Thursday, 27 April 2017

Iago Aspas: The Hometown Hero

To many in England, Iago Aspas is something of a joke. His name is used synonymously with poor corners after the infamous incident against Chelsea, and his failure to make the grade at Liverpool has led to a presumption that he is simply not very good. Talk to someone in Galicia, however, and you will get a very different impression. His first spell at Celta de Vigo saw him contribute heavily to promotion and then almost single-handedly keep them in the top flight. Since 2015 he has picked up where he left off, now spearheading a successful European campaign.

Iago Aspas was born in Moaña, a small municipality with a population of just under 20,000. It was there that he embarked upon his footballing career, briefly playing for local youth side CD Moaña and then for Santa Mariña. He quickly outgrew the clubs, but did not stray far from his hometown: at the age of eight he made the half-hour journey to Vigo to join up with Celta’s youth ranks. Such was his drive, he lied about his age to be admitted to the side: at the time Celta were only willing to recruit players who were at least nine years old. Wracked with guilt by his deceit, he immediately got his parents to call the club and confess what he had done: the coaches, having seen Aspas more than hold his own against the older boys, were happy to waive their rule. Aspas made sure they did not regret their decision. He made steady progress; at the age of sixteen he was considered good enough for a loan move to another local side, Rápido Bouzas.

The then-director of the club was Javier Maté, who enjoyed a short stint at Real Madrid in his playing career. He spoke highly of his loan star, but also questioned his attitude and temperament at times. He said that “I had to accept him with virtues and defects” – as a raw, talented youth, Aspas may have had some issues with discipline and temperament. That side of his game still exists, but it is safe to say he has worked hard to control it: now it is easier to see the little boy who didn’t want to lie than it is to see the fiery youth who caused a stir at Rápido.

That is not to say that Aspas has ever lacked drive. Certainly he had the motivation to make the grade at Celta – on his return from his loan spell he quickly made his way into Celta B. There, he continued to impress and develop: two years later, in 2008, he was handed his senior debut. He was made to wait for his next appearance, but on 6th June 2009 he cemented himself firmly in the senior squad. Brought on as a substitute against Alavés, he scored in the 81st and 94th minutes to secure a vital 2-1 win for his team. Indeed, the three points proved crucial to Celta’s survival in the second tier of Spanish football. After this he featured with some regularity, but it was not until the 2011/12 season when Aspas truly became the figurehead of his boyhood club. This was the campaign where Celta returned to the top flight, following a five-year absence: Aspas scored 23 league goals along the way. He was outscored only by Leonardo Ulloa, who at the time was playing for Almeria. Aspas was voted the best forward in the league, and on this personal high he entered La Liga.

His progression did not stop there. Any fears that the talismanic forward would struggle with the step up were quickly allayed: in fact, he thrived. The same could not be said of the rest of the team, with the result that Celta had a massive struggle on their hands to avoid relegation. They managed to do it, however, confirming safety on the last day of the season with the help of an Iago Aspas assist. Staggeringly, Aspas had a goal contribution for 50% of the goals scored by Celta across the campaign – he had dragged his team to safety. This was in spite of a four-game ban he picked up for a headbutt in the Galician derby against Deportivo; it looked for a while as though Aspas’ old ill-discipline literally rearing its head might cost Celta their La Liga status, but all was forgiven in the jubilant scenes following the confirmation of the team’s safety. Far from the villain, Aspas was the hero of his hometown club.

As it happened, he was to be a departing hero. His performances had not gone unnoticed by the footballing community, and then-Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers swooped to sign the Celta man. The deal was rumoured to be worth around £9 million. Based on his pre-season, it looked as though that was going to represent a bargain for the English giants – Sturridge had picked up an injury on international duty, and Aspas stepped up to the plate with a succession of good performances. On his debut against Preston North End he notched up a goal and an assist: by the end of pre-season there were plenty of fans clamouring for him to be accommodated into the first team. Initially, he was: he got the assist for Sturridge’s goal in the 1-0 win over Stoke on the opening day. Sadly, things went dramatically downhill from here. In many ways, Aspas was a victim of circumstances. He had the misfortune to come to Liverpool at a time when Suarez, Sturridge, Coutinho and Sterling were all at the club: the four of them rapidly secured a lockdown on the attacking positions, meaning Aspas was presented with limited opportunities. He was never really given a chance to adapt to the Premier League. This was only exacerbated by his limited knowledge of English – the man who still ate daily in his parents’ house during his time at Celta found himself thrust into an entirely new world, and was never truly given help to acclimatise.

This lack of patience was epitomised by the deal Liverpool made at the beginning of the 2014/15 campaign. Suarez had moved on to Barcelona, so on paper it was the perfect time for Aspas to show what he could do – instead, the club shipped him off to Sevilla on a loan with an obligatory purchase clause. Perhaps the damage done by the fateful corner against Chelsea was irreversible; whatever the reason, Aspas’ time in England was prematurely over. In Sevilla, he showed glimpses of his quality once more. He scored hat-tricks in both legs of the Copa Del Rey tie against CE Sabadell FC, the second of which was completed in just four minutes. Indeed, he ended the competition as joint top-scorer alongside Neymar. However, his league minutes were once again limited. By a stroke of misfortune he once again found himself at a club with an unusual array of attacking talent: he struggled to regularly displace Carlos Bacca and Kevin Gameiro. In consequence, having bought Aspas at the end of the season as per their agreement with Liverpool, Sevilla sold him back to Celta de Vigo on the very same day.

In many ways, it was as though Aspas had never been away. He immediately settled back in at his boyhood club, and in September bagged a brace in a shock 4-1 victory over Barcelona at the club’s Balaidos home. Five more goals followed in October, leading to Aspas winning the Player of the Month award. He ended the season with 14 league goals, even more than in his last season in La Liga three years previously: it was enough to secure Europa League qualification for the team that had been languishing in the second division when Aspas burst onto the scene. The team have impressed, managing to reach the semi-final stages of the competition this year: they will face Manchester United. Even if they fail to upset the odds it will still be their best ever finish in a European competition – unsurprisingly, Aspas has been instrumental. He scored in a group stage draw against Standard Liege and netted a crucial goal in the late victory over Shakhtar in the round of 32. He also got on the scoresheet to put the tie against Krasnodar to bed, and found the target in the eventual 4-3 aggregate win over Genk. This means he is yet to fail to score in a knockout tie: he will be looking to continue that streak in the semi-final.

He will not need to draw on any remaining vestiges of loyalty to Liverpool to find motivation for that tie: he is a Celta man through and through, and will be determined to earn his side a historic victory. It was unfortunate that things did not work out for him during his time in England, but his eventual return to Celta has enabled him to cement his place as a hometown hero. Ultimately, Aspas has always been comfortable closer to home – when he can focus purely on his football, he is truly a force to be reckoned with.
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Monday, 10 April 2017

Mignolet: The Gloves Are On

Simon Mignolet has every right to be thoroughly fed up. He has been forced to endure endless criticism from the vast majority of the Liverpool fan-base ever since his first season. His great moments are constantly overlooked, while his errors are scrutinised closely. Any run of consistent form he gets going is disregarded as soon as he makes one mistake. The Belgian stopper has not got fed up, however: he has got his head down. A model professional through and through, he has continued to work hard and concentrate on doing the best he can. Even the signing of a keeper who was surely meant as his medium-term successor did not outwardly faze him, and Mignolet has actually produced his best season for Liverpool to date. He has not undergone a ‘transformation’, as his old vocal critics would have you believe – his class, particularly when it comes to shot-stopping, has always been apparent. However, his game has become more well-rounded and consistent: he is finally managing to garner some respect from the fans who, frankly, have mistreated him.

Mignolet’s finest attribute was very much on show in the invaluable victory against Stoke. He is a truly world class shot-stopper, which is of course the primary prerequisite of any goalkeeper, and he pulled off two frankly remarkable saves. The first came with Liverpool 1-0 down: Charlie Adam was denied brilliantly from point-blank range. The second, coming after the Brazilian duo of Coutinho and Firmino had succeeded in turning the game around to 2-1, was even more spectacular. Saido Berahino received a square ball and was faced with what appeared to be an open goal: not so. Mignolet somehow scrambled back across the goalmouth to deny the striker with his legs – it was reminiscent of Dudek in Istanbul, and combined with his earlier save was responsible for 3 precious points. Even his most ardent critics had to give him praise for such a monumental performance, but they treated it as a flash in the pan. This is far from true: admittedly the Stoke game provided an extreme example, but these are by no means the first exceptional saves Mignolet has produced. Had he played in the Chelsea team for the past three seasons, where the system does not require excessive ball-playing from the keeper and there is a competent defence that provides at least some screening, he would likely be receiving the same plaudits as his compatriot Thibaut Courtois.

This is not to say that Mignolet has done nothing to warrant the criticism he has received: that sort of claim would be entirely unsustainable. His game was littered with stupid errors in his first couple of seasons, reaching a true nadir, at least in my mind, with his concession of an ultimately costly indirect free-kick through holding on to the ball for over twenty seconds. Even the world’s best shot-stopper would not be immune from criticism for some of the mistakes he made – the errors were definitely over-stated to the exclusion of all of his excellent saves, but they were nonetheless there. This is the real area where Mignolet has improved: what many are mistaking for a ‘transformation’ is really just an ironing out of some of the brainlessness that marred his start at the club. He has matured to a point where he puts his defenders under needless pressure much less than he used to, he can judge which high balls to come for, and his handling has improved no end. I have always defended Mignolet, but at the start of this season even I was of a mind that we needed to replace him if we wanted to be consistent title challengers; it is a huge testament to his progress that a significant minority amongst fans (myself included) now do not believe this to be the case.

How he has managed to achieve such growth in a ridiculously hostile environment is beyond me – fans have been slating him relentlessly. Perhaps the vitriol can be partially explained through a reluctance to acknowledge wider issues: it is strangely comforting to pin all the problems on the man between the sticks rather than acknowledge the significant defensive frailty that has plagued Liverpool for years. Is it a coincidence that Mignolet’s upsurge has coincided with the installation of Matip in our back line? Perhaps not. There is still plenty of work to do before the defence is at the level it needs to be, but as improvements continue to be made it may be that Mignolet shines more and more. As such, to my mind, a new goalkeeper is far from a priority in the summer – the money would be better invested in the people in front of the stopper. Whatever happens, we can be sure that the Belgian will take it in his stride like the model professional he is. Some respect for Mignolet is long overdue: if he can thrive this much when everybody is writing him off, maybe it’s about time to find out what he can do when we remember what YNWA stands for.
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Liverpool 3-1 Everton: Post-Match Analysis

Liverpool extended their excellent home form against Everton with a comprehensive 3-1 victory. Klopp’s men were clearly superior, and at times left their opponents embarrassed. Certainly the visitors from across Stanley Park have cause for some embarrassment: resigned to being outplayed, they rapidly resorted to trying to take chunks out of their Liverpool counterparts. A casualty of this physical play was Sadio Mane, whose injury marred an otherwise wholly satisfying victory.

It was Mane who opened the scoring, picking up where he left off with his late winner in the reverse fixture at Goodison. He cut inside and ran parallel to the defensive line, drawing Everton’s back three hopelessly out of position. While they tried to reorganise and cover the central run of Coutinho, Mane unleashed an early shot – the left-footed drive caught everyone unawares, and Robles could only watch as the ball ran past him into the far corner. It was a goal that highlighted exactly what Mane brings to the side: directness, ingenuity and a clinical streak. There is no denying that he will be sorely missed if the injury he later picked up results in a prolonged absence - January demonstrated just how integral the former Southampton man has become to Klopp’s side.

Everton, too, are currently struggling with injuries. Given some of the tackles they put in yesterday it is hard to feel too sympathetic for their plight, but in any case a series of injuries on international duty resulted in Pennington featuring in the back line. Briefly, things were going very well for him. Despite almost total Liverpool domination he managed to bag an equaliser, capitalising on more dreadful defending of the second ball at a set piece to slot home. His jubilation turned to frustration just three minutes later, however; Coutinho, who looked revitalised in this fixture, left Gueye for dead before cutting inside Pennington and curling a beauty into the top corner. The Brazilian will need to maintain this kind of form if Liverpool are to cope with any long-term Mane absence – it is at least a possibility that Coutinho was only able to thrive because of the makeshift nature of Everton’s defence, but hopefully he has found the confidence to replicate this kind of magical form against better opposition.

It was at this point that the nasty challenges really started to fly. Of course everyone wants to see a bit of passion in the derby, but that means committing to 50/50s: it does not mean flying in with specific intention to injure. A Williams stamp on Can and a potential leg-breaker on Lovren by Barkley were just two of a number of unpleasant incidents – neither player should have been allowed to finish the game. To their credit, Liverpool maintained their composure; they refused to be dragged down, and instead continued to outclass their local rivals. The third goal looked an inevitability, and it came through substitute Divock Origi. As with Coutinho’s performance, this goal gives cause for some hope that Klopp’s team might be able to cope without Mane this time around – it took the Belgian striker barely any time to step up and increase the lead. It was a good goal as well: Coutinho slotted him in with a lovely pass, and Origi blasted it home beyond a very suspect Robles.

Coutinho, who featured a lot for Brazil over the international break, was given a well-earned break with about twenty minutes to play. Alexander-Arnold replaced him: this is the first time he has been given such an attacking role in the first team, and he thrived. Perhaps he, too, was making a pitch to replace Mane in the event of a serious injury – if so he gave Klopp food for thought, managing three shots on target in his cameo. The first of these was particularly good, forcing an excellent stop out of Robles. Derby experience is the next step on the road for the youngster, who is slowly but surely being eased into first team action. Many young players that have made it to the fringes of the first team in recent times, but Alexander-Arnold looks like he has what it takes to cement a regular starting spot before too long.

He could not extend the lead, however, and the game ended 3-1. This was not really a reflection of the superiority of the hosts, but they will nonetheless be satisfied with a thoroughly professional win. Special mention should be given to Lovren, who kept Lukaku almost entirely quiet – the Croatian has his faults, but has always excelled against physical forwards. Lucas, too, was surprisingly impressive back in his natural role of defensive midfielder: even his more vocal critics were forced to concede that he had a good game. The challenge now is to maintain the momentum: with United dropping points as well, the top four is starting to look very achievable. Although the lack of title challenge is disappointing given how Liverpool began the campaign, securing a Champions League spot would undeniably be a success.
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013