Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Kane and Lukaku: Can You Afford Not to Go Big?

At 12.5 and 11.5 million respectively, Kane and Lukaku represent two of the most premium forward options in this year’s FPL. The price tags are undoubtedly warranted, in that both have consistently scored freely over the past few seasons and both a
re now spearheading the attacks of teams in the top six. However, the prices clearly represent a huge investment – just getting one of them consumes over a tenth of the budget, and to have both requires almost a quarter of the allotted hundred million to go on just two players. Given that there are more viable mid-range forwards this season than in the past couple of years, is it actually essential to get at least one of these elite strikers into your team?

The answer actually lies in the midfield. This is where the savings from passing on Kane and Lukaku can be invested: my side currently features neither of the two strikers, and this has enabled me to field Alli, Salah and Mane together. All three of these players found the back of the net in Gameweek 1, meaning I was able to start off the campaign with a respectable 74-point return. The question thus becomes a relatively simple one: can three premium midfielders outscore both Kane and Lukaku? In the alternative, can two premium midfielders outscore one of Kane or Lukaku? This second query is not quite as black and white as it appears, in that by somewhat decimating the rest of the squad it is possible to shoehorn in one of Kane and Lukaku as well as two premium midfielders, making the battle for value a straight shootout between a premium midfielder and Kane or Lukaku. However, putting to one side this radical approach to balancing the budget, these are the questions that need to be addressed. At this stage in the season, they obviously cannot be answered definitively – those who do answer it correctly will have the key to success this year.
For the time being, my answer is that the premium midfielders are the way forward. Kane is not the only man at Spurs with a proven record of FPL returns – Alli has established himself as the consummate goal-scoring midfielder, and Eriksen has been returning good assist numbers for some time now. Both continued this trend in GW1, with the Dane notching two assists and Alli scoring the opener. Lukaku’s new club, too, showed signs of offering great midfield value: Mkhitaryan is cheap in the premium bracket at 8.0, and he returned two assists against West Ham. The clincher, however, is Liverpool. Salah and Mane are both playing in a front three where goals and assists are shared pretty much evenly – and there are plenty to go around. Just as Spurs picked up where they left off, Liverpool showcased all of their classic strengths and weaknesses on the opening weekend. The defence was shambolic as ever, but the attack looked even more lethal than last season; this is quite some feat given that the team is still waiting on the reintroduction of a creative midfielder into the middle of the park, be that Coutinho (transfer speculation) or Lallana (actual injury). The fluid, rapid front three are clearly capable of creating a lot of goals for themselves, but when normal service is resumed from the middle of the park the attacking returns will simply go through the roof. Coupled with Mkhitaryan or one of the Spurs midfielders, the dynamic duo of Salah and Mane in the FPL team is worth the sacrifice of abandoning Kane and Lukaku.

This is particularly true given the wealth of budget alternatives to Kane and Lukaku. Last year saw a real dearth of viable forward options, but this time around there seems to be a lot more choice. Just a small step down from the two mercurial strikers brings top players such as Lacazette and Jesus into the mix: the new Arsenal man scored after just two minutes and looked dangerous throughout, and Jesus blanked but was unlucky not to have about four. Further down the price list, great value may well be offered by the likes of Firmino, Benteke, Hernandez, Rashford or, based on Gameweek 1, maybe Mounie! None of these are likely to match Kane or Lukaku, but they should all be capable of providing steady returns which, coupled with the points of the premium midfielders, will be enough to make up for the absence of the Spurs and United forwards. Firmino got off to a very strong start, and is even more appealing now he seems to be on penalty duty. Benteke had a couple of good chances, and will surely start taking those kinds of opportunities before long. Rashford recorded an assist, and looked dangerous throughout with his direct running. Mounie, of course, shone on his debut with a brace to secure an unlikely 3-0 win for Huddersfield. Hernandez was disappointingly anonymous, but the strength of the opposition means that he can be cut some slack – West Ham will have to offer a lot more going forward in future matches if he is to remain a viable option, however.  Nonetheless, the point clearly stands that Kane and Lukaku do not stand alone as forwards who will all but guarantee decent returns: neither have reached 13/14 Suarez levels of must-have, and as such their cheaper understudies may be the way to go.

It is worth noting that even if heavy investment in the midfield does indeed turn out to be the better option, opting against Kane and Lukaku will make for a very long season. Gameweek 1 gave me a stark taste of what I’m letting myself in for: Spurs and Manchester United both played on the Sunday, so following a strong showing on Saturday I was left to watch on powerlessly as the two big hitters went out to determine if I would finish the week in the top 100k or outside the top million. In the end, one delivered and one did not –  Kane’s blank ensured I remained comfortably above the average, but Lukaku’s brace meant my ranking took a beating in the last game of the weekend. Cheering on blanks for two of the most prolific forwards in the league is not a fun existence – I may cave before long for the sake of my mental wellbeing! For now, though, it is exciting to see whether my sizeable risk will pay off: early signs are promising enough for me to conclude by cautiously suggesting that it is possible to get by without Kane or Lukaku.
-          James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Monday, 14 August 2017

Watford 3-3 Liverpool: Now or Never For FSG

Last season ended on a relatively optimistic note. Liverpool finished fourth, securing a place in the Champions League playoff round. The squad looked happy together. Names of multiple top-level targets were emerging. Fast forward to the first day of the new campaign, and the picture is much less pretty. Mohamed Salah is roundly acknowledged as a good addition, and the left-back deficiency of last season has been partially addressed through the signing of Andrew Robertson, but the same old flaws were undeniably present as Liverpool limped to a 3-3 draw with Watford. Two set piece goals only reiterated the desperate need for an aerially dominant central defender, and yet no progress has been made on bringing Virgil Van Dijk to Anfield. FSG told Klopp that the funds would be made available for his key targets, and yet blunders in the approach have seen Southampton stubbornly double down on their stance not to sell to us. Similarly, RB Leipzig have remained unmoved in the face of the club’s attempts to get priority target Naby Keita. This issue is only exacerbated by Coutinho’s desire to leave – despite their statement to the contrary, some emerging reports suggest that FSG are preparing to sell the Brazilian talisman. Klopp’s post-game comments could be seen to echo this sentiment. Coupled with Lallana’s absence through injury, the loss of Coutinho equates to a horrendous dearth of creativity in the middle of the park – this was clear for all to see at Vicarage Road. I have been a staunch backer of the owners for some time, but anything short of keeping Coutinho and bringing in at least one of Klopp’s two preferred players would be a clear indication that they do not have the requisite ambition to take this club forward.

A common argument in favour of FSG is that it is not lack of funds that is leading to transfer failures. This is probably true to an extent; it would be na├»ve to assume that the situation is black and white. However, in the vast majority of cases, there will come a point where an offer is simply too big to be turned down. Particularly in the case of Keita, it appears as though FSG have been unprepared to find that point – they made funds available up to what they considered reasonable, but not beyond that. Had Klopp identified a variety of targets, this would be fair enough. As it is, only a few quality targets have been lined up: given this, FSG can reasonably be expected to spend as much as it takes to get the manager the personnel he seeks. Furthermore, it would be wrong to assume that FSG are only responsible for finances – they cannot escape all criticism that does not relate to the availability of funds. As such, even though the Van Dijk move has been jeopardised more by tapping-up blunders than by costings, FSG cannot come out of it with no blame attached. By and large, they decide the club staffing structure – they have consistently decided against a dedicated Director of Football, and the lack of specialisation with regard to player acquisition has repeatedly led to big names slipping through the club’s fingers. In this instance, it has led to the shambolic apology purporting to end all interest in Van Dijk in order to avoid investigation by the Premier League. Fans cannot be expected to watch two set-piece goals fly in against them on the opening day of a new campaign and still unquestioningly cheer the team on: they have a right to demand that the obvious deficiencies are rectified, and at the moment it looks as though FSG’s ownership is jeopardising that rectification process.   

The situation with Coutinho raises just as many questions about what is going on behind the scenes. Again, it would be wrong to place all of the blame at FSG’s door – Coutinho himself has clearly made things difficult with the timing of his transfer request, and Barcelona are probably also guilty of a bit of tapping-up. Nonetheless, there is clearly something odd going on: FSG’s definitive statement that Coutinho is not for sale actually preceded his formal transfer request. The natural inference is that there was a horrible breakdown in communication between owners, club and player: it seems likely that the hard stance was not adequately relayed to Coutinho himself, who duly took matters into his own hands following the release of the statement. Now there is the question of whether the request changes that stance; it would be a significant climbdown from FSG if the Brazilian was sold, but some reports are suggesting that this is exactly what they intend to do. Klopp’s cryptic comments about certain things being beyond his control reinforced this idea. There is no point attacking FSG for something they may not be guilty of, but if Coutinho does end up leaving then their position as owners becomes untenable. He is the best player at the club, and the lethal front line that has been assembled is crying out for creative service from deep: Coutinho is the man to provide that service, and if he leaves now it will undo all the good work that has gone into the front three.

It would be grossly unfair not to acknowledge this good work – Salah, Firmino and Mane are a trio all signed under FSG’s tenure, and they are up there with the best in the league. As the latest addition, Salah is the biggest pro-FSG argument out there at the moment: they parted with a fair amount of money to bring him in, and he fits the profile of what the club needed. For this, they deserve credit. That said, it is worth noting that Salah represented something of a bargain in the current inflated market – his goal and assist returns in one of Europe’s top leagues could easily have warranted a price tag far beyond the £35 million paid. This is obviously a good thing, and the club should of course look to be prudent, but the reality is that sometimes an astronomical sum has to be spent to bring in what is needed. It would be a cruel irony if FSG’s failures to strengthen the defence and midfield rendered the excellent attacking recruitment pointless. They have three weeks to ensure that this does not happen.

It is clear what needs to be done. Good as they are, the front three can only carve out so many chances for themselves – they need a creative midfielder behind them, and it is therefore of paramount importance that FSG do not sanction the sale of Coutinho. Equally, the defensive record of the last few seasons, particularly on set pieces, is not acceptable: Virgil Van Dijk must be signed, or we will keep on shipping stupid amounts of goals to teams such as Watford. Finally, as Klopp’s number one target, Naby Keita must be pursued with even greater determination –  if it is what the manager wants, FSG effectively need to go to Leipzig with a blank cheque. Achieving two of these three things would be enough to stave off my growing concerns about the owners; anything less, and I can no longer view their time in charge as acceptable.
- James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

FPL 2017/18 Preview: Liverpool

Here we are again. A new season approaches, new signings flood in to tempt the browsing FPL manager, and, after far too long, I return to writing about fantasy football. This time around, I have been tasked with assessing the options available from Liverpool – this means attempting to place my considerable bias to one side, but my avid support does at least give me a good knowledge of the squad. Over the next few paragraphs, I will take you on a tour of the most and least attractive fantasy options in Klopp’s side.

Let’s start from the back. Immediately, alarm bells are ringing: much has
been written on Liverpool’s shaky defence, and I will not espouse further on the topic here save to say that there are much safer options. A keeper from the Reds is a complete non-starter – Liverpool’s unfortunate combination of few clean sheets and few shots faced means returns could well be minimal, both in terms of clean sheets and save points. Even if clean sheets are easier to come by this season for the Merseyside outfit, it is not even entirely settled who will play between the sticks: Mignolet is a relatively safe bet to start the campaign, but Klopp thinks highly of both the young back-up keepers. Indeed, he has spoken of a three-way battle for the spot – Ward and Karius will both look to get Premier League minutes ahead of the Belgian stopper. The defensive options are, largely, similarly uninspiring: if Van Dijk or a similar top-level centre-back joins then one of the back line may be worth a punt, but currently there is no reason to expect them to be any less leaky than they were in the last campaign. The only real exception to this is new signing Andy Robertson – he is undoubtedly a gamble, given that Milner will be determined to limit the minutes of the Scotsman, but at 5.0 it could be a risk worth taking. I would imagine that Robertson will soon make the left-back spot his own, and with Klopp craving width in attack he will certainly have assist potential. This is especially true when it is factored in that Mane will likely be switching to the left and playing in front of Robertson: the two of them could end up running the left flank.

The midfield is where things really start to get interesting. There are three Liverpool midfielders who all fall into a premium bracket: Coutinho, Salah and Mane have the likes of Eriksen and Alli for company in this range. In Mane’s case this tag is fully warranted, and could even prove to be something of a bargain. His direct style means he plays an integral role in a lot of Liverpool’s bursts forward, and his tendency to cut in means he bags plenty of goals as well as assists. This will only be helped by a move to the left, which will mean he is cutting in on to his stronger right foot. This shift is to accommodate Salah, who can be purchased for 0.5 less at nine million. He, too, is well worth considering. He has already notched twice in pre-season, and his link-up with the rest of the front line looks highly dangerous – do not be surprised to see him replicate his goal and assist numbers from Serie A. Of course, he represents more of a gamble than Mane given that this is his first season with the club; he does come with the advantage of being fully fit, however, whereas Mane has missed a significant chunk of pre-season. The final member of the trio is probably the worst value. Coutinho could well still be worth a punt, but the addition of Salah to the attack means that the Brazilian will almost certainly drop deeper. He did this towards the end of last season – I believe it is his best position, and think he will shine in this campaign, but this does not necessarily translate to FPL points. The danger of picking such a deep playmaker is that you will go unrewarded for lots of ‘hockey assists’ (the pass before the assist, which can often be the one that genuinely makes the goal). Coutinho will also likely end up in fewer scoring positions, although his long shot ability makes anywhere vaguely near the box a dangerous place. He will score points, but probably not with the consistency needed to justify the 9.0. When just 0.5 more gets Eriksen or Alli, I’d lean towards splashing the cash on one of the Spurs men.

Any other Liverpool midfielders come with too much of a rotation risk to be immediately viable. Lallana’s 7.5 price tag might be appealing to those a little short on funds, but his game time is far from guaranteed – Coutinho going deeper leaves only two more central midfield slots in the 4-3-3, and Lallana is competing with Can, Wijnaldum and Henderson. This is even before mentioning Grujic, who is enjoying another strong pre-season and making his case for selection. After a few weeks, if a clear first-choice eleven has emerged, then Lallana, Wijnaldum or even Henderson could potentially represent decent value – for the time-being, however, they are not worth thinking about.

The forward position is a complicated one. Firmino, who proved a good option from midfield in the last campaign, is now listed as a forward – his price tag remains similar, however, making him cheap for a striker at a top four team. 8.5 puts him three million cheaper than Aguero at City, two million cheaper than the Gunners’ new front man Lacazette, 1.5 less than Morata and a huge 4 million less than Harry Kane. This makes him hard to completely overlook: goals are shared out more in Liverpool’s attack so his returns will probably not be in quite the same league as these counterparts, but in terms of value for money he could be a strong option. Unfortunately, game time concerns complicate the matter. He will probably be Liverpool’s first-choice centre-forward, but with Sturridge still on the books it is hard to say this for certain. Klopp has said that he has never seen the England forward in better condition, and it is universally acknowledged that Sturridge is world class when fit. As such, if Sturridge can keep himself match-ready, it is hardly beyond the realms of possibility that he reclaims the starting striker spot. Add to this the pressure from Divock Origi, newly-fit Danny Ings and new signing Dominic Solanke (who is mainly one for the future but has caught the eye in pre-season), and Firmino starts to look like a bit too much of a risk. On the other hand, he is very likely to at least start the season: Liverpool’s opening run of fixtures isn’t bad, so it could be worth getting him in.

To sum up, the bulk of Liverpool’s viable options come from midfield. Salah and Mane are the stand-out options; Coutinho will probably do well too, but his deeper role makes him the worst choice of the three. The defence offers Robertson as a speculative pick, but this is a definite risk and probably something to think about in a few weeks rather than from the start. Up front, Firmino could prove to be good value-for-money: don’t expect truly elite returns, however, and don’t even necessarily expect his spot in the team to be safe.
-James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Pre-Season: So Far, So Good

Liverpool maintained their unbeaten pre-season with a 2-0 victory over fellow Premier League side Crystal Palace. Results are of course secondary in these kind of games, but the performances have also been encouraging; precious little can be gleaned from pre-season, but those signs that can be seen are pointing in the right direction.

The first game, against local outfit Tranmere Rovers, ended in a comprehensive 4-0 victory. This match was most notable for the promising performances of the youngsters: Alexander-Arnold shone in the first half surrounded by older players, and the younger second-half eleven arguably put in a better performance than their senior counterparts. This culminated in goals for Chirivella and Woodburn. A draw against Wigan followed; while this was far from an ideal result, there were things to be happy about. Chief amongst these was a debut goal for Mohamed Salah. He linked well with the rest of the front three, and was rewarded for this with a tap-in goal after receiving a square ball. Salah has continued in the same vein over in Hong Kong – he terrorised the Crystal Palace defence with his pace, and is looking for all the world like he will be a real handful in the Premier League.  The prospect of getting him and Mane in the same side is tantalising indeed, particularly with Coutinho providing the service from the deeper role he now seems to be making his own.

Dominic Solanke, another new man, has made an equally quick start. His performances have perhaps been a little more surprising – his talent is undeniable, and he showcased this at the recent u20 World Cup, but not many expected him to look at home so quickly with a lot of the first team. Word out of the club following the signing very much suggested that Solanke was meant as one for the future, but he is making his case for the present. He made a goal for Chirivella against Tranmere, and got one for himself against Palace – the latter was a lovely strike, rifled into the corner from outside the box. Again, it would be foolish to read too much into pre-season, but he has certainly made Klopp sit up and take notice; at the very least, Solanke will hope to be involved in cup fixtures during the coming campaign.

For the time being, Salah and Solanke are the only new additions we have been able to see in action. A deal for Andy Robertson has reportedly been finalised in recent hours, but it looks as though fans will be made to wait until the squad head to Germany before he will be seen in a Liverpool shirt. However, that is not to say there has been nothing to keep supporters interested. The role of Ben Woodburn has been particularly intriguing – Klopp has repeatedly employed him in a deeper position. The German shed some light on the matter following the win over Palace; he stated that he wanted to allow the young Welsh talent to become as well-rounded as possible, and that playing him centrally would help to improve on traits such as composure. Whether the move is intended as permanent remains to be seen; either way, he has been impressive in a less natural role. As well as Woodburn, and the aforementioned Alexander-Arnold, Grujic has been able to impress. He steered in a lovely long-range strike against Tranmere, and although he has not added to his tally since then he has nonetheless made his presence felt in the centre of the park. Sometimes this has crossed a line – to the frustration of new Palace manager Frank De Boer – but the Serb seems to have all of the necessary raw attributes. In some respects, he is reminiscent of a young Gerrard: this is not a particularly useful tag in the sense that it saddles him with hugely unfair expectations, but the comparison is irresistible. He bursts forward from the centre of the park, has a good long shot on him, showcases a strong range of passing and has a rash streak – hopefully he is able to remain injury-free this campaign and get a little more involved in the first team.

The ’final’ of the Premier League Asia Cup is our next fixture – this is against Leicester. It will be good to test the squad against another Premier League side; the win against Palace was encouraging, particularly as we have struggled against them a lot in the recent past, and a win against the champions of two seasons ago would be equally pleasing. It should also be good for fitness – back-to-back games against opposition of a comparable level will certainly help to ease the players back to their peak. A trip to Germany follows this, and before we know it the season proper is upon us. Hopefully the preparations for this moment continue in much the same fashion: the squad are looking good, injuries have been avoided and results are generally coming too.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

What Makes a Good Pre-Season?

As a fan, pre-season is fairly underwhelming. It is eagerly lapped up, given that it is the first chance to see Liverpool in action for the best part of two months, but the matches are rarely scintillating. They are played at a slower pace, everyone looks that little bit less sharp, and even the good games are marred by the nagging knowledge that absolutely nothing rides on the result. Nonetheless, this does not deter us from getting up at ungodly hours to watch the beloved team edge past an obscure Australian outfit, or else face off against a domestic rival in a baseball ground in Massachusetts. Why do we do this? Undoubtedly it is partly because the bulk of the Liverpool fan-base are masochists, but there’s something else too! Pre-season can sometimes reveal quite a lot about a team, and can indeed be very useful for a variety of reasons.

1. Building up match fitness
This is probably the most obvious benefit of pre-season. It does not make for exciting viewing, and in fact contributes to the relative lack of quality on show, but it is of crucial importance to the side. Admittedly, the modern player is training hard even over their holiday – one need only look at the respective social media accounts of Dejan Lovren and Adam Lallana for evidence of this. However, the videos Firmino uploads tell a different story: at least some of the players will definitely need to put in some work to get back in condition! In any case, proper match fitness cannot be maintained purely through training; the players need game time to get back up to speed, and whilst this is not exciting it is important. This is particularly true for Danny Ings, who fans will be delighted to see back in a Liverpool shirt after a torrid two years of injury.

2. Embedding new signings
By contrast to the match fitness point, this advantage of pre-season is very exciting for the fans. A first glimpse at a new signing is always eagerly anticipated, even if it is against Tranmere. This comes with a word of warning, of course – the combination of everyone being off the pace and the opposition generally being vastly inferior can flatter to deceive. I was certainly sucked into the Aspas hype following a storming pre-season; as it happens I still think he is an excellent forward, but there is no hiding from the fact that he didn’t cut it at Liverpool. Nonetheless, watching new signings in pre-season can give the fans an idea of their style of play and what they might add to the squad. More importantly, it gives the new signings a chance to settle in; it allows them to function alongside their new team-mates, potentially in a new system, without the immediate pressure of a competitive match. This gives the squad a better chance of hitting the ground running when the actual season gets up and running. This is all contingent, of course, upon transfer business being conducted earlier rather than later in the window.

3. Giving young players a chance
This is another crucial aspect of pre-season, but can sometimes conflict with the embedding of new signings. Acclimatising new players will have limited effect if they are surrounded by youngsters who they are unlikely to be playing alongside come the season proper. As such, I prefer two broadly separate teams – a first team to play for forty-five minutes, and a team of youth prospects for the second forty-five. This comes with the proviso that the ‘first team’ should include one or two of the most promising youth prospects, so as to get them ready for a potential step up in the near-future: this year, I would like to see Alexander-Arnold and Gomez featuring alongside the seniors. This strikes the right kind of balance: the new additions to the squad get game time alongside those who will actually be playing with them in competitive matches, a couple of the most promising youngsters get a similar taste of ‘first team’ action, and the rest of the youngsters get given regular forty-five minute spells to showcase themselves to the manager and fans. For the fans in particular, it is nice to get a chance to see these youngsters play – many don’t watch the youth teams regularly, and pre-season is a chance for them to form opinions on the youth prospects.

4. Trialling tactics
The lack of anything being at stake may contribute to the absence of much excitement in pre-season, but it has its benefits. It allows Klopp to experiment with various tactical approaches, without anything other than pride riding on it. Of course, the German showed at the back end of last season that he doesn’t mind switching formation at an important time – that gamble paid off nicely – but it is preferable to be able to experiment in a more low-pressure environment. This year, that means trying out both the 4-3-3 and the 4-4-2 diamond. The latter was the one Klopp adopted for the 2016/17 run-in, but the former has traditionally been his favourite: the signing of Salah indicates that he will stick to the 4-3-3, but I for one would like to see him at least experimenting with Mane and Salah as strikers in a diamond. Firmino could play in behind, with Coutinho and Wijnaldum playing ahead of Can – it seems unlikely that this will be the go-to formation, but it is worth trying out.

Pre-season is undoubtedly a mere shadow of competitive football, but it does the job nicely as a substitute. It gives fans the chance to have a closer look at new signings and youngsters alike, allows for tactical experimentation and ensures that everyone, players and fans alike, is raring to go for the start of the season. Bring it on!
-James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Five Players Liverpool Should Look to Sign

Reports started emerging as early as April that FSG were ready to splash the cash in this window. With fourth place secured and Champions League football on the horizon, this must surely be truer than ever – it looks as though Klopp will be backed to the hilt, and it is vital that he spends the money wisely. The squad is not in bad shape, but they were probably operating at close to full potential to finish where they did last time out: three to five astute signings could transform Liverpool into title challengers.

1. Benjamin Mendy
It is inevitable that a lot of these sort of articles are floating around at the moment – it is the off-season, after all, meaning all we have to go on is transfer rumours! However, not one of them seems to list a left-back as the number one target. For me, replacing Milner should be the top priority. Although he has been relatively solid defensively, any genuinely gifted winger has caused him serious problems. Even more problematically, he has been ineffectual as an outlet going forward: his lack of attacking instinct combined with the fact he is right-footed meant that many a promising attack was brought to a grinding halt when the ball reached Milner on the left. It doesn’t take a genius to assess the first eleven and mark out the central midfielder filling in at left-back as the one that most needs replacing. Benjamin Mendy fits the bill. He would undoubtedly be costly, but Monaco have already shown that they are not totally unwilling to sell their assets: Bernardo Silva recently moved to Manchester City. If he could be lured to Anfield, he would be worth the money; his defensive contributions would undoubtedly be an upgrade on Milner, but the biggest impact may well be in the attacking third. He returned a solid five league assists last campaign, as well as four in the Champions League – if anything, these numbers sell short what he brings to the attack. He is fast, direct, strong and has one of the best deliveries in Europe. I can’t see it happening, but if I were in charge of Liverpool’s transfers then this is where I’d be throwing the money.

2. Virgil Van Dijk
This one might be dead in the water, but I’m holding out some hope on it. As discussed in a previous article (http://jamesmartinblogs.blogspot.co.uk/2017/06/van-dijk-dutch-ado-about-nothing.html), there are viable alternatives if the deal has indeed fallen through – nonetheless, he was identified as the prime target for a reason. His aerial prowess is extraordinary, he is strong in the tackle, and he is very comfortable with the ball at his feet. In short, he possesses all of the key attributes to perform well in Liverpool’s back line; parallels have inevitably been drawn with the Lovren deal, but this would be different. There is a reason so many of the top clubs are after Van Dijk: at Celtic and then at Southampton, he has consistently shown his class. To be honest, the list could end here and I would consider it a pretty successful transfer window – the attack is already one of the most potent in the league, and with Van Dijk and Mendy shoring up the defence the team would look very strong indeed.

3. Mohamed Salah
As good as the current attack is, it could still use some reinforcement. It would be fair to say that Mane was the most consistent threat in Liverpool’s front line during the last campaign: when he was absent through injury or the African Cup of Nations, the team looked significantly worse-off. What made Mane so dangerous? His pace and directness, combined with his unpredictability. There is nothing worse for a full-back than a skilful player sprinting out you, who could at any given moment dart infield or accelerate past you down the line. Liverpool could do with such a player on both sides of the pitch. In some ways, Salah is not the obvious choice: he too occupies the right flank, and he too is at risk of being absent for the AFCON once every two years. However, his attributes as a winger fit the bill perfectly. He loves to cut inside, which is almost a prerequisite for Liverpool’s fluid front three, and he certainly has the necessary raw pace. In any case, Mane played off the left at Salzburg: he could take Coutinho’s place, with the playmaker dropping back into the midfield three where he briefly showcased his talents at the end of last season. The Brazilian feeding through-balls for one of Mane or Salah to run on to is a tantalising thought, and one which will surely make opposition defences terrified. Salah actually functioned as a striker for some of his time at Roma, contributing in part to his hugely impressive goal and assist returns: if he is provided with the chances, there is little doubt that he will take them.

4. Alexandre Lacazette
The hypothetical money is certainly starting to run out by the time we reach this far down on the list, but as it’s hypothetical I’m going to go right ahead and keep on spending it. In fairness, Lacazette might represent fairly good value – he said his farewells at the end of the season and the club seems resigned to selling him, and in recent times Ligue 1 does seem to have offered some of the best value from the top five leagues. He would of course still be costly; he has some of the best attacking returns of any striker over the past few seasons, and is an established forward. France’s staggering crop of talent coming through at the moment means that Lacazette is currently very much on the fringes of the national setup, however: with the upcoming World Cup he needs to impress on a bigger stage in order to force his way into the squad. Liverpool could offer him that stage – there are already good options up front, hence why Lacazette finds himself fourth on the wish-list, but the Frenchman would represent an improvement on all of them. Of our existing squad, only Sturridge can match him for natural finishing talent and striker’s instinct: his pace is sadly not what it once was, however, and Lacazette offers speed in abundance. It would be a wrench to demote Firmino and Sturridge to the bench, but depth is what is needed to compete effectively in both the league and the Champions League.

5. Naby Keita
I know, I know, I’m getting greedy at this point! Naby Keita was one of the best central midfielders in Europe last season, truly establishing himself amongst the elite with his performances for RB Leipzig. Why, then, is he down in fifth on the list? Essentially, it’s just a matter of where the squad needs to strengthen. Liverpool already have an array of central midfielders; the team would benefit from an upgrade, but it can’t be considered the top priority. Can, Wijnaldum, Henderson and Coutinho (if the long-term plan is indeed to drop him deeper) are all good established players in that position, and that’s before mentioning upcoming talents such as Grujic and, further down the line, the likes of Pedro Chirivella. Of course, none of these players function in the exact same role as Keita – indeed, that ‘role’ is extremely hard to define as the Guinean is something of a unique talent. Nonetheless, it illustrates that the big cash might be better spent elsewhere for the time being. If money is going spare, however, then he would undoubtedly be a huge asset to the team!

It would be frankly miraculous if the club pulled off all of these transfers – it would represent by far and away the best window in the club’s history. Just two from the list would be very good business: for me the defenders have to be prioritised, but any one of the players mentioned would be a very welcome addition to the squad. The Salah deal looks like it might be done soon – this is a promising sign that the club is very much moving in the right direction.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Van Dijk: Dutch Ado About Nothing?

In their quest to find ever more creative ways to lose out on transfer targets, Liverpool recently released a statement apologising to Southampton and withdrawing all interest in Virgil Van Dijk. This is widely reported as a result of threats by Southampton to prompt a Premier League probe into the club’s approach for the player: he was allegedly ‘tapped up’. This is the commonplace but banned practice of approaching a player before receiving permission from their club – personal terms were reportedly fully agreed with the Dutch centre-back, but the Saints had not even given Liverpool permission to open talks. This is undoubtedly farcical and hugely embarrassing; fans have been left outraged, and to an extent rightly so. However, the anger can be roughly grouped into two categories: that directed at the individual failure of this deal, and that directed at the systematic failures within the club’s transfer policy of which this incident is endemic. The latter category is the more justified, although needs to be qualified. In the former category, the response has been excessive – losing out on this particular deal is not significantly damaging to anything except the club’s pride.

Let’s start with the incident as a self-contained problem. In this respect, frustration and a little wry amusement are the extent of the emotions that seem justified on the facts. Virgil Van Dijk is undoubtedly an excellent central defender, and having been identified as a top target most fans were very eager to see him come to Anfield. However, the prices being thrown around were steep – a bit of overpayment would probably have been reasonable in order to secure such a high priority target, but this will be discussed later. There are other centre-backs available - who one has to imagine the club have been keeping tabs on - who would likely represent better value for money. Koulibaly is a name regularly mentioned. He comes free of the ‘Premier League proven’ tag that seems to add millions on to any deal, and is just one of many viable alternatives. If the Van Dijk deal would really have set the club back sixty million pounds, which seems quite substantially in excess of his objective value, being forced by our own incompetence to look elsewhere is hardly the end of the world. The impact it will have on the club’s next campaign should be negligible: provided the vast sum we didn’t spend here is invested in another identified centre-back, which seems inevitable, there shouldn’t be too much of a problem. Indeed, some recent reports have suggested that the money could still be used on Van Dijk – this would only add to the farce, but the fact that the deal could still be on the cards demonstrates that the only genuine cost to the club is fairly substantial embarrassment.

However, as an indicator of wider systemic problems within the club, there are legitimate concerns about this failed deal. As mentioned earlier, Liverpool exhibit great reluctance to pay above their perceived value of a player: this is admirable in principle, but in practice sometimes makes it hard for the squad to be strengthened as it needs to be. The policy is not completely wrong, as many have been compelled to suggest in the wake of the Van Dijk saga, but it needs some flexibility. For young talent, it is very sensible; there is a large unknown factor in such purchases, namely development potential. If the club consistently paid over the odds for these younger players, the net loss would be staggering – for every Coutinho there are five Samed Yesils. Instead, the risks are kept limited and the potential rewards are substantial: one need only look at the fact that Coutinho was acquired for £7 million to see the truth in this. However, when looking to buy established players, there needs to be some wiggle room in the FSG policy. To their credit, they have placed a world class manager at the helm who has guided us back into the Champions League. Having done that, investment in the squad is needed – they are in principle prepared to provide it, but the strict rule about not paying over their valuation for a player is ironically at risk of making their money go to waste. If they won’t bite the bullet and pay the asking price for established players who are all but guaranteed to make an impact, less good players will be pursued in the search for ‘value’. This leaves the club at risk of regressing: it would be disastrous for the club to fail to build on their return to the European elite once again. Established stars inevitably come at a premium: this needs to be more effectively factored into Liverpool’s transfer model for the club to really kick on.

In this respect, the outrage over the failed Van Dijk deal is therefore understandable. It has brought to the fore the problems that we all suspected were there with Liverpool’s approach to transfers, and it has highlighted the need for adjustment. Hopefully FSG, and those in charge of transfer policy on a more day-to-day basis, heed this warning sign: if they do so, and do so rapidly, then it may well have been a good thing that Southampton embarrassed us over Van Dijk. In any case, the individual failure to capture him is far from the end of the world – I do still want him at the club, but there could well be cheaper alternatives that represent better value for money. In this sense, one can really sympathise with FSG: the quest for value for money is at least theoretically in the club’s best interests. However, it is by definition hard to find; sometimes the club needs to look past individual bad value and look to the value of bringing a big asset to the football club. The squad is two or three big signings away from being title challengers, or even major players in the Champions League: if we overpay a little bit now for a Van Dijk, a Salah or possibly even a Lacazette, significant rewards will be reaped.

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