Monday, 18 September 2017

Alberto Moreno: Now or Never

With his baby face and boyish charm, you would be forgiven for still thinking of Alberto Moreno as Liverpool’s promising, exciting young prospect from Sevilla. In reality, he is twenty-five: gone are the days when he could be legitimately thought of in those terms. There is no exact science to when a player enters their prime, of course, but give or take a couple of years Moreno should be approaching his peak. It is therefore a pivotal time for him, both in terms of his place in the Liverpool squad and his career as a whole – he has the raw attributes to be one of the best, but the clock is ticking in his quest to achieve that goal.

The Spanish left-back was born and bred in Seville – he lived there throughout his childhood, much of which was spent in Sevilla’s academy. He was picked up following victory with Spain in the Danone Nations Cup, an international tournament for children aged ten to twelve. It is unsurprising that the La Liga side looked to nurture the talent in Moreno: he is blessed with blistering pace and surprising strength, meaning he was always going to be a good bet to make it as a full-back. Sure enough, he graduated to Sevilla Atletico – the reserve side – while still a teenager. It did not prove too big a step up for the local boy: he netted an impressive four times from thirty games in his debut season, a highly respectable return that firmly established him as a marauding kind of defender. Indeed, coach Ramon Tejada sometimes utilised Moreno as an attacker to harness and hone his clear prowess going forward. He also looked generally good defensively, although there were a few question marks surrounding his disciplinary record.  

Nonetheless, his form was enough to earn him an opportunity with the first team before too long. Still only 19, he made his debut in 2012, coming on as a substitute in a 1-0 defeat to Athletic Bilbao. He made fifteen further appearances in the 2012/13 season, twelve of which were starts – given that the fire sale at Sevilla was not until the following summer, it was highly impressive that Moreno was able to secure a spot in the senior side so rapidly. He was no doubt helped by Antonio Luna’s loan move away in the second half of the campaign, but this should not detract from the quality of his performances: he impressed enough to make Spain’s squad for the u21 European Championships.

It was here that he truly exploded into the continent’s footballing consciousness. He played all but one game in Israel as Spain defended their title, only missing a meaningless match against The Netherlands after qualification from the group had already been secured. His performances earned him a place in the Team of the Tournament: he was a genuine stand-out player, which is no mean feat considering he was playing alongside a host of future stars such as Alvaro Morata, David De Gea, Dani Carvajal, Koke, Thiago and Isco. The score-line of 4-2 in the final against Italy perhaps hinted at some weaknesses in his defensive game, but he did contribute to a respectable three clean sheets; one of these came against a strong Germany side, featuring Moreno’s future teammate Emre Can. Such was the level of his performances, he was named in the provisional 30-man squad for the 2014 World Cup – Carvajal and Koke were the only other two outfielders from the u21s to make it to this list.

Despite making his first senior international appearance in the final qualifier against Georgia, Moreno did not make it to the final 23-man squad for the tournament in Brazil. This, however, was not a comment on his club progression but on the level of competition for places in the Spain squad. The 2013/14 season was a breakthrough one at Sevilla: Moreno was the undisputed first-choice at left-back, and continued to put in eye-catching performances on the way to a Europa League triumph.

It was on the back of this that Moreno, then 22, got his move to Anfield. Liverpool had just come agonisingly close to glory of their own, falling excruciatingly short of their first Premier League title. A clear weakness in the title push was left-back, a slot which had been filled by Aly Cissokho: the Moreno transfer was therefore met with excitement and enthusiasm amongst fans. His start did nothing to dampen these expectations; his debut came in a 3-1 loss to Manchester City, but he followed this up with an exceptional individual effort during a 3-0 dismantling of Tottenham. It was the kind of run that evidenced his occasional outings as an attacker at youth level – following a strong challenge to dispossess Andros Townsend he powered up the pitch, leaving the winger for dead and finishing unerringly into the corner before Kaboul could get across to cover.

As was almost inevitable for a young player upon whom the fans had placed so much expectation, things did not continue in such excellent fashion. The obvious attacking talent remained clear for all to see, but the old defensive frailties increasingly began to frustrate the Liverpool faithful. In particular, his positioning came under a fair amount of scrutiny. He was far from the only one leaving the fans feeling flat, however: the whole team underperformed, only managing a sixth-place finish.

Despite the setback, Moreno entered the 2015/16 season as the clear first choice. This in itself was an achievement of sorts for a young man still learning his trade – nonetheless, the campaign ended in the nadir of the Spaniard’s Liverpool career. Things on the domestic front were worse than ever: Liverpool limped to a catastrophic eigth-placed finish. They had the chance for redemption, however, in the form of the Europa League final. It offered the tantalising prospect of a return to the Champions League, and a first trophy for new boss Jurgen Klopp. Who were the only team standing in their way? Sevilla. This was the kind of irresistible personal narrative that football so often seems to create, and on this occasion the story did not end well for Moreno. All was going to plan in the first half, with a lovely strike from Daniel Sturridge giving Liverpool the lead, but the second half saw the English outfit collapse to a 3-1 defeat. Moreno played a significant part in this capitulation. His head did not seem in the right place against his former club, and he ended the season out of favour with both fans and management.

This was made clear by Klopp’s choice to convert James Milner into a left-back ahead of the 16/17 campaign. At a time when he would have been hoping to flourish, Moreno was relegated firmly to second-choice. This did shore things up at the back to some extent, and Liverpool belatedly got their Champions League spot courtesy of a top four finish. Following this, the club invested in bringing Andy Robertson in from Hull – this appeared to spell the end for Moreno.

Not so. The scrappy Spaniard refused to accept that his Liverpool career was over, and Klopp was more than happy to keep him on the books over the summer. Robertson’s arrival has actually worked in favour of Moreno: having two designated left-backs at the club has allowed Klopp to take Milner effectively out of contention in that position, leaving Moreno and Robertson to compete for the spot. It seems as though both will be given opportunities over the course of a long season fighting on multiple fronts: Moreno has established himself as the first-choice for the time-being.

Happy ending? That still remains to be seen. Moreno has won over the boss again, and also has a fair portion of the fans backing him once more. He appears to have matured; he reflected candidly upon the infamous Sevilla game in a recent interview, noting that everyone has bad games and must look to grow from them. This maturity is at least partly reflected in his play – the marauding runs that endeared him to the fans in the first place remain, but the defending is perhaps a little less kamikaze than it once was. Nonetheless, many remain unconvinced: although a lot of the problems down the left side can be attributed to Lovren, it is hard to deny that Moreno continues to play a part in the defensive frailties of the team.

At twenty-five, it seems naïve to just confidently state that defensive nous will come with experience. He has made some improvements in that area, but there comes a point where it needs to be accepted that Moreno simply isn’t a defensive full-back. Moreno and his club must embrace the fact that he occasionally leaves something to be desired on the defensive front, acknowledging that the trade-off is what makes him arguably the best attacking left-back in the league. His pace is simply staggering – there are very few who could consistently provide overlapping runs for Mane as he does. He can finish, too: the Spurs game was where he first showed it in Liverpool colours, but his goal record has been good for a defender throughout his career. Questions can sometimes be raised about his decision-making in the final third, but when he does opt to pick a pass or cross it generally finds its mark. The trouble is that this all gets overlooked when his prowess at that end of the pitch is the very thing that sometimes leaves a Moreno-sized hole at the back, much to the frustration of the fans.

What, then, is to be done? One of two things needs to happen in order to earn Moreno the plaudits he is more than capable of receiving. The first (and less radical) option is for Liverpool to buy a highly capable left-sided centre-back: this is something the fans are crying out for in any case, and the ongoing interest in Virgil Van Dijk suggests it could be on the cards in the near future. Such a player would provide the cover to allow Moreno to bomb forward with total freedom, safe in the knowledge that he can leave a gap from time to time without being punished for it. This would allow him to unleash his full range of attacking talents, and would see him earn the recognition he deserves as an elite player going forwards. The second option is one that sadly could not be pursued at Liverpool: conversion into a winger. The presence of Mane, Salah and Oxlade-Chamberlain makes the idea a non-starter at his current club, but elsewhere he could thrive if deployed further up the pitch. The comparisons to Bale, who also left much to be desired defensively when used as a full-back, are irresistible – that is not to say that Moreno could find himself at Real Madrid within the next couple of years, but he has all the underlying attributes for a similar sort of transformation.

As a Liverpool fan, I hope the first route is the one taken. The club have a very good player on their hands in Alberto Moreno, and if he keeps working hard and is provided with a competent central defender on his side he is capable of excelling in the Premier League. He could yet become the player we all thought he might end up being when that ball hit the back of the Spurs net.

-        -  Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013 

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Liverpool 2-2 Sevilla: Frustrating Result, But Plenty of Positives

Liverpool’s long-awaited return to the Champions League failed to live up to the hopes of the fans, as the team slipped to a 2-2 draw at home to Sevilla in the opening group game. Sadly, however, it probably did live up to expectations: the hosts dominated, but defensive frailties were once again exploited. This has become an all-too familiar story, despite Klopp having plenty of time to rectify it: the frustration of another two points lost through abject defending clouds the positives from what was in many respects an excellent showing.

Liverpool started the stronger of the two sides; Mane and Salah both found themselves in one-vs-one situations against their full-backs within the first few minutes, neither of whom looked comfortable dealing with the pace and trickery of the Liverpool wide men. However, it was the Spanish side who opened the scoring with their first attack of the game – lack of defensive assertiveness from the midfield allowed the ball to find its way over to the flank all too easily, and Lovren comprehensively failed to deal with the subsequent ball across the face of goal. Ben Yedder was on hand to turn the ball home. Karius, whose selection ahead of Mignolet raised some eyebrows, couldn’t have done anything: it was those in front of him left with serious questions to answer.

The attackers certainly did their best to answer these questions, or at least make up for the defence’s inability to answer them. They looked in scintillating form, and it felt as though it was only a matter of time before Liverpool drew level. Sure enough, Klopp’s men equalised in the 21st minute: Henderson worked it wide to Moreno, who squared it delightfully for Firmino to turn home. The left-back was excellent throughout the game against his former club, particularly going forward – he and Mane looked a constant threat to Mercado, who picked up a yellow trying to stop them and was lucky not to see a second. It was the other side, though, that brought the goal to give Liverpool the lead. Mo Salah showed great tenacity to dispossess Steven N’Zonzi. It was probably a foul, but he played to the whistle and reaped his reward: he pulled the trigger and his shot deflected wildly of Simon Kjaer and into the back of the net. It was a freak goal, but no less than the performance deserved. Indeed, it probably warranted more – Firmino had the chance to give Liverpool a two-goal lead from the spot heading into the break following a blatant foul on Mane, but the Brazilian struck the post.

This proved costly. Things didn’t come quite as easily for the hosts in the second period – the wide men were not nullified as such, but Sevilla had certainly adjusted to limit their threat. They continued to knock on the door, and in truth still looked the better side, but there was always a nagging feeling that not getting the third would be a problem. Such is the effect of having a mediocre defence: confidence in seeing out a lead is an alien feeling to Liverpool fans. Sure enough, Sevilla found a way through in the 72nd minute: Henderson lost his man, Lovren and Matip were too far apart and the ball was slotted through the gap and into the path of Correa. He made no mistake past the once-again helpless Karius.  There were a couple of subsequent extremely nervous moments, made no easier by the late dismissal of Joe Gomez, but the game ended 2-2.

A point on the board against the toughest opponents in the group is far from tragic, particularly given the 1-1 draw in the game between Spartak and Maribor. Equally, the performance was a long way from bad: the attacking build-up play was thrilling to watch, with the final ball or finish the only thing lacking on many occasions. This can be worked on in training, and will also improve once Coutinho is fully reintegrated to the starting eleven – once this begins to click, we could be looking at a truly lethal attacking force. However, even while heaping praise on the attack, the shadow of the defence looms: they are seemingly beyond help on the training ground, which begs the question of why on earth Klopp did not recruit upgrades in the summer window. Lovren is sometimes unfairly vilified, but this was not one of those occasions: he turned in an abject performance which undoubtedly contributed to dropping two points. Van Dijk would have been an ideal solution, but he was surely not the only one – thrilled as most fans are to have Klopp at the helm, he cannot escape criticism for this frankly bewildering oversight. Matip, on the other hand, had a good game – it was an archetypal ball-playing centre-back display, and in truth he was a more effective playmaker than most of the midfield. This does not apply to Wijnaldum, who came up with undoubtedly his best performance of a season that has been underwhelming up to this point.

Clearly, then, there were lots of positives. The attack is genuinely capable of becoming one of the best front threes in world football, and the midfield has players who on their day are all capable of offering admirable support to the build-up play. The defence is still a centre-back short of even being considered competent, however: having failed to recruit once again, it is hard to see how this changes before January. This leaves a very bitter taste from a performance that, in truth, was not bad at all.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

De Boerexit Means De Boerexit, but Will Palace Make a Success of it?

After just four games of the Premier League season, Crystal Palace’s Frank De Boer has become the first managerial casualty. A record of played four, lost four, scored none does not make comfortable reading for the Dutchman, but it is nonetheless staggering how quickly the Palace board have opted to pull the trigger. Roy Hodgson is being touted as heavy favourite to take over; aside from shared managerial stints at Inter Milan, the two coaches could hardly be more different. That he is their go-to replacement suggests Palace were never all that invested in rebranding their style of play – De Boer may well feel in hindsight that he was doomed from the start – but the appointment of the one-time England boss could nonetheless prove successful for the London outfit.

Many failed relationships have ‘compatibility issues’ cited as the reason for the breakdown, and in the case of Palace and De Boer this rings true. The Dutch tactician built his considerable success at Ajax around possession – they dominated by stroking the ball around with precision and purpose, transitioning seamlessly from one phase of play to another. How, then, must he have felt upon first walking into the dressing room and seeing the likes of McArthur, Tomkins and Benteke staring back at him? All are good players in their own right, but to ask them to make up the spine of a De Boer team is absurd. Still, the manager was brought in before pre-season had begun: there was clearly time to mould the squad a little more into his image and likeness. However, it appears that the powers that be lacked the inclination, or perhaps the resources, to do so: Mamadou Sakho and Jairo Riedewald were the only permanent additions to the squad. Both of these are good defensive additions, particularly Sakho, and both are far more ball-playing than any of the centre-backs already at the club. Nevertheless, they are not transformative. Riedewald was not a definite starter in De Boer’s brief reign, and Sakho may not even have been a choice of the manager; the former Liverpool man had enjoyed a successful loan spell at the club in the latter half of last season, and following this the club board were set on getting him. In a Trump-esque tweet storm, club chairman Steve Parish admitted that acquiring Sakho blew most of the budget – if this is indeed the case, De Boer was left stranded with a squad completely incapable of executing his philosophy. This was damaging to both club and manager: Parish will need a lot more than 140 characters to explain himself.

Given all of this, the sacking actually appears to be a sensible decision. Granted, it is the first good call in a string of terrible ones by the Palace hierarchy, but it was probably wise to step in now and attempt damage limitation rather than persevere with a manager they never equipped with the tools to succeed. Hodgson as the replacement places a considerable ceiling on the ambitions of the team, having proved at Liverpool and then at England that he is utterly useless when entrusted with any squad even vaguely capable of challenging for trophies, but he is more likely to succeed with the current squad than De Boer was. Prior to his catastrophic spell on Merseyside he had impressed with Fulham, and his poor showing with England was preceded by a solid stint with West Brom – it must be conceded that he has some expertise in taking relegation-threatened squads to mid-table safety. This will hardly enamour Palace fans, but priorities must surely have shifted to staying up after the sacking of De Boer brought the sorry attempt at a rebrand to an abrupt end. Hodgson is not one for the future at the ripe old age of seventy, but he has as good a chance as any of steadying the ship: if he does this, Palace can try properly investing in a progressive vision in a year or two. For the time-being, Benteke represents an ideal focal point for a coach who is essentially a relic of a bygone era. Combined with traditional wingers in the shape of Zaha and Townsend, the materials are all there for Hodgson to create a goal-scoring outfit that can stay afloat in the top flight.

All that said, Hodgson essentially represents admitting defeat for Palace. The best he can achieve with the squad is good damage limitation, as opposed to positive steps for the future – with De Boer the club had a chance to put building blocks in place going forward, but the chance was comprehensively blown. The board was right to let De Boer go, but for all the wrong reasons: Palace can now only hope that Hodgson does well as a stopgap, and that another promising coach is waiting to join them on the other side. If the board are fortunate enough to see this come to pass, then they must fully invest in the new man – a lesson learned is perhaps the only potential positive to come out of this sorry saga.
-          James Martin (@JamesMartin013)

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Time to Get Behind Coutinho

There is a lot of ill-feeling towards Philippe Coutinho in the Liverpool fan base at the moment. This is completely understandable: the manner in which he pursued his dream move was unprofessional and potentially damaging to the club at an important time. However, some empathy is surely needed – there are very few players who would not push for a move if Barcelona came calling, and it was only Liverpool’s hard stance that forced him to the extremes of not playing. The argument could be made that this stance was unfair to the player; he has contributed a lot to the team over the past three and a half seasons, and I felt that he deserved to be allowed to go once a reasonable bid was received. Of course, he has a long-term contract, and FSG were well within their rights to point to such a recently-signed 5-year deal; the same is true of Van Dijk, however, and Liverpool fans’ outrage at his desire to move is suspiciously lacking. That said, I’m thrilled that Coutinho is staying, not least because the club’s record at replacing key men in recent years is patchy at best. Now it’s important for the fans to get behind him.

The dislike for his attitude, coupled with Liverpool’s relative success in his absence, has led some fans to play down the importance of Coutinho to the team. This is simply revisionism: he is the best player at the club. Mane is catching him rapidly, but for the time being the Brazilian playmaker is on a level of his own. His vision unlocks defences that nobody else can break down, and the creativity he injects into the midfield three is vital to the long-term success of the team. Furthermore, he is the most capable of producing a ‘moment of magic’ to swing a tight game – Klopp has assembled an attacking unit which contributes (and scores) remarkably equally, but Coutinho is the most capable of winning points on his own.  Talk of leaving him ‘rotting in the reserves’ is frankly absurd – why hang on so determinedly to a prized asset only to refuse to utilise him? Rather he should be unleashed on opponents as soon as possible: our attack has already notched eight in three Premier League games, and it is frightening to think what they could do with Coutinho providing them service.

Such a lethal combination could go on to big things this season, both domestically and in Europe. Particularly given Barcelona’s apparent decline, who can say what Coutinho will want to do next summer? One thing is for sure: regardless of how much the club progresses, he will not want to stay at Liverpool if the fans are on his back all season. At a time where it feels as if seismic shift is taking place amongst the European elite, Liverpool need to be attracting rather than repelling top talent in order to stand a chance of filling the power vacuum and re-establishing themselves as a dominant club force. To this end, fans must try to put this unfortunate transfer saga behind them: loyalty in football is an extreme rarity in the modern game, and as long as Coutinho continues to perform on the pitch he is just as worthy of support as the rest of the team. 

I can still understand why some supporters are unwilling to forgive him. Nonetheless, the form that some of the criticism has taken is unpleasant. Neymar’s comment that Coutinho was in “a moment of great sadness” was met with derision – many seemed angry that he dare be unhappy when he earns so much money. This is clearly nonsense; his wealth does not guarantee him happiness, and by extension his sadness is not illegitimate purely because he gets paid a lot. Some of the abuse has also highlighted the toxic masculinity particularly prevalent in football: Coutinho was visibly emotional during Brazil’s win over Ecuador, and the manner and form of the insults that followed was ugly.  It’s a personal decision whether or not to get behind him, but ignorant insults are far more worthy of criticism than wanting to move to Barcelona.

To sum up, I would strongly advocate getting fully behind Coutinho. He has given a lot to this club, it was natural for him to want to move, and although he went about trying to do this in a less-than-ideal fashion he remains a world class player who we want to perform well for us. It would be self-destructive to potentially prevent him from flourishing. Even if you can’t bring yourself to back him, at least be wary that the form of your criticism doesn’t say more about you than it does him.

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Liverpool 1-0 Crystal Palace: Good Win, But Depth is Lacking

Liverpool set up against Crystal Palace with the crucial midweek clash against Hoffenheim in mind. A significantly weakened starting eleven was fielded: Lovren, Moreno, Alexander-Arnold, Salah and Can were all notable absentees. By and large, the deputies put in a decent shift – Joe Gomez and Andrew Robertson were particularly impressive at full-back, and Ragnar Klavan looked assured aside from one dreadful moment against Loftus-Cheek. However, the introduction of Salah was needed to make the attack look genuinely potent: not until he and Solanke came on did Liverpool finally get the breakthrough. From there, they remained comfortably on top and recorded a narrow but deserved win.

Nobody could criticise Klopp’s desire to rest key players ahead of Wednesday: the second leg of the Champions League playoff is the most important game for the club since the Europa League final against Sevilla, so it made sense to keep as many players as possible fresh. However, the lack of additions so far this window was thrown into stark relief by the situation that this left the team in: removing just a few starters left a side littered with players who have no business lining up for a team with title ambitions. Milner in midfield was just about the only way to field a central three with less creativity than at Watford, Klavan can do a job when called upon but is prone to getting bullied, and Gomez is still very young and was played out of his natural position. The only two players to come in who represent very strong squad options were Sturridge and Robertson – Sturridge would be a luxury for any side to be able to bring in, and Robertson will most likely make himself the first-choice left-back in the near future. This kind of depth is required across the pitch if the squad are to genuinely challenge on multiple fronts this season, and Klopp must therefore look at making more signings before the September 1st deadline.

Fortunately, even the weakened team had enough about them to get past Palace. Sadio Mane was one of the first-teamers to retain his place, and he was vital: he constantly looked likely to make things happen, and indeed was the one to eventually beat Wayne Hennessey. When on the left, he linked up very well with debutant Andrew Robertson – the new signing from Hull was equally impressive. Particularly in the first half, which was bereft of invention for the most part, he was the only one creating chances; his deliveries were consistently excellent, and only a dreadful miss from Matip denied him an assist. On the other flank, Gomez was also quietly impressive. There were far fewer marauding runs – understandable given that Gomez is naturally a central defender – but it was encouraging to see him look at home in the Premier League. The promising youngster had an injury-plagued campaign last time out, but thankfully appears to have picked up where he left off. His intervention early in the second half was vital, as he did just enough to put Benteke off in front of goal. This was only required because Klavan had been comprehensively beaten by Loftus-Cheek moments before, but in fairness to the Estonian this was the only blip in an otherwise strong performance. It would be madness to suggest that he is good enough for a regular spot in the first team, but it was telling that the back line was generally much calmer without the presence of Lovren. An elite partner for Matip (ideally, of course, Virgil Van Dijk) may well finally give Liverpool the competent defence they have needed for years.

It was also encouraging to see effective substitutions from Klopp. He has been much criticised for leaving it too late to make changes, but acted in good time this time out to ensure that the team got the win. Of course, this is easier to do when half of the usual starters are available off the bench: Salah will not regularly be deployed as an impact sub, a role he played to good effect. His pace and skill added a new dimension to the attack, and he was unlucky not to get himself a goal. However, the other important change saw Solanke introduced – he was not one of the regular starters to be dropped for Palace’s visit, and ‘super-sub’ is likely to be a part he is asked to play quite regularly. As such, it was excellent to see that he had a big hand in the goal. Having replaced the frustratingly poor Wijnaldum, it was a matter of minutes before he made the difference; he used his physicality to contest for the ball on the edge of the box, and it broke for Mane to finish composedly. Based on what he has shown so far, Solanke is one of those rare breeds of target man that can also function effectively in Liverpool’s system – he therefore provides a ‘Plan B’ that doesn’t make the side look horribly dysfunctional, and this could be invaluable over the course of the campaign. Origi was introduced at Watford, and was anonymous: his squad position is undoubtedly under threat from the man who is looking more and more like a steal with each passing day.  

In short, the game largely confirmed what everyone already knew about Liverpool: the first team are very strong going forward, and the defence is a signing away from at least passing as competent, but beyond the regular eleven there is a worrying lack of depth. The problem has been highlighted by the joint absence of Lallana and Coutinho, which has left a midfield in dire need of a creative influence. Nonetheless, the overall result was a positive one: multiple young players continued to show that they can step up when called upon, and ultimately the three points vindicated Klopp’s decision to rest players for Hoffenheim’s visit.

- Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

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 naïve 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 (, 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