Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Liverpool 5-0 Swansea: A Late Christmas Present

Forget seven: none of the Swans were a swimming after Liverpool sunk Leon Britton’s men with a comprehensive 5-0 win. The players were seemingly nursing Christmas hangovers in the first half, where creativity was lacking and the chances that did get carved out were largely squandered, but the second half was Liverpool in full flow. Four further goals were added to Coutinho’s first half strike to make sure the fans did not regret braving the cold; the result reinstated Klopp’s men to the top four after Spurs had temporarily displaced them.

The scoresheet shows that Liverpool were able to break the deadlock after just five minutes, but this belies the slow start. The opening exchanges were sloppy, with neither side mounting any threat whatsoever – the goal was produced out of nothing. Coutinho, the headline-writer’s dream, came up with a Christmas cracker from distance to fire the Reds into the lead following good pressing work from Firmino. This sort of goal has become normal from Coutinho at this point; once he had cut inside on to his right foot, nobody really expected him to miss. This consistency, once the only complaint that could be raised against the little Brazilian, means he can now be placed firmly in the world class bracket. Even by his standards, however, it was a nice strike – the goalkeeper was beaten not only by the placement but the power, as the ball was whipped ferociously into the top corner. The moment of magic proved to be something of an isolated incident in the first half. There were some nice link-ups between Salah and Coutinho, and Firmino missed a glorious opportunity right at the end of the opening forty-five minutes, but in general there was a definite failure to build upon the early lead. This bred nervousness: understandable, given that the Anfield crowd have witnessed more dropped points from winning positions than any other fans since Jurgen Klopp took charge.

The doubts were emphatically allayed in the second half. Credit must go to the manager and the team for successfully regrouping at half time and coming out with renewed determination – it was a crucial point in the match where more complacency could have been costly, but instead Liverpool finally kicked into gear. Seven minutes into the second half, the lead was doubled: Firmino made no mistake with this finish, volleying in from close range after a lovely free kick from compatriot Coutinho. Klopp must be relieved that his number nine is largely slipping under the wider footballing radar; the increased goal and assist output combined with his consistently excellent pressing and link-up play makes him a truly elite player, who Klopp will certainly want to hold on to for as long as possible. The next goal came from a less regular source. Young full-back Trent Alexander-Arnold scored his first Premier League goal, bursting into the box in order to slam a loose ball into the roof of the net. It felt like a seminal moment as he wheeled away towards the Kop with his arms outstretched – it can only be hoped that the clip will be replayed for years to come, and cited as the moment when Alexander-Arnold truly made the grade at his boyhood club. He and Joe Gomez have been two of the biggest positives of this campaign; for once, it feels as though there is a clear and genuine long-term route to the first team for two of the club’s young players. At the very least, Nathaniel Clyne must be concerned about whether he will be able to wrest his spot back when he returns from his somewhat mysterious long-term absence – it may well be that he simply provides the depth at full-back to allow Gomez to properly transition back to his natural central position, with Alexander-Arnold making the right-back spot his own.

Firmino was at it again for the fourth goal – on a day where the media were quick to eulogise about Kane for getting into the right positions, the Brazilian got in on the act by also successfully turning the ball into an empty net from six yards. Some might question whether this is genuinely the mark of an elite forward, but the old maxim that you have to be there to score them is undoubtedly true. The main credit must go to Salah, however: he was the one who had the awareness to know Firmino was waiting in the middle, and he selflessly produced the square ball to pick him out. This was Klopp’s cue to rest some of his stars: Solanke replaced the goalscorer, and Salah made way for Lallana. This meant a shift forward for Oxlade-Chamberlain, who topped off the evening by inventively chipping the ball in at the back post after a scrappy passage of play in the box. It was yet another good performance from the summer acquisition, who is industriously going about the business of silencing his doubters. He also further showcased his off-field strength of character in the post-match interview: he admitted that he was not particularly happy with his performance, a sentiment seldom expressed in any circumstances – let alone after scoring in a 5-0 win. This desire to grow and improve, nurtured by a manager famed for getting the best out of his players, is highly encouraging.

Games come thick and fast in the festive period, and Liverpool’s attentions immediately turn to Leicester’s visit on Saturday. Klopp will almost certainly rotate once more, but the squad is stronger now in terms of depth that it has been for a long time; the manager may be well-advised not to effectively play his second-string team like he did in the derby, but fans can nonetheless be confident of a win even when multiple changes are made. Regardless of personnel, a performance like the second half showing against Swansea will surely guarantee another three points.     

Monday, 11 December 2017

Liverpool 1-1 Everton: Post-Match Analysis

Despite playing some of their worst football of the season, Liverpool nonetheless dominated an Everton side who had come to Anfield with no attacking intent whatsoever. The visitors are entitled to do this, of course, but it also wasn’t a particularly accomplished defensive display; Liverpool let them off the hook by lobbing cross after cross into the box instead of attempting to pick apart the holes in the back line, and were ultimately punished for only managing to score once. Calvert-Lewin dived for a late penalty after Lovren had got too tight to him, meaning Everton came away with a point from one of the poorest-quality derbies in living memory.

Jurgen Klopp raised some eyebrows by continuing his policy of mass rotation. The variation of personnel is not in itself a problem – it helps to prevent injuries building up over a busy period, and Klopp has some good squad players at his disposal. However, the changes for this game made it near-inevitable that the style of play would also alter. So it was: Milner and Henderson continually shifted the ball out wide, where Robertson and Gomez were on hand to swing hopeful crosses in towards Dominic Solanke. This is not a criticism of any of them – indeed, Joe Gomez put in yet another exceptional performance – but it must be asked what Klopp expected to happen when fielding all of these players together. He did Everton’s job for them: the quality was dragged right down, and Allardyce’s tactic of shoving everyone behind the ball and just launching it clear when they won it back was made at least partially effective when it should have been ripped to shreds.

This was exemplified by the manner in which Liverpool did make a breakthrough – it was a moment of pure quality, not a high ball into the penalty area. Mo Salah provided it: he swivelled past his man, jinked inside another and whipped the ball sumptuously into the top corner. It was a piece of individual genius, further cementing Salah’s status as signing of the summer and instant fan favourite. However, he was often the only one trying these things. Milner and Henderson are hardly notorious for driving at defenders; Solanke is pretty good with his feet, but his stock in trade is holding the ball up then passing it back to someone else. Again, the fault lies on the team selection – the sheer exploitability of Everton’s back line, as exemplified by Salah’s humiliation of Cuco Martina, was left largely untapped because of the type of players sent out by Klopp. To make such a call in the derby is criminal if you fail to deliver the result.

Of course, not all the fault lies with the manager. Sadio Mane must also take a significant proportion of the blame. Just after Salah had netted the opener, the Senegalese winger found himself through on the keeper with men over to his right – instead of teeing up the tap-in he went for goal himself, skewing it wide and wasting a golden opportunity. Had the team gone in at two up, it would surely have been game over, particularly given Everton’s ineptitude going forward. As it was, the margin remained at one goal – Allardyce’s side still weren’t really threatening for most of the second half, but nor did Liverpool look like adding a second. It was more of the same in terms of style, and to be frank it didn’t feel like watching Liverpool: the monotony of ‘shift wide, cross, repeat’ was extremely frustrating, and there was always a nagging doubt that the failure to actually get at the defence and add a second would end up costing us if something went wrong at the back. So it was: Dejan Lovren got far too tight to Calvert-Lewin, who chucked himself to the ground upon feeling contact and won himself a penalty. It was a clever dive, but a dive nonetheless – the referee can thus join Klopp, Mane and Lovren on the list of reasons why the team somehow failed to take all three points. To add insult to injury, it was Wayne Rooney of all people who smashed the penalty home: it left fans asking how their team could have possibly let this happen.

On another day, the referee wouldn’t have pointed to the spot and the questions about team selection would be subject to much less scrutiny. However, the result doesn’t change the fact that the team that was put out produced some pretty unpleasant and ineffective football for much of the 90 minutes – the domination stemmed from Everton’s determination to contribute nothing going forward, not from any inherent quality in the hosts’ play. It is not something that many fans can be eager to see repeated: Liverpool play some of the best attacking football in Europe, so to decide to shelve that for a week and instead punt balls at a target man is inexplicable. In a derby match, it is nigh-on unforgivable. Again, it is not the rotation that is the issue – it is the change in style to which it led. Fortunately, the next game is just around the corner; it would surely have made more sense to rest the players in this West Brom clash rather than the derby, but it does at least give Klopp and the team a chance to immediately bounce back.
- Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Liverpool 7-0 Spartak Moscow: Reds Rampage Through to Knockouts

Liverpool went into their final group stage game knowing that a win would see them progress as group winners, regardless of results elsewhere. This feat has eluded the team since 2008, a staggering nine years ago – it was imperative, therefore, that Klopp’s men got the job done. They delivered in the most emphatic way imaginable: Spartak became the second team to be hit for seven during the campaign, and Liverpool broke the record for the most goals scored by an English team in a Champions League group stage on their way to booking a place in the last sixteen.

After a few weeks of rotation here and there in the front line, Klopp finally treated the fans to the full compliment of attacking talent. The quadruple threat of Salah, Mane, Firmimo and Coutinho would be enough to blow away better teams than Spartak; the Russians were helpless in the face of the onslaught. Philippe Coutinho opened the scoring after just four minutes. Mo Salah’s movement immediately caused panic at the back, and he was hauled down while trying to reach Coutinho’s pass. The Brazilian stepped up to take the spot kick, and converted it with supreme coolness – replays revealed that he didn’t look at the ball once during his run-up, keeping his eyes on the goal and sending the goalkeeper the wrong way. 

There was no looking back in the game either. Liverpool were playing very nicely, undoubtedly aided by the huge pockets of space left open by the Spartak defence – at times it was like an exhibition game, as the attackers put on a show for the Anfield faithful. The second goal came after fifteen minutes; a delightful passage of passing brought the ball to the feet of Firmino, who calmly and selflessly shifted the ball across goal for Coutinho to slot home his second of the night. A third was added just minutes later. Firmino took this one for himself, slamming the ball emphatically home with the outside of his right boot after Mane’s effort fell to him in the box.

Mane had chances of his own in the first half, but it was not until the start of the second period that he managed to get his name on the scoresheet. He did so in supreme style, scoring arguably the pick of the bunch. Milner, who had come on for an injured Alberto Moreno, delivered a lovely cross to the far post which was met sumptuously by Mane – he volleyed it venomously past the Spartak keeper, who was once again a helpless observer. Three minutes later, it was five. Philippe Coutinho jinked round multiple defenders with ease before curling one goalwards; it found its way in via a big deflection, making Coutinho only the third ever Liverpool player to net a Champions League hattrick. It was a truly remarkable performance, particularly on the back of his goal and three assists at the weekend: it is not difficult to see why FSG were so desperate to keep him at Anfield over the summer. Fresh rumours are inevitably beginning to heat up as January approaches – at the moment, however, it is difficult to see why Coutinho would be particularly eager to leave the hottest attack in Europe.

This is particularly true given his strong relationship with the other forwards: Mane, Salah and compatriot Firmino. There appears to be a genuine camaraderie there; each wants the others to succeed, and all of them share the common goal of bringing success for the team. None of them seem too fussed about who gets on the scoresheet, just as long as the goals come; the resulting linkup is astounding at times, and has led to some truly beautiful attacking football. The talent does not stop at these four players, either. Firmino was replaced by Sturridge with about twenty minutes to play, and the Englishman made his mark almost instantly. He worked some space for himself on the right-hand side of the pitch, before squaring the ball for Mane – the Senegalese international showed great inventiveness to turn the ball home from an awkward position, and Liverpool had six.

The referee seemingly felt sorry for Spartak Moscow at this point, and so denied Sturridge a second assist in as many minutes by refusing to award a fairly clear penalty after the striker nicked in ahead of the keeper. This was not enough to stop the rampant reds. Salah ended his one-game drought five minutes from time – Milner delivered another nice delivery from the left, and the Egyptian showed great composure in the box to buy some time before firing it in. In another act of kindness, the officials added no time on at the end; it was only this that stopped Liverpool equalling or bettering their own record of eight Champions League goals in a single game.

The performance will undoubtedly give Liverpool great confidence going into the draw on Monday – their first-place finish leaves them best-placed to avoid a tough draw, but they will feel as though they can beat anyone in their current attacking form. With the likes of Real Madrid, Juventus and Bayern Munich all possible opponents, this may well be put to the test; the constant question mark is of course the defence, but going forward, at least, there is no reason not to believe that Liverpool can’t go toe-to-toe with Europe’s elite. Before they do this, however, there is a derby to look forward to: Sam Allardyce cannot be relishing the prospect of that fixture right now. Teams are rightly scared of us again: regardless of what pundits might have been saying earlier in the season, Liverpool are undoubtedly a team moving in the right direction.

- Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Friday, 1 December 2017

Modern Football’s Attack on the Number 10 Role

To many football fans, the archetypal number ten represents the sport at its purest. Tasked with playing in whatever tiny pockets of space they can find behind the striker, their role is to create. This duty is, on the face of it, at odds with the inevitable congestion in a central and advanced position; to carry it out, therefore, the number ten must be the most inventive man on the pitch.

Sumptuous skills and perfectly-weighted passes that most wouldn’t even have spotted are the bread and butter of the number 10 – the end is to create space where there is none, and this necessarily makes the means beautiful to behold. In the modern game, however, such a player is a rare breed. The raw skills are still there, but the increasing tactical insistence that space be created through fluid off-the-ball movement means that the position itself is under threat. In an age of ‘juego de posicion’, the system as a whole meticulously works the space that the number ten once conjured from nothing. There is undoubtedly beauty in this, too, but where is the magician left once the circus shuts down to make way for the factory?

A common trend is for those who cut their teeth in the number 10 role to be shunted out into a wide position. The fluid front three has become the system of choice for many of the top teams: Messi, Suarez and Neymar led the way on this in their time together at Barcelona, spawning many pale imitations around Europe. Messi has never been a traditional number ten – he is more of a creative forward than he is an attacking midfielder, although to label him is to risk doing an injustice to arguably the greatest player that ever lived.

Regardless of what he is best defined as, it is beyond dispute that he spent much of his early career working chances for himself and others from ‘in the hole’ - even he, a generational talent, found himself shifted to the wing in order to accommodate the irresistible rise of the modern incarnation of the 4-3-3. The wide position was notional in as much as the whole point of the system was to give Messi and his fellow forwards freedom to interchange, but this was how space was to be generated: markers were to be shaken off prior to receiving the ball, and the room to work a goal opened up by virtue of this off-the-ball movement. Of course, this takes admirable levels of tactical awareness and skill in and of itself; it would be folly to detract from the brilliance of the system when properly executed.

Nor could it realistically be argued that Messi was wasted on the wing; the formidable Barcelona trio notched an unprecedented 122 goals in all competitions in the first season they played together, and Messi received the 2015 Ballon D’Or in recognition of his contribution to this. Furthermore, and even more pertinently, some of the resulting football was truly breathtaking to behold; why, then, should the potential demise of the traditional number 10 be lamented?

There are essentially two points to be made. The first lies in the fact that Lionel Messi is, in all meanings of the word, exceptional: it would be foolish to say that his ability to adapt seamlessly to a different role, and indeed pick up a fifth Ballon D’Or in the process, means that all number 10s will continue to thrive once moved out wide. This is particularly true given that most will generally not enjoy the benefit of two truly world-class forwards making up the rest of the front line. Barcelona can effectively be placed to one side as anomalously good – this leaves the question of whether number 10s, in general, are able to emulate the performances they produce centrally when deployed on the left or right of a front three.

The answer can be at least partially found in examining the varying skill-sets required for each role. A number ten, as elucidated earlier on, is all about operating in tight spaces; their job, simply put, is to take opposition players out of the equation so as to give others the space to score. This requires excellent close control, extraordinary vision, a range of passing, and that unquantifiable trait of flair that makes or breaks a good attacking midfielder. Traditional wingers, meanwhile, are all about pace and crossing ability. Of course, this is an unfair comparison; a winger in the modern, fluid 4-3-3 will have modified duties. Pace is still useful, and indeed the ability to put in a good cross does not hurt, but the passing and technique so important in the number 10 role are roughly transferable skills when it comes to today’s conception of a winger. However, attacking midfielders with great vision arguably find their best asset somewhat wasted on the wing. In a perfectly-functioning fluid system there is opportunity for such a winger to come both infield and deep to pick out passes to runners, but anything short of this leaves the would-be creator stuck out wide with limited opportunities to thread the needle and in doing so break the defensive line.

Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho is a good case study. Some of his greatest moments in a red shirt have involved mouth-watering passes to teammates from a central position, but his regular deployment out on the left has reduced his chances to produce such brilliance. One particular assist from the back end of the 2012/13 season comes to mind – a delightful pass with the outside of the foot, bending round the Fulham centre-back and perfectly into the path of Daniel Sturridge. In a wider role, particularly when working with a midfield three that can at times be accused of lacking creativity and dynamism, his opportunities to come inside and pick out players running from deep have been much more limited. Again, this point should not be construed as taking anything away from Coutinho’s performances in a front three; the aforementioned significant amount of transferable skills between the positions, combined with his undoubted talent, has allowed him to impress to the point where Barcelona have come to call. However, there is at least a case to be made that he would have thrived even more in what might be called his natural position. Injury has not allowed him to play in behind Mane, Firmino and Salah too regularly this season, but the argument that he is at least partly wasted on the wing is certainly backed up by the few occasions where he has reverted to something more closely resembling an attacking midfielder.

Even this role, though, is not the now near-mythical number ten that embodies creativity and style, and this leads on to the second point. It is largely one of sentiment. As has been stressed from the outset, the style of play that involves smooth passing, quick movement and almost methodical carving-open of defences is both effective and beautiful in its own right; that it has reduced the prominence of number 10s is not to be taken as an attack on its validity. However, once in a while, the football fan finds himself pining for the magic show. This is not what is delivered by a would-be number ten playing behind a fluid front three; the movement in front of him takes a lot of the strain of drawing the defenders, and he is left to deliver a masterclass in passing.

Pep Guardiola is almost synonymous with the new style being described, and within his City side Kevin De Bruyne provides the model for such a player. Flair and close control are very much still in his locker, but he only needs to take them out on occasion; rather it is the playmaking that takes centre stage. The Belgian is second-to-none in this regard, and uses the space created for him in ways very few others would be able to do, but he is simply not often required to twist and turn to make the room for himself. When a goal is scored, crowds are left to appreciate the exact manner in which the team as a whole - aided greatly by De Bruyne - dissected the opposition. They are not left asking themselves how on earth what they have just seen can be possible.

This is the joy that only a number 10 can bring, spinning away from his man with an outrageous piece of invention. The number 10 is the Ronaldinho strike against Chelsea, the progress of Maradona through an entire England defence, Dennis Bergkamp’s spin and flick into the path of Lljunberg; it is hard to accept that the modern game is sanitising these moments, making a science out of what was once an art.

Of course, this is not to say that the beautiful game is losing its essence. At most, it can be suggested that standards of beauty are being altered; synchronicity and fluidness are replacing individual technique and brilliance as the ultimate standard. The new era should be embraced, bringing as it does such a wealth of benefits; it is a shame, however, that the number 10 role as we know it is a seemingly necessary casualty. Tactical preferences come and go, and hope remains that the great magicians of the game will come to the fore once more, but at least for the time being it seems as though the sorts of outrageous tricks that provided some of the defining moments of a generation are being confined to the back garden. 

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Liverpool 1-1 Chelsea: Post-Match Analysis

A familiar feeling descended upon Liverpool fans as Willian’s failed cross looped over Mignolet and into the back of the net. Once again, a combination of lack of composure and sheer bad luck had served to deny the hosts all three points; the end result was no doubt respectable, but the all-too-common circumstances in which the win slipped away make it hard to appreciate the value of a point. Nonetheless, there are certainly positives to be taken – Klopp’s men were five minutes away from getting a win against the champions while resting two of the team’s key players, suggesting that the squad is finally equipped to handle the congested winter fixture list. Moreover, the league table reveals that Liverpool remain firmly in the hunt for a Champions League spot – anything from second to sixth is realistically up for grabs, with the teams occupying those positions moving amongst themselves almost weekly, and this is likely to remain the case for essentially the entirety of the campaign.

The team selection for this big game certainly raised a few eyebrows. There was consensus that Mane and Firmino could benefit from a rest – Mane has twice been thrown back into action off the back of injuries, and Firmino’s role in Klopp’s team necessarily results in vast amounts of energy being expended. However, most would have expected the rotation options to be called upon in midweek against Sevilla; the upcoming game against Stoke would have provided an equally ample opportunity. Ultimately, though, it can only be a good thing that the manager now feels he has squad players who can realistically be trusted in even the most important games. One would hope, having spent forty-million pounds on Oxlade-Chamberlain and blocked a move away from Anfield for Sturridge, that there would be no complaints when the two actually get picked. The complaints that were voiced in respect of Oxlade-Chamberlain were quickly silenced – he started brightly, and continued in this vein throughout the match. He refused to allow Chelsea’s back line much time on the ball, and when he was able to win it back he used it well. Just as satisfying as his bursting runs were his decisions on occasion to shift the ball infield; it was his most mature, composed performance since joining from Arsenal. This was rewarded with an assist – he helped to finally break the deadlock midway through the second half by instinctively poking the ball through to Mo Salah, who did what he has been doing for fun ever since joining and stuck it in the back of the net.

Sturridge was not quite as emphatic in his silencing of the doubters – it wasn’t necessarily a bad performance, and indeed only an excellent Azpilicueta block denied him a goal to double the lead, but the absence of Firmino was marked. Salah was seldom found in space; he was forced to engineer it for himself, rather than relying on the movement of the centre-forward to open things up. On multiple occasions the Egyptian spun past Cahill with ease, only to find more bodies ready to get between him and the goal – Sturridge’s lack of intelligent movement is at least partly to blame for this. As ever, this comes with the disclaimer that Sturridge’s class remains beyond question – the questions about whether he can genuinely play a role in Klopp’s system, however, are becoming ever more pressing (excuse the pun).

The more immediately concerning problems were to be found in midfield. Milner, Henderson and Coutinho were deployed in a central three; this naturally took the form of a double-pivot in reality, with Coutinho drifting around further up the pitch. The protection offered to the defence was virtually non-existent – Henderson failed to follow up from his poor showing in Sevilla with a convincing display here, and was bypassed as if he wasn’t there on multiple occasions. Milner was even worse; Henderson is at least fairly reliable in possession, but the ex-City man subjected Liverpool to near-relentless pressure in certain spells through his failure to retain the ball. Coutinho, too, is not free of blame – in the first half he flatly refused to track back a lot of the time. This is obviously not his primary duty, but he should have taken some responsibility for limiting the space in which the Chelsea forwards could operate. Hazard in particular needed to be tracked a little more diligently – the Belgian was given the space to excel in the first half, and in fairness he looked exceptional. Indeed, Coutinho’s second half showing illustrated the importance of his defensive contributions; he started to get back a little more, and this coincided with significantly fewer chances for the visitors until the final twenty minutes.

It was in this final period that Liverpool were undone, as they had been against Sevilla. Unlike the Champions League game, it was not a complete self-destruction; Klopp’s side were undoubtedly guilty of backing off too much, and of abandoning much of the composure and discipline on the ball that they had exercised prior to scoring, but it was ultimately a mishit cross that gave Chelsea their breakthrough. It would be ridiculous to assign any genuine blame – the cross came in from Moreno’s side, but he was not really at fault. In fact, on the whole, the Spaniard responded excellently to his disastrous showing against his former club: he dealt admirably with what was at times a barrage down his left flank. It simply wasn’t to be for Liverpool. Such strokes of luck cannot be legislated for; whilst there are undoubtedly ways in which the team could have managed their lead more effectively, which absolutely need to be addressed going forward, their undoing was just a fluke in the end.

Where does this leave the team? It is a case of having to just move on, and do so quickly; the game against Stoke is looming on the horizon, and a win is important to get back on track following two disappointing draws. The players will surely take heart from the fact that the point has not left them in a dire position by any stretch of the imagination; the table accurately reflects that City have been dominant and the chasing pack have been much of a muchness. The battle for the top four will be a long one, and Liverpool will be encouraged by the fact that on most days they will not be faced with crosses that fly into the top corner.

- Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

No Kane, No Lukaku, No Problems? 12-Week Update

In a season preview piece for, I challenged the orthodoxy that at least one of Kane and Lukaku – preferably both - was a must-have in any fantasy team. The savings that could be invested elsewhere, I argued, were such that the lost points on the two big-name strikers could be recouped from other players in other positions. Despite being asked by literally nobody to persist with this experiment, my stubbornness dictated that I would be going as much of the season as I could bear without purchasing either of these two elite forwards; twelve gameweeks in, with my early wildcard a distant memory, Kane and Lukaku remain conspicuous only by their absence.

How has this strategy been holding up? Somewhat inevitably, it has led to frankly ridiculous swings in ranking from week to week. The success in any given gameweek is dictated just as much by Kane and Lukaku as it is by the eleven I have selected; a blank by one or both of them sends me shooting up the rankings, but the pair of them hitting their stride simultaneously spells disaster. This is evidenced by the mammoth discrepancies in my monthly positions. August saw Kane’s obligatory barren spell – combined with some prolific scoring from my alternative investments, notably the Liverpool trio of Mane, Salah and Firmino, this fired me up to 16,118th for the month. At this point, I may or may not have been guilty of some fairly smug tweets. September punished me cruelly for this; it got off to an inauspicious start when I handed the armband to Mane only for him to get sent off, and it didn’t get much better from there. Kane and Lukaku ascended to the top of the race for the golden boot, Liverpool stalled badly, and Wenger went through a phase of inexplicable reluctance to give Lacazette consistent minutes: this utterly derailed my progress, resulting in a final monthly ranking of 4,678,952nd. I didn’t know there were that many FPL players. October was slightly less disastrous, although still far from successful. Salah’s consistent returns and a couple of good Jesus captaincies only sometimes sufficed to keep pace with the duo I was now firmly committed not to employ; a monthly finish around the 2.8 million mark was technically progress, but hardly a ringing endorsement of my strategy.

Naturally, I headed into November an extremely disheartened manager. Flashbacks to my first proper season of the game, where I stubbornly refused to accept that Yaya Toure would continue to score so well, haunted my every waking moment; history was repeating itself on an even more gratuitously self-destructive scale, and I was already drafting an optimistic claim against Fantasy YIRMA for lost mini-league earnings. However, so far, it has been a kind month – the pendulum has swung firmly back in my favour, as Kane has stalled badly and my alternatives have finally stepped up in a way that had been disappointingly lacking since August. I sit inside the top 320k for the month, an effort that has sufficed to finally drag me back inside the overall top million. De Bruyne and Jesus deserve honourable mentions, but it is Mohamed Salah that takes the bulk of the credit; without Kane and Lukaku to tempt me I have captained him in every game this month, and he has rewarded me without fail.

This gives some idea of the volatility of a team without Kane or Lukaku. Certainly I have seen enough to substantiate a claim that shunning the pair of them is a defensible option; it magnifies the rewards when those picked as their differential alternatives deliver, leading to huge jumps up the leaderboards. However, for it to pan out as the best strategy across the course of the season, the alternative picks have to be consistently on the money. Kane and Lukaku will inevitably score in most weeks – this is why conventional wisdom dictates they are necessities – and when this coincides with quieter games from other premium options it can lead to staggeringly poor gameweeks. If they fall back-to-back, it can be crippling. The likelihood of this is increased by the lack of nailed-on starting strikers in other top teams; Jesus and Lacazette have both been left out one too many times to please somebody on my strategy. Firmino has been a regular for Liverpool – ultimately his lower price has been reflected in his returns, however, and his steady numbers are far from ideal when he is used as a Kane or Lukaku replacement. The natural alternative is Morata; he picked up an injury at a time where I really needed him to deliver, but this was bad luck as much as anything else and he probably represents one of the better attacking options from here on in.

The issues with the bold strategy are exacerbated by the emergence of relatively consistent scorers from the budget category, such as Watford’s exciting talent Richarlison. It is a price bracket that Kane and Lukaku owners inevitably have to turn to at some point; when there are options there that post numbers in keeping with the premium midfielders who are taking up my saved money, it poses a serious problem. Over the course of the full campaign, it seems likely that De Bruyne, Mane and others in a similar bracket will pull firmly away – they will need to do so by a substantial margin, however, if the pouring of the Kane-and-Lukaku savings into my midfield is going to pay off. The only upshot of the emergence of such options from the perspective of my strategy is that I too can avail myself of these players, and consequently take a punt on one of the aforementioned expensive strikers with question marks over game time. It is less of a tragedy when Jesus only gets twenty minutes if I know that the entirety of the rest of my team, as opposed to just the premium options, are capable of picking up the slack; nonetheless, on the whole, the success of a number of budget midfielders makes the strategy harder to execute.  

In summary, life without Kane and Lukaku is utter chaos. It does not lend itself to consistency, nor to middle-of-the-road gameweeks: things either go excellently or terribly, and the way it swings is just as dependent on those who have not been selected as it is on those who have been chosen. There is promise in the strategy, and a better manager than me could have deployed it to greater effect by doing a more successful job of consistently selecting the high-scoring alternative premium investments, but it is nevertheless undeniable that failing to pick Kane and Lukaku is bound to lead to something of an uphill battle at times. It is a battle I enjoy, however, and you can be sure that I will blindly plough on with it regardless of how many more times I plumb new rankings depths. 

Monday, 13 November 2017

Alvaro Arbeloa: The Journey Back to the Bernabeu

"Madrid is the club of my life, I will never call to ask for a job, but I am always available to offer myself”. These were the parting words of Alvaro Arbeloa as he announced that he was hanging up his boots, following an ultimately disappointing final season in the game with West Ham United. It was fitting that he should pledge fealty to Los Blancos even as he left his playing career behind him; the Spanish giants shaped the whole direction of his career, and it was with them that he won all that could be won.

Arbeloa’s first steps on his footballing journey were taken to the north-east of the capital, in the city of Zaragoza. His family moved there when he was four years old – he joined the academy as a thirteen-year-old, and stayed there for the majority of his teenage years. The crowning moment of his time there came in his final season: he helped the team to a 1-0 victory over Barcelona in the Copa del Rey Juvenil. At the time, the likes of Andres Iniesta and Victor Valdes featured for the Catalan club’s youth outfit; victory was a great achievement, and it was in no small part down to Arbeloa’s endeavour. A local match report from the time described the “enormous physical exertion” expended by the back line in order to preserve the clean sheet – this scrappiness and determination, by no means a given in those brought up in the Spanish culture where technique is everything, has been one of Arbeloa’s great strengths throughout his career. His performance helped to turn the heads of Barcelona’s great rivals.

In 2001, he made the move into Real Madrid’s youth ranks. By this point he was nearing eighteen, and was duly shifted up into the Real Madrid C team shortly after arriving. Again, his stay was not a long one; he impressed over the course of his 16 appearances in the 2002/03 season, and moved up for the second time in quick succession to join Real Madrid Castilla. It would prove harder to earn promotion to the senior side. From 2003 to 2006, Arbeloa racked up 84 appearances for the B team – for most of this period the first team remained a distant dream. This was no criticism of the full-back’s ability: the main squad was simply saturated with world class players, and Arbeloa’s talents would have had to be positively mercurial in order for him to displace club stalwart Michel Salgado.

Arbeloa was eventually handed a small taste of first team action, coming on as a substitute in a draw against Real Betis in the 2004/05 season. By the start of the 2006/07 season, however, it was apparent to both player and club that Arbeloa’s opportunities would be highly restricted if he stayed in the capital. The emergence of Sergio Ramos, who had succeeded where Arbeloa failed in taking the place of Salgado, meant competition was more fierce than ever: a move to Deportivo La Coruna was arranged. The player was clearly uncomfortable leaving the club he had grown to love over the course of his five years there, describing it as “a strange situation” but acknowledging that “something had to give” as a result of the number of defenders in the squad. At his new club, Arbeloa was finally given his chance – he played twenty-one games in the first half of the season, and instantly began to attract attention.

Indeed, his spell with Deportivo would prove to be a very short one. On the January deadline day, Liverpool moved for Arbeloa. Fellow Spaniard Rafa Benitez wanted to bolster his options: by this point Steve Finnan was 30, and Arbeloa was touted in some quarters as his replacement. However, it was at left-back where Arbeloa was handed his full debut, against none other than Real Madrid’s fiercest rivals. This time around, he had even more to deal with than Iniesta and Valdes: a certain 19-year-old Argentinian forward had burst on to the scene, and Arbeloa was tasked with dealing with him. The thinking was that the full-back’s discipline, combined with his strong right side, would help to nullify Messi’s magical left foot – to the extent that anyone is ever able to keep Messi quiet, it worked very well. The team won 2-1 on the night, and were able to limit Barcelona to one goal in the second leg at Anfield: they progressed on away goals.

This certainly helped to endear him to the Liverpool fans, and indeed to the manager – he remained a utility option across the back four for the remainder of the season, and only featured as a late substitute in the Champions League final defeat to AC Milan, but by the following campaign he was established as a first-team full-back. He made more league appearances than both Finnan and Riise, and impressed in a fairly understated manner. He was never one to maraud forward, and his lovely curling strike against Reading in early 2007 ended up being one of just two goals he scored for the club, but he was defensively dependable and showed admirable grit and determination. He played his part in limiting Liverpool’s goals conceded to just 28 and 27 in 2007/08 and 2008/09 respectively – in the latter, the team went very close to winning the league title. This did not prevent a very public falling-out with Jamie Carragher in a match against West Bromwich Albion: the centre-back took issue with Arbeloa’s handling of a defensive situation, but the Spaniard gave as good as he got and the two had to be separated by teammates. It was somewhat farcical, but ultimately it was fuelled by two players determined to make sure that the team succeeded – there aren’t many that would stand their ground in the face of a Carragher tirade, and Arbeloa’s passion is part of what makes him a popular figure amongst the Anfield faithful to this day.

At the end of this campaign, having made 98 appearances for Liverpool, Arbeloa left the club. Glen Johnson had been brought in, sparking speculation about the Spaniard’s future, and he was duly given permission to re-join Real Madrid. This was a special moment for Arbeloa, who three years earlier had been considered surplus to requirements. He spoke of his pride, saying “when you leave the club with the feeling of not being able to be in the first team, you know that it's very difficult to return, so for me, when this opportunity presented itself, my first objective was to take it and fortunately I'm here." It was indeed fortunate, both for the player and the club: Arbeloa immediately became a regular, albeit once again on the left side of defence for a lot of the time. It was a disappointing season for the team – Real were pipped to the title by Barcelona, and exited both the Champions League and Copa del Rey at the round of 16 stage – but on a personal level Arbeloa was impressive. His form cemented his place in Spain’s squad at the 2010 World Cup.  As he had done at club level so many years earlier, Sergio Ramos frustrated his chances of regular minutes; just like at the Euros two years before, Arbeloa was limited to one appearance in the group stages. Nonetheless, by the end of the tournament the full-back had both a European Cup and World Cup to his name: to even make the twenty-three-man squad in Spain’s golden era was a massive achievement, and he deserves recognition for it.

The trophy rush carried over into Arbeloa’s club career. The 2010/11 season saw victory in the Copa del Ray, although the league title narrowly eluded them once again. It was also the campaign where Arbeloa finally got what he had been striving for since turning professional: regular minutes at right-back for Real Madrid. Sergio Ramos made the transition into the middle, allowing Arbeloa to slot into his natural position. This setup became firmly established, and endured into the 2011/12 season. This time, finally, the team overcame Barcelona to win the league: yet another personal triumph over the Catalans meant Arbeloa could add La Liga to his rapidly-growing list of honours. He was rewarded with a new long-term contract at the end of the season.

However, his time as a regular was coming to an end. The re-signature of Dani Carvajal meant that Arbeloa was once again locked out of the first team, but he resisted calls from the media for his departure. He was at the club he loved, and wanted to stay and help in any way he could. The fans, who like the Liverpool faithful before them had warmed to Arbeloa’s spirit and fight as well as his ability, were more than happy to get behind him in a bit-part role. It was in this capacity that he finally won the Champions League in 2014, watching from the bench as his team went one better than he was able to do with Liverpool seven years previously. This was yet another addition to a remarkable personal trophy haul - no Real Madrid fan would begrudge their loyal servant the medals, even if the part he played in getting them was limited.

He remained at the club for a further two years, bringing him up to a total of 233 appearances in his second spell. Of those, just nine came in the 2015/16 season: two of these were in the Champions League, which Real won for the second time in three years, but Arbeloa nonetheless felt that it was time to move on at the end of the campaign. In hindsight, he should have called it a day at this point – his move to West Ham United was ultimately ill-fated, and he retired at the end of the season having made just four appearances. He spoke of his disappointment, saying “it has not been an easy year” – when he looks back on his career as a whole, however, there will surely be nothing but satisfaction. He may have taken a long road to the Real Madrid first team, but the trophies to his name are tangible proof that it was well worth the wait.

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013


Monday, 30 October 2017

Liverpool 3-0 Huddersfield: Post-Match Thoughts

“There’s still time for this one to break down, we’re not there yet”. As we reached Marylebone, where we finally found a train heading back to where we needed to go following a missed connection, a journey into London, a closed tube line and a hastily-located bus, optimism was thin on the ground. Hours earlier, similar creeping doubts pervaded those around us in the Upper Main Stand as Liverpool sat on a slender 1-0 lead, having already missed a penalty. But, much like the last train to Oxford, the team came good: questions had been asked, but in the end the answer was emphatic.

A late change in the line-up saw Dejan Lovren replaced by Ragnar Klavan. This gave cause for some concern in the opening fifteen minutes – the Estonian was repeatedly targeted, and lost multiple duels to Depoitre. It was only the lack of ambition from Huddersfield that prevented this from developing into a more serious problem; there were rarely any runners looking to meet these flick-ons, and Liverpool were allowed to clear up without too much difficulty. The assuredness with which these situations were dealt with is also attributable in part to the interesting role played by Joe Gomez. He was ostensibly at right-back, but regularly drifted inside to essentially function as a third centre-back: Matip could consequently play closer to Klavan, and sweep up some of his missed clearances. This system worked well, and Gomez excelled in it; his confidence and poise was one of the few positives in a generally lacklustre first half, and in truth a convincing case could be made for naming him Man of the Match. Going forward, it was only Salah that looked even vaguely likely to make something happen; in a harsh irony, it was he who missed the penalty late in the half that would have made Liverpool much more comfortable going into the break. Daniel Sturridge failed to make any kind of mark on the half – he spent most of the time as neither one thing nor the other, failing to make darting runs in behind but not coming short to receive passes much either.

Thankfully, there was a big reaction after the break. All too often this season this kind of response has been lacking, but Liverpool got straight to the task at hand in the second period and grabbed a crucial early goal. Sure enough, it was the up-to-now anonymous Sturridge; he showed exactly why he still has a role to play, slotting home with unerring coolness after the ball broke to him fortuitously. Huddersfield’s stubborn resolve was broken, and Klopp’s men did well to keep applying the pressure. There had been no goal threat to speak of at all from the away side, but everyone was aware that one moment of madness in that back line could mean more points dropped – it was imperative to stay on the front foot. Henderson must take some credit for ensuring this happened: he pressed relentlessly to ensure Huddersfield never had the time to work anything. It was also the captain that produced a glorious ball into Firmino, who really should have picked out Sturridge in the middle with his pull-back. Far from dwelling on his error, though, he immediately netted the vital second goal from the resultant corner. He connected sweetly with the ball, using his head to guide it beyond Lossl. Joel Matip could do with taking tips off him: the centre-back was guilty of missing two guilt-edged headed opportunities.

At 2-0, arguably the most pleasing passage of the game ensued. The tempo was taken down a notch, and Liverpool asserted near-complete control: this has been rare indeed in recent times. That is not to say that attacking intent was extinguished completely, but the midfield began waiting for gaps as opposed to trying to force them. Unbelievably, Jordan Henderson has been taking criticism for this – he played a few balls sideways and backwards when a forward pass would have been a needless risk, and this apparently opens him up for abuse. There are often legitimate criticisms to be made of the captain, but he was an important part of the win on this occasion. It was one of his midfield partners, however, that added the clinching third goal: Wijnaldum’s first of this campaign bore a striking resemblance to his last of the previous season, as he curled it in powerfully at the near post despite seemingly lacking the angle to do so. It was nowhere near as crucial as his goal against Middlesbrough, but it could be important on a personal note – he has had a shaky start, and a goal could do him the world of good.

Solanke and Oxlade-Chamberlain were brought on in the latter stages of the game, and both impressed. They linked up nicely, and not just in the obvious ‘run down the byline, cross for the target man’ way; there was some of that, but there was also a nice interchange on the edge of the box that should really have resulted in Solanke adding a fourth. The other substitute, Can, was also very solid – it was great to have such accomplished options off the bench. He kept up the intensity with some good pressing, and added a further controlling presence in the middle of the park. This contributed to a very pleasing clean sheet, and a satisfying afternoon all round.

Liverpool now have a great opportunity to notch up back-to-back wins in response to the shambles at Spurs; Maribor in midweek offers an excellent chance to get some momentum going with another victory. Another performance such as this one will surely see Klopp’s men take a big stride towards qualification from the Champions League group stage – let’s hope the players got home quicker than I did and were able to get some rest!

- Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Monday, 16 October 2017

Liverpool 0-0 Manchester United: Tactical Analysis

A familiar fault reared its head as Liverpool once again failed to capitalise on their opportunities and consequently squandered the chance to win. Nonetheless, there was plenty to be pleased with in the performance: Mourinho’s typically deep line was unable to prevent the creation of a couple of big opportunities, and United’s erstwhile prolific attack never really looked like troubling the hosts’ back line. These plus points are both endemic of a change of tactical approach that has the potential to make Liverpool unstoppable.

The new tactic is in many ways a subtle change, but it could serve to dramatically improve results. Out of possession, things are much the same: Klopp has his players pressing high, looking to hustle the opposition into a mistake. This was very effective against United, who were forced to simply put the ball out of play on multiple occasions. The change has come in the approach when Liverpool do have the ball. Previously, attacks have been as frenetic as the turnovers in possession through which they were instigated; in other words, the plan was to nick the ball and then descend upon the goal as quickly and directly as possible. This worked to destructive effect against teams who left gaps to be exploited at the point of turnover, but opponents were increasingly opting to sit very deep against Liverpool so as to negate this risk. In response to this, Klopp has got his team playing much more patiently in the build-up phase. The only way to consistently break low blocks is intricate passing sequences – recently, these have become a much more regular feature. The idea is that teams can no longer feel safe sitting back: if they do so, the likes of Coutinho and Firmino will find a way through with their playmaking talents. This is good in and of itself, but what gives it the potential to be so effective is the fact that the attack still possesses the capability to launch explosive counter-attacks. Teams will be in trouble when they step up and in trouble when they sit deep – once the players are fully adjusted to the new method, there will be no simple way of stopping them.

In some ways, it is strange that this tweak to the system hasn’t come sooner: patient passing when in possession and aggressive pressing off-the-ball are a natural mix. When the opponent is only rarely afforded the ball, their natural tendency is to take more risks when they get it – they wish to capitalise on the fact they are actually in possession by turning that possession into a scoring chance. This risk-taking leaves them more vulnerable to the press: this allows a gap to be exploited at the turnover if it exists, and if it does not then the side playing the possession-based game nonetheless have the ball back. Thus the system serves as a potential way of creating chances, but also as a way of limiting chances for the opponent: given Liverpool’s defensive woes of late, any help they can derive from their tactical setup is welcome. To put it simply, the opposition cannot score if they don’t have the ball – the principle is basic, but the ramifications are significant. All the while Liverpool are moving the ball around, looking for an opening, they are simultaneously relieving the defence of all pressure; they may be called upon as ball-players, but this is one aspect of the game in which Matip and Lovren are fairly accomplished. As such, the new system being employed is working towards improving things at both ends of the pitch.

Why, then, did Liverpool still fail to pick up a win against United? There are two principle reasons. The first is that the adaptation to the new style is a work in progress: the team cannot be expected to transform into Guardiola’s Barcelona overnight, and the incision and fluidity of the passing therefore still left something to be desired at times. After a full season of being stumped by the deep line, it would be unrealistic to demand that the players immediately work out how to consistently unlock it. The second reason is that, even when the chances were cleverly carved out, they were not taken. Emre Can and Joel Matip missed the biggest opportunities of the match, with Mo Salah also failing to turn home from close range. This has been a big problem of late, and can also in part be attributed to Klopp’s tweak of the system. Under the old methods, nearly all of the chances created were 2v1s (or similar) by virtue of the way in which they came about: everyone charged forwards off the back of the press, overwhelming defences and creating easy scoring situations where the ball could just be passed home. Now, whilst some of the chances being made are still clear-cut, the goalkeeper cannot be taken out of the equation completely: faced with beating him, the players are struggling. Admittedly David De Gea is something of an exceptional case – he is one of the best keepers in the world, and his stop to deny Matip was extraordinary. Nonetheless, the problem applies more generally: Liverpool have to get better at burying their chances if they wish to reap the full rewards that the change in style has to offer.

All in all, though, the draw was more encouraging than it was frustrating. There are clear signs that Klopp’s amended tactical vision is starting to be understood and implemented, and when this comes to full fruition it will be fantastic.

-   - Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Time to Give Gomez a Go at Centre-Back?

Ask Joe Gomez what position he plays, and he will tell you that he is a centre-back. That is not to say he is ineffectual in other positions – his versatility, along with his immense potential, was a big part of what prompted Liverpool to snap him up from Charlton in the summer of 2015. Indeed, he has impressed in both full-back positions during his time at Anfield; the athleticism he has shown at right-back in his most recent outings is all the more laudable given the ACL injury that kept him out for a year. However, with the club in something of a crisis in the centre of defence, maybe the time has come to give Gomez an extended run in his preferred position.

In terms of physical attributes, Gomez has all the prerequisites of a good central defender. Contrary to what Michael Owen would have you believe, he is fairly tall – he stands at 6”2, plenty big enough to make him competitive in aerial battles against powerful strikers. His strength would further assist him in such situations: Klopp said in pre-season that if anything the young defender had been guilty of bulking up too much. His pace, too, is a big advantage. Only Mane and Moreno have clocked faster sprint speeds so far this season, which is frankly unbelievable considering the permanent impact cruciate injuries often have on quickness. The manager’s system means that defenders will always face being exposed to a certain extent, so this ability to rapidly fill gaps and make recoveries is paramount.

Gomez also possesses the mental qualities required of a good centre-back; the only real criticism of his stints at right-back so far this campaign is a tendency to be a little cautious, but such positional discipline would serve him well in the middle of the back line. There are potentially question marks over other sorts of discipline – Gomez was needlessly dismissed in the tail end of the Sevilla game, and also gave away a stupid free kick in his brief cameo in the season opener against Watford – but such fouls are more commonly committed when a player is functioning out of his natural position. If he were to be deployed centrally, it may be that Gomez would be less prone to these kinds of ill-advised challenges. This is conjecture, of course, but the whole proposition is to experiment with Gomez at centre-back: it might not work out, but with the current alternatives it is surely worth a proper try.

His capacity to take on the role is further exemplified by his experience. His senior debut at Charlton came as a right-back, but the twenty-three subsequent appearances he made for them in all competitions were split fairly evenly between centre-back and full-back. At no point did he look out of his depth: the Championship is obviously a step down from the top level, but it is nevertheless an encouraging sign that he looked so accomplished there in a central position. This is particularly true given that these performances were now more than two years ago; Gomez has progressed since then in spite of the injury. He has also recently been made the captain of the England u21s team, where more often than not he plays as a centre-back. This is perhaps the most telling suggestion that he might be a good addition to the heart of the Liverpool defence. The fact that Aidy Boothroyd would entrust him with the captain’s armband is evidence of his leadership qualities: these are sorely lacking in the current centre-back options. A recent game saw Klavan fail to give any kind of call to Emre Can, who consequently headed the ball out for a needless corner – giving Gomez a go in his natural position might reduce the frequency of these frustrating incidents. 

However, this is all fairly moot if Klopp is unwilling to try Gomez in a central position in the Premier League. On the face of it, this would appear to be the case – he has regularly talked of his satisfaction with the current centre-back options, much to the annoyance of many fans. That said, it would be foolish to read too much into these comments; the fact remains that Lovren has been dropped twice in quick succession in the league. Admittedly one of these was supposedly down to a minor injury, although Lovren was still named on the bench – either way, one would assume that Klopp is perfectly capable of seeing the side’s defensive deficiencies. The natural next step is to look for remedies: Van Dijk was the well-publicised target in the summer, but following the failure of that deal Klopp will have to look closer to home. He could have the perfect solution in the shape of Gomez – few players offer the blend of relevant experience, suitable natural attributes and potential for vast growth that he does. His outing at centre-back in the Carabao Cup tie against Leicester gives reason for optimism that the manager may look to make the transition.

It remains to be seen whether Klopp will eventually end up viewing Gomez as a centre-back. Clyne’s continued absence means that ear-marking the youngster as a right-back option does make some sense at least for the time-being, although the rapid rise of Trent Alexander-Arnold means that he could still be given a game in the middle without leaving a gaping hole down the right.
At any rate, it would certainly seem a waste not to try Gomez as a centre-back at some point: he is still only twenty years old, and has plenty of time to live up to the Ferdinand comparisons made during his breakthrough season at Charlton.

Spartak Moscow 1-1 Liverpool: When is Bad Luck Not Bad Luck?

As the final whistle blew following Liverpool’s draw in Moscow, statistics were already being trotted out to bemoan the team’s bad luck. Total shots taken, total shots faced and the respective ‘expected goals’ of the two sides were amongst the favourites. There is nothing wrong with these stats, but they are being grossly misinterpreted: the repeated disparity between chances created and the final score-line points to problems at the club, not just misfortune.

The simple shot count is not hard to explain. Liverpool have taken 121 shots from their last six games, but have won just one and scored only 6: the obvious conclusion is that the team are shooting from bad areas and being wasteful from good areas. The shots from tough positions are somewhat enforced by opponents regularly opting to employ a deep line against Liverpool – when faced with disciplined banks of defenders, the temptation is strong to try and bypass them by simply striking the ball from distance. Indeed, sometimes this produces results; Coutinho is yet to really find his range since returning to the team, but has nonetheless already produced a lovely free-kick from some way out. However, the manager should be looking to encourage the team to focus more on build-up. It requires more patience, but the side are capable of working the golden opportunities – the equaliser against Spartak was an example of such craft, with Mane and Coutinho linking up intricately to put the Brazilian clean through.

The more troubling problem is the regularity with which these kinds of chances are being squandered. The reintegration of a dedicated playmaker in the shape of Coutinho, combined no doubt with instructions from Klopp to try and carve out better chances, has led to the creation of more opportunities that can be described as ‘clear-cut’ - more often than not, however, they simply aren’t going in. Following the Sevilla game, I referred to these underlying statistics as promising: as a general rule, high expected goals and low actual goals is the sign of an outlier rather than a trend. In fact, entire ‘luck models’ have been constructed with expected goals vs actual goals at the core.  However, it has now happened far too often for Liverpool to chalk the disparity down to misfortune: the root of the issue is serial profligacy. This applies to both the final ball and the finishing. It was evident once again in Moscow – Firmino botched a square ball that would have resulted in a tap-in, Sturridge volleyed over the top from close range and Salah wasted a promising situation by needlessly hitting the ball first time. The personnel seemingly lack the composure to pick and execute the right option in the key areas. If enough chances are created then some will eventually find their way in, but this can only paper over the cracks for so long: Liverpool need to find a way of becoming more clinical if they wish to harness the significant potential that their world class build-up play creates.

It is not all doom and gloom, however. Much as the repeated failure to take good chances is frustrating, their consistent creation is nonetheless an improvement on last season. In that campaign, a deep line essentially ended our chances of scoring unless Coutinho could conjure something up from range: once teams figured this out, the season stuttered badly and Klopp’s men only just secured fourth. Now, we are regularly finding ways through – the players simply aren’t used to it yet! Perhaps the shock of finding themselves in the clear after months of feeding off scraps is partly to blame for the wastefulness fans have had to witness of late; whatever the cause of the problem, it is easier to overcome than the hurdle of the low block that the team has already cleared. It is hard to immediately appreciate it after yet another draw in a game we should have won, but this team really isn’t far away from being something special.

It is also worth noting that Liverpool have been victims of some genuine bad luck. Mane’s infamous red card has been discussed at length – to avoid the risk of this article turning into a rant about that, suffice it to simply say that the rules clearly dictate that a yellow card should have been awarded. The referee also did Liverpool no favours against Spartak: none of their time-wasting antics were punished, and the added time fell well short of the amount actually wasted by the Russians. There was also a fairly convincing penalty shout for Mohamed Salah which was turned down by the officials. When it isn’t bad luck per se, it’s fine margins: Firmino struck the post from his spot kick against Sevilla, for example. These read a little bit like excuses, and as already highlighted there are things that Liverpool do need to work on, but it’s certainly true that things haven’t really gone our way of late.

The reasonable conclusion, therefore, is that things will probably pick up but the team will have to work to make it happen. They cannot spend too long licking their wounds: it’s time to head to Melwood and get some finishing drills going!

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Jerzy Dudek: The Big Pole in Our Goal

Jerzy Dudek will forever be a legend on Merseyside. His heroics in Istanbul have gone down in footballing folklore, and that crazy night is rightly remembered as the zenith of his long career. However, his footballing journey is full of achievements that do not deserve to be forgotten – from setting records in the Polish third division to receiving a guard of honour from his Real Madrid teammates, and much else in between.  

Dudek came from humble beginnings. His father and grandfather were both miners: the goalkeeper’s semi-professional contract with third division side Concordia Knuró, along with the pleas of his mother, were the only things that kept him from following them into the pits. He signed the deal at 18, having played for a local youth side from the age of twelve – his first step on the footballing ladder included groundsman duties, so there was little risk of the teenage Dudek getting ahead of himself. He quietly impressed on the pitch that he helped to maintain: during his time there, he set a league record of 416 consecutive minutes without conceding.

However, it was not until four years after joining that Dudek successfully caught the eye of a bigger club. Sokół Tychy were hardly a household name – in fact, they had only been founded two years before Dudek was born – but following a merger with Sokół Pniewy the team began the season in the Polish top flight. It was destined to be a short spell for Dudek, and indeed for Tychy, in the Ekstrakalaka. The goalkeeper only played about half of the games on the way to a mid-table finish, but did enough in those matches to catch the eye of a club with much more pedigree: Feyenoord. Tychy, meanwhile, were forced to disband a season later following financial difficulties.  They have since reformed, and play under the name GKS Tychy in the Polish second tier.

As the club Dudek left behind started to unravel, his personal stock continued to rise rapidly. He settled in quickly with the Dutch giants; he did not make an appearance in his first season, but impressed enough as an understudy to be trusted as first choice for the next campaign following the departure of Ed De Goey to Chelsea. He did not disappoint: Feyenoord could only manage fourth in the table in 1997/98, but Dudek was instrumental in securing the second-best defensive record in the division. Only Ajax, who were blessed with Edwin Van Der Sar between the sticks, conceded fewer. In the Champions League, Dudek was unable to help Feyenoord out of a very tricky group featuring Manchester United and Juventus. However, managing a clean sheet in a home win over the Old Lady – who boasted Del Piero and Zidane amongst their forwards – was surely a season highlight for the 24-year-old.

Dudek went one better domestically in the following campaign. He was once again an ever-present, and conceded the fewest goals in the league on the way to an Eredivisie title for Feyenoord. A certain Ruud Van Nistelrooy rightly took the plau
dits, scoring an impressive 31 league goals, but Dudek’s consistent reliability at the other end was equally important in the domination that led to an eventual 15-point margin of victory. This league title, which turned out to be the last for Feyenoord until 2017, meant that Dudek got a second chance to test his talents in the Champions League in the following season. Two clean sheets against Marseille and another against Lazio were not enough to see his team progress beyond the second group stage – nonetheless, it seemed like only a matter of time before a European giant picked up on Dudek’s string of excellent showings.

In fact, it was not until the end of the following season that the Polish stopper got his big move. He impressed greatly once again in 2000/2001, and became the first ever foreign player to win the Dutch Golden Shoe award. Meanwhile, Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier was losing patience with Sander Westerveld, despite the keeper playing his part on the way to a cup treble for the club. Consequently, Chris Kirkland and Jerzy Dudek were both brought to Anfield in a sensational double move. Westerveld was immediately and ruthlessly taken out of contention for selection by the manager, who moved the keeper on in December at the first opportunity. Dudek, despite being the cheaper of the two new signings, was instigated as first choice straight away.

If some fans had been left feeling a little sorry for Westerveld, they soon forgot about it. Just as he had done so often at Feyenoord, Dudek played a key role in leading his side to finish with the best defensive record in the league: Liverpool conceded just 30 across the course of the season, keeping twelve clean sheets along the way. It was not enough for the title – Liverpool finished runners-up to Arsenal - but Dudek received the personal accolade of being nominated for the UEFA Goalkeeper of the Year award alongside Oliver Kahn and Gianluigi Buffon. This was a truly remarkable achievement for a man who just seven years earlier had been plying his trade in the Polish third division.

His second season was not quite as impressive: he remained first-choice, but a string of errors led to Chris Kirkland being afforded a little more game time. Dudek’s downturn in form contributed to a horrible slump for the team – pre-season title aspirations quickly vanished, and the team also crashed out of the Champions League in the group stages. A late surge in the league was not enough to fire Liverpool back into the top four. This was mitigated somewhat, however, by victory in the League Cup: Dudek was named Man of the Match in the final against Manchester United.

This helped the Pole hold on to his position as first choice going into the next campaign. Arsenal took all of the headlines in their famous ‘invincibles’ season, as Liverpool put in a solid but uninspired shift to secure fourth place. Dudek improved upon his form of the last campaign, but nonetheless ended the season with the worst defensive record of the top four. The main thing, however, was the securing of the Champions League place – this allowed Dudek and Liverpool to reflect on a reasonably successful season.

How important this qualification turned out to be. Dudek had seemingly lost his edge over the past couple of seasons, but the 2004/05 Champions League campaign became the one for which he would be most remembered. New manager Rafael Benitez opted to keep Dudek as the number one, and this paid dividends almost immediately. His clean sheet in the away leg of the playoff round ended up being crucial, as Liverpool limped to a 2-1 aggregate victory over Grazer AK to secure their place in the competition proper. He proceeded to keep three clean sheets in the group stage, allowing Liverpool to finish second and dramatically progress ahead of Olympiakos on goal difference following a late Steven Gerrard strike. The last sixteen was a replay of the quarter-final in Dudek’s first season at Liverpool: this time he was able to triumph over Bayer Leverkusen, limiting them to one goal in each leg as the team won 6-2 on aggregate. His clean sheet in the second leg of the quarter-final against Juventus was largely down to a stellar defensive effort, but he did what was needed when called upon to ensure Liverpool progressed to a semi-final against Chelsea. This was the tie that saw the famous ‘ghost goal’: more excellent defending combined with two strong showings from Dudek meant that this single controversial finish was enough to win the tie for Rafael Benitez’ team.

This was the road that led Dudek to Istanbul. The final would turn out to be the greatest night of his career, and of the lives of many a Liverpool fan. The opponent was AC Milan, at the time one of the greatest club sides ever assembled. Any win for Liverpool would have been astonishing, but what transpired was the greatest footballing miracle of all time.

At half time, Dudek cannot have been imagining that this game would be the one that defined his career. He had already shipped three goals, and with Pirlo and Kaka providing the service for Crespo it looked as though more were inevitable. In fact, it had not been the worst half for the keeper – the incision of Milan’s passing had left him with little chance on any of the goals, and he had made a smart stop to deny Shevchenko. Nonetheless, walking off having just seen Crespo loop the ball over his head for Milan’s third, Dudek cannot have been feeling particularly positive. Like all great players, however, he rallied. Early in the second half he was on hand to deny Shevchenko once again, this time keeping out a free kick from the Ukrainian.

His attacking teammates took centre stage in the next few moments. Just a minute after Dudek’s save, Gerrard had scored at the other end – his header evaded Dida, and the captain gave his now-iconic rallying cry to players and fans alike. They responded: it was not long before Vladmir Smicer drove the ball into the corner to reduce the deficit to just one. It took just three more minutes to complete the remarkable turnaround – Gerrard was fouled in the box by Gattuso, and Alonso slammed home the rebound after seeing his initial spot kick saved.

Following this astonishing passage of play, the focus turned firmly back on Dudek and his defence. Wave after wave of Milan pressure was piled on his goal, as some of the best players ever to grace a pitch combined to try and restore their lead. They found themselves repeatedly denied – in normal time it was the defence who took up most of the strain, with both Carragher and Traore making inspired blocks. In extra time, even the heroics of the defenders was not enough to prevent the ball falling to Shevchenko from six yards out. It looked a certain goal: Dudek had other ideas. He pulled off a superb reflex save, only to see the ball fall back to the feet of Shevchenko. The keeper hauled himself off the floor as quickly as possible, and somehow managed to deflect the second attempt over the bar. That this most unlikely of saves had been made filled everyone with belief that this could be -  this had to be - Liverpool’s night.

That said, Dudek’s work was far from done. His extraordinary double-save had forced penalties: now it was his job to keep them out. He rose to the challenge in heroic fashion, in so doing creating a legacy of one of the most iconic individual performances of all time. Serginho stepped up to take Milan’s first penalty, but blazed it over following Dudek’s attempts to distract him with the ‘spaghetti legs’ made famous by Bruce Grobbelaar. Hamann overcame a broken toe to slot his penalty home. Pirlo was up next for Milan. Dudek dived low to his right, and was able to palm the ball away. Cisse scored his spot kick, and it was 2-0. Victory was almost tangible. The drama was not over yet, however – Dudek could do nothing to deny Tomasson, and then his counterpart Dida was able to keep out Riise’s penalty. Kaka then converted, as did Vladmir Smicer: this left it at 3-2 after four penalties each, as Andriy Shevchenko stepped forwards.  He had been denied time and time again by Dudek throughout the match, and approached the ball knowing that he had to find a way past this time in order to keep his team in the match. He could not do so. He went down the middle as Dudek again dived to the right, but the keeper threw out a strong left hand to keep the ball out. He had no right to make the save having dived away, but then Liverpool had no right to win – it was an end befitting of the most remarkable game ever witnessed.

Dudek’s teammates descended upon him: he was the hero. In hindsight, it’s something of a shame that this was not the Pole’s final bow for the club. The following season he was replaced as readily as Westerveld had been before him, as Pepe Reina was brought in to be the number one. Still, this unfortunate ending could not sour the memories of Istanbul; nothing could ever detract from something so perfect. In any case, the ending on Merseyside opened up the door for a new beginning in Madrid. By the time he left at the end of the 2006/07 season, he was 34 years old – there aren’t many who can say they’ve been coveted by Los Blancos at such a stage in their career. Of course, it was understood by all parties that Dudek would play a back-up role to Casillas; this did not prevent the Pole from being taken firmly into the hearts of the Real faithful. His work ethic and attitude were as faultless as they had been throughout his career: on the few occasions he was called upon, he excelled. This included an impressive clean sheet on his debut against Real Zaragoza, and a second shut-out when given a game in the Champions League against Zenit St Petersburg.

His final appearance – only his second in the league since coming to the club – came against UD Almeria. Real ran out 7-1 winners, and in the 77th minute Dudek was substituted so as to receive a guard of honour from his teammates. This encapsulated the love and respect that Dudek had won through the way he had conducted himself at the club: in recognition of this, and of his stellar career as a whole, he was applauded off by the likes of Ronaldo, Benzema and fellow hero of Istanbul Xabi Alonso.

This was a fitting end to an extraordinary career. He has enough memories to spend a happy retirement simply dwelling on them, but Dudek’s mining background could never allow such lack of industry – instead, he has taken up motor racing. He is a man who lives for putting in hard graft and seeing what rewards he can reap from it. His journey to the top was correspondingly methodical rather than mercurial, but when he got there he wrote his name into football history.