistically be argued that Messi was wasted on the wing; the formidable Barcelona trio notched an unprecedented 122 goals in all competitions in the first season they played together, and Messi received the 2015 Ballon D’Or in recognition of his contribution to this. Furthermore, and even more pertinently, some of the resulting football was truly breathtaking to behold; why, then, should the potential demise of the traditional number 10 be lamented?

There are essentially two points to be made. The first lies in the fact that Lionel Messi is, in all meanings of the word, exceptional: it would be foolish to say that his ability to adapt seamlessly to a different role, and indeed pick up a fifth Ballon D’Or in the process, means that all number 10s will continue to thrive once moved out wide. This is particularly true given that most will generally not enjoy the benefit of two truly world-class forwards making up the rest of the front line. Barcelona can effectively be placed to one side as anomalously good – this leaves the question of whether number 10s, in general, are able to emulate the performances they produce centrally when deployed on the left or right of a front three.

The answer can be at least partially found in examining the varying skill-sets required for each role. A number ten, as elucidated earlier on, is all about operating in tight spaces; their job, simply put, is to take opposition players out of the equation so as to give others the space to score. This requires excellent close control, extraordinary vision, a range of passing, and that unquantifiable trait of flair that makes or breaks a good attacking midfielder. Traditional wingers, meanwhile, are all about pace and crossing ability. Of course, this is an unfair comparison; a winger in the modern, fluid 4-3-3 will have modified duties. Pace is still useful, and indeed the ability to put in a good cross does not hurt, but the passing and technique so important in the number 10 role are roughly transferable skills when it comes to today’s conception of a winger. However, attacking midfielders with great vision arguably find their best asset somewhat wasted on the wing. In a perfectly-functioning fluid system there is opportunity for such a winger to come both infield and deep to pick out passes to runners, but anything short of this leaves the would-be creator stuck out wide with limited opportunities to thread the needle and in doing so break the defensive line.

Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho is a good case study. Some of his greatest moments in a red shirt have involved mouth-watering passes to teammates from a central position, but his regular deployment out on the left has reduced his chances to produce such brilliance. One particular assist from the back end of the 2012/13 season comes to mind – a delightful pass with the outside of the foot, bending round the Fulham centre-back and perfectly into the path of Daniel Sturridge. In a wider role, particularly when working with a midfield three that can at times be accused of lacking creativity and dynamism, his opportunities to come inside and pick out players running from deep have been much more limited. Again, this point should not be construed as taking anything away from Coutinho’s performances in a front three; the aforementioned significant amount of transferable skills between the positions, combined with his undoubted talent, has allowed him to impress to the point where Barcelona have come to call. However, there is at least a case to be made that he would have thrived even more in what might be called his natural position. Injury has not allowed him to play in behind Mane, Firmino and Salah too regularly this season, but the argument that he is at least partly wasted on the wing is certainly backed up by the few occasions where he has reverted to something more closely resembling an attacking midfielder.

Even this role, though, is not the now near-mythical number ten that embodies creativity and style, and this leads on to the second point. It is largely one of sentiment. As has been stressed from the outset, the style of play that involves smooth passing, quick movement and almost methodical carving-open of defences is both effective and beautiful in its own right; that it has reduced the prominence of number 10s is not to be taken as an attack on its validity. However, once in a while, the football fan finds himself pining for the magic show. This is not what is delivered by a would-be number ten playing behind a fluid front three; the movement in front of him takes a lot of the strain of drawing the defenders, and he is left to deliver a masterclass in passing.

Pep Guardiola is almost synonymous with the new style being described, and within his City side Kevin De Bruyne provides the model for such a player. Flair and close control are very much still in his locker, but he only needs to take them out on occasion; rather it is the playmaking that takes centre stage. The Belgian is second-to-none in this regard, and uses the space created for him in ways very few others would be able to do, but he is simply not often required to twist and turn to make the room for himself. When a goal is scored, crowds are left to appreciate the exact manner in which the team as a whole - aided greatly by De Bruyne - dissected the opposition. They are not left asking themselves how on earth what they have just seen can be possible.

This is the joy that only a number 10 can bring, spinning away from his man with an outrageous piece of invention. The number 10 is the Ronaldinho strike against Chelsea, the progress of Maradona through an entire England defence, Dennis Bergkamp’s spin and flick into the path of Lljunberg; it is hard to accept that the modern game is sanitising these moments, making a science out of what was once an art.

Of course, this is not to say that the beautiful game is losing its essence. At most, it can be suggested that standards of beauty are being altered; synchronicity and fluidness are replacing individual technique and brilliance as the ultimate standard. The new era should be embraced, bringing as it does such a wealth of benefits; it is a shame, however, that the number 10 role as we know it is a seemingly necessary casualty. Tactical preferences come and go, and hope remains that the great magicians of the game will come to the fore once more, but at least for the time being it seems as though the sorts of outrageous tricks that provided some of the defining moments of a generation are being confined to the back garden. 

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Liverpool 1-1 Chelsea: Post-Match Analysis

A familiar feeling descended upon Liverpool fans as Willian’s failed cross looped over Mignolet and into the back of the net. Once again, a combination of lack of composure and sheer bad luck had served to deny the hosts all three points; the end result was no doubt respectable, but the all-too-common circumstances in which the win slipped away make it hard to appreciate the value of a point. Nonetheless, there are certainly positives to be taken – Klopp’s men were five minutes away from getting a win against the champions while resting two of the team’s key players, suggesting that the squad is finally equipped to handle the congested winter fixture list. Moreover, the league table reveals that Liverpool remain firmly in the hunt for a Champions League spot – anything from second to sixth is realistically up for grabs, with the teams occupying those positions moving amongst themselves almost weekly, and this is likely to remain the case for essentially the entirety of the campaign.

The team selection for this big game certainly raised a few eyebrows. There was consensus that Mane and Firmino could benefit from a rest – Mane has twice been thrown back into action off the back of injuries, and Firmino’s role in Klopp’s team necessarily results in vast amounts of energy being expended. However, most would have expected the rotation options to be called upon in midweek against Sevilla; the upcoming game against Stoke would have provided an equally ample opportunity. Ultimately, though, it can only be a good thing that the manager now feels he has squad players who can realistically be trusted in even the most important games. One would hope, having spent forty-million pounds on Oxlade-Chamberlain and blocked a move away from Anfield for Sturridge, that there would be no complaints when the two actually get picked. The complaints that were voiced in respect of Oxlade-Chamberlain were quickly silenced – he started brightly, and continued in this vein throughout the match. He refused to allow Chelsea’s back line much time on the ball, and when he was able to win it back he used it well. Just as satisfying as his bursting runs were his decisions on occasion to shift the ball infield; it was his most mature, composed performance since joining from Arsenal. This was rewarded with an assist – he helped to finally break the deadlock midway through the second half by instinctively poking the ball through to Mo Salah, who did what he has been doing for fun ever since joining and stuck it in the back of the net.

Sturridge was not quite as emphatic in his silencing of the doubters – it wasn’t necessarily a bad performance, and indeed only an excellent Azpilicueta block denied him a goal to double the lead, but the absence of Firmino was marked. Salah was seldom found in space; he was forced to engineer it for himself, rather than relying on the movement of the centre-forward to open things up. On multiple occasions the Egyptian spun past Cahill with ease, only to find more bodies ready to get between him and the goal – Sturridge’s lack of intelligent movement is at least partly to blame for this. As ever, this comes with the disclaimer that Sturridge’s class remains beyond question – the questions about whether he can genuinely play a role in Klopp’s system, however, are becoming ever more pressing (excuse the pun).

The more immediately concerning problems were to be found in midfield. Milner, Henderson and Coutinho were deployed in a central three; this naturally took the form of a double-pivot in reality, with Coutinho drifting around further up the pitch. The protection offered to the defence was virtually non-existent – Henderson failed to follow up from his poor showing in Sevilla with a convincing display here, and was bypassed as if he wasn’t there on multiple occasions. Milner was even worse; Henderson is at least fairly reliable in possession, but the ex-City man subjected Liverpool to near-relentless pressure in certain spells through his failure to retain the ball. Coutinho, too, is not free of blame – in the first half he flatly refused to track back a lot of the time. This is obviously not his primary duty, but he should have taken some responsibility for limiting the space in which the Chelsea forwards could operate. Hazard in particular needed to be tracked a little more diligently – the Belgian was given the space to excel in the first half, and in fairness he looked exceptional. Indeed, Coutinho’s second half showing illustrated the importance of his defensive contributions; he started to get back a little more, and this coincided with significantly fewer chances for the visitors until the final twenty minutes.

It was in this final period that Liverpool were undone, as they had been against Sevilla. Unlike the Champions League game, it was not a complete self-destruction; Klopp’s side were undoubtedly guilty of backing off too much, and of abandoning much of the composure and discipline on the ball that they had exercised prior to scoring, but it was ultimately a mishit cross that gave Chelsea their breakthrough. It would be ridiculous to assign any genuine blame – the cross came in from Moreno’s side, but he was not really at fault. In fact, on the whole, the Spaniard responded excellently to his disastrous showing against his former club: he dealt admirably with what was at times a barrage down his left flank. It simply wasn’t to be for Liverpool. Such strokes of luck cannot be legislated for; whilst there are undoubtedly ways in which the team could have managed their lead more effectively, which absolutely need to be addressed going forward, their undoing was just a fluke in the end.

Where does this leave the team? It is a case of having to just move on, and do so quickly; the game against Stoke is looming on the horizon, and a win is important to get back on track following two disappointing draws. The players will surely take heart from the fact that the point has not left them in a dire position by any stretch of the imagination; the table accurately reflects that City have been dominant and the chasing pack have been much of a muchness. The battle for the top four will be a long one, and Liverpool will be encouraged by the fact that on most days they will not be faced with crosses that fly into the top corner.

- Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

No Kane, No Lukaku, No Problems? 12-Week Update

In a season preview piece for, I challenged the orthodoxy that at least one of Kane and Lukaku – preferably both - was a must-have in any fantasy team. The savings that could be invested elsewhere, I argued, were such that the lost points on the two big-name strikers could be recouped from other players in other positions. Despite being asked by literally nobody to persist with this experiment, my stubbornness dictated that I would be going as much of the season as I could bear without purchasing either of these two elite forwards; twelve gameweeks in, with my early wildcard a distant memory, Kane and Lukaku remain conspicuous only by their absence.

How has this strategy been holding up? Somewhat inevitably, it has led to frankly ridiculous swings in ranking from week to week. The success in any given gameweek is dictated just as much by Kane and Lukaku as it is by the eleven I have selected; a blank by one or both of them sends me shooting up the rankings, but the pair of them hitting their stride simultaneously spells disaster. This is evidenced by the mammoth discrepancies in my monthly positions. August saw Kane’s obligatory barren spell – combined with some prolific scoring from my alternative investments, notably the Liverpool trio of Mane, Salah and Firmino, this fired me up to 16,118th for the month. At this point, I may or may not have been guilty of some fairly smug tweets. September punished me cruelly for this; it got off to an inauspicious start when I handed the armband to Mane only for him to get sent off, and it didn’t get much better from there. Kane and Lukaku ascended to the top of the race for the golden boot, Liverpool stalled badly, and Wenger went through a phase of inexplicable reluctance to give Lacazette consistent minutes: this utterly derailed my progress, resulting in a final monthly ranking of 4,678,952nd. I didn’t know there were that many FPL players. October was slightly less disastrous, although still far from successful. Salah’s consistent returns and a couple of good Jesus captaincies only sometimes sufficed to keep pace with the duo I was now firmly committed not to employ; a monthly finish around the 2.8 million mark was technically progress, but hardly a ringing endorsement of my strategy.

Naturally, I headed into November an extremely disheartened manager. Flashbacks to my first proper season of the game, where I stubbornly refused to accept that Yaya Toure would continue to score so well, haunted my every waking moment; history was repeating itself on an even more gratuitously self-destructive scale, and I was already drafting an optimistic claim against Fantasy YIRMA for lost mini-league earnings. However, so far, it has been a kind month – the pendulum has swung firmly back in my favour, as Kane has stalled badly and my alternatives have finally stepped up in a way that had been disappointingly lacking since August. I sit inside the top 320k for the month, an effort that has sufficed to finally drag me back inside the overall top million. De Bruyne and Jesus deserve honourable mentions, but it is Mohamed Salah that takes the bulk of the credit; without Kane and Lukaku to tempt me I have captained him in every game this month, and he has rewarded me without fail.

This gives some idea of the volatility of a team without Kane or Lukaku. Certainly I have seen enough to substantiate a claim that shunning the pair of them is a defensible option; it magnifies the rewards when those picked as their differential alternatives deliver, leading to huge jumps up the leaderboards. However, for it to pan out as the best strategy across the course of the season, the alternative picks have to be consistently on the money. Kane and Lukaku will inevitably score in most weeks – this is why conventional wisdom dictates they are necessities – and when this coincides with quieter games from other premium options it can lead to staggeringly poor gameweeks. If they fall back-to-back, it can be crippling. The likelihood of this is increased by the lack of nailed-on starting strikers in other top teams; Jesus and Lacazette have both been left out one too many times to please somebody on my strategy. Firmino has been a regular for Liverpool – ultimately his lower price has been reflected in his returns, however, and his steady numbers are far from ideal when he is used as a Kane or Lukaku replacement. The natural alternative is Morata; he picked up an injury at a time where I really needed him to deliver, but this was bad luck as much as anything else and he probably represents one of the better attacking options from here on in.

The issues with the bold strategy are exacerbated by the emergence of relatively consistent scorers from the budget category, such as Watford’s exciting talent Richarlison. It is a price bracket that Kane and Lukaku owners inevitably have to turn to at some point; when there are options there that post numbers in keeping with the premium midfielders who are taking up my saved money, it poses a serious problem. Over the course of the full campaign, it seems likely that De Bruyne, Mane and others in a similar bracket will pull firmly away – they will need to do so by a substantial margin, however, if the pouring of the Kane-and-Lukaku savings into my midfield is going to pay off. The only upshot of the emergence of such options from the perspective of my strategy is that I too can avail myself of these players, and consequently take a punt on one of the aforementioned expensive strikers with question marks over game time. It is less of a tragedy when Jesus only gets twenty minutes if I know that the entirety of the rest of my team, as opposed to just the premium options, are capable of picking up the slack; nonetheless, on the whole, the success of a number of budget midfielders makes the strategy harder to execute.  

In summary, life without Kane and Lukaku is utter chaos. It does not lend itself to consistency, nor to middle-of-the-road gameweeks: things either go excellently or terribly, and the way it swings is just as dependent on those who have not been selected as it is on those who have been chosen. There is promise in the strategy, and a better manager than me could have deployed it to greater effect by doing a more successful job of consistently selecting the high-scoring alternative premium investments, but it is nevertheless undeniable that failing to pick Kane and Lukaku is bound to lead to something of an uphill battle at times. It is a battle I enjoy, however, and you can be sure that I will blindly plough on with it regardless of how many more times I plumb new rankings depths. 

Monday, 13 November 2017

Alvaro Arbeloa: The Journey Back to the Bernabeu

"Madrid is the club of my life, I will never call to ask for a job, but I am always available to offer myself”. These were the parting words of Alvaro Arbeloa as he announced that he was hanging up his boots, following an ultimately disappointing final season in the game with West Ham United. It was fitting that he should pledge fealty to Los Blancos even as he left his playing career behind him; the Spanish giants shaped the whole direction of his career, and it was with them that he won all that could be won.

Arbeloa’s first steps on his footballing journey were taken to the north-east of the capital, in the city of Zaragoza. His family moved there when he was four years old – he joined the academy as a thirteen-year-old, and stayed there for the majority of his teenage years. The crowning moment of his time there came in his final season: he helped the team to a 1-0 victory over Barcelona in the Copa del Rey Juvenil. At the time, the likes of Andres Iniesta and Victor Valdes featured for the Catalan club’s youth outfit; victory was a great achievement, and it was in no small part down to Arbeloa’s endeavour. A local match report from the time described the “enormous physical exertion” expended by the back line in order to preserve the clean sheet – this scrappiness and determination, by no means a given in those brought up in the Spanish culture where technique is everything, has been one of Arbeloa’s great strengths throughout his career. His performance helped to turn the heads of Barcelona’s great rivals.

In 2001, he made the move into Real Madrid’s youth ranks. By this point he was nearing eighteen, and was duly shifted up into the Real Madrid C team shortly after arriving. Again, his stay was not a long one; he impressed over the course of his 16 appearances in the 2002/03 season, and moved up for the second time in quick succession to join Real Madrid Castilla. It would prove harder to earn promotion to the senior side. From 2003 to 2006, Arbeloa racked up 84 appearances for the B team – for most of this period the first team remained a distant dream. This was no criticism of the full-back’s ability: the main squad was simply saturated with world class players, and Arbeloa’s talents would have had to be positively mercurial in order for him to displace club stalwart Michel Salgado.

Arbeloa was eventually handed a small taste of first team action, coming on as a substitute in a draw against Real Betis in the 2004/05 season. By the start of the 2006/07 season, however, it was apparent to both player and club that Arbeloa’s opportunities would be highly restricted if he stayed in the capital. The emergence of Sergio Ramos, who had succeeded where Arbeloa failed in taking the place of Salgado, meant competition was more fierce than ever: a move to Deportivo La Coruna was arranged. The player was clearly uncomfortable leaving the club he had grown to love over the course of his five years there, describing it as “a strange situation” but acknowledging that “something had to give” as a result of the number of defenders in the squad. At his new club, Arbeloa was finally given his chance – he played twenty-one games in the first half of the season, and instantly began to attract attention.

Indeed, his spell with Deportivo would prove to be a very short one. On the January deadline day, Liverpool moved for Arbeloa. Fellow Spaniard Rafa Benitez wanted to bolster his options: by this point Steve Finnan was 30, and Arbeloa was touted in some quarters as his replacement. However, it was at left-back where Arbeloa was handed his full debut, against none other than Real Madrid’s fiercest rivals. This time around, he had even more to deal with than Iniesta and Valdes: a certain 19-year-old Argentinian forward had burst on to the scene, and Arbeloa was tasked with dealing with him. The thinking was that the full-back’s discipline, combined with his strong right side, would help to nullify Messi’s magical left foot – to the extent that anyone is ever able to keep Messi quiet, it worked very well. The team won 2-1 on the night, and were able to limit Barcelona to one goal in the second leg at Anfield: they progressed on away goals.

This certainly helped to endear him to the Liverpool fans, and indeed to the manager – he remained a utility option across the back four for the remainder of the season, and only featured as a late substitute in the Champions League final defeat to AC Milan, but by the following campaign he was established as a first-team full-back. He made more league appearances than both Finnan and Riise, and impressed in a fairly understated manner. He was never one to maraud forward, and his lovely curling strike against Reading in early 2007 ended up being one of just two goals he scored for the club, but he was defensively dependable and showed admirable grit and determination. He played his part in limiting Liverpool’s goals conceded to just 28 and 27 in 2007/08 and 2008/09 respectively – in the latter, the team went very close to winning the league title. This did not prevent a very public falling-out with Jamie Carragher in a match against West Bromwich Albion: the centre-back took issue with Arbeloa’s handling of a defensive situation, but the Spaniard gave as good as he got and the two had to be separated by teammates. It was somewhat farcical, but ultimately it was fuelled by two players determined to make sure that the team succeeded – there aren’t many that would stand their ground in the face of a Carragher tirade, and Arbeloa’s passion is part of what makes him a popular figure amongst the Anfield faithful to this day.

At the end of this campaign, having made 98 appearances for Liverpool, Arbeloa left the club. Glen Johnson had been brought in, sparking speculation about the Spaniard’s future, and he was duly given permission to re-join Real Madrid. This was a special moment for Arbeloa, who three years earlier had been considered surplus to requirements. He spoke of his pride, saying “when you leave the club with the feeling of not being able to be in the first team, you know that it's very difficult to return, so for me, when this opportunity presented itself, my first objective was to take it and fortunately I'm here." It was indeed fortunate, both for the player and the club: Arbeloa immediately became a regular, albeit once again on the left side of defence for a lot of the time. It was a disappointing season for the team – Real were pipped to the title by Barcelona, and exited both the Champions League and Copa del Rey at the round of 16 stage – but on a personal level Arbeloa was impressive. His form cemented his place in Spain’s squad at the 2010 World Cup.  As he had done at club level so many years earlier, Sergio Ramos frustrated his chances of regular minutes; just like at the Euros two years before, Arbeloa was limited to one appearance in the group stages. Nonetheless, by the end of the tournament the full-back had both a European Cup and World Cup to his name: to even make the twenty-three-man squad in Spain’s golden era was a massive achievement, and he deserves recognition for it.

The trophy rush carried over into Arbeloa’s club career. The 2010/11 season saw victory in the Copa del Ray, although the league title narrowly eluded them once again. It was also the campaign where Arbeloa finally got what he had been striving for since turning professional: regular minutes at right-back for Real Madrid. Sergio Ramos made the transition into the middle, allowing Arbeloa to slot into his natural position. This setup became firmly established, and endured into the 2011/12 season. This time, finally, the team overcame Barcelona to win the league: yet another personal triumph over the Catalans meant Arbeloa could add La Liga to his rapidly-growing list of honours. He was rewarded with a new long-term contract at the end of the season.

However, his time as a regular was coming to an end. The re-signature of Dani Carvajal meant that Arbeloa was once again locked out of the first team, but he resisted calls from the media for his departure. He was at the club he loved, and wanted to stay and help in any way he could. The fans, who like the Liverpool faithful before them had warmed to Arbeloa’s spirit and fight as well as his ability, were more than happy to get behind him in a bit-part role. It was in this capacity that he finally won the Champions League in 2014, watching from the bench as his team went one better than he was able to do with Liverpool seven years previously. This was yet another addition to a remarkable personal trophy haul - no Real Madrid fan would begrudge their loyal servant the medals, even if the part he played in getting them was limited.

He remained at the club for a further two years, bringing him up to a total of 233 appearances in his second spell. Of those, just nine came in the 2015/16 season: two of these were in the Champions League, which Real won for the second time in three years, but Arbeloa nonetheless felt that it was time to move on at the end of the campaign. In hindsight, he should have called it a day at this point – his move to West Ham United was ultimately ill-fated, and he retired at the end of the season having made just four appearances. He spoke of his disappointment, saying “it has not been an easy year” – when he looks back on his career as a whole, however, there will surely be nothing but satisfaction. He may have taken a long road to the Real Madrid first team, but the trophies to his name are tangible proof that it was well worth the wait.

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013


Monday, 30 October 2017

Liverpool 3-0 Huddersfield: Post-Match Thoughts

“There’s still time for this one to break down, we’re not there yet”. As we reached Marylebone, where we finally found a train heading back to where we needed to go following a missed connection, a journey into London, a closed tube line and a hastily-located bus, optimism was thin on the ground. Hours earlier, similar creeping doubts pervaded those around us in the Upper Main Stand as Liverpool sat on a slender 1-0 lead, having already missed a penalty. But, much like the last train to Oxford, the team came good: questions had been asked, but in the end the answer was emphatic.

A late change in the line-up saw Dejan Lovren replaced by Ragnar Klavan. This gave cause for some concern in the opening fifteen minutes – the Estonian was repeatedly targeted, and lost multiple duels to Depoitre. It was only the lack of ambition from Huddersfield that prevented this from developing into a more serious problem; there were rarely any runners looking to meet these flick-ons, and Liverpool were allowed to clear up without too much difficulty. The assuredness with which these situations were dealt with is also attributable in part to the interesting role played by Joe Gomez. He was ostensibly at right-back, but regularly drifted inside to essentially function as a third centre-back: Matip could consequently play closer to Klavan, and sweep up some of his missed clearances. This system worked well, and Gomez excelled in it; his confidence and poise was one of the few positives in a generally lacklustre first half, and in truth a convincing case could be made for naming him Man of the Match. Going forward, it was only Salah that looked even vaguely likely to make something happen; in a harsh irony, it was he who missed the penalty late in the half that would have made Liverpool much more comfortable going into the break. Daniel Sturridge failed to make any kind of mark on the half – he spent most of the time as neither one thing nor the other, failing to make darting runs in behind but not coming short to receive passes much either.

Thankfully, there was a big reaction after the break. All too often this season this kind of response has been lacking, but Liverpool got straight to the task at hand in the second period and grabbed a crucial early goal. Sure enough, it was the up-to-now anonymous Sturridge; he showed exactly why he still has a role to play, slotting home with unerring coolness after the ball broke to him fortuitously. Huddersfield’s stubborn resolve was broken, and Klopp’s men did well to keep applying the pressure. There had been no goal threat to speak of at all from the away side, but everyone was aware that one moment of madness in that back line could mean more points dropped – it was imperative to stay on the front foot. Henderson must take some credit for ensuring this happened: he pressed relentlessly to ensure Huddersfield never had the time to work anything. It was also the captain that produced a glorious ball into Firmino, who really should have picked out Sturridge in the middle with his pull-back. Far from dwelling on his error, though, he immediately netted the vital second goal from the resultant corner. He connected sweetly with the ball, using his head to guide it beyond Lossl. Joel Matip could do with taking tips off him: the centre-back was guilty of missing two guilt-edged headed opportunities.

At 2-0, arguably the most pleasing passage of the game ensued. The tempo was taken down a notch, and Liverpool asserted near-complete control: this has been rare indeed in recent times. That is not to say that attacking intent was extinguished completely, but the midfield began waiting for gaps as opposed to trying to force them. Unbelievably, Jordan Henderson has been taking criticism for this – he played a few balls sideways and backwards when a forward pass would have been a needless risk, and this apparently opens him up for abuse. There are often legitimate criticisms to be made of the captain, but he was an important part of the win on this occasion. It was one of his midfield partners, however, that added the clinching third goal: Wijnaldum’s first of this campaign bore a striking resemblance to his last of the previous season, as he curled it in powerfully at the near post despite seemingly lacking the angle to do so. It was nowhere near as crucial as his goal against Middlesbrough, but it could be important on a personal note – he has had a shaky start, and a goal could do him the world of good.

Solanke and Oxlade-Chamberlain were brought on in the latter stages of the game, and both impressed. They linked up nicely, and not just in the obvious ‘run down the byline, cross for the target man’ way; there was some of that, but there was also a nice interchange on the edge of the box that should really have resulted in Solanke adding a fourth. The other substitute, Can, was also very solid – it was great to have such accomplished options off the bench. He kept up the intensity with some good pressing, and added a further controlling presence in the middle of the park. This contributed to a very pleasing clean sheet, and a satisfying afternoon all round.

Liverpool now have a great opportunity to notch up back-to-back wins in response to the shambles at Spurs; Maribor in midweek offers an excellent chance to get some momentum going with another victory. Another performance such as this one will surely see Klopp’s men take a big stride towards qualification from the Champions League group stage – let’s hope the players got home quicker than I did and were able to get some rest!

- Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013