Friday, 20 January 2017

Plymouth 0-1 Liverpool: The Kids Are Alright

Liverpool avoided an embarrassing early exit from the FA Cup with a fairly comfortable win in their third round replay away at Plymouth. The scoreline ended up being a narrow one, but the visitors looked in control for most of the game – no mean feat for what was not far away from being an u23s side. Some of the young players to whom Klopp gave a chance have come under criticism following the match: this is extremely harsh. To put in a professional display and come away with the desired result against a senior football league side desperate for a result is a testament to the calibre of the players.

As in the initial game at Anfield, Klopp selected a second-string starting eleven. This included a handful of senior players – Origi, Sturridge, Coutinho, Moreno and Lucas – but was largely made up of products of the youth system. In fact, it was the youngsters who impressed the most in the early exchanges: Alexander-Arnold and Woodburn looked particularly assured, whereas Moreno floundered and Sturridge and Origi struggled to influence the game. Daniel Sturridge must be getting increasingly frustrated; he has now failed to take the last few chances he has been given to impress, and in a squad with as much attacking talent as this one he cannot bank on getting too many more. Fortunately, his lack of goals was compensated for through the most unlikely of candidates – Lucas Leiva of all people opened the scoring midway through the first half. Coutinho showed the benefits of having a competent set piece taker back in the side, and Lucas got on the end of his teasing corner to power the ball into the net. It was his first goal in seven years, and in the end proved to be the goal that saw Klopp’s side safely through to the fourth round.

There were chances to add to the lead – Origi had the most blatant of these, seeing a tame penalty saved late on. However, the failure to extend the gap never really looked like being punished. Alexander-Arnold had to make one excellent last-ditch challenge and Karius had to be on his toes to keep out a sweetly struck long-range effort, but on the whole Plymouth were contained professionally and effectively. This makes some of the criticism of the performance even more odd: it wasn’t the most exciting, end-to-end game of all time, but if anything this is a testament to the temperament of our young talents. The questions asked of Sturridge and Origi are a little more valid – they would undoubtedly have wanted to have made a bigger impact against a League 2 outfit – but facing a deep line who undoubtedly had specific instructions to keep close tabs on them, the performances were certainly forgivable. In any case, performance was always going to be secondary in this fixture; nobody really wanted the extra game in an already congested schedule, so the goal was simply to get through it with minimal fuss.

The next round sees Liverpool host Wolverhampton Wanderers. It will be interesting to see what kind of team Klopp puts out – it will be an even tougher challenge for the young players than Plymouth, but it seems likely that they’ll be given a chance. Perhaps Harry Wilson will have won himself a long-awaited start: he has been in excellent form for the under 23s side all season, and impressed after coming on in the Plymouth game. Whatever the exact personnel, on paper at least Liverpool have been handed a strong chance of progressing further. The FA Cup is clearly not the priority, but it serves the dual function of blooding youth talent and giving the team a shot at some silverware. In the meantime, Liverpool return to the test of league action: a win against free-falling Swansea is a must in order to keep title ambitions alive.
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Manchester United 1-1 Liverpool: Post-Match Analysis

Liverpool had to settle for a point in one of the most significant clashes with their biggest rivals in recent years. The home side needed a win to gain ground on the top four, and Liverpool made the trip to Old Trafford knowing that three points would keep them in touch with league leaders Chelsea. In this respect neither team came away satisfied; given the way the match went, however, United fans can be thrilled with a point. Klopp’s side were superior for much of the match, but were undone by a late Ibrahimovic goal.
It was apparent from the outset that Liverpool had shown up determined to put in a more energetic performance than the lacklustre showing at Southampton midweek. The pressing, which in truth has not been particularly impressive over the last few weeks, was well and truly back: Origi was perhaps a little brainless in his charging down of the ball at times, but United nonetheless felt the pressure. That said, Mourinho’s men probably enjoyed the best of the first fifteen minutes – once they had settled down and accustomed themselves to the pressing, they managed to put Liverpool on the back foot. The game remained open, however, and Firmino was unlucky not to make the breakthrough after robbing Phil Jones of the ball on the edge of the United box. The disappointment did not last long – Pogba handled the ball from the resulting corner, and Milner dispatched the penalty excellently.
This was the first in a series of errors from Pogba, who frankly looked out of his depth. He should have been sent off minutes later for essentially putting Henderson in a headlock, but apparently the penalty signalled the first and last decision the referee would rule in our favour. Somehow United ended up with a free kick following the fracas, which forced an excellent stop out of Simon Mignolet. This was one of three vital saves in the first half – he has excelled this season, and was faultless once again today. This can partially be attributed to the competition from Karius, who also put in a strong display in his most recent appearance, but it also worth noting that the Belgian has always been a world class shot-stopper. Other areas of his game let him down, but there are few keepers in the league who perform the fundamental duty of the goalkeeper better than he does. Sadly, Mignolet’s contribution was not quite enough to see the team over the line with the three points. Wijnaldum, who aside from his finishing put in a very strong performance, spurned two very good opportunities to double the lead in the second half; this was eventually punished with less than ten minutes to play, as Ibrahimovic forced the ball over the line following a scramble. To add insult to injury, Valencia was offside during the build-up: this adds to the rapidly-increasing list of recent Old Trafford goals that should not have stood.
The case could also be made that Rooney should have been sent off. He was beaten to the ball by Milner, and in his follow-through planted his studs on to the left-back’s ankle. It should certainly have been at the very least a yellow, but even this was not produced – this was just another factor that added to a frustrating day. Still, perspective is definitely needed: a point away at Old Trafford is a good result, and would have been taken by a lot of fans before the game. Also, there was little wrong with the performance: it has to be accepted that sometimes in football things simply don’t go for you. Looking forward, Liverpool can be encouraged – nine times out of ten, Klopp’s men will be rewarded with a win for this kind of showing. A few people worthy of individual praise are Emre Can, Jordan Henderson and Trent Alexander-Arnold. Can was under immense scrutiny following some poor recent performances, but barely put a foot wrong. He tracked back well when needed, and provided a good option going forward. Henderson demonstrated exactly what the team have been missing in his absence – he was the heartbeat in terms of passes when on the ball, and provided cover when the team were out of possession. Alexander-Arnold was very much thrown in at the deep end with this game, following the injury to Clyne, and he can be very proud of how he handled the pressure. He dealt with Martial admirably, and also made a nuisance of himself going forward with some overlapping runs. A couple of his crosses left something to be desired, but it would be wholly unreasonable to expect him to come into a fixture of this magnitude at his age and be the complete full-back. It is fair to say that the youngster has an exciting future.

The seven-point gap to Chelsea is not, of course, ideal, but nor is it insurmountable. Provided Liverpool can prevent the gap from widening further before the two teams clash at the end of the month, the title is still very much to play for. If nothing else, the top four picture continues to look very promising – regardless of league position, it is clear that we are making steady progress under Klopp.
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013