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 (, 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.

- Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Peter Crouch: The Unlikely Member of the 100-Club

All logic dictates that Peter Crouch should not have had a particularly successful career. That is not to say he lacks talent – as the old and tired maxim goes, “he’s got good feet for a big man” – but he entered football at almost precisely the same time as the traditional target man began to go out of fashion at the top level. This has been borne out by the journeyman nature of his time in football: no team has ever wanted to commit to building around a striker in Crouch’s mould, and he has duly been shunted from club to club. However, he has been successful everywhere he has gone. It is telling that he has enjoyed multiple stints at a lot of his clubs, most notably Portsmouth and Tottenham; the grass is not often greener when Crouch is disposed of. Stoke City is the only club where he has made a century of appearances, and yet he is loved by fans of each team he has graced: his cult status was truly cemented when he entered the exclusive list of players to reach 100 Premier League goals.

Even from his academy days, Peter Crouch had to get used to being moved around. From ages 10-12 he was enrolled in Brentford’s setup, before moving on to QPR and then, at the age of 14, Tottenham. However, the regular moves then were not based on a dislike of his style: he was simply a sought-after talent. The switch to the Tottenham academy took place in 1995 – the role of target man still very much had a place in English football, and to find a player with Crouch’s combination of physical attributes and technical ability was considered hitting the jackpot. It was therefore unsurprising when, after three years in the academy system, Crouch was handed his first professional contract by Spurs. However, at this point Crouch got his first taste of the struggles he would have to fight to overcome throughout his career. By this time he had grown to a staggering 6”7, and to be frank it made him seem like little more than a novelty option: a potential ‘Plan B’, perhaps, but with no real place in a top side. Certainly this was the perception amongst the Tottenham hierarchy: he was unable to get anywhere near the first team between 1998 and 2000, and in 2000/01 was shipped out on loan to Dulwich Hamlet and IFK Hässleholm consecutively. Even at these lowly clubs he was, to an extent, shunned: he made a combined total of 14 appearances for the two sides. Conny Olsen, coach of Hässleholm at the time, recalls an incident from Crouch’s stint at the club – he had been put into the reserves after just one appearance, and the opponents, Häcken, were laughing at the bizarre spectacle of this giant of an Englishman plying his trade in a Swedish reserve fixture. They were not laughing for long. Crouch netted five goals against them, and was soon in and around the first team a little more. He ended his time there with a respectable three goals in eight appearances.

This was not enough for his parent club: following his return from loan he was immediately sold to his former youth team Queen’s Park Rangers, having not made a single appearance for Spurs. QPR were in the equivalent of the Championship at the time, and yet the man who couldn’t get regular minutes at Dulwich Hamlet was immediately catapulted into the first team. Finally, Crouch was at a club which was willing to put faith in him. He duly delivered, with the steady consistency that has seen him notch up 100 Premier League goals without ever being immensely prolific. He reached double figures in the league, scoring ten goals in his 42 appearances, and bagged two in three in the FA Cup. His performances caught the eye of fellow Division One side Portsmouth, whom he moved to for the 2001/02 season following QPR’s relegation and financial troubles. Here he enhanced his reputation still further, improving on his tally of the previous season to score eighteen goals in just thirty-seven matches. This would be quite a tally for anyone, let alone a 21-year-old at a side that went on to finish the season in 17th. With the world seemingly at his feet just two years after being forced to ply his trade in Sweden’s reserve leagues, Crouch made the step up to the Premier League with Aston Villa.

At this point, things stopped going quite so smoothly. Crouch, having not been afforded any first team opportunities at Tottenham as a teenager, was not used to the top flight – he initially struggled to make the transition. This was severely exacerbated by his lack of regular football: once again he faced a lack of faith to overcome. He was afforded a fair amount of minutes in the immediate aftermath of the four-million-pound deal, making seven appearances and scoring a respectable two goals in the latter half of 2001/02. This included a strike on his home debut. However, in his first full season, Crouch was limited to just fourteen appearances: the lack of consistent game time affected him badly, and he failed to score a single goal. He rightly took some criticism for the poor spell, and has since admitted that he was simply not ready for the Premier League at the time. Nonetheless, Graham Taylor’s Villa could undoubtedly have done more to help. In 2003/04 Crouch was sent to Norwich on loan; he performed well there and managed four goals in his three-month spell, but the writing was on the wall for him at Villa Park. After making just one more appearance for them he was sold to Southampton at a two-million-pound loss for the start of the 2004/05 campaign.

This was the time where Crouch, now twenty-three, truly began to make a name for himself in the Premier League. Prior to his season at the Saints he was relatively well-known because of his height – by the end of the campaign he would be known for his attacking abilities. At first, it didn’t look as though Crouch was going to get such a change in fortunes – up until about Christmas time he continued to struggle for minutes. In the meantime, Southampton dispensed of not one but two managers: so began one of the defining relationships of Crouch’s career, his link-up with Harry Redknapp. Under Redknapp’s tutelage, Crouch thrived. Despite his slow start he ended the Premier League season on double figures, racking up 12 goals. He was also crucial in the Saints’ FA Cup run, scoring four times in five games to help the team to the quarter-finals. This included a 94th minute winner from the spot in the 4th round against his old club Portsmouth. This latter-season form prompted yet another move: Crouch’s performances had not been enough to prevent Southampton finishing bottom of the table (although they ended just two points adrift of safety), so he gratefully accepted the offer from newly-crowned European champions Liverpool. This was without a doubt the biggest step in Crouch’s career, and there was some scepticism amongst the Liverpool fans regarding the signing. Yet again Crouch worked to displace the doubts, and his performances over the following three seasons won over the vast majority of fans: to this day he is remembered fondly by the Anfield faithful.

As is the story of Crouch’s career, it was far from an easy start. It took eighteen games before he finally scored – at this point he was understandably regarded as a flop. Particularly with Crouch, any bad patch of form leads to criticisms about his style: many questioned why Liverpool had decided to recruit this kind of old-school target man. Somehow, however, he clawed his way back from the brink – one year on from when he finally broke his duck, not a single fan would have dared question the technical aspect of Crouch’s game. On the 27th September 2006, he scored a goal that has gone down in Liverpool folklore: a stunning overhead kick against Galatasaray in a 3-2 victory. It was this Champions League campaign that Crouch is remembered most fondly for on Merseyside; he scored a further six goals in a run that saw Liverpool reach the final of the tournament. His league form was never quite what it had been at Southampton, with Crouch repeatedly just missing out on the double-figures target, but he certainly put in some memorable performances. Chief amongst these was a perfect hat-trick in a 4-1 win over Arsenal in 2007. When he parted ways with the club at the end of the 2007/08 campaign he did so with a solid 22 league goals to his name and, more importantly, with the respect of the fans.

Crouch left Anfield for his old haunt, Fratton Park, where he linked up with former boss Harry Redknapp. There was a rumoured eleven-million-pound price tag on his shoulders, but Crouch had learned from his Liverpool experience and showed no indications of pressure. He scored on his third league game, against his old club’s local rivals Everton, and continued to score at the steady rate of around 1 in 3 for the rest of the season. It was at this time when Portsmouth’s financial crisis was coming to a head, so circumstances once again forced Crouch to move on – he was one of many players sold for big money fees in the summer. This opened the door for a return to another former club, Tottenham: 11 years after he signed his first professional contract at White Hart Lane, he finally made his debut. Who else should give it to him but friend and mentor Harry Redknapp: their third partnership was perhaps not quite as successful as the previous two, but Crouch by no means did badly during his spell at Tottenham. Again, it was Europe where he thrived. Having scored the goal against City to confirm Champions League qualification at the end of 2009/10, he then spearheaded a remarkable campaign that saw the London club reach the quarter-finals. He scored a hat-trick to help overcome Young Boys in the qualification round, notched in both games against Werder Bremen, turned home a Bale cross against Inter Milan and then scored versus the other Milan club to take Tottenham into an unlikely quarter-final clash against Real Madrid. Sadly he got sent off in that fixture, which slightly soured the memory of his contribution to the campaign, but Crouch is nonetheless regarded as a cult hero amongst Spurs fans.

Crouch left the club at the start of 2011/12: at the age of 30 he was no longer able to stake a claim for regular football at Spurs, so he made the move to Stoke City. By this time his international career was over – starting around the time he joined Liverpool and ending shortly after the 2010 World Cup, the big striker’s time on the world stage is something of an enigma. His minutes-per-goal for England is, astoundingly, below 100, yet he never cemented himself as a first choice striker: the target-man snobbery was perhaps more pronounced in the international setup than it was anywhere else. That said, Crouch could look back with fondness over his time with England by the time he moved to Stoke. At the Brittania, he made people question exactly why Spurs and England had deemed him surplus to requirements: he reached double figures in a league campaign for the first time since his second spell at Portsmouth. The ten goals were scored over an impressive 32 matches – clearly, the issue was not Crouch’s fitness. Indeed, Crouch’s game time was even higher for the next three seasons: he managed 34 games in 2012/13 and 2013/14, and 33 as recently as 2014/15. Those three campaigns saw a useful combined return of twenty-three goals, taking his personal tally in the top flight to 96 goals. Following 2015/16, however, it looked as though a great career might end agonisingly short of the century landmark: the likes of Mame Biram Diouf, Jonathan Walters and Joselu severely limited the Englishman’s game time, and he failed to add a single goal to the tally.

Thankfully, however, in a career of peaks and troughs Crouch is managing to end on a high. Stoke’s poor start to the season prompted Mark Hughes to look to his big man, and Crouch has shown the world that he’s still got it. Following his reintroduction to the side the goal-counter ticked agonisingly nearer to 100, until finally he got what he was looking for in a 1-1 draw with Everton on the first of February. Fittingly, Crouch dusted down the old ‘robot’ celebration to mark the occasion. Fans of every club he has played for throughout the years no doubt stood up to applaud the achievement: it is no more than he deserves. 48 of the goals came with his head, with the remaining 52 ranging from tap-ins to stunning bicycle kicks. Not bad feet for a big man.

-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013 

Sunday, 14 May 2017

West Ham 0-4 Liverpool: Diamonds Are Forever

Liverpool took a huge step towards qualification for next season’s Champions League with an emphatic 4-0 win away at West Ham. Klopp knew that getting the victory was paramount, and opted to change the system. The 4-4-2 diamond - familiar to fans from the memorable 13/14 campaign – was employed, signalling a change from the 4-3-3 the German has employed for the majority of his tenure. The performance was also reminiscent of the club’s best Premier League season of the last few years: Daniel Sturridge inevitably prompted nostalgia when he scored and danced once more, and Coutinho was again able to pull the strings from his deeper role. Klopp would surely be foolish to revert to a 4-3-3 for the final game against Middlesbrough – a win against the already-relegated side will confirm our return to the European elite.

It is no secret that Liverpool have been struggling to break down the ‘lesser’ sides of late. The 0-0 draw with Southampton was the latest in a string of underwhelming results against teams we should be beating – in the latter part of the season, it has been scoring rather than conceding that has been the primary issue. Clearly, the problem is not one of personnel: Mane is obviously a big miss, but Liverpool nonetheless have the attacking firepower to break any team down. It was the system that had to change: credit must go to Klopp for doing this, particularly at such a high-pressure point in the campaign. Fans have been clamouring for the return of the diamond formation for some time, and as it transpired this was one of the rare occasions where the body of supporter opinion was correct: Liverpool instantly looked more dangerous. The full-back pairing of Clyne and Milner means that attempting to pose a wide threat is a fruitless endeavour – instead, Klopp overloaded the centre of the park with an array of highly talented midfielders and gave them two strikers to pick out. The results were better than he could have hoped for, and the rewards truly started to be reaped with 36 minutes on the clock: Coutinho split the defence with a glorious pass, and Sturridge latched on to it before rounding Adrian with consummate ease and slotting the ball home. As excellent as the pass was, the movement was even better: Sturridge curved the run so as to stay onside, breaking at the perfect moment to get clear. It was a joyous moment to see him bring out his trademark dance again – it looked for a while as though we might have seen it for the last time, but here he emphatically showed that he is still a world-class striker.

Were it not for the performance of Coutinho, Sturridge would undoubtedly have picked up Man of the Match on his return to the starting eleven. As it was, the Brazilian playmaker put in one of the finest individual performances of the season. He spearheaded Liverpool’s blistering second half performance, scoring two of the three further goals to ensure an emphatic 4-0 victory. The first was calmness personified: while the rest of us were still trying to process Wijnaldum’s sensational volley hitting the bar, he seized the ball and guided it into the corner from the edge of the box. The second, too, showcased his talents wonderfully: he ghosted past three West Ham defenders, before firing past a fourth one standing on the line. Goals were far from all he offered, however: it was his passing that was truly sensational. The central role he was employed in allowed him to unleash his full array of talents: good as he has been on the wing, he is somewhat wasted there. Based on Klopp’s comments, it appears that we will be seeing a lot more of Coutinho in midfield: that’s a good thing for Liverpool, and for beautiful football.

Origi completed the rout with a tap-in for number four. He came very close with a couple of much more ambitious efforts, and his general performance deserved to be rewarded with a goal. However, playing alongside Sturridge did highlight just how far the young Belgian is from being an elite striker. His movement is nowhere near as intelligent, and he lacks the composure that has defined Sturridge’s career: in fairness there are only one or two in world football who are cool as the Englishman in front of goal, but Origi is a long way off. If Sturridge is to stay – and he certainly made his case against West Ham – then Klopp will need to invest in a better partner for him, at least in the medium term. If Sturridge moves on, as is widely expected, then Liverpool could really do with someone who has similar attributes. A striker even half as talented as Sturridge who is capable of staying fit for a full season would be capable of reaching 30 goals: armed with that, and with a developing Origi as able backup, Klopp could definitely mount a title challenge.

For now, however, the attention is squarely focussed on securing Champions League football. If Arsenal slip up midweek then qualification could be confirmed before Liverpool next play; the more likely scenario is that a win on the last day against Middlesbrough will seal the top four. Of course, this is not as much of a free pass to the group stages as it once was: the revised structure means that a playoff could be against the likes of Hoffenheim, Roma or Sevilla. This will not be a worry for Liverpool if they can keep performing like they did against West Ham, however; they are within touching distance of the most prestigious competition in club football, and they deserve to be. It’s a good time to be a Liverpool fan.
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Iago Aspas: The Hometown Hero

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 10 April 2017

Mignolet: The Gloves Are On

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Liverpool 3-1 Everton: Post-Match Analysis

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

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

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

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

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

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