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