Saturday, 31 January 2015

Liverpool 2-0 West Ham: Post-Match Analysis

What a win! Liverpool showed their class at Anfield against West Ham, dispatching the visitors in a comfortable 2-0 victory. Sterling netted the first after a lovely assist from Coutinho, and the Brazilian provided again with 10 minutes to go – he played in Sturridge, who secured a dream return from injury with a clinical finish at the near post.

It became clear early in the first half that Coutinho and Sterling were on top form. They combined on many occasions to create opportunities, but nobody was able to finish; Markovic came closest in the first half, putting the ball narrowly wide after stealing it on the edge of the area. Still, with Liverpool’s two best technicians playing so well, it was only a matter of time before West Ham’s defence was breached. Sure enough, just six minutes into the second half, Sterling struck. Coutinho played a glorious ball into his path, and the 20 year-old kept a cool head to slot it in.
West Ham didn’t look like responding at any point; Sakho was dominant in the air, and Mignolet claimed the ball well multiple times. He was also quick to release, starting rapid counter attacks throughout the match. Skrtel was largely solid as well – only Can was looking a little uncomfortable, but he didn’t make any major errors.

This solid defence has been characteristic of Liverpool in recent weeks, and has been a major factor in the turnaround in form. However, as one part of the team has strengthened the other has waned – Sterling’s goal was the first in over 250 minutes of football. The chances have been coming thick and fast, but nobody has been able to finish them off. As such, the huge reception for Daniel Sturridge when he came on for Markovic with 20 minutes to go was understandable. He did not disappoint; it only took him 10 minutes to get back to goal-scoring ways, blasting the ball emphatically past Adrian at his near post having received a nice pass from Coutinho.

Watching Liverpool when Sterling, Sturridge and Coutinho are all in form is a beautiful thing – the very idea that the team won’t finish in the top 4 if these three can all stay fit and keep performing is laughable. Coutinho has hit arguably his best ever form in the last few weeks; some of his passes have been sublime, and his skill on the ball is unquestionable. Sterling, too, has the ability to bamboozle defences. This was characterised by his two nutmegs in two seconds on a helpless Winston Reid. It’s been a long five months without Sturridge - scoring just 10 minutes into his return sums him up. He has an immense hunger for the game, and bags of talent to boot. It should also be remembered that this talismanic trio are all 25 years or younger; provided the club can hang on to them, the future is extremely bright.

Things aren’t looking too bad in the here and now either. The win sees us leapfrog West Ham into 7th, and as it stands the reds find themselves just four points adrift of a Champions League spot (Southampton play tomorrow). Last time we had a world class striker score on his first game back after a lengthy time out it was a certain Uruguayan, who proceeded to go on a truly exceptional goal-scoring run. Whilst it would be unfair to expect the same of Sturridge, the fact that he has got straight back into his rhythm is hugely encouraging. The next league game is the Merseyside derby: bring it on.
-James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Chelsea 1-0 Liverpool (AET): Post-Match Thoughts

It’s never nice losing to Chelsea, particularly not in a semi-final. Much as everyone will now be quick to say “ah well, nobody cares about the League Cup anyway”, it would have been great to win it, particularly at the expense of our rivals from West London. Sadly it wasn’t to be, but there are many positives that can be taken from the game.

The first of these positives is Simon Mignolet. As I’ve been saying for much of the season, he makes up for the errors he makes with the excellent saves he pulls off. He was at his finest in yesterday’s match, an exquisite save with the feet from a deflected Costa shot being the highlight. He also looked a lot more confident in claiming the ball than he has been for much of the season; he plucked multiple crosses out of the air, and his commanding cries to his defenders could be heard clearly. Although he won’t be replacing Thibaut Courtois as Belgium first choice any time soon – he picked up man of the match in both legs of the tie – he is at least demonstrating to his critics that he is far from the root of our problems, and thus not a priority for replacement.

Another good sign was the continued excellent form of Philippe Coutinho. He has a huge amount of talent, and it was on show in this match. His clever twists and turns as well as his deft touches allowed him to glide seamlessly past Chelsea players on a number of occasions – he even worked his way through on goal once, only to be denied by an excellent Courtois stop. He is arguably the best player in our team – although strong arguments could be made for Sterling and Coutinho – and if he can keep up this run of form then our push for the top four will be helped significantly.

The youth of the team is also very encouraging. Nobody would argue the fact that we gave Chelsea a proper run for their money; we were all over them in the home leg, and took them to extra time at Stamford Bridge. For an inexperienced, youthful side this is no mean feat. If they are able to give potentially the best team in England such a good contest now, where will they be in three years time? If we can keep this exceptionally talented bunch of players together, Liverpool will surely be back up with Europe’s elite before too long. Can, Sterling, Coutinho, Sturridge, Markovic, Ibe and Henderson are all under the age of 24; to say the least, this has the look of a side that could turn out to be formidable.

Of course, it isn’t all positive: we did, after all, get knocked out. The only real downside to our performance was the inability to find the net, and to be honest I’m not too concerned by this failure. Firstly, Thibaut Courtois is an exceptional goalkeeper. Nobody would find it easy to score against him. Secondly, we were missing our main striker: once Sturridge returns, the excellent chances we are creating currently will start getting rounded off. Is it frustrating that Balotelli has still proved unable to step up in Sturridge’s absence? Of course. Ultimately, however, Sturridge is one of the best strikers in the league; we can’t expect to have a back-up who can match his standard. The blame can’t be placed entirely on Balotelli either – Rodgers could be handling him better. Using him as a 70th minute substitute piles immense pressure on him to score, particularly after Rodgers publicly criticised him prior to the match. It is also true that Balotelli is better in a two than as a lone striker; hopefully he is given a chance to play with Sturridge when he returns from injury.

Overall, although losing to Chelsea is devastating, I am choosing to take the positives from what was ultimately a very good performance. Although we may need to be patient with our young squad, I am confident that we will be able to exact our revenge on Chelsea in full before long –here’s hoping that next time we face up to them in a semi-final there will be more on the line than the Capital One Cup.
-James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Liverpool 0-0 Bolton: Time for Video Referees?

In a frustrating game at Anfield yesterday, Liverpool were unable to get a goal past a strong Bolton defence despite creating a multitude of half-chances. The reds would surely have come out victors and avoided a replay had the referee not utterly bottled two decisions:  Bolton’s Mills – who had already been booked - should have seen red early in the second half for bringing Markovic down as he was running through on goal (Kevin Friend judged that no offence had been committed), and the hosts probably deserved a penalty late on after ex-Liverpool man Jay Spearing knocked Henderson to the ground, making no attempt to play the ball. These two key incidents beg the question of whether it’s time to introduce video technology to football to aid officials. Barely a game goes by anymore where the referee doesn’t make a blatantly incorrect decision; video replays have proved successful in other sports (admittedly largely for line-based rather than contact-based decisions), and I think it’s time to throw tradition out of the window and introduce them to football.

In a lot of cases, bad calls by officials prove inconsequential. However, in tight games such as the one we witnessed yesterday, they can make all the difference. Credit should be given to Bolton – they were very well drilled at the back, and were able to find a good balance between occasionally creating chances going forward and making sure they had enough men behind the ball when Liverpool came at them. As such, despite the wealth of possession and the nice intricate passing, Rodgers’s side simply couldn’t work a clear goal-scoring opportunity. Had their opponents been reduced to ten men, the task of getting a goal would obviously have been made easier. On watching the replay of the Mills incident, it is impossible to deny that he tripped Markovic and consequently should have been off, either courtesy of a second yellow or a straight red. Had the referee been able to call upon a video referee for assistance, justice would have been served and Liverpool would probably not be facing the prospect of an energy-draining trip to Bolton that could prove detrimental to performance in the league and, consequently, the push for the top 4. As it was, terrified of making a big call without being 100% certain, Friend didn’t even give a free kick. The same was true of the penalty incident – the ramifications of potentially making an incorrect decision (and, partially, a subconscious desire to help the underdogs) prompted Friend not to point to the spot. At any level of refereeing this is poor – at the top of the game, it is frankly unacceptable.

Video replays seem like the simple solution. But just how simple a solution would it be? A whole new set of rules would have to be created. Is it the referee who decides when to consult the video ref, or can teams demand it? If it is up to the teams, how many times can they appeal per match? Would it be the manager or the captain who decides whether to appeal? There are definitely logistics to consider which many people overlook when demanding video technology. However, in my view, it is worth the effort it would take to implement it. I am sure that I’m not alone in being totally fed up of watching my team get penalised for the incompetence of a highly paid referee – far from ruining the game, video tech would allow results to be dictated by the standard of play rather than the standard of officials.

Of course, while the introduction of video referees to the game would solve the problems witnessed in yesterday’s clash with Bolton, it wouldn’t totally fix the problem of poor decisions from officials. This is because it would not be applicable to offside decisions – if an offside call was appealed and overturned, play couldn’t simply be reset to the exact position it was in before the flag went up. It was an incorrect offside decision that cost us so dearly last season – while the Gerrard slip and the Palace capitulation will be what people remember as the reasons why we failed to win the title, I maintain that the true reason can be traced back to our away game at City around Christmas time. 1-0 up and in control, Liverpool looked certain to double their lead and all but kill the game as Raheem Sterling sprinted through on goal. However, the flag inexplicably went up; Kompany went on to equalise just minutes later before Negredo scored the winner on the stroke of half time. On such things titles are won and lost, and the fact that video refereeing could not rectify this flaw in the sport means that it isn’t a perfect solution.

That said, it’s the best solution available, and we should be embracing it. Now we have the technology to help officials make the right call, not using it simply because it might take some time and thought to implement is preposterous.  To paraphrase the ever-wise Joey Tribbiani, a blind man doesn’t walk around with his eyes closed when he gets his sight back. The game has got its ‘sight’: it’s time to start using it.
-James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013 

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Liverpool 1-1 Chelsea: Post-Match Thoughts

There’s nothing quite like a semi-final against Chelsea to get the team fired up. That certainly proved to be the case in yesterday’s game; Liverpool treated us to a footballing master class of the likes we haven’t witnessed since last season, and were hugely unfortunate not to come away with the advantage going into the second leg. As it is, we go to Stamford Bridge next Tuesday requiring at least one goal in 120 minutes of football to save us from going out on away goals. 

It wasn’t only Liverpool who seemed back to their old ways – Chelsea, who have been playing lovely football for much of this season, turned up to Anfield determined to park the old bus once more. Having not been forced to witness this phenomenon for quite some time, I had forgotten how frustrating this was. It’s just so annoying. It feels like they’re cheating. This feeling of injustice was quickly intensified; after Liverpool had dominated the opening 15 minutes, Chelsea pushed into our half for almost the first time in the match and won a penalty, which Hazard subsequently slotted away. It was undoubtedly a penalty – Emre Can showed his inexperience, clumsily clattering Hazard and leaving Atkinson with no choice but to point to the spot. It should be noted that Can was excellent for the rest of the game – he undoubtedly has potential to become world class (at either centre back or in central midfield), but his moment of naivety gave Chelsea a wholly undeserved lead.

It didn’t seem possible for Chelsea to sit back further, but that’s exactly what they did on scoring their goal. They invited the pressure from Liverpool, clearly confident that they could deal with it. However, they hadn’t banked on the reds finally hitting the potential that everyone knew they had. Coutinho’s immense first touches and clever passes combined with Sterling’s pace and skill and the excellent pressing from Gerrard bamboozled the Chelsea rearguard; Matic, usually so solid, was totally flustered by the intensity and quality of Liverpool’s play. However, Chelsea clung on stubbornly, and many Liverpool fans were worried that it was just going to be “one of those games”.

This feeling was heightened by the turning down of a huge penalty shout for Liverpool right on half time. It was admittedly very hard for Martin Atkinson to see what exactly went on in the scramble in the box, but replays clearly showed that Diego Costa handled the ball while on the ground. A lot of people have said that this was accidental: I strongly disagree. There were two key phases to the handling of the ball – it initially struck Costa’s upper arm (this was unintentional), but then he definitely seemed to guide it with his lower arm/hand with a sort of scooping motion, taking it away from the danger zone. Where he’s looking is also important; you can see on the replay that he is watching the ball as he moves it with his arm, heavily suggesting that it was deliberate. However, it wasn’t given, and Liverpool somehow ended the half behind.

When faced with a wall of defenders, it often takes a moment of magic to unlock them. This proved to be the case here, and it was Raheem Sterling who stepped up to provide it. 15 minutes into the second half he turned Matic exquisitely before running past Cahill – the shot from the edge of the area that followed arrowed past Courtois, leaving him helpless. This hugely whipped up the Anfield crowd, who roared their team forward again and again. It truly felt like we were going to take the lead, and we very nearly did on multiple occasions. Gerrard had a glorious opportunity made for him by Coutinho, but he could only guide his shot onto the post. Lallana replaced the skipper and nearly made an instant impact – he struck the ball gloriously following Sterling’s cushioned knock-down, but the swerving shot was saved amazingly by Courtois. The Belgian stepped up again to deny shots from Henderson and Sterling in quick succession.  Sadly, the second Liverpool goal just never quite materialised.

Still, the fans and players alike will be hugely heartened by this performance. It was definitely the best they’ve played all season, topping the draw with Arsenal. In fact, we played at such a high level that we completely dominated arguably the best side in England. If we manage to put in a similar performance on Tuesday then it is almost unthinkable that Chelsea will keep us out for a full two hours, so although the advantage is with Chelsea going into the second leg I think we stand a good shot of getting through. In terms of the season as a whole, though it’s much too late to challenge for the title once more, if a level of performance close to what we witnessed yesterday can be maintained then we should comfortably make the top 4.
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Aston Villa 0-2 Liverpool: Post-Match Analysis

In a fairly tame affair at Villa Park, a quietly efficient Liverpool eased through to a comfortable 2-0 victory. Although concentration seemed to be lost for a period at the start of the second half, the second lowest scoring team in all of Europe’s top five leagues were unable to convert any of the chances presented to them.

Gritty hard work was the order of the day in yesterday’s match – a solid performance from the defence for the majority of the match ensured that there weren’t many serious scares at the back. Sakho and Can in particular were excellent – Can demonstrated the advantages of having a ball-playing centre back on multiple occasions, frequently cleverly working his way out of tight spots. Sakho’s highlight was a perfectly timed sliding tackle on the edge of the box to deny Villa a clear-cut opportunity which even they might have managed to convert. Going forward, Liverpool showed good signs in the first half. Sterling didn’t quite look at the races, but Coutinho continued his good form of late and Moreno and Markovic posed a threat going forward. Henderson, too, was playing very well; it was his exquisite pass that led to the opening goal on 24 minutes. He clipped it into the middle of the box, just far enough away from Guzan, and Borini was on hand to guide it skilfully into the corner. Sadly, this moment of quality from the Italian was the anomaly of the game – his performance was largely underwhelming.

After this first goal went in, a multitude of half-chances followed for the visitors. The best opportunity fell to Sterling – he capitalised on a defensive error and ran clean through on goal, but he tried a clever chip over Guzan that ended up an easy catch for the keeper. Had he simply blasted it, Liverpool would surely have doubled their lead. As it was, they went into the break with just a one goal advantage. Once the second half got underway, it looked like we may be made to rue all of the missed chances. Villa upped their game; Benteke was only kept out by an excellent double save from Mignolet, and Baker missed a glorious opportunity. On the subject of Mignolet, I feel obliged to once again jump to his defence. Contrary to what many fans would have you believe, he is by no means our biggest problem. In fact, I would rate his overall contribution to the team as neutral; the semi-regular stupid errors he makes are cancelled out by the number of times he’s bailed us out with excellent saves.

He certainly helped us out in this game – had Villa managed to score, it is hard to imagine that the recovering but still frail Liverpool side would have managed to take the lead again. As it was, LFC weathered the storm. By the last 15 minutes Villa had tired themselves out through their efforts to equalise, and Liverpool were able to get on top again. This second period of pressure was marked by a goal from Rickie Lambert. After a poor pass from Delph was cut out by Sterling, Lambert turned smartly and unerringly found the corner with a shot from just outside the box – although he’s much too slow and reliant on crosses to fit into our team, his technique is undoubtedly good.

This goal all but killed the game, and the final few minutes were a formality. It was a performance that Liverpool can be very satisfied with. The defence were, on the whole, respectable – they guided the team to their third consecutive away clean sheet, a feat we haven’t achieved since the 08/09 season. The midfield can also be satisfied with the number of chances they created; once Sturridge and Balotelli are back up top rather than Borini or Lambert, these chances will surely be finished off on a more regular basis. The combination of a passable defence and high chance creation is a very promising one, and, if sustained, may well be enough to see us finish in the top 4.
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Sunderland 0-1 Liverpool: Post-Match Analysis

Today, Liverpool went to Sunderland seeking to get back on the right track. The 2-2 draw at home to Leicester last week was disappointing, and right from the outset of this game it was clear that Liverpool were determined to put in a better performance. Lazar Markovic, who was by far and away our stand-out player, managed to convert LFC’s good play into a goal after 10 minutes – the strike proved to be decisive, as despite multiple chances to extend the lead the game ended 1-0.

Although the performance put in by Liverpool was not quite up to the standard of the excellent showing against Swansea a couple of weeks ago, it wasn’t too far off. The first half in particular was impressive; Coutinho continued his run of excellent form, using his exquisite passing to split the Sunderland defence many times. The problem was taking these chances – Borini, though extremely hard-working as always, squandered a fair few decent opportunities. He did, however, record an assist for Markovic’s goal; he should be given credit for managing to divert the ball into the Serb’s path. Markovic himself could well have added to his tally: he was fouled in the box very early on but denied a penalty by the referee, and later came within millimetres of scoring the goal of the season. The ball came back to him after a corner, but was at an extremely awkward height. Showing immense powers of improvisation, he attacked the ball with a scissor-like movement, sending his shot rocketing off the bar. Sunderland didn’t really create anything going forward in the first half, and in truth the game should have been beyond the reach of the Black Cats after the opening 45 minutes.

As it was, the game was still anything but a foregone conclusion as the second half began. The first five minutes were encouraging – Liverpool looked as if they were simply going to carry on where they left off. However, this momentum was halted by an incident which in theory should have helped the reds (who, incidentally, were playing in their yellow change strip today). Liam Bridcutt was shown a second yellow, meaning Sunderland were reduced to 10 men. Rather than going for the jugular and attempting to kill off the game, Liverpool sat off at this point, inviting pressure from the suddenly potent-looking Sunderland players. Adam Johnson in particular appeared to have been given a new lease of life – he came by far the closest to levelling the match, with his swerving shot from outside the box smacking against the underside of the bar. Mignolet was left completely stranded. While the incident did leave him looking rather foolish (comparisons to The Matrix have been made), the extremely strong wind did make the ball move extremely strangely in the air.

After a couple more half decent attacks, Sunderland settled down again. Liverpool began to push forward once more, with the line now being led by Mario Balotelli. He came on for Borini, and looked extremely bright. He used his physicality well, and almost managed to net his first league goal after cleverly turning his defender – he was only denied by a smart stop from Pantilimon. He has come in for a lot of criticism – which, given that he is a striker yet to score in the Premier League is understandable – but he has certainly shown signs of promise. One feels that once he gets his first league goal he might be able to kick on and really succeed at the club; the imminent return of Daniel Sturridge will surely also benefit him.

As it was, Liverpool didn’t manage to score a second. They were forced to withstand some late pressure, but the only late ‘drama’ was a hilarious piece of theatrics from Sunderland stopper Costel Pantilimon. He came up for a very late corner, and having failed to get his head to the ball went down in dramatic fashion, claiming he was pushed. You can’t blame the ref for not booking him; giving yellow cards to keepers for diving sets a dangerous precedent!

So it ended 1-0, and Liverpool came away with a deserved three points. Although they will come away from this match knowing that they need to be more clinical, the excellent attacking play of Coutinho and Markovic (as well as the solid defensive work of Sakho, Can and Lucas) are encouraging. The draw against Leicester last time out had fans worried that we were witnessing another false dawn, but there were enough positive signs in this match to suggest that we are indeed on the road to revival.
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Friday, 2 January 2015

Liverpool 2- 2 Leicester: Post-Match Thoughts

Sorry guys, false alarm! After our scintillating performance against Swansea last time out, I made the grievous error of writing that “we’re back”. In the first game of 2015 Liverpool presented us with fairly strong evidence that they are not in fact back in the form of a hugely disappointing 2-2 draw with bottom of the table Leicester. The dropped points leave us a sizeable seven points off 4th place, and casts huge doubts over our ability to finish in the top 4 this season.

In the understandable flood of emotion following the announcement that Steven Gerrard is to leave the club at the end of the season, nearly everyone seems to have forgotten that he has been extremely poor for (at a generous estimate) the last six months. Of course we should admire what he was in his prime and applaud his great service to our club, but what we should not do is persist in playing him out of sentimentality. His ‘legend’ status is the only thing getting him on the team sheet this season, and I would go as far as to say that it cost us the match yesterday. For the first time this campaign we fielded what I see to be our strongest back three: Sakho, Toure and Can. They all had reasonable games – Sakho in particular was superb – and would surely have been capable of holding on to a two goal lead had they received even a small level of cover from the defensive midfielders. As it was, Gerrard’s total lack of mobility meant that the back three were constantly exposed; essentially, he was a wasted player in the line-up. Had Rodgers opted for the same team that won at Swansea, we’d probably have won.

It wasn’t just the line-up that Rodgers got wrong. His in-game switches were bizarre; Borini came on for the injured Lallana just after half time, when Markovic would surely have been both better suited to the position and more capable of making an impact. At 2-2 he made another odd change. We needed a goal, so he decided to take off Moreno for Lambert. This was nonsensical for multiple reasons. Firstly, and most simply, Lambert is painfully ineffectual and has not once made a notable impact as a substitute. Secondly, the whole point of buying Lambert was a ‘Plan B’ that allowed us to whip crosses into the box – Moreno is our quickest wide player, and would have been the ideal candidate for getting down the flank and putting crosses in towards Lambert. These decisions alone cannot take all off the blame for the failure to get a win, but they certainly played a part.

A very strong case can be made that Liverpool deserved absolutely nothing from the game. Both of their goals were penalties, the first of which was definitely given incorrectly. Jeffrey Schlupp slid in to block Sterling’s cross and the ball struck his face – the referee deemed it to have struck his arm and pointed to the spot. Admittedly Schlupp shouldn’t have gone to ground with his arms spread out, but it wasn’t a handball. The second penalty definitely hit a hand – Simpson’s to be precise – but he had very little time to react and move his hand out of the way. It is clear, therefore, that Liverpool can count themselves lucky to come out of a home fixture against 20th place Leicester with a point; this is indeed a sorry state of affairs.

To conclude, if Brendan Rodgers wants even a distant chance of guiding Liverpool into the top 4, he has to make the brave call of dropping Gerrard in his final half season. We saw at Swansea what we can achieve without him in the team, and we saw yesterday how little he contributes when he is in the side. The article that celebrates the achievements and service of the legend that is Steven Gerrard will surely be on its way, but this is not the time for sentimentality. This is the time for cold, hard realism, and if Rodgers doesn’t show that same level of realism then we can wave goodbye to our hopes of Champions League football next season.
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013