Friday, 16 February 2018

Diamonds are Forever: Why Liverpool Need to Revert to an Old Tactic

One of the hallmarks of Liverpool’s barnstorming 2013/14 season was the narrow 4-4-2 diamond adopted by Brendan Rodgers. Since Klopp has taken charge, this has given way to at least a notional 4-3-3; in recent weeks Mohamed Salah has become something of a de facto striker, but the line-up is nonetheless still two players who are traditionally wingers operating alongside a forward. Klopp’s tenure has by no means been unsuccessful – the fact that the team are in the Champions League knockout rounds for the first time since 2009 is testament to this – but goals have sometimes been a little harder to come by than they were in the peak season under Rodgers. This is of course partly attributable to the then-available talents of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, but the formation plays its part too. Liverpool’s current front line is at the very least comparable with the duo of Suarez and Sturridge, which is in itself a high compliment indeed, but they can nonetheless sometimes struggle against the low block. It could be worth experimenting with the narrow diamond once more against teams that like to try and frustrate Liverpool in this way. 

What are the advantages of such a formation? Essentially, it forces the team using it to play narrow – none of the attacking options are wide players, so forward play is channelled through the middle of the pitch. This means that the only way into the box is through intricate passing combinations. All too often, Liverpool have been lured out wide by the available space and then launched in aimless crosses: this does not play to the strengths of their forwards, who are not target men, and generally does not produce results. It would be preferable if they remained patient, moving the ball around in the centre until gaps are prised open. It is then a case of picking that gap and finding a runner, who is duly free of the low block. It requires a fairly high level of technical expertise, and an even higher level of discipline, but once it is drilled into the players it produces results far more reliably than slinging in crosses. It would be doing the current crop of central players a disservice to presume they are not capable of excelling in such a system. It may well get the best out of the technically-gifted Gini Wijnaldum. Henderson, too, is a good passer of the ball – one of the biggest complaints against him is that he likes to shift it sideways, so removing this option may actually help him. Can’s strengths lie in positive driving runs, which can also serve to open up a bit of space to pick the right pass: in short, the central options seem well-suited to the narrow diamond.

In terms of Liverpool’s current attacking personnel, however, the suggestion of this formation seems strange. The only regular first-team player who is generally classified as a striker is Roberto Firmino. The formation requires two forwards, and leaves no room for wide attackers – thus one of Mane or Salah has to play up front, with the other possibly missing out altogether. As mentioned, however, Salah is effectively playing as a striker anyway. There is no doubt that the Egyptian would continue to thrive in the proposed setup, as it would not substantially alter his role. The issue with leaving out Mane is less easily resolved. There are effectively two solutions: accept that he has to be sacrificed in order to reap the benefits of the narrow diamond against lesser teams, or else play him up front with Salah and drop Firmino into the number 10 role. Neither are necessarily ideal. Mane hasn’t had the best of seasons by his standards, but still brings enough to the team to warrant reluctance to drop him. Firmino, by contrast, has been a revelation up front, to the point where shifting him deeper seems counter-productive. However, part of his brilliance has been his ability to create for others – there is no reason to think that he could not continue to excel when playing behind two strikers, even though his output might take something of a hit. It may be worth at least trying it, so as to try and find the key to consistently unlocking low blocks.

This solution is particularly appealing when Liverpool’s full-backs are considered. Moreno and Robertson are the options at left-back, with Gomez and Alexander-Arnold the available options on the other side: of these, three would properly be classified as attacking full-backs. Only Gomez, who is a natural centre-back, is more conservative. Games where this formation would be most useful are against teams that set up with little attacking intent; there is therefore no issue in picking two of the offensive-minded full-backs. Width is duly provided, even though the formation does not involve any wide attackers. The whole point of the tactical setup is that the team are not constantly looking to the wing, but these full-backs at least provide an out-ball as a worst-case scenario in order to prevent turnovers of possession. Some form of in-game tactical flexibility is also maintained. If it comes to it, Liverpool’s full-backs all have a decent delivery on them, and are capable of picking out someone like Solanke if Klopp truly feels that the block cannot be broken down in any other way. Again, this must be considered a last resort, as the entire point of utilising the diamond is to find more reliable and repeatable ways through a deep line. Nonetheless, the fact that this tactical alternative remains removes a fairly significant criticism that might be levelled at the formation.

Thus, it seems like it might at least be worth experimenting with a return to the diamond that characterised Rodgers’ tenure when it comes to games against opponents determined to sit deep. It is not so radical a change from the current setup that it will unduly affect the team’s prospects in the short-term, but it helps to ensure that the players do not constantly funnel the ball out wide when faced with pressure in the middle. It could serve to bring the best out of the current crop of central midfielders, and the multi-talented forwards should be able to adapt to it. All of this is supported by the attacking full-backs, who ensure that at least some wide threat is maintained.   

- Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Monday, 12 February 2018

Southampton 0-2 Liverpool: Post-Match Analysis

Despite being some way off their scintillating best, Liverpool were able to stroll past Southampton without any significant problems. Nobody epitomised the cool control more than Virgil Van Dijk, who put in a supremely composed performance against his former club to help secure the clean sheet. At the other end, Firmino and Salah combined twice in the first half to get the goals. More should probably have been added, but ultimately the lead never looked in any real danger.

Southampton have become something of a thorn in Liverpool’s side in recent times, shutting them out four times in the previous five meetings prior to this encounter. There was consequently a sense of relief when Firmino fired Klopp’s side in front inside ten minutes. The hosts did not seem ready for such a high-intensity start, and Salah’s aggressive pressing forced a turnover; the mercurial Egyptian then squared the ball cleverly for his teammate, who fired past McCarthy. Home fans could have been forgiven for fearing the worst at this point; Liverpool’s potent front three have routed opponents on more than one occasion this season. However, credit has to go to Pellegrino’s men – the goal seemed to settle them down rather than unnerve them, and they began to exert surprising amounts of control on proceedings. The threat to the Liverpool defence remained fairly negligible, save for a couple of dangerous deliveries from James Ward-Prowse, but the ease with which Southampton were stroking the ball about was certainly not typical of a team in the relegation zone. Indeed, they comprehensively won the midfield battle: Milner, Can and Oxlade-Chamberlain offered very little, a worrying trend in recent games, and Southampton ended the game with more possession.

Liverpool were chasing shadows for large periods, and were eager for the referee to blow for the half-time whistle so as to regroup. However, it was they who struck before the break – in stark juxtaposition to a fairly underwhelming half, the second goal was sheer quality. Matip strode forward from the back and struck a pass into the feet of Salah, who moved it on to Firmino before carrying on his run. The Brazilian then produced an inspired backheel flick around his marker and back into the path of Salah, who slotted the ball past the keeper for an astounding 22nd league goal of the campaign. Harsh on Southampton, perhaps, but a thing of beauty: when they link up like that, Liverpool’s attackers are amongst the best in world football.

Unusually for Liverpool, the two-goal lead seemed secure from this point onwards. Part of this was down to the lacklustre response of Pellegrino’s side – if the first goal invigorated them, the second deflated them. The relegation-threatened team seemed, understandably, to be lacking in belief. The loss of Mario Lemina early in the second half also hit them hard; the former Juventus man had been influential in the first period. However, it would be unfair to put the absence of threat to Karius’ goal entirely down to a poor second half showing from Southampton; the visitors’ defence also looked highly assured, marshalled by January signing Virgil Van Dijk. The Dutch colossus was supremely unconcerned by his frosty reception – in the face of the boos he got on with his defensive duties, smirking as he did so. This kind of elite mentality has been lacking from Liverpool since Gerrard and Suarez left in 2014; many of the personnel to pass through the doors since then have been highly talented, but lacking in the kind of arrogant swagger that makes a winner. It is clear that Van Dijk is going to be quite the asset for the club: his presence in the back line is at least part of the solution to what has been a pressing problem. There is a genuine sense that this is now a team which is not too far from greatness.

For now, the focus is firmly on securing a second consecutive finish in the top four. This was another step in that direction; Liverpool have the fewest games left to play against the current top six, and must be considered favourites to hold onto a Champions League place while their rivals take points off each other. United’s slip-up to Newcastle earlier in the day served to further this cause, but also to reinforce the importance of remaining focused – particularly given the amount on the line for the myriad of teams embroiled in a mass relegation scrap, every match is a potential banana skin. No doubt Klopp will be doing all in his power to ensure that his players stick to the task; the next league challenge is up against West Ham, who have enjoyed a decent spell since David Moyes took charge. Before this, though, is the minor matter of Liverpool’s first Champions League knockout match since 2009. The trip to Porto has been highly anticipated by fans – the draw could certainly have been tougher, but again it would be folly to underestimate the opposition. Motivation should certainly not be an issue: the prospect of a place in the last eight for the winner of the tie is a highly tantalising one. One thing is for sure: the likes of Firmino and Salah have proved that they have the requisite quality to win any game. 

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Plagiarism, Clickbait, and Football Journalism in the Internet Age

Recently, it came to light that a certain fan site had copied a Liverpool-related article almost word-for-word from another publication. It would have been somehow less brazen if the replication had indeed been an exact one; instead, the odd apostrophe was taken away here, the odd word added there, and the piece passed off as an original. The article has since been taken down and the ‘writer’ sacked from the site in question, but the incident is indicative of a lazy pseudo-journalistic culture in the internet age. It felt appropriate to use this, the 200th piece of original content on my blog, to discuss some of the issues.  

The internet is saturated with fan sites. The idea started off as a very healthy one; supporters wanted to make content produced by people with a passion for the club, to be read by others who shared this passion. Sure enough, this proved very popular: the trailblazers of fan-produced content in the online world quickly gained substantial followings. Somewhat inevitably, this led to people realising that there was money to be made. New websites sprang up, aggressively marketing their articles so as to generate as many clicks as possible. Some of the content remained good, but it was no longer the priority – the writing being produced became the means to an end, the end of generating advertising revenue. Shady deals of mutual promotion were struck up between Twitter accounts, and these upstart sites looked to establish a monopoly on football content. The result was a race to the bottom: with everybody essentially writing about broadly the same thing, that is to say the current issues pertaining to Liverpool Football Club, the focus shifted from quality writing to rapid publication. The best article, from the perspective of getting views, is the fastest article.

In the worst cases, this has led to sites that shamelessly click-bait and hardly even bother to proof-read articles. Young writers are enticed with the promise of a ‘platform’ and made to meet deadlines that in many cases can be highly demanding. Their writing style is often less than fully-developed; even where they are good, the lack of editing exposes any mistakes that they do make. It does not take long to bring multiple such publications to mind. This in itself is damning, as it demonstrates that this ‘strategy’ has indeed brought them to a position of prominence. However, the problem extends further: even established national newspapers are feeling the pressure to be the first past the post with their online content. Again, this is inherently understandable; the first match report that goes up is bound to benefit from lots of early clicks before rival journalism on the same game emerges. Such websites have the expertise and self-respect that some of the newer sites lack, so the writing is almost invariably less error-ridden, but there remains a lack of any genuine insight. This is by no means a slight on the journalists: they are under pressure to turn articles around on ridiculous timescales that make anything more than surface-level analysis impossible. The few remaining bastions of quality football journalism often reject the topical approach altogether, somewhat removing themselves from the dogfight by instead producing long-form writing on more niche topics – the world of match reports and interview write-ups is no longer conducive to quality.

Given this context, it is surprising that it has taken this long for a leading fan website to become embroiled in a plagiarism scandal. Fan sites feel able to make fairly heavy content demands on their authors despite usually paying them nothing of what they receive from advertising money; the writers know that proofreading processes are lax and indifferent at best and non-existent at worse, and think that they can get away with meeting their quota for the week by ‘borrowing’ from elsewhere. This is, of course, unacceptable. However, the culture in which the article was published is equally unacceptable: the fan site that demanded another article be churned out for free but lacked the due process to pick up on the plagiarism is just as culpable. It is hard to see how it can be stopped. For many, myself included, the idea of one day carving a career out of writing about sports is a dream: people will always be willing to set aside their reservations and produce content for free, even content that they can take no genuine pride in, if they consider it to be furthering their chances of one day making a living from writing. The editors, meanwhile, have no particular reason to get stricter on the content they accept: a reputation for quality will of course do traffic no harm, but ultimately it pales in comparison to the ability to produce lots of content quickly.

Does this mean football journalism is somehow doomed? Of course not. The very success of these predatory football sites shows that the appetite for sports content is as strong as ever, and there are undoubtedly still plenty of excellent writers out there. However, without somehow instigating a radical culture change, these writers will generally not be found on the biggest sites: the best writing is getting buried under a mountain of clickbait and plagiarism. Paywalls of some description might provide an answer of sorts – this of course reduces overall readership, but it also reduces reliance on ad revenues and shifts the focus on to quality content that people are prepared to pay to read. The Tomkins Times is an example of this model in the Liverpool fanbase. Further afield, Rory Smith of the New York Times is rightly considered to be one of the best football writers today; it is little surprise that he is working for a website requiring a subscription once a certain number of articles per week has been reached. This is only very tentatively suggested as a solution, and in an ideal world the great capacity of the Internet to share quality content without barriers would be fully utilised in the context of football journalism, but with the spectre of clicks and SEO looming over free-to-read articles it is hard to see how such a model can encourage high journalistic standards. In any case, it is clear that something needs to change.   

-          Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Friday, 2 February 2018

Antonio Rattín and the Birth of Yellow and Red Cards

To many people watching football today, the game cannot be imagined without yellow and red cards. Fans discuss the seriousness of offences by reference to the colour of card that they warrant; bookmakers offer odds on who will be the first to see yellow or red in any given match. It may come as some surprise, then, that the cards system is not even fifty years old.

The system of sanctions in football stretches much further back than fifty years, to the inception of the game as we know it today. For any kind of formalised sport to exist at all, there must be rules and an imposition of punishment for infringement. The ‘mob football’ of the Middle Ages had few such rules, and shared little with its modern-day descendant other than the name; unlimited numbers of players from opposing towns sought to convey a pig’s bladder to the markers at opposite ends of the settlement in which the game was being played. By some accounts, any method short of murder and manslaughter was allowable – one can only imagine that Tony Pulis would have thrived in such an era! It took until the mid-1800s for formal codification efforts to commence. In 1863, the various attempts were unified under one code and adopted as the official rules by the newly-created Football Association: this is generally considered the birth of the modern game.

It is the cards themselves that are a surprisingly recent addition – it was not until the 1970 World Cup, 107 years after the rules first spelled out offences that would warrant cautions and sendings-off, that these coloured cards were introduced in competitive football. The English game did not adopt the system until six years later. Before this, referees would have to make their meanings plain to the players through their words and actions alone. This caused a few problems on the international stage, where officials would frequently have to resort to exaggerated charades to overcome the language barrier, but anyone who has witnessed Mike Dean playing an advantage knows that the art of performative refereeing is very much alive today. For the most part, the lack of a visual representation of each degree of punishment did not pose much of an issue.

How, then, did the now-familiar cards end up getting adopted into the very fabric of the game? As is often the case, controversy was the catalyst for innovation. The 1966 World Cup is remembered primarily as England’s only major tournament success, but its legacy is even greater than that. The team that would go on to be champions came up against Argentina in the quarter-finals, and two separate incidents sparked a reform that would change how football was played.

The more high-profile of the two controversies was the sending-off of Argentinian captain Antonio Rattín. The physical number five had retained some of the attributes that would undoubtedly have been revered in players of mob football – to this day he is remembered as a legend at Boca Juniors for his combative qualities. It may seem unsurprising, therefore, that referee Rudolf Kreitlein ended up giving him his marching orders. However, the sending-off was not for a tackle or a fight. In fact, it didn’t appear to be for anything at all. The post-match report indicated that Rattín had been removed from the game for “violence of the tongue” towards the referee, but the German official didn’t speak a word of Spanish! A dirty look had got him removed from the World Cup quarter-final. Perhaps understandably, the Argentinian was reluctant to accept his fate. Once it had finally been successfully communicated to him that Kreitlein had sent him off, with the aid of head of tournament referees Ken Aston, he refused to go: policemen were eventually brought on to the pitch to escort him away. Still he would not go quietly – he sat down on the red carpet exclusively reserved for the Queen, and as a last act of defiance he wrinkled an English pennant as he was marched away.

This grabbed the headlines of the day, but in truth it was the less talked-about incident that truly gave rise to the idea of the cards system. Rattín did not initially realise he had been sent off, but the message got through to him eventually – he was evidently far from impressed with it, but this would have been true even if he had instantly been made aware of his dismissal. In contrast, the other controversy of the match was not settled until over thirty years later. Both of the Charlton brothers were playing for England; Jack was involved in a goalmouth tussle, and Bobby interceded on his behalf during the ensuing talk with Kreitlein, but the referee gave no indication that either of them had been cautioned. Certainly, neither of the two brothers were aware of it until reports in the next day’s newspapers suggested that both had received bookings: then-manager Alf Ramsey had to contact FIFA for clarification. It would appear that the response he received was far from conclusive, as in 1997 the matter was still playing on the mind of Bobby Charlton. In fairness, he had only ever received one other career booking, and the referee who gave that to him had since apologised for getting it wrong – he cannot be blamed for trying to get to the bottom of the only remaining blemish on an otherwise perfect disciplinary record. Nonetheless, when England came up against Argentina again in 1998, FIFA took the opportunity to confirm that they had examined their records at the request of Charlton the previous year, and found that both brothers had indeed been cautioned by Kreitlein.

Ken Aston, who had watched these incidents unfurl with horror before being called upon to try and persuade Rattín to leave the field, did not want to see a repeat. He had been a renowned referee himself, taking charge of the 1963 FA Cup Final in his final game before retirement. The previous year, he had also been given the honour of officiating at the opening game of the 1962 World Cup; he impressed so much that he was handed the task of presiding over Chile v Italy in a subsequent game. This was not something for which he was particularly thankful – he later described himself as “acting as an umpire in military manoeuvres” in the match that came to be known as ‘The Battle of Santiago’. Prior to the game, reports emerged in Chile that newspapers in their opponent’s country had been questioning the beauty and morals of Chilean women: tempers flared high, as both sides treated the occasion as a battle of honour as much as a football match. Aston broke up numerous fights, sent off two Italian players and had to work in conjunction with armed police to ensure that the match reached a conclusion. He was praised greatly for his handling of a highly volatile situation.

The respect he had garnered within the game was reflected in his appointment as head of referees at the 1966 tournament – his subsequent invention would ensure his legacy extended well beyond the end of his career. The story goes that he was sitting at a set of traffic lights on Kensington Road, dwelling upon how to avoid incidents such as those he had recently witnessed, when the idea came to him: yellow for take it easy, red for “stop, you’re off”.  The idea was as simple as it was brilliant: simultaneously, the issues of the language barrier and the uncommunicated caution were removed from the game.

Football has always been resistant to change, but even the governing bodies struggled to find a downside of the concept. FIFA trialled the concept at the next World Cup in 1970, to great success – the FA dragged their heels for six further years, but eventually also adopted the system that football fans around the world now treat as integral to the sport. This, however, would not prove to be the end of the story. After less than five years of using the cards, the English authorities felt that red cards had led to an upswing in “demonstrative referees” sending people off with too much regularity: the more serious of Aston’s two cards was duly removed from the domestic game following a decision of the FA Council in January 1981. Amazingly, red cards were not reintroduced into English football until 1987, and even then only at the insistence of the International Board – this is why footage of the first ever sending-off in an FA Cup final, in a clash between Everton and Manchester United in 1985, shows the referee taking Kevin Moran’s name and then gesturing him off the field, rather than showing him a red card. The cards system as we know it, then, has only been around as an essential part of the game for a little over thirty years.

Ken Aston cannot have known when sitting at those traffic lights that his idea would permanently change the way the sport he loved was played. Nor could Antonio Rattín have envisaged that his sit-down protest on the Queen’s red carpet would give rise to a system that helped bring clarity and transparency to on-field decisions, reducing the chances of anyone else being sent off for little more than a dirty look. In football as in life, progress can be driven in strange and unpredictable ways.

- Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013