Sunday, 26 November 2017

Liverpool 1-1 Chelsea: Post-Match Analysis

A familiar feeling descended upon Liverpool fans as Willian’s failed cross looped over Mignolet and into the back of the net. Once again, a combination of lack of composure and sheer bad luck had served to deny the hosts all three points; the end result was no doubt respectable, but the all-too-common circumstances in which the win slipped away make it hard to appreciate the value of a point. Nonetheless, there are certainly positives to be taken – Klopp’s men were five minutes away from getting a win against the champions while resting two of the team’s key players, suggesting that the squad is finally equipped to handle the congested winter fixture list. Moreover, the league table reveals that Liverpool remain firmly in the hunt for a Champions League spot – anything from second to sixth is realistically up for grabs, with the teams occupying those positions moving amongst themselves almost weekly, and this is likely to remain the case for essentially the entirety of the campaign.

The team selection for this big game certainly raised a few eyebrows. There was consensus that Mane and Firmino could benefit from a rest – Mane has twice been thrown back into action off the back of injuries, and Firmino’s role in Klopp’s team necessarily results in vast amounts of energy being expended. However, most would have expected the rotation options to be called upon in midweek against Sevilla; the upcoming game against Stoke would have provided an equally ample opportunity. Ultimately, though, it can only be a good thing that the manager now feels he has squad players who can realistically be trusted in even the most important games. One would hope, having spent forty-million pounds on Oxlade-Chamberlain and blocked a move away from Anfield for Sturridge, that there would be no complaints when the two actually get picked. The complaints that were voiced in respect of Oxlade-Chamberlain were quickly silenced – he started brightly, and continued in this vein throughout the match. He refused to allow Chelsea’s back line much time on the ball, and when he was able to win it back he used it well. Just as satisfying as his bursting runs were his decisions on occasion to shift the ball infield; it was his most mature, composed performance since joining from Arsenal. This was rewarded with an assist – he helped to finally break the deadlock midway through the second half by instinctively poking the ball through to Mo Salah, who did what he has been doing for fun ever since joining and stuck it in the back of the net.

Sturridge was not quite as emphatic in his silencing of the doubters – it wasn’t necessarily a bad performance, and indeed only an excellent Azpilicueta block denied him a goal to double the lead, but the absence of Firmino was marked. Salah was seldom found in space; he was forced to engineer it for himself, rather than relying on the movement of the centre-forward to open things up. On multiple occasions the Egyptian spun past Cahill with ease, only to find more bodies ready to get between him and the goal – Sturridge’s lack of intelligent movement is at least partly to blame for this. As ever, this comes with the disclaimer that Sturridge’s class remains beyond question – the questions about whether he can genuinely play a role in Klopp’s system, however, are becoming ever more pressing (excuse the pun).

The more immediately concerning problems were to be found in midfield. Milner, Henderson and Coutinho were deployed in a central three; this naturally took the form of a double-pivot in reality, with Coutinho drifting around further up the pitch. The protection offered to the defence was virtually non-existent – Henderson failed to follow up from his poor showing in Sevilla with a convincing display here, and was bypassed as if he wasn’t there on multiple occasions. Milner was even worse; Henderson is at least fairly reliable in possession, but the ex-City man subjected Liverpool to near-relentless pressure in certain spells through his failure to retain the ball. Coutinho, too, is not free of blame – in the first half he flatly refused to track back a lot of the time. This is obviously not his primary duty, but he should have taken some responsibility for limiting the space in which the Chelsea forwards could operate. Hazard in particular needed to be tracked a little more diligently – the Belgian was given the space to excel in the first half, and in fairness he looked exceptional. Indeed, Coutinho’s second half showing illustrated the importance of his defensive contributions; he started to get back a little more, and this coincided with significantly fewer chances for the visitors until the final twenty minutes.

It was in this final period that Liverpool were undone, as they had been against Sevilla. Unlike the Champions League game, it was not a complete self-destruction; Klopp’s side were undoubtedly guilty of backing off too much, and of abandoning much of the composure and discipline on the ball that they had exercised prior to scoring, but it was ultimately a mishit cross that gave Chelsea their breakthrough. It would be ridiculous to assign any genuine blame – the cross came in from Moreno’s side, but he was not really at fault. In fact, on the whole, the Spaniard responded excellently to his disastrous showing against his former club: he dealt admirably with what was at times a barrage down his left flank. It simply wasn’t to be for Liverpool. Such strokes of luck cannot be legislated for; whilst there are undoubtedly ways in which the team could have managed their lead more effectively, which absolutely need to be addressed going forward, their undoing was just a fluke in the end.

Where does this leave the team? It is a case of having to just move on, and do so quickly; the game against Stoke is looming on the horizon, and a win is important to get back on track following two disappointing draws. The players will surely take heart from the fact that the point has not left them in a dire position by any stretch of the imagination; the table accurately reflects that City have been dominant and the chasing pack have been much of a muchness. The battle for the top four will be a long one, and Liverpool will be encouraged by the fact that on most days they will not be faced with crosses that fly into the top corner.

- Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

No Kane, No Lukaku, No Problems? 12-Week Update

In a season preview piece for, I challenged the orthodoxy that at least one of Kane and Lukaku – preferably both - was a must-have in any fantasy team. The savings that could be invested elsewhere, I argued, were such that the lost points on the two big-name strikers could be recouped from other players in other positions. Despite being asked by literally nobody to persist with this experiment, my stubbornness dictated that I would be going as much of the season as I could bear without purchasing either of these two elite forwards; twelve gameweeks in, with my early wildcard a distant memory, Kane and Lukaku remain conspicuous only by their absence.

How has this strategy been holding up? Somewhat inevitably, it has led to frankly ridiculous swings in ranking from week to week. The success in any given gameweek is dictated just as much by Kane and Lukaku as it is by the eleven I have selected; a blank by one or both of them sends me shooting up the rankings, but the pair of them hitting their stride simultaneously spells disaster. This is evidenced by the mammoth discrepancies in my monthly positions. August saw Kane’s obligatory barren spell – combined with some prolific scoring from my alternative investments, notably the Liverpool trio of Mane, Salah and Firmino, this fired me up to 16,118th for the month. At this point, I may or may not have been guilty of some fairly smug tweets. September punished me cruelly for this; it got off to an inauspicious start when I handed the armband to Mane only for him to get sent off, and it didn’t get much better from there. Kane and Lukaku ascended to the top of the race for the golden boot, Liverpool stalled badly, and Wenger went through a phase of inexplicable reluctance to give Lacazette consistent minutes: this utterly derailed my progress, resulting in a final monthly ranking of 4,678,952nd. I didn’t know there were that many FPL players. October was slightly less disastrous, although still far from successful. Salah’s consistent returns and a couple of good Jesus captaincies only sometimes sufficed to keep pace with the duo I was now firmly committed not to employ; a monthly finish around the 2.8 million mark was technically progress, but hardly a ringing endorsement of my strategy.

Naturally, I headed into November an extremely disheartened manager. Flashbacks to my first proper season of the game, where I stubbornly refused to accept that Yaya Toure would continue to score so well, haunted my every waking moment; history was repeating itself on an even more gratuitously self-destructive scale, and I was already drafting an optimistic claim against Fantasy YIRMA for lost mini-league earnings. However, so far, it has been a kind month – the pendulum has swung firmly back in my favour, as Kane has stalled badly and my alternatives have finally stepped up in a way that had been disappointingly lacking since August. I sit inside the top 320k for the month, an effort that has sufficed to finally drag me back inside the overall top million. De Bruyne and Jesus deserve honourable mentions, but it is Mohamed Salah that takes the bulk of the credit; without Kane and Lukaku to tempt me I have captained him in every game this month, and he has rewarded me without fail.

This gives some idea of the volatility of a team without Kane or Lukaku. Certainly I have seen enough to substantiate a claim that shunning the pair of them is a defensible option; it magnifies the rewards when those picked as their differential alternatives deliver, leading to huge jumps up the leaderboards. However, for it to pan out as the best strategy across the course of the season, the alternative picks have to be consistently on the money. Kane and Lukaku will inevitably score in most weeks – this is why conventional wisdom dictates they are necessities – and when this coincides with quieter games from other premium options it can lead to staggeringly poor gameweeks. If they fall back-to-back, it can be crippling. The likelihood of this is increased by the lack of nailed-on starting strikers in other top teams; Jesus and Lacazette have both been left out one too many times to please somebody on my strategy. Firmino has been a regular for Liverpool – ultimately his lower price has been reflected in his returns, however, and his steady numbers are far from ideal when he is used as a Kane or Lukaku replacement. The natural alternative is Morata; he picked up an injury at a time where I really needed him to deliver, but this was bad luck as much as anything else and he probably represents one of the better attacking options from here on in.

The issues with the bold strategy are exacerbated by the emergence of relatively consistent scorers from the budget category, such as Watford’s exciting talent Richarlison. It is a price bracket that Kane and Lukaku owners inevitably have to turn to at some point; when there are options there that post numbers in keeping with the premium midfielders who are taking up my saved money, it poses a serious problem. Over the course of the full campaign, it seems likely that De Bruyne, Mane and others in a similar bracket will pull firmly away – they will need to do so by a substantial margin, however, if the pouring of the Kane-and-Lukaku savings into my midfield is going to pay off. The only upshot of the emergence of such options from the perspective of my strategy is that I too can avail myself of these players, and consequently take a punt on one of the aforementioned expensive strikers with question marks over game time. It is less of a tragedy when Jesus only gets twenty minutes if I know that the entirety of the rest of my team, as opposed to just the premium options, are capable of picking up the slack; nonetheless, on the whole, the success of a number of budget midfielders makes the strategy harder to execute.  

In summary, life without Kane and Lukaku is utter chaos. It does not lend itself to consistency, nor to middle-of-the-road gameweeks: things either go excellently or terribly, and the way it swings is just as dependent on those who have not been selected as it is on those who have been chosen. There is promise in the strategy, and a better manager than me could have deployed it to greater effect by doing a more successful job of consistently selecting the high-scoring alternative premium investments, but it is nevertheless undeniable that failing to pick Kane and Lukaku is bound to lead to something of an uphill battle at times. It is a battle I enjoy, however, and you can be sure that I will blindly plough on with it regardless of how many more times I plumb new rankings depths. 

Monday, 13 November 2017

Alvaro Arbeloa: The Journey Back to the Bernabeu

"Madrid is the club of my life, I will never call to ask for a job, but I am always available to offer myself”. These were the parting words of Alvaro Arbeloa as he announced that he was hanging up his boots, following an ultimately disappointing final season in the game with West Ham United. It was fitting that he should pledge fealty to Los Blancos even as he left his playing career behind him; the Spanish giants shaped the whole direction of his career, and it was with them that he won all that could be won.

Arbeloa’s first steps on his footballing journey were taken to the north-east of the capital, in the city of Zaragoza. His family moved there when he was four years old – he joined the academy as a thirteen-year-old, and stayed there for the majority of his teenage years. The crowning moment of his time there came in his final season: he helped the team to a 1-0 victory over Barcelona in the Copa del Rey Juvenil. At the time, the likes of Andres Iniesta and Victor Valdes featured for the Catalan club’s youth outfit; victory was a great achievement, and it was in no small part down to Arbeloa’s endeavour. A local match report from the time described the “enormous physical exertion” expended by the back line in order to preserve the clean sheet – this scrappiness and determination, by no means a given in those brought up in the Spanish culture where technique is everything, has been one of Arbeloa’s great strengths throughout his career. His performance helped to turn the heads of Barcelona’s great rivals.

In 2001, he made the move into Real Madrid’s youth ranks. By this point he was nearing eighteen, and was duly shifted up into the Real Madrid C team shortly after arriving. Again, his stay was not a long one; he impressed over the course of his 16 appearances in the 2002/03 season, and moved up for the second time in quick succession to join Real Madrid Castilla. It would prove harder to earn promotion to the senior side. From 2003 to 2006, Arbeloa racked up 84 appearances for the B team – for most of this period the first team remained a distant dream. This was no criticism of the full-back’s ability: the main squad was simply saturated with world class players, and Arbeloa’s talents would have had to be positively mercurial in order for him to displace club stalwart Michel Salgado.

Arbeloa was eventually handed a small taste of first team action, coming on as a substitute in a draw against Real Betis in the 2004/05 season. By the start of the 2006/07 season, however, it was apparent to both player and club that Arbeloa’s opportunities would be highly restricted if he stayed in the capital. The emergence of Sergio Ramos, who had succeeded where Arbeloa failed in taking the place of Salgado, meant competition was more fierce than ever: a move to Deportivo La Coruna was arranged. The player was clearly uncomfortable leaving the club he had grown to love over the course of his five years there, describing it as “a strange situation” but acknowledging that “something had to give” as a result of the number of defenders in the squad. At his new club, Arbeloa was finally given his chance – he played twenty-one games in the first half of the season, and instantly began to attract attention.

Indeed, his spell with Deportivo would prove to be a very short one. On the January deadline day, Liverpool moved for Arbeloa. Fellow Spaniard Rafa Benitez wanted to bolster his options: by this point Steve Finnan was 30, and Arbeloa was touted in some quarters as his replacement. However, it was at left-back where Arbeloa was handed his full debut, against none other than Real Madrid’s fiercest rivals. This time around, he had even more to deal with than Iniesta and Valdes: a certain 19-year-old Argentinian forward had burst on to the scene, and Arbeloa was tasked with dealing with him. The thinking was that the full-back’s discipline, combined with his strong right side, would help to nullify Messi’s magical left foot – to the extent that anyone is ever able to keep Messi quiet, it worked very well. The team won 2-1 on the night, and were able to limit Barcelona to one goal in the second leg at Anfield: they progressed on away goals.

This certainly helped to endear him to the Liverpool fans, and indeed to the manager – he remained a utility option across the back four for the remainder of the season, and only featured as a late substitute in the Champions League final defeat to AC Milan, but by the following campaign he was established as a first-team full-back. He made more league appearances than both Finnan and Riise, and impressed in a fairly understated manner. He was never one to maraud forward, and his lovely curling strike against Reading in early 2007 ended up being one of just two goals he scored for the club, but he was defensively dependable and showed admirable grit and determination. He played his part in limiting Liverpool’s goals conceded to just 28 and 27 in 2007/08 and 2008/09 respectively – in the latter, the team went very close to winning the league title. This did not prevent a very public falling-out with Jamie Carragher in a match against West Bromwich Albion: the centre-back took issue with Arbeloa’s handling of a defensive situation, but the Spaniard gave as good as he got and the two had to be separated by teammates. It was somewhat farcical, but ultimately it was fuelled by two players determined to make sure that the team succeeded – there aren’t many that would stand their ground in the face of a Carragher tirade, and Arbeloa’s passion is part of what makes him a popular figure amongst the Anfield faithful to this day.

At the end of this campaign, having made 98 appearances for Liverpool, Arbeloa left the club. Glen Johnson had been brought in, sparking speculation about the Spaniard’s future, and he was duly given permission to re-join Real Madrid. This was a special moment for Arbeloa, who three years earlier had been considered surplus to requirements. He spoke of his pride, saying “when you leave the club with the feeling of not being able to be in the first team, you know that it's very difficult to return, so for me, when this opportunity presented itself, my first objective was to take it and fortunately I'm here." It was indeed fortunate, both for the player and the club: Arbeloa immediately became a regular, albeit once again on the left side of defence for a lot of the time. It was a disappointing season for the team – Real were pipped to the title by Barcelona, and exited both the Champions League and Copa del Rey at the round of 16 stage – but on a personal level Arbeloa was impressive. His form cemented his place in Spain’s squad at the 2010 World Cup.  As he had done at club level so many years earlier, Sergio Ramos frustrated his chances of regular minutes; just like at the Euros two years before, Arbeloa was limited to one appearance in the group stages. Nonetheless, by the end of the tournament the full-back had both a European Cup and World Cup to his name: to even make the twenty-three-man squad in Spain’s golden era was a massive achievement, and he deserves recognition for it.

The trophy rush carried over into Arbeloa’s club career. The 2010/11 season saw victory in the Copa del Ray, although the league title narrowly eluded them once again. It was also the campaign where Arbeloa finally got what he had been striving for since turning professional: regular minutes at right-back for Real Madrid. Sergio Ramos made the transition into the middle, allowing Arbeloa to slot into his natural position. This setup became firmly established, and endured into the 2011/12 season. This time, finally, the team overcame Barcelona to win the league: yet another personal triumph over the Catalans meant Arbeloa could add La Liga to his rapidly-growing list of honours. He was rewarded with a new long-term contract at the end of the season.

However, his time as a regular was coming to an end. The re-signature of Dani Carvajal meant that Arbeloa was once again locked out of the first team, but he resisted calls from the media for his departure. He was at the club he loved, and wanted to stay and help in any way he could. The fans, who like the Liverpool faithful before them had warmed to Arbeloa’s spirit and fight as well as his ability, were more than happy to get behind him in a bit-part role. It was in this capacity that he finally won the Champions League in 2014, watching from the bench as his team went one better than he was able to do with Liverpool seven years previously. This was yet another addition to a remarkable personal trophy haul - no Real Madrid fan would begrudge their loyal servant the medals, even if the part he played in getting them was limited.

He remained at the club for a further two years, bringing him up to a total of 233 appearances in his second spell. Of those, just nine came in the 2015/16 season: two of these were in the Champions League, which Real won for the second time in three years, but Arbeloa nonetheless felt that it was time to move on at the end of the campaign. In hindsight, he should have called it a day at this point – his move to West Ham United was ultimately ill-fated, and he retired at the end of the season having made just four appearances. He spoke of his disappointment, saying “it has not been an easy year” – when he looks back on his career as a whole, however, there will surely be nothing but satisfaction. He may have taken a long road to the Real Madrid first team, but the trophies to his name are tangible proof that it was well worth the wait.

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013