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.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Alberto Moreno: Now or Never

With his baby face and boyish charm, you would be forgiven for still thinking of Alberto Moreno as Liverpool’s promising, exciting young prospect from Sevilla. In reality, he is twenty-five: gone are the days when he could be legitimately thought of in those terms. There is no exact science to when a player enters their prime, of course, but give or take a couple of years Moreno should be approaching his peak. It is therefore a pivotal time for him, both in terms of his place in the Liverpool squad and his career as a whole – he has the raw attributes to be one of the best, but the clock is ticking in his quest to achieve that goal.

The Spanish left-back was born and bred in Seville – he lived there throughout his childhood, much of which was spent in Sevilla’s academy. He was picked up following victory with Spain in the Danone Nations Cup, an international tournament for children aged ten to twelve. It is unsurprising that the La Liga side looked to nurture the talent in Moreno: he is blessed with blistering pace and surprising strength, meaning he was always going to be a good bet to make it as a full-back. Sure enough, he graduated to Sevilla Atletico – the reserve side – while still a teenager. It did not prove too big a step up for the local boy: he netted an impressive four times from thirty games in his debut season, a highly respectable return that firmly established him as a marauding kind of defender. Indeed, coach Ramon Tejada sometimes utilised Moreno as an attacker to harness and hone his clear prowess going forward. He also looked generally good defensively, although there were a few question marks surrounding his disciplinary record.  

Nonetheless, his form was enough to earn him an opportunity with the first team before too long. Still only 19, he made his debut in 2012, coming on as a substitute in a 1-0 defeat to Athletic Bilbao. He made fifteen further appearances in the 2012/13 season, twelve of which were starts – given that the fire sale at Sevilla was not until the following summer, it was highly impressive that Moreno was able to secure a spot in the senior side so rapidly. He was no doubt helped by Antonio Luna’s loan move away in the second half of the campaign, but this should not detract from the quality of his performances: he impressed enough to make Spain’s squad for the u21 European Championships.

It was here that he truly exploded into the continent’s footballing consciousness. He played all but one game in Israel as Spain defended their title, only missing a meaningless match against The Netherlands after qualification from the group had already been secured. His performances earned him a place in the Team of the Tournament: he was a genuine stand-out player, which is no mean feat considering he was playing alongside a host of future stars such as Alvaro Morata, David De Gea, Dani Carvajal, Koke, Thiago and Isco. The score-line of 4-2 in the final against Italy perhaps hinted at some weaknesses in his defensive game, but he did contribute to a respectable three clean sheets; one of these came against a strong Germany side, featuring Moreno’s future teammate Emre Can. Such was the level of his performances, he was named in the provisional 30-man squad for the 2014 World Cup – Carvajal and Koke were the only other two outfielders from the u21s to make it to this list.

Despite making his first senior international appearance in the final qualifier against Georgia, Moreno did not make it to the final 23-man squad for the tournament in Brazil. This, however, was not a comment on his club progression but on the level of competition for places in the Spain squad. The 2013/14 season was a breakthrough one at Sevilla: Moreno was the undisputed first-choice at left-back, and continued to put in eye-catching performances on the way to a Europa League triumph.

It was on the back of this that Moreno, then 22, got his move to Anfield. Liverpool had just come agonisingly close to glory of their own, falling excruciatingly short of their first Premier League title. A clear weakness in the title push was left-back, a slot which had been filled by Aly Cissokho: the Moreno transfer was therefore met with excitement and enthusiasm amongst fans. His start did nothing to dampen these expectations; his debut came in a 3-1 loss to Manchester City, but he followed this up with an exceptional individual effort during a 3-0 dismantling of Tottenham. It was the kind of run that evidenced his occasional outings as an attacker at youth level – following a strong challenge to dispossess Andros Townsend he powered up the pitch, leaving the winger for dead and finishing unerringly into the corner before Kaboul could get across to cover.

As was almost inevitable for a young player upon whom the fans had placed so much expectation, things did not continue in such excellent fashion. The obvious attacking talent remained clear for all to see, but the old defensive frailties increasingly began to frustrate the Liverpool faithful. In particular, his positioning came under a fair amount of scrutiny. He was far from the only one leaving the fans feeling flat, however: the whole team underperformed, only managing a sixth-place finish.

Despite the setback, Moreno entered the 2015/16 season as the clear first choice. This in itself was an achievement of sorts for a young man still learning his trade – nonetheless, the campaign ended in the nadir of the Spaniard’s Liverpool career. Things on the domestic front were worse than ever: Liverpool limped to a catastrophic eigth-placed finish. They had the chance for redemption, however, in the form of the Europa League final. It offered the tantalising prospect of a return to the Champions League, and a first trophy for new boss Jurgen Klopp. Who were the only team standing in their way? Sevilla. This was the kind of irresistible personal narrative that football so often seems to create, and on this occasion the story did not end well for Moreno. All was going to plan in the first half, with a lovely strike from Daniel Sturridge giving Liverpool the lead, but the second half saw the English outfit collapse to a 3-1 defeat. Moreno played a significant part in this capitulation. His head did not seem in the right place against his former club, and he ended the season out of favour with both fans and management.

This was made clear by Klopp’s choice to convert James Milner into a left-back ahead of the 16/17 campaign. At a time when he would have been hoping to flourish, Moreno was relegated firmly to second-choice. This did shore things up at the back to some extent, and Liverpool belatedly got their Champions League spot courtesy of a top four finish. Following this, the club invested in bringing Andy Robertson in from Hull – this appeared to spell the end for Moreno.

Not so. The scrappy Spaniard refused to accept that his Liverpool career was over, and Klopp was more than happy to keep him on the books over the summer. Robertson’s arrival has actually worked in favour of Moreno: having two designated left-backs at the club has allowed Klopp to take Milner effectively out of contention in that position, leaving Moreno and Robertson to compete for the spot. It seems as though both will be given opportunities over the course of a long season fighting on multiple fronts: Moreno has established himself as the first-choice for the time-being.

Happy ending? That still remains to be seen. Moreno has won over the boss again, and also has a fair portion of the fans backing him once more. He appears to have matured; he reflected candidly upon the infamous Sevilla game in a recent interview, noting that everyone has bad games and must look to grow from them. This maturity is at least partly reflected in his play – the marauding runs that endeared him to the fans in the first place remain, but the defending is perhaps a little less kamikaze than it once was. Nonetheless, many remain unconvinced: although a lot of the problems down the left side can be attributed to Lovren, it is hard to deny that Moreno continues to play a part in the defensive frailties of the team.

At twenty-five, it seems naïve to just confidently state that defensive nous will come with experience. He has made some improvements in that area, but there comes a point where it needs to be accepted that Moreno simply isn’t a defensive full-back. Moreno and his club must embrace the fact that he occasionally leaves something to be desired on the defensive front, acknowledging that the trade-off is what makes him arguably the best attacking left-back in the league. His pace is simply staggering – there are very few who could consistently provide overlapping runs for Mane as he does. He can finish, too: the Spurs game was where he first showed it in Liverpool colours, but his goal record has been good for a defender throughout his career. Questions can sometimes be raised about his decision-making in the final third, but when he does opt to pick a pass or cross it generally finds its mark. The trouble is that this all gets overlooked when his prowess at that end of the pitch is the very thing that sometimes leaves a Moreno-sized hole at the back, much to the frustration of the fans.

What, then, is to be done? One of two things needs to happen in order to earn Moreno the plaudits he is more than capable of receiving. The first (and less radical) option is for Liverpool to buy a highly capable left-sided centre-back: this is something the fans are crying out for in any case, and the ongoing interest in Virgil Van Dijk suggests it could be on the cards in the near future. Such a player would provide the cover to allow Moreno to bomb forward with total freedom, safe in the knowledge that he can leave a gap from time to time without being punished for it. This would allow him to unleash his full range of attacking talents, and would see him earn the recognition he deserves as an elite player going forwards. The second option is one that sadly could not be pursued at Liverpool: conversion into a winger. The presence of Mane, Salah and Oxlade-Chamberlain makes the idea a non-starter at his current club, but elsewhere he could thrive if deployed further up the pitch. The comparisons to Bale, who also left much to be desired defensively when used as a full-back, are irresistible – that is not to say that Moreno could find himself at Real Madrid within the next couple of years, but he has all the underlying attributes for a similar sort of transformation.

As a Liverpool fan, I hope the first route is the one taken. The club have a very good player on their hands in Alberto Moreno, and if he keeps working hard and is provided with a competent central defender on his side he is capable of excelling in the Premier League. He could yet become the player we all thought he might end up being when that ball hit the back of the Spurs net.

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Thursday, 14 September 2017

Liverpool 2-2 Sevilla: Frustrating Result, But Plenty of Positives

Liverpool’s long-awaited return to the Champions League failed to live up to the hopes of the fans, as the team slipped to a 2-2 draw at home to Sevilla in the opening group game. Sadly, however, it probably did live up to expectations: the hosts dominated, but defensive frailties were once again exploited. This has become an all-too familiar story, despite Klopp having plenty of time to rectify it: the frustration of another two points lost through abject defending clouds the positives from what was in many respects an excellent showing.

Liverpool started the stronger of the two sides; Mane and Salah both found themselves in one-vs-one situations against their full-backs within the first few minutes, neither of whom looked comfortable dealing with the pace and trickery of the Liverpool wide men. However, it was the Spanish side who opened the scoring with their first attack of the game – lack of defensive assertiveness from the midfield allowed the ball to find its way over to the flank all too easily, and Lovren comprehensively failed to deal with the subsequent ball across the face of goal. Ben Yedder was on hand to turn the ball home. Karius, whose selection ahead of Mignolet raised some eyebrows, couldn’t have done anything: it was those in front of him left with serious questions to answer.

The attackers certainly did their best to answer these questions, or at least make up for the defence’s inability to answer them. They looked in scintillating form, and it felt as though it was only a matter of time before Liverpool drew level. Sure enough, Klopp’s men equalised in the 21st minute: Henderson worked it wide to Moreno, who squared it delightfully for Firmino to turn home. The left-back was excellent throughout the game against his former club, particularly going forward – he and Mane looked a constant threat to Mercado, who picked up a yellow trying to stop them and was lucky not to see a second. It was the other side, though, that brought the goal to give Liverpool the lead. Mo Salah showed great tenacity to dispossess Steven N’Zonzi. It was probably a foul, but he played to the whistle and reaped his reward: he pulled the trigger and his shot deflected wildly of Simon Kjaer and into the back of the net. It was a freak goal, but no less than the performance deserved. Indeed, it probably warranted more – Firmino had the chance to give Liverpool a two-goal lead from the spot heading into the break following a blatant foul on Mane, but the Brazilian struck the post.

This proved costly. Things didn’t come quite as easily for the hosts in the second period – the wide men were not nullified as such, but Sevilla had certainly adjusted to limit their threat. They continued to knock on the door, and in truth still looked the better side, but there was always a nagging feeling that not getting the third would be a problem. Such is the effect of having a mediocre defence: confidence in seeing out a lead is an alien feeling to Liverpool fans. Sure enough, Sevilla found a way through in the 72nd minute: Henderson lost his man, Lovren and Matip were too far apart and the ball was slotted through the gap and into the path of Correa. He made no mistake past the once-again helpless Karius.  There were a couple of subsequent extremely nervous moments, made no easier by the late dismissal of Joe Gomez, but the game ended 2-2.

A point on the board against the toughest opponents in the group is far from tragic, particularly given the 1-1 draw in the game between Spartak and Maribor. Equally, the performance was a long way from bad: the attacking build-up play was thrilling to watch, with the final ball or finish the only thing lacking on many occasions. This can be worked on in training, and will also improve once Coutinho is fully reintegrated to the starting eleven – once this begins to click, we could be looking at a truly lethal attacking force. However, even while heaping praise on the attack, the shadow of the defence looms: they are seemingly beyond help on the training ground, which begs the question of why on earth Klopp did not recruit upgrades in the summer window. Lovren is sometimes unfairly vilified, but this was not one of those occasions: he turned in an abject performance which undoubtedly contributed to dropping two points. Van Dijk would have been an ideal solution, but he was surely not the only one – thrilled as most fans are to have Klopp at the helm, he cannot escape criticism for this frankly bewildering oversight. Matip, on the other hand, had a good game – it was an archetypal ball-playing centre-back display, and in truth he was a more effective playmaker than most of the midfield. This does not apply to Wijnaldum, who came up with undoubtedly his best performance of a season that has been underwhelming up to this point.

Clearly, then, there were lots of positives. The attack is genuinely capable of becoming one of the best front threes in world football, and the midfield has players who on their day are all capable of offering admirable support to the build-up play. The defence is still a centre-back short of even being considered competent, however: having failed to recruit once again, it is hard to see how this changes before January. This leaves a very bitter taste from a performance that, in truth, was not bad at all.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

De Boerexit Means De Boerexit, but Will Palace Make a Success of it?

After just four games of the Premier League season, Crystal Palace’s Frank De Boer has become the first managerial casualty. A record of played four, lost four, scored none does not make comfortable reading for the Dutchman, but it is nonetheless staggering how quickly the Palace board have opted to pull the trigger. Roy Hodgson is being touted as heavy favourite to take over; aside from shared managerial stints at Inter Milan, the two coaches could hardly be more different. That he is their go-to replacement suggests Palace were never all that invested in rebranding their style of play – De Boer may well feel in hindsight that he was doomed from the start – but the appointment of the one-time England boss could nonetheless prove successful for the London outfit.

Many failed relationships have ‘compatibility issues’ cited as the reason for the breakdown, and in the case of Palace and De Boer this rings true. The Dutch tactician built his considerable success at Ajax around possession – they dominated by stroking the ball around with precision and purpose, transitioning seamlessly from one phase of play to another. How, then, must he have felt upon first walking into the dressing room and seeing the likes of McArthur, Tomkins and Benteke staring back at him? All are good players in their own right, but to ask them to make up the spine of a De Boer team is absurd. Still, the manager was brought in before pre-season had begun: there was clearly time to mould the squad a little more into his image and likeness. However, it appears that the powers that be lacked the inclination, or perhaps the resources, to do so: Mamadou Sakho and Jairo Riedewald were the only permanent additions to the squad. Both of these are good defensive additions, particularly Sakho, and both are far more ball-playing than any of the centre-backs already at the club. Nevertheless, they are not transformative. Riedewald was not a definite starter in De Boer’s brief reign, and Sakho may not even have been a choice of the manager; the former Liverpool man had enjoyed a successful loan spell at the club in the latter half of last season, and following this the club board were set on getting him. In a Trump-esque tweet storm, club chairman Steve Parish admitted that acquiring Sakho blew most of the budget – if this is indeed the case, De Boer was left stranded with a squad completely incapable of executing his philosophy. This was damaging to both club and manager: Parish will need a lot more than 140 characters to explain himself.

Given all of this, the sacking actually appears to be a sensible decision. Granted, it is the first good call in a string of terrible ones by the Palace hierarchy, but it was probably wise to step in now and attempt damage limitation rather than persevere with a manager they never equipped with the tools to succeed. Hodgson as the replacement places a considerable ceiling on the ambitions of the team, having proved at Liverpool and then at England that he is utterly useless when entrusted with any squad even vaguely capable of challenging for trophies, but he is more likely to succeed with the current squad than De Boer was. Prior to his catastrophic spell on Merseyside he had impressed with Fulham, and his poor showing with England was preceded by a solid stint with West Brom – it must be conceded that he has some expertise in taking relegation-threatened squads to mid-table safety. This will hardly enamour Palace fans, but priorities must surely have shifted to staying up after the sacking of De Boer brought the sorry attempt at a rebrand to an abrupt end. Hodgson is not one for the future at the ripe old age of seventy, but he has as good a chance as any of steadying the ship: if he does this, Palace can try properly investing in a progressive vision in a year or two. For the time-being, Benteke represents an ideal focal point for a coach who is essentially a relic of a bygone era. Combined with traditional wingers in the shape of Zaha and Townsend, the materials are all there for Hodgson to create a goal-scoring outfit that can stay afloat in the top flight.

All that said, Hodgson essentially represents admitting defeat for Palace. The best he can achieve with the squad is good damage limitation, as opposed to positive steps for the future – with De Boer the club had a chance to put building blocks in place going forward, but the chance was comprehensively blown. The board was right to let De Boer go, but for all the wrong reasons: Palace can now only hope that Hodgson does well as a stopgap, and that another promising coach is waiting to join them on the other side. If the board are fortunate enough to see this come to pass, then they must fully invest in the new man – a lesson learned is perhaps the only potential positive to come out of this sorry saga.
-          James Martin (@JamesMartin013)

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Time to Get Behind Coutinho

There is a lot of ill-feeling towards Philippe Coutinho in the Liverpool fan base at the moment. This is completely understandable: the manner in which he pursued his dream move was unprofessional and potentially damaging to the club at an important time. However, some empathy is surely needed – there are very few players who would not push for a move if Barcelona came calling, and it was only Liverpool’s hard stance that forced him to the extremes of not playing. The argument could be made that this stance was unfair to the player; he has contributed a lot to the team over the past three and a half seasons, and I felt that he deserved to be allowed to go once a reasonable bid was received. Of course, he has a long-term contract, and FSG were well within their rights to point to such a recently-signed 5-year deal; the same is true of Van Dijk, however, and Liverpool fans’ outrage at his desire to move is suspiciously lacking. That said, I’m thrilled that Coutinho is staying, not least because the club’s record at replacing key men in recent years is patchy at best. Now it’s important for the fans to get behind him.

The dislike for his attitude, coupled with Liverpool’s relative success in his absence, has led some fans to play down the importance of Coutinho to the team. This is simply revisionism: he is the best player at the club. Mane is catching him rapidly, but for the time being the Brazilian playmaker is on a level of his own. His vision unlocks defences that nobody else can break down, and the creativity he injects into the midfield three is vital to the long-term success of the team. Furthermore, he is the most capable of producing a ‘moment of magic’ to swing a tight game – Klopp has assembled an attacking unit which contributes (and scores) remarkably equally, but Coutinho is the most capable of winning points on his own.  Talk of leaving him ‘rotting in the reserves’ is frankly absurd – why hang on so determinedly to a prized asset only to refuse to utilise him? Rather he should be unleashed on opponents as soon as possible: our attack has already notched eight in three Premier League games, and it is frightening to think what they could do with Coutinho providing them service.

Such a lethal combination could go on to big things this season, both domestically and in Europe. Particularly given Barcelona’s apparent decline, who can say what Coutinho will want to do next summer? One thing is for sure: regardless of how much the club progresses, he will not want to stay at Liverpool if the fans are on his back all season. At a time where it feels as if seismic shift is taking place amongst the European elite, Liverpool need to be attracting rather than repelling top talent in order to stand a chance of filling the power vacuum and re-establishing themselves as a dominant club force. To this end, fans must try to put this unfortunate transfer saga behind them: loyalty in football is an extreme rarity in the modern game, and as long as Coutinho continues to perform on the pitch he is just as worthy of support as the rest of the team. 

I can still understand why some supporters are unwilling to forgive him. Nonetheless, the form that some of the criticism has taken is unpleasant. Neymar’s comment that Coutinho was in “a moment of great sadness” was met with derision – many seemed angry that he dare be unhappy when he earns so much money. This is clearly nonsense; his wealth does not guarantee him happiness, and by extension his sadness is not illegitimate purely because he gets paid a lot. Some of the abuse has also highlighted the toxic masculinity particularly prevalent in football: Coutinho was visibly emotional during Brazil’s win over Ecuador, and the manner and form of the insults that followed was ugly.  It’s a personal decision whether or not to get behind him, but ignorant insults are far more worthy of criticism than wanting to move to Barcelona.

To sum up, I would strongly advocate getting fully behind Coutinho. He has given a lot to this club, it was natural for him to want to move, and although he went about trying to do this in a less-than-ideal fashion he remains a world class player who we want to perform well for us. It would be self-destructive to potentially prevent him from flourishing. Even if you can’t bring yourself to back him, at least be wary that the form of your criticism doesn’t say more about you than it does him.

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013