Friday, 23 December 2016

Everton 0-1 Liverpool: Mane Happy Returns

Liverpool recovered from a poor start to snatch a late derby win at Goodison Park. A horror challenge from Ross Barkley looked set to be the main talking point until Sadio Mane pounced, beating the defenders to the rebound after substitute Daniel Sturridge’s shot came back off the post. On balance Liverpool probably deserved the win after a strong second half showing – there could be no better Christmas present than a late victory over Everton.

There were very worrying signs in the first thirty minutes. Everton seemed eager to press, and Liverpool were regularly forced into playing long, hopeful balls just to escape the pressure. Romelu Lukaku looked dangerous, and it was only some stellar defending from stand-in centre-back Ragnar Klavan that prevented him from firing the home side in front. Lukaku’s compatriot counterpart, Divock Origi, struggled to get involved; the ball rarely found him, and when it did he struggled to do anything telling with it. Firmino was even more ineffectual in the opening minutes – playing out on the left he looked completely off the pace, and was only really noticeable by his poor touches and misplaced passes. However, Klopp reacted to this – the last third of the opening forty-five minutes saw Firmino move central with Origi out wide, and Liverpool looked much better for the change. They slowly started to take control of the match, and by the end of the half Everton had just begun to be forced on to the back foot.

This dynamic continued into the second period. Perhaps Everton’s high-intensity start had taken too much out of them, or perhaps Liverpool had simply woken up a bit; either way, the home side struggled to get close to the performance levels that they started the match with. Neither team threatened hugely, but when there was a threat it came from Liverpool: Firmino in particular had chances. He had a one-on-one saved by Stekelenburg, and then an inventive volley was kept out very well by substitute keeper Robles. In addition to these chances, the second half brought more of a derby feel – a couple of nasty challenges flew in, none worse than that of Ross Barkley on Jordan Henderson. The playmaker came in on Henderson’s ankle, with his studs showing: had the referee properly seen the incident it would surely have been a red card. In the long run, however, the awful challenge actually worked in Liverpool’s favour – Henderson was ultimately fine to carry on, and the time which it took for him to receive treatment was part of what allowed the away side a lot of added time to snatch their late winner. This they did: Sadio Mane, who in truth had failed to have a huge influence for most of the game, was quickest to react after Daniel Sturridge struck the post in the 94th minute. It is a testament to his pace and reactions that he was able to beat two defenders to the ball, despite starting significantly behind them. Sturridge, too, deserves praise; his tenacity and willingness to shoot led directly to the goal, and he is sure to have been pleased with his impact off the bench following a recent injury layoff.

That Sturridge played such a big part shows the importance of options. Origi is a very good player, and prior to the derby had five goals in his last five appearances, but sometimes games simply need a change in personnel up front in order to make something happen. It is no coincidence that the loss of two strong attacking options in Sturridge and Coutinho has led to a dip in results: whilst those who have filled in are extremely talented in their own right, it is hard to consistently pick up results when there are no experienced alternatives to call upon from the bench. It should be said that Klopp used substitutes sparingly even when he had a full squad available to him, but the Everton game highlighted that he is not averse to making changes when he feels they would be beneficial. Sadly, one attacking option will be lost in early January – Sadio Mane is heading off to the African Cup of Nations. At least Sturridge has returned; his impact in the derby has given some hope that Liverpool will get by in the absence of the Senegal international, but the directness and pace of the winger will undoubtedly be missed.

In the meantime, Liverpool fans can carry into Christmas that glowing feeling that only a derby win can bring. Festive cheer will also be derived from the fact that Klopp’s men sit second in the league – a top four finish looks very much on the cards, and a six point gap to Chelsea is hardly unassailable. Hopefully the reds can show some resolution in the new year and mount a serious title challenge.
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Liverpool 2-2 West Ham: One of Those Days

Liverpool compounded their recent dip in results with a frustrating draw at home to relegation-threatened West Ham United. Klopp’s team played some nice football and were much the better side, but were unable to create enough clear-cut chances. Coutinho’s creativity and Sturridge’s lethal touch were sorely missed – with either of them fit it seems likely that Liverpool would have won this game. However, the biggest issue was at the other end of the pitch: Karius put in another wholly unconvincing performance, and was at fault to some level for both goals.

Things got off to a very good start. Mane made the most of some hesitant defending to drive Liverpool forward; he reached the byline and put in a dangerous ball. Lallana controlled, turned, and fired the ball past Randolph. At this point it looked as though it would be a comfortable victory to get us back on track after the disaster at Bournemouth. Liverpool being Liverpool, however, this was not the case: there was a sense of inevitability as Payet’s free-kick flew in twenty minutes later. In actual fact, it was not inevitable at all – it was entirely preventable, and was allowed to happen through a combination of a poor defensive wall and awful positioning from Karius. Most of the wall jumped but Lallana stayed grounded: the ball went sailing over his head and in, past the outstretched hand of Karius. This hand would surely have been able to palm the ball away had the German not stood so far over to the right of the goal (Karius’s left): Payet hit it well but it was fairly central, and it should certainly have been kept out. This is the latest in a string of unconvincing moments for Karius, who has not really shown any shot-stopping prowess at all since arriving at Liverpool. He is supposedly a sweeper, who brings attributes to a team other than shot-stopping – maybe this is true, but again he hasn’t showed it much since joining the club. This is exemplified by West Ham’s second goal: the ball hit Henderson and bounced over Matip to Antonio in a very unfortunate fashion, but Karius was very slow off his line. The angle was not closed quickly enough, and Antonio just had the space to roll the ball over the line. At the moment, it is very hard to see what he brings to the team that Mignolet does not; for all his faults the Belgian is a truly world-class shot-stopper, and that’s an improvement on where Karius is right now. He may well develop, but if the club want to compete in the here and now then it cannot wait for Karius to catch up.

Things were only marginally better going forward. Multiple players went close, with Wijnaldum firing narrowly wide and Clyne skying a shot at the end of a lovely team move, but the equaliser proved elusive until the start of the second half. Another Mane cross was flapped at by Randolph, and Origi was on hand to capitalise. It looked as though it would only be a matter of time before Liverpool pulled themselves back in front, but it was not to be. Randolph atoned for his mistake with a spectacular save to deny Henderson a beautiful goal, and although the hosts constantly threatened they could not find a winner. In truth, it was not a bad performance – there is no real crisis, and the result feels much worse than it actually is due to the fact that it comes straight after the Bournemouth loss. However, another failure to win in the next game really will mean trouble: we are already six points adrift of the league leaders, and no wins in three would essentially strip us of any title credentials we may possess.

The next match is against Middlesbrough, and is surely winnable even without Coutinho and Sturridge. Klopp has unsurprisingly come out in support of Karius, and will almost certainly not drop him – if this is the case, it Is time for the young keeper to step up and prove himself. He cannot complain about critics when his performances have warranted such criticism; hopefully, for the good of the team, he silences the doubters by showing exactly what Klopp has seen in him. The forwards, too, have a point to prove: although the goals have continued in Coutinho’s absence the results have not, and if this squad have any ambitions of winning the title then they need to show that they can cope when key men are out. In other words, this result has taken the team to a point of make or break: the players must stand up and be counted now, or else resign themselves to falling short yet again.
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Monday, 7 November 2016

Liverpool 6-1 Watford: Post-Match Thoughts

Liverpool moved to the top of the table for the first time under Jurgen Klopp with a dominant win over Watford. The eventual scoreline of 6-1 did not flatter; in fact, there could easily have been more goals. Sturridge hit the woodwork twice after coming on, Coutinho and Lucas both spurned good opportunities and Firmino skewed a one-on-one wide with a strange outside-foot effort. Nevertheless, the hosts will undoubtedly be thrilled with their performance – Watford were utterly dismantled, and Klopp’s men will now go into the international break high on confidence and deservedly top of the league.

It was immediately apparent that Liverpool were going to put on an attacking masterclass. The movement of the forwards, always excellent, was perhaps even more fluid than it has been all season; the Watford back line looked helpless. Coutinho was once again instrumental, popping up in pockets of space and threading lovely passes around. Lallana, too, was a constant thorn in the Hornets’ side – he regularly pushed forward to turn the nominal front three into a front four. However, it took a frustratingly long time for the breakthrough to come. Klopp said after the game that some of the best chances were created before Liverpool managed to take the lead; at the time, there was a slight worry creeping in that it might be ‘one of those days’.  These fears were alleviated by Sadio Mane after 27 minutes: a nicely worked short corner allowed Coutinho space to cross, and Mane stooped at the near post to flick the ball brilliantly beyond Gomes and into the far corner.

From this point, Liverpool did not look back. Just three minutes after the opener Coutinho himself got in on the act, receiving a pass from compatriot Firmino before rifling it into the corner from outside the box. Watford were clinging on, but with Can and Henderson beginning to push up a little more there were simply too many players for the visitors to deal with. It was Can who notched the third goal before half time: his run was not tracked by Amrabat, and he was left free in the box to head home Lallana’s inch-perfect cross. Things continued in much the same way after the break – Firmino’s performance had warranted a goal, and he managed to get one after 57 minutes. He lurked in the box, waiting for Lallana’s delivery, and when it came he was on hand to steal half a yard on his man and knock it home. Firmino was involved once again minutes later: he held up the ball brilliantly in the box, then squared it for the rapidly arriving Mane to tap into the empty net. This made it 5-0 inside the hour mark – Watford fans were probably just hoping that it didn’t reach double figures!

Liverpool briefly took their foot off the gas after the fifth, however, and Watford started to play some fairly nice football going forward. Karius was called upon to make a couple of good saves before Janmaat eventually beat him with a placed shot into the corner. In fairness it was probably deserved – the Liverpool back line will nonetheless be frustrated at yet another failure to secure a clean sheet. This frustration translated into a renewed attacking vigour up the other end: Sturridge, who had been introduced shortly before Watford’s goal, looked particularly dangerous. He hit the crossbar twice, slamming the ball against it from a tight angle before hitting it again with an outrageous curling effort from outside the box. This latter attempt was tipped on to the bar by a fingertip save from Pantilimon, who had come on in the first half to replace an injured Gomes. Had a goalkeeper who wasn’t 6”8 still been on the pitch, perhaps Sturridge would have got his goal! He did at least manage an assist late on – yet another good shot was parried by the Romanian keeper, but Wijnaldum was on hand to slot home the rebound and add a final flourish to an absolute rout.

It was a performance that showcased why Liverpool are now being treated as serious title contenders. The relentless energy, fluid movement and constant creation of chances make for an extremely potent side – in this game, Liverpool recorded the most shots on target (17) of any team in the Premier League since Opta records began in 2003/04. Coupled with this ability to score plenty of goals is a defence that is an improvement on recent years: whilst there are obviously still issues to iron out, as evidenced by the seeming near-impossibility of keeping a clean sheet, on the whole the back line is stronger than the one Liverpool had in 2013/14, when defensive frailty ultimately cost them the league. This is thanks in no small part to Joel Matip, who has brought an assurance to the defence that has been missing for some time. A sublime attack and functioning defence sounds like a recipe for success: Klopp doesn’t want to talk about it yet, but that won’t stop fans thinking about the title.
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Crystal Palace 2-4 Liverpool: Post-Match Thoughts

There’s something about playing Crystal Palace that brings out the inner crazy in Liverpool. It has been well-documented (perhaps too much so) that Liverpool possess huge talent going forward and suffer from defensive deficiencies, but this fixture always seems to highlight these dual features at their starkest. That this was the second six-goal contest between the sides in the last three years speaks volumes – indeed, a meeting between these two teams has not yielded fewer than three goals since 2005. Fortunately this particular goal-fest went in favour of Klopp’s side, and their impressive run continues.
Liverpool started brightly. The deadly front three of Firmino, Coutinho and Mane that has proved so effective this season was a constant menace, and the home side did not look capable of containing them for long. Coutinho in particular was superb; many are calling his performance the best individual display from a Liverpool player since the days of Suarez. His constant movement made him almost impossible to mark, meaning he nearly always had an extra half-yard of space. He certainly made the most of that space, pinging passes around with delightful incision and precision. It was Moreno, however, who provided the assist for the visitors’ eventual opener. It came after 16 minutes – the Spaniard, only in the team due to Milner’s illness, squared the ball in from the left flank to Can, who finished well. Moreno was a constant threat throughout the game, hitting the post later on: it was an impressive staking of a claim for regular football from a player who many Liverpool fans are far too quick to criticise.

The lead did not last long, however. Barely a minute after Can had fired Liverpool in front, a Lovren error allowed Palace back into the match. He received the ball from a Matip header, but misjudged his own header horribly – it looped up and McArthur nicked in to nod it over the oncoming Karius. It was an utter shambles: Lovren was clearly the main villain, but Matip’s decision to give it to him initially was questionable and Karius’s failure to raise his hands to try and make the save was bizarre. It was the kind of series of errors that Liverpool fans have grown all too accustomed to seeing; particularly given that Palace were the opponents, many started to think that it might just be ‘one of those games’. As it happened, Lovren had other ideas. Determined to atone for his error, he headed in the third goal in the space of five minutes following a lovely corner from Coutinho. After re-taking the lead Liverpool continued to dominate, and in truth should have added to their lead: Mane was guilty of a poor miss from close range, leaning back and striking the ball over the bar. They paid the price – with 33 minutes on the clock, Palace were level once more with just their second shot of the game. Again the circumstances were infuriating, a poor clearance allowing the hosts to shift the ball wide and then cross it in for McArthur’s second goal.

It looked as though Liverpool were going to go into the break level despite their domination, but with scarcely a minute left of the half Joel Matip restored the lead for a third time. Again it was from a corner, remarkable given Liverpool’s impotence from corners in recent times and Palace’s aerial prowess. The Cameroonian, who has been hugely impressive since joining on a free transfer in the summer, was left unmarked in the middle. He jumped well and powered his header towards goal, over Mandanda but under the bar. Nevertheless, Klopp was probably less than impressed with his team at the break. Certainly things had tightened up in the second half: Crystal Palace had in truth not created much in the first period, but produced even less going forward in the second. Liverpool, by contrast, looked just as dangerous – they could only add one more goal to their tally though. Mane came close, but was denied by the feet of a sprawling Mandanda after being put through by Firmino. It was Firmino himself who added the fourth, latching on to a glorious through ball by Henderson before chipping the ball delightfully over the oncoming keeper. His shirt was off in celebration before the ball had even hit the back of the net: that’s the confidence in this Liverpool side right now!

It was definitely a deserving win, and it extends Liverpool’s unbeaten run to an impressive eleven games. They remain level on points with top of the table City, and are starting to be discussed as genuine title contenders. It is early days, but if Klopp can keep his team performing as they are currently then they must be considered not only contenders but favourites – the attacking football on display is truly sumptuous. The defence, too, is getting better on the whole. This was not the best game for showcasing that fact, but generally speaking the open play defending has improved significantly since Matip came into the side. Set pieces remain the one persistent problem, but with the forwards scoring so freely it frankly doesn’t matter if a few goals from corners get shipped. Next up is Watford at home: a good opportunity for Liverpool to keep the pressure on City and Arsenal going into the international break, and maybe even make inroads into their goal difference advantage.
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Liverpool 0-0 Manchester United: Post-Match Analysis

Despite having the bulk of possession, Liverpool were unable to break down a Manchester United side that had come to Anfield purely to defend. Mourinho essentially adopted a slightly less ambitious version of the game plan that saw Burnley take all three points off Klopp’s men earlier this season – the emphasis was firmly on defence, with seven or eight men routinely behind the ball. In fairness it was executed well, and Liverpool rarely threatened; they did manage two dangerous efforts, but both were saved excellently by De Gea. Manchester United looked even less likely to score than the hosts did, failing to spring any sort of counter-attacks despite seemingly being set up to do so: Zlatan Ibrahimović made a mess of their only real opportunity. On balance, 0-0 was probably a fair reflection on a drab match.

It was apparent from the outset that this was not going to be a game that lived up to the considerable hype. Indeed, given the gargantuan reputation of both sides, the lack of quality on display was astounding – loose touches, stray passes and poor decision-making abounded, culminating in an opening period full of scrappy turnovers of possession in the middle of the park. Henderson, who has been very good in the last few games, was particularly culpable in this respect. The visitors probably looked the least bad, but they were far from good: the only moments of anxiety for the Anfield faithful were caused by highly questionable decision-making from new signing Loris Karius, rather than any great attacking prowess on United’s part. Liverpool did pick up a little towards the end of the half, but could produce nothing better than a tame Firmino header straight at De Gea.

Any attacking impetus United had possessed in the first half vanished in the second. Liverpool dictated the game, dominating possession and probing the United defence to try and find gaps. This was of no use though, as an odd combination of lack of urgency and lack of composure meant that the home side could not find the breakthrough. The lack of urgency manifested itself in a failure, in the most part, to run at defenders and really stretch United’s back line. The exception to this would be Can, who drove the team forward a few times with powerful runs from deep. Can, however, was also one of the most culpable on the lack of composure front – he, along with others, wasted a few well-worked positions by taking on overly ambitious long-range strikes. Long shots do not have a high conversion percentage, and are not a sustainable method of triumphing over the low block; they can be excused from a specialist like Coutinho, who has demonstrated that there is some repeatability to his goals from range, but in general the best idea is to try and pass a way through. Indeed, the biggest opportunity of the game came from a lovely ball into the path of Can on the edge of the area. The German was unable to create space with his first touch, and consequently had to writhe past a couple of defenders before snatching a shot away, but it nonetheless forced an excellent save from De Gea.

The other major chance came from an aforementioned Coutinho long shot. It was a trademark move, cutting in from the left and curling it with his right foot towards the top right hand corner. David De Gea was equal to it, however, stretching to turn the ball past the post. Frustrating as this was for the hosts, on balance it was not a game that anybody deserved to win. One minor positive for Liverpool is that it was their first clean sheet of the season, although as Klopp hinted at in the post-match press conference this is something of a bittersweet achievement in the circumstances. Perhaps the bigger positive is that Manchester United felt the need to simply shut up shop – big teams fear us once more. This is not without cause: the 0-0 is a blip in an otherwise generally superb start to the season, and this result should not dent confidence. Not every team can defend as well as a Mourinho outfit, and with a nice run of fixtures on the horizon Klopp’s men will be hopeful of a return to free-scoring ways before long.
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013 

Monday, 26 September 2016

Give Them Hull! Merciless Liverpool Trounce The Tigers

Liverpool kept their fine form going with a wholly convincing 5-1 win at home to Hull City. They looked in control from the outset, and this was only increased after Ahmed Elmohamady was dismissed midway through the first half for handling the ball to prevent a goal.  In truth they could easily have had more than five, but Jurgen Klopp and his men will certainly be satisfied with their day’s work. The only blemish on an otherwise excellent performance was the continued failure to keep a clean sheet – whilst immaterial in the context of the game, it is a slight worry that the back four are seemingly unable to go ninety minutes without shipping a goal.

It was immediately apparent that it was going to be a long afternoon for Hull. Liverpool were clearly in the mood: crisp, dangerous passes were exchanged when the hosts were on the ball, and after losing it there was an eager counter-press response. The Tigers initially combated the pressing nicely with a few quick pass combinations of their own, but the relentless pressure inevitably began to force some turnovers before long. Soon a pattern emerged whereby Hull were barely able to get a touch on the ball; when they did they were left with little option but to play it long looking for Hernandez, usually with no success. All of Liverpool’s possession came to fruition after 17 minutes when Coutinho beat a couple of men before slotting the ball into Adam Lallana, who calmly passed the ball into the corner of the net. The space for the pass was opened up by an intelligent run from Coutinho’s compatriot Roberto Firmino, who took two defenders with him when he peeled off to the left. As is Klopp’s way, Liverpool did not ease up after opening the scoring – the intensity was if anything increased, and it seemed a matter of time before the lead was doubled. Sure enough, with thirty minutes played the referee pointed to the spot following an Elmohamady handball on the line. To make matters worse for the visitors a red card was also shown. Milner coolly slotted away the penalty, leaving Hull with ten men and a two goal deficit.

Liverpool piled on the misery just six minutes later. Lallana beat two defenders with a trademark turn: he looks a different player this season, utilising his undoubted on-the-ball talents in a much more direct, effective manner than in the past. He then used the space to pick out Mane, who also swivelled before firing the ball past a hapless Marshall and into the bottom corner. Wijnaldum also had a good chance, and another Mane effort deflected on to the crossbar, but the half ended 3-0. Hull had neither the ability nor the numbers to threaten a rampant Liverpool in full flow, and at the interval it seemed very likely that the hosts might finally register a clean sheet. It was not to be, however: the old set pieces Achilles heel showed itself shortly after the break, as David Meyler scored from Hull’s first corner of the game. This trend of failing to secure a shut-out is getting quite wearisome, and must be preying on the minds of the players at this point – this could have a spiralling negative impact, as they will go into games with no confidence in their ability to keep the opposition from scoring. Far from wallowing in self-pity, however, Liverpool restored the three goal lead within moments. Staggeringly, just nine passes were made between the Hull goal and Liverpool’s fourth – Lallana’s was the final ball of the sequence, laying it into the path of Coutinho who scored a superb curler from outside the box.

The rest of the match played out in perhaps the most one-sided manner ever witnessed: Hull offered literally nothing whatsoever going forward, and simply sat back trying not to get completely humiliated. Even so, they were unable to prevent a fifth from going in – minutes after being introduced, Sturridge bamboozled his man in the box with some quick feet to win another penalty. Milner once again converted, albeit with a touch of fortune this time. Nobody could argue that a four goal margin was not fully deserved, however – indeed, six or seven might have been a more accurate reflection. This will probably not bother Liverpool too much: they scored more than enough to get the job done in what was a thoroughly professional performance.

The result extends the winning streak to three games, and leaves the team with an impressive 13 points from a tough opening six fixtures. Liverpool now lie fourth in the table; the position is of course all but irrelevant at this stage, but it always nice for the players and fans to see the team in the Champions League places. However, the top four may well not be the summit of this squad’s ambitions: in this sort of form, it is hard not to consider them genuine title contenders. It is important, however, that the players continue to take things game by game – next up is a trip to Swansea. Jurgen Klopp’s pre-match talk will surely be a simple one – “same again, please!”
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Monday, 19 September 2016

Chelsea 1-2 Liverpool: Post-Match Thoughts

Liverpool continued their impressive start to the season with an excellent win away at Chelsea. After a dominant first half the visitors had to hold on in the second period, but some steadfast defending ensured that they came away with a 2-1 victory.
Pre-match nerves were increased somewhat when it was revealed that Firmino was unavailable through injury, but Liverpool fans needn’t have worried. The attacking depth in the side is the best it has been for some time, and Coutinho was certainly a more than adequate replacement for his compatriot. Indeed it was he who created the first goal; the ball came to him following a wide free kick, and his glorious delivery was met by an unmarked Lovren at the far post. The defending was lax to say the least, but the lead was thoroughly deserved – it was the culmination of sustained pressure. On the few occasions that Chelsea did venture forward Costa was marked well by Matip, and Hazard was tracked effectively by Clyne.
A meagre one-goal advantage would not have been a fair reflection on the first half, and captain Jordan Henderson ensured that this was not the case with a stunning strike. A Cahill clearance fell to the ex-Sunderland man and he bent the ball exquisitely into the very top-right of the goal, leaving Courtois helpless. There have been growing murmurs of discontent about his performances: this was an emphatic way to silence them, at least for the time being.
Whilst it is always good to see entertaining, attacking football, in a sense the second half was even more impressive. Liverpool’s prowess going forward is well-documented, but their shaky defence is infamous – it was heartening, therefore, to see them dig in and hold a lead. Frustratingly the first clean sheet of the season continued to prove elusive – Matic jinked through multiple challenges before squaring for Costa with about thirty minutes to play – but this was essentially the only defensive lapse in an otherwise steadfast performance. Matip was at fault for the goal, but aside from that looked imperious throughout. Milner appears to be growing into the left-back role – he even attempted a left-footed cross or two! Hazard’s lack of influence is a testament to Clyne’s performance, and Lovren was solid on his return to the team. Henderson, too, deserves a mention – as well as influencing things going forward, he also provided some good defensive cover. It was always going to take him time to adapt to a deeper role, but there are signs that he is growing into it.
The Burnley result is the only major blip in an otherwise extremely impressive start to the season. 10 points from matches against Leicester, Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea is highly commendable – it is no surprise that Liverpool are now being viewed as, at the very least, top four contenders. Even the title itself has been mentioned, and why not? We have no European football in midweek and have shown we are more than capable of going toe-to-toe with the big guns. Now it is imperative that the team demonstrate that they can also get it done against smaller teams – a win against Hull next week would consolidate our position nicely. For now, the players can relish their satisfying and deserved win.
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Monday, 12 September 2016

Liverpool 4-1 Leicester: This Is Anfield

In front of their biggest crowd since the days of standing in the terraces, Liverpool marked their return to the expanded-capacity Anfield with an emphatic win over champions Leicester City. The attack looked deadly and, one freak moment aside, the defence looked very strong – there were certainly signs that the extra fans in the Main Stand could be enjoying many more convincing victories this season.

The front three was altered from the trip to White Hart Lane; Coutinho missed out, having just returned from the Brazilian national team, and Sturridge came in to play in between Firmino and Mane. There were fears that the oft-influential playmaker would be missed, but these were allayed rapidly – roared on by the home crowd the hosts started quickly, and never really let up. Sturridge looked eager to make his case for regular inclusion in the first team, and had a big hand in the opening goal. His intelligent run drew two defenders wide, leaving Firmino free to drift through the middle and unerringly find the corner. This highlighted the fluid movement that has become ingrained in the Liverpool attack – the ‘centre-forward’ drifting wide left the centre-halves with a dilemma, and Firmino capitalised by coming central himself. Mane, too, had a good game: it was he who doubled the lead, finishing off a sumptuous move with a delightful chip over Kasper Schmeichel. Again, Sturridge played a significant role – after latching on to a nice pass he cleverly back-heeled the ball into the path of Mane. The Senegalese winger has enjoyed an electric start to his Liverpool career, delivering with consistency the quality that he could only show flashes of at Southampton. It is no coincidence that the one game where he was absent was Liverpool’s only defeat of the season so far: his direct, skilful runs would have asked questions of the Burnley defence.

At 2-0 up and approaching half-time, Liverpool looked in complete control. They were outplaying Leicester going forward, and Matip in particular was putting in an accomplished, assured performance at the back. Whilst his career at Anfield is still very much in its fledgling days, he looks as though he has the potential to be the commanding central defender that has been missing for so long. However, the solid defensive work was undone by a freakish incident involving make-shift defender Lucas. He received a pass from goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, initially controlled it well, but then took a bizarre, ballooning second touch. With Okazaki (who had incidentally run into the penalty area prior to the goal kick, technically an infringement) oncoming, he then stabbed the ball desperately back in the general direction of Mignolet. Unfortunately it raced past him into the path of Vardy, who was gifted the simplest of finishes into an empty net. Liverpool thus went into the break with only a slender one goal lead.

This, however, apparently did not prey on the minds of the players heading into the second period. Far from it, they looked determined to put the game to bed – Lallana did just that ten minutes into the half, rifling home a ferocious strike from the edge of the box after a nice lay-off from Wijnaldum. Having also struck for England during the international break, he is certainly doing a good job of dispelling fears about his finishing abilities. The tempo subsequently dropped off a little, although Liverpool still looked by far the more threatening team: Sturridge will have been disappointed he didn’t manage to notch a goal or two, having got into a couple of excellent positions. At the other end the assured defensive display continued, although in truth Leicester put it under minimal strain. Just as it looked set to end 3-1, Firmino and Mane combined to cap an excellent performance from the hosts. Mane ran through on to a long ball, getting there ahead of Schmeichel – he then had the presence of mind to find the better-positioned Firmino, who coolly sold his marker a dummy before slotting home. They were probably the two best players on the pitch, and the goal was no more than they deserved.

It was an excellent way to mark the opening of the expanded Main Stand – the bumper crowd had plenty to cheer as Liverpool extended an impressive home record against the previous year’s champions. The performance of the players on the pitch coupled with Klopp on the touchline and the new stand made it hard not to look optimistically on the future: there was an abstract sense of progress. Everything appears to be moving in the right direction – a return to former glories in the long term seems on the cards. That is not to say that in the short term Klopp and his men will settle for mediocrity: if Liverpool can keep on putting in excellent team performances such as the one witnessed against Leicester, there is no reason why we can’t be in the picture for the title race this season. At the very least Klopp will be hoping to challenge for a Champions League spot. Friday night sees Liverpool travel to Chelsea in what it sure to be a thorough test of the team’s credentials: based on the evidence of this game, there is no reason why they can’t come away with all three points.
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Tottenham 1-1 Liverpool: Post-Match Analysis

Liverpool missed the chance to chalk up their second win from three matches after a Danny Rose strike cancelled out Milner’s first-half penalty. Despite dominating for large periods the away side were unable to notch more than one goal, and were eventually punished – whilst a point away to a direct rival for a top four spot is by no means a bad result, Liverpool will feel they should have secured all three.

A few nervy opening minutes notwithstanding, Liverpool started quickly. It didn’t take long at all for the first clear cut chance to be created - with less than ten minutes played Mane’s ball found Firmino, who then squared it for his compatriot Coutinho. The attacking midfielder had time and space, but somehow failed to knock the ball past Vorm from close range; the stand-in keeper made an excellent save with his legs, but in truth the Brazilian should have scored. The visitors continued to apply pressure, prompting Pochettino to make a tactical switch with half an hour played: full-back Kyle Walker, who was in any case unwell, was replaced by striker Vincent Janssen. This had little effect, and Liverpool continued to dominate – Mane in particular looked a constant threat. He is rapidly becoming the key figure in the Liverpool attack; his directness and movement both add new dimensions to a front line that can look impotent in his absence. It was Firmino, however, who finally made things happen: his bursting run was halted in the area by a trip from Erik Lamela. It was unfortunate in that the winger was simply trying to track back and in doing so unwittingly caught the heel of Firmino: nevertheless, it was clearly a penalty. Somewhat surprisingly it was James Milner who stepped up to take it, but he allayed any doubts by tucking it into the bottom left hand corner and sending Liverpool in 1-0 up at half time.

The second half commenced in much the same fashion. Liverpool looked by far the superior outfit, and were only denied a second goal by the offside flag. Mane fired home what would have been a well-deserved goal after a square ball from Lallana, but Lallana himself was adjudged to have been offside when the initial ball was played through to him. It was a marginal decision, but one which the assistant referee probably got right. It would be stretching the truth to say that this acted as a catalyst for Spurs, but their performance levels did gradually improve. They began to threaten a little more – although Matip and Lovren looked very capable of dealing with the threat of Kane and Janssen – and with about fifteen minutes to play they grabbed an equaliser. Both full-backs have to take some blame: Milner was too slow to close down the cross from Eric Dier, and Clyne was unable to get to Rose in time at the far post. The Spurs left-back duly fired home, beating the onrushing Mignolet at the near post with a sliced effort that he may or may not have meant. On the balance of play it was wholly undeserved, but it was always a risk that Liverpool would be made to pay for failing to capitalise on their sustained pressure.

That is not to say that there are no positives to take away from the draw. As previously alluded to, the newly-formed central pairing of Matip and Lovren looked impressive: they were up against the physical type of forwards who can so often prove real handfuls for central defenders, but dealt with them admirably. Lovren had one sticky moment early on where Kane simply shrugged him aside and ran through towards goal, but he settled down and had a strong game on the whole. Matip also demonstrated his aerial threat from set pieces, skimming the bar with a header from a corner – Liverpool have been hugely wasteful with set pieces since the 2013/14 season where Skrtel bagged seven goals, and Matip could be the player to change that. Henderson, too, put in an impressive performance: he has been widely criticised for his performances in the Arsenal and Burnley games, but really stepped up in this one. His passing was generally accurate, his defensive work was as good as can be expected from a box-to-box type player and his pressing contributed to the creation of the Coutinho chance early on – hopefully he can keep this up and silence his critics. Finally, Mane once again impressed: he has staked a big claim for man of the match in each of the three competitive games he has played, and is rapidly establishing himself as a pivotal part of the Liverpool attack.

Klopp will of course be frustrated that his team were unable to convert a good performance into three precious points, but it is unlikely that he will be overly concerned at this stage. It is still very early in the season: Liverpool have time to address their issues, and they certainly have plenty more points to play for! They will look to do just that in their next game against Leicester, which comes after an international break – the champions will present a tough challenge, but with the increased-capacity home crowd cheering them on for the first time this season Liverpool have a good chance of getting the win.
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Monday, 15 August 2016

Arsenal 3-4 Liverpool: Post-Match Thoughts

So much for easing us in gently. Liverpool started the new season with a dramatic 4-3 win away at Arsenal in a game that forced fans to endure a whole range of emotions, chief amongst which were stress and tension.  In the end though it was elation, as the visitors clung on to secure an excellent three points against their rivals.

This was always going to be a high-scoring game. Arsenal were missing Gabriel and Mertesacker through injury. Koscielny, who joined up with the squad late after reaching the European Championship final with France, was also unavailable – this left something of a crisis at centre-back for the hosts. In the end it was the inexperienced pairing of Chambers and Holding that were left to deal with the potent attacking threat of Mane, Firmino and Coutinho. Meanwhile, Liverpool lined up with an extremely attacking side: a central three of Henderson, Lalllana and Wijnaldum meant that at times our shape was a de facto 4-1-5 that almost entirely bypassed the midfield. As such the defence was exposed, a defence that is prone to errors: Moreno in particular is a weak point, and he was constantly targeted. It isn’t often that you go into a game predicting a scoreline of 5-3, and it’s even less often that you’re nearly right – regardless of the inevitability of it, however, it made for a great, albeit stressful, spectacle.

The first half was surprisingly drab. Liverpool seemed sluggish and altogether un-Klopp-like, failing to put much pressure on Arsenal when not in possession and unable to string any passes together when on the ball. The (lack of) midfield was a primary factor: transition from the back was nigh on impossible, meaning the options were to smash the ball long or risk losing it by passing through the lively Arsenal press. It was this latter route that led to the opening Gunners goal – Lallana lingered too long and was robbed of the ball in a very dangerous area, and Moreno, who had just surged forwards to support the potential developing attack, was left hideously out of position. Iwobi then found Walcott who finished well, having been denied from the penalty spot by a good Mignolet save only moments previously. Liverpool looked destined to go in at the break deservedly trailing, but on the stroke of half time Coutinho came up with a piece of pure inspiration. The free kick, which he himself had won, was a fair way out; this did not put the Brazilian off, and he found the top corner with unerring accuracy and power.

Despite this equaliser, Klopp cannot have been a happy man in the half time dressing room. The performance was well below the levels that the squad are capable of – this point was emphasised by the storming fifteen minutes immediately after the break. Liverpool came out looking rejuvenated: suddenly the energy and skill was evident throughout the side, and beautiful moves were strung together seemingly effortlessly. The second goal for the visitors came quickly, as it seemed it must – Wijnaldum squared the ball for Lallana, who controlled it beautifully before rifling it between the legs of Petr Cech. The third goal followed soon after, this time coming from the right hand side: Clyne drilled in a cross following a wonderful passing build-up, and Coutinho was on hand to steer it in for his second. The fans were sent into ecstasy when Mane bagged the fourth – his excellent run was followed by a staggeringly good weak foot finish into the top corner. It’s only the second day of Premier League action, but already we have a possible contender for goal of the season.

This is Liverpool, however, so of course we did not cruise on to an easy victory. The lead was pegged back to two almost immediately after Mane’s strike, with Oxlade-Chamberlain’s shot deflecting wickedly off Lovren and past a helpless Mignolet. This seemed to breathe new life into Arsenal, who seized control of the match once more. They made the most of their newfound dominance with 15 minutes to play – Callum Chambers rose above the defence to head home, leaving the score at 4-3. An extremely nervy end to the match ensued, but Klopp’s introduction of Origi paid dividends – rather than inviting pressure Liverpool retained an outlet and were able to prevent Arsenal from creating too many more chances, and consequently held on for the win.

Certainly this was far from a perfect performance, but this team is far from a finished product. This is day one of Liverpool’s season, and the key was always going to be the three points: an invaluable three points against a potential rival. A rival for what position remains to be seen, but there is no reason why this team can’t be pushing for the title itself. Of course the defence will need to tighten up if we want sustainable success this season, but the attack looked immense at times today – if Klopp can find a balance, Liverpool look like a formidable force once more.
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Fleetwood Town 0-5 Liverpool: Reds Turn On The Style

In the second fixture of their pre-season preparations, Liverpool travelled to Fleetwood’s Highbury ground. As in the Tranmere match, Klopp elected to play two entirely different sets of players in each half – the opening forty-five minutes was not too far away from a full-strength side minus those still away following international duty, while the second period saw an opportunity handed to more of the young players. Both impressed, but interestingly it was the younger side that scored the bulk of the goals – four of Liverpool’s five were notched in an extremely strong second half performance.

The biggest positive of the first half was undoubtedly Marko Grujic. He was unable to feature in the Tranmere game due to bizarre work permit regulations that required him to leave and then re-enter the country, and he seemed determined to make up for lost time. He certainly managed to impress Klopp and the fans: he played some lovely passes, and looked impossible to dispossess. He also showed some quick feet, winning a penalty early on: in a passage of play that highlighted some of his best attributes, he effortlessly shrugged his man off before bursting forward and comprehensively beating the defender with a series of step-overs. Ings missed the subsequent spot kick, but Grujic soon rectified the situation – just minutes later he rifled one in following some nice play down the left by Sadio Mane. Nobody really knows exactly what squad role Klopp envisages for Grujic this season, and it would be foolish to read too much into a pre-season game, but the Serbian is certainly inserting himself at least into the first team picture.

Grujic aside, it was a fairly uninspiring first half. There was nothing specifically wrong with it – the general style of play was actually encouraging, with everyone looking to string together quick, incisive passes. However, nobody really shone: Mane was probably the best after Grujic, but even he was guilty of some poor decision-making in places. Particularly concerning was the apparent impotence of the right hand side; Markovic has purportedly been given pre-season to try and force his way into Klopp’s plans, but as in the Tranmere game he failed to impress. Almost all attacks went through Mane on the left – considering Markovic is supposed to be a direct winger who likes to cut inside and make things happen, this was particularly disappointing. Admittedly Mane was assisted by the ever-marauding Moreno whereas Markovic had Flanagan, but he would nevertheless certainly have liked to have had a bigger influence on proceedings.

This lacklustre showing was thrown into sharp relief by the performance of youngster Ryan Kent in the second half. He played exceptionally well, demonstrating awareness beyond his years. He was rewarded for this with two assists: both were clever square balls from situations where many wingers would simply have lashed the ball at the near post. As well as the assists, he also showed some lovely skill to beat his man on a couple of occasions – with Klopp known for bringing young talents through to the first team, Markovic will be well aware that he will have to step up to ensure he remains higher up the pecking order than Kent. He was one of many who impressed: academy prospect Woodburn scored one goal and created another in an excellent performance, whilst sole regular first-teamer Roberto Firmino bagged a poacher’s brace. It was interesting that Klopp once again elected to play Firmino in the number nine role: with Sturridge, Origi and Ings all occupying that position it is hard to see him getting many minutes up top during the season, but he was undeniably impressive there in this fixture. There was a real clinical edge to the second half performance – even Lucas managed to get on the scoresheet! Transferring this ruthlessness into the Premier League season is going to be a key element of any success in the forthcoming campaign: Klopp got Liverpool creating chances aplenty last season, but not taking them with sufficient consistency.

The absence of a lot of regular first team players makes it particularly hard to draw any meaningful conclusions from this game, but if nothing else it is fair to say that Liverpool’s future looks bright. Marko Grujic looks capable of developing into a player that could control our midfield for years to come – the prospect of him playing alongside Can, both with their potential fulfilled, is a mouth-watering one. Add to this the likes of Brannagan, Kent, Woodburn, Ejaria and potentially Ilori, and the club looks in very good shape; it would be naïve to think that all of these players will one day make the first team, but even those who don’t will surely go on to fetch decent sums of money for us. Sergi Canos was in a similar bracket to the aforementioned crop of youngsters: he has just departed to Norwich for a fee which could rise to close to five million pounds, giving an indication of how valuable these talents are as assets. For the time being, however, they remain very much a part of Liverpool Football Club – a club that will undoubtedly be content with how pre-season has gone so far.
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Monday, 11 July 2016

Liverpool vs Tranmere: Return of the Reds

Little time seems to have passed since the disappointing end to the last campaign, but today Liverpool returned to action in a pre-season friendly against Tranmere Rovers. This could hardly be called a significant fixture, but it provided a good opportunity to see some of the new signings and academy prospects in action; the result was always secondary in this match, but Liverpool will be pleased to have come away with a 1-0 victory.

Jurgen Klopp elected to play two entirely different teams in each half. The first half gave us our first glimpse of new signings Loris Karius, Joel Matip and Sadio Mane: Karius had absolutely nothing of note to do, but Matip and Mane were both involved. The Cameroon centre back made a couple of errors towards the start of the match, but that can hopefully be attributed purely to nerves. He settled a little as the half progressed, and showed off some impressive distribution – both he and Lovren played some excellent balls out from the back, allowing for good transition from one end of the pitch to the other. One such pass from Lovren found Mane, who had made a bursting run into the box endemic of his lively performance; the Senegalese international beat the onrushing keeper to the ball then unleashed an audacious scoop shot from an extremely tight angle, only narrowly missing out on an exquisite first goal. In fact, the newest addition from Southampton was probably the half’s best performer – in addition to his intelligent off-the-ball movement, he also impressed with his direct runs and clever turns. One such turn, where he allowed the ball to run between his legs before swivelling and sprinting away from his man, resulted in a chance that forced a fine save from the Tranmere goalkeeper. His link-up play with Firmino was also encouraging: Firmino was playing as a striker in this game, something he will likely not be doing regularly over the course of the season, but their understanding was nevertheless a positive sign.

A couple of the youth players also seized the chance to impress in the first half. Ejaria, playing as an attacking midfielder, was one of the lesser-known youngsters on the team sheet – he put in an excellent performance, showing a wide range of qualities. His passing was generally excellent, he put pressure on the Tranmere defence with some powerful, direct runs and he even tracked back admirably: many Liverpool fans will now be keeping a close watch on his development. In contrast, Brannagan is one of the most high-profile young talents at the club – Barcelona have reportedly shown interest in signing him to their youth setup, and it was clear in this game why he has attracted such attention. His levels of composure on the ball are remarkable for such a young player. He pulled the strings from a slightly deeper midfield role, and barely put a pass wrong all game – he also showed quick feet to beat a man on a couple of occasions. The only real negatives from the half were the lack of goals (although this cannot really be read into at all in a pre-season match) and a close call from a set piece, where a Tranmere man was able to find space and directed his header on to the post. Hopefully this persistent set-piece vulnerability gets addressed before the season gets properly underway.

The second half saw changes all round: two of the most notable introductions were Danny Ings, only recently back from a serious injury that kept him out for much of last season, and Lazar Markovic, who spent the last year out on loan at Fenerbache. Both players are still very young, and whilst some fans have written them off others are intrigued to see what part they could play in Klopp’s plans for the upcoming season. Markovic didn’t do his cause much good with his performance – seemingly functioning fairly central rather than in his natural right wing position, he struggled to influence the game. More worryingly, he missed two very good chances: the first was ballooned over the bar from about 12 yards out, and the second struck the post with the goal gaping. The latter miss was frankly criminal, and in any competitive game would be nigh-on unforgivable. However, the Serbian did begin to impress in the latter stages: he began to drift over to the right on occasion, and from here he was effective. One particular delivery for Danny Ings was inch-perfect: the striker nearly gave it the finish it deserved, firing just wide with an acrobatic bicycle kick. Ings did eventually get his goal a few minutes later – Trent Alexander Arnold went on a lovely run before finding Ings, who controlled the ball excellently before lashing it into the net. Although he will have a tough time getting minutes ahead of Sturridge and Origi, it is certainly nice to have Ings back fit as an option: his pace, finishing and work rate make him a very useful player in any side, but particularly under Klopp.

The Ings goal secured the win, but more important was the fairly high level of performance in both halves. Liverpool always looked in control, and impressed with their quick, accurate passing under pressure. They were expected to dominate, of course, but that does not detract from the fact that they were able to completely dictate the game – new signings and youngsters alike put in performances that gave the fans reason to be optimistic for the future. It is foolish to read too much into pre-season games, but it is certainly fair to say that there were promising signs. If nothing else, it was great to see Liverpool back in action again: here’s to many more wins in the coming season.
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

A Night For The Ages: Europa League Final Preview

Tonight, the team will step out on to the pitch in Basel with a great responsibility on their shoulders. It is a game that will not only define the season, but potentially the trajectory of their club – our club - for years to come. Its importance cannot be overstated; tonight can end an eleven year wait for a European trophy and return us to the Champions League where we belong. Let no man buckle under this pressure – every player must revel in the knowledge that they can be part of a restoration. Greatness beckons once more, and tonight we must seize it. 

The job of masterminding the return to the top falls to Jürgen Klopp. Despite uninspiring league form, it is clear that Klopp has begun to awaken the giant: Liverpool is yet to roar as once it did, but it is grumbling back to life. There have been flashes of brilliance, such as the 4-1 away win at City and the professional dismantling of Villarreal at Anfield, but the biggest change has been in attitude. The charismatic German has instilled great belief in the squad since his arrival, a quality that will need to be on display in abundance to triumph over Sevilla. The Spanish outfit have a psychological advantage in that they have won the competition in both of the previous two seasons – Liverpool will find themselves up against resolute opposition who truly believe they can win, and will need to be able to overcome this. The spirit shown in the astounding triumph over Borussia Dortmund will surely be referenced by Klopp as he urges our players to make themselves heroes.

This is not to say that it will be a case of Klopp’s heart versus Unai Emery’s head – the narrative that his passion triumphs over tactics is a tired one. Rather the German offers a brilliant blend of both; he sets the team up astutely, then gives them the confidence to go out and execute his game plan to perfection. The focus for tonight’s game will surely be creating and taking chances: Klopp has yet to make his mark on the squad with transfers, and for the moment the team’s strengths lie firmly in attack. Coutinho, Firmino and Lallana are expected to start in behind Sturridge – this is the same attacking four that dispatched of Villarreal in the second leg of the semi-final, and an even more effective display will be required of them to triumph in this game. They will all need to press: Firmino and Lallana have been particularly good at hassling the opposition into mistakes under Klopp, and this could be the key to unlocking Sevilla’s defence. Once they carve out the chances, they must take them ruthlessly – squandering opportunities is not necessarily the end of the world over two legs, but in the final a clinical streak must be shown. Certainly Liverpool have an attack capable of doing this; this is where passion and attitude come back into the equation. Unutilised talent is worthless: it is down to Klopp to ensure that every last player in a red shirt gives it their all.

This is, of course, equally applicable to the defence. Although they are not the strongest aspect of the team, they too will need to play at the very top of their games. It has recently emerged that Kolo Toure may be departing the club at the end of the season – guiding the club to silverware and Champions League qualification would be a perfect way to end. Dejan Lovren has had a very up-and-down career at Liverpool: he will need to be at his commanding best if Liverpool are to triumph. Alberto Moreno has come under a fair amount of criticism for his questionable defensive positioning and decision-making; this is somewhat mitigated by his strengths going forward, but he cannot afford to leave gaping holes in behind for Sevilla to exploit. Clyne also needs to watch his positioning: he has been solid all season, but big occasions can lead to errors. Most importantly, the four of them must work as a unit – they need to communicate, always pushing forwards together and dropping back together. Mignolet also needs to make sure he talks to his back line; he has never been the most authoritative of keepers, but a miscommunication in such a huge game could prove extremely costly.

Despite all the things that could go wrong, there is an unshakeable feeling that tonight is the night that will be looked back on as the night things changed for Liverpool Football Club. There is a tangible air of expectancy – Klopp and Liverpool have the makings of a truly seismic partnership, and a win tonight could well set in motion the revival that the club has threatened to undergo for so many years. On joining the club, the manager prompted us to turn from doubters into believers: tonight, more than any other, that message is applicable.

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Monday, 7 March 2016

Crystal Palace 1-2 Liverpool: Post-Match Analysis

With half an hour to play at Palace, it looked as if it was going to be another joyless trip to Selhurst for Liverpool. An early second half goal for Joe Ledley had left the visitors in trouble, and the problems were seemingly compounded when James Milner was sent off after a needless second yellow. However, this seemed to spur Liverpool on – they were by far the better side after being reduced to ten, and stole a victory in the dying seconds of the game with a dubious penalty won and converted by substitute Christian Benteke. It probably was a spot kick, but the element of doubt only served to make the victory sweeter – the anger of Pardew and the Palace fans is some measure of revenge for the infamous 3-3 draw. Liverpool are now just six points off the top four, and can move to within five of Arsenal with a victory in their game in hand: although it is a long shot, it means the season is suddenly far from over after all.

In many ways it was an odd match. The first twenty minutes or so were full of promise for Liverpool: they played some lovely flowing football and created multiple half-chances, only being denied clear-cut opportunities by their tendency towards over-intricacy in the attacking third. Admittedly the defence looked shaky; Palace looked capable of getting a goal or two, coming extremely close through Adebayor after a Lovren error, but it seemed likely that Liverpool’s front line would be able to counteract this. However, this pattern of play gradually stopped – by the half-hour mark the defences were very much on top, with Palace in the ascendency going forward. Only dominant performances from Sakho and, after a poor start, Lovren, prevented the home side from taking the lead before half time; they won the vast majority of their aerial battles, and doubled up well with the full-backs where necessary to nullify the threat of Zaha and Bolasie. This is the second week in a row where Lovren has been worthy of singling out for praise: it would perhaps be premature to say that he is now looking like a 20 million pound defender, but at the very least he no longer looks out of place in the team.

Nevertheless, Palace were able to take the lead very early in the second period. Predictably, it was from a corner: it looked as if the danger had been cleared, but a poor touch from Firmino fell favourably for Joe Ledley. Despite not having scored in over a year the midfielder inevitably came up with an excellent finish, driving the ball beyond Mignolet and into the corner. Having not threatened in any meaningful way since the opening exchanges, things were not looking promising for Liverpool; Jurgen Klopp apparently felt the same way, opting to bring off Jon Flanagan and replace him with Coutinho. This is about as far from like-for-like as it gets – it probably gave Van Gaal some sort of fit – and it certainly signalled the manager’s attacking mindset. Just seconds later, however, he was forced into another major re-think when James Milner picked up a second yellow card for a completely brainless challenge in an area of no particular danger. The formation after this was essentially unrecognisable: the visitors went to a back three, but with two of the defenders –Moreno and Lovren - essentially playing at wing back rather than centrally. Fans have become accustomed to Moreno’s marauding runs, but do not expect them from Lovren; he was a revelation down the right, with his committed performance epitomised by an inch-perfect challenge to rob Souare deep in Palace territory. Emre Can was also immense. He seemed to be absolutely everywhere after the sending off, simultaneously a sweeper and playmaker. He is becoming quite a player, and it is exciting to see how he develops. Even so, the hosts should surely have found a way of capitalising on Liverpool’s makeshift, open back line. Instead they panicked, allowing the visitors to come on to them: it was as if they had just got a man sent off. This fear was evident in the manner of Liverpool’s equaliser – goalkeeper Alex McCarthy failed to deal with a fairly routine back-pass, gifting the ball to Roberto Firmino. He made up for his earlier poor touch, controlling the ball beautifully before coolly slotting the ball beyond McCarthy and into the corner.

At this point Palace were in limbo: a point against Liverpool would have been a good result for them considering their woeful form of late, but with the extra man they felt that they could get more from the game. Instead of shutting up shop and seeing out the last few minutes they continued to come forward – Sako and Gayle were introduced to inject pace into the attack. Gaps were subsequently left at the back - despite a late defensive switch from Klopp that saw Toure replace Firmino, Liverpool showed no signs of wanting to settle for a point. The manager highlighted this after the game: although Palace largely gifted Liverpool the three points, the team still showed great spirit to push on. With just a minute of added time remaining, Henderson picked out Benteke with an inch-perfect pass: the Belgian showed a rare piece of good movement to get on the end of it, then went down under the challenge of Damien Delaney. It was a ridiculous tackle to make – Benteke was running harmlessly towards the by-line, and could simply have been shepherded out. Delaney tried to pull out of it but his knee caught Benteke’s foot: the striker went down, and after consulting with his assistant Andre Marriner pointed to the spot. Benteke himself stepped up to take the penalty: he showed incredible nerve to execute a perfect stutter penalty, making McCarthy commit then putting it the other side. He may not have had the best of times since joining for Liverpool, but the £32.5 million was all worth it to get one over on Palace like this.

The result means that Liverpool continue to make their league position look more favourable: they are the most in-form side over the last five games, and that turnaround in fortunes is reflected in the fact that we are now just six points off a Champions League space. Even though snatching a fourth place finish late on is highly implausible, it is no longer beyond the realms of possibility: this gives the team something to play for, and will prevent the season from simply petering out. With the Europa League clash to come against United on Thursday, there are bound to be plenty more exciting moments still to come in this campaign.
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Liverpool 3-0 Manchester City: Post-Match Analysis

After Sunday’s defeat to Manchester City in the Capital One Cup Final, Liverpool hosted them at Anfield with one objective: revenge. Certainly the Reds seemed very motivated: they worked harder than their opponents from the outset, and in doing so earned an emphatic 3-0 win. Not only did this bring immense satisfaction after the loss on penalties, it also brought a possibility of unlikely redemption in the league; the win moved Liverpool to just six points off fourth, with a game in hand on all of the teams above them bar City themselves.
Even more important than the potential rekindling of top four hopes is the level of performance Liverpool showed they were capable of. It was probably the best performance since Klopp’s arrival, and it encapsulated the German’s philosophy: the players pressed in organised packs, limiting City’s time and space effectively and hustling them into mistakes. Milner and Lallana, both much maligned at times in their Anfield careers, put in excellent performances – they tirelessly chased down balls, and were rewarded with a goal apiece. Lallana opened the scoring with an opportunistic low drive into the corner that caught out Hart, with Milner topping off a lovely flowing move for the second after latching on to a Firmino flick. The ex-Hoffenheim man was also excellent: he looked dangerous whenever he got the ball, and capped off the rout with a cool finish after a clever ball into him from Lallana.
In contrast, the City attack looked toothless. The Liverpool back line was not a familiar one – Jon Flanagan started on the right with Clyne playing out of position at left back, while Toure and Lovren were the centre-back pairing. It was Flanagan’s first start since 2014, but he put in an excellent performance; aside from a couple of poor passes in dangerous areas, one of which was largely down to Henderson’s ball putting him under pressure, he didn’t put a foot wrong. He was particularly effective at keeping Raheem Sterling quiet – much to the glee of Liverpool fans, he repeatedly robbed him of possession and even knocked him to the ground. Sterling looked completely ineffectual, and was replaced by Bony at half-time. By the sixty minute mark Pellegrini had three centre-forwards on, with Ihenacho replacing Fernandinho, but still they could not trouble a resolute Liverpool back line. Klopp singled out Toure for praise after he managed to make up a lot of ground to rob Aguero: the Ivorian is in the last year of his contract, but has surely shown in recent weeks that he still offers enough to warrant a one year extension. At any rate, he will have given the club food for thought. Lovren, too, is starting to change people’s minds: he is starting to settle at the club, and put in an assured display in this game.
Another player beginning to adapt to life at Liverpool is Divock Origi. He has now clearly established his position ahead of Benteke in the pecking order; Sturridge was never likely to start after completing the full 120 minutes on Sunday, and sure enough Origi was the one named in the starting eleven. Although he was not directly involved in any of the goals, the 20 year-old showed his potential: he tirelessly ran across the back line, constantly keeping the City defenders occupied. He is regularly compared to compatriots Benteke and Lukaku, but this is a lazy equivalency to draw – in fact he bears more resemblance to Sturridge, albeit with more power to his game. His movement is excellent, and he has shown flashes of great technical ability on the ball: certainly he is an exciting talent.
This game will not just have given Liverpool fans hope of a bright future – there is now a remote but distinct possibility that something could be made of our Premier League campaign. Liverpool have a game in hand over all but one of the teams above them and currently sit six points adrift of fourth: this is by no means an insurmountable margin. The likelihood is that our chronic lack of consistency will prevent us from mounting any serious challenge for Champions League place, but with the form of the current top four it cannot be ruled out.

 Even if we do not, however, there are still plenty of things to be positive about. Jurgen Klopp is starting to impose his philosophies on the side, and as a result performances and indeed results are gradually picking up. He is also the most likeable, relatable manager we could possibly have hoped for, as well as arguably being the best coach in the league. This is a great combination, and one that could truly lead to the return of Liverpool as a European footballing force. In the short term, we are still in the Europa League and have every chance of progressing against United: the Capital One Cup may be gone, but Liverpool Football Club is on the up.
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Liverpool 1-0 Augsburg: Post-Match Analysis

Liverpool went into the second leg of the Europa League Round of 32 tie against Augsburg with the aggregate score standing at 0-0. The result in Germany left the Anfield side needing a win to progress: another goalless draw would have sent the game to extra time, and any other draw would have seen the German outfit progress on away goals.  Despite a troubling lack of clinical finishing the hosts were able to get a goal; at the other end, a clean sheet was preserved in spite of a late spell of pressure for Augsburg.

Although the narrow margin left nerves shredded towards the end, in general the Liverpool performance can be described as promising. The fledgling partnership of Coutinho, Firmino and Sturridge, against whom circumstances have conspired for much of this season, is already beginning to blossom – communication is naturally not what it could be at times, but they showed patches of exquisite fluency in this game. The movement and awareness that all three of them possess makes for a deadly combination: the level of intricacy is exceptional. Their pressing, too, is encouraging to see: two or three chances were carved out purely as a result of good pressure placed on the back line.  The only negative point to be raised in regard to their play is the fact that, no matter how nice on the eye it was at times, it did not result in a goal: there were plenty of near misses, but none of them were able to find the back of the net.

The goal Liverpool did get came courtesy of a James Milner penalty. An Augsburg defender was adjudged to have handled the ball in the box just four minutes in, and the ex-City midfielder finished coolly into the bottom corner. The Reds continued to push forwards after taking the lead, and were by far the better side in the first half. Augsburg created nothing for themselves, their only opportunity coming from an under-weighted back-pass from Lucas. Despite their domination, however, Liverpool were unable to extend their lead. This frustration continued into the start of the second half; the attack continued to look dangerous but still could not find a finish, Sturridge coming closest when his shot struck the post.

Into the latter portion of the second half, the balance shifted. It seemed for all the world that Liverpool would be punished for their failure to get a second as the German side piled forward, knowing a goal would send them through. They very nearly got it; a Seferovic free kick went narrowly wide, and a pull-back from the left would surely have resulted in a goal had the ball not been inadvertently diverted out of immediate danger by Esswein. This shakiness late on needs to be addressed if Liverpool wish to progress any further in the Europa League and indeed as a club – a better opponent would surely have punished the late collapse in defensive assuredness.

That being said, there is no point dwelling on the defensive frailties in the short term. In a season where the Europa League and Capital One Cup are all there is realistically left to play for, progression was the primary objective – this has been achieved, and if the aforementioned attacking trio continue their progression together then there is no reason to suggest further progress cannot be made. For the time being, however, the squad’s focus will firmly be on the upcoming trip to Wembley on Sunday to face Manchester City in the final of the League Cup. Hopefully the promise going forward seen against Augsburg will prove to have been a warm-up for the main event: if the players can find a lethal streak, it is very plausible that Liverpool will be able to get their hands on the first piece of silverware under the Jurgen Klopp era.
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Liverpool 0-0 West Ham: The Kids Are Alright

Another day, another fixture for Liverpool. They have averaged roughly a game every four days since Jurgen Klopp arrived, including nine games in January alone. The German cannot be blamed, therefore, for opting to field a young side in this FA Cup clash with West Ham United. They held up well against the Premier League opposition, succeeding where the senior side have already failed twice this season in that they avoided a loss. However, the reward for their endeavours is yet another fixture: they were the better side but failed to find the net, so will have to do it all again in a replay at Upton Park.

The game was largely an uneventful one, but nonetheless there were some positives. Most of these young players had never been tested against a big side like West Ham, and they coped with the challenge admirably. There were a couple of shaky moments in defence, but the back line was comprised of mostly senior players. In the midfield the likes of Teixeira, Brannagan and Stewart featured, and all put in good performances. Brannagan took the majority of the plaudits, partially because he came closest to scoring with a well-struck effort that forced a smart stop out of Randolph, but Stewart was arguably the more impressive. I’ll admit to not having heard of him until relatively recently, but he did not look at all out of place at this high level of competition. He showed composure on the ball and passed it around nicely; the only sign of his inexperience was a little overzealousness in the challenge from time to time. Teixeira showed flashes of his quality, playing in a couple of dangerous balls, but was often on a different wavelength to Benteke and consequently was largely ineffectual.

This lack of attacking cohesion was the biggest problem in the match - although Liverpool were regularly able to work the ball into the final third, they looked clueless as to what to do with it when they got there. Ibe, Teixeira and Benteke all seemed to have different ideas about what runs should be made, meaning the killer final ball just never materialised. This has been endemic of Liverpool’s season, particularly when Benteke has played: it would be churlish to suggest he is not talented, but it is hard to avoid the fact that he simply is not compatible with the fluid , high pressing front line Liverpool employ. He was not entirely to blame - Ibe had another poor game, passing up good opportunities to pass in favour of pointlessly cutting inside in a Glen Johnson-esque fashion. His season has been far from inspiring: it would be foolish to write him off at this stage as he is still so young, but Klopp is right to leave him out of the regular first team picture for the time being.

By contrast, Allen has had an excellent season compared to his previous ones at the club. He still hasn’t earned himself a spot in Klopp’s go-to starting eleven, but if he keeps up his current levels of performance he may well break into the first team soon. His goal against Arsenal and winning penalty against Stoke can only have boosted his confidence; this was epitomised by his attempted bicycle kick from the edge of the box against the Hammers. Such was the nature of the game that this was one of our better chances - he was barged as he went for it, prompting half-hearted penalty shouts, and the ball almost fell for Teixeira. It almost certainly wasn’t a penalty, but he must be applauded anyway for at least trying to make things happen in front of goal. At the other end West Ham should have had a spot kick - Steven Caulker was shown to have deliberately handled the ball inside the box from a West Ham free kick. The hosts got away with it, however, and at the end of the day a draw was probably a fair reflection.

It would be easy to be negative about this result and complain about the extra game it gives us in an already congested schedule. However, there are enough things to be pessimistic about without needlessly placing a negative spin on this match - ultimately we have succeeded in remaining in the competition and keeping our treble hopes alive! This is no bad thing, and while an extra match isn’t ideal it is good news that we are still in the FA Cup.
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013