Sunday, 22 September 2013

Liverpool 0-1 Southampton: Post-Match Thoughts

After taking 10 points from their first four games and sitting pretty at the top of the Premier League, Liverpool had the right to go into this home game against Southampton feeling fairly confident. The Saints started the season relatively well, but if Liverpool had performed as they did in their first three games of the season, you can’t help but feel this game would have been a walk in the park. The fact is they didn’t play like that; they played awfully. Southampton’s drive and determination to win was contrasted by Liverpool’s lacklustre, uninspired performance, and consequently they flopped to a 1-0 home defeat.

If I was trying to be kind to Liverpool, I could say that nobody was entirely to blame. A perhaps more accurate way of looking at it would be to say that everybody was, to some degree, at fault. This includes Brendan Rodgers, who made some very odd selections. Despite Jose Enrique being fully fit, Rodgers opted to play Sakho, a centre-back by trade, at left-back. Kolo Toure, another central defender, was also played at full-back in the absence of Glen Johnson, meaning that Liverpool lined up at the start of the game with 4 centre-backs in defence. At first I thought this could be a shrewd tactical decision, as the sheer physicality of Agger, Skrtel, Sakho and Toure should have been enough to prevent Southampton from getting anywhere near our goal, but as it transpired they simply could not function properly out of position.

This was the first mistake; unfortunately it was followed by many more. Liverpool started the game relatively brightly, but right from the start seemed to be lacking the incisive edge that they have shown when on the attack in previous games this season. Steven Gerrard had a free kick saved well by Boruc, and Liverpool should blatantly have had a penalty when Lovren took out Sturridge in the box. Moses also looked relatively bright, but those were the only two real chances of note for Liverpool in the first half. This was partially down to the absence of Philippe Coutinho, who is normally so good at creating chances. Iago Aspas was played in the number 10 role for the first half, and he simply wasn’t good enough. His poor performance led to his replacement by Raheem Sterling after just 45 minutes.

If the first half was underwhelming, the second half was downright disgraceful. The attackers continued to fail in making chances, but now it was coupled with defensive sloppiness. Mignolet looked extremely uncertain whenever he received the ball from his defenders, and the defenders themselves kept tying themselves in knots by refusing to boot the ball clear. In attempt to retain possession by passing it around the back, the defence gifted Southampton many chances, and eventually a goal. Their refusal to clear the ball out of danger led to the conceding of a pointless corner, which Dejan Lovren subsequently scored from. Daniel Agger, who was meant to be marking him, got nowhere near the ball. Gerrard was also at fault: he was standing on the goal-line, and had he used his left foot he could have smashed the ball off the line, and away to safety. Instead he opted to use his favoured right foot, and consequently he was only able to hit the ball into the roof of his own net.

I hoped that this may prove the stimulus that Liverpool needed to kick on and start playing some decent attacking football. I was disappointed. Not only did the reds seem unable to create attacks, they also seemed unwilling. Their was no desire to push forward and try to equalise, and the team merely continued to pass the ball around in midfield, never really troubling the Southampton defence. To be fair, Sterling (who had replaced Aspas at half time) looked bright; he combined well with Sturridge on a couple of occasions to create the only half-chances Liverpool made throughout the second half.

I defend Liverpool whenever I can, but there is simply no denying that Southampton deserved the victory in this game. They pressed the ball, put pressure on our defence, and generally harried us into mistakes. In the end, they were rewarded. Liverpool were the polar opposite: their lack of desire and effort were what lost them the match. It was not the performance of a team that can finish in the top 4, and we will need to up our game hugely if we want to keep that ambition alive. Hopefully the return of Suarez next game will rejuvenate our side. Whatever his faults, nobody could accuse Luis Suarez of lacking passion and drive. If he slots back in well, I expect to see a huge upturn in performance in the League Cup against United, and subsequently in our league match against Sunderland.
-James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Swansea 2-2 Liverpool: Post-Match Analysis

Yesterday, Liverpool travelled to the Liberty Stadium in Wales to face Swansea City. Before the match they were 3rd, level on points with Arsenal and Tottenham. Any result better than a loss would put them back on top of the league. After Swansea’s poor start to the season and our strong one, most Liverpool fans were hoping for a 4th successive win, but it wasn’t to be. After a match jam-packed with action, the game finished 2-2.

It was the worst start Liverpool could have hoped for. After less than 2 minutes, Swansea managed to get in front. After completely mis-kicking the ball, ex-Liverpool player Jonjo Shelvey kept ploughing through the defence, unchallenged by anyone. Eventually, having run deep into the penalty area, he curled the ball past Simon Mignolet. Debutant Mamadou Sakho was the nearest to Shelvey just before he placed the ball in the net, but did not make a challenge, looking fearful of conceding a penalty. This is a problem the team as a whole need to work on- if the alternative is conceding and the ball is there to be won, you have to try and dispossess your opponent. It was a very scrappy goal to concede from Liverpool’s point of view; not a nice way to end the run of zero goals conceded in the season.

Liverpool were not behind for long though. Just 2 minutes later, they equalised! It doesn’t take a genius to guess who got Liverpool back on level terms- the man who has scored a goal in every Premier League game this season, Daniel Sturridge. Jonjo Shelvey was once again instrumental; though this time he wasn’t celebrating. He played a wayward pass which Sturridge picked off with ease. It was then a simple matter of slotting the ball past Vorm, which the Premier League joint top goal scorer was able to do with ease. Jokes about Shelvey forgetting that he’d left Liverpool have been hugely overused, so I won’t bore you with them, but it has to be said that it was an absolute gift of a goal. Still, it took a cool head from Sturridge to finish it off, and his ability to do so with apparent ease sums up why he is such an asset to us- we lacked a clinical, reliable finisher for a long time.

Liverpool pushed on from this, and were soon all over Swansea. They were dominating possession, and more importantly were creating some good chances. Debutant Victor Moses was playing especially well, showing some great skill and putting good balls into the box. Liverpool eventually got their reward, though it would be untrue to say that it came through pretty build-up play! It was, once again, put on a plate for Liverpool courtesy of Jonjo Shelvey. Another poor pass was picked off, this time by Moses, who fired it into the bottom corner, well beyond Vorm’s reach. The half ended without further incident, and Liverpool went into the break with a deserved 2-1 lead. It could well have been more, but Swansea had defended well (with the exception of Shelvey) and Vorm had made some great stops, including blocking a point-blank header from Sturridge.

In the second half, everything went downhill. Swansea came out on the front foot, and stayed there. The situation was not helped by the forced departure of Philippe Coutinho on 52 minutes, due to an injury caused by a foul challenge from Ashley Williams. The little Brazilian had been playing well, and his replacement, Aspas, never really got into the game. This raises more questions as to whether the Spaniard can cut it in the Premier League, but that’s another story (see my article on that here: Swansea looked a constant threat and, almost inevitably, they managed to equalise with just under 30 minutes to go. Shelvey was key in the scoring of the goal (surprise, surprise), heading it down perfectly for Michu to tuck home. Liverpool made no attempt to get back in front, and in all honesty were quite lucky not to concede again. Based on the game as a whole a draw was probably the fairest result, but Liverpool were simply outplayed in the 2nd half.

To sum up, the result in itself is nothing to complain about, but Liverpool’s second half performance is worrying. They have looked weaker in the second period than the first in all of the games so far this season, and it leaves us vulnerable. At the moment nobody has read too much into it, as the results are going our way and we are top of the league, but if we want to maintain a genuine challenge for 4th or higher then we will have to start sustaining performance for the full 90 minutes. If our team had better stamina then they would have beaten Swansea, and come the end of the season 2 points may be all that separates us and the Champions League. Even though this result is acceptable in isolation, its wider implications are not good. We cannot have many more games like this. The harsh truth is, if we want to become one of the ‘big’ Premier League teams again, we’re going to have to start playing like one for the full 90 minutes.
-James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Iago Aspas- Early Impressions

Iago Aspas was brought to Liverpool early this summer, along with Simon Mignolet, Kolo Toure and Luis Alberto. He was arguably the most exciting of this new crop of players, as he was a creative forward who, from Brendan Rodgers’ comments, seemed to be destined for regular first team action. As such, there was a lot of hype about him, and his excellent pre-season only served to increase that. Unfortunately, in the first three games this season, he has been unable to make much of an impression. Will he be able to overcome this blip in form, and if so what sort of impact will he be able to have on our season?

There is no real question that Iago Aspas is a good footballer. He proved that at Celta Vigo, where he scored or assisted more than half of the team’s goals throughout the course of the season. In our pre-season matches he also showed some quality, and was able to continue his good run of goals and assists. The fact that he has been unable to replicate this form (which has, up to now, been so consistent) in the Premier League is slightly concerning. In pre-season we faced opposition of a much lower calibre than that which we are up against in the Premier League, and in La Liga Aspas was in a much less physical environment. If it is the physicality that Aspas is having a problem with, then in time he will be able to adapt to it, and there is no need to be too worried about his relatively poor Premier League performances so far. If, on the other hand, it is the step-up in opposition quality that Aspas is struggling with, then there is a real problem.

But which is it? It seems most likely that Aspas’ lacklustre performances so far have been caused by the vast difference between La Liga and the Premier League. After all, it is not as if there is no quality in the top flight of Spanish football. Indeed, Aspas was able to get an assist against arguably the best team in the world last season, Barcelona. If the issue was that the Premier League was simply too good for Aspas to cope with, we would surely have seen the same ineffectiveness that he has shown thus far in the Premier League at Celta, when he came up against the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona. As this was not the case, the logical conclusion is that he has simply been a little overwhelmed by the new league he has found himself in. One aspect he appears to be struggling with is the physicality- he has been dispossessed on a regular basis. Also, there is the sheer pace of the games. Aspas has looked a little lost at times, unable to keep up with the game and get himself in sensible positions. Against United in particular, there were many times where he stayed rooted to the spot, when he should have been making a run.

This should soon be ironed out of him. If he gets a reasonable amount of game time (and so far, Rodgers has looked set to give him that), he will almost certainly be able to re-find the form that made him such an asset to Celta Vigo. If and when this happens, his impact on Liverpool will be very positive. So far we’ve won all our games, and deservedly so, but we have only managed to score 1 goal in all of them. So long as our defence remains as solid as it has been thus far, this is not a problem, but it would be good to have some margin for error. Aspas will hopefully be able to provide us with this, by feeding balls in to Daniel Sturridge from a wide position. Aspas knows how to beat a man, cut inside and deliver a killer ball: he was renowned for it at Celta. This is bound to have a positive impact on Sturridge, as the more chances he is provided with, the more goals he’ll score!

There is, however, a risk that Aspas will not get the game time he so clearly requires to become a valuable asset to us. The signing of Victor Moses on a one-year loan deal suggests that Rodgers was not entirely happy with out options in the wide midfield areas. As well as this, Suarez is returning soon (his 10-match ban is nearing an end). With these two available, there is a possibility that Aspas will struggle to make the starting 11 on a regular basis, as both Moses and Suarez are perfectly capable of functioning in the wide forward role which Aspas naturally occupies. He is unlikely to be played out of position either, as Sturridge is in form and therefore unlikely to be replaced as the lone striker, and Coutinho, though he hasn’t been brilliant so far this season, is the natural choice in the central attacking midfield role. If this is the case, Aspas will struggle to even come close to regaining the form he had in La Liga, as he won’t be able to properly adapt to English football.

To sum up, if he is given a lot of game time, I am confident that Aspas will soon find the form that had fans so excited in pre-season. His unerring ability to beat a man on the wing then cut inside and deliver to a forward could be very valuable to our team, and as such we should be making every effort to ensure he settles in quickly.
-James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Top of the League? You’re having a laugh….

Finally. After three consecutive 2-1 defeats at the hands of our bitter rivals Manchester United, we have beaten them. Admittedly United were nowhere near their form of last season (blame Moyes for that one- they look a different side now Ferguson has left), but Liverpool still had to work hard and play well to secure the victory. The win saw us go top of the league, having secured maximum points from our opening three games. Due to this, and to the excellent football we are producing, optimism amongst fans is high, but how far up the league can we realistically expect Liverpool to finish this season?

Most non-LFC fans seem to think that Liverpool have an outside chance of snatching 4th, but that is the highest we could possibly hope for. Theoretically, this makes some sense. After all, player for player, there is no questioning that Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham have stronger squads than ours. In a game of Top Trumps, Liverpool’s players would surely lose out to these clubs (and debatably to United and Arsenal as well), unless you have the luck to draw Coutinho from your deck when your opponent possesses the Milner card. The fact is, having not been in the Champions League since 2009/10, we haven’t been able to attract the top players for some time now, and as such our squad, on paper at least, simply is not as strong as those of our direct rivals.

However, though it is a cliché, the game is not played on paper. If all of Tottenham’s new players were immediately able to gel with each other and with the rest of the team, then they could most certainly challenge for the title. As it is, they needed to rely on debatable penalty decisions to win them their games against Crystal Palace and Swansea, and today lost 1-0 to Arsenal, because the team are not performing well as a group. Liverpool, on the other hand, have looked like a very tightly-knit unit this season. Their chemistry on and off the pitch has been wonderful; I don’t recall ever seeing a Liverpool team more in tune with one another. This is, in part, down to the relatively small amount of change the club has undergone in the down-season in comparison with the big clubs around us. Out of the top 7 from last season, only Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham have retained the same managers. As such, until all the other teams are able to settle down and adapt to their new managers (or, in Spurs’ case, adapt to fit in a whole host of new players), Liverpool may well have the edge over them.

Saying this, doing business in the transfer market is by no means a bad thing. It is simply that there needs to be a balance. Spurs have brought in too many players for their starting 11 at once to be able to get results in the short term, but as the season progresses they will most likely become a force to be reckoned with. Arsenal, on the other hand, though not destabilised by change, are being left behind in terms of squad depth by not signing anyone (unless you count free transfers Flamini and Sanogo). Indeed, their lack of depth is already troubling them, as they have been plagued by injuries to multiple players recently.  Liverpool have struck a happy medium, in that they have brought in a couple of players who have made it immediately to the first team, some others to bulk out the squad in case of injury, and some young talents who have potential to make it to the first team in the future. The immediate changes to the starting XI are not so drastic that they throw us off course; they only serve to strengthen us.  As we are the only club from last season’s top 7 to achieve that fine balance, except perhaps Chelsea, we most certainly have the upper hand on our rivals.

So, bearing all of that in mind, where do I think we can finish? Chelsea suffer the least out of the clubs that have made managerial changes, as Mourinho has been at the club before and knows how things work. Most of the players already know him and his style, so there is little adaptation to do. They have also done good business in the transfer market: players such as Willian and Samuel Eto’o are likely to start on a fairly regular basis, whilst Van Ginkel and Atsu are great squad players. Due to this, I don’t think we can realistically hope to finish above Chelsea. Manchester City are another we will struggle to overcome, as despite the vast amount of money spent at the club this summer, the emphasis has been on quality rather than quantity. Though they have a new manager, it would be a tall order to compete with the sheer quality and depth that City possess. Other than that, I don’t think there is any team in the Premier League that Liverpool cannot hope to finish above. Arsenal have not made anywhere near enough additions to their squad, Tottenham are still reeling after undergoing a squad overhaul, and Manchester United’s squad, which wasn’t that strong in the first place, is now under the guidance of a new manager: this is already taking its toll on them, as they have only managed 4 points from their first 3 games.

In conclusion, Chelsea and Manchester City are a cut above the rest, and barring too many more slip-ups against clubs such as Cardiff they should be expected to occupy the top two slots come the end of the season. From 3rd to 6th there is  very little in it, and Liverpool, if all goes well, will be able to capitalise on the shaky starts their rivals are having and take 3rd place. It’s optimistic, but it’s also realistic. Let’s hope they can continue their excellent start to the season, and go on to achieve what they are capable of.
-James Martin
Follow me @JamesMartin013