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

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Manchester City vs Liverpool: Post-Match Thoughts

Yesterday, Liverpool faced their first big challenge of the season when they came up against Manchester City. Despite being the clearly superior team for large parts of the game they could not capitalise, and the clinical Manchester City ended up winning 3-1.

Much like our game against Southampton last week, Liverpool failed to make their trademark fast start. It’s disappointing to see this element of our game disappearing, as it was this that allowed us to be practically home and dry in some games after just half an hour last season. That said, we were into our rhythm before too long. After five minutes or so of having the lions share of possession, City were pushed back, and Liverpool started to get on top. Daniel Sturridge created one of the best opportunities, beating Vincent Komapny excellently with some skill then forcing a smart save out of Joe Hart at his near post. Despite all the pressure, Liverpool failed to make a breakthrough. This was, in part, down to some good defending from the reigning champions. However, the system of using a lone striker may also have played a part. Sturridge looked isolated for large parts of the game, and Coutinho’s poor performance meant the play from midfield into attack was, at times, disjointed.

It was inevitable really that, having dominated the game so much for so long, Liverpool would concede a soft goal. Such a goal came just before the break. New signing Alberto Moreno, who up to this point had looked good, was caught on the back foot when Dejan Lovren’s headed clearance fell towards him, and Stefan Jovetic nipped in to steal the ball and lash it home. It was a harsh welcome to the Premier League for Moreno- the pace of the games is quicker than perhaps in any other league in the world, and waiting for the ball to come to you will often, as it was on this occasion, be brutally punished. Due to this, Liverpool went into the break undeservedly behind.

Perhaps this shook Liverpool, for it was not the same bright, attacking side that came out for the second half. The defence looked worryingly vulnerable, and this proved to be the case after just 10 minutes of the half. It was Jovetic again who capitalised on some woeful defending, this time from Dejan Lovren. The Croatian wandered forward aimlessly, seemingly totally unaware of where he was in relation to the rest of the back line. This left Nasri with bags of room to slot a pass through to Jovetic, who finished well. Liverpool rallied a little after conceding, and the introduction of Lazar Markovic (in place of Philippe Coutinho) on 59 minutes certainly livened up our attacking play. Indeed, his clever interplay down the left with Moreno very nearly produced a goal just minutes after he came on. We started to produce some sustained pressure, and it looked as if we might just be able to drag ourselves back into the game. Sadly, it didn’t pan out that way. Aguero came on for the injured Dzeko with 21 minutes to play, and scored just seconds later, essentially killing off the game. Once more, question marks were raised over the defence. A nice ball from Jesus Navas carved open the entire back line, and Aguero raced through to smash the ball home past Mignolet.

At this point, Rodgers took off Sterling and brought on Rickie Lambert. The change certainly had a positive impact on the team, but not because of the quality of Rickie Lambert; it was the change in system that caused Liverpool to improve so dramatically at this point. Having two forwards instead of one just seemed natural, and our play became much more fluid and attacking. It was the two strikers, Sturridge and Lambert, who combined to get Liverpool a consolation goal. Sturridge whipped a ball into the box, and Lambert turned it goalwards. After some ricocheting off Hart and Zabaletta, the ball somehow found its way into the goal.

The fact that we improved so notably when playing with two strikers in encouraging. We have just brought in Mario Balotelli from AC Milan, and though some people are questioning whether he will succeed at Liverpool there is no doubt that he is a talented striker. Astute though the purchase of Lambert was (for just £4million, he offers a nice alternative option for desperate situations), he simply isn’t viable as a regular second striker as he cannot function in Liverpool’s high-pressing, fast-paced system. Balotelli, on the other hand, should be able to function well alongside Daniel Sturridge. It’s a shame the Italian wasn’t registered in time for the clash with City; if he had been, things might have panned out differently.

It is naturally extremely frustrating to have lost, especially to a team that come the end of the season are surely going to be right up there with us in the fight for the title, but it is only one game and the season is yet young. Although the game showed that there were still definite defensive deficiencies that need to be addressed, there were also lots of positives to take from the performance. To have outplayed the champions for the majority of the first half is an achievement, and, aside from being glaringly at fault for the first goal, Moreno had a pretty good game. For me, though, Markovic was the most encouraging thing to take from the game. When thrown into the mix, he immediately injected positivity and pace into our side, and made us look altogether more dangerous. It makes a refreshing change from last season to have players waiting on the bench who are good enough to come on and make a genuine impact.

Next up in Liverpool’s fixture list is another potentially challenging game. We play Tottenham at White Hart Lane; though I’m sure we all remember how well that went for us last year, Tottenham are already looking an improved side under Mauricio Pochettino. Indeed, though it means next to nothing so early on, Tottenham currently top the table. However, I think that, should Balotelli be able to make a smooth transition into the team right from the off (admittedly a big ask), then we have a very good chance of taking all three points.
-James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Monday, 25 August 2014

Manchester City vs Liverpool: Clash of the Titans

In just the second gameweek of the season, the Premier League is treating us to what promises to be an excellent match. The winners of last season are up against the runners-up who pushed them right to the wire last time out, and both will want to put a marker down early for the new season. Liverpool have already drawn first blood, emerging triumphant on penalties after a 2-2 draw in pre-season, but this time around there’s more at stake than pride.

The meeting between the sides in pre-season could well prove to be a foreshadowing of what we will see in this game. When Manchester City face Liverpool, a high-scoring affair is usually the order of the day. Both sides have defensive frailties, and the attacking strength of the two teams mean these frailties get exploited. Liverpool struggled to contain the not particularly inspiring Southampton attack in their first match of the season, so coming up against the likes of Edin Dzeko and Sergio Aguero will certainly be testing for them. City too looked below par in the opening game; though they didn’t concede, that was more down to Newcastle’s woeful finishing than City’s excellent defending. As such, the front men of both teams will be licking their lips at the prospect of this fixture. In terms of Fantasy Premier League, all three of Sergio Aguero, Daniel Sturridge and Edin Dzeko could be on for good points. Raheem Sterling is also one who could score well; he has been playing as a second striker of late, a position from where he can get lots of goals. This could be the last game in which Sterling features up front, as the imminent arrival of Mario Balotelli will surely force the 19 year old to move back into the number 10 role.   

Does this mean that playing any Liverpool or Manchester City defenders in your fantasy team this week is definitely a mistake? Not necessarily. Liverpool are notoriously bad at dealing with set pieces, so the City centre-backs stand a decent chance of notching from a corner or free kick. Liverpool’s defenders stand less chance of scoring well, but new boy Alberto Moreno could make his debut, and he has a reputation for running at defenders and generally exhibiting an attacking style- this could lead to assists. Still, it would certainly be classed as a gamble to field any of these players, as a clean sheet for either side looks distinctly unlikely.

Both sides have distinct danger men. The threats of Daniel Sturridge, Edin Dzeko, Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling have already been mentioned, but there are others to watch out for. One man Liverpool will be particularly wary of is Yaya Toure. With Fernandinho/Fernando playing deep, Toure will be able to push on up the field with more freedom than he did last season. This could result in an even higher goal and assist tally for him than in the last campaign. David Silva and Samir Nasri are also ones that, from a Fantasy point of view, could score points- in a stretched game, they have the potential to pick a killer pass that undoes the entire defence and sends someone clean through on goal. Liverpool, too, have players who could score points. Coutinho and Henderson are in some ways the Liverpool equivalent of Silva and Nasri- either of them could pick up an assist. It was Henderson who picked the glorious pass for Sterling’s goal against Southampton; he is clearly a very able player.

Both Liverpool and Manchester City exhibit a refreshing, expansive, attacking style of play. Clever, intricate passes are combined with incisive runs to produce marvellous goals. This is one of the reasons why they both score so many (they were the two highest scorers last season), but also one of the reasons why they concede with such regularity. Inevitably, committing multiple players forward to try and create an opening results in holes being left at the back.  Due to this, I think we can expect to see an exciting, end to end sort of game. This will suit Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling, whose pace makes them well-suited to mounting attacks quickly.

The very nature of football dictates that all of this could be totally wrong. The art of prediction is a very imprecise one, and this fact is what makes fantasy football such an interesting, at times extremely frustrating game. Although on paper it seems clear that this game will feature goals on both sides, it might end up being a dull 0-0 draw! Still, seeing as I’m previewing the match and all that, I’ll take a stab at a score prediction. I think we’ll see a repeat of when the sides met in America in pre-season: a 2-2 draw. 

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Liverpool 2-1 Southampton: It’s Not Vintage, But It’s Victory

So much for easing us in lightly. Liverpool’s first game of the season did end in victory, but it certainly wasn’t done the easy way. It took a 79th minute winner from Daniel Sturridge to scrape victory for the reds, and the argument could be made that the win wasn’t deserved. Still, at the end of the day it’s the three points that matters, and the win moves Liverpool joint top of the Premier League.

 Right from the off it was apparent that we weren’t going to be treated to a vintage Liverpool performance of the like we got so accustomed to last season. We didn’t come out all guns blazing, and were happy to knock it around without really penetrating the Southampton defence. Part of the problem can be traced to the selection of Lucas- his clumsy, disjointed style of play broke up the midfield and prevented good transition from midfield to attack. However, after just over twenty minutes Liverpool did manage to get a goal. The pundits have been droning on prior to the season about how Liverpool will struggle to score in tough games now they don’t have the magic of Suarez, but it appears that we can now rely upon the magic of Henderson. It was his glorious long ball that found Sterling, who finished extremely coolly past Forster. This in itself is very encouraging for the season to come; the only thing Sterling was lacking at times last season was a clinical finish, which is something he appears to be adding to his game.

The control of possession which the reds had managed to exert over the game up to this point vanished after the goal. Southampton were able to push forward a lot, and they looked dangerous at times. Morgan Schneiderlin came the closest to scoring, forcing Mignolet into a good save. Liverpool made it to half time with their lead still intact, but it was clear that something would have to change if they wanted to hold on to it. The second half started, nothing changed and the inevitable happened. Nathaniel Clyne’s 56th minute goal was no less than Southampton deserved. That said, it could and should have been prevented. Tadic’s backheel, though executed with pinpoint accuracy, was excruciatingly obvious. Johnson, who other than Lucas was our worst player, was a mere spectator as Clyne ran round him and smashed it home. On the plus side Johnson will probably no longer be featuring in the first team very much- Manquillo (who had a very good game) is making the right-back position his own, and new signing Alberto Moreno will slot in at left-back.

If Rodgers was hoping that conceding the goal would prove to be a wake up call for his team, he was left disappointed. Southampton continued to pile on pressure, and it took some truly desperate defending at times to stop the Saints taking the lead. Lucas coming off for Allen improved Liverpool’s play a little, but it wasn’t until Coutinho made way for Lambert that we were really able to get going. This wasn’t because Lambert terrorised his former club (although he played fairly well); it was because the change meant that Sterling moved into the number 10 role, which allowed him to wreak havoc. His pace and movement put us back on the front foot, and it was he who set up the winning goal. He flicked the ball on with his head from the edge of the box, and Sturridge had positioned himself perfectly to knock the ball home from close range.

Still, the game wasn’t over. Much like after the first goal, Liverpool regressed after scoring. Their half-hearted attempt at keep-ball in the immediate aftermath of the goal fizzled out pretty quickly, and soon the reds had nearly everyone camped in their own box, trying to absorb the huge amounts of pressure Southampton were applying. It very nearly wasn’t enough- Mignolet made a simply amazing reaction save to tip Schneiderlin’s effort on to the underside of the crossbar, and Long somehow headed his follow-up attempt wide of the target. After this Liverpool managed to wind down the clock in the corner, and they saw the game out.

There are both positives and negatives to take from this game. The obvious positive is the three points, which is the ultimate aim of any Premier League game. Another encouraging sign was the goal and assist for Raheem Sterling, who looks all set to have a very big season for us. The versatility that Rodgers has given the team with his transfers also showed- changing the system to put Sterling through the middle was what changed the game and won us the match. The negatives were also quite apparent- Lucas and Johnson simply aren’t good enough to play for Liverpool, and the defence, though improved, still looks shaky. Personally I think that Sakho and Lovren would be a better choice of centre-back pairing that Skrtel and Lovren, as Sakho strikes me as much less error-prone.

Overall though, we can’t complain. We’ve got off to a winning start, something that prior to last season’s victory over Stoke we had failed to do for a long time. Though by no means the ideal performance, the main weaknesses that we exhibited are relatively easily fixable, and I’m sure the team will be exhibiting much nicer football than this before too long. Facing Manchester City is the ultimate kick up the backside, so I’m sure the team will be much more fired up for next week’s game. With a bit of luck they’ll be able to continue their winning start to the season.
-James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Friday, 15 August 2014

Liverpool's New Signings- Fantasy Football Focus

After the sale of Luis Suarez earlier in the transfer window, Liverpool have been very busy bringing in new players. So far, there have been six new arrivals at Anfield (seven including Origi, but he’s out on loan for the season and is therefore irrelevant to this article), with more rumoured to be on their way. Whilst all these signings are undoubtedly good for the team as a whole, it throws up some FPL dilemmas. Liverpool were ideally suited to Fantasy Football last year- not only did they love scoring goals, they also had a small squad. This meant rotation risk was low. Now, however, all that is changing.

Having finished as the Premier League’s second top scorer last season despite missing a sizeable number of games through injury, Daniel Sturridge looks nailed on to start whenever he is fit. Mignolet too looks to be a certain starter, for want of any real competition. Other than this, there is nobody in the Liverpool squad who could be called a guaranteed starter. This means that you have to be doubly careful when selecting Liverpool players for your team; it’s not all about picking ‘the best’ players, potential game time has to be factored in as well.
So who out of the new signings is likely to play relatively regularly as well as score good points? Let’s start with the man on loan from Atletico Madrid, Javier Manquillo. As the most recent acquisition, we have yet to have a chance to see him play for Liverpool, but reports about him from Spain are generally very positive. He is a right-back, and I think he could get decent game time. Glen Johnson’s tactics of ‘run, cut inside, get tackled, fail to track back, repeat’ are getting tiresome, and it seems likely that he will at least rotate with Manquillo, if not get usurped from the starting line-up altogether. The safest (and in my view most sensible) thing to do is to hold back on getting Manquillo until it becomes more clear how regularly he’ll play, but if you like a gamble then 5.0 million is a very reasonable starting price.

Dejan Lovren
Dejan Lovren
The other new defender Liverpool have purchased is Dejan Lovren. He is a good defensive leader- this is something Liverpool sorely missed last season. Hopefully he will help the reds to become much more solid at the back, and keep a lot more clean sheets than they managed last year. However, as with all the new signings, there is a question mark over how often he will play. It seems likely that he will get a fair chunk of game time; he’s a good player, and Liverpool showed faith in him by paying a large fee. That said, he faces stiff competition from Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho. Unless Rodgers opts to go with three at the back this season (a definite possibility- he experimented with it last year), then only two out of these three can start. If Lovren isn’t going to start the vast majority of games, then an FPL value of 5.5 million looks like a fairly steep price to pay. As with Manquillo, my advice would be to hold off on Lovren. If he does start nearly all the games in the first few weeks, and Liverpool prove themselves to have become more adept at keeping clean sheets, then that is the time to bring him in.

Adam Lallana
Adam Lallana
Now we move on to the midfielders. First up, Adam Lallana. The advice here is simple- don’t get him. He injured his knee in training, and is not expected back until late September. Once he comes back, he could be one to consider, though he will probably be rotating in and out a little as Coutinho, Markovic (I’ll come to him in a second) and Sterling are all also competing for a place in the three positions behind the striker. At 8.5 million, even if Lallana was fit, I would much sooner have Sterling in my fantasy team.

As promised, I’ll now move on to Markovic. Sadly we’ve only got to see him in action once for Liverpool, as a niggling injury kept him out of the majority of pre-season. Still, he looked very positive in the one game he’s played. His pace is electric, and he is capable of finding seemingly non-existent gaps in the defence and running through them. However, though still reasonable, his finishing is not what it could be. He faces a fitness race to be ready for Liverpool’s opener, but he’ll certainly be fit for their second game. If you’re the sort of FPL player who likes taking risks right from the start, I’d recommend getting Markovic. Whilst Lallana is out injured, Markovic, Coutinho and Sterling all look set to get regular game time. With less than 2% of players picking the 7.5 million valued Markovic, he could prove to be an excellent early differential that allows you to open out a good early lead over your competitors. Once Lallana returns, however, he will be in and out of the first team, and you might want to consider replacing him.

The other midfielder Liverpool have acquired is Emre Can. He is versatile, and can be employed either as a defensive midfielder or a central midfielder. He has been played regularly in pre-season, and been one of Liverpool’s best players. Though it will be extremely hard for him to cement a place as a regular starter, as he is up against the likes of Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson, Joe Allen and Lucas, he certainly looks capable of muscling his way into the side. Under normal circumstances, I would never recommend getting a defensive midfielder in fantasy football. However, from the few games I’ve seen of him, Can appears to be in the same mould as Yaya Toure. This isn’t a direct comparison of talent (Can is only 20 after all), but merely an observation that their styles of play are similar. Can likes to make marauding runs up the pitch from his defensive position, and his sheer presence means he usually makes his way through players with ease. If he does manage to become a regular starter, I think he could score a fair few points, so for just 5.0 million he cannot be overlooked.

Rickie Lambert
Rickie Lambert
The final signing to evaluate is Rickie Lambert. I cannot overstate how stupid you would have to be to get him in. Unbelievably, 10% of fantasy players have got him in their teams, and if you are one of them then you need to get him out. His game time will almost certainly be extremely limited; I wouldn’t get him in my team if he cost 4.5 million. As it is, he costs 7.5 million, making him by far the least viable fantasy prospect of all Liverpool’s new signings.

In conclusion, the general rule to go by when considering getting in one of Liverpool’s new signings is ‘wait and see’. The majority of them are unknown quantities to a large extent, both in terms of talent and of the amount of game time they will be given. However, if you want to take a punt, then getting in either Manquillo or Markovic from early on could turn out well for you.
-James Martin