Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Peter Crouch: The Unlikely Member of the 100-Club

All logic dictates that Peter Crouch should not have had a particularly successful career. That is not to say he lacks talent – as the old and tired maxim goes, “he’s got good feet for a big man” – but he entered football at almost precisely the same time as the traditional target man began to go out of fashion at the top level. This has been borne out by the journeyman nature of his time in football: no team has ever wanted to commit to building around a striker in Crouch’s mould, and he has duly been shunted from club to club. However, he has been successful everywhere he has gone. It is telling that he has enjoyed multiple stints at a lot of his clubs, most notably Portsmouth and Tottenham; the grass is not often greener when Crouch is disposed of. Stoke City is the only club where he has made a century of appearances, and yet he is loved by fans of each team he has graced: his cult status was truly cemented when he entered the exclusive list of players to reach 100 Premier League goals.

Even from his academy days, Peter Crouch had to get used to being moved around. From ages 10-12 he was enrolled in Brentford’s setup, before moving on to QPR and then, at the age of 14, Tottenham. However, the regular moves then were not based on a dislike of his style: he was simply a sought-after talent. The switch to the Tottenham academy took place in 1995 – the role of target man still very much had a place in English football, and to find a player with Crouch’s combination of physical attributes and technical ability was considered hitting the jackpot. It was therefore unsurprising when, after three years in the academy system, Crouch was handed his first professional contract by Spurs. However, at this point Crouch got his first taste of the struggles he would have to fight to overcome throughout his career. By this time he had grown to a staggering 6”7, and to be frank it made him seem like little more than a novelty option: a potential ‘Plan B’, perhaps, but with no real place in a top side. Certainly this was the perception amongst the Tottenham hierarchy: he was unable to get anywhere near the first team between 1998 and 2000, and in 2000/01 was shipped out on loan to Dulwich Hamlet and IFK Hässleholm consecutively. Even at these lowly clubs he was, to an extent, shunned: he made a combined total of 14 appearances for the two sides. Conny Olsen, coach of Hässleholm at the time, recalls an incident from Crouch’s stint at the club – he had been put into the reserves after just one appearance, and the opponents, Häcken, were laughing at the bizarre spectacle of this giant of an Englishman plying his trade in a Swedish reserve fixture. They were not laughing for long. Crouch netted five goals against them, and was soon in and around the first team a little more. He ended his time there with a respectable three goals in eight appearances.

This was not enough for his parent club: following his return from loan he was immediately sold to his former youth team Queen’s Park Rangers, having not made a single appearance for Spurs. QPR were in the equivalent of the Championship at the time, and yet the man who couldn’t get regular minutes at Dulwich Hamlet was immediately catapulted into the first team. Finally, Crouch was at a club which was willing to put faith in him. He duly delivered, with the steady consistency that has seen him notch up 100 Premier League goals without ever being immensely prolific. He reached double figures in the league, scoring ten goals in his 42 appearances, and bagged two in three in the FA Cup. His performances caught the eye of fellow Division One side Portsmouth, whom he moved to for the 2001/02 season following QPR’s relegation and financial troubles. Here he enhanced his reputation still further, improving on his tally of the previous season to score eighteen goals in just thirty-seven matches. This would be quite a tally for anyone, let alone a 21-year-old at a side that went on to finish the season in 17th. With the world seemingly at his feet just two years after being forced to ply his trade in Sweden’s reserve leagues, Crouch made the step up to the Premier League with Aston Villa.

At this point, things stopped going quite so smoothly. Crouch, having not been afforded any first team opportunities at Tottenham as a teenager, was not used to the top flight – he initially struggled to make the transition. This was severely exacerbated by his lack of regular football: once again he faced a lack of faith to overcome. He was afforded a fair amount of minutes in the immediate aftermath of the four-million-pound deal, making seven appearances and scoring a respectable two goals in the latter half of 2001/02. This included a strike on his home debut. However, in his first full season, Crouch was limited to just fourteen appearances: the lack of consistent game time affected him badly, and he failed to score a single goal. He rightly took some criticism for the poor spell, and has since admitted that he was simply not ready for the Premier League at the time. Nonetheless, Graham Taylor’s Villa could undoubtedly have done more to help. In 2003/04 Crouch was sent to Norwich on loan; he performed well there and managed four goals in his three-month spell, but the writing was on the wall for him at Villa Park. After making just one more appearance for them he was sold to Southampton at a two-million-pound loss for the start of the 2004/05 campaign.

This was the time where Crouch, now twenty-three, truly began to make a name for himself in the Premier League. Prior to his season at the Saints he was relatively well-known because of his height – by the end of the campaign he would be known for his attacking abilities. At first, it didn’t look as though Crouch was going to get such a change in fortunes – up until about Christmas time he continued to struggle for minutes. In the meantime, Southampton dispensed of not one but two managers: so began one of the defining relationships of Crouch’s career, his link-up with Harry Redknapp. Under Redknapp’s tutelage, Crouch thrived. Despite his slow start he ended the Premier League season on double figures, racking up 12 goals. He was also crucial in the Saints’ FA Cup run, scoring four times in five games to help the team to the quarter-finals. This included a 94th minute winner from the spot in the 4th round against his old club Portsmouth. This latter-season form prompted yet another move: Crouch’s performances had not been enough to prevent Southampton finishing bottom of the table (although they ended just two points adrift of safety), so he gratefully accepted the offer from newly-crowned European champions Liverpool. This was without a doubt the biggest step in Crouch’s career, and there was some scepticism amongst the Liverpool fans regarding the signing. Yet again Crouch worked to displace the doubts, and his performances over the following three seasons won over the vast majority of fans: to this day he is remembered fondly by the Anfield faithful.

As is the story of Crouch’s career, it was far from an easy start. It took eighteen games before he finally scored – at this point he was understandably regarded as a flop. Particularly with Crouch, any bad patch of form leads to criticisms about his style: many questioned why Liverpool had decided to recruit this kind of old-school target man. Somehow, however, he clawed his way back from the brink – one year on from when he finally broke his duck, not a single fan would have dared question the technical aspect of Crouch’s game. On the 27th September 2006, he scored a goal that has gone down in Liverpool folklore: a stunning overhead kick against Galatasaray in a 3-2 victory. It was this Champions League campaign that Crouch is remembered most fondly for on Merseyside; he scored a further six goals in a run that saw Liverpool reach the final of the tournament. His league form was never quite what it had been at Southampton, with Crouch repeatedly just missing out on the double-figures target, but he certainly put in some memorable performances. Chief amongst these was a perfect hat-trick in a 4-1 win over Arsenal in 2007. When he parted ways with the club at the end of the 2007/08 campaign he did so with a solid 22 league goals to his name and, more importantly, with the respect of the fans.

Crouch left Anfield for his old haunt, Fratton Park, where he linked up with former boss Harry Redknapp. There was a rumoured eleven-million-pound price tag on his shoulders, but Crouch had learned from his Liverpool experience and showed no indications of pressure. He scored on his third league game, against his old club’s local rivals Everton, and continued to score at the steady rate of around 1 in 3 for the rest of the season. It was at this time when Portsmouth’s financial crisis was coming to a head, so circumstances once again forced Crouch to move on – he was one of many players sold for big money fees in the summer. This opened the door for a return to another former club, Tottenham: 11 years after he signed his first professional contract at White Hart Lane, he finally made his debut. Who else should give it to him but friend and mentor Harry Redknapp: their third partnership was perhaps not quite as successful as the previous two, but Crouch by no means did badly during his spell at Tottenham. Again, it was Europe where he thrived. Having scored the goal against City to confirm Champions League qualification at the end of 2009/10, he then spearheaded a remarkable campaign that saw the London club reach the quarter-finals. He scored a hat-trick to help overcome Young Boys in the qualification round, notched in both games against Werder Bremen, turned home a Bale cross against Inter Milan and then scored versus the other Milan club to take Tottenham into an unlikely quarter-final clash against Real Madrid. Sadly he got sent off in that fixture, which slightly soured the memory of his contribution to the campaign, but Crouch is nonetheless regarded as a cult hero amongst Spurs fans.

Crouch left the club at the start of 2011/12: at the age of 30 he was no longer able to stake a claim for regular football at Spurs, so he made the move to Stoke City. By this time his international career was over – starting around the time he joined Liverpool and ending shortly after the 2010 World Cup, the big striker’s time on the world stage is something of an enigma. His minutes-per-goal for England is, astoundingly, below 100, yet he never cemented himself as a first choice striker: the target-man snobbery was perhaps more pronounced in the international setup than it was anywhere else. That said, Crouch could look back with fondness over his time with England by the time he moved to Stoke. At the Brittania, he made people question exactly why Spurs and England had deemed him surplus to requirements: he reached double figures in a league campaign for the first time since his second spell at Portsmouth. The ten goals were scored over an impressive 32 matches – clearly, the issue was not Crouch’s fitness. Indeed, Crouch’s game time was even higher for the next three seasons: he managed 34 games in 2012/13 and 2013/14, and 33 as recently as 2014/15. Those three campaigns saw a useful combined return of twenty-three goals, taking his personal tally in the top flight to 96 goals. Following 2015/16, however, it looked as though a great career might end agonisingly short of the century landmark: the likes of Mame Biram Diouf, Jonathan Walters and Joselu severely limited the Englishman’s game time, and he failed to add a single goal to the tally.

Thankfully, however, in a career of peaks and troughs Crouch is managing to end on a high. Stoke’s poor start to the season prompted Mark Hughes to look to his big man, and Crouch has shown the world that he’s still got it. Following his reintroduction to the side the goal-counter ticked agonisingly nearer to 100, until finally he got what he was looking for in a 1-1 draw with Everton on the first of February. Fittingly, Crouch dusted down the old ‘robot’ celebration to mark the occasion. Fans of every club he has played for throughout the years no doubt stood up to applaud the achievement: it is no more than he deserves. 48 of the goals came with his head, with the remaining 52 ranging from tap-ins to stunning bicycle kicks. Not bad feet for a big man.

-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013 

Sunday, 14 May 2017

West Ham 0-4 Liverpool: Diamonds Are Forever

Liverpool took a huge step towards qualification for next season’s Champions League with an emphatic 4-0 win away at West Ham. Klopp knew that getting the victory was paramount, and opted to change the system. The 4-4-2 diamond - familiar to fans from the memorable 13/14 campaign – was employed, signalling a change from the 4-3-3 the German has employed for the majority of his tenure. The performance was also reminiscent of the club’s best Premier League season of the last few years: Daniel Sturridge inevitably prompted nostalgia when he scored and danced once more, and Coutinho was again able to pull the strings from his deeper role. Klopp would surely be foolish to revert to a 4-3-3 for the final game against Middlesbrough – a win against the already-relegated side will confirm our return to the European elite.

It is no secret that Liverpool have been struggling to break down the ‘lesser’ sides of late. The 0-0 draw with Southampton was the latest in a string of underwhelming results against teams we should be beating – in the latter part of the season, it has been scoring rather than conceding that has been the primary issue. Clearly, the problem is not one of personnel: Mane is obviously a big miss, but Liverpool nonetheless have the attacking firepower to break any team down. It was the system that had to change: credit must go to Klopp for doing this, particularly at such a high-pressure point in the campaign. Fans have been clamouring for the return of the diamond formation for some time, and as it transpired this was one of the rare occasions where the body of supporter opinion was correct: Liverpool instantly looked more dangerous. The full-back pairing of Clyne and Milner means that attempting to pose a wide threat is a fruitless endeavour – instead, Klopp overloaded the centre of the park with an array of highly talented midfielders and gave them two strikers to pick out. The results were better than he could have hoped for, and the rewards truly started to be reaped with 36 minutes on the clock: Coutinho split the defence with a glorious pass, and Sturridge latched on to it before rounding Adrian with consummate ease and slotting the ball home. As excellent as the pass was, the movement was even better: Sturridge curved the run so as to stay onside, breaking at the perfect moment to get clear. It was a joyous moment to see him bring out his trademark dance again – it looked for a while as though we might have seen it for the last time, but here he emphatically showed that he is still a world-class striker.

Were it not for the performance of Coutinho, Sturridge would undoubtedly have picked up Man of the Match on his return to the starting eleven. As it was, the Brazilian playmaker put in one of the finest individual performances of the season. He spearheaded Liverpool’s blistering second half performance, scoring two of the three further goals to ensure an emphatic 4-0 victory. The first was calmness personified: while the rest of us were still trying to process Wijnaldum’s sensational volley hitting the bar, he seized the ball and guided it into the corner from the edge of the box. The second, too, showcased his talents wonderfully: he ghosted past three West Ham defenders, before firing past a fourth one standing on the line. Goals were far from all he offered, however: it was his passing that was truly sensational. The central role he was employed in allowed him to unleash his full array of talents: good as he has been on the wing, he is somewhat wasted there. Based on Klopp’s comments, it appears that we will be seeing a lot more of Coutinho in midfield: that’s a good thing for Liverpool, and for beautiful football.

Origi completed the rout with a tap-in for number four. He came very close with a couple of much more ambitious efforts, and his general performance deserved to be rewarded with a goal. However, playing alongside Sturridge did highlight just how far the young Belgian is from being an elite striker. His movement is nowhere near as intelligent, and he lacks the composure that has defined Sturridge’s career: in fairness there are only one or two in world football who are cool as the Englishman in front of goal, but Origi is a long way off. If Sturridge is to stay – and he certainly made his case against West Ham – then Klopp will need to invest in a better partner for him, at least in the medium term. If Sturridge moves on, as is widely expected, then Liverpool could really do with someone who has similar attributes. A striker even half as talented as Sturridge who is capable of staying fit for a full season would be capable of reaching 30 goals: armed with that, and with a developing Origi as able backup, Klopp could definitely mount a title challenge.

For now, however, the attention is squarely focussed on securing Champions League football. If Arsenal slip up midweek then qualification could be confirmed before Liverpool next play; the more likely scenario is that a win on the last day against Middlesbrough will seal the top four. Of course, this is not as much of a free pass to the group stages as it once was: the revised structure means that a playoff could be against the likes of Hoffenheim, Roma or Sevilla. This will not be a worry for Liverpool if they can keep performing like they did against West Ham, however; they are within touching distance of the most prestigious competition in club football, and they deserve to be. It’s a good time to be a Liverpool fan.
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013