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