Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Liverpool 5-0 Swansea: A Late Christmas Present

Forget seven: none of the Swans were a swimming after Liverpool sunk Leon Britton’s men with a comprehensive 5-0 win. The players were seemingly nursing Christmas hangovers in the first half, where creativity was lacking and the chances that did get carved out were largely squandered, but the second half was Liverpool in full flow. Four further goals were added to Coutinho’s first half strike to make sure the fans did not regret braving the cold; the result reinstated Klopp’s men to the top four after Spurs had temporarily displaced them.

The scoresheet shows that Liverpool were able to break the deadlock after just five minutes, but this belies the slow start. The opening exchanges were sloppy, with neither side mounting any threat whatsoever – the goal was produced out of nothing. Coutinho, the headline-writer’s dream, came up with a Christmas cracker from distance to fire the Reds into the lead following good pressing work from Firmino. This sort of goal has become normal from Coutinho at this point; once he had cut inside on to his right foot, nobody really expected him to miss. This consistency, once the only complaint that could be raised against the little Brazilian, means he can now be placed firmly in the world class bracket. Even by his standards, however, it was a nice strike – the goalkeeper was beaten not only by the placement but the power, as the ball was whipped ferociously into the top corner. The moment of magic proved to be something of an isolated incident in the first half. There were some nice link-ups between Salah and Coutinho, and Firmino missed a glorious opportunity right at the end of the opening forty-five minutes, but in general there was a definite failure to build upon the early lead. This bred nervousness: understandable, given that the Anfield crowd have witnessed more dropped points from winning positions than any other fans since Jurgen Klopp took charge.

The doubts were emphatically allayed in the second half. Credit must go to the manager and the team for successfully regrouping at half time and coming out with renewed determination – it was a crucial point in the match where more complacency could have been costly, but instead Liverpool finally kicked into gear. Seven minutes into the second half, the lead was doubled: Firmino made no mistake with this finish, volleying in from close range after a lovely free kick from compatriot Coutinho. Klopp must be relieved that his number nine is largely slipping under the wider footballing radar; the increased goal and assist output combined with his consistently excellent pressing and link-up play makes him a truly elite player, who Klopp will certainly want to hold on to for as long as possible. The next goal came from a less regular source. Young full-back Trent Alexander-Arnold scored his first Premier League goal, bursting into the box in order to slam a loose ball into the roof of the net. It felt like a seminal moment as he wheeled away towards the Kop with his arms outstretched – it can only be hoped that the clip will be replayed for years to come, and cited as the moment when Alexander-Arnold truly made the grade at his boyhood club. He and Joe Gomez have been two of the biggest positives of this campaign; for once, it feels as though there is a clear and genuine long-term route to the first team for two of the club’s young players. At the very least, Nathaniel Clyne must be concerned about whether he will be able to wrest his spot back when he returns from his somewhat mysterious long-term absence – it may well be that he simply provides the depth at full-back to allow Gomez to properly transition back to his natural central position, with Alexander-Arnold making the right-back spot his own.

Firmino was at it again for the fourth goal – on a day where the media were quick to eulogise about Kane for getting into the right positions, the Brazilian got in on the act by also successfully turning the ball into an empty net from six yards. Some might question whether this is genuinely the mark of an elite forward, but the old maxim that you have to be there to score them is undoubtedly true. The main credit must go to Salah, however: he was the one who had the awareness to know Firmino was waiting in the middle, and he selflessly produced the square ball to pick him out. This was Klopp’s cue to rest some of his stars: Solanke replaced the goalscorer, and Salah made way for Lallana. This meant a shift forward for Oxlade-Chamberlain, who topped off the evening by inventively chipping the ball in at the back post after a scrappy passage of play in the box. It was yet another good performance from the summer acquisition, who is industriously going about the business of silencing his doubters. He also further showcased his off-field strength of character in the post-match interview: he admitted that he was not particularly happy with his performance, a sentiment seldom expressed in any circumstances – let alone after scoring in a 5-0 win. This desire to grow and improve, nurtured by a manager famed for getting the best out of his players, is highly encouraging.

Games come thick and fast in the festive period, and Liverpool’s attentions immediately turn to Leicester’s visit on Saturday. Klopp will almost certainly rotate once more, but the squad is stronger now in terms of depth that it has been for a long time; the manager may be well-advised not to effectively play his second-string team like he did in the derby, but fans can nonetheless be confident of a win even when multiple changes are made. Regardless of personnel, a performance like the second half showing against Swansea will surely guarantee another three points.     

Monday, 11 December 2017

Liverpool 1-1 Everton: Post-Match Analysis

Despite playing some of their worst football of the season, Liverpool nonetheless dominated an Everton side who had come to Anfield with no attacking intent whatsoever. The visitors are entitled to do this, of course, but it also wasn’t a particularly accomplished defensive display; Liverpool let them off the hook by lobbing cross after cross into the box instead of attempting to pick apart the holes in the back line, and were ultimately punished for only managing to score once. Calvert-Lewin dived for a late penalty after Lovren had got too tight to him, meaning Everton came away with a point from one of the poorest-quality derbies in living memory.

Jurgen Klopp raised some eyebrows by continuing his policy of mass rotation. The variation of personnel is not in itself a problem – it helps to prevent injuries building up over a busy period, and Klopp has some good squad players at his disposal. However, the changes for this game made it near-inevitable that the style of play would also alter. So it was: Milner and Henderson continually shifted the ball out wide, where Robertson and Gomez were on hand to swing hopeful crosses in towards Dominic Solanke. This is not a criticism of any of them – indeed, Joe Gomez put in yet another exceptional performance – but it must be asked what Klopp expected to happen when fielding all of these players together. He did Everton’s job for them: the quality was dragged right down, and Allardyce’s tactic of shoving everyone behind the ball and just launching it clear when they won it back was made at least partially effective when it should have been ripped to shreds.

This was exemplified by the manner in which Liverpool did make a breakthrough – it was a moment of pure quality, not a high ball into the penalty area. Mo Salah provided it: he swivelled past his man, jinked inside another and whipped the ball sumptuously into the top corner. It was a piece of individual genius, further cementing Salah’s status as signing of the summer and instant fan favourite. However, he was often the only one trying these things. Milner and Henderson are hardly notorious for driving at defenders; Solanke is pretty good with his feet, but his stock in trade is holding the ball up then passing it back to someone else. Again, the fault lies on the team selection – the sheer exploitability of Everton’s back line, as exemplified by Salah’s humiliation of Cuco Martina, was left largely untapped because of the type of players sent out by Klopp. To make such a call in the derby is criminal if you fail to deliver the result.

Of course, not all the fault lies with the manager. Sadio Mane must also take a significant proportion of the blame. Just after Salah had netted the opener, the Senegalese winger found himself through on the keeper with men over to his right – instead of teeing up the tap-in he went for goal himself, skewing it wide and wasting a golden opportunity. Had the team gone in at two up, it would surely have been game over, particularly given Everton’s ineptitude going forward. As it was, the margin remained at one goal – Allardyce’s side still weren’t really threatening for most of the second half, but nor did Liverpool look like adding a second. It was more of the same in terms of style, and to be frank it didn’t feel like watching Liverpool: the monotony of ‘shift wide, cross, repeat’ was extremely frustrating, and there was always a nagging doubt that the failure to actually get at the defence and add a second would end up costing us if something went wrong at the back. So it was: Dejan Lovren got far too tight to Calvert-Lewin, who chucked himself to the ground upon feeling contact and won himself a penalty. It was a clever dive, but a dive nonetheless – the referee can thus join Klopp, Mane and Lovren on the list of reasons why the team somehow failed to take all three points. To add insult to injury, it was Wayne Rooney of all people who smashed the penalty home: it left fans asking how their team could have possibly let this happen.

On another day, the referee wouldn’t have pointed to the spot and the questions about team selection would be subject to much less scrutiny. However, the result doesn’t change the fact that the team that was put out produced some pretty unpleasant and ineffective football for much of the 90 minutes – the domination stemmed from Everton’s determination to contribute nothing going forward, not from any inherent quality in the hosts’ play. It is not something that many fans can be eager to see repeated: Liverpool play some of the best attacking football in Europe, so to decide to shelve that for a week and instead punt balls at a target man is inexplicable. In a derby match, it is nigh-on unforgivable. Again, it is not the rotation that is the issue – it is the change in style to which it led. Fortunately, the next game is just around the corner; it would surely have made more sense to rest the players in this West Brom clash rather than the derby, but it does at least give Klopp and the team a chance to immediately bounce back.
- Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Liverpool 7-0 Spartak Moscow: Reds Rampage Through to Knockouts

Liverpool went into their final group stage game knowing that a win would see them progress as group winners, regardless of results elsewhere. This feat has eluded the team since 2008, a staggering nine years ago – it was imperative, therefore, that Klopp’s men got the job done. They delivered in the most emphatic way imaginable: Spartak became the second team to be hit for seven during the campaign, and Liverpool broke the record for the most goals scored by an English team in a Champions League group stage on their way to booking a place in the last sixteen.

After a few weeks of rotation here and there in the front line, Klopp finally treated the fans to the full compliment of attacking talent. The quadruple threat of Salah, Mane, Firmimo and Coutinho would be enough to blow away better teams than Spartak; the Russians were helpless in the face of the onslaught. Philippe Coutinho opened the scoring after just four minutes. Mo Salah’s movement immediately caused panic at the back, and he was hauled down while trying to reach Coutinho’s pass. The Brazilian stepped up to take the spot kick, and converted it with supreme coolness – replays revealed that he didn’t look at the ball once during his run-up, keeping his eyes on the goal and sending the goalkeeper the wrong way. 

There was no looking back in the game either. Liverpool were playing very nicely, undoubtedly aided by the huge pockets of space left open by the Spartak defence – at times it was like an exhibition game, as the attackers put on a show for the Anfield faithful. The second goal came after fifteen minutes; a delightful passage of passing brought the ball to the feet of Firmino, who calmly and selflessly shifted the ball across goal for Coutinho to slot home his second of the night. A third was added just minutes later. Firmino took this one for himself, slamming the ball emphatically home with the outside of his right boot after Mane’s effort fell to him in the box.

Mane had chances of his own in the first half, but it was not until the start of the second period that he managed to get his name on the scoresheet. He did so in supreme style, scoring arguably the pick of the bunch. Milner, who had come on for an injured Alberto Moreno, delivered a lovely cross to the far post which was met sumptuously by Mane – he volleyed it venomously past the Spartak keeper, who was once again a helpless observer. Three minutes later, it was five. Philippe Coutinho jinked round multiple defenders with ease before curling one goalwards; it found its way in via a big deflection, making Coutinho only the third ever Liverpool player to net a Champions League hattrick. It was a truly remarkable performance, particularly on the back of his goal and three assists at the weekend: it is not difficult to see why FSG were so desperate to keep him at Anfield over the summer. Fresh rumours are inevitably beginning to heat up as January approaches – at the moment, however, it is difficult to see why Coutinho would be particularly eager to leave the hottest attack in Europe.

This is particularly true given his strong relationship with the other forwards: Mane, Salah and compatriot Firmino. There appears to be a genuine camaraderie there; each wants the others to succeed, and all of them share the common goal of bringing success for the team. None of them seem too fussed about who gets on the scoresheet, just as long as the goals come; the resulting linkup is astounding at times, and has led to some truly beautiful attacking football. The talent does not stop at these four players, either. Firmino was replaced by Sturridge with about twenty minutes to play, and the Englishman made his mark almost instantly. He worked some space for himself on the right-hand side of the pitch, before squaring the ball for Mane – the Senegalese international showed great inventiveness to turn the ball home from an awkward position, and Liverpool had six.

The referee seemingly felt sorry for Spartak Moscow at this point, and so denied Sturridge a second assist in as many minutes by refusing to award a fairly clear penalty after the striker nicked in ahead of the keeper. This was not enough to stop the rampant reds. Salah ended his one-game drought five minutes from time – Milner delivered another nice delivery from the left, and the Egyptian showed great composure in the box to buy some time before firing it in. In another act of kindness, the officials added no time on at the end; it was only this that stopped Liverpool equalling or bettering their own record of eight Champions League goals in a single game.

The performance will undoubtedly give Liverpool great confidence going into the draw on Monday – their first-place finish leaves them best-placed to avoid a tough draw, but they will feel as though they can beat anyone in their current attacking form. With the likes of Real Madrid, Juventus and Bayern Munich all possible opponents, this may well be put to the test; the constant question mark is of course the defence, but going forward, at least, there is no reason not to believe that Liverpool can’t go toe-to-toe with Europe’s elite. Before they do this, however, there is a derby to look forward to: Sam Allardyce cannot be relishing the prospect of that fixture right now. Teams are rightly scared of us again: regardless of what pundits might have been saying earlier in the season, Liverpool are undoubtedly a team moving in the right direction.

- Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Friday, 1 December 2017

Modern Football’s Attack on the Number 10 Role

To many football fans, the archetypal number ten represents the sport at its purest. Tasked with playing in whatever tiny pockets of space they can find behind the striker, their role is to create. This duty is, on the face of it, at odds with the inevitable congestion in a central and advanced position; to carry it out, therefore, the number ten must be the most inventive man on the pitch.

Sumptuous skills and perfectly-weighted passes that most wouldn’t even have spotted are the bread and butter of the number 10 – the end is to create space where there is none, and this necessarily makes the means beautiful to behold. In the modern game, however, such a player is a rare breed. The raw skills are still there, but the increasing tactical insistence that space be created through fluid off-the-ball movement means that the position itself is under threat. In an age of ‘juego de posicion’, the system as a whole meticulously works the space that the number ten once conjured from nothing. There is undoubtedly beauty in this, too, but where is the magician left once the circus shuts down to make way for the factory?

A common trend is for those who cut their teeth in the number 10 role to be shunted out into a wide position. The fluid front three has become the system of choice for many of the top teams: Messi, Suarez and Neymar led the way on this in their time together at Barcelona, spawning many pale imitations around Europe. Messi has never been a traditional number ten – he is more of a creative forward than he is an attacking midfielder, although to label him is to risk doing an injustice to arguably the greatest player that ever lived.

Regardless of what he is best defined as, it is beyond dispute that he spent much of his early career working chances for himself and others from ‘in the hole’ - even he, a generational talent, found himself shifted to the wing in order to accommodate the irresistible rise of the modern incarnation of the 4-3-3. The wide position was notional in as much as the whole point of the system was to give Messi and his fellow forwards freedom to interchange, but this was how space was to be generated: markers were to be shaken off prior to receiving the ball, and the room to work a goal opened up by virtue of this off-the-ball movement. Of course, this takes admirable levels of tactical awareness and skill in and of itself; it would be folly to detract from the brilliance of the system when properly executed.

Nor could it realistically be argued that Messi was wasted on the wing; the formidable Barcelona trio notched an unprecedented 122 goals in all competitions in the first season they played together, and Messi received the 2015 Ballon D’Or in recognition of his contribution to this. Furthermore, and even more pertinently, some of the resulting football was truly breathtaking to behold; why, then, should the potential demise of the traditional number 10 be lamented?

There are essentially two points to be made. The first lies in the fact that Lionel Messi is, in all meanings of the word, exceptional: it would be foolish to say that his ability to adapt seamlessly to a different role, and indeed pick up a fifth Ballon D’Or in the process, means that all number 10s will continue to thrive once moved out wide. This is particularly true given that most will generally not enjoy the benefit of two truly world-class forwards making up the rest of the front line. Barcelona can effectively be placed to one side as anomalously good – this leaves the question of whether number 10s, in general, are able to emulate the performances they produce centrally when deployed on the left or right of a front three.

The answer can be at least partially found in examining the varying skill-sets required for each role. A number ten, as elucidated earlier on, is all about operating in tight spaces; their job, simply put, is to take opposition players out of the equation so as to give others the space to score. This requires excellent close control, extraordinary vision, a range of passing, and that unquantifiable trait of flair that makes or breaks a good attacking midfielder. Traditional wingers, meanwhile, are all about pace and crossing ability. Of course, this is an unfair comparison; a winger in the modern, fluid 4-3-3 will have modified duties. Pace is still useful, and indeed the ability to put in a good cross does not hurt, but the passing and technique so important in the number 10 role are roughly transferable skills when it comes to today’s conception of a winger. However, attacking midfielders with great vision arguably find their best asset somewhat wasted on the wing. In a perfectly-functioning fluid system there is opportunity for such a winger to come both infield and deep to pick out passes to runners, but anything short of this leaves the would-be creator stuck out wide with limited opportunities to thread the needle and in doing so break the defensive line.

Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho is a good case study. Some of his greatest moments in a red shirt have involved mouth-watering passes to teammates from a central position, but his regular deployment out on the left has reduced his chances to produce such brilliance. One particular assist from the back end of the 2012/13 season comes to mind – a delightful pass with the outside of the foot, bending round the Fulham centre-back and perfectly into the path of Daniel Sturridge. In a wider role, particularly when working with a midfield three that can at times be accused of lacking creativity and dynamism, his opportunities to come inside and pick out players running from deep have been much more limited. Again, this point should not be construed as taking anything away from Coutinho’s performances in a front three; the aforementioned significant amount of transferable skills between the positions, combined with his undoubted talent, has allowed him to impress to the point where Barcelona have come to call. However, there is at least a case to be made that he would have thrived even more in what might be called his natural position. Injury has not allowed him to play in behind Mane, Firmino and Salah too regularly this season, but the argument that he is at least partly wasted on the wing is certainly backed up by the few occasions where he has reverted to something more closely resembling an attacking midfielder.

Even this role, though, is not the now near-mythical number ten that embodies creativity and style, and this leads on to the second point. It is largely one of sentiment. As has been stressed from the outset, the style of play that involves smooth passing, quick movement and almost methodical carving-open of defences is both effective and beautiful in its own right; that it has reduced the prominence of number 10s is not to be taken as an attack on its validity. However, once in a while, the football fan finds himself pining for the magic show. This is not what is delivered by a would-be number ten playing behind a fluid front three; the movement in front of him takes a lot of the strain of drawing the defenders, and he is left to deliver a masterclass in passing.

Pep Guardiola is almost synonymous with the new style being described, and within his City side Kevin De Bruyne provides the model for such a player. Flair and close control are very much still in his locker, but he only needs to take them out on occasion; rather it is the playmaking that takes centre stage. The Belgian is second-to-none in this regard, and uses the space created for him in ways very few others would be able to do, but he is simply not often required to twist and turn to make the room for himself. When a goal is scored, crowds are left to appreciate the exact manner in which the team as a whole - aided greatly by De Bruyne - dissected the opposition. They are not left asking themselves how on earth what they have just seen can be possible.

This is the joy that only a number 10 can bring, spinning away from his man with an outrageous piece of invention. The number 10 is the Ronaldinho strike against Chelsea, the progress of Maradona through an entire England defence, Dennis Bergkamp’s spin and flick into the path of Lljunberg; it is hard to accept that the modern game is sanitising these moments, making a science out of what was once an art.

Of course, this is not to say that the beautiful game is losing its essence. At most, it can be suggested that standards of beauty are being altered; synchronicity and fluidness are replacing individual technique and brilliance as the ultimate standard. The new era should be embraced, bringing as it does such a wealth of benefits; it is a shame, however, that the number 10 role as we know it is a seemingly necessary casualty. Tactical preferences come and go, and hope remains that the great magicians of the game will come to the fore once more, but at least for the time being it seems as though the sorts of outrageous tricks that provided some of the defining moments of a generation are being confined to the back garden.