Wednesday, 22 November 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 13 November 2017

Alvaro Arbeloa: The Journey Back to the Bernabeu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013


Monday, 30 October 2017

Liverpool 3-0 Huddersfield: Post-Match Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Monday, 16 October 2017

Liverpool 0-0 Manchester United: Tactical Analysis

A familiar fault reared its head as Liverpool once again failed to capitalise on their opportunities and consequently squandered the chance to win. Nonetheless, there was plenty to be pleased with in the performance: Mourinho’s typically deep line was unable to prevent the creation of a couple of big opportunities, and United’s erstwhile prolific attack never really looked like troubling the hosts’ back line. These plus points are both endemic of a change of tactical approach that has the potential to make Liverpool unstoppable.

The new tactic is in many ways a subtle change, but it could serve to dramatically improve results. Out of possession, things are much the same: Klopp has his players pressing high, looking to hustle the opposition into a mistake. This was very effective against United, who were forced to simply put the ball out of play on multiple occasions. The change has come in the approach when Liverpool do have the ball. Previously, attacks have been as frenetic as the turnovers in possession through which they were instigated; in other words, the plan was to nick the ball and then descend upon the goal as quickly and directly as possible. This worked to destructive effect against teams who left gaps to be exploited at the point of turnover, but opponents were increasingly opting to sit very deep against Liverpool so as to negate this risk. In response to this, Klopp has got his team playing much more patiently in the build-up phase. The only way to consistently break low blocks is intricate passing sequences – recently, these have become a much more regular feature. The idea is that teams can no longer feel safe sitting back: if they do so, the likes of Coutinho and Firmino will find a way through with their playmaking talents. This is good in and of itself, but what gives it the potential to be so effective is the fact that the attack still possesses the capability to launch explosive counter-attacks. Teams will be in trouble when they step up and in trouble when they sit deep – once the players are fully adjusted to the new method, there will be no simple way of stopping them.

In some ways, it is strange that this tweak to the system hasn’t come sooner: patient passing when in possession and aggressive pressing off-the-ball are a natural mix. When the opponent is only rarely afforded the ball, their natural tendency is to take more risks when they get it – they wish to capitalise on the fact they are actually in possession by turning that possession into a scoring chance. This risk-taking leaves them more vulnerable to the press: this allows a gap to be exploited at the turnover if it exists, and if it does not then the side playing the possession-based game nonetheless have the ball back. Thus the system serves as a potential way of creating chances, but also as a way of limiting chances for the opponent: given Liverpool’s defensive woes of late, any help they can derive from their tactical setup is welcome. To put it simply, the opposition cannot score if they don’t have the ball – the principle is basic, but the ramifications are significant. All the while Liverpool are moving the ball around, looking for an opening, they are simultaneously relieving the defence of all pressure; they may be called upon as ball-players, but this is one aspect of the game in which Matip and Lovren are fairly accomplished. As such, the new system being employed is working towards improving things at both ends of the pitch.

Why, then, did Liverpool still fail to pick up a win against United? There are two principle reasons. The first is that the adaptation to the new style is a work in progress: the team cannot be expected to transform into Guardiola’s Barcelona overnight, and the incision and fluidity of the passing therefore still left something to be desired at times. After a full season of being stumped by the deep line, it would be unrealistic to demand that the players immediately work out how to consistently unlock it. The second reason is that, even when the chances were cleverly carved out, they were not taken. Emre Can and Joel Matip missed the biggest opportunities of the match, with Mo Salah also failing to turn home from close range. This has been a big problem of late, and can also in part be attributed to Klopp’s tweak of the system. Under the old methods, nearly all of the chances created were 2v1s (or similar) by virtue of the way in which they came about: everyone charged forwards off the back of the press, overwhelming defences and creating easy scoring situations where the ball could just be passed home. Now, whilst some of the chances being made are still clear-cut, the goalkeeper cannot be taken out of the equation completely: faced with beating him, the players are struggling. Admittedly David De Gea is something of an exceptional case – he is one of the best keepers in the world, and his stop to deny Matip was extraordinary. Nonetheless, the problem applies more generally: Liverpool have to get better at burying their chances if they wish to reap the full rewards that the change in style has to offer.

All in all, though, the draw was more encouraging than it was frustrating. There are clear signs that Klopp’s amended tactical vision is starting to be understood and implemented, and when this comes to full fruition it will be fantastic.

-   - Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Time to Give Gomez a Go at Centre-Back?

Ask Joe Gomez what position he plays, and he will tell you that he is a centre-back. That is not to say he is ineffectual in other positions – his versatility, along with his immense potential, was a big part of what prompted Liverpool to snap him up from Charlton in the summer of 2015. Indeed, he has impressed in both full-back positions during his time at Anfield; the athleticism he has shown at right-back in his most recent outings is all the more laudable given the ACL injury that kept him out for a year. However, with the club in something of a crisis in the centre of defence, maybe the time has come to give Gomez an extended run in his preferred position.

In terms of physical attributes, Gomez has all the prerequisites of a good central defender. Contrary to what Michael Owen would have you believe, he is fairly tall – he stands at 6”2, plenty big enough to make him competitive in aerial battles against powerful strikers. His strength would further assist him in such situations: Klopp said in pre-season that if anything the young defender had been guilty of bulking up too much. His pace, too, is a big advantage. Only Mane and Moreno have clocked faster sprint speeds so far this season, which is frankly unbelievable considering the permanent impact cruciate injuries often have on quickness. The manager’s system means that defenders will always face being exposed to a certain extent, so this ability to rapidly fill gaps and make recoveries is paramount.

Gomez also possesses the mental qualities required of a good centre-back; the only real criticism of his stints at right-back so far this campaign is a tendency to be a little cautious, but such positional discipline would serve him well in the middle of the back line. There are potentially question marks over other sorts of discipline – Gomez was needlessly dismissed in the tail end of the Sevilla game, and also gave away a stupid free kick in his brief cameo in the season opener against Watford – but such fouls are more commonly committed when a player is functioning out of his natural position. If he were to be deployed centrally, it may be that Gomez would be less prone to these kinds of ill-advised challenges. This is conjecture, of course, but the whole proposition is to experiment with Gomez at centre-back: it might not work out, but with the current alternatives it is surely worth a proper try.

His capacity to take on the role is further exemplified by his experience. His senior debut at Charlton came as a right-back, but the twenty-three subsequent appearances he made for them in all competitions were split fairly evenly between centre-back and full-back. At no point did he look out of his depth: the Championship is obviously a step down from the top level, but it is nevertheless an encouraging sign that he looked so accomplished there in a central position. This is particularly true given that these performances were now more than two years ago; Gomez has progressed since then in spite of the injury. He has also recently been made the captain of the England u21s team, where more often than not he plays as a centre-back. This is perhaps the most telling suggestion that he might be a good addition to the heart of the Liverpool defence. The fact that Aidy Boothroyd would entrust him with the captain’s armband is evidence of his leadership qualities: these are sorely lacking in the current centre-back options. A recent game saw Klavan fail to give any kind of call to Emre Can, who consequently headed the ball out for a needless corner – giving Gomez a go in his natural position might reduce the frequency of these frustrating incidents. 

However, this is all fairly moot if Klopp is unwilling to try Gomez in a central position in the Premier League. On the face of it, this would appear to be the case – he has regularly talked of his satisfaction with the current centre-back options, much to the annoyance of many fans. That said, it would be foolish to read too much into these comments; the fact remains that Lovren has been dropped twice in quick succession in the league. Admittedly one of these was supposedly down to a minor injury, although Lovren was still named on the bench – either way, one would assume that Klopp is perfectly capable of seeing the side’s defensive deficiencies. The natural next step is to look for remedies: Van Dijk was the well-publicised target in the summer, but following the failure of that deal Klopp will have to look closer to home. He could have the perfect solution in the shape of Gomez – few players offer the blend of relevant experience, suitable natural attributes and potential for vast growth that he does. His outing at centre-back in the Carabao Cup tie against Leicester gives reason for optimism that the manager may look to make the transition.

It remains to be seen whether Klopp will eventually end up viewing Gomez as a centre-back. Clyne’s continued absence means that ear-marking the youngster as a right-back option does make some sense at least for the time-being, although the rapid rise of Trent Alexander-Arnold means that he could still be given a game in the middle without leaving a gaping hole down the right.
At any rate, it would certainly seem a waste not to try Gomez as a centre-back at some point: he is still only twenty years old, and has plenty of time to live up to the Ferdinand comparisons made during his breakthrough season at Charlton.

Spartak Moscow 1-1 Liverpool: When is Bad Luck Not Bad Luck?

As the final whistle blew following Liverpool’s draw in Moscow, statistics were already being trotted out to bemoan the team’s bad luck. Total shots taken, total shots faced and the respective ‘expected goals’ of the two sides were amongst the favourites. There is nothing wrong with these stats, but they are being grossly misinterpreted: the repeated disparity between chances created and the final score-line points to problems at the club, not just misfortune.

The simple shot count is not hard to explain. Liverpool have taken 121 shots from their last six games, but have won just one and scored only 6: the obvious conclusion is that the team are shooting from bad areas and being wasteful from good areas. The shots from tough positions are somewhat enforced by opponents regularly opting to employ a deep line against Liverpool – when faced with disciplined banks of defenders, the temptation is strong to try and bypass them by simply striking the ball from distance. Indeed, sometimes this produces results; Coutinho is yet to really find his range since returning to the team, but has nonetheless already produced a lovely free-kick from some way out. However, the manager should be looking to encourage the team to focus more on build-up. It requires more patience, but the side are capable of working the golden opportunities – the equaliser against Spartak was an example of such craft, with Mane and Coutinho linking up intricately to put the Brazilian clean through.

The more troubling problem is the regularity with which these kinds of chances are being squandered. The reintegration of a dedicated playmaker in the shape of Coutinho, combined no doubt with instructions from Klopp to try and carve out better chances, has led to the creation of more opportunities that can be described as ‘clear-cut’ - more often than not, however, they simply aren’t going in. Following the Sevilla game, I referred to these underlying statistics as promising: as a general rule, high expected goals and low actual goals is the sign of an outlier rather than a trend. In fact, entire ‘luck models’ have been constructed with expected goals vs actual goals at the core.  However, it has now happened far too often for Liverpool to chalk the disparity down to misfortune: the root of the issue is serial profligacy. This applies to both the final ball and the finishing. It was evident once again in Moscow – Firmino botched a square ball that would have resulted in a tap-in, Sturridge volleyed over the top from close range and Salah wasted a promising situation by needlessly hitting the ball first time. The personnel seemingly lack the composure to pick and execute the right option in the key areas. If enough chances are created then some will eventually find their way in, but this can only paper over the cracks for so long: Liverpool need to find a way of becoming more clinical if they wish to harness the significant potential that their world class build-up play creates.

It is not all doom and gloom, however. Much as the repeated failure to take good chances is frustrating, their consistent creation is nonetheless an improvement on last season. In that campaign, a deep line essentially ended our chances of scoring unless Coutinho could conjure something up from range: once teams figured this out, the season stuttered badly and Klopp’s men only just secured fourth. Now, we are regularly finding ways through – the players simply aren’t used to it yet! Perhaps the shock of finding themselves in the clear after months of feeding off scraps is partly to blame for the wastefulness fans have had to witness of late; whatever the cause of the problem, it is easier to overcome than the hurdle of the low block that the team has already cleared. It is hard to immediately appreciate it after yet another draw in a game we should have won, but this team really isn’t far away from being something special.

It is also worth noting that Liverpool have been victims of some genuine bad luck. Mane’s infamous red card has been discussed at length – to avoid the risk of this article turning into a rant about that, suffice it to simply say that the rules clearly dictate that a yellow card should have been awarded. The referee also did Liverpool no favours against Spartak: none of their time-wasting antics were punished, and the added time fell well short of the amount actually wasted by the Russians. There was also a fairly convincing penalty shout for Mohamed Salah which was turned down by the officials. When it isn’t bad luck per se, it’s fine margins: Firmino struck the post from his spot kick against Sevilla, for example. These read a little bit like excuses, and as already highlighted there are things that Liverpool do need to work on, but it’s certainly true that things haven’t really gone our way of late.

The reasonable conclusion, therefore, is that things will probably pick up but the team will have to work to make it happen. They cannot spend too long licking their wounds: it’s time to head to Melwood and get some finishing drills going!

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Jerzy Dudek: The Big Pole in Our Goal

Jerzy Dudek will forever be a legend on Merseyside. His heroics in Istanbul have gone down in footballing folklore, and that crazy night is rightly remembered as the zenith of his long career. However, his footballing journey is full of achievements that do not deserve to be forgotten – from setting records in the Polish third division to receiving a guard of honour from his Real Madrid teammates, and much else in between.  

Dudek came from humble beginnings. His father and grandfather were both miners: the goalkeeper’s semi-professional contract with third division side Concordia Knuró, along with the pleas of his mother, were the only things that kept him from following them into the pits. He signed the deal at 18, having played for a local youth side from the age of twelve – his first step on the footballing ladder included groundsman duties, so there was little risk of the teenage Dudek getting ahead of himself. He quietly impressed on the pitch that he helped to maintain: during his time there, he set a league record of 416 consecutive minutes without conceding.

However, it was not until four years after joining that Dudek successfully caught the eye of a bigger club. Sokół Tychy were hardly a household name – in fact, they had only been founded two years before Dudek was born – but following a merger with Sokół Pniewy the team began the season in the Polish top flight. It was destined to be a short spell for Dudek, and indeed for Tychy, in the Ekstrakalaka. The goalkeeper only played about half of the games on the way to a mid-table finish, but did enough in those matches to catch the eye of a club with much more pedigree: Feyenoord. Tychy, meanwhile, were forced to disband a season later following financial difficulties.  They have since reformed, and play under the name GKS Tychy in the Polish second tier.

As the club Dudek left behind started to unravel, his personal stock continued to rise rapidly. He settled in quickly with the Dutch giants; he did not make an appearance in his first season, but impressed enough as an understudy to be trusted as first choice for the next campaign following the departure of Ed De Goey to Chelsea. He did not disappoint: Feyenoord could only manage fourth in the table in 1997/98, but Dudek was instrumental in securing the second-best defensive record in the division. Only Ajax, who were blessed with Edwin Van Der Sar between the sticks, conceded fewer. In the Champions League, Dudek was unable to help Feyenoord out of a very tricky group featuring Manchester United and Juventus. However, managing a clean sheet in a home win over the Old Lady – who boasted Del Piero and Zidane amongst their forwards – was surely a season highlight for the 24-year-old.

Dudek went one better domestically in the following campaign. He was once again an ever-present, and conceded the fewest goals in the league on the way to an Eredivisie title for Feyenoord. A certain Ruud Van Nistelrooy rightly took the plau
dits, scoring an impressive 31 league goals, but Dudek’s consistent reliability at the other end was equally important in the domination that led to an eventual 15-point margin of victory. This league title, which turned out to be the last for Feyenoord until 2017, meant that Dudek got a second chance to test his talents in the Champions League in the following season. Two clean sheets against Marseille and another against Lazio were not enough to see his team progress beyond the second group stage – nonetheless, it seemed like only a matter of time before a European giant picked up on Dudek’s string of excellent showings.

In fact, it was not until the end of the following season that the Polish stopper got his big move. He impressed greatly once again in 2000/2001, and became the first ever foreign player to win the Dutch Golden Shoe award. Meanwhile, Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier was losing patience with Sander Westerveld, despite the keeper playing his part on the way to a cup treble for the club. Consequently, Chris Kirkland and Jerzy Dudek were both brought to Anfield in a sensational double move. Westerveld was immediately and ruthlessly taken out of contention for selection by the manager, who moved the keeper on in December at the first opportunity. Dudek, despite being the cheaper of the two new signings, was instigated as first choice straight away.

If some fans had been left feeling a little sorry for Westerveld, they soon forgot about it. Just as he had done so often at Feyenoord, Dudek played a key role in leading his side to finish with the best defensive record in the league: Liverpool conceded just 30 across the course of the season, keeping twelve clean sheets along the way. It was not enough for the title – Liverpool finished runners-up to Arsenal - but Dudek received the personal accolade of being nominated for the UEFA Goalkeeper of the Year award alongside Oliver Kahn and Gianluigi Buffon. This was a truly remarkable achievement for a man who just seven years earlier had been plying his trade in the Polish third division.

His second season was not quite as impressive: he remained first-choice, but a string of errors led to Chris Kirkland being afforded a little more game time. Dudek’s downturn in form contributed to a horrible slump for the team – pre-season title aspirations quickly vanished, and the team also crashed out of the Champions League in the group stages. A late surge in the league was not enough to fire Liverpool back into the top four. This was mitigated somewhat, however, by victory in the League Cup: Dudek was named Man of the Match in the final against Manchester United.

This helped the Pole hold on to his position as first choice going into the next campaign. Arsenal took all of the headlines in their famous ‘invincibles’ season, as Liverpool put in a solid but uninspired shift to secure fourth place. Dudek improved upon his form of the last campaign, but nonetheless ended the season with the worst defensive record of the top four. The main thing, however, was the securing of the Champions League place – this allowed Dudek and Liverpool to reflect on a reasonably successful season.

How important this qualification turned out to be. Dudek had seemingly lost his edge over the past couple of seasons, but the 2004/05 Champions League campaign became the one for which he would be most remembered. New manager Rafael Benitez opted to keep Dudek as the number one, and this paid dividends almost immediately. His clean sheet in the away leg of the playoff round ended up being crucial, as Liverpool limped to a 2-1 aggregate victory over Grazer AK to secure their place in the competition proper. He proceeded to keep three clean sheets in the group stage, allowing Liverpool to finish second and dramatically progress ahead of Olympiakos on goal difference following a late Steven Gerrard strike. The last sixteen was a replay of the quarter-final in Dudek’s first season at Liverpool: this time he was able to triumph over Bayer Leverkusen, limiting them to one goal in each leg as the team won 6-2 on aggregate. His clean sheet in the second leg of the quarter-final against Juventus was largely down to a stellar defensive effort, but he did what was needed when called upon to ensure Liverpool progressed to a semi-final against Chelsea. This was the tie that saw the famous ‘ghost goal’: more excellent defending combined with two strong showings from Dudek meant that this single controversial finish was enough to win the tie for Rafael Benitez’ team.

This was the road that led Dudek to Istanbul. The final would turn out to be the greatest night of his career, and of the lives of many a Liverpool fan. The opponent was AC Milan, at the time one of the greatest club sides ever assembled. Any win for Liverpool would have been astonishing, but what transpired was the greatest footballing miracle of all time.

At half time, Dudek cannot have been imagining that this game would be the one that defined his career. He had already shipped three goals, and with Pirlo and Kaka providing the service for Crespo it looked as though more were inevitable. In fact, it had not been the worst half for the keeper – the incision of Milan’s passing had left him with little chance on any of the goals, and he had made a smart stop to deny Shevchenko. Nonetheless, walking off having just seen Crespo loop the ball over his head for Milan’s third, Dudek cannot have been feeling particularly positive. Like all great players, however, he rallied. Early in the second half he was on hand to deny Shevchenko once again, this time keeping out a free kick from the Ukrainian.

His attacking teammates took centre stage in the next few moments. Just a minute after Dudek’s save, Gerrard had scored at the other end – his header evaded Dida, and the captain gave his now-iconic rallying cry to players and fans alike. They responded: it was not long before Vladmir Smicer drove the ball into the corner to reduce the deficit to just one. It took just three more minutes to complete the remarkable turnaround – Gerrard was fouled in the box by Gattuso, and Alonso slammed home the rebound after seeing his initial spot kick saved.

Following this astonishing passage of play, the focus turned firmly back on Dudek and his defence. Wave after wave of Milan pressure was piled on his goal, as some of the best players ever to grace a pitch combined to try and restore their lead. They found themselves repeatedly denied – in normal time it was the defence who took up most of the strain, with both Carragher and Traore making inspired blocks. In extra time, even the heroics of the defenders was not enough to prevent the ball falling to Shevchenko from six yards out. It looked a certain goal: Dudek had other ideas. He pulled off a superb reflex save, only to see the ball fall back to the feet of Shevchenko. The keeper hauled himself off the floor as quickly as possible, and somehow managed to deflect the second attempt over the bar. That this most unlikely of saves had been made filled everyone with belief that this could be -  this had to be - Liverpool’s night.

That said, Dudek’s work was far from done. His extraordinary double-save had forced penalties: now it was his job to keep them out. He rose to the challenge in heroic fashion, in so doing creating a legacy of one of the most iconic individual performances of all time. Serginho stepped up to take Milan’s first penalty, but blazed it over following Dudek’s attempts to distract him with the ‘spaghetti legs’ made famous by Bruce Grobbelaar. Hamann overcame a broken toe to slot his penalty home. Pirlo was up next for Milan. Dudek dived low to his right, and was able to palm the ball away. Cisse scored his spot kick, and it was 2-0. Victory was almost tangible. The drama was not over yet, however – Dudek could do nothing to deny Tomasson, and then his counterpart Dida was able to keep out Riise’s penalty. Kaka then converted, as did Vladmir Smicer: this left it at 3-2 after four penalties each, as Andriy Shevchenko stepped forwards.  He had been denied time and time again by Dudek throughout the match, and approached the ball knowing that he had to find a way past this time in order to keep his team in the match. He could not do so. He went down the middle as Dudek again dived to the right, but the keeper threw out a strong left hand to keep the ball out. He had no right to make the save having dived away, but then Liverpool had no right to win – it was an end befitting of the most remarkable game ever witnessed.

Dudek’s teammates descended upon him: he was the hero. In hindsight, it’s something of a shame that this was not the Pole’s final bow for the club. The following season he was replaced as readily as Westerveld had been before him, as Pepe Reina was brought in to be the number one. Still, this unfortunate ending could not sour the memories of Istanbul; nothing could ever detract from something so perfect. In any case, the ending on Merseyside opened up the door for a new beginning in Madrid. By the time he left at the end of the 2006/07 season, he was 34 years old – there aren’t many who can say they’ve been coveted by Los Blancos at such a stage in their career. Of course, it was understood by all parties that Dudek would play a back-up role to Casillas; this did not prevent the Pole from being taken firmly into the hearts of the Real faithful. His work ethic and attitude were as faultless as they had been throughout his career: on the few occasions he was called upon, he excelled. This included an impressive clean sheet on his debut against Real Zaragoza, and a second shut-out when given a game in the Champions League against Zenit St Petersburg.

His final appearance – only his second in the league since coming to the club – came against UD Almeria. Real ran out 7-1 winners, and in the 77th minute Dudek was substituted so as to receive a guard of honour from his teammates. This encapsulated the love and respect that Dudek had won through the way he had conducted himself at the club: in recognition of this, and of his stellar career as a whole, he was applauded off by the likes of Ronaldo, Benzema and fellow hero of Istanbul Xabi Alonso.

This was a fitting end to an extraordinary career. He has enough memories to spend a happy retirement simply dwelling on them, but Dudek’s mining background could never allow such lack of industry – instead, he has taken up motor racing. He is a man who lives for putting in hard graft and seeing what rewards he can reap from it. His journey to the top was correspondingly methodical rather than mercurial, but when he got there he wrote his name into football history.

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