Friday, 30 November 2018

PSG 2-1 Liverpool: Post-Match Thoughts

Liverpool travelled to Paris knowing that a win would secure their qualification from a very tough Champions League group. An admittedly formidable opponent stood in their way, but it might have been expected that Klopp’s men could have mustered more than one shot on target in their pursuit of the win that would be so vital. As it was, even that one shot came from the penalty spot. The first half in particular was lacklustre beyond belief; the spot kick at the death gave the visitors a lifeline that was frankly undeserved. There were some signs of improvement in the second period, but the penetration from midfield remained all but non-existent and Liverpool could not force the breakthrough.

There was a quiet pre-match optimism amongst the away fans. PSG are on a remarkable run, but it is not as if they have faced hugely stern challenge in Ligue 1; Liverpool deservedly won the reverse fixture, and knew they were at least in with a realistic chance of getting a result at the Parc des Princes. However, some of this hope was dented before a ball had been kicked – the team sheet revealed a midfield three of Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Gini Wjjnaldum. None of these players are bad: each of them has put in dominant performances in the past that can be brought to mind. Wijnaldum in particular was the heartbeat of the side that overcame Manchester City in last season’s Champions League. However, as a midfield unit, the three of them simply do not work. There is a big question mark over where the creativity will come from, and yet nor is there an out-and-out defensive presence in the mix. Each can keep things ticking over nicely, but with nobody to play the killer ball the entire front three might as well be taken out of the game.

This is essentially how it panned out. For the first forty-five minutes, PSG walked through Liverpool’s midfield as though it were not there: all it took was a string of two or three quick passes before Neymar and Mbappe were bearing down on the defence. This was admittedly not helped by a referee undoubtedly influenced by the home crowd – Liverpool could hardly make a tackle without going in the book – but it would be wrong to blame the officials entirely. Klopp must shoulder a proportion of the criticism; he chose to go with what might generously be called an ‘industrious’ midfield, but all of this industry provided essentially no protection to the back four. If the defence were to be left all but unprotected, the manager may as well have utilised his more creative forces in the shape of Shaqiri and Keita from the outset. Milner was probably the best of a bad bunch, and he coolly converted his penalty when called upon at the end of the half, but frankly none of them played at all well. The match was won and lost in the midfield battle, which in reality was more of a massacre than a fight – even if Verratti had got the red card which his horror-challenge warranted it is doubtful that Liverpool would have claimed the ascendency.

It cannot even be said that the problems were limited to the midfield. Both of PSG’s goals can be traced back to Virgil van Dijk – he can be afforded somewhat more slack given that he has been a colossus all season, but he looked as though he was playing with a hangover during arguably Liverpool’s biggest game of the campaign. The attempted clearance prior to Bernat’s opener was unacceptable at any level; he half-heartedly floated a foot at the ball, which looped up into an even more dangerous position than where it started. His role in Neymar’s goal was just as bad; the whole defence had been drawn out of position as a result of Gomez venturing forwards, but the Dutch centre-back was caught in two minds as to whether to go to the ball or stay with his man and ended up taking himself out of the game altogether. Alisson nearly bailed him out with a remarkable save, one of many that he made on the night, but his compatriot was on hand to tuck home the rebound.

The performance by Alisson was really the only significant positive. He simply had no right to make some of the saves he pulled off, most notably a remarkable reaction stop from a corner – it easy to see why Claudio Taffarel has marked him out as a potential world-beater. On another day, his immense showing would have opened the door for the front three to dig out an undeserved result; the lack of any kind of penetration from midfield did not make their lives easy, but such is their quality that more could reasonably have been expected of them. Mane was at least putting in the graft, and he was rewarded by winning the penalty, but the other two were very much off the boil. Firmino produced a few sharp turns here and there, but his passing was frankly awful in places; Liverpool fans could only watch on, frustrated, as some of their few promising positions were squandered with absurd cheapness. Salah was largely anonymous, and on the one occasion where he managed his trademark cut inside he dragged his shot wide at the near post. That proved to be largely indicative of the evening: chances were few and far between, and when they came they were wasted.

Klopp and his players can take some comfort in the fact that qualification remains in their hands. The permutations regarding the final game against Napoli are a little complex, but essentially either a 1-0 win or any victory by two goals or more will see Liverpool through to the knockout rounds. This is a tough ask, and Ancelotti is a shrewd operator when it comes to protecting an advantage – Istanbul of course stands out as a stark exception, and Anfield will be looking to draw on some of that spirit to will the team on against the Italian side. Liverpool’s home and away form stand in marked contrast so far this campaign: two wins out of two at Anfield, three straight losses on the road in Europe. Klopp has called upon the Kop to make a difference once again. Ultimately, despite the uninspiring Champions League performances so far, this is a side that deserves to be in the last 16. Hopefully the players and manager take a pragmatic approach to this loss, learn from it, and use it to ensure qualification on Matchday 6.
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Thursday, 18 October 2018

VAR and the Law

In the aftermath of VAR’s shambolic outing in Tottenham’s FA Cup meeting with Rochdale in February, Mark Thompson (@EveryTeam_Mark) penned a thought-provoking piece on the need to look at the laws of the game in the same way as the laws of the land. It argued that the rules laid down by the FA are open-textured, and that different valid interpretations are possible within the broad ‘statutory’ limits. This is perfectly true – as the famous professor of jurisprudence H.L.A Hart observed, it is an inevitability of the nature of language that rules will admit of more than one meaning. Further, even when the ‘plain meaning’ reading of a rule is clear, the context may change its application. However, this comparison suffered as a result of the absence of anything in football akin to precedent: once a rule is interpreted by a referee in one way, it is not applied consistently thereafter.

As such, within the context of a critique of VAR, the parallels between law and the rules of football were imperfect. Nonetheless, there is undoubtedly merit in drawing the comparison. The Video Assistant Referee technology most resembles a legal mechanism known as judicial review – this allows courts to check the decisions of officials and strike them down where appropriate. In this scenario, the official is the matchday referee: much can be learned about the legitimate scope of VAR by looking at the grounds upon which courts will interfere with administrative decisions.

The three broad grounds for judicial review, as spelled out by Lord Diplock in the case of GCHQ, are illegality, irrationality and procedural unfairness. The latter two are of only limited use in a footballing context. Procedural unfairness could certainly never function as a basis for overturning an on-pitch official’s decision – the referee is under no obligation to explain the process by which he arrives at a call, and provided it is correct there can be no prospect of a video referee overturning the decision. In other words, any review conducted by VAR is bound to be substantive. This still leaves open the prospect of irrationality; the standard of reasonableness review has changed over time, but it now broadly resembles the doctrine known as ‘proportionality’. This dictates that any decision must be a justifiable way of furthering a legitimate aim in order to be upheld. Perhaps this could be used to assess the validity of refereeing decisions taken in order to ‘let the game flow’, or to pursue other such abstract goals, but once the call of a referee is legal on its face it is generally unlikely to be sufficiently irrational to warrant being overturned.

Illegality is thus by far the most useful concept to consider in relation to VAR, and it moves closer to the points touched upon in Mark Thompson’s initial piece. However, the video referee is not best thought of as an appeal judge looking afresh at the meaning of the relevant law; he is conducting judicial review, examining whether the referee’s decision was one that was appropriate for him to make. When will a referee’s decision be ‘illegal’? Are all decisions that are adjudged to be incorrect inherently beyond the authority of the referee, or do the laws of the game act as empowering statutes that give each referee a degree of discretion? These questions have been considered in the context of judicial review, and the answers that have been given shed some light on the extent to which VAR should interfere.

Judges are always wary of conducting what is known as ‘de novo’ review. Their role is not to ‘substitute judgment’, replacing their own opinion for that of the initial decision maker – rather they must decide on the validity of the first-instance decision-maker’s actions. Prior to a case called Anisminic, only decisions that were outside the jurisdiction of the official in question would be overturned; this is patently too deferential to function in a footballing context, where all of the decisions made by a referee are his to make even if he gets them wrong. Ultimately, it was adjudged to be too deferential for judicial review as well – error of law is now a valid ground for interference. However, this leaves the question of how to define an error of law. The reviewing court cannot simply look at the decision afresh, apply the law as they see it to the facts and foist this verdict upon the initial decision-maker; this would amount in practice to de novo review. Rather, they must take as their starting point the initial decision, and ask whether that falls within the scope of the relevant statute.

This is a tightrope. The court (VAR) are not asking whether the original decision is plausible – if an interpretation is understandable but nonetheless wrong it must still be struck down as illegal. Rather they are asking whether, given the open-textured nature of the law touched upon earlier, the decision can be called wrong at all. Thus, a video referee may disagree with an on-field referee’s call, but nonetheless reach the conclusion that the relevant law admits of both conclusions. Wherever this is the case, VAR should leave the original decision intact. This is not the crude ‘clear and obvious mistake’ standard often bandied about by pundits; it is a standard that advocates correction of all mistakes, but a narrow conception of what is meant by ‘mistake’.  Just as in a legal context the case-load concerns and the desire to uphold the legitimacy of administrative bodies warrants giving the original decision-maker some space within which to operate, the need to keep games flowing and respect the position of the referee necessitates a degree of deference from VAR. Particularly where a decision hinges on standards of ‘recklessness’ or ‘dangerousness’, it is unlikely that a decision could genuinely be called wrong: indeed, Jones v First Tier Tribunal involved the issue of recklessness and returned the verdict that reviewing bodies should be slow to find an error of law.

It is often said that VAR comes into its own when there is an objectively verifiable mistake of fact that needs to be corrected. As luck would have it, this is the precise standard required by judicial review in order to intervene based on an error of fact (E v Home Secretary). Provided a factual error that played a material part in the original decision can be shown, the law says that it is justifiable to overturn that decision. This is where VAR can thrive; in the world of judicial review objectively verifiable errors of fact are a relative rarity, but video technology is excellent at providing such verification in a sporting context. Thus, from a purely legal perspective, there can be few complaints with VAR’s correction of factual mistakes.

In summary, the debate as to the proper extent of VAR bears a striking resemblance to that relating to the appropriate extent of judicial review. This comparison paints the referees as decision-makers empowered by the laws to make decisions; these should only be offset where it can genuinely be said that a decision goes against those laws, or where it has been taken on the basis of a mistake of fact. Whether the footballing context calls for more or less deference, or even for no review at all, is a question that cannot be answered purely by drawing parallels to law - nonetheless, the legal framework provides a good starting point for discussion as to what exactly VAR is trying to achieve.

Friday, 5 October 2018

Salah: Stick or Twist?

Mohamed Salah’s mercurial form last season saw him finish not only as the Golden Boot winner and record goal-scorer in a 38-game season, but as the highest scoring player ever in a Fantasy Premier League season. In response, the powers that be slapped a 13-million-pound price tag on his head for the 2018/19 campaign. Many managers – over 2.4 million of them, in fact – did not think twice about splashing 13% of their budget on the Egyptian. After all, if he even came close to replicating last season’s numbers he would repay the investment in kind. So far, however, he does not look like the Salah of 2017/18. A number of squandered chances has left many people’s patience running thin, but the big question is this: stick or twist?

Let’s start by looking at the raw numbers. After seven games last season, Salah had netted four times in the league and assisted two further goals. Arsenal and Manchester City were the stand-out games in a relatively kind run; this allows for a near-direct comparison to this campaign, where Liverpool’s fixture list has thrown up tough clashes against Chelsea and Spurs in amongst some more routine matches. In these seven games, Salah has notched three goals and two assists: the numbers are nearly identical to last year. Of course, the missed chances last season could be explained away as a period of adaptation for Salah at his new club – with this excuse no longer available, it is natural to ask whether this relatively pedestrian start by Salah’s high standards is set to continue beyond the opening few games. However, it is at the very least reassuring for Salah owners that he is pretty much on par with the start he made to his record-breaking campaign.

It is also true that Salah’s squandering of big chances is nothing new. It was well-publicised, mostly by jealous opposition fans, that Mohamed Salah missed the most clear-cut chances out of anybody in the league last season – he was scoring for fun, but was missing his fair share too. This started from the very first game at Watford, where he probably should have had a debut hattrick; it is a product of Liverpool’s high-octane attacking play. There were fantasy managers at the time who were scared away by this wastefulness, but they were quickly made to rue it. A huge part of Salah’s appeal lies in his movement and unerring ability to get on the end of chances. The most important question is whether he has continued to do so this season. He undoubtedly has: the wastefulness that has so frustrated his owners in FPL is equally a sign that he is still doing everything right bar the finishing. This is little consolation to those who have seen a damning ‘4’ by the name of their captain for three of the last four weeks, but it should discourage these owners from selling. Every indication is that the goals will soon come.

This theory is backed up by the upturn in Liverpool’s fixtures in the near future. While it has not been the most taxing start ever faced, Klopp’s side have had the toughest fixtures of any of the top four so far. A difficulty calculation based on league positions puts Liverpool on seventy-five points, while Chelsea are on 60 and City sit on a mere 45.  After they face their biggest test yet at the weekend against Guardiola’s men, things start to look a lot more promising for Liverpool in terms of points potential. A run of Huddersfield, Cardiff, Arsenal, Fulham and Watford is about as good as it gets for Klopp’s side – each are set up with vulnerabilities just waiting to be exploited by Liverpool, and any one of those matches could plausibly end up with the Reds netting four or five. Even after this, a sequence of Watford, Everton, Burnley and Bournemouth awaits: the points potential here is perhaps slightly less huge, but the difference is marginal. If there was a time to sell Salah, it was surely three weeks ago rather than on the cusp of one of the kindest runs any top side will ever face.

However, there are of course valid concerns about hanging on to Salah. Most of them are the same ones that existed before a ball was even kicked – £13 million is a huge proportion of the budget, and there might well be better ways to spend it. The goalscoring form of Sadio Mane makes him a viable alternative for a saving of around 3 million, while Eden Hazard is scoring excellently for Chelsea. Kevin de Bruyne’s return will provide another premium option, and Raheem Sterling appears to be a regular in City’s setup once more after a relatively gradual reintroduction to the team following World Cup duty. Equally, sacrificing Salah for a more budget midfielder is one obvious way of accommodating both Kane and Aguero up front: experience teaches us that this is a pretty reliable front two. There is no easy answer, just as there was no one correct way of doing things right from the start: what is clear is that if Salah is to be rejected on the basis of his relative lack of value, it should not be a decision informed too heavily by his relatively steady start.

There is one fresh concern that has only arisen since the start of the new season, and which may be enough to tip the balance for some people in favour of getting rid of Salah. Rotation of Liverpool’s front three was already likely around European matches, particularly since they acquired more depth in the squad over the course of a positive summer. Specifically, Xherdan Shaqiri’s arrival from Stoke posed a minor risk to the reliability of Salah’s league minutes – this was only a slight concern, however, given that the man dubbed the Egyptian King seemed nigh-on undroppable based on his form from the end of the last campaign. This is no longer the case, as seen by Klopp’s withdrawal of Salah after 65 minutes against Chelsea. Perhaps even more significant is the remarkable renaissance of Daniel Sturridge. His recent form demands game time, and over the course of the kind run of league games he is bound to be handed some starts; this could be at the expense of any one of the front three, or else in a 4-2-3-1 that accommodates all of them, but there is no denying that his resurgence places more question marks than ever before over the safety of Salah’s consistent place in the side. On its own this concern is not great enough to prompt owners to sell, as Salah will surely continue to feature in the vast majority of games, but it is another thing to think about when weighing up the various pros and cons.

On the whole, it would be wise for Salah owners to give him at least a few more weeks. His underlying performances promise a glut of goals before too long, and a very kind run of fixtures might be precisely what is needed to get him back on the sort of form that saw him priced at £13 million in the first place. The fact that others are panic-selling only increases his appeal – Salah as a differential is an exciting prospect. There are many tempting ways of spending the savings from leaving him out, and some of these alternatives may end up being the better way forward, but even with all of his misses it is a fairly safe bet that Salah will ultimately deliver for those that keep him.

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Monday, 3 September 2018

Duology: Suarez and Sturridge

All the world is a stage, but Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge were more than merely players. In 2013/14, their only full season together, the two combined to produce sheer theatre of the sort rarely seen before on a football pitch: Suarez the anti-hero, Sturridge the flawed genius. Ultimately it was not an Achilles Heel but an Achilles tendon that brought the latter down, while the Uruguayan left for Barcelona without a Premier League medal and with yet another scandal hanging over him – it transpired that the campaign was destined, in the end, to be a Greek tragedy. However, though the partnership collapsed, the memories endure; Liverpool has seen some truly wonderful footballers in its long history, but Suarez and Sturridge can stake a claim as two of the greatest ever.

It is tempting, with hindsight, to diminish the impact of Sturridge in the whirlwind 13/14 campaign. This would be to do a gross disservice both to Sturridge as an individual and to the near-telepathic connection that the two built up. Suarez, of course, is one of the most gifted forwards ever to grace a football pitch, but without Sturridge there would be no title charge about which to reminisce. The English forward led the line himself in Suarez’s enforced absence at the start of the campaign; he scored all three goals in three consecutive 1-0 wins, clearly laying out his credentials as a world class striker in his own right. His subsequent terrible injury luck has clouded the memory of many, but make no mistake: the undisputed best English centre-forward at the time plied his trade at Anfield.

The results of throwing a volatile South American into the mix were predictably seismic. Each was equally capable of picking the other out or taking on their marker with consummate ease, and the movement was simply impossible to defend against – a visibly less-than-fit Suarez returned from his ban against Sunderland, and managed to score two goals simply by virtue of getting on the end of Sturridge passes. Many frustrating minutes wasted out on the wing at Chelsea came to fruition in these moments, as Sturridge effortlessly drifted to the byline before instinctively picking out Suarez in the middle. Despite having just half of the previous season to get acquainted, the pair seemed to intuitively occupy the same wavelength: this was an enviable gift indeed, and defenders were certainly rarely able to enjoy similar premonitions as to what was coming next from either of them. Countless established defenders and goalkeepers were made to look foolish over the course of the season – there was little to be done when the pair descended upon a back line. Sure enough, while Sunderland were occupied with Luis Suarez at the back post at a corner, Sturridge added a goal to his two assists in the 3-1 win at the Stadium of Light. This two-man show proved to be a sign of things to come.

Part of the beauty of the partnership that came to be known as ‘SAS’ was the way in which it harnessed a certain volatility to such deadly effect. The two strikers undeniably struck a chord, but it was at times a jarring one – scoring was the currency of both forwards, and a kind of rivalry developed. If one decided to go up a level, the other instantly responded with a refusal to be outdone. A game against West Bromwich Albion sticks particularly firmly in the mind. Suarez had wrapped the result up almost on his own. He opened the scoring with a trademark winding run through the entire defence, followed by a powerful finish into the corner. The second was just as admirable; a fairly average cross meant that Suarez had to meet the ball at a near stand-still, but he somehow managed to generate enough power on his header to beat the goalkeeper. The hattrick was completed with a second header, a delicate glance into the far post from a corner. A visible change came over Sturridge, as he started to play entirely off pure goal-scorer’s instinct; he was not going to fail to get a goal on a day when his partner had managed three. Sure enough, he found his way on to the scoresheet by upstaging all of Suarez’ strikes – he went on a powerful run of his own before lifting the ball delightfully over Ben Foster from twenty yards out. Cue the ‘wriggly arms’, an enduring image from Sturridge’s time at the pinnacle of the game. Very few players would have even spotted the keeper marginally off his line; the technique to execute the chip to perfection was simply outrageous, and ensured that Sturridge shared the headlines.

That is not to say that the pair were selfish, or at least not overly so. They were undeniably single-minded, and would never pass up a goal when presented with the opportunity, but this is what made them so good – the reason these chances came along with such regularity in the first place is that Suarez and Sturridge kept laying them on for one another. Many classic partnerships have had a playmaker and a finisher, or some variation on the ‘big man, little man’ approach that so dominated the thinking of English coaches in the 1990s: not these two. They were both complete forwards, equally adept at producing something out of nothing and converting the chances when they came.

Indeed, the partnership that developed was almost transactional – an assist created more than a goal, it created a debt. It merited a response in kind, often an immediate one: in away matches at Stoke and Cardiff, in which Liverpool scored a combined eleven goals, Sturridge laid on goals for the Uruguayan only to be presented with tap-ins of his own later in the same games. Invariably, this would prompt a celebration almost as iconic as the wriggly arms: Sturridge would turn and point at the provider, who would be pointing back at him with a look of unbridled joy etched on his face. The elation was about a goal for the team, of course, but beyond that it was about the restoration of equilibrium between the strikers.

There was no such parity by the end of the season in terms of goal and assist tallies – Suarez ultimately found a level with which even Sturridge was not quite on par, finishing with an astounding 31 goals and 13 assists despite missing the start of the campaign. He was second only to Steven Gerrard in assists, and led the second-highest scorer by ten clear goals. Who was this second-placed man? Daniel Sturridge. These statistics make it all the more remarkable that Liverpool did not win the league; it is a historical anomaly, and one that does a disservice to a front two who are almost unrivalled across the entire Premier League era in their brilliance. Suarez had thrown absolutely everything he had into the campaign, and his tears after Crystal Palace were those of a man who has done everything within his power but still fallen short. Even before the unpleasant side of his utter single-mindedness reared its head at the World Cup in the form of a bite on Giorgio Chiellini, a move away from Anfield seemed inevitable.

This same World Cup provided one fitting last act in the Suarez and Sturridge relationship. England were drawn in the same group as Uruguay, which meant that the two forwards who had thrived so much together would now have to do battle on the biggest stage. Again, this was almost irresistible theatre: the two men had just endured the pain of falling short in the Premier League together, and now it fell to one of them to inflict a final blow on the other.  It was Suarez who would emerge victorious, scoring twice to eliminate Sturridge and England from the competition. This final severance of the ever-unsteady bond between the two signified the end of a partnership that burned bright but ultimately burned out.

Sturridge remained at Liverpool in 2014/15, but a combination of awful misfortune with injuries and the club’s utter failure to adequately replace Suarez cruelly limited the influence he could exert – all that was left of the SAS was a memory. It is inevitable that this casts a shadow over the partnership, but it would be an immense shame if the pair were lost from the archives of the best footballing duos in history. Circumstance transpired to bring them together in a team that was otherwise simply not equipped to push for the league, and they were ultimately dragged down, but this cannot erase the mesmerising connection shared by the two strikers. Who can forget Suarez’s remarkable four-goal haul against Norwich, or Sturridge’s delicate chip over an onrushing Tim Howard in the derby? These are the things that fans pay to go and see: it cannot be denied that Suarez and Sturridge were the ultimate crowd-pleasers. This, and not the circumstances in which it all fell apart, should be their legacy.

First published on These Football Times as part of the Duology series:

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Sunday, 2 September 2018

Duology: Henry and Bergkamp

Dennis Bergkamp... Dennis Bergkamp… Dennis Bergkamp! The Dutchman cannot be mentioned without this immortal piece of commentary from the 1998 World Cup coming to mind, but at club level his name was seldom heard without being closely followed by that of his strike partner, Thierry Henry. At the same tournament, the young Frenchman was bursting on to the international scene: at just twenty years of age he ended up as top scorer for his country, who of course went on to win the trophy. A defeat on penalties for the Netherlands at the hands of Brazil meant that the pair were not destined to meet in the final - it would be another year before they united at Arsenal, forming a partnership that would shape the club for the next seven seasons.

In fact, the year preceding his move to Arsenal was a tough one for Thierry Henry. He could not recreate his form for Monaco and France at new club Juventus, where he was forced to play wide against defences far more disciplined than those he had grown accustomed to facing. Bergkamp, meanwhile, was having no such problems at the English club – he achieved the impressive feat of reaching double figures in the league in both goals and assists, only missing out on the title on the final day of the season. This success was coming under the tutelage of Arsene Wenger, who had given Henry his senior debut for Monaco five years previously. He opted to gamble upon the striker once more following his tough spell in Italy, paying a club record fee for the forward: the decision proved to be one of his best.

The connection between Henry and Bergkamp, which grew to be almost telepathic, was not instantaneous. The strong form of Kanu, an out-and-out striker if ever there was one, thwarted any hopes of a regular pairing up front between the Dutchman and the new acquisition – Wenger started the season with all three of them, shifting Henry out wide to accommodate all of the talent, but settled upon rotation as the policy for much of the campaign. None of the trio surpassed twenty-six league starts. Nonetheless, there were glimpses of what was to come; on an individual level it was an excellent campaign for Henry, who managed seventeen league goals, while Bergkamp exerted much creative influence as well as chipping in with six league goals of his own. The team never looked capable of posing a threat to Manchester United, however, who won the league by a very comfortable margin of 18 points.

In many ways it was a similar story in the following season. As if starting places had not been hard enough to come by already, Robert Pires and Sylvain Wiltord were added to the strike force. This surfeit of attacking talent was particularly damaging to Bergkamp – he was reduced to fewer than twenty league starts, and managed just three goals on the way to another runners-up finish for The Gunners. At thirty years of age, it seemed likely that his time at Arsenal was coming to an end: fans were left ruing the fact that Henry had not come to Highbury just a little sooner, as another seventeen-goal haul had established him as a firm favourite amongst the fans. The prospect of him in a partnership with Bergkamp in his prime was a tantalising one, but appeared to be little more than a pipe dream. However, this failed to account for the remarkable renaissance of the Dutchman.

2001/02 marked the start of the golden age for Arsenal under Wenger. Plenty of purists argue that this was truly the best Arsenal side of the last two decades, surpassing even The Invincibles that were to come two seasons later. Central to the success were Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp, finally playing together up front as a bona fide duo. It was Wiltord who transitioned into a wider role to allow the partnership to flourish, and the result was arguably the most iconic strike partnership of the Premier League era.

Each knew his role: Bergkamp was the creator, calling upon his wealth of experience to lay on chance after chance for the finisher, Henry. This came naturally to the Frenchman – he tucked away twenty-four goals in the league to secure the Golden Boot. More impressive than individual accolades, however, was the league title. The pair combined to help finally wrest the trophy from the hands of Manchester United, to whom they had been runners-up for the previous two seasons. Some moments of sheer inspiration took place along the way, not least amongst which was one of the goals in a 2-0 away win over Newcastle. Bergkamp, so often the provider, found the net himself with a goal that epitomised his supreme talent. Having received the pass from Robert Pires, he deftly flicked the ball past defender Nikos Dabizas; he then went around his man on the other side, but instinctively knew where his own flick would end up and latched on to it before slotting it past the goalkeeper. Ironically, Henry was absent through injury for this moment of magic – however, it encapsulated the joy and creativity upon which the partnership thrived.

This, surely, was a final heroic send-off for Bergkamp. It had been a remarkable campaign, during which he and Henry had combined in ways that moved the parameters of what it meant to form an effective pairing up front, but the veteran was now 33. Unbelievably, however, he was not done yet. Henry, meanwhile, was truly hitting his prime. As Bergkamp amazed by refusing to burn out, the French forward’s star shone brighter than ever: the 2002/03 campaign saw him end on an astounding 32 goals and 23 assists in all competitions, finishing runner-up for the World Player of the Year award. As a team, Arsenal were unable to retain their title – they did take home another FA Cup, however. The mutual admiration that the pair had for each other could be seen both on and off the pitch – Henry has declared Bergkamp the best player that he has ever played with, while the Dutch maestro insisted that his strike partner was “the complete package”.

In truth, though, the package was only ever complete when the two played together. Each was blessed with their own immense individual talent, but the combination took them onto a new plain altogether. Indeed, in the 2003/04 season, the whole team were propelled to something never achieved before or since in the Premier League. Much ink has been spilled over The Invincibles season, but in truth the headline record speaks for itself: an entire league campaign unbeaten. It would be a disservice to the phenomenal squad that Wenger assembled to place all of the praise on the duo of Bergkamp and Henry, but they were undoubtedly the talismans. In a team of greatness, the master and his apprentice stood out. Henry, by now, had become the more important of the pair, but Bergkamp still featured in well over two-thirds of the games on the way to the unprecedented feat – he sealed the team’s immortal place in folklore by setting up the winner in the final game of the season against Leicester.

The next two seasons proved to be the swansong for the clinical partnership. Bergkamp, fittingly, was beginning the process of passing the torch to another Dutchman: Robin van Persie had arrived on the scene, and had started to turn heads very quickly. Nonetheless, Bergkamp still had a wealth of talent to offer – in the final game of 2004/05 he scored once and laid on three assists in a 7-0 routing of Everton, and was met with chants of “one more year”. This was quite the vote of confidence in the longevity of a now-36-year-old Bergkamp. It was in this campaign that Henry overtook Ian Wright as Arsenal’s all-time top scorer – it is no coincidence that he, and Wright before him, achieved this impressive record with Bergkamp providing the service. That is not to downplay Henry’s talent as an individual: he hit 25 and 27 league goals respectively in the last two seasons with his partner, reinforcing his status as one of the all-time great goal-scorers. It was little surprise when, a year after Berkgamp’s retirement, Henry moved to a Barcelona side emerging as one of the greatest club outfits ever assembled.  

There was some poetry in the fact that Bergkamp’s career, and with it his beautiful partnership with Henry, came to an end in the same year that the club finished its time at Highbury. Arsenal had been based there since 1913 – the exploits of Henry and Bergkamp were a final flourish in an illustrious list of achievements at the ground stretching back nearly a hundred years. The stadium is no more, the ground upon which it once stood now a block of flats; the memories live on, however, memorialised in the minds of the fans who experienced such joy there. In much the same way, although Bergkamp eventually had to call time on his remarkable career, his partnership with Henry is an immortal one: it will forever be remembered as one of football’s greatest duos.

First published on These Football Times as part of the Duology series:

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

Duology: Gerrard and Torres

Steven Gerrard, more than most, is familiar with Liverpool’s revolving door of strikers. His illustrious career saw him take to the pitch with Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen and Luis Suarez, along with many more who cannot claim to be such household names. One by one, each came and went – the captain remained, doggedly turning in performance after performance even as the team around him was in constant flux.

The same fate would ultimately befall the partnership that Gerrard struck up with another forward to come to Anfield; he, like the supporters, could only watch on in horror as Fernando Torres departed for Stamford Bridge in January 2011. However, in the three and a half years prior to this frustratingly familiar end, Gerrard and Torres created something altogether unfamiliar. The unique partnership between the English midfielder and the Spanish forward is still revered on the Kop to this day.

There was huge optimism at Liverpool from the moment Torres signed in the summer of 2007. The 22-year-old had been top scorer at Atletico Madrid for each of their last five La Liga seasons, and had been entrusted with the captaincy since 19. Excitement on Merseyside reached fever pitch when his captain’s armband came loose one game to reveal four words on the inside: You’ll Never Walk Alone. In fact, this had little to do with Liverpool’s anthem, instead referring to the motto that he and a group of friends had adopted, but it reinforced the feeling that Torres belonged at Anfield.

This feeling would only grow following the Spaniard’s start to life at the club. It was immediately apparent that this was the player Gerrard had been crying out for – the instantaneous understanding between the pair was almost beyond belief. As early as his home debut against Chelsea, Torres profited from his first Gerrard assist; the captain set him free with a typically inch-perfect pass, and the striker ghosted beyond Tal Ben Haim before curling the ball effortlessly beyond Petr Cech.

This was a sight to which Liverpool fans would become accustomed. Perhaps the greatest passer of a generation working in tandem with a forward whose movement terrified defences was enough to undo almost any opponent in the path of Benitez’ side; it would take just a month for Torres to complete his first hattrick for the club. Who should set him free of the entire Reading back line for the crowning third goal? Steven Gerrard, of course. In many ways it is hard to pick out the highlights of this pairing, because so many of the great goals were almost carbon copies – even after these first few weeks defences knew exactly what they could expect, but they were helpless to prevent it.

Premier League, Europe, it didn’t matter. The duo was all-conquering: Torres scored his first Champions League goals in a crucial meeting with Porto, converting a Gerrard corner early on before slotting away another chance in the 78th minute. This highlighted his double-threat; few players have been able to boast such a lethal right foot as well as a major aerial presence. Gerrard himself scored from the spot and registered another assist, this time for Crouch, on the way to a 4-1 victory. Together, the pair dragged Liverpool through a tricky group stage. All too regularly it would fall to the duo to deliver results on their own, but more often than not they managed to do so.

It would be a mistake solely to cast Gerrard as the provider and Torres as the finisher. Amongst his array of talents, Gerrard was a consummate goal-scorer in his prime: El Niño was not often the one laying on goals for others, but when he did do so it was invariably the captain steaming in to apply the finishing touch. This is reflected in the numbers from their debut season together, where the two combined to score a remarkable 54 times. This was enough for 4th in the league as well as an eventual run to the Champions League semi-finals.

Ultimately, this was an era in which Liverpool were destined to continually fall just short of glory. In the following campaign, 2008/09, Gerrard and Torres came agonisingly close to the Premier League title that their partnership warranted, but the side could only manage second behind Manchester United despite amassing 86 points. It was cruel that injuries restricted the number of games the pair could play together – the two of them featured in the same starting line-up just twelve times. In a season where the title slipped away as a result of too many frustrating draws, the trophy would surely have found its way to Anfield had the duo been able to play together on even a few more occasions.

As it is, there is no silverware to commemorate the time Gerrard and Torres shared at Liverpool. Off-the-pitch problems at the club began to bubble to the surface in 2009/10 – Xabi Alonso’s departure ended up being the first of many over the course of the next two years, as an array of talent flocked away from what was turning out to be a sinking ship. An ownership dispute that ultimately had to be settled in court sent the club into chaos.

Despite all of this, El Niño managed 22 goals; Gerrard, meanwhile, contributed twelve goals and thirteen assists. It is testament to their partnership that they could produce these figures essentially on their own, at a time when the team around them was collapsing in on itself. Even these two greats did not have the capabilities to deliver trophies at such a turbulent time in Liverpool’s history, but they continued to deliver memories that last to this day.

One goal in particular that is embedded in the minds of supporters came against Everton: it was Gerrard who scored it, charging on to the end of a delightfully improvised flick from Torres to fire past the keeper at his near post. This epitomised the telepathy between the pair – each knew where the other was going, and they were both blessed with the ability to pick the pass. This has since led Torres to declare that Gerrard was “by far the best player [he has] ever played with”. The feeling is mutual: Gerrard has called the Spaniard “an absolute joy and pleasure to play behind”. Though they may have come together at the wrong time in the club’s history, the fact that they came together at all is something worthy of celebrating.

For some, even the memories are now tarnished. The tale of Gerard and Torres cannot be told without reference to the sudden and acrimonious split of January 2011 – murmurings in the background exploded into harsh reality on deadline day, as Torres completed a move to Chelsea. That the switch was to a team which he had repeatedly helped put to the sword was particularly painful: in the context of Liverpool’s bitter rivalry with Chelsea in the preceding few years, this felt like a final concession of defeat. In a cruel twist of fate, the move ultimately signalled the start of a torrid spell for both Torres and Liverpool – El Niño never recreated anything like his best form in London, while his former employers underwent a testing rebuilding phase that is only now truly coming to fruition.

A majority of fans have now made their peace with Torres. Much as it was too painful to admit at the time, nobody could be blamed for wanting to leave the club in that period – the circumstances surrounding the move were far from ideal, and certainly left a sour taste, but such things are sometimes unavoidable. It would be a shame to erase from the history books the sheer joy of the partnership that he struck up with Steven Gerrard; he took one of the greatest midfielders of all time and allowed him to reach new levels, and the result was a privilege to witness. No matter where he has been since, he will always be Fernando Torres, Liverpool’s Number 9.

There was one last bow for the duo at Gerrard’s testimonial in 2016. Anfield rose to welcome back the man who was once a favourite son; all is not quite forgotten, but is mostly forgiven. The connection was still there for all to see – Torres twice flicked the ball through to a rampaging Gerrard in a manner almost painfully reminiscent of that goal against Everton more than seven years previously. The match also brought to the fore the haunting thought of what might have been; Luis Suarez, who had also happily taken up the invitation to return to Anfield to honour Gerrard’s phenomenal career, wreaked havoc alongside Torres. The last decade has seen some exceptional talent at Liverpool, but rarely all together in one place.

Gerrard and Torres, though, did hit their primes together at Liverpool. Had the union occurred a couple of years earlier or later, who knows what might have been for the side; it is foolish to dwell on these hypotheticals, however, when the football actually produced by the pair was magical in its own right. Torres did ultimately end up as another striker through the revolving door, but in all Gerrard’s seventeen years at the club he never had a better partner.

First published on These Football Times as part of the Duology series:
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Monday, 13 August 2018

Liverpool 4-0 West Ham: Here We Go Again

Strap yourselves in. Liverpool are back, and in some style; West Ham United were put to the sword on the opening day at Anfield. Klopp’s men picked up where they left off during an impressive pre-season, dismantling the Hammers just as they had done to Napoli a week previously. It was an assured performance from front to back, and gave even the most cautious fan reason for optimism.

There is only one place to start, and that is with Naby Keita. The Guinean midfielder was outstanding on his competitive debut for Liverpool, immediately showcasing exactly what he can bring to a midfield that was in need of an injection of dynamism. There will be sterner tests than Pellegrini’s West Ham, whose half-baked high line was only ever going to end one way, but Keita was ruthless in exploiting it. Time and time again he drove at the defence, sprung a pass at exactly the right moment and set a runner free. It was in this manner that the deadlock was broken, just before the twenty-minute mark: Keita released Robertson in space down the left, and the Scot produced an inch-perfect ball across the face of the goal for Salah to turn home. It was a satisfying goal to score – the best teams have got creating unmissable opportunities down to an art form, and Liverpool certainly seem to be improving in this regard.

The chances, already fairly free-flowing, came thicker and faster after the opening goal. Firmino’s selfless square ball could not be turned home by Salah from close range, but it looked a matter of time before Fabianski was beaten again. Sure enough, moments before half time, Milner did excellently to salvage a cross that looked too deep – the defence had switched off, and Sadio Mane was on hand to turn the ball home for Liverpool’s second. This was just one of many excellent contributions from the headband-sporting Milner, who was clearly not experiencing any adverse effects following his fifteen stitches; his renaissance of late has been truly remarkable, and Fabinho may be wondering just how he’s going to break into the team! Gini Wijnaldum, another player who could have shied away in the face of increased midfield competition, put in a typically tidy performance while also posing a little of the added attacking threat he has shown throughout pre-season.

The front three have little to fear in the way of starting status, and they showcased their brilliance once again for the third goal. Firmino embarked upon a typically industrious run before slipping the ball through for Sadio Mane – there was a huge slice of fortune in that the flag should clearly have been raised for offside, but Mane capitalised on the officiating error and slotted the ball away to totally kill off the game. This brace for the Senegalese winger could be a sign of things to come; he has definitely adapted to a more central role in the past few months, a move formalised by his adoption of the number 10 shirt for the new season, and he will be hoping to get on the end of many more moves over the course of the campaign.

Henderson and Shaqiri were soon introduced, a mark of the increased quality of depth that Liverpool now boast. The former Stoke man looked lively on his competitive debut, although with the match already wrapped up the tempo was understandably fairly relaxed. The captain was tidy as ever, keeping things ticking over as Klopp’s side moved towards a near-perfect opening day result. As it happened, things were about to get even better. Daniel Sturridge was introduced for the last five minutes – he has had an astonishingly good pre-season, reminding everyone exactly what he is capable of when he remains fit for a sustained period, and it took just twenty seconds for him to find the net in this cameo. He showed his familiar poacher’s instinct to get on the end of a cross from a corner and turn the ball home, in doing so sending Liverpool to the top of the table.

Now it’s just a small task of staying there for the next thirty-seven weeks. A tough ask, certainly, but one that for the first time in years the squad will feel is not beyond them. Keita looks all set to prove a truly transformative signing in the middle of the park, while Alisson will win points on his own if he even comes close to his form at Roma. Already, his cool distribution is handing Liverpool more control over games. Shaqiri provides much-needed quality cover for the front three, as well as possessing the versatility to drop into midfield when the team really needs to go for it. This amounts to nearly all of last season’s key weaknesses being addressed – and last season wasn’t half bad! In a league of fine margins, these additions could make a big difference. One thing’s for sure: we are in for an exciting season.

See my round-up of all the week's football action over on Colossus Bets:

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

In Profile: Torino

Liverpool round off their pre-season preparations with a visit from Torino.

Torino is one of the most successful sides in Italian history, with seven league titles to their name. Take a look at the profile of Il Toro as they travel to Anfield on 7th August.

Torino was established in 1906, formed by a group of dissidents unhappy with the way that fellow Turin club Juventus was run. Within twenty-five years, the side were well-established in Italian football: 1927/28 saw the club’s first Calcio title.

The side reached the peak of their powers in the 1940s. ‘Grande Torino’, as the legendary side were known, won five consecutive Scudetto titles from 1942 onwards. At one stage, ten of the eleven starters for the national side played their domestic football for Torino.

Tragedy struck in 1949. With the world at their feet, the entire Torino squad were killed in an aeroplane crash following a friendly with Benfica in Lisbon – every player is memorialised in a monument at the site of the disaster. Each year, the squad travel to this site to pay respects and to reflect upon this dark time in the club’s history.

Some difficult times followed in the league, and in 1958/59 the club suffered its first relegation to Serie B. However, an immediate return followed: the club embarked upon a rebuilding project, and in 1975/76 were able to celebrate their first Serie A title since the disaster. Torino failed to win at home for the first time that season when Cesena held them on the final day, but Juventus’ loss against Perugia ensured that it was the maroon half of Turin that were celebrating.

The early 1990s saw Torino’s best run in Europe, as the side ventured all the way to the UEFA Cup final. They defeated Real Madrid along the way, but lost the two-legged final to Ajax on the away goals rule. The following season, Torino were able to win their fifth Coppa Italia.

A period of uncertainty followed, both on and off the pitch. The club went back and forth between the top two divisions, and in 2005 faced bankruptcy. However, Torino has successfully reinstated itself as a staple fixture in Serie A: its current spell in the top flight stretches back to the 2012/13 season.

Last Season
Torino ended a steady season in 9th place. Their key man was Spanish winger Iago Falque, who completed a permanent move from Roma at the start of the season after a successful loan spell. He ended the campaign on twelve goals; Italian striker Andrea Belotti was also able to hit double figures, as the side matched their league finish from the previous season.

Il Toro had won just five league matches by January, and had exited the Coppa Italia to rivals and eventual winners Juventus. This prompted the club to appoint former Watford coach Walter Mazzarri. He immediately went on a five-game unbeaten run – Torino ended the season with thirteen league wins and a respectable 54 points. This was just three points adrift of a spot in the Europa League qualifying round, and the team will likely be aiming for European qualification in the forthcoming campaign.

The Manager
Mazzarri is a seasoned Italian coach. He concluded a playing career in 1995, and has since managed sides including Sampdoria, Napoli and Inter Milan.

His season-long spell in England, at Vicarage Road, ended in a 17th-placed finish. He was criticised in some quarters for his style of play, but departed with the gratitude of fans after securing a third consecutive season of Premier League football for Watford.

His six months at Torino have been positive, and he will be looking to finalise preparations for the new season when he visits Anfield.

The Stadium
Torino shared more than a city with Juventus until 2011, when their neighbours moved out of the Stadio Olimpico Grande Torino. The ground seats 28,140 – the Olympics reference in its name refers to its use at the 2006 Winter Olympics, while ‘Grande Torino’ is a tribute to the side of the 1940s that lost their lives.

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Shaqiri: It Just Makes Sense

Liverpool recently confirmed the signing of Swiss international Xherdan Shaqiri from Stoke. The fee is rumoured to be somewhere in the region of thirteen million pounds, a relatively trifling sum in the modern market. Klopp will be hoping that the winger can deliver serious value on the investment, and he certainly has the talent to do so – even if he completely fails to show his best form at Liverpool, however, it is still hard to envisage his stock depreciating in any significant manner. As the manager said, this deal is a “no-brainer”.

Plenty of supporters will remember getting very excited about Shaqiri when he was first linked to the club, back in the summer of 2014. At the time he was a 22-year-old talent who had showcased his potential in Bayern’s historic treble-winning season the previous year; he had struggled for consistent game time in the star-studded squad, but looked capable of being a world-beater in the right side.

Now 26, he has arguably never quite found that side – his spell at Inter lasted just six months, while Stoke lacked the quality to fully unlock his potential. However, Shaqiri was able to progress a lot personally during his time at The Potters. Frequently tasked with winning matches on his own, he delivered with impressive regularity: last season proved a stretch too far even for him, as Stoke found themselves relegated to the Championship, but Shaqiri’s own numbers were the best he has posted since joining the Premier League.

His core attributes look ready-made for a Klopp system. Almost any player in the world would be required to raise their distance covered during a match in order to fit in at Liverpool, but the Swiss winger is by no means a long way off the pace – his eagerness to put in the hard yards is apparent whenever he plays, and there is little doubt about his physical condition. His versatility is also important. Few if any new signings could be guaranteed a starting berth in Liverpool’s attack, and Shaqiri is no exception; it is likely that he will be required in a variety of positions across the course of a long season. This will not be a problem: not only has he played on both wings, his average positions for Stoke reveal a significant amount of time spent in a more central and withdrawn role. He is comfortable creating chances from this pocket – with the likes of Salah and Mane as runners, his assist numbers will only improve.

Add to this package his pace, trickery and unerring ability from long range, and it is easy to see why Klopp moved to sign him. In the modern game, 26 is still young – Shaqiri represents a significant improvement on the current options off the bench even if he doesn’t develop at all in his time at Anfield, but there is no reason to think that he can’t finally unleash the potential that he has shown in flashes for years. It is no coincidence that Shaqiri has been a standout player at each of the last three major international tournaments: when he is given minutes in a side with a bit of quality, we see the best of him. Klopp, a veritable master of bringing the best out of players, will only help in this regard.

The one real question is whether the winger will be afforded the minutes he needs to properly reach his excitingly high peak, but it would be foolish to attack the signing on this basis. For one thing, he is likely to rack up significant playing time across the course of the campaign. Furthermore, squad depth is something fans have been rightly craving for a long time – Shaqiri emphatically addresses this need, and this is a cause for celebration rather than complaint.  Imagine for a moment that Shaqiri was available to call upon in Kyiv when Salah was forced off early; the outcome might not have been any different, but it seems likely that there would have been a fair amount more confidence that the team still had a fighting chance if this level of quality could have been summoned off the bench.  

Finally, on a pragmatic note, what is there to lose? The preceding points are not empty words – Shaqiri really could develop into a player to rival those currently occupying Liverpool’s front three – but even if he does not do so, the club will suffer no great detriment. Even in a worst-case scenario where Shaqiri fails to make any impact whatsoever on the first team, it is easy to imagine that there would still be a host of clubs queuing up to take a ten-million-pound gamble on a man clearly blessed with talent. In other words, the club could likely recoup most of the fee with ease even in the unlikely event that things completely fail to work out. There are still his wages to think about, but with the likes of Bogdan and Markovic still on the books it would seem odd to take specific issue with Shaqiri.

Embrace the return to the summer of 2014. Liverpool are a team on the up, and this time the top talent has not only been linked to the club but has arrived. Shaqiri will not be a guaranteed starter, as he may have been back then, but that is just a sign of the progress the club has made – this progress will only be aided by the addition of this most talented of squad players, who with a bit of luck might yet become one of Klopp’s world-beaters.


Friday, 8 June 2018

McDonald’s FIFA World Cup Fantasy: How to Play

After a long and painful wait of more than three weeks since the end of FPL, fantasy football is back with FIFA’s official World Cup game. There are plenty of similarities – right down to the starting budget, which is the same except for valuation in euros rather than pounds – but there are some minor differences that could catch out the unprepared manager. Here is a quick look at what you need to know.

The starting point will be familiar to anybody who has played the Premier League game. Fifteen players must be selected, with a maximum of three players from any one team; each player has been assigned a value, and there is an initial 100 million euros to spend. Out of these fifteen, eleven must be selected for each round in a recognised formation. A captain can be selected to score double points for the round. So far, so familiar. However, the workings of the bench are where things start to get complicated. Unlike in FPL, there is the possibility for manual substitutions within a round – if a player has underperformed, he can be replaced with a bench option who is yet to play in that round. So, for example, if Mo Salah was restricted to thirty minutes against Uruguay and failed to score, a manager could replace him with Bryan Ruiz in anticipation of a points haul for the Costa Rican against Serbia. It will be noted that this example involves swapping a forward for a midfielder: this is allowable, provided the formation stays within the valid options. The same thing applies to the captaincy, which can be shifted from player to player throughout the round if the initial selection does not do as well as hoped.

With this in mind, it makes sense to ‘front-load’ the starting eleven with players who will feature early on in a round, in the knowledge that they can be removed later on if necessary. Padded out the squad with a Saudi Arabian defender? Stick him in. Worried about Salah’s game time? Captain him anyway. Even if it seems highly unlikely that players in the earlier games will score particularly well, it is nonetheless worth starting them, in the knowledge that they can be swapped out for a more promising option if they do indeed fail to produce. The only drawback of this is that it requires managers to be very much on the ball - it is all too easy to stuff the team full of Russians only to forget to take them out. If this sounds like you, then take note: there is a system of automatic substitutions, but it only comes into effect if you have made no manual captain switches or substitutions within the round. In other words, if you do not have time to continually check back in with your team during the tournament, it’s probably best not to do any mid-round tinkering at all; the safety-net of auto-substitutions for players who did not feature is likely to be more useful, but will not come into effect if you have made any manual changes. 

That’s the really hard part out of the way. Other differences include tweaks to the rules once the group stage ends. The budget, for example, increases by 5 million euros for the knockout stages to account for the fact that many budget options will have been eliminated. Transfer rules also change: there is an amnesty when the group stages end, during which unlimited transfers can be made without incurring a points hit. Player prices are also adjusted at this point to reflect their performances. Aside from this window, the transfer procedures are fairly similar to those of FPL – there is one free transfer per round in the group stage, any transfers beyond this limit cost four points, and there is one wildcard that can be deployed at any time in order to make unlimited free transfers before the next round. Notably, free transfers increase to three per round prior to the quarter-finals and semi-finals, and then five before the final round (which includes the third-place playoff). It is also important to flag up that free transfers cannot be saved: if a manager opts not to make a free transfer before a round, he simply forfeits that transfer.

There are also two chips to talk about. The concept is borrowed directly from FPL, but only one chip works in exactly the same fashion: this is the bench boost. This must be played before the start of a round, and serves to count the points from all fifteen players in the squad rather than just the eleven starters. The other chip, which also has to be deployed prior to the start of a round, is slightly more interesting. It is called ‘Maximum Captain’, and works by assigning the captaincy to whichever player ends up scoring the most points in the round. This would be a tantalising prospect in FPL; in the World Cup game it is of slightly less significance, in that the aforementioned scope to change the captain midway through a round already increases the chances of making a good captaincy, but it is nonetheless a powerful chip. Each chip can only be used once during the tournament; the rules somewhat unhelpfully fail to state whether they can be used in conjunction, either with each other or with a wildcard, but if it works in the same way as FPL then this will not be possible.

It only remains to sketch out the scoring system itself. It may seem odd to relegate this to the bottom of the article, but the rules here are almost identical to those of FPL – anybody who has played that game will be highly familiar with the vast majority of the system. In short, points are awarded for appearance, scoring, assisting and making saves; they are deducted for conceding, scoring own goals and getting carded. There are only a couple of slight differences. There is an additional mechanism whereby players earn two points for winning a penalty, regardless of the outcome of the spot kick, and lose a point for giving away a penalty. Handballs are excluded from this calculus. There is also no bonus points system. If a knockout game goes to extra time, points scored in this period do count. Penalty shootouts, however, are excluded.

Hopefully this has been useful in establishing what you need to know about FIFA’s official World Cup fantasy football game. Best of luck!

- Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

See my Premier League season review for Colossus Bets here:
Part 1 -
Part 2 -

Friday, 1 June 2018

We Are Liverpool

There is nobody who handles losing quite as well as Liverpool. This is a taunt thrown our way by rival fans, who would undoubtedly have traded their seasons in a heartbeat to take our place in the Champions League final, but there is also a ring of truth about it. Defeat in Kyiv was cruel, and it was painful, but supporters left the stadium singing. You’ll Never Walk Alone proved as cathartic as ever, while Allez Allez Allez took on a defiant note: mark our words, we’re never going to stop. Soon, a video emerged of Klopp himself chanting at six in the morning, goofy smile firmly in place in spite of everything. Those outside of the Liverpool bubble might have questioned what on earth was going on – the team had, after all, just fallen short of glory by virtue of two of the worst goalkeeping mistakes ever witnessed at this level. Perhaps three words from a different song best sum it up: we are Liverpool.

This club sticks together. At times, it has had to do so – the 96 on the collar of every Liverpool shirt is a poignant reminder that nothing that unfolds on the pitch is of any lasting importance. Even so, it would have been easy for supporters to turn on Karius following the final, but that is not The Liverpool Way. In a strange fashion, it was his personal woes that helped bring everybody together so quickly; even on social media, which usually has a knack of amplifying the very worst in people, the overwhelming message was one of support for the young German. It is unlikely that there is anything that can be said to the 24-year-old that will stop him looking back on this match with horror in quiet moments for the rest of his life, but supporters looked to take some of the burden from him with a simple message. You’ll Never Walk Alone. People can say that we don’t sing it as loudly as we once did, or that everyone is now too bothered about filming it to belt it out, and perhaps there is some truth to this – when it really matters, though, it is more than a song. It is an ethos, one which enables fans to place their views on the long-term goalkeeping situation aside for a moment and just console a young man who needs support.

For his part, Karius also showed an understanding of how things are done at this club. It is telling that the first thing he did after the final whistle was go to the fans – disconsolate though he was, he knew that these were the people from whom forgiveness must be sought. It took courage to do this, and one need not look very far to think of players who would have just disappeared down the tunnel. Things like this mean something. Supporters should be at the heart of any club, and when the players recognise this an unbreakable bond forms; this is the same kind of bond that can carry a team through to a European final by sheer strength of support, sheer volume of songs. It produces an intensity capable of emanating from the stands and into the heavy metal football unfolding on the pitch. It is hard to say whether Karius himself will have a long-term future at Anfield, but if he leaves he can do so with his head high and with the respect of the only people that matter.

Mere days after the defeat, Liverpool announced a new addition to the team. Fabinho, snatched from under the noses of Manchester United, went some way to lifting spirits. In the midst of the excitement, it was easy to miss one comment from Klopp: “We have signed a fantastic player, but someone who is an equally fantastic person”. For this to be a preliminary comment about a signing is, in the world of modern football, quite remarkable – certainly it is anathema to the mindset of a coach like Mourinho, who can practically be heard scoffing at such a comment. Klopp, however, is not of the same mould. He is a team-builder; he recognises the importance of getting a group together, keeping them tightly-knit, and going on to achieve things as a unit. More than that, he intrinsically understands Liverpool: the parliamentary seat of Liverpool Walton has not been occupied by a Conservative for over fifty years, and the city and the club immediately embrace those who show a social conscience. Andrew Robertson has won everyone over with his immense performances, but also with his promotion of the local foodbanks. Salah is adored for his forty-four goals, but also for the joy he has brought to schoolchildren in the area. “This means more” is the tagline emerging from the club marketing department of late – it would be naïve to deny that this is at its heart part of a campaign driven towards selling replica shirts, but the sentiment does ring true. Of course, first and foremost Klopp and the fans want to put together a team of winners, but not at any cost – it does not profit a man to gain the whole world, but forfeit his soul.

This is the great consolation. The soul of the club is more than just intact, it is thriving under the management of a man who truly understands it. The core of the team also looks set to hold together – this group have made memories together on a journey all the way to the final, and they will be determined to return to complete the job. Already, additions are being made to address the weaknesses that meant we ultimately fell short: there are big reasons to be hugely optimistic into next season and beyond. This does not remove the pain of losing the final, and nor should it: although Liverpool’s ethos goes far beyond winning, it should not be forgotten that this club has victory in its very DNA. However, the regeneration of this footballing giant is well underway, and it’s never going to stop.

-   James Martin (@JamesMartin013)

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

No Kane, No Lukaku, No Regrets?

Well, I made it. Thirty-eight whole gameweeks with no Kane or Lukaku anywhere to be seen in my fantasy team. Not only that, it went pretty well – a final overall rank of 115,189th is not to be sniffed at, although it was disappointing not to sneak into the top 100k. The big question, of course, is whether this relative success was because of the enforced absence of two of the biggest hitters in the game or in spite of it.

The numbers show that the lack of Kane, perhaps predictably, hit the hardest. He finished the season as the highest-scoring forward in the game, and the third-highest player overall: given the sheer volume of other fantasy teams in which he appeared, a good week for the Spurs frontman almost always proved a significant setback to my progress. However, crucially, he was not all that far ahead of much cheaper options – Firmino proved to be a more than adequate alternative for an initial 8.5 million, while Jamie Vardy also got within 40 points of Kane. To put it another way, Kane’s advantage over this pair was less than a point per week; this all adds up over the course of a season, but for an outlay of four million more than it cost to acquire either of the other two, it is clear that the value lay with the cheaper options. The point is even more emphatic in relation to Lukaku, who was outscored by both of these cheaper strikers, as well as Sergio Aguero. This clearly suggests that the two most premium forwards were viable but not essential options, and this was arguably borne out by my respectable finish without them.

However, this is reductive for two reasons. Firstly, it assumes the ability to quickly determine who will be able to outstrip Kane and Lukaku up front in terms of value. In reality, this was one of my greatest problems in the first couple of months of the season. Vardy and Firmino hardly came out of the blue in terms of goal-scoring prowess, and indeed the Brazilian made it into my team from the start, but it takes a brave man to shun all of the more expensive options – in my hunt for a frontman who could truly serve as a like-for-like Kane or Lukaku replacement, I went through options including Jesus, Morata, Aguero and Lacazette at an alarming pace. Each hit their stride just as I had given up on them, as followers of early entries to this series will be aware. It is all very well rejecting Kane on the basis that he will not provide the best points-to-cost ratio over the course of a campaign, but this does not capture the reason why he is such a popular pick. The sheer consistency of his returns is what warrants the steep price tag: there is little danger that he will be a high-cost complete flop, which is exactly what the alternative big names proved to be when they appeared in my team. It was only when I abandoned these premium strikers in favour of the mid-tier options, favouring big investment in the midfield, that I truly started to move up the table.

Secondly, and on a related note, saving money on Kane and Lukaku has no inherent value. The additional money in the bank must be spent wisely, not only on alternative striker options but throughout the team. Again, this was a balancing act that it took a while to get right – a September rank below 4.5 millionth was not solely down to bad luck! It is all very well notionally banking seven million by selecting strikers other than the two I chose to avoid, but when this is lavishly splashed on premium defenders who are continually returning blanks this is not so much an achievement as it is stupidity. This was partially down to my defective strategy in terms of where it is usually wise to invest heavily, but it is also an inherent flaw in avoiding the traditional ‘reliable’ options: it is only once trends have genuinely begun to emerge that it starts to become apparent where the ‘smart money’ should be spent. It very much felt as though I just had to hunker down for the first few weeks, hoping that some of my near-blind punts would come off while waiting for something solid upon which to base my buys.

Eventually, I settled upon a ‘middle-loading’ strategy. Many players had come around to this by the end of the season, but the fact that I did not have serious money tied up in attack allowed me to get on it sooner – by the end of the campaign, my team included Sterling, Alli, Eriksen and Salah. De Bruyne was also a regular for much of the run-in. Aside from Salah, these all had ownership that was far from astronomical; price tags that for Kane and Lukaku owners proved prohibitive were positively affordable in my system, and so I profited off the strong returns from these premium midfielders more than most. There was a sustained period where De Bruyne’s returns alone dwarfed those of Kane and Lukaku almost every week. This meant big gains. Even Salah, owned by essentially any active player who wasn’t a masochist, proved more beneficial to me than he did to others because of my strategy; he was a shoe-in for the captain’s armband almost every week, while other players were tempted away by a nice fixture for Kane, or by a renewed purple patch for Lukaku. Of course, on occasion, one or both of these two did outscore Salah. It was a rarity, however, and the Egyptian’s record points tally for any FPL season illustrates that one won’t go too far wrong by repeatedly captaining him.

On balance, then, it is probably fair to say that rejecting both Kane and Lukaku out of hand probably worked in my favour. However, this was contingent on a variety of factors that are far from guaranteed; I managed to at least pick one of the two best mid-tier strikers as a replacement right from the start, and in Salah a genuinely elite player emerged who could pale the significance of contributions from the Spurs and United men. As such, I would struggle to recommend actively writing off players who are known to be very good as a genuine strategy, but then again that was never really the point – rather this experiment has shown that there is cause to truly stop and weigh things up before mindlessly splashing the cash on a big name just because ‘everyone will have him’. Certainly, these findings have shaped how I will approach next season: I intend to start off with some of the ‘safer’ big names, amongst which Salah now finds himself, before branching out into potentially better-value options once enough time has passed to see where that value truly lies.

- @JamesMartin013