Sunday, 30 August 2015

Liverpool 0-3 West Ham: Post-Match Analysis

In an action-packed day of Premier League fixtures, two red cards and a 3-0 away defeat for a side that had previously conceded no goals this season was fairly run of the mill. Certainly there was nothing more than average about the Liverpool performance; impotence going forward coupled with defensive ineptitude, the now familiar recipe seen for much of last season, once again served up a hugely disappointing result. An admittedly well-drilled West Ham side took full advantage of our mediocre (at best) play, choosing their moments to get forward and punish our vulnerable back line.

The only real positive to be taken from the defeat is that it clearly demonstrated the two areas of weakness that need addressing. Unfortunately these two areas happen to be the two fundamental parts of football: defence and attack! However, neither our front nor back lines looked beyond repair. The defence would be improved immediately by the removal of Lovren and installation of Sakho – the Croatian did us a favour by making his error for the second goal glaringly obvious, meaning even Rodgers must surely realise it’s time to give Sakho a chance. Seeing as the main (largely misdirected) criticism of the Frenchman is that he’s clumsy on the ball, it’s impossible to justify playing Lovren ahead of him: he’s hardly Maradona himself. Skrtel, too, looked pretty woeful; while he made no errors leading directly to goals, his half-hearted headed clearance certainly didn’t help matters for the visitors’ opener. Sadly, though, he appears to be pretty much an ever-present in the team, and unless Rodgers goes it seems unlikely that Gomez or perhaps Ilori will be given a chance in Skrtel’s stead. In terms of the attack, the problem is the same as it was last season – we simply aren’t creating enough chances. If anything the arrival of Benteke has exacerbated that problem; when short of ideas and options we are now simply hoofing it up to the Belgian, whose knock-downs are not being picked up by anyone in a red shirt. At least last season we would persist with passes on the edge of the opponent’s box and occasionally manage to carve an opening – unless Rodgers changes the way his team are trying to utilise Benteke, it’s hard to see where any chances will come from against deep-sitting teams this campaign.

Hopefully Brendan either addresses this issue or gets replaced, but in the short term the only goals we look like getting are from pieces of individual inspiration. Coutinho scored a screamer against Stoke in the first game and, promisingly, Firmino came extremely close against the Hammers. He jinked past two with a lovely piece of skill before firing towards Randolph’s goal – only the post prevented him from marking his home debut in great style. He has already impressed with his pressing off the ball since arriving, but on the ball we have not seen too much of the skill we all know he possesses: this excellent effort was a good reminder amidst the mediocrity that the near future is not completely bleak. When Firmino really gets going, Coutinho returns from suspension and Sturridge returns then there should be enough pace and trickery to at least partially solve the chance creation issue, and hopefully it won’t be too late to salvage any damage done early on.

It must also be remembered that, prior to this game, no damage had really been done. We took maximum points from the first two and managed to leave the Emirates with a draw – by any standards, this was a solid start. Of course performance is important, but the fact that we picked up points despite poor play in the first three games means that we have a degree of leeway. We remain three points clear of the champions and level on points with Arsenal, so it’s hardly like we’re being left behind. If it takes a few more games to get into our stride then so be it – it’s only if we’re still putting in performances like this come November sort of time when we’ve really got a problem.

On the whole, then, this match should not necessarily be taken as disastrous. Ignoring the worrying signs from the match would be ridiculous, but equally there is simply nothing to be gained from reading too much into one game. There are definitely things to work on and lessons that Rodgers needs to learn quickly, both for the sake of the club and his job, but until we see clear signs that this performance and result was the rule rather than the exception then there is no need to panic. Let’s all just calm down!
-James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Arsenal 0-0 Liverpool: What Can We Achieve This Season?

After winning our first two games of the season, albeit unconvincingly, Liverpool travelled to the Emirates with a sense of cautious optimism. Although it was evident to everyone that we would need to up our game to take any points away with us, there had been enough flashes of quality to suggest that we could put up a fight. This we did: the first half was a masterclass of attacking play from the visitors at times, while the second showcased our newfound defensive solidity. Although we had a couple of great chances, on the whole Liverpool can be very satisfied taking a point away from a tough place to visit. This was (excuse the cliché) the sort of game we would have lost last season – getting such a positive result raises a question about just how far we can go this campaign.

If we can build on our first half performance, then the answer is surely that we can go very far indeed. Only an absolutely amazing performance from Petr Cech kept us at bay, denying Benteke from point blank range before tipping Coutinho’s curling effort on to the post. He rightly picked up the man of the match award – had it not been for his interventions we could have been out of sight after the first forty five minutes. The crossbar also denied us in the early minutes – Coutinho ran on to a nice through ball, and his curling effort beat Cech but struck the woodwork. Our other Brazilian attacker also impressed; Firmino was granted his full debut, and he showcased his skill and workrate. It was he who put in the excellent ball for Benteke, only for the Belgian to be denied by the keeper. In fairness Arsenal can rightly feel aggrieved after Ramsey had a goal incorrectly disallowed for offside, but on the balance of play they should frankly be grateful that they went in level.

The second half, too, was very positive for us, but in a different manner altogether. The balance of play shifted massively after the interval; Arsenal came at us immediately. They applied the sort of pressure that we’d been putting on them in the first half, but, to my delight and surprise, our back line held up admirably. Nathaniel Clyne continued to impress – already he is proving to be an extremely astute signing. Skrtel, too, did very well: he made a couple of vital interceptions, frustrating Giroud on multiple occasions. Happily, Lovren also showed further signs that he is finding more confidence and form. He has now played perfectly competently against Stoke and Arsenal, albeit briefly reverting to the Lovren we all know and love against Bournemouth. The man who stood out the most, however, was Joe Gomez. 3.5 million is rapidly starting to look like an absolute steal – he kept Arsenal’s right hand side quiet all game, including a particularly memorable seal-out where he knocked Sanchez off the pitch. His level-headedness was remarkable for such a young player in such a big game, and while I am a big fan of Moreno it does seem that he’ll struggle to regain his place (at least at full-back – for my views on his potential future as a winger, read my last article). Lucas also deserves a mention. He looked lost at times in the first half, but his shift in the second period may well have saved him from being sold. He never allowed Arsenal too much time on the ball, constantly closing them down quickly, and this certainly contributed to a hard-earned clean sheet.

Of course, despite all of these positives, this is by no means a finished article of a Liverpool side. For one thing, they didn’t get the win! Although the attack deserves great credit for creating so many opportunities, it should also come under scrutiny for failing to take any of them. Benteke has now missed two clear cut chances in two games – although both were excellent saves in fairness, one would have hoped a 32 million pound man could give the keeper no chance at all. Also, the defence can hardly be called impenetrable; Ramsey demonstrated this by beating it, only to be denied by the flag. There is work to be done, and if we are to challenge for the title (yes, this can be considered as a possibility) then we need to become more clinical at one end of the pitch and tighten up at the other.

That said, these remaining flaws are no reason for the perpetual pessimism currently permeating the Liverpool fan-base. The performances thus far have all given us flashes, at the very least, of what we are capable of – unlike last season all of the new signings are excelling, and when Sturridge comes back things can only get better. Certainly 7 points from the opening 3 is nothing to complain about: it is an excellent points tally, and with a decent run of games coming up it gives us an amazing foundation to build on. I believe we now more or less have the squad that we should have built last season, a squad which can more than make up for the absence of a talismanic striker like Suarez, and which, if things go well, can challenge for the title. If nothing else, we should definitely be able to put up more of a convincing fight than last year, and with a bit of luck we’ll be back in the Champions League in no time.
-James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Liverpool 1-0 Bournemouth: Post-Match Thoughts

Two games into the season, I’m getting a real sense of déjà vu. Despite missing our star striker we’ve opened the campaign with two victories, albeit unconvincing 1-0s. The parallels from 2013/14 are clear, and if this season pans out like that one did then I for one will most certainly not be complaining! It is a little too early for talk of title races though; on the whole Liverpool have been largely uninspiring, and there was a definite hint of fortune about the victory over Bournemouth.

The visitors took the game to Liverpool from the off: Eddie Howe opted to play two strikers up top, and they caused real problems in the opening 20 minutes. King and Wilson seemed to have the beating of the LFC back line – their pace got them in behind, and there were a couple of nervy moments early on. The worst of these came after Wilson absolutely embarrassed Lovren with a nice bit of trickery, drilled a shot in at the near post and won a corner. The ball was subsequently whipped in, and Elphick headed it home; it was no more than the Cherries deserved, but the officials ruled it out, deeming that the Bournemouth man had fouled Lovren while jumping. This was a harsh decision at best: Lovren made the most of minimal contact having realised he’d lost the header.

This incident did seem to shake Liverpool out of their reverie somewhat. After a couple more waves of attack from the away side the Reds got their act together, and were soon creating a few chances of their own. Benteke was being utilised much better than he was at Stoke, and the big man won multiple knock-downs that were picked up by teammates. His pressing was also excellent; he fashioned a few chances out of absolutely nothing by robbing defenders of the ball deep inside their own half. Even so, there weren’t really any clear cut opportunities. Lallana seemed loathe to utilise any of the space he worked for himself, preferring instead to turn back into trouble, and Coutinho was not having a particularly good game by his standards either – as such, creativity was limited. Somewhat unexpectedly, however, Liverpool did make the breakthrough in the 26th minute. A short corner was worked out to Henderson, who whipped in a great ball. Coutinho went for it and missed, but Benteke was lurking at the far post to knock home. Unlike Bournemouth’s disallowed goal, this one shouldn’t have stood: the Brazilian’s attempt to play the ball should have prompted the assistant to raise his flag. Still, the home crowd weren’t complaining – they roared their approval of the goal, which to be fair was no more than Benteke deserved on what was an excellent home debut.

From here on in Liverpool did a fairly good job of controlling proceedings – they came close to doubling their lead minutes after the goal through a sublimely controlled first time volley from Henderson, and the skipper then had a penalty shout turned down after a push in the small of the back. Half time saw another slight shift in momentum in favour of Bournemouth, but Liverpool began to control the pace of the game a lot more, and saw out the rest of the match fairly comfortably.
their attacks were handled well; throughout the game they were only allowed two shots on target. Clyne in particular was immense – he contained the threat of the rapid Max Gradel excellently, putting in a few amazing tackles. This defensive prowess combined with an extremely potent attacking threat is what makes Clyne such a brilliant signing: the days of Glen Johnson as first choice right back seem like a distant nightmare now. Much like in the first half, Bournemouth’s attacks lost momentum about twenty minutes in –

One extremely interesting change made by Rodgers in the latter stages was the introduction of Moreno at left wing. He was brought on in order to provide extra protection down the left side (Gomez, though still solid, did not look quite as assured as he did vs Stoke), and he did this admirably. He put in a couple of great challenges, breaking up a lot of would-be promising situations for Bournemouth. However, it was what he did going forward that really got me thinking. Freed at least partially from his defensive shackles he bombed up the left side, terrorising defenders with his pace and positivity. It would not be an exaggeration to say that he has been our best performing winger so far this season – never sure whether he’d sprint down the line or jink inside, the Bournemouth back line simply could not contain him. We know he’s capable of finishing; one only needs to hark back to his marvellous goal at Spurs. Maybe, then, he could reinvent himself; with rumours rife that he is now firmly second choice at full back, could he rejuvenate his Liverpool career as a winger? This change between positions has been done to great success in the past: while it would be a huge claim to suggest that Moreno could be as good as Bale, that is certainly the model of transition he would be looking to emulate. There have never been any complaints about Moreno’s talents going forward; defensive positioning has always been his issue. Surely it follows, therefore, that without having to worry about defending he could be a truly excellent wide player? This substitution would appear to suggest that the same thought has crossed Rodgers’ mind, and I for one hope to see a lot more of Moreno here as the season progresses.

Put bluntly, however, Moreno’s cameo was one of the few highlights in an otherwise average performance. Of course, the most important thing is the win, especially at this stage – racking up some early points can be a huge confidence boost. That said, we’ll have to play better than that if we want to get anything from our trip to the Emirates on Monday. Admittedly Arsenal are enduring a rather shaky start, and their back line are there for exploiting, but Liverpool look equally vulnerable. Firmino should be fit to start by next week; hopefully his flair and ingenuity inspires us to create more chances. It really is exciting to think that he and Sturridge are still to be integrated into our side – even without them (discounting a couple of Firmino run-outs) we have put together back-to-back wins and shown flashes of immense quality, which begs the question of what we are capable of with a full strength starting eleven. Could we be in for a 2013/14-esque season? Perhaps not, but a few more good results and Liverpool might just start to make us dream once more. 
-James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Stoke 0-1 Liverpool: Back With A Win

When the Premier League fixture list was announced a few weeks ago, it was met with many a grimace from Liverpool supporters. The very first game of the season saw us return to the Britannia, the scene of our 6-1 humiliation at the end of the last campaign. As it turned out, however, it was a blessing in disguise; Liverpool exorcised the demons of last season by overcoming Stoke 1-0 courtesy of an outrageous strike from Coutinho. Although it was by no means a perfect performance, the result may well prove symbolic – we’ve left 2014/15 behind us, and are capable of big things this time around.

Amongst the positives was a fairly solid defensive performance. Although there were a few nervy moments (for a couple of awful seconds I was convinced Johnson was going to smash it home), on the whole Liverpool’s back line contained Stoke convincingly. Dejan Lovren deserves a special mention here – he looked confident and assured for once, winning headers and clearing the ball with apparent ease. Even his positioning, so often the thing that lets him down, was pretty much spot on most of the time. His central partner Martin Skrtel was also decent; dodgy underweighted backpasses to Mignolet aside, he did well. The much talked-about Joe Gomez also impressed – Stoke appeared to be targeting him due to lack of experience, but on the whole he stood up well to the test. Clyne was a little disappointing at first, wasting possession multiple times with misplaced passes, but soon grew into the game. As well as being solid defensively, he made some very promising runs forward to create space for Ibe: rather than overlapping he showed a desire to cut inside into the box, and this stretched Stoke’s defence. The Potters had scored at least once in their previous 12 Premier League matches, so keeping them out at their own ground is an achievement that should not be underestimated.

This newfound defensive assuredness did, however, come at a price. Presumably anxious to avoid conceding too many after the previous humiliation, Rodgers had clearly instructed his team to play with a degree of caution. Thus, chances were at a premium – the creative spark was very much lacking for a lot of the game, with Benteke looking very isolated for most of the match. Lallana, Ibe and Coutinho were the three carrying the main responsibility for chance creation in the first half, and none of them were at their best; Lallana barely had the ball, Coutinho was ambitious but wasteful and Ibe was regularly too slow to cross. It looked like a 0-0er for much of the match – had it not been for two astute changes from Rodgers, this may well have been the case. Renowned for making bizarre switches last season, this came as a relief to fans. His decision to bring on Can allowed Milner and Henderson to push further forward, thus piling more pressure on a Stoke side who were dropping further and further back. Firmino then entered the fray, immediately showing his talents – he was a real handful, keeping the Stoke defence very busy. This allowed more space for others, and Coutinho capitalised in full from this extra room by scoring a truly unbelievable goal.

There is a case to be made for this being the little Brazilian’s best strike yet in a Liverpool shirt, and considering he was shortlisted for goal of the season last year that’s saying something. A long way from goal, he got over the ball perfectly – the resulting shot flew sublimely into the top corner, the perfect combination of power and precision. Butland was helpless. The timing of the strike was also excellent; Stoke were given precious little time to recover, and Liverpool were able to see out the remaining few minutes without serious incident.

Of course, we cannot rely on Coutinho scoring those sort of goals every week (although they’re getting much more regular!). Moving forwards, Liverpool definitely need to up the intensity of their game and improve upon their chance creation. However, this is early days, and a win to start the season is truly excellent. It was particularly important after the disappointing end to the last campaign – this really shows the turning of a new leaf, a fresh start. It is also worth noting that when Firmino is fit enough to start, chance creation should be less of a problem; even in his 15 minute cameo, the new man showed a glimpse of how much skill he possesses. With other big teams tripping up this weekend, we look like we might be on for my predicted competitive Premier League season: I think that we’ll still have 6 teams in the title race at Christmas, and I believe that we’ll be one of them. Looking at our squad, particularly our attackers, there is no doubt that we have the players to challenge for the title like we did two years ago. The question is, can we put in the performances? To me, the signs are encouraging. Roll on Bournemouth!
-James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013