Sunday, 20 August 2017

Liverpool 1-0 Crystal Palace: Good Win, But Depth is Lacking

Liverpool set up against Crystal Palace with the crucial midweek clash against Hoffenheim in mind. A significantly weakened starting eleven was fielded: Lovren, Moreno, Alexander-Arnold, Salah and Can were all notable absentees. By and large, the deputies put in a decent shift – Joe Gomez and Andrew Robertson were particularly impressive at full-back, and Ragnar Klavan looked assured aside from one dreadful moment against Loftus-Cheek. However, the introduction of Salah was needed to make the attack look genuinely potent: not until he and Solanke came on did Liverpool finally get the breakthrough. From there, they remained comfortably on top and recorded a narrow but deserved win.

Nobody could criticise Klopp’s desire to rest key players ahead of Wednesday: the second leg of the Champions League playoff is the most important game for the club since the Europa League final against Sevilla, so it made sense to keep as many players as possible fresh. However, the lack of additions so far this window was thrown into stark relief by the situation that this left the team in: removing just a few starters left a side littered with players who have no business lining up for a team with title ambitions. Milner in midfield was just about the only way to field a central three with less creativity than at Watford, Klavan can do a job when called upon but is prone to getting bullied, and Gomez is still very young and was played out of his natural position. The only two players to come in who represent very strong squad options were Sturridge and Robertson – Sturridge would be a luxury for any side to be able to bring in, and Robertson will most likely make himself the first-choice left-back in the near future. This kind of depth is required across the pitch if the squad are to genuinely challenge on multiple fronts this season, and Klopp must therefore look at making more signings before the September 1st deadline.

Fortunately, even the weakened team had enough about them to get past Palace. Sadio Mane was one of the first-teamers to retain his place, and he was vital: he constantly looked likely to make things happen, and indeed was the one to eventually beat Wayne Hennessey. When on the left, he linked up very well with debutant Andrew Robertson – the new signing from Hull was equally impressive. Particularly in the first half, which was bereft of invention for the most part, he was the only one creating chances; his deliveries were consistently excellent, and only a dreadful miss from Matip denied him an assist. On the other flank, Gomez was also quietly impressive. There were far fewer marauding runs – understandable given that Gomez is naturally a central defender – but it was encouraging to see him look at home in the Premier League. The promising youngster had an injury-plagued campaign last time out, but thankfully appears to have picked up where he left off. His intervention early in the second half was vital, as he did just enough to put Benteke off in front of goal. This was only required because Klavan had been comprehensively beaten by Loftus-Cheek moments before, but in fairness to the Estonian this was the only blip in an otherwise strong performance. It would be madness to suggest that he is good enough for a regular spot in the first team, but it was telling that the back line was generally much calmer without the presence of Lovren. An elite partner for Matip (ideally, of course, Virgil Van Dijk) may well finally give Liverpool the competent defence they have needed for years.

It was also encouraging to see effective substitutions from Klopp. He has been much criticised for leaving it too late to make changes, but acted in good time this time out to ensure that the team got the win. Of course, this is easier to do when half of the usual starters are available off the bench: Salah will not regularly be deployed as an impact sub, a role he played to good effect. His pace and skill added a new dimension to the attack, and he was unlucky not to get himself a goal. However, the other important change saw Solanke introduced – he was not one of the regular starters to be dropped for Palace’s visit, and ‘super-sub’ is likely to be a part he is asked to play quite regularly. As such, it was excellent to see that he had a big hand in the goal. Having replaced the frustratingly poor Wijnaldum, it was a matter of minutes before he made the difference; he used his physicality to contest for the ball on the edge of the box, and it broke for Mane to finish composedly. Based on what he has shown so far, Solanke is one of those rare breeds of target man that can also function effectively in Liverpool’s system – he therefore provides a ‘Plan B’ that doesn’t make the side look horribly dysfunctional, and this could be invaluable over the course of the campaign. Origi was introduced at Watford, and was anonymous: his squad position is undoubtedly under threat from the man who is looking more and more like a steal with each passing day.  

In short, the game largely confirmed what everyone already knew about Liverpool: the first team are very strong going forward, and the defence is a signing away from at least passing as competent, but beyond the regular eleven there is a worrying lack of depth. The problem has been highlighted by the joint absence of Lallana and Coutinho, which has left a midfield in dire need of a creative influence. Nonetheless, the overall result was a positive one: multiple young players continued to show that they can step up when called upon, and ultimately the three points vindicated Klopp’s decision to rest players for Hoffenheim’s visit.

- Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Kane and Lukaku: Can You Afford Not to Go Big?

At 12.5 and 11.5 million respectively, Kane and Lukaku represent two of the most premium forward options in this year’s FPL. The price tags are undoubtedly warranted, in that both have consistently scored freely over the past few seasons and both a
re now spearheading the attacks of teams in the top six. However, the prices clearly represent a huge investment – just getting one of them consumes over a tenth of the budget, and to have both requires almost a quarter of the allotted hundred million to go on just two players. Given that there are more viable mid-range forwards this season than in the past couple of years, is it actually essential to get at least one of these elite strikers into your team?

The answer actually lies in the midfield. This is where the savings from passing on Kane and Lukaku can be invested: my side currently features neither of the two strikers, and this has enabled me to field Alli, Salah and Mane together. All three of these players found the back of the net in Gameweek 1, meaning I was able to start off the campaign with a respectable 74-point return. The question thus becomes a relatively simple one: can three premium midfielders outscore both Kane and Lukaku? In the alternative, can two premium midfielders outscore one of Kane or Lukaku? This second query is not quite as black and white as it appears, in that by somewhat decimating the rest of the squad it is possible to shoehorn in one of Kane and Lukaku as well as two premium midfielders, making the battle for value a straight shootout between a premium midfielder and Kane or Lukaku. However, putting to one side this radical approach to balancing the budget, these are the questions that need to be addressed. At this stage in the season, they obviously cannot be answered definitively – those who do answer it correctly will have the key to success this year.
 
For the time being, my answer is that the premium midfielders are the way forward. Kane is not the only man at Spurs with a proven record of FPL returns – Alli has established himself as the consummate goal-scoring midfielder, and Eriksen has been returning good assist numbers for some time now. Both continued this trend in GW1, with the Dane notching two assists and Alli scoring the opener. Lukaku’s new club, too, showed signs of offering great midfield value: Mkhitaryan is cheap in the premium bracket at 8.0, and he returned two assists against West Ham. The clincher, however, is Liverpool. Salah and Mane are both playing in a front three where goals and assists are shared pretty much evenly – and there are plenty to go around. Just as Spurs picked up where they left off, Liverpool showcased all of their classic strengths and weaknesses on the opening weekend. The defence was shambolic as ever, but the attack looked even more lethal than last season; this is quite some feat given that the team is still waiting on the reintroduction of a creative midfielder into the middle of the park, be that Coutinho (transfer speculation) or Lallana (actual injury). The fluid, rapid front three are clearly capable of creating a lot of goals for themselves, but when normal service is resumed from the middle of the park the attacking returns will simply go through the roof. Coupled with Mkhitaryan or one of the Spurs midfielders, the dynamic duo of Salah and Mane in the FPL team is worth the sacrifice of abandoning Kane and Lukaku.

This is particularly true given the wealth of budget alternatives to Kane and Lukaku. Last year saw a real dearth of viable forward options, but this time around there seems to be a lot more choice. Just a small step down from the two mercurial strikers brings top players such as Lacazette and Jesus into the mix: the new Arsenal man scored after just two minutes and looked dangerous throughout, and Jesus blanked but was unlucky not to have about four. Further down the price list, great value may well be offered by the likes of Firmino, Benteke, Hernandez, Rashford or, based on Gameweek 1, maybe Mounie! None of these are likely to match Kane or Lukaku, but they should all be capable of providing steady returns which, coupled with the points of the premium midfielders, will be enough to make up for the absence of the Spurs and United forwards. Firmino got off to a very strong start, and is even more appealing now he seems to be on penalty duty. Benteke had a couple of good chances, and will surely start taking those kinds of opportunities before long. Rashford recorded an assist, and looked dangerous throughout with his direct running. Mounie, of course, shone on his debut with a brace to secure an unlikely 3-0 win for Huddersfield. Hernandez was disappointingly anonymous, but the strength of the opposition means that he can be cut some slack – West Ham will have to offer a lot more going forward in future matches if he is to remain a viable option, however.  Nonetheless, the point clearly stands that Kane and Lukaku do not stand alone as forwards who will all but guarantee decent returns: neither have reached 13/14 Suarez levels of must-have, and as such their cheaper understudies may be the way to go.

It is worth noting that even if heavy investment in the midfield does indeed turn out to be the better option, opting against Kane and Lukaku will make for a very long season. Gameweek 1 gave me a stark taste of what I’m letting myself in for: Spurs and Manchester United both played on the Sunday, so following a strong showing on Saturday I was left to watch on powerlessly as the two big hitters went out to determine if I would finish the week in the top 100k or outside the top million. In the end, one delivered and one did not –  Kane’s blank ensured I remained comfortably above the average, but Lukaku’s brace meant my ranking took a beating in the last game of the weekend. Cheering on blanks for two of the most prolific forwards in the league is not a fun existence – I may cave before long for the sake of my mental wellbeing! For now, though, it is exciting to see whether my sizeable risk will pay off: early signs are promising enough for me to conclude by cautiously suggesting that it is possible to get by without Kane or Lukaku.
-          James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Monday, 14 August 2017

Watford 3-3 Liverpool: Now or Never For FSG

Last season ended on a relatively optimistic note. Liverpool finished fourth, securing a place in the Champions League playoff round. The squad looked happy together. Names of multiple top-level targets were emerging. Fast forward to the first day of the new campaign, and the picture is much less pretty. Mohamed Salah is roundly acknowledged as a good addition, and the left-back deficiency of last season has been partially addressed through the signing of Andrew Robertson, but the same old flaws were undeniably present as Liverpool limped to a 3-3 draw with Watford. Two set piece goals only reiterated the desperate need for an aerially dominant central defender, and yet no progress has been made on bringing Virgil Van Dijk to Anfield. FSG told Klopp that the funds would be made available for his key targets, and yet blunders in the approach have seen Southampton stubbornly double down on their stance not to sell to us. Similarly, RB Leipzig have remained unmoved in the face of the club’s attempts to get priority target Naby Keita. This issue is only exacerbated by Coutinho’s desire to leave – despite their statement to the contrary, some emerging reports suggest that FSG are preparing to sell the Brazilian talisman. Klopp’s post-game comments could be seen to echo this sentiment. Coupled with Lallana’s absence through injury, the loss of Coutinho equates to a horrendous dearth of creativity in the middle of the park – this was clear for all to see at Vicarage Road. I have been a staunch backer of the owners for some time, but anything short of keeping Coutinho and bringing in at least one of Klopp’s two preferred players would be a clear indication that they do not have the requisite ambition to take this club forward.

A common argument in favour of FSG is that it is not lack of funds that is leading to transfer failures. This is probably true to an extent; it would be na├»ve to assume that the situation is black and white. However, in the vast majority of cases, there will come a point where an offer is simply too big to be turned down. Particularly in the case of Keita, it appears as though FSG have been unprepared to find that point – they made funds available up to what they considered reasonable, but not beyond that. Had Klopp identified a variety of targets, this would be fair enough. As it is, only a few quality targets have been lined up: given this, FSG can reasonably be expected to spend as much as it takes to get the manager the personnel he seeks. Furthermore, it would be wrong to assume that FSG are only responsible for finances – they cannot escape all criticism that does not relate to the availability of funds. As such, even though the Van Dijk move has been jeopardised more by tapping-up blunders than by costings, FSG cannot come out of it with no blame attached. By and large, they decide the club staffing structure – they have consistently decided against a dedicated Director of Football, and the lack of specialisation with regard to player acquisition has repeatedly led to big names slipping through the club’s fingers. In this instance, it has led to the shambolic apology purporting to end all interest in Van Dijk in order to avoid investigation by the Premier League. Fans cannot be expected to watch two set-piece goals fly in against them on the opening day of a new campaign and still unquestioningly cheer the team on: they have a right to demand that the obvious deficiencies are rectified, and at the moment it looks as though FSG’s ownership is jeopardising that rectification process.   

The situation with Coutinho raises just as many questions about what is going on behind the scenes. Again, it would be wrong to place all of the blame at FSG’s door – Coutinho himself has clearly made things difficult with the timing of his transfer request, and Barcelona are probably also guilty of a bit of tapping-up. Nonetheless, there is clearly something odd going on: FSG’s definitive statement that Coutinho is not for sale actually preceded his formal transfer request. The natural inference is that there was a horrible breakdown in communication between owners, club and player: it seems likely that the hard stance was not adequately relayed to Coutinho himself, who duly took matters into his own hands following the release of the statement. Now there is the question of whether the request changes that stance; it would be a significant climbdown from FSG if the Brazilian was sold, but some reports are suggesting that this is exactly what they intend to do. Klopp’s cryptic comments about certain things being beyond his control reinforced this idea. There is no point attacking FSG for something they may not be guilty of, but if Coutinho does end up leaving then their position as owners becomes untenable. He is the best player at the club, and the lethal front line that has been assembled is crying out for creative service from deep: Coutinho is the man to provide that service, and if he leaves now it will undo all the good work that has gone into the front three.

It would be grossly unfair not to acknowledge this good work – Salah, Firmino and Mane are a trio all signed under FSG’s tenure, and they are up there with the best in the league. As the latest addition, Salah is the biggest pro-FSG argument out there at the moment: they parted with a fair amount of money to bring him in, and he fits the profile of what the club needed. For this, they deserve credit. That said, it is worth noting that Salah represented something of a bargain in the current inflated market – his goal and assist returns in one of Europe’s top leagues could easily have warranted a price tag far beyond the £35 million paid. This is obviously a good thing, and the club should of course look to be prudent, but the reality is that sometimes an astronomical sum has to be spent to bring in what is needed. It would be a cruel irony if FSG’s failures to strengthen the defence and midfield rendered the excellent attacking recruitment pointless. They have three weeks to ensure that this does not happen.

It is clear what needs to be done. Good as they are, the front three can only carve out so many chances for themselves – they need a creative midfielder behind them, and it is therefore of paramount importance that FSG do not sanction the sale of Coutinho. Equally, the defensive record of the last few seasons, particularly on set pieces, is not acceptable: Virgil Van Dijk must be signed, or we will keep on shipping stupid amounts of goals to teams such as Watford. Finally, as Klopp’s number one target, Naby Keita must be pursued with even greater determination –  if it is what the manager wants, FSG effectively need to go to Leipzig with a blank cheque. Achieving two of these three things would be enough to stave off my growing concerns about the owners; anything less, and I can no longer view their time in charge as acceptable.
- James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013