Monday, 29 December 2014

Liverpool 4-1 Swansea: We’re Back!

Finally. After enduring months of mediocre play and largely poor results, Liverpool look to have turned a corner. They turned it in style, marking a return to their fluid, intricate style of play from last season with an emphatic 4-1 win over Swansea City. The goals came courtesy of Moreno, Lallana (x2) and a Jonjo Shelvey own goal.

The performance today put paid to the saying “it doesn’t matter how you win them”. I came away from the Burnley game with, at best, a grim satisfaction. By contrast, the teams’ showing in this match has left me immensely pleased and has filled me with positivity for the rest of the season. All of our attacking players put in excellent performances, and the presence of Emre Can in our back three brought a new solidity to our defence. Rodgers has been put under a lot of pressure of late, but the clever decision to shift Can into defence and the choice of a formation that looks to fully utilise the attacking potential of our squad will surely earn him plaudits.
However, Rodgers can by no means take full credit for the win. There were some truly exquisite individual performances; Henderson managed two assists and Lallana scored twice, but the man of the match for me was Philippe Coutinho. Every flick and trick he tried came off, he beat players with ease and his passing was top quality – the crowning moment was his backheel assist for Lallana’s second goal. Raheem Sterling also played very well. Whilst the stats may suggest he was ineffectual, his runs were crucial in drawing defenders and creating space for others to play in. One of the players who benefited most from this space was Alberto Moreno – his explosively quick runs caused Swansea multiple problems, particularly in the first half. Fellow wing back Javier Manquillo deserves some credit for his solid defensive performance.

Of course the defence hasn’t fixed itself overnight, and some of the weaknesses were shown in this game. Mamadou Sakho made two shocking defensive errors, one of which resulted in the Swansea goal. To be fair to the Frenchman his general play was good and he demonstrated some nice passing to move the team forward, but mistakes such as those at this level are inexcusable. Skrtel was much improved from last game, but that’s not difficult. Mignolet made a couple of decent stops, but his kicking was even more wildly inaccurate than usual. Overall, though, the defensive performance was encouraging. Emre Can must take a lot of the credit for this; his assurance with the ball at his feet brought a calmness to the back line that we’ve rarely seen. Swansea struggled to create any clear cut chances, meaning they were forced to commit men forward and thus leave themselves vulnerable to our extremely potent attacking threat.

Part of the reason that this threat was so strong is the high tempo that Liverpool maintained both on and off the ball. The aforementioned positive passing of Sakho allowed smooth transition between defence and midfield, and the scintillating form of Coutinho ensured that chances were being carved out left, right and centre. The success of our pressing when not in possession was epitomised by the second goal; although it was extremely comical, it was not a total fluke. Lallana saw that the ball was about to be played back to Fabianski, and swiftly began a full-on sprint towards the goalkeeper. This meant he was in a position to put pressure on the Swansea stopper, block his clearance and watch as the ball looped into the net. He showed hunger and desire, and whilst these are clichés they are also necessary attributes for anyone who wants to succeed at Liverpool.

The battle for Liverpool now is consistency. If all of our attackers continue to play as they did today, and the defence can at least remain passable, it seems not only possible but probable that we will end the season in the top four. Our next three games are useful in this respect: Leicester, Sunderland and Villa are all teams we should be beating, and with a bit of luck we will be able to retain this level of performance against them. If we take all 9 points from these games then momentum is on our side, and we have an excellent springboard for the second half of the season.
-James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013 

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Burnley 0-1 Liverpool: Post-Match Thoughts

As hard as they tried, Liverpool were unable to put a dampener on the Christmas spirit this year. The previous two Boxing Day fixtures have brought misery to LFC fans, but yesterday the team managed to grind out a 1-0 victory at Turf Moor despite putting in a wholly uninspiring performance. The result leaves us in 9th place going into the final game of 2014, an important match against 8th placed Swansea.

It was immediately clear that Liverpool weren’t going to be treating us to the same level of performance we saw against Arsenal. Most of the players looked like they had Christmas hangovers; they were sluggish in possession and, when they didn’t have the ball, allowed Burnley much too much space. Danny Ings came very close to punishing us within the first 15 minutes – he hit the post, and frankly the goal would have been deserved. Far from provoking a reds response, this great chance seemed to cause Liverpool’s defence to become even shakier. The rest of the first half passed in a blur of near misses from the hosts and abysmal play from the visitors, and being able to go in at half time level pegging was a gift that the Liverpool players had by no means earned.

One of the main problems of the half was the failure of Steven Gerrard to get at all involved. Other than one good ball to Lallana which set up our only chance of the half, he was completely invisible for the full 45 minutes. We might as well have been playing with 10 men; it was genuinely easy to forget that he was on the pitch. The defence also unsurprisingly continued to be an issue – Skrtel was particularly poor in the first half, and Toure was below his usual standard. The goalkeeping farce reached new lows when Brad Jones was subbed off early on through injury, marking the return of Simon “he might never play for us again” Mignolet. This was a good thing, as despite his faults Mignolet is unquestionably better than Jones (who wouldn’t look out of place in a League 2 outfit), but the sight of Jones walking off and Mignolet running on in his place was comical in the extreme. The only positive of the half was the performance of Mamadou Sakho, who showed exactly why many Liverpool fans have been infuriated by his lack of game time. He put in some solid challenges and certainly inspired more confidence than his defensive partners. Admittedly his pass accuracy was quite disappointing – 80% is fairly low considering that passing is supposedly one of his main assets – but this can be attributed largely to rustiness.

The second half saw a slight improvement. This was not difficult: in a season full of “worst half I can remember” claims, the first half of this game was definitely up there. Burnley continued to threaten, but their constant pressure and high work rate was beginning to take its toll and Liverpool were consequently being afforded more and more space as the half progressed. In the 62nd minute they capitalised on this – it took a moment of magic from Coutinho and a cool head from Sterling, but against the run of play it was Liverpool who got the goal. The Coutinho assist is surely the best goal assist we’ll witness this season; whilst facing the other way, he showed immense awareness to hook the ball cleverly into the path of Raheem Sterling. The 20 year old rounded the keeper well and slotted the ball beyond the desperate lunges of the Burnley defenders who had tracked back and into the net. In the midst of Hodgson-esque badness a moment seemingly plucked right from last season was produced, and in the end this proved enough to win us the game.

It is an old footballing cliché that ‘the three points is all that matters’, and after yesterday’s performance many Liverpool fans will be clinging to that. Whilst this shocking level of performance doesn’t bode well for future games – surely any club who weren’t sitting in the relegation zone would have punished our poor play – the fact that we were able to grind out the win is encouraging. We now only have 1 defeat in our last 9 games; whilst this stat disguises the multiple flaws of the team, it does show that we are slowly but surely improving. If we can force wins in our next 3 matches, all against beatable opponents, the position will be much brighter heading into the second half of the season.
-James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Monday, 22 December 2014

Liverpool 2-2 Arsenal: Reds Gift Arsenal an Underserved Point

Liverpool a goal down after 90 minutes of play. Down to 10 men. Whilst the match facts suggest a heroic late effort from Liverpool to salvage a point from a game they had struggled in, the reality was quite different. It was in fact Liverpool who were on top for the entirety of the match, and the team will surely go into the Christmas period disappointed that they didn’t manage all three points against a very weak Arsenal side.

Right from the off Liverpool were all over Arsenal. They had all the possession, were working the ball nicely and spending a fair bit of time in Arsenal’s final third. The only problem was an admittedly major one; clear cut chances were at a premium, and we had no out and out finisher on the pitch. Throughout the game this was a problem – Coutinho did manage to bag one goal, but most of his efforts were scuffed or dragged wide. Lucas also had a couple of shots from good positions that failed to test Szczesny. However, by dominating the game this much it was only a matter of time before Liverpool got their goal, and it came in the 45th minute. Coutinho’s aim was true this time, and he guided it in off the post after shimmying wonderfully past his man.

In typical Liverpool fashion, we threw away what looked to be a comfortable position within seconds through poor defending at a set piece. Gerrard tripped up Sanchez, who’s subsequent free kick was kept alive because of Sakho and Toure getting in each other’s way. The ball found it’s way over to the far post, where Skrtel failed to even get off the ground, thus allowing his man Debuchy to get his head to the ball. Brad Jones epitomised his talents by standing and watching as the ball flew into a distinctly saveable area, and thus we somehow went into the break with the scores at 1-1. Although this goal was much more the fault of Skrtel than Jones, it is absolutely ridiculous that the Australian continues to be played ahead of Mignolet. Of course Mignolet isn’t perfect, but he is a good shot stopper, and that has bailed us out more than once this season. Jones would struggle to get into most Championship sides, and if Rodgers continues to play him to prove some sort of point to Mignolet then Liverpool will pay the price.

Twenty minutes into the second half and the situation worsened again. It truly beggared belief; the opening twenty of the second period was all Liverpool once again, yet somehow they found themselves behind on 64 minutes. This time it was Giroud who got the goal, slamming Cazorla’s cross (which somehow found its way between Skrtel and Toure) through the legs of Jones. Rodgers rolled the dice soon after this, bringing on Borini and then Lambert to try and get the equaliser, Lambert had no impact whatsoever, to the point where I forgot he was on the pitch from time to time. Borini certainly had an impact, but not a good one. After not being given a throw-in which admittedy should have gone his way he got booked for dissent, and minutes later he was off after a high foot on Cazorla. The situation looked bleak – the ten men of Liverpool had just 9 minutes (the stoppage time was long due to an earlier head injury for Skrtel) to find a goal to bring them level. Despite having an extra man, Arsenal continued to sit back and absorb the pressure. This cost them dearly, as one of the corners they conceded was finally capitalised on by Liverpool. The goal was very reminiscent of last season: a good ball came in from the corner, and Skrtel charged forward to meet it with his head and rocket it past a helpless Szczesny. 

Whilst it was obviously relieving not to leave this game with nothing, the match will surely be viewed in hindsight as two points dropped. The attack were excellent all game apart from the finishing (Sturridge and Balotelli were both out, so this is understandable), but they were let down by an awful defence. At least the attack are now looking much more like last season than they were; if they can continue to cause opposition as many problems as they caused Arsenal, the top 4 begins to look a much more achievable goal.
-James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Man United 3-0 Liverpool: Post-Match Analysis

Getting knocked out of the Champions League in midweek was bad enough to beat out any of the Christmas cheer Liverpool fans might have been feeling, but today the pain was piled on courtesy of a big defeat from our fierce rivals. A combination of a shambolic defence, poor finishing and an absolute master class from David De Gea resulted in a humiliating final score of 3-0 to United.

The only fact that Liverpool fans can seek solace in is that the scoreline was not at all reflective of the game. For the first 10 minutes the reds (or yellows as they were for this game) were completely dominant, forcing multiple errors from the home sides defence with their high press. They were presented with a big chance to take the lead when Lallana played a lovely ball through to Sterling, but the 20 year-old’s effort wasn’t strong enough to beat De Gea. Almost immediately after this United launched their first real attack of the game, and Liverpool’s defence were instantly exposed. It was almost funny watching everyone floundering; Valencia embarrassed Allen and pulled it back to Rooney, whose run should have been tracked by Coutinho. Gerrard should also have been ensuring that Rooney didn’t get the room to shoot, but instead opted to watch from a safe distance as United’s captain blasted it home past Brad Jones, who was diving the wrong way. The WRONG WAY. If nothing else, playing Jones today may well have served to open fan’s eyes to the fact that Mignolet is the lesser of two evils when it comes to our goalkeeping options.

The contrast between the two keepers couldn’t have been more stark. De Gea was on fire, and rather than doing his utmost to get out of the way of the ball he turned his energies towards thwarting Sterling again to prevent Liverpool pulling level. Still, the signs were promising. We were making some good opportunities, and at just one down it looked likely that we’d be able to pull the game back and get at least a draw. However, with just five minutes to go until the break, Juan Mata doubled United’s lead. It was blatantly offside – Moreno’s step forward left Mata about 2 yards off when he headed in from close range, but the assistant clearly failed to spot the flick-on from Van Persie that carried the ball through to the Spaniard. This made the situation much bleaker, to the extent where it actually prompted Rodgers to make an early change for once. Sadly, the substitution was only half right. Bringing Balotelli on for the second half to partner Sterling was sensible, but Lallana shouldn’t have been replaced. He had been linking up well with Sterling; Coutinho should probably have been the one to make way.

Even so, Liverpool continued to look fairly good into the second half. Balotelli was playing fairly well, although he did isolate himself by needlessly drifting out wide on a couple of occasions. When he was in the middle, chances came his way – De Gea was on hand once again to push his powerful effort on to the woodwork. Sterling too had a huge opportunity to get a goal back; he picked off a weak back pass and looked to have rounded De Gea. However, he took one touch too many, allowing the United keeper to deny him once again. It clearly just wasn’t to be our day – nothing was getting past De Gea, and as usual pretty much everything was getting past our defence. It was no real surprise when United made it three; Lovren’s failure to complete a basic clearance presented the Red Devils with the opportunity, and this was made easier for Van Persie to take by Brad Jones being in a frankly bizarre position. A couple more excellent saves from De Gea meant that a game which Liverpool had dominated from an attacking point of view somehow ended 3-0.

The only man more worried than the fans at the moment is Brendan Rodgers. He must be well aware that his job is in jeopardy; the failure to get to the Champions League group stage followed by this heavy defeat to the Mancs are the latest blows in a series of disappointments this season. Although summer signings Balotelli, Moreno, Markovic and Lallana all looked good today, the continued playing of Gerrard over Can and the abysmal performances of Dejan Lovren have called Rodgers’s judgement into serious question. The league table speaks for itself: 18 points off top and 7 off the top 4 is not even close to good enough. Rodgers has been given enough time to see the weaknesses and fix them; he has instead opted to blindly ignore the flaws in our team in the hope that they will magically fix themselves. Consequently, his job is hanging by a thread – defeat at Arsenal next weekend will surely push him over the edge. For his sake and the team’s, let’s hope he can turn things around quickly. 

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Leicester 1-3 Liverpool: Post-Match Analysis

Yesterday, Liverpool secured their second consecutive victory in a 3-1 win over Leicester. Although there were times when the defence showed the frailties that it has displayed throughout the season, the performance was, on the whole, a big improvement on what we’ve been seeing for much of the campaign. Having been rested for most of the game against Stoke, Gerrard was deployed further forward in this match – he chipped in with Liverpool’s first goal, and subsequent strikes by Adam Lallana and Jordan Henderson were enough to seal the three points for the reds.

Just like in the Stoke game, Raheem Sterling had a big influence against Leicester. He started the season exceptionally, but has looked jaded for much of the campaign. His sudden rise to stardom has led to multiple England call-ups, and the pressure of being “the future of English football” has naturally weighed heavily on his shoulders. However, it looks like he may well be back to his best; he spent 90 minutes giving Ritchie De Laet nightmares, and provided key contributions to two of the Liverpool goals. Sadly, his form was of no use to us in solving our defensive problems: these remained clear for all to see, and for Leicester to exploit. They did this through a high pressing system; it was only a matter of time before they managed to force an error. The error, when it came, was from Simon Mignolet – his pass was woefully misplaced and left Esteban Cambiasso an open goal to aim at. Somehow the Foxes passed up the opportunity, but the chance proved the trigger for a barrage of Leicester attacks that did eventually culminate in a goal. The goal itself was somewhat fortunate: Ulloa’s shot came back off the post, struck Mignolet’s back and went in. Perhaps this was some sort of karma for the Belgian’s earlier error, or perhaps it was simply good fortune for the hosts. Either way, the result was Liverpool trailing to the bottom club in the Premier League.

So far this season Liverpool fans have become accustomed to seeing their team curl up in a ball and whimper when they concede. This time it was different. This time we saw the Liverpool who took their title challenge to the last day of the season in May. Whilst the quality of Suarez and Sturridge wasn’t there, the sheer determination and drive was there in abundance. Lallana equalised for Liverpool just four minutes after they went behind: after Lucas (who had another excellent game) had crossed the ball in, Lambert knocked it into the path of Lallana who fired home emphatically. The next goal came nine minutes into the second half. Somewhat fittingly, it was scored by a man who epitomises the aforementioned determination. After Raheem Sterling’s drilled cross could only be half-cleared, Steven Gerrard was on hand to smash the ball into the back of the net. Although the time has clearly come for him to accept a reduced role at the club, this strike proved that, when used sparingly in a more advanced position, he can still have a big impact.

Sadly, at this point, the red charge petered out a little. Wes Morgan was shown a straight red for wrestling Lambert to the ground, but if anything this seemed to weaken Liverpool’s attacking impetus. It was Leicester piling on all the pressure for much of the second half, and Mignolet was required to make some good saves to keep his side in front. Kolo Toure was also instrumental: his recent performances have rightly been enough to keep Dejan Lovren out of the side, and his showing at the King Power was no different. Skrtel also showed willing to put his body on the line; a cannonball of a shot hit him right on the head, causing the game to be delayed lengthily so he could receive treatment. It was encouraging to see a fairly competent defensive showing for once. The first half was shambolic at times, but the back line prevented Leicester’s pressure from amounting to anything during the second period.

The delay to treat Skrtel resulted in seven minutes being added on. This would surely have been a nervy ending for Liverpool had it not been for Jordan Henderson – he put the game to bed by scoring in the 83rd minute. Sterling was key in making the goal. After an optimistic long shot was parried by Schmeicel, Sterling was first on to the ball. He then backheeled it perfectly to the feet of Jordan Henderson, who was left to blast it into an unguarded goal. This intricate link-up play was something that happened fairly regularly during the match, and it is a sign that the team are starting to properly gel together. If we can continue to work well as a unit, there is no reason why we can’t win against Sunderland at the weekend. More important is the game on Tuesday – although our current form is drastically better than a few weeks ago, Basel will surely prove tough opposition. That said, the quality within our squad is definitely enough to overpower Basel, so if our form continues on this upward trajectory then we should be able to get the win and advance to the Champions League knockout stages.
-James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Liverpool 1-0 Stoke: Post-Match Report

After a drab first half littered with defensive mistakes, it looked for all the world like this game would just be more of the same from Liverpool. The famous Kop were being out-sung by the spirited away fans, and the chant of “how do you watch this every week?” was a question that many reds fans were surely putting to themselves. However, a second half where the team looked much more like the title-challenging outfit of last season was enough to ensure a 1-0 victory. The winner came late on in the match courtesy of a brave header from Glen Johnson of all people.

Prior to the game, Brendan Rodgers made comments about how this game would be treated by Liverpool as the start of their season. As such, the dreary opening half an hour was somewhat anticlimactic; the team offered nothing in attack, and whilst the defence was generally solid both Glen Johnson and Kolo Toure looked uncomfortable with the ball at their feet, with the former actually getting robbed of possession in a dangerous area. The only player who did themselves proud in these opening exchanges was Lucas, who put in some strong challenges to break up the play. Things improved a little towards the end of the half – Coutinho, who up to this point had been playing poorly, began to get into the game. This had a big impact; his sublime touch and excellent acceleration was nearly enough to take him through the entire Stoke defence just before the break. As it was, the half ended scoreless: a fair reflection on a largely uninspiring first 45 minutes.

The “game of two halves” cliché is applicable to this match – the encounter changed dramatically during the second period. This was, in part, down to Raheem Sterling’s increased involvement in the game; up to this point we hadn’t really seen much from him, but his bursting runs throughout the second half caused Stoke problems. This increased attacking intensity came at a price, as it opened the game up to the extent where the visitors were able to fashion a few decent chances of their own. Mignolet made a couple of strong saves, and Sterling was required to make an off-the-line clearance from a Stoke corner. However, it was Liverpool who eventually profited from the game becoming more open – having come extremely close through Allen and Sterling, Johnson eventually got the goal in the 86th minute. Henderson’s initial ball in was met by Lambert, who’s headed effort bounced off the bar. Johnson was quickest to react, and positively threw himself at the ball in order to head it home. He took a boot to the head in doing so, but he got full reward for his bravery. Despite a succession of Stoke corners, Liverpool did manage to hold out for a much-needed victory.  

It was Johnson who was voted man of the match by fans on Twitter due to his winning goal, but for me the outstanding performer was Lucas Leiva. I was hoping that he’d play prior to the game – he has been fielded in a couple of cup matches this season and looked good (or at the very least better at providing cover than Gerrard), and he rewarded Rodgers’ decision to play him today. He was consistently solid at the back, as well as making a couple of good forward runs. He nearly got a goal, but having run into an excellent position in the box he couldn’t steer his shot past Begovic. Other good performers were Sterling – who Liverpool fans are praying is now back to his best – and Lambert, who exhibited some nice technique at times (most notably with a glorious turn in the second half) and generally held the ball up well. Kolo Toure also had a pretty strong game, staking his claim to be first-choice centre-back in the place of disappointing new signing Dejan Lovren.

If Liverpool can build some momentum on the back of this result, we could indeed be looking at the fresh start that Rodgers referenced before the game. Although it’s far too late to mount any sort of title challenge again – even at this early stage Chelsea look to have it all but wrapped up – this performance provided encouragement that the top 4 is still very much within our grasp. The more pressing matter of qualification for the knockout stages of the Champions League is also looking more promising than it was; a performance against Basel like the one we put in during the second half against Stoke should be enough to get us the win and consequently the qualification.
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Monday, 24 November 2014

Crystal Palace 3-1 Liverpool: Post-Match Thoughts

When the fixture list was released earlier this year, Liverpool fans were quick to notice the twist of fate that saw us host Chelsea and then head to Selhurst Park for the next game – with memories of last season’s capitulation fresh in most fans’ minds, this pair of games seemed the perfect opportunity to exact some sort of revenge upon the teams who cost us our first Premier League title. However, far from looking fired up with determination to make the two London clubs pay, consecutive poor performances meant we failed to take a single point from either game. Sadly, these lacklustre showings are hardly an anomaly: Liverpool now find themselves just four points off the relegation zone, having accrued a measly 14 points from 12 games. This shocking run of form is showing no signs of abating – on the contrary, the club are now on a four game loss streak. Consequently, Brendan Rodgers’s future at the club is starting to come into question.

The only sign of improvement in recent weeks is that the quick start that was such a feature of Liverpool’s play last season has shown itself once more. Against Chelsea it was Can who put us into an early lead; at Selhurst Park it was Lambert who fired home after a glorious pass from Adam Lallana. Sadly a football match lasts longer than 10 minutes, and Liverpool’s defensive weaknesses were soon exploited. Seventeen minutes in, as if the sense of déjà vu wasn’t strong enough already, Dwight Gayle tucked the ball into the net to draw the hosts level.

An hour of very little action followed this – the tendency of the reds last season to spring rapid attacks and win the game early is gone, but what we are witnessing is by no means the ‘total football’ that Rodgers said he would bring to the club either. This terrible hybrid takes the worst elements from the two philosophies: our side now has a lack of incision that one might associate with the so-called death by football approach, but has a hugely exposed defence that is common in a team who likes to quickly throw men forward. This failure to create a clear team identity is Rodgers’s main problem. He should either have stuck to his guns and instilled the passing game as Liverpool’s default, or totally changed tack and built the team around pacey bursts forward. His claims of pragmatism are unfounded; indecision would be more accurate.

Another of his key problems is his failure to bring in any good defenders during the transfer window (coupled with his stubborn refusal to get a defensive coach in). Yannick Bolasie is a relatively good player, but Dejan Lovren managed to make him look like an amalgamation of Ronaldo, Messi and Maradona. It was Lovren who was at fault for the second goal; Bolasie flicked it over the Croatian’s head with ease, dumbfounding him to the extent that he fell to the floor. Unchallenged, Bolasie then pulled the ball into the area – Joe Ledley was on hand to slide it past Mignolet. Some fans have said that Mignolet could have done better with it. Whilst this may be true, I feel that the Belgian keeper has been used as a scapegoat throughout this season; his defence are hardly giving him any protection, and he has pulled off some good saves to keep us in games. Admittedly he has very little presence in the box and often fails to claim aerial balls that he should be collecting, but he is by no means the root of the problem.

Nobody could blame Mignolet for the third Palace goal, which was an absolute peach of a free kick from Mile Jedinak. The alleged foul by Martin Skrtel on Dwight Gayle was dubious seeing as they were holding on to each other’s shirts, but by this stage most fans were beyond caring. Jedinak took full advantage of the referee’s decision by curling the free kick beautifully around the wall and into the top corner. This capped yet another bad day at the office for LFC, who now sit perilously close to the relegation zone.

This is even more shocking when you consider the title challenge that Liverpool mounted last season. It seems a world apart from the repeatedly awful performances we are currently witnessing from our team, and the rapidity of the downfall is truly astounding. Whilst it can partially be attributed to the sale of Luis Suarez and partly to the lengthy absence of Daniel Sturridge through injury, a lot of the blame has to fall on Rodgers’s shoulders. A deadly combination of poor judgement followed by stubbornness has led to a series of shambolic performances from a team vastly inferior to the one we had last year, and if Rodgers can’t find a way to turn this around soon then he surely has to go.
-James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Liverpool 1-2 Chelsea: Bad Play, Bad Ref, Bad Result

Having managed to prevent European giants Real Madrid from scoring more than one goal in midweek, Liverpool fans went into the game against Chelsea with a fair amount of confidence. Chelsea came into the game unbeaten this season, but there was some optimism that we could perhaps break this run, or at least take a point away from the match. Unfortunately the majority of stand-out performers from midweek were left out of the starting eleven, and we were consequently treated to another terribly mediocre performance. Chelsea played much better than us and created more chances: on balance, they certainly deserved to win. However, we would probably have snatched a draw had it not been for the failure of the referee to miss a blatant Cahill handball in the box just minutes from time.

The team made a promising start. Mario Balotelli was making some good runs in behind the defence for once, and although he was getting caught offside too often he was definitely causing the Chelsea defenders some problems. They looked uncomfortable whenever a Liverpool player ran at them; the direct style of Coutinho and Sterling carved open gaps in the blues’ back line. It was this positivity that resulted in the reds taking the lead after 9 minutes – Emre Can was not closed down, and his ferocious drive deflected off Gary Cahill and into the net past a helpless Courtois. Sadly, the lead didn’t last long. Chelsea won a corner, and what happened next was totally predictable. Despite outnumbering the Chelsea players in the box by two to one, the hapless defending led to a failure to get the ball away. Mignolet was forced into a good stop from a Terry header, but the ball came out to Matic. There was a hint of handball about his layoff to Cahill, but it looked accidental. The centre-back then smashed the ball goalwards, and despite Mignolet’s best efforts the ball was adjudged to have crossed the line by Hawkeye technology.

There was a brief period after the equaliser where the game really opened up. Liverpool were absorbing a lot of pressure, but they were also springing dangerous looking counter attacks. Balotelli even managed to get the ball in the back of the net with a tidy finish past Courtois, but he was just offside. By the half hour mark, this Liverpool threat seemed to have faded somewhat. It became an exercise in defending, and past experience should have served as a warning that this could never end well. Whilst we managed to keep Chelsea from taking the lead for the rest of the first half, it was really only a matter of time. It took until the 67th minute, but Mourinho’s men did finally take the lead. Like the first there was a touch of controversy about the goal – Azpilicueta took the ball round Coutinho, but looked to have run it off the pitch in the process. Replays were inconclusive, but it looked like a fraction of the ball hadn’t crossed the line. His subsequent drilled cross was parried away by Mignolet, but it fell to Costa. He made no mistake with the finish.

Despite bringing on Allen, Borini and Lambert, Rodgers had no success whatsoever in changing the tide of the game. Although we were the trailing side there was a complete lack of urgency and intensity, and we frankly didn’t deserve a goal. However, into added time, Liverpool worked their way into quite a threatening position. The ball came out to Gerrard on the edge of the box, and he aimed to roll back the years with an extremely powerful effort. It may have been heading for the corner or going just wide, but we never got the chance to find out; Gary Cahill lent into the ball with his arm. It was pretty blatant: Steven Gerrard certainly thought so, clearly incensed at the referee’s choice to wave away the penalty claim. This was the last incident of note, and Chelsea comfortably weathered a late period of weak pressure to finish the game 2-1 victors.

We can rightly point to the referee as the reason we didn’t get a point – had Anthony Taylor seen the handball, we would most likely have scored the subsequent penalty and got the draw. However, it would have been undeserved; factors other than the referee have to be considered to get to the root of why we put in such a lacklustre performance. Rodgers has some serious questions to answer: why, for example, was Kolo Toure left out? He certainly earned a place based on his performance at the Bernebau, and his leadership and experience would surely have been invaluable against Chelsea. However, 20 million pound signing Dejan Lovren was preferred; it’s fair to say that he and Skrtel were quite poor throughout. Rodgers’s assertion that we don’t need a defensive coach also has to be questioned. At the corner which led to the first goal, the two centre backs were seemingly marking each other on the edge of the box. With only four Chelsea players up for the corner and eight Liverpool players in their own box, there is no way we should be conceding.

This stubbornness in our manager is extremely worrying. Last season it was ‘assuredness’ which was ‘great to see in such a young manager’ – it’s all well and good when we’re getting the results, but his refusal to change the formation and personnel is costing us dearly at the moment. He is blindly standing by his summer signings to the detriment of the team, and unless he swallows his pride soon then our results will continue to be disappointing. We now find ourselves in a position where we could well be in the bottom half of the table by Monday, and unless Rodgers bucks up his ideas then we might even end up in the wrong half of the table come the end of the season. This is admittedly a worst-case scenario, but hopes of the top 4 are definitely fading rapidly.
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Thursday, 6 November 2014

The Italian Job: Borini or Balotelli?

When Liverpool signed Balotelli this summer, there was general hysteria amongst fans. There is no doubt that he is a world class player on his day, and Rodgers is known for being a good man manager – despite the controversy the Italian seems to take with him wherever he goes, everyone was very happy to see him sign. He hasn’t caused any disruption so far in his short LFC career; in fact, he’s yet to make much of an impact of any kind. One man who can surely sympathise with his plight is fellow countryman Fabio Borini: he too signed for a reasonable price from quite a big club, and he has also struggled to shine since arriving at Anfield. However, he impressed on loan at Sunderland last year and refused to be sold in the summer. This sheer determination to succeed at Liverpool is slowly starting to pay off, with Rodgers playing him for the full 90 minutes in our midweek clash against Real Madrid. Is this healthy attitude alone enough to earn him a place in the regular starting eleven, or should Balotelli be given more time to show his class?

Whilst parallels can certainly be drawn between the signings of Borini and Balotelli, there’s no doubt that they are very different players. Borini is all about his work rate; he will chase down every ball, close down every defender and cover every inch of grass for the club time and time again. This makes him well suited to Liverpool’s pressing style, as his tireless efforts to win the ball high up the field can lead to chances being created. Balotelli, on the other hand, is less of a workhorse and more of a show pony. He has immense talent and can score some truly wonderful goals, but he is somewhat lacking in terms of the running he puts in. To be fair, he has worked harder for Liverpool than he has done at previous clubs; he now deigns to mark someone at corners, and his off the ball movement is excellent at times. It is also true that a large factor in his failure so far has been the fact that he has been functioning as a lone striker: this has left him isolated. Even so, his work ethic can certainly be questioned.

In an ideal world, we would have a striker who is both extremely motivated and extremely talented. We had that in Luis Suarez – he was hungry (sorry, not sorry) to succeed whenever he pulled on the Liverpool shirt, and he did some truly magical things out on the pitch. However, Suarez is gone. We have to work with what we’ve got, and we essentially face a straight choice between pure work rate and pure talent. Sturridge is our best player and is therefore nailed on as a starter whenever he is fit; the question is who should partner him. The case can certainly be made for Borini: his eagerness to continually make runs provides someone for Sturridge to link up with, and could lead to a prolific partnership. The only question mark lies over his finishing. Borini’s raw ability is not amazing – whilst he occasionally produces something nice (his assist for Balotelli against Swansea recently was good), he does have a tendency to get into a good position and then waste it. Seeing good chances go to waste is infuriating for both the fans and the team, and is the major factor that works against Borini in his quest for regular first team action.

At least we are guaranteed to make chances regularly with Borini up front. When Balotelli plays, there is no such assurance. There are times when he remains stationary instead of making a run or positively coming for the ball, and this can break up the fluidity that was such a trademark of our play last season. That said, it is hard to make a fair judgement until we see Balotelli and Sturridge get an extended amount of game time together. Balotelli had only just come through the door when Sturridge got sidelined, so consequently we’ve only really seen him function on his own up front. If he clicks with Sturridge, then the chances will surely come. Balotelli’s natural talent then becomes an important factor – he is certainly capable of taking his chances.

In conclusion, whilst Borini has done well to play his way into consideration for the first team through pure hard work and determination, Balotelli definitely deserves a chance up top with Daniel Sturridge before we decide to write him off. Although he may not be as hardworking as Borini, his superior talent means that the goals will surely come if he can establish a strong partnership with Sturridge. That said, if Balotelli continues to struggle even after the return of Sturridge, Borini has shown himself to be a perfectly adequate option.
-James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Real Madrid 1-0 Liverpool: Post-Match Thoughts

Having predicted a scoreline of 5-1 Real Madrid prior to the match, I’m coming out of this game feeling extremely positive. We played very well for the majority of the game, made hardly any defensive errors (yep, you read that correctly) and managed to prevent Madrid from scoring two goals or more in a match for the first time since mid-September. We even managed to create a few promising attacks of our own, and although Casillas wasn’t tested very much at all we were at least working good chances. The only real negative is the fairly major one that we lost the game, but the performance was certainly encouraging.

The headline news in the lead-up to the game was that Brendan Rodgers had selected a second string team to face the reigning European champions. Balotelli, Coutinho, Sterling, Gerrard and Henderson all found themselves on the bench, with Lovren not even making the matchday squad. Many fans were up in arms about this, with the ‘Rodgers Out’ crowd on Twitter becoming more vociferous than ever before. However, Brendan had the last laugh. All of the players he selected were hungry to prove themselves and earn a permanent place in the first team, and consequently they worked exceptionally hard. Borini chased down every ball, Emre Can and Lucas seemed to be in the right place to make a tackle whenever Real came at us and Kolo Toure had the game of his life. Lazar Markovic also showed some promising signs, and even Skrtel looked more solid than usual. Despite going behind after 26 minutes through a Benzema goal, there was no point where the game looked beyond us. This is a testament to our performance; we arguably deserved a draw against one of the best teams in the world.

The statistics, predictably, were very much in favour of Real. They had more possession and lots more shots – a team of their calibre playing at home nearly always dominate the game, so this was unsurprising. Mignolet was called into action a lot, and he rose to the challenge magnificently. He had one of his best games in a Liverpool shirt, showing confidence when coming for the ball and making some excellent saves. Our chances came through playing Madrid at their own game: we staged multiple rapid counter-attacks, with Markovic utilising the frequency with which Marcelo was out of position. The final ball was never quite there, but there were definitely dangerous moments. There were two instances where decent crosses would surely have resulted in a goal, and Lallana fashioned a decent chance for himself which he put just wide of the far post. The pattern of absorbing pressure well then springing counter attacks continued right until the end of the match; we never looked totally out of it.

Whilst this stellar performance certainly vindicated Rodgers, it has also caused him some problems for Saturday’s game against Chelsea. If he plays the same team that he fielded against Madrid, questions will have to be asked if we get anything other than a victory. Obviously playing Chelsea is an extremely tough game, but it is winnable; as such, if Rodgers benches his star players again then fails to get a result, he will have to take some blame. On the other hand, the so-called reserves made such a good account of themselves that it seems harsh to drop them – the Real game was one of our best performances of the season. Personally, I would go for a happy medium. Toure should definitely retain his spot in defence, as he was solid throughout and arguably our man of the match. Can should also start – he was excellent, and deserves a run in the starting eleven. However, I would start Borini, Markovic and Lucas on the bench: whilst they all had fairly good games, none of them were good enough to keep Balotelli, Sterling and Henderson out of the team for such a big game. That said, if Rodgers did name an unchanged side then he couldn’t be blamed.

In conclusion, this is the most positive I’ve ever felt after a Liverpool defeat. We played with pride, and Real didn’t completely outclass us. We retained our goal threat until the final whistle, and never let the Spanish giants relax. Our defence was also uncharacteristically good, aside from an error apiece for Skrtel and Lucas. If we can maintain that level of performance against Chelsea at the weekend, we have a good chance of getting a result.

-James Martin

Monday, 3 November 2014

Real Madrid vs Liverpool: Preview

This Tuesday, Liverpool face Champions League holders Real Madrid at the Bernabeu. Since their 3-0 battering in the reverse fixture, the reds have drawn 0-0 with Hull, edged past Swansea in the League Cup and lost 1-0 to a depressingly average Newcastle side. Even if we were in our scintillating form of last season it would be tough to get any sort of result away to the Spanish giants – in this sort of form, it is extremely hard to see anything other than a thrashing.

As if things weren’t hard enough for us already when Real came to Anfield, Gareth Bale is expected to return to the side for this game. This means that our defence – currently one of the worst in the league – will be up against a front three of Ronaldo, Benzema and Bale. On top of this, Real don’t have a clash with Barcelona around the corner this time out; it is Liverpool with the big fixture ahead (against Chelsea). Due to this, they won’t show mercy and ease up like they did last time, meaning that we could be in for a huge score. There is even a worry that irony could deal up a cruel scenario whereby Madrid break our record of the biggest ever Champions League margin of victory. Liverpool will surely be hopeful of stopping ‘Los Blancos’ from scoring more than eight times, but the very fact that it has to be entertained as a possibility shows just how bleak the situation is.
We can’t even rely on the goals of Daniel Sturridge to help us out. He is still sidelined, having been out of action ever since the 3-0 win over Tottenham. It is no coincidence that this game was our last convincing performance; his movement and excellent combination with Raheem Sterling bring a fluidity to our attack that has been severely lacking in recent weeks. It will come down to Mario Balotelli to score in this game, and if the last few games are anything to go by then that seems unlikely. He isn’t playing particularly badly; whilst he’s missed a few chances that he should probably have taken, the main problem is the lack of service he is receiving. Brendan Rodgers is stubbornly continuing to play Balotelli as a lone striker, and as such is failing to get anywhere near the best out of him. If Rodgers refuses to play the diamond when up against Newcastle, it seems unlikely that he’ll be prepared to take the risk away to Real Madrid. If Sterling was played up front with Balotelli, we might be able to score early on, unsettle the hosts and possibly even snatch a point from the match. As it is we’ll probably attempt to apply some early pressure, make a couple of half-chances but fail to take them and then get ripped apart by the sheer quality of Real.

The one thing that works in Liverpool’s favour is that they have absolutely no expectation on them whatsoever. As an ardent LFC fan, I tend to be optimistic going into games. Even I have written us off for this one. This feeling is surely shared by the players from both sides, and it could have an effect. For Liverpool, it will hopefully allow them to play with total freedom; there’s nothing to lose, so they can just go out there and try to emulate the lovely football that they created last season. For Real, it could lead to complacency. Modric has already come out and said that the team were “saving energy” in their last game against the reds. This attitude might lead to mistakes, which if Liverpool manage to capitalise on could lead to a shock result.

I don’t think that we’ll put in a performance as poor as the one against Newcastle. If there is one thing guaranteed to get a team fired up, it’s a game against one of the biggest teams in the world. I am hopeful that Liverpool can make a good account of themselves, and finish the game with their pride intact. However, whilst there is a remote chance that Real will pay the price for underestimating us, I personally can’t see us getting a result. My final score prediction is 5-1 to Real Madrid.
-James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Newcastle 1-0 Liverpool: Discontent Grows as Reds Slip to Defeat

For the last few weeks, Liverpool have been nowhere near their scintillating form of last season. At first the excuse was that the new players needed time to gel to with the team, and that we were still adapting. We are now 10 games in, and the finger is pointing in a much more worrying direction: Brendan Rodgers. His stubborn refusal to switch the formation and put someone up front to partner Balotelli has led to woeful performances and lots of dropped points. It was the same story today, as Liverpool lost 1-0 to an average Newcastle side.

The performance was sadly one we have become very much used to this season. It was lacklustre, uninspired and frankly poor. Nobody could create any chances – Sterling was wasted out wide, Coutinho was far from his best and Balotelli was horribly isolated. These problems would have been addressed by putting Sterling up front with Balotelli, but Rodgers opted to stick with the 4-3-3. Fortunately Newcastle were putting in a fairly poor shift as well, or things could have got very embarrassing. One of the dullest first halves of football Liverpool fans have witnessed for a long time ended goalless, and this scoreline flattered the reds.

The second half saw a slight improvement in quality, and it looked for a while like Liverpool might be able to take all three points away from St. James’s Park. Steven Gerrard’s inclusion in a midfield three (alongside Henderson and Allen) gave him licence to push up the field, and he rolled back the years with some good passes from advanced positions. That said, no clear cut chances were being created; the only genuine test of Krul was a close-range header from Coutinho, which was incorrectly called back for offside anyway. The referee had a poor game, and both Janmaat and Sissoko were lucky not to see red. As it was the magpies were allowed to carry on with a full compliment of 11 men, and there was an awful inevitability about their goal in the 73rd minute. A failure to clear the ball from Moreno allowed Ayoze Perez the opportunity to nip in and smash the ball past a helpless Mignolet, giving the hosts the lead.

Any hopes of Liverpool being fired up by going behind quickly faded. By contrast, they had looked much more of a threat prior to conceding. It was Newcastle who played the better football for the last 15 minutes, and it would have finished 2 or 3 nil had it not been for some excellent saves from Simon Mignolet. The introduction of Lambert had absolutely no effect, throwing into question whether he was really worth buying as a ‘Plan B’. The game ended 1-0 to Newcastle, and Liverpool now find themselves 12 points adrift of leaders Chelsea.

Unless these performances can improve rapidly, we can wave goodbye to hopes of a top 4 spot, let alone another push for the title. The return of Daniel Sturridge towards the end of the month will definitely be a help to us, but certainly doesn’t solve the core issue of defensive frailty. Brendan Rodgers opted to spend a sizeable proportion of the money from the sale of Luis Suarez on Dejan Lovren: this is a very painful thought. Suarez was one of the best players in the world, whilst Lovren is an utter liability. A defensive pairing of him and Skrtel is laughable, and Rodgers’s continued insistence that we don’t need a defensive coach brought in is worrying indeed. The first step to curing any problem is acceptance that the problem exists, and until Rodgers does that we’re in big trouble.
-James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Liverpool vs Swansea: Late Goals Send LFC Through to the Last 8

Yesterday, Liverpool faced fellow Premier League side Swansea in the Capital One Cup. The reds put in a solid display, but it looked like they were going to be sent crashing out of the competition until two late goals turned the match on its head.

It was clear from the start of the match that Rodgers had sent out his players with instructions to press high and put Swansea under pressure. This resulted in chances being created – for the first half an hour Liverpool were posing an almost constant threat. Borini was particularly good at this; his hunger for the game and determination to prove himself meant he happily chased down every ball. However, the pressure never really materialised into efforts on goal. Tremmel was barely tested in the first half, with good positions being squandered. This served to highlight how much we are missing Sturridge; Coutinho’s through balls were on point, but there was nobody there with the confidence and quality to provide the finish. For the final fifteen minutes of the half Liverpool eased off a bit, and consequently Swansea applied a little pressure of their own. Brad Jones looked very uncomfortable with the ball at his feet, rushing multiple clearances. The Welsh side were unable to capitalise on this period of vulnerability, and the half ended with the game still scoreless.

The second half started, and Liverpool were once again producing football at a level they’ve failed to reach for much of this season. Coutinho was really pulling the strings in midfield, often drawing two or three men before playing a lovely pass to a teammate. That said, clear cut chances were still very much at a premium – most of our shots on goal were speculative long range efforts. Although the team were managing to keep up their attacking momentum from the first half, a little of the defensive solidity had been sacrificed. This led to a much more open game; Swansea were starting to worry the notoriously shaky Liverpool back line. After 65 minutes the visitors did manage to exploit the defensive weaknesses of the hosts: a ball over the top left Lovren in no man’s land, and Marvin Emnes finished excellently to give Swansea the lead.

The goal was followed by a worrying spell for Liverpool. They were in disarray having gone behind despite being on top, and Swansea could easily have doubled their lead. Gomis had the pick of the chances, finding himself unmarked in the box from a set piece but firing his header straight at Jones. Eventually things settled down, but the Reds still didn’t look likely to score the goal that would bring them back on level terms. With 10 minutes to play, Brendan Rodgers took Lambert off for Balotelli. This change should have been made much earlier. Lambert looked off the pace all game, as his lack of speed and mobility prevented him from properly integrating himself into the high pressing system. Balotelli had a positive effect on the side immediately, combining well with Coutinho and Borini to carve out chances. It was Borini who got the assist for Balotelli’s goal in the 85th minute: an inch perfect cross was attacked well by Balotelli, who knocked it home from close range.
With the scores level, Liverpool really kicked on. Federico Fernandez was shown a straight red with just minutes left to go – it was never a red card offence (and arguably not even a foul), but the dismissal left gaps for LFC to exploit. Into the 95th minute it looked as though Swansea would get the chance to go in and regroup before extra time, but Dejan Lovren of all people scored a late winner to send Liverpool through. It came from a set piece: Coutinho’s lovely ball in was totally misjudged by Tremmel, and Lovren got his head to it. He headed the ball downwards, and it bounced into the net. Liverpool are now through to the final 8 of the Capital One Cup.

It’s excellent that the two heroes of the game are the two most under-fire Liverpool players. Balotelli in particular will surely be relieved to have found the net after his long drought, his last goal coming against Ludogorets. Hopefully both Lovren and Balotelli can kick on from here and start really returning on the investments made in them. Borini will be hopeful of a place in the starting line-up when Liverpool face Newcastle on Saturday – he played fairly well on the whole, and combined nicely with fellow countryman Balotelli. Whoever starts at the weekend, the reds will fancy their chances of victory if they put in another performance like this.
-James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Liverpool 0-3 Real Madrid: Post-Match Analysis

Yesterday, Liverpool played host to Real Madrid in a Champions League tie at Anfield. Playing the reigning champions of Europe was never going to be easy, and so it proved: the errors that have manifested themselves throughout this season were brutally exploited by the Spanish giants, and the game ended 3-0.
The game started very promisingly for Liverpool; the high press and the rapid attacks were reminiscent of last season. Real looked shaken by the intensity of the start – some uncharacteristic unforced errors were made, with passes going astray and crosses being wasted. The only real issue was the failure to test Casillas. Although Liverpool were applying pressure and looking the stronger side, the final ball was lacking and consequently the Real Madrid goalkeeper had little to do. Even the LFC defence looked better than usual, with Johnson putting in his best performance in a while and, at least for the first twenty minutes, dealing with the threat of Ronaldo.
Sadly (but somewhat predictably), it was too good to last. The effort that the men in red were exerting was clear, and after twenty minutes the intensity started to drop off. It didn’t take Real long to punish them for the lapse; 23 minutes in they showed their class and came up with a stunning goal. The passing was rapid and accurate, culminating in a lovely Rodriguez chip over the top which Ronaldo converted excellently. Unlike most of the goals we’ve conceded this season, it was down to the skill of the opposition rather than a glaring defensive error.
After this, Liverpool’s resistance totally disintegrated. The game turned into the exhibition that so many had predicted pre-game, and by the half an hour mark Madrid had made it 2. This time it was Benzema: Toni Kroos crossed it in, unchallenged by anyone, and Benzema beat Johnson comfortably at the far post to loop it over Mignolet and in. Though the finish itself was nice, the cross should never have been allowed to come in. Five minutes before half time they had a third, again through Benzema. This was the worst of the lot, and typified our defending so far this season. It came from a corner – the defence were totally unable to clear after Pepe knocked it down, Mignolet failed to claim the ball and Benzema poked it home from close range. The game was nearly made interesting again by Coutinho, who was our best player on the night- seconds before half time his long range effort cannoned off the post.
Balotelli was taken off for Lallana at half time – this left Liverpool without an out-and-out striker. It was Sterling who functioned as the false 9, and he looked fairly dangerous. The renewed pace in attack allowed the hosts to threaten for the first ten minutes of the half, but soon enough control had been seized again by Real. Kroos and Modric pulled the strings, toying with Liverpool and preventing them from getting a touch of the ball for prolonged periods. This slowed the tempo down massively. It is likely that Madrid had El Clasico on their minds, as if they’d wanted more goals in the second half they probably could have got them. As it was, the second half ended at a pedestrian pace and finished 3-0.
Although a hefty defeat is never pleasant, the game wasn’t as bad as many people are making it out to be. It should not be forgotten that Real Madrid are current champions of Europe, and that they are 10 times winners of the prestigious tournament. It is also unfounded to suggest  that Liverpool didn’t show promise; it’s fair to say that if we’d started against QPR like we did against Real then we’d have had the game wrapped up in the first twenty minutes. Coutinho looked back to somewhere near his scintillating best, and Sterling was excellent as usual. The only real problem the match highlighted was one we are all very aware of already – our defence simply isn’t good enough.  If the club are going to continue the progress they have been making in recent times, this issue has to be dealt with.
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Sunday, 19 October 2014

QPR 2-3 Liverpool: What Just Happened?

After a frantic finish at Loftus Road, QPR and Liverpool fans alike were left in a state of utter shock. Four goals in the last seven minutes turned a dreary 1-0 affair into a mind-boggling 3-2 victory for the reds. Despite being dominated by QPR for large periods of the match, two own goals and a nice strike from Coutinho saw LFC take all three points. The win fires them up to 5th in the table, although wins for Swansea and/or Manchester United would see them drop.

The first half was one of the most lacklustre performances Liverpool have produced in living memory. They barely produced a chance of their own, allowing QPR to apply mounds of pressure onto an extremely shaky defence. Some of the clearances were nigh-on suicidal; it’s a minor miracle that Rangers didn’t manage a goal in the first half. Leroy Fer struck the bar twice, and a goal line intervention from Glen Johnson was needed to stop Rodgers’ team going a goal down. Mignolet was also called upon on multiple occasions. He had a very good game, making three or four vital stops. The few times Liverpool did venture forwards it ended in frustration- Mario Balotelli was hugely wasteful, taking poor shots from ridiculous areas. Another issue in the LFC attack was the more advanced role Gerrard was playing in. His lack of pace prevented Liverpool from springing attacks quickly, and consequently many a blistering run from Raheem Sterling went to waste. With the possible exception of Adam Lallana, Sterling was the only player in a red shirt who looked capable of creating any sort of chance.

Liverpool started the second half a lot better, but that wasn’t hard. In truth we still looked pretty awful; a few chances were being carved out, but they didn’t look like being taken. Defensively there was little improvement- Bobby Zamora continued to terrorise our back line. This doesn’t bode well for our clash against Real in just three days time; if Zamora, Austin and Phillips can make our defence look so weak, what will Benzema, Ronaldo and Bale do to it? All we can do is try to outscore them, but based on today’s evidence that might be tough. It took nearly 70 minutes for the reds to eventually get the ball into the QPR net, and even then they had to rely on Richard Dunne to do it for them.

After the breakthrough, the game went dead for a while. For a glorious fifteen minutes, Liverpool fans started to hope that their team might be able to calm the game down, prevent QPR from getting forward and grind out a 1-0 win. What were we thinking? In typical LFC fashion, it didn’t all go according to plan. With just three minutes of normal time to play, substitute Eduardo Vargas scored to put the London outfit back on level terms- the chance was created courtesy of some shambolic defending from Jose Enrique. The anger and despair didn’t last long. In the 90th minute Coutinho drilled the ball excellently into the far corner to restore Liverpool’s lead. He deserved a goal for the impact he made on the game; after replacing Lallana in the 66th minute he vastly improved the LFC attacking threat.

Unbelievably, the game was far from over. Barely a minute after Coutinho had scored what most people were sure would be the winner, Vargas scored from a corner with a glancing header. The ball nicked off Steven Gerrard and somehow crept in at the near post, making the score 2-2 in the 92nd minute. In the final minute of added time, it looked like QPR might even go on and snatch the victory. They won a free kick in a dangerous position, but the delivery into the box was poor. This allowed Liverpool to break- Coutinho played an inch perfect pass through to Raheem Sterling, who’s attempted ball across goal to Balotelli was diverted into the net by Steven Caulker. Rangers barely had time to kick off again, meaning that Liverpool somehow left Loftus Road with all three points. 

The performance can hardly be called inspiring; whilst Sterling played well and Coutinho made a strong case for inclusion in the starting line-up against Real, the team as a whole played extremely poorly. The only real positive to take from it is that we got the three points; in one sense that’s all that matters, but we won’t be able to rely on two own goals to get us the win every match. We need to up our game, and we need to do it soon.
-James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Liverpool vs Everton: Jagielka Wonder-Strike Snatches a Point for ‘That Blue Team’

Having both made poor starts to the season, Liverpool and Everton met in the first Merseyside derby of the season with even more desire to win than normal. Liverpool played well, but in the end a late goal from Jagielka ensured that neither side got their wish; the match ended as a draw.

As soon as the match kicked off it became apparent that Liverpool were more up for this fixture than they had been for any other so far this season. The pressing was good, the intensity of the play was excellent, and overall we looked very dangerous. The attacking play was clearly too strong for Barry; he mis-timed a tackle in the very first minute of the game and was subsequently booked. Everton showed some attacking intent of their own- Lukaku’s bursting run into the box was halted by Moreno pulling him back, and the Blues had a big shout for a penalty. However, the referee opted not to give it, and replays showed that the foul started just outside the box anyway.

Minutes later, Martin Atkinson had another big call to make. Barry, who had already been booked, blatantly raised his arms into an unnatural position in order to block Raheem Sterling’s vicious drive. Had this been deemed a foul- as, clearly, it should have been- then Barry would surely have been off the pitch for a second yellow. Moments after that, Barry was in trouble again. He slid in to rob Balotelli of possession, but caught a fair portion of the man before getting anywhere near the ball. This time Atkinson did give a free kick, but again failed to produce the second yellow card. Had he done so, the game may well have gone very differently.

As it was, Liverpool were forced to try and win the match against Everton’s full compliment of players. The signs were much more encouraging than in previous games; with the exception of Markovic, who is still adapting to the English game, everyone looked dangerous going forward. Lallana was particularly impressive- he played some nice passes and showed good close control at times. Despite this, the teams went in for half time at 0-0. Nobody had predicted this before the game, but two of the worst defences in the league so far had performed admirably. In the end, it took a piece of magic from under-fire skipper Steven Gerrard to break the deadlock. Balotelli won a free kick in a promising position, and, though the Italian looked interested in taking it, Gerrard stepped up. He hit it gloriously, curling round the wall and in, just close enough to the corner that Howard’s touch on the ball was not telling enough to keep it out.

It looked for a while like the impossible was going to happen- Liverpool were going to keep a clean sheet. Admittedly Everton had offered barely anything going forward, but when they had launched an attack the defence had remained solid. It wasn’t until stoppage time at the end of the game that they finally conceded. Mignolet should have come to claim a cross but didn’t, then Lovren’s clearing header fell to Jagielka, around 25 yards from goal. It wasn’t awful defending, but we probably should have done better with it. What happened next, however, everyone was powerless to prevent. Jagielka, hardly renowned for the goals he scores from centre-back, rocketed the ball with unerring precision into the top corner of the net, just grazing the underside of the bar on the way in.

Obviously it was frustrating not to take all three points from a game where we were on top throughout, but things like a wonder goal from a defender simply cannot be accounted for. Of course it would be great to be getting more points on the board, but at least now we’re looking recognisable as the team who did so well last year. Hopefully this performance can be a springboard for us; our next three games are all winnable, so hopefully the confidence from the way we played yesterday combined with the return of Daniel Sturridge will be enough to enable us to take maximum points.
-James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Sunday, 21 September 2014

West Ham United 3-1 Liverpool: Hammered

Yesterday, Liverpool travelled to the Boleyn Ground to face West Ham United. It was never going to be an easy trip; whilst many fans were wantonly predicting a comfortable victory prior to kick-off, it seemed quite clear to me that it would be a tough game for us. Even discounting the fact that we’ve been playing some pretty lousy football of late, West Ham have put together a very strong side over the summer. It proved to be every bit as tough as I thought- Liverpool failed to raise their game at all from the standard shown against Ludogorets and Aston Villa, and consequently got comfortably outplayed.

Things started to go horribly wrong within minutes. It took just 75 seconds for Winston Reid to open the scoring for West Ham, tapping the ball in after receiving a knock-down from James Tomkins. Five minutes later they were on the scoresheet again, this time courtesy of a clever lobbed effort from Diafra Sakho. The two goals were undoubtedly deserved- the Hammers were all over us in the early stages, and our defence, as it has done so many times already this season, looked shockingly inadequate.

After 20 minutes of total domination from the hosts, Rodgers realised he needed to switch things up. Manquillo was withdrawn and Sakho came on in his place, and the team re-shuffled into a 3-5-2 formation. This had a positive effect. Although we still looked a terribly long way from our dazzling best of last season, our performance was markedly improved by the change in shape. We managed to push out a little and start making some attacks of our own, and the first genuine opportunity that we carved out was taken excellently by Raheem Sterling. Henderson put a cross in to Balotelli, who brought it under control beautifully. His shot was blocked and came out to Sterling, who rifled it emphatically home from the edge of the box. The technique was exemplary; to strike it with that much power whilst retaining the pinpoint accuracy is quite a feat.

The Reds (or, in this game, yellows) didn’t succeed in using this goal as a springboard. The rest of the first half passed without any real event, and neither side looked likely to get a goal. We came out strongly in the second half, inspired by the introduction of Lallana, but the period of intense pressure didn’t last long. West Ham were soon creating chances of their own again, although the central defenders, in particular Lovren, looked marginally more comfortable and capable of dealing with threats in a three than they do in a straight back four. A couple of good chances fell Liverpool’s way; Borini had an opportunity to square it to Moreno- admittedly the pass would have been tough, as the angle was tight-  but opted to shoot, and saw his effort comfortably saved. The other notable incident was when Adrian raised his foot to bring down the oncoming Borini; at first glance it looked innocuous, but the replay suggested that it could well have been a penalty.

That said, the referee can be no real excuse for us. He was consistently poor- he gave a lot of decisions against West Ham as well. The real problems were our defensive incompetence and lack of flair and creativity going forward. Defensive frailties were exposed again late on; Sakho headed the ball into no-man’s land, allowing Downing to take possession. He played a lovely pass to Amalfitano, who slotted it coolly past Mignolet. The game ended 3-1, and Liverpool can have no real complaints.

So what’s the matter with us at the moment? Why are we so badly underperforming? The main reason is clearly the absence of Daniel Sturridge. His pace, finishing and link-up play with Raheem Sterling is being sorely missed. Without the excellent attack that we have become renowned for, our defensive weaknesses cannot be excused. It does not bode well for the season that our results are extremely reliant on our most injury-prone player- we need to address the real problem, and sort out the defence as soon as possible. Maybe the way to do this is hiring a new defensive coach; all I know is that the defending we’ve witnessed this season would be laughable at League 2 level, so to see it at the Premier League runners-up of last season is alarming indeed.

In the short-term, things are looking brighter. Although our defence is still awful, Sturridge is set to return from injury in time for the Merseyside derby. His return could be enough to inspire us to what might well be a turning point victory.
-James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Liverpool vs Villa: Rodgers Rests Raheem and Pays Painful Price

Yesterday, Liverpool took on Aston Villa at Anfield. There was a definite sense of nervousness in the days leading up to the game; our key man Daniel Sturridge was out, and Villa are a team we’ve struggled against in recent times. Rodgers, however, was apparently not concerned. The day before the game, rumours started circulating that Sterling, who has been without a doubt our best, most influential player so far this season, was going to be rested. I dismissed it as rubbish, but, sure enough, when the team sheets were released an hour before kick-off, Sterling was notable only by his absence in the starting eleven. We went on to perform extremely poorly, and ended up losing 1-0.

Of course, blaming the defeat entirely on Sterling’s absence is unreasonable, but it did play a very large part. Right from the outset, we missed his pace and urgency. A lot of our players seemed to be strolling around the pitch, barely exerting any effort at all. When we did get the ball in a decent area, there always seemed to be a whole crowd of Villa players barring further progress. Even a 9th minute goal for the visitors (surprise surprise, it came from a badly defended set piece) didn’t seem to jolt the Liverpool players into action. Rodgers eventually seemed to realise that we needed Sterling’s creative impetus and spark on the pitch, and brought him on midway through the second half. The difference was immediately apparent; he made space not only for himself, but for others. Sadly, it was too little too late, and the closest we came to an equaliser was a curling Coutinho effort which struck the post.

Another reason we put in such a lacklustre performance is the formation we used. The 4-2-3-1 simply doesn’t suit us, and it showed. Neither Henderson nor Gerrard (particularly the latter) work particularly well in a defensive ‘2’, and whenever we use the formation our lone striker looks woefully isolated. Some would point to the injury of Sturridge and say that playing one up front was forced on us, but again I have to come back to Sterling. Although arguably better in the hole, he has proved already this season that he can do a good job up top. Playing our usual 4-4-2 diamond with Balotelli and Sterling as the attacking partnership would surely have improved our performance immeasurably. Even when Sterling did come on (for Lallana) the formation wasn’t changed- Coutinho played where Lallana had been before, and Sterling operated down the middle. The change may well have been more likely to lead to an equaliser if Sterling had been moved up top with Balotelli.

With twenty minutes to play, yet another bizarre decision was made from the usually extremely tactically astute Rodgers. Fabio Borini and Rickie Lambert came on in place of Mario Balotelli and Lazar Markovic- admittedly neither Markovic nor Balotelli had been particularly effective, but the change, if anything, made us look worse. Lambert was clumsy and often wasteful whenever he got on the ball, and Borini barely had a touch! I genuinely forgot that he’d come on; he made no notable contribution whatsoever in the time that he was on the pitch. To be fair, seeing as both Joe Allen and Daniel Sturridge were injured, our options off the bench were limited. That said, it seems clear, at least in hindsight, that no change would have been better than introducing Borini and Lambert.

To sum up, what we witnessed yesterday was a rare tactical misnomer from Rodgers. He doesn’t make them often, and it certainly doesn’t change the fact that he is an excellent manager who is extremely well suited to LFC, but there’s no denying that he messed up. Obviously some of the blame has to fall on the players- up until Sterling came on, none of our attackers were working anywhere near hard enough- but I maintain that if we’d started Sterling up front with Balotelli then we would have won the game.  Hopefully we’re able to move on from this defeat and bounce back with a win in our return to the Champions League (yay!!) against Ludogorets on Tuesday.
-James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Tottenham 0-3 Liverpool: Rampant Reds Race to Victory

We’re at it again! Though the scoreline was not quite as emphatic as in the equivalent fixture last season, Liverpool once again totally dominated Tottenham in their own back yard. You wouldn’t have known Spurs were the home side- both the assured performance of the Reds and the noise the fans were making was more reminiscent of an Anfield fixture. From start to finish Liverpool were the better side, and they were rewarded with a comfortable victory.

Right from the off it was clear that Liverpool were in the mood. They came out with much more positivity than they showed against Southampton and City, closing Spurs down and limiting their time on the ball from the very start. They capitalised on the bright opening after just 8 minutes; Sturridge showed some nice skill before passing it to Henderson, who picked out Sterling with deadly accuracy. Sterling finished coolly, slotting it in at the near post. Our only real negative from this game- the shaky centre-back pairing of Lovren and Sakho- was highlighted just moments later. Both went for the same ball and Adebayor got clean through, but his lobbed effort looped over the bar.

From this point onwards, Tottenham never really got a look in. Despite having large spells of possession they never looked like doing much with it. In contrast, Liverpool looked dangerous whenever they got hold of the ball, partly thanks to new signing Mario Balotelli. His movement along the front line, combined with that of Sturridge and Sterling, made for a fluid, lethal attack that Spurs struggled to contain. Indeed, Balotelli could have scored two or three in the first half- the Italian, undoubtedly due to over-eagerness to get off the mark for his new club, was uncharacteristically wasteful. Overall though, he definitely had a positive effect on the team. Sterling in the number 10 role behind Balotelli and Sturridge is an amazing trio; although we sold one of the best strikers in the world this summer, we still have the league’s best attack!  The sides went in at 1-0, but Liverpool were clearly the team on top.

This trend continued into the second half. Far from coming out eager and determined, perhaps with plans to exploit the vulnerable heart of our defence, Spurs looked as clueless as ever, unable to produce anything that caused any bother to Liverpool. Predictably, it was the Reds who struck next, just four minutes into the second half. Eric Dier put an arm across Allen in the box, and though it was soft there’s no denying that it was a penalty. In typically clinical fashion, Gerrard stepped up and dispatched the spot kick.  We didn’t have to wait too long for the third either- good as the first goal was, this was probably the pick of the bunch. Moreno robbed Townsend (who had only been on the pitch a few seconds) of the ball, before embarking on a marauding run up the length of the pitch. His electric pace got him past everyone, and he certainly didn’t panic when he got through on goal- he positively rifled it into the far corner. Moreno was judged harshly by many after his first game- it was, after all, his error that lead to the Jovetic opener- but he more than made up for it in this match. He was one of our best players, not only making excellent runs forward but also showing himself to be excellent defensively. Manquillo, too, looked very good- with a bit of luck, the two of them put in good enough performances to encourage Rodgers to keep Johnson well away from the first team.

Though they threatened to add a fourth, Liverpool couldn’t find another goal. Sterling came closest- he danced exquisitely through the entire Spurs defence, reminiscent of Lionel Messi, but completely scuffed his shot, rolling it tamely into the hands of Lloris. Spurs seemed to wake up a bit towards the end, and created a couple of openings- they had a strong case for a penalty when Adebayor had his shirt pulled by Lovren. As it was, it ended 3-0, and Liverpool can be immensely satisfied with their performance. They played like a team who can most definitely challenge for the title again this season, and considering the new signings have had only weeks (or, in Balotelli’s case, days) to settle in, that is high praise indeed. Not even injuries can hinder our push for the Premier League title too heavily this time around- our squad depth is excellent compared to the last campaign. Markovic, Can and Coutinho all had to content themselves with a place on the bench, whilst Lallana, reportedly back to full fitness, didn’t even make the squad!

The performance and the strength in numbers both make me look on the rest of the season with an extremely positive outlook. If we can keep playing like we did in this match, another push for the title is not only possible but probable. Last season was not a fluke. Exciting times lie ahead. The rebirth of Liverpool is only just beginning.
-James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013