Tuesday, 27 August 2013

2013/14- A New Dawn?

Two games into the new season, Liverpool are looking very good. They have played some excellent attacking football in both matches, as well as looking strong defensively (not conceding in either game). Most importantly, though, they have won both of the matches, meaning they already have 6 points on the board. This contrasts hugely to the way we have become accustomed to Liverpool starting a campaign; the win against Stoke marked the first time we had won an opening game in the Premier League since 2008 (in a season which saw us finish 2nd). Does this turn-around in early season form mark a new dawn for LFC?

Firstly, it is worth noting that Liverpool’s two opening games have both been against relatively poor opposition. Both of the sides they have faced thus far in the Premier League, Stoke and Aston Villa, finished well within the bottom half of the table last season. In truth, most fans, quite understandably, would expect nothing less than a victory against clubs such as these.

Saying this, it is not as if our first two fixtures didn’t pose any challenges. Stoke have proved time after time that they are hard to break down defensively, so to be able to find a way past them in our first competitive game since May 19th was no mean feat. Villa posed an even greater challenge. In their opening game they caused an upset against Arsenal, coming out 3-1 victors. They also netted against Chelsea, though they ended up being narrowly defeated by 2 goals to 1. Their star man Benteke scored in both of these fixtures, and Liverpool’s defence, as well as new goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, had to be on top of their games to deny him yet another goal. Add to this the fact that the quality of opposition hasn’t made much difference to our results in previous opening-day matches (one simply has to look at the 3-0 humiliation at the hands of West Brom last year to see that), and it could be said that the odds, if anything, were against Liverpool!

It is clear then that Liverpool’s opening two games were by no means easy to win. However, it is not just the victories that make me, as a fan, so excited; it is the manner of the victories. In both games, Liverpool got off to quick starts, swiftly getting the upper hand. They were able to dominate for large portions of the game, and played some lovely football during these periods. This in itself is not much different from last season, but what has changed is our ability to put the ball in the net! Countless times last year we were all over a game but somehow failed to score, and thus missed out on the victory. In contrast, in our opening two games this year, we have succeeded in getting that crucial goal, and getting it early on. This is largely thanks to Daniel Sturridge, who is in exquisite goal-scoring form. He has provided the goals in both of our games this season, and has certainly looked capable of providing more in future. If he can keep this up, and the team can keep providing him with the service he needs, we will have a much better chance of finishing in the top 4 than we have had for a long time, as the sort of games which ended in draws last season we should be able to turn into victories during this campaign.

That said, there are some negatives I took from our two opening games. The main problem was the way we seemed to fade towards the end of the halves. We were able to keep well on top of our opposition until roughly 5 minutes before the end of each half, and then suddenly seemed to lose all of our momentum. We were pushed right on to the back foot, and forced to rely heavily upon our defence and keeper. This happened against both Stoke and Villa, and resulted in some nervy moments towards the end of the games. Though it didn’t prove costly, it may well do against stronger opposition. If we are to stand a chance of beating United on Sunday, we cannot invite large amounts of pressure from them at any point in the match, as, with the quality they have in their attack, they will be bound to punish us.

To sum up, I have been extremely heartened by our first two games, as Liverpool have shown that they are indeed embarking upon a new dawn. Unlike in the past, they have been able to start the season on the front foot, by beating teams who have in previous seasons proved frustratingly hard for us to score against. Despite this, there is still a long way to go for Liverpool, and before they can genuinely pose a threat to Arsenal, Tottenham and maybe even (in the long run) the likes of Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City, they will have to learn to sustain a high level of performance for the full 90 minutes. Here’s hoping that they can do that, and that they can continue their winning start to the season against United next week.
-James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Liverpool vs Stoke- Pre-Match Analysis

At last. After a long summer of waiting, the time is finally upon us. At 12:45 on Saturday, Liverpool will get the 2013/14 Premier League season underway. They entertain Stoke at Anfield in their opening fixture, and most fans will be expecting a win.

When one takes a good look at Stoke, it is clear why the weight of expectation is with Liverpool. Stoke have appointed a new manager since the end of last season, replacing Tony Pulis with Mark Hughes. Admittedly they have had the whole of pre-season to adapt to his style of play, but it is clear from the poor start Liverpool made last year under the then newly appointed Brendan Rodgers that often, more than just a couple of months and a handful of games is needed. On top of this, their activity in the transfer market has hardly been inspiring. They have brought in two new players on free transfers, signed full-back Eric Pieters from PSV for just over 3million pounds, and bought Maurice Edu from Bursaspor for an undisclosed fee. None of these signings are bad in themselves, though I doubt that any of them will be setting the Premier League alight this season! Man for man, the Liverpool squad is (on paper at least) far superior.

However, Stoke’s pre-season has been relatively successful. They have played 5, winning 3, drawing 1 and losing 1. The key figure, however, is that they kept clean sheets in all of their last four matches. Towards the end of last season they were not as solid at the back as they had been, but it seems that they may have re-found their defensive form. Admittedly the games they have played were against relatively weak opposition, Genoa being the pick of their opponents, but the signs, for them, are promising.
Add to this the fact that Liverpool are renowned for their slow starts to the season (they have failed to win an opening day fixture since the 2008/09 season, which was incidentally the last time they qualified for the Champions League), and the fact that, as we saw against Celtic, we have a tendency to dominate a game and yet still fail to score, and our victory is not as secure as one might think at first glance.

Saying this, I do still think that Liverpool will manage to win the game. The Celtic game was the only match which we failed to score in, and our overall pre-season form in front of goal has been exceptional. Coutinho has continued to shine, scoring and assisting with apparent ease. Raheem Sterling has also proven himself to be ready for another run with the first team, playing some dazzling football in pre-season as well as scoring prolifically. He continued his goal-scoring form on international duty, scoring for the England U21’s against Scotland. New signing Iago Aspas has also looked threatening in front of goal, and Jordan Henderson, Steven Gerrard, Luis Alberto, Joe Allen and Jordan Ibe have also been on target for Liverpool. Daniel Sturridge also scored twice in a behind-closed-doors game against Newcastle. The fact that there are now so many potential goal-scorers in the team gives Brendan Rodgers the option to change things around if we are failing to score, which I think will be the difference from last season.

This is how I think the team will line up:  

                                                       Created using @footy_formation

 Before the transfer window closes I would ideally like to sign another centre-back for the first team, although to be fair Toure has impressed me a lot in pre-season. He will certainly be adequate to deal with Stoke’s mediocre attack. Aspas could play as a right forward in place of Sterling, but I think Stoke will find it very hard to cope with Sterling’s trickery and on-the-ball skill. If we are failing to score, I would expect Rodgers to replace Sturridge, who isn't fully match fit yet anyway, for Aspas. Joe Allen may also come on for either Lucas or Gerrard, as he has done very well in pre-season, and has shown himself to be good going forward as well as dictating the play from a central position.

To sum up, it would be a mistake to underestimate Stoke, who, though they don’t have the most inspiring squad, are solid at the back. However, I think that, unlike last season, we now have enough attacking options to find a way through the Stoke defence, and get our season off to a winning start.
-James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Sturridge- Can he force his way back in?

Liverpool signed Daniel Sturridge from Chelsea in the January transfer window, and the striker had an immediate impact. He scored 10 goals in just 14 games, and was hailed by many as the clinical striker we needed. He was so successful that he earned himself a call-up to the national side. Unfortunately, in a game for England against the Republic of Ireland, he injured his ankle, meaning he was forced to miss Liverpool’s pre-season tour. However, this didn’t seem to hinder Liverpool in the slightest, as they managed to score 13 goals in their first 5 pre-season fixtures, conceding none. The team gelled extremely well together, and a combination of Coutinho, Sterling, Aspas and Gerrard proved deadly in front of goal. The question is, now Sturridge has returned to full training, will he be able to win his place in the team back?

At the end of the 2012/13 season, it would have been unthinkable that, come the start of the new season, Sturridge’s place in the first team would be in question. His performances for Liverpool produced a lot of goals, and he was one of the stand-out players in the second half of the campaign. However, there are question marks over his consistency. Despite his impressive average of a goal every 0.71 games, he failed to net in half of his Premier League games for Liverpool. This shows that his goals came in bursts. In some games, he simply failed to perform, and consequently Liverpool struggled. Now, with the arrival of Iago Aspas, Liverpool’s attacking players are scoring seamlessly (though admittedly against relatively weak opposition), and consistency would not appear to be an issue, as the reds have netted at least two in every pre-season game thus far. Daniel Sturridge was brought in because we needed goals; now, even without him, we are scoring regularly.

Saying this, it is likely that Sturridge will make it to the starting 11 come the first game against Stoke. Regardless of the fact that Liverpool have been scoring in pre-season without him, Sturridge’s performances last season justify his place in the team. What is different from last year is that Sturridge is no longer a necessity. If he fails to perform, pre-season has shown Rodgers can drop him, and still have a team that are able to play some beautiful football that results in goals. Consequently, the pressure on Sturridge to be quick off the mark is huge. Last season, Liverpool’s only other attacking option was the injury-ridden, underperforming Fabio Borini, meaning Sturridge was essentially guaranteed first team football. This year, if he is unable to perform right from the start of the season, his place in the first team is at serious risk.

This could have one of two effects. It could spur him on to perform at his very best, which would be the best case scenario for Liverpool. We saw in multiple games last season (such as against Fulham and Newcastle) that Sturridge at his best is an absolute nightmare for defenders, and a very potent goal threat. The fact that he is, in essence, playing for his position in the team every game, may well inspire him to put in his best possible performances week in, week out. This would be brilliant, as it would cover over the only major chink in Sturridge’s armour, his consistency issues. If Liverpool can get Sturridge playing to his full potential all season, then their chances of breaking back into the top 4 are greatly increased.

On the other hand, the pressure could ‘get to him’. By signing Iago Aspas, who is already proving himself to be a very good attacker, Brendan Rodgers has dramatically raised the stakes for Daniel Sturridge. In doing this, he has potentially executed a masterstroke, but he has also taken a considerable risk. If Sturridge is unable to handle the pressure of constantly having to fight to stay in the first team, there is a significant danger that his performances will become lacklustre. Although Liverpool will be able to cope if this happens (as we have seen in pre-season), it would be tragic to waste a talent like Sturridge.

To sum up, although the likes of Jordan Ibe, Raheem Sterling, Philippe Coutinho, Steven Gerrard and new signing Iago Aspas have all proved that they can combine well to get lots of goals this pre-season, it is extremely unlikely that Daniel Sturridge will have been robbed of his place come the start of the season. However, he will have to be on top of his game right from the word go if he wants to retain his place, as Rodgers has given Liverpool an attacking depth that they have been clearly lacking for the past few seasons. If he is able to find his form straight away, Liverpool could be in for a very successful season.
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Sterling- Starter?

This pre-season, we have been seeing a lot of Liverpool starlet Raheem Sterling. He has been very impressive thus far, netting 4 times and showing that he can combine very well with the rest of the team. Many believe that his performances warrant a place in the first team for the start of the season.

PictureFirstly, let’s address the issue of his youthfulness. At only 18 years of age, some people think that Sterling is ‘not ready’ for the first team, and should be given more time to develop. However, whether or not a player is ready for the first team is defined by their ability, not by their age. Sterling has proved himself to be extremely talented, and should therefore certainly be considered for the first team. As for whether he is mature enough to combine well with the rest of the team, it should be noted that he played regularly for the first team at the start of last season, at the age of just 17, and did exceptionally well. He lost his place through injury, not lack of ability. Fully fit once more, he has shown in pre-season that he is still perfectly capable of scoring, as well as combining beautifully with the rest of the team.

It is clear then that his age should not be considered a factor when considering him for our opening game against Stoke. One thing that should be looked at, on the other hand, is the competition he faces within the squad. He is a midfielder, and it is true that this is the most saturated area in the Liverpool squad. However, he plies his trade in a wider position, which puts him out of the territory of players such as Gerrard, Coutinho, Allen and Henderson. His only real competition is Stewart Downing and new signing Iago Aspas. Aspas has looked very promising in pre-season, and looks a likely candidate to make the first team for the coming season. However, given the option between Sterling and Downing, I would take Sterling any day of the week. He has more pace, is better on the ball, and is better at passing and crossing. I think that Liverpool should line up in a 4-2-3-1 this season (see my previous article), meaning there is space for two attacking wide players in the team. It would make sense, therefore, to play Aspas on the right and Sterling on the left, with maestro Philippe Coutinho down the middle, all behind Daniel Sturridge. This combination of players looks very promising indeed.

As well as the competition within the squad, the outside competition should also be debated when deciding to play Sterling. For the first game of the season, this will be Stoke. Sterling would be perfectly suited to playing against a team such as Stoke. They are not the quickest of teams, and have the tendency to come up with a fair amount of clumsy tackles. Sterling’s pace and agility would be nigh on impossible for Stoke to deal with, and he would most likely to be able to create lots of space for himself and others, as well as drawing lots of fouls. He is also very strong for such a small player, and would therefore be able to stand up to the physical presence of the Stoke defence.

On the whole, I certainly think that Sterling should, and will, be given a chance in the first team this season. Brendan Rodgers, like all good managers, gives players a chance in the first team if they are performing well enough, and Sterling has been one of our stand-out players in pre-season. He will almost without question be selected ahead of Downing (who is rumoured to be on his way out of the club anyway, possibly to Newcastle), and he has the potential to be hugely effective in our opening fixture against Stoke. It’s a big season for the 18 year old, and if he continues to play like he has been in pre-season he will not only cement himself as a regular in our side, but also almost certainly prompt another international call-up. He’s an exceptional young talent, and Liverpool are lucky to have him.
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013