Thursday 26 October 2017

A Big Shake Up

I really don't know where to start, so let's go from right here.

I haven't written about Liverpool Football Club for 31 months now, for various reasons. One of them being that Jurgen Klopp took control of the Reds, and I wanted to strap myself in for what was obviously going to be a fun ride, without feeling the need to watch every game with an analytical eye. It felt like this was going to be a time to be enjoyed, and savoured.

This has proven to be true at times. Dortmund; two cup finals in his first season with us; goals, lots of them; fist-pumping; late winners. We've had our fair share of highs.



Sunday. The Reds produced that, and suddenly I needed to spill my thoughts. Okay, we lost 4-1 to a very, very good football side who had a very, very good day, but that is sort of missing the point. The most galling thing about it, the thing that drove me to spew my anger here on this blog, was how it happened. The problems are painfully obvious and familiar; they've been our problems for a frightening amount of time now. The last time I went into games confident of a clean sheet was in one of the seasons under Kenny. Martin Skrtel was in our backline then. Which is ironic because I hated Martin Skrtel - not personally, I'm sure he was a nice fella. Just as a footballer.

I suppose hate is a strong word isn't it? It should be used sparingly anyway. That brings me nicely to Dejan Lovren. I usually pride myself on being quite philosophical about the footy; I try not to dwell on individual errors - they are inevitable. But when your centre-half - a senior centre-half who is criminally still part of the first choice pairing - consistently fucks up, something has to be done. And I mean something fairly drastic, like committing to the decision that he simply isn't good enough. Certainly not as a starting player. Maybe hooking him half an hour into Sunday's debacle is a sign of Klopp belatedly acknowledging that, and finally letting down his failing barrier of stubbornness.

Then we come to Simon Mignolet. Now he’s a man it’s difficult to actively hate. He’s a totally different character to Lovren; Mignolet has a face which cries out for help, full of self-doubt, paranoia and fear, as much as he admirably tries to mask this by shouting as loud as he can and flapping his arms at anyone in front of him when he makes a good save. His determination to fight against the odds and better himself, despite an apparent self-awareness that he’s a bit crap, is all well and good and like I said, could be seen as admirable. In your average person that is. But then you remember Simon Mignolet is the man tasked with stopping the ball going in Liverpool Football Club’s net. And he has been for over four years. Four bloody years. It’s astounding. In that time, two managers have lost patience with him a number of times, but they have always gone back – why?! Maybe it’s the fact he can go on runs of good games, or loves a penalty save, but a series of calamities – like Sunday – are never far away. Surely Brendan Rodgers and Jurgen Klopp have known this; surely they are not so fickle. It’s time to be bold and make a change – permanently. Mignolet is never going to be a Liverpool Football Club goalie.

It’s time we gave Danny Ward a prolonged run in goal. Not just the odd game as he’s had before; a proper run as the Reds number one goalkeeper. If it doesn’t work out, so what? It’s not working with Simon Mignolet, and never will – it’s that simple. What’s clear is Ward has something about him and at the very least, an air of authority. Ward is no young maverick too; he’s played league football for five different clubs, and was a key part of Huddersfield’s promotion to the Premier League last season. At 24 years old, Ward is ready for a chance.

So there’s the keeper sorted. What about the 10 in front of him?

Well first of all, I think a change of system is overdue, just to freshen things up and give teams something else to think about with Liverpool. The 4-3-3 Klopp has rolled out for the majority of his tenure with the Reds is becoming tired and predictable – easier and easier for opposing teams to work out and pick holes in.

I’d love to see a 3-4-3, at least until we manage to sort the current personnel. Something like this:

Brendan Rodgers often switched systems to good effect, if a little too much at times. I remember Emre Can impressing as a ball-playing centre-half in a three at the back, so I’d use him here again. Of course, this also has the added perk of not needing to select Dejan Lovren. I think a key component of us deploying a 3-4-3 is the wing-backs. Trent Alexander-Arnold and Alberto Moreno are perfectly suited to these roles, with their mix of athleticism and attacking guile. I can hear you now protesting about a central midfield two of Henderson and Coutinho; but with a back three behind and the wing-backs helping out inside when necessary, protection in midfield isn’t as vital. Look at City anyway – a central midfield two of De Bruyne and Silva. Okay, Fernandinho mops up, and he is very, very good at it, but then that is with only two centre-halves behind. The front three picks itself when Mane is available again, but for now I'd like to see Oxlade-Chamberlain get a proper go.

Like I mentioned, I normally try to be quite level-headed about football, and not look too closely at individual errors, but that's gone out the window here. It's the frequency at which they are happening, at the hands of the culprits I've mentioned. The same thing over and over and over. They were talking about it on Sky after the game on Sunday, debating whether things would be different if we had got Van Djik over the summer. Jamie Redknapp was unsure, as he often is, but Graeme Souness spoke loads of sense. He was basically saying yes it would make a huge difference. For example, we wouldn't be starting a centre-half who is happy to watch the ball float over his head and let one of the deadliest strikers in the world at the moment score a few minutes into a huge game. It really is that simple. To not do something about it would be criminal. A big shake up is needed, and I think (hope) part of you knows it, Jurgen.

It's the battle of the Germans on Saturday, as Klopp's best mate David Wagner brings his gnarly Huddersfield side to Anfield. I'm reminded as I write this, by a crowing, Terrier's-supporting mate of my own, that a win for the visitors on Saturday would send them above us in the Premier League table. After ten games that is. And if changes aren't made, I wouldn't bet against it. Pull yourselves together, Reds.

Tuesday 17 March 2015

Rodgers 1-0 Monk

Most football managers seem to think their primary job is to motivate; usually by shouting at players and officials. A crazed, passionate disposition will please the fans.

Blame for defeats is apportioned anywhere, everywhere. Individual player mistakes are pointed out; refereeing errors too. Of course, this does nothing to improve things in the future. It’s reactive. This type of manager takes no regard of context: is how they’re setting their team up systematically the real source of their downfall?
Luckily for us, Brendan Rodgers doesn’t think like that.

The Reds reach the sanctuary of the dressing room at half-time last night, with Simon Mignolet to thank for somehow being level. The Belgium made a string of impressive saves, setting him on his way to his seventh clean sheet in Liverpool’s last nine league game – some achievement, for him and the rest of the team.

It would have been easy for our manager to use the 15 minute break to do as described earlier: shout at mistakes. But what good would that have done? Would it have rectified things? Certainly not. It would have sent our lads into their shells. And these Reds don’t belong in their shells.

Instead, Rodgers make a subtle, but concise, tactical change. The wing-backs are pushed higher, while centrally Liverpool match Swansea with a diamond, Allen and Lallana sandwiching Henderson and Coutinho. It’s still a 3-4-3, but a slight variation of it.

Fundamentally, it pushes Liverpool that extra ten yards up the pitch and gives us more control in the second 45.

The game is turned on its head, as the Reds now look the aggressors; we’re quicker to every loose ball and the Swans’ central quartet is suddenly nullified.

There can be no question, Brendan Rodgers’ half-time switch wins us that game. 

Liverpool have a proactive manager at the helm and you'd be silly to take that for granted.

Friday 27 February 2015

Besiktas (1)1-0(1) Liverpool (5-4 Besiktas Pens): Nothing Football Match

NOT A HUGE FAN OF SIX O'CLOCK AS A KICK-OFF TIME. 6pm: It’s sort of in the way, particularly for a fella that is horrendously meticulous about what time he eats his evening meal. Six is cooking/eating time, not footy time. I’ll never get used to it, and probably won’t have to.

Frankly, I don’t want to get used to it, if this is the type of football it produces.

I went to bed in a horrible mood about this one. Having slept on it, I haven’t really changed my mind.

The Reds’ thinking is all wrong. You don’t defend a 1-0 first leg lead by sitting men behind the ball and constantly clearing the ball long. Not in my opinion anyway. You see a game out by controlling it, keeping the ball, scoring another. Front foot, always. We score one, they need three.

Okay, if Sturridge tucks his chance away, neatly played in Balotelli, we get that goal. Everything seems great. Rodgers right again. But after we miss that chance, particularly in the second half, we retract into our shells. Don’t do that; go and kill it off.

Mario is undoubtedly the brightest of our front three, although even he is only occasionally involved. That says a lot. Sturridge and Sterling do nothing but get dispossessed all night, but what do you expect? The three Reds are left to fend for themselves in attack; made to feed off hopeful (or hopeless) punts forward from the back, often up against five or six hungry Besiktas lads. It frustrates me when people are so quick to berate players without any holistic regard for the type of game they’re playing in. Like I said, the front three were left to play their own game of football; our other seven outfield lads weren’t really interested.

Besiktas are a decent football team. But they are just that: decent. Well organised, industrious and tidy. A number seven that shimmers and really has something about him, like most sevens. I refuse to believe they’re as good as people keep telling me though. They’re not Barcelona; yet we very much played against them like they were. We made Besiktas into Barca.

The crucial point for me is this: if we are playing a team equal to Besiktas’ level in domestic football on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, our mindset is flipped on its head. We’re taking the iniative; playing with adventure; playing devoid of fear. Our idea is very much to win the game; not just to avoid defeat. I reckon we win the game 2-0, maybe three.

At the moment, we have a problem with Europe. Brendan Rodgers has a problem with Europe. A mental block. Philosophies are thrown out of the window; all the rhetoric of football full of courage and personality in possession forgotten. We’re getting that at the moment in the Premier League, so why not on the European stage?

Predictably then, the positives come at the back for Liverpool. Martin Skrtel continues his good form, dealing with near enough everything that comes his way. To his right, Kolo Toure does well enough, slotting seamlessly back in. Obviously kept his African Nations Cup celebrations to a minimum – ever the professional.

Alberto Moreno is all over the place, in a good way. An irrepressible bundle of energy and probably our best player on the night.

You probably won’t believe me here. I don’t really care; your choice. But I say to my mate after about 100 minutes, penalties already inevitable, that Lovren will put his name down and balloon his. We laugh our heads off.

We shouldn’t have laughed. Turns out Dejan Lovren does think he’s better at footy than he is. Outrageous. Ah well, at least he stepped up. How much money do you want again, Raheem?

Nothing football match that. Absolutely nothing. I did remarkably well to squeeze 636 words from it.

You’d hope the City game on Sunday might be better, and you’d hope the real Reds resurface. The returns of Sakho and Hendo won’t half help. Hopefully they both recover in time. Coutinho, rested last night, will be key.

Tuesday 24 February 2015

Southampton 0-2 Liverpool: Don't Shoot Phil

The Reds won again. We won again. We’re all happy. Three points off third, two off fourth, and five away league clean sheets on the bounce for the first time since 1985. 30 years. Defensive coach and all that. You’ve probably been made aware of that last piece of trivia at least 10 times since full-time yesterday, but I don’t care; I’m writing an article here and things like that would be worthless if they weren’t included in things like this.

Fluency Lacking, Three Points Not

Don’t know if you did, but I took great solace in the fact we showed we could win ugly again. It’s a sign of a team full of character. Shades of the start of last season.

It was obvious we were lacking our recent fluency, but it seemed our lads accepted that and decided they’d find a way to win the game anyway. I’m almost certain our disjointed display was down to our lack of balance, particularly in the first half. Our entire XI consisted of right-footed players which left the Reds a bit lopsided. Mamadou Sakho’s ability to bring the ball out of defence and play accurate, penetrating passes through midfield was clearly missed and equally we were missing Alberto Moreno’s habit of stretching the pitch on the left touchline.

I praised Sakho there because the moronic mainstream media certainly won’t. Don’t listen to the mainstream media, please; they’re so rubbish. Listening to ex-footballers attempt to talk about football is soul-crushing most of the time. It all became even more pathetic for me when BT Sport pundit Ian Wright was asked about Christian Eriksen being banished to the bench by Mauricio Pochettino on Saturday. Wright’s thoroughly insightful reply was “Who’s Eriksen again?” Extraordinary. Great player and I’m sure he’s a good laugh, but he’s getting paid silly money for saying things like that on our tellies.

Good Subs

Credit to Brendan though; he wasted no time in rectifying things. The Markovic to Moreno change was one of the most necessary tactical switches you’re ever likely to see. But still, I bet a lot of managers wouldn’t have made it, especially not as early as half-time. Sturridge was introduced as it became clear we needed a focal point to our attacks; someone to get hold of the ball and bring others into play. His arrival freed Sterling up which helped us.

Finally, Johnson replaced Ibe. And Reds everywhere let out a universal sigh. Just do alright please Glen; no lapses. He did. Brendan must have been overflowing with smugness, and Jordan Ibe had his feet up for Turkey on Thursday. Happy days.

Impressive Individuals

The aforementioned Ibe continued to impress. Attacking down the right with the ceaseless youthful exuberance he buzzes about with, whilst marrying that with the positional and defensive perception of a seasoned professional.

Joe Allen again looked like he had a point to prove. He was busy, busier than usual even, and mostly tidy in possession. I felt like his energy was key to our win.

After recovering from a shaky start, Martin Skrtel decided to boss everything. I lost count of the number of headers he won and clearances he made. Could look it up but stats are boring, so I’ll say loads. He did loads. Played Martin.

Simon Gets His Own Sub-title

Simon Mignolet’s renaissance continued. On the few occasions the colossus Skrtel was beaten, Mignolet came to the rescue. A few very good saves, some noteworthy handling and even a Manuel Neuer-style foray out of his box to clear some danger. He’s gone a bit mad and I like it.

Remember he was dropped for Brad Jones? Hahaha.

The Strike

Can’t write this without mentioning that goal, can I? “Don’t shoot” I said to myself as Phil from Brazil picked the ball up 35 yards out. You did too; don’t lie. We meant well; he can’t shoot. Luckily the little magician ignored our pleas and unleashed that. Went in off the underside too, which is always gorgeous to watch.

You know a goal is decent when you can see opposition fans behind the goal being reduced to an open-mouthed clap of appreciation as the ball goes in. Wools.

Jobsworth Steward

Our second was loads of fun. Moreno’s rubbish cross somehow found its way to Sterling’s feet, whose rubbish shot somehow beat Fraser Forster. Raheem ran off, celebrated in front of the travelling Reds, and was joined by everyone else. Except Mingo. I’d love Mingo to run full length and get involved. He’d done enough on Sunday though, fair enough.

One fella that did put in a monumental effort to get involved was a fan. Scaled the hoardings and was then taken down with absurd force and no doubt extreme delectation by a stupidly spirited steward. The fella had probably just had a tough week at work, wanted to kiss Emre Can and hug everyone. They don’t get what footy means to us down in Southampton.

Next Up

Besiktas away on Thursday then. Don’t envy anyone who’s going. Hope everyone, including the players, returns in one piece with a win. One player I’d be leaving at home, with the City game looming, is Phil Coutinho.

Wednesday 21 January 2015

Alright that wasn’t it?

People say the Capital One Cup doesn’t matter. A lot of Evertonians and Mancunians are of that opinion at the moment, funnily enough. Maybe it doesn’t matter.

But what does matter, always, is Liverpool versus Chelsea.

So many titanic battles over the last ten or so years. But we could we do it this time? Could we trade blows with a Mourinho side sitting five points clear at the top of the Premier League while we languish in eighth?

Okay, recent performances have been encouraging but amidst that resurgence we have yet to come up against a genuinely sophisticated, strong outfit. A Chelsea.

The questions were justified.

And the Reds’ answer was emphatic. An emphatic ‘yes’. Yes, we can compete with the best. We made a statement.

From the outset we were vibrant. A vibrant, proactive, cohesive unit. As we have been for the last few games, in fact. The rigid, contrived hesitancy of a few months ago seems very much forgotten.

The change of system, to 3-4-2-1, has been the driving force behind our recent upturn. I think we’d agree unanimously there. Credit must go to Rodgers for that change. Although, having said that, we don’t know who came up with it. Pascoe is capable of a masterstroke like that, isn’t he? Nobody knows. Marsh? I have to admit, I doubt it. Personally I’m going for Emre Can. “3-4-2-1”, he softly crooned, in between puffs of his cigar. “Play me right centre-back.”

I mention Can primarily because I’m falling in love with the guy. Penalty incident aside, he was terrific last night. Strong, assured and possessing a ridiculous swagger on the ball. I gather that Jamie Carragher had a bit of a go at his first half performance on Sky at half-time. That’s why I don’t bother listening to pundits most of the time. Honestly, it’s so futile. Just leave the room and make a cup of tea. To criticise Can, who’s just turned 21, for a single error of judgment against one of the best players on the planet at the moment was hopelessly unnecessary. Defenders’ mistakes are going to stand out simply because of their close proximity to the goal they’re defending. The fact that that was his first noticeable error in a Liverpool shirt shows what a prodigious prospect Emre Can is.

Can isn’t the only player who simply looks a better footballer since our change of shape. The German’s two defensive partners, Sakho and Skrtel, look as comfortable as anything in the 3-4-2-1. The former’s game looks tailor-made for playing on the left of a three. He has the pace and power to cover ground in the channel, and the composure and intelligence to step forward with and without the ball when required.

I’m still convinced that Wayne Rooney’s opening goal at Old Trafford a little while back was caused by Dejan Lovren’s failure to engage Antonio Valencia in the channel as soon as he had passed Allen and Lallana. Lovren was positioned as if he was part of a central two, when in reality he was playing on the left of a three. Forget Brad Jones falling over, Lovren was way out of position.

Further forward, Leiva and Henderson look revitalised in the 3-4-2-1. The wing-backs are having fun, as they should. And I feel like there is even more to come from them in an attacking sense.

The front three, or the two and the one, looked dangerous last night. As they have done for the last few weeks. Again, the system is to thank for that. Philippe Coutinho, who looks to have decided to start taking the piss out of the opposition again, was everywhere. Steven Gerrard buzzed around, oozing class, and was unlucky to not get a goal. Raheem Sterling, positioned most like a striker of any of the Reds’ 11 players, but still with the freedom to roam, was typically dynamic. The only criticism I would have of his performance, is I don’t think he ran directly at Terry and Cahill enough, preying on their vulnerability to oncoming, pacey runners.

Basically, I wish he’d have done more of what he did for his goal. Which isn’t much of a criticism, as he did do it for his goal. It did happen. And what a goal it was. I said after his goal at Bournemouth, that his acceleration, composure and finish was reminiscent of a young Thierry Henry. Last night was like that, but better. If he can make a habit of doing things like Thierry Henry, I’m willing to go with that.

The atmosphere from then on was a sight to behold. A sound to behold. If Steven buries that chance soon after our equaliser, the roof comes off of Anfield. I’m telling you, the roof comes off.

As I mention Gerrard, I should probably say something about the sub. I liked it. And I was over the moon Brendan had the balls to do it. Not to boast, in fact, absolutely to boast, I did turn to my mate as the second half began and say “Lallana for Gerrard 70 minutes.” Not because Steven Gerrard isn’t a good footballer, or wasn’t playing well. Not at all. But because it was vital that we retained our intensity right through to 90. It’s natural for a 34-year-old’s levels to wain slightly in a game as breathless as that.

Stevie went off. Got a huge round of applause. And Adam Lallana came within inches of making it 2-1. Happy days. Good sub, Brend.

Before last night’s game, I just wanted us to be going to Stamford Bridge still in the tie. We’re doing that. Repeat that performance, perhaps with a bit more cutting edge and luck (refereeing decisions), and we’ve got a real chance. I’m strangely confident.

Sturridge winner off the bench, anyone?

Friday 10 October 2014

The international break may be upon us, but things are happening at Melwood. Here’s my slant on Liverpool Football Club’s week.


The international break. It’s here again. Like an unwanted recluse at a party, it’s here again. Here again, driven by Roy Hodgson, with his withered face and weary football philosophy. Who invited you, mate?

Roy needs something to do, to be fair. He’s doing a sterling job of sapping the soul from the English National Team, so why should he stop now? Brazil was only the beginning.

Wayne’s also bored. He’s banned from playing Premier League football for a few weeks after kicking an opponent (not for the first time in his career) so let him run around and shout like a captain. He’ll enjoy it.

The break isn’t all bad though. While a chunk of the Liverpool squad did jet off to meet up with their international colleagues earlier this week, a few key players didn’t.

Steven Gerrard gets another chance to put his feet up, having of course retired from England duty. Daniel Sturridge, Joe Allen, Glen Johnson, Mamadou Sakho and Emre Can will remain at Melwood to continue their rehabilitation from injury. The former trio are expected to be pushing for a place in the squad for our next match, Queens Park Rangers, on 19 October. You don’t need me to tell you that’s a significant boost.

Then there’s Mario Balotelli, who for some reason hasn’t been included in the Italian squad. Why? I have no idea. And I couldn’t really care less. What matters is, he’s staying at home. If I was Brendan, I’d have him playing FIFA, going shopping, doing all sorts with Danny Sturridge. He could even play table tennis with Jose Enrique, who is either not talented enough or not sane enough to play for his country. Probably both.

In fact, talking of Jose’s country, Spain, I must say that they in some way make international football a worthwhile thing for me. They do football right, even when things go wrong for them, like in the summer. Chile are another beacon of positivity. The way Jorge Sampaoli set his team up in the World Cup (and last November against England) was a perfect demonstration of what a group of players can achieve when they are tactically cohesive. Take note Roy.

So I suppose my antipathy for international football isn’t all-encompassing. I’ll put up with it this time.

Well that was my idea anyway. Until, on Thursday morning (before an international fixture had even taken place), news emanated from the Croatian camp that Dejan Lovren had picked up a groin injury.

He was immediately sent back to Melwood for an assessment.

Lovren hasn’t got off to the most serene of starts for us, with a series of erratic performances. But whether you see his potential absence as a blow or not, I think it’s clear having just two fit centre-backs in your squad isn’t ideal. A consistent defensive duo (or trio) has historically proven to be the fulcrum of most successful sides through the years. As far as I can remember, we’ve never had that throughout Brendan Rodgers’ reign, for one reason or another.

This could cause more rotation in that area, which is never healthy in my opinion.

Conversely though, he could just miss Croatia’s two European Championship qualifiers and recover in time for our game next Sunday. In effect, just getting a fortnight’s rest.

Let’s wait and see.

Thursday night saw a few Reds in action for their countries. Martin Skrtel captained Slovakia to a historic 2-1 win against Spain. Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling and Adam Lallana all came through England’s routine mauling of football minnows San Marino. Rickie Lambert was an unused substitute. They’re all fine. One down, one to go.

While a lot of the lads are away, Brendan seems keen to get some admin work done. Important admin work. Well I say important, but are contracts really as significant in football as they are in other professions? Probably not.

They seem little more than a piece of paper now, with no real meaning. Okay, a player who has just signed a new deal will see his market value rise, but that’s about the only benefit for his club.

Nevertheless, the penning of Daniel Sturridge’s new deal last Friday will no doubt have appeased fellow Reds and I (for a few hours at least).

This week there has been more talk of new contracts with deals for Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling apparently nearing completion. Sturridge, Sterling and Henderson. Three huge talents. Three huge English talents. Get them signed up. They’re key to our future, as well as our present.

Incidentally, one of those players, Jordan Henderson, beat Joe Hart with a ludicrous, left-footed long-strike in England training on Tuesday. If you haven’t seen it, firstly ask yourself why. Then read the rest of this and go and watch it. Preferably on Vine so it plays on a continuous loop, as a strike like that deserves to. It’s loop-worthy. I love Jordan Henderson. You should too.

Contract negotiations haven’t been quite as smooth, or indeed just not as active, with Glen Johnson and his representatives. Johnson’s current Liverpool deals comes to an end next summer and the player himself has admitted even he is unsure what the future holds.

I’m sure I’m not alone in being fairly unconcerned by his possible departure. At 30 years old his best days as a marauding full-back are probably behind him. There’s no doubt that on his day he’s an exceptional asset to a football team, but too often in the last 18 months his phlegmatic performances haven’t merited the lucrative contract he sits on.

Last but certainly not least is some Luis Suarez news. Nice Luis Suarez news, I promise. You can deal with that can’t you?

The Uruguayan is set to be recognised for how outrageously well he played football for Liverpool Football Club last season, by being awarded the European Golden Shoe in Barcelona. He’ll share the award with Cristiano Ronaldo. And in case you’re wondering, I too have no idea why it’s not called the Golden Boot anymore. Or is that just for international football?

Quite frankly, who cares? That’s all minutiae.

What’s important is: Luis, being half scouse and all that, has invited Kenny Dalglish to fly over to Spain and present him with the award. Heart-melting stuff.

So that concludes a fairly quiet week for us. No Premier League at the weekend.

Nine more days though. Nine more days until Queens Park Rangers. Nine more days for Danny and Mario to pal up. Nine more long days with Roy Hodgson’s face everywhere.

Don’t worry, it’ll pass.

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Tuesday 7 October 2014

I explain why it wasn't just the result that pleased me in Saturday's win over West Brom.

Needed that didn’t we? We desperately needed that.

Just over 360 minutes of football without a win (counting Middlesbrough as a draw after normal time) is just not what Brendan Rodgers’ Reds are about. We can do one, maybe two, but four consecutive winless games is out of our comfort zone. Especially as each of those disappointing results have been born from horribly limp performances.

Everything was better on Saturday; more assured, more cohesion and vitally, more energy. And I’m convinced our improvement was caused by a subtle change of system. A change I haven’t been alone in pleading for recently. On the Internet. Looks like Brendan finally swallowed his pride and had a scan of Twitter. We know you’re out there, Brend.

The switch to a 4-3-3 seemed to spur us back into action. We suit it, particularly in midfield. Steven Gerrard looked happier flanked, slightly further forward, by Philippe Coutinho and Jordan Henderson. The shape gives them freedom to do what they do best – buzz about.

For all those who look down their nose at any utterance of tactics, have this. Had we lined up with the eleven players that played yesterday, but in the 4-2-3-1 we’ve oddly dabbled in recently (rather than the 4-3-3 we did play), we wouldn’t have won the game. I’m sure of that.

Replace Rickie Lambert – who continues to look like a lucky fan who’s won a competition to play a few games for his beloved club – with a lethal Luis Suarez or Daniel Sturridge, and we run out 5-1 winners. Fine margins. In fact, thinking back to that Lambert analogy, he kind of is that isn’t he?

Of course, not everything was perfect. The centre-backs continued to breed anxiety around Anfield. Although, that can be only be expected when those two players are Martin Skrtel and Dejan Lovren. Our poor form of late also inevitably heightens the nerves.

Glen Johnson was reintroduced for the closing stages after injury, and his presence was strangely reassuring. Maybe it’s an illustration of that old adage of becoming a better player when you’re out of the side. Who knows. But one thing is for sure: If the 2010 Glen Johnson would like to return, I’d be extremely pleased.

If Glen Johnson’s reasonably lively cameo made me wonder if I’d inadvertently hopped in a time machine back to 2010, Brendan Rodgers did his best to raise my suspicions further. Lucas was brought on with 15 to go to sit next to Jordan Henderson, meaning Steven Gerrard was shifted further forward. Gerrard in the 10! Bring Fernando Torres back!!! No, don’t bring Fernando Torres back. Please don’t. But yeah, seeing Stevie up there was all lovely and nostalgic I must admit. He seemed to love it too. He was everywhere, linking up nicely a few times with Mario.

It should definitely be an option. Particularly late on in games when things open up. There’s no player I’d like more for a chance to fall to in the dying minutes of a game.

I haven’t mentioned the goals. To be honest, I’m not a big fan of discussing goals. Talk about your general play, scrutinise your general play, and the goals will come. Television pundits (ex-players) wouldn’t agree with what I’ve just said. That’s why television football pundits are woeful. Radio ones too, in fact.

I will mention the goals though, predominantly because of the celebrations which succeeded them. The opener was incredibly Suarez-esque from Adam Lallana. Quick feet, a clever combination with Jordan Henderson and a confident finish. Lallana’s Suarez impression continued when the ball hit the back of the net. He ran and ran. And roared. A proper roar.

Hendo though, isn’t a man that likes to be outdone in the celebration stakes. He simply wasn’t going to let it happen. His opportunity came as he calmly slotted away Raheem Sterling’s intelligent pull-back late on. He was off, funny run and mouth agape. I thought he was heading for Brendan, who must have been terrified.

But no, just a knee-slide. A furious knee-slide. Breathe easy Brendan, we’ve got our three points at last.

No more Reds for a long 15 days. Dear international break, please be kinder to us this time.

Monday 22 September 2014

West Ham 3-1 Liverpool: Allardyce Is Laughing at Us

So this is what it’s like to be a proper European club. I’d forgotten; five years is a long time (Europa League doesn’t count). The trip to West Ham is our third game in seven days, and each one is crucial. Bang bang bang. Forget fatigue, it feels fantastic.

It may feel fantastic, but I’m also anxious. It’s West Ham away. It’s Sam Allardyce. It’s hustle and bustle. Any game against an Allardyce team sits on the fixture list every season, adorned in devil horns. I dread it. But come on Reds; let’s show them how good at football we are.

Joe Allen’s continued absence doesn’t help to negate my nerves. The Welshman is pivotal to our style of play, particularly in the diamond. His incessant shuttling up, down, and sideways to cover his full-back is invaluable. He’s the type of player who you don’t appreciate properly until he is out of the side. Having said that, incredibly, some people still don’t appreciate him and I doubt ever will. Leave them to it.

The team is worrying to look at. Martin Skrtel comes straight back in after injury, replacing Mamadou Sakho, which is disheartening. Fabio Borini and Lucas Leiva go from having one foot out of the door in the summer (two feet and a hand in Borini’s case) to starting a game weeks later. Strange. We have a few injuries - I get that – but surely there are other other options. Raheem Sterling has the skillset to slot seamlessly into a forward role. I’d love to see him partner Mario, with Adam Lallana, Phil Coutinho or Lazar Markovic pulling the strings behind them.

Within 10 minutes (seven to be painfully precise) my fears are justified. We’re two down and we look horribly disjointed. We’re getting bullied. Allardyce loves it. Big fat Allardyce.

I’m not overly surprised though. And I’m not one to whine about team and manager after a poor performance with unnecessary relish and vitriol, so I’ll probably keep this short.

A change of system to 3-5-2 improves things slightly and Sterling, who’s now shifted to right wing-back, smashes us back to within a goal.

That proves to be the highlight of our day. We look devoid of ideas and subsequently, West Ham are reasonably comfortable.

Can we really expect any more when two of our four midfielders are passengers? Lucas waddles about for 45 before being replaced. He looks frighteningly off the pace. Gerrard fairs no better in his third game in seven days. I’m not going out of my way to make excuses for our captain, but he simply shouldn’t be starting three football matches in seven days at the age of 34. Especially when none of those games have been against a particularly strong team. He needs to be managed better. Pick and choose his starts; get the best out of him in short, sharp bursts.

“Hull away last season” I say to my mate. He nods, mournfully. This performance is all too Hull-away-last-season. Not just because of the final score, but because of our lack of organisation, spirit and imagination. There’s no identity to our play. It’s messy. It’s sluggish. We’re weary.

Identity is the keyword there, I think. Brendan Rodgers came to Liverpool Football Club with a clear and uncompromising football philosophy. Possession, possession, possession. Over time that seems to have fizzled out, departed.

Pragmatism has crept into our game. A pragmatism which last season seemed acceptable given we found ourselves on the cusp of history. We relied heavily on individuality and I’m not convinced that’s what Brendan gets a kick out of. His Swansea side, for instance, were a fluent outfit who moved the ball with an assured swagger and precision.

Now Luis has gone (and with a busier schedule), we won’t be as effective playing constantly at 100 miles per hour. It’s time to revert back. I want precision back in our game. Controlled football matches. Clean sheets. 2-0s. I love 2-0s.

Let our rivals drown in the mad games. Like they have today, as I write. Leicester 5-3 Man Utd. Everton 2-3 Crystal Palace. Excellent. Weekend salvaged, to an extent. The Premier League is incredibly weird. I suppose I better mention Chelsea’s draw at the Etihad for the optimists. Two points dropped each.

So yeah, we lost yesterday. We were terrible. Allardyce laughed at us. Fat Allardyce. But none of our rivals are setting the world alight, and we will improve. Daniel Sturridge knows we will improve. Joe Allen knows we will improve. Emre Can knows it too.

Put West Ham behind you. We’ve got another game of footy on Tuesday. Jesus. Then some other little thing on Saturday. It’s madness. Embrace it.

Monday 15 September 2014

Liverpool 0-1 Aston Villa: Piss Off Paul

13 days. 13 days we had to wait. 13 days after swatting aside a decent Spurs side at White Hart Lane, the Reds were finally back in action.

I actually wasn’t that bothered about this international break, heading into it. Which is rare. I could see some benefits for us. It would give our injured players a chance to step up their recovery, while not missing any games. Stevie, now retired from England duty, could kick back somewhere sunny too, topping up his tan and (perhaps more significantly) his energy. Heading into a break on the back of a win always helps as well.

It actually seemed quite necessary.

But no, it was as soul-crushing as usual. Probably even more so. Our chief tormentor, Roy Hodgson, did what he does best – ruins our lives. He decided to test Daniel Sturridge’s resolve again, playing the Reds’ number 15 for the entirety of a friendly against Norway. A vital friendly. Dan came through it, but Roy wasn’t done yet. A hamstring injury in training. Up to three weeks out. Then Hodgson came worryingly close to achieving the impossible: injuring Jordan Henderson. Audacious. Luckily Hendo was having none of it and he recovered in time for England’s game in Switzerland.

Then there was big Emre Can, who rolled his ankle playing for Germany Under-21s, and could now face six weeks out according to Brendan. Just as he was finding his feet.

Joe Allen also picked up a knock, after playing 90 minutes in Andorra on a pitch that resembled an allotment – a vacant, sad allotment.

Oh, and mad Mario murdered a Wolves player during a practice match at Melwood. Or something like that.

The international break – as deplorable as ever.

Anyway, the Reds were back playing football on Saturday, and everything was going to be great. Just as Hodgson was departing our minds though, Paul Lambert arrived at Anfield with his Aston Villa side. Like Hodgson, Lambert seems to have decided his mission in football is to depress Liverpool fans. I’m sick of him prancing up and down the Anfield touchline after a goal for his team, saluting the traveling supporters. Piss off Paul. Brendan should be prancing.

From the moment Gabby Agbonlahor put Villa ahead early on in this one, it seemed obvious nothing was going to change. There was an inevitability about it. They get their noses in front and build a metaphorical brick wall. A brick wall that we run into time and time again.

I take the blame for the goal, by the way. We’ve actually defended set-pieces reasonably well in recent times, contrary to popular narrative. And I attribute this to the fact I shout ‘Out!’ as the ball is flying into our box. It’s worked remarkably well. I didn’t do it this time; I wasn’t on my game. That’s why we conceded, and ultimately lost the game. That, and the fact Dejan Lovren has clearly spent far too much time hanging around (playing wrestling) with Martin Skrtel.

Our shambolic set-piece defending wasn’t the only thing that contributed to us coming out of this one empty handed though. In attack, we looked disjointed. This was perhaps no surprise, as of our offensive quadrant, only Philippe Coutinho had more than a single start for us. Raheem Sterling got a rest, which I could see a smidgen of logic in given that we had a Champions League game a few days later. But, to take another angle, is he really needed against Ludogorets? Would it not have been better to play him against Villa and rest him on Tuesday?
This is all hindsight though, I know. I certainly wasn’t moaning about our side when I saw it. Besides, we’re not privy to the information Brendan and the rest of the coaching staff have. Perhaps Raheem wasn’t 100% after returning from England duty (likely) and thus leaving him on the bench here seemed the rational thing to do.

Of the new boys that started, I thought they each did quite well. Both full-backs were impressive again, tirelessly offering a wide attacking outlet and tracking back briskly when we lost possession.

Further forward, Lallana, Markovic and Balotelli all showed glimpses of quality, but none of the three are fully up to match sharpness. To be fair to them, I think our inability to break Villa down stemmed from our lack of cohesion as a team, and not the individuals themselves.

There will of course be those ‘supporters’ who wearily harp on about Luis Suarez, and how much we miss him. They were out in full force on Saturday evening, I’m sure, groaning with unnecessary scorn and vigour into their beverages. If you are one of those people, I implore you to wait and see. You may not have picked up on the positives from Saturday, but they were there I assure you. Anyway, Luis Suarez wouldn’t have improved us at all yesterday. I guarantee you. I can guarantee you because he’d have been watching from the stands, suspended.

The Champions League is back at Anfield on Tuesday. Stop drowning in self-pity and take that in. The Champions League. Back at Anfield. On Tuesday.

Southampton, Man City and Spurs: Six From Nine

The concept of this piece was drawn up on Thursday 28th August. Neil had invited me to write for We Are Liverpool and I duly accepted. It was going to be printed. Printing of my work probably means extra effort, consciously or not.

I’d decided to write an upbeat review of our opening three games of 2014/15. That’s correct, an upbeat review of a trio of football matches, 72 hours before the third of those had kicked off. And 72 hours after a humbling 3-1 defeat at the Etihad.

I was going to be bullishly upbeat. How could I be so sure? What if we got humiliated at White Hart Lane?

Well that was never going to happen. Because we are Brendan Rodgers’ Reds, and we now do football really well, regardless of results.

Mario’s arrival also helped with the upbeat thing, admittedly.

So, to the real business.

There was an eerie hush around Anfield in the opening minutes of the season curtain-raiser against Southampton. A quiet anxiety. That’s what I felt anyway. Luis had gone; could we hit the heights of 2013/14? Could we make another charge for number 19?

The uneventful start did nothing to ease my tension, or answer those questions.

That was until Jordan Henderson did what Jordan Henderson does. He hounds. Hounds until he has the ball. His ball. Then he plays a pinpoint pass, with his weaker foot, setting Raheem Sterling through on goal. Sterling slots past an onrushing Fraser Forster, with remarkable serenity. A similar serenity to which Demba Ba had shown 112 days earlier in an identical position in front of the Kop, ripping the heart from every watching Red as the title was snatched from under our noses. That goal drew a line under one challenge; Sterling’s launched another.

We turn it on now, right? We score loads of goals. Merciless goals. We did it last season. We even did it last week against Dortmund.

No. Didn’t happen.

Southampton, despite their summer dismantlement, played their way back in. Clyne equalised, and they looked more likely to win. Were we still hungover from May?

Brendan Rodgers looked back and saw something on his bench he has rarely possessed in his Liverpool tenure up to now: options. A trick up his sleeve. Joe Allen was the first card he played. The dynamic Welshman immediately transformed us, infectiously buzzing about. There was a sudden urgency. Then another card – summer arrival, and boyhood Red, Rickie Lambert. And a switch to the diamond.

We went slightly more direct. Style went out the window. Three points were a must, with two tough away games to come.

Finally. With just over 10 to go, Sterling rose like a salmon, and Sturridge got the slightest of touches to guide the ball into the Anfield Road net. 40,000 red roars. Relieved Roars. Rodgers went mad. He loves goals, our Brendan. And he knew how important this one was.

Opening day, three points. Take them and run.

Next up was City. At the Etihad. We don’t really seem to win there. Like us, they limped to a win in their first game of the campaign last weekend, without really getting out of third gear. “I’d much rather play them now than later in the season”, I opined to my mates. They seemed to agree. This felt like a good time to take on City.

Team news broke. Allen in for Lucas – good. Alberto Moreno makes his debut – good.

Raheem Sterling started on the right of a 4-3-3, underlining his versatility. He’d had spells on the left and in the 10 behind a front two last weekend. Rodgers clearly wanted him running in diagonally from the right and isolating Martin Demichelis.

We looked comfortable in the first period of the game. For the first 40 minutes, in fact. We knocked the ball around with an assured swagger, perhaps just lacking some penetration and a switch of tempo in the final third. In the back of my mind was our visit here on Boxing Day last year, though. We did well in the opening exchanges that day too, but it was City who possessed the cutting edge when it mattered, and we somehow went in behind at the break.

That happened again here.

One moment of nonchalance, in an area of the pitch you don’t need to see nonchalance, and Stevan Jovetic pounced. Half time: 1-0 City. De ja vu.

The football match recommenced with a similar pattern after the break. Jovetic was at it again; he loves scoring braces against us, that lad. Great goal to be fair. I took solace in Sky’s occasional tendency to pan to our unavailable players in the stand (mainly Mario Balotelli), due to their perverse obsession with Mario Balotelli. Alongside the Italian sat Adam Lallana, Jon Flanagan and Jordon Ibe. There may have been one or two more, but I can’t remember, and frankly that doesn’t matter. My point is that we’re building a squad, and that should make you excited.

Lazar Markovic replaced Phil Coutinho after an hour. The Serb immediately seemed to bring us back to life. He flitted about on the left like an arrogant butterfly. Not a bad arrogance; a necessary arrogance. He’s going to be a player.

Talking of players, Manuel Pellegrini introduced quite a good one in the 68th minute: Sergio Aguero. The Argentine jogged onto pitch, collected a Jesus Navas through ball and passed it into the back of the net. Does anyone know where Simon Mignolet was, or what he was doing? Ludicrous. 3-0. Game over.

For the second week running, Rickie Lambert was sent on in the closing stages. And for the second week running, he caused a bit of chaos (and a goal). It was only a consolation, although had he buried another chance which fell to him a few minutes later, it could have been more than that.

3-1. Ah well, not actually too disheartened. City are very much the benchmark.

Brendan Rodgers lifted my spirits further post-match. He knows what to say, doesn’t he? He reminds us that we’ve taken three points from two games so far; two games from which we gained zero points last season. Brendan always knows what to say.

A game we did take points from in 2013/14 was Spurs away. And how. We can’t repeat that though, surely. They’re better now, led by the impressive Mauricio Pochettino. Four wins from four in all competitions for them so far.

This was huge. Third game of the season and already it felt like a must-not-lose. Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? But it was true, especially heading into the international break. Having to cope with a loss gnawing away at your soul, without an opportunity to put things right for 10-14 days, is agonising. Watching England (at the moment) makes it torturous. It’s the anathema of football for me.

Luckily, we didn’t lose. We were excellent. And we very nearly repeated last campaign’s 5-0 scoreline.

Mario started for his debut, which surprised me. I have this fixation for unleashing new signings from the bench in their first game, and I thought this would have been particularly wise here given Balotelli had played less than 200 minutes of football in pre-season.

I mentioned this to Brendan, in my imagination. He laughed (also in my imagination), and said something like, “Mario’s in good condition; I’ve seen him all week in training. We felt starting him would help us regain momentum after last Monday.” Fair enough. Good response Brendan, if I may say so, having composed it myself.

At half-time I apologised to Rodgers for even daring to question him. And Pascoe. We were 1-0 up and Balo could have had a hat-trick. He seemed to be everywhere. People said he wouldn’t work, wasn’t bothered. I hope those people watched this game. He buzzed around, somewhere between Sturridge (low) and Henderson (high) on the buzz-o-meter. Most significantly, his presence was a distraction for Spurs. Sturridge and Sterling had space; something they were perhaps starved of against City.

The second half felt a lot like last season. Stevie placing a penalty, and full-backs scoring mad goals. Alberto Moreno, excellent all day, nabbed the ball from an incredulous Andros Townsend just inside our half, and ran. He ran until he reached the Spurs penalty area and then smashed it across Hugo Lloris into the bottom corner. He celebrated like a maniac. I like Alberto Moreno; so should you.

Lazar Markovic then came on with his flittering butterfly, necessary arrogance, again. A good arrogance. Another 20-year-old made his second appearance too: Emre Can. Powerhouse. How is he not at least 26 years old?!

Last but certainly not least, a mention for Raheem Sterling’s performance. Pace, power, artistry, intelligence, industry; he’s got it all. What a player we have on our hands.

Liverpool Football Club is thrilling.

Six from nine. We’re going again.

Wednesday 20 August 2014

A Little Steven Gerrard Rant

I don't get the criticism of Steven Gerrard. I really don't.

I think it stems from a misconception of his role in the side. I constantly see him described as a defensive midfielder. He is not a defensive midfielder, and never will be. He is not playing as a defensive midfielder. Giving a player that title just because they are stationed in front of the defence is lazy. Defensive midfield is a role, not a position.

He is playing deep, but that does not automatically make him a defensive player. His duty is to initiate attacks. The position offers him space and time on the ball, maximising his ludicrous passing range. A passing range which, to me, seems undervalued.

Yes, his position on the pitch dictates that he must be competent defensively. And he is. This is where I think his role is misunderstood, and subsequently people demand too much. It is often thought that to play in front of a defence, you have to be a destroyer. You have to be dynamic; bustling about to try and regain possession. This is nonsense. Why can't players higher up the pitch do the leg work, with Gerrard controlling behind?

That's why our captain always looks at his best in a 1-2 midfield, sitting behind two combative players. We have the personnel for that. Henderson, Allen, Can and Coutinho are all suited to playing in the two in front.

Steven Gerrard, looked at objectively, is one of the best passers in world football. I say that without a doubt. Let's utilise it.

Don't play him alongside Lucas again please Brendan. In fact, don't play anyone alongisde him in a 2-1 midfield.

Saturday 2 August 2014

Life After Luis - Why We Don't Need Another Centre Forward

Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez scored 52 goals in 62 Premier League matches between them in 2013/14, cementing their place amongst the upper echelons of strike partnerships throughout Liverpool Football Club’s illustrious history.

The dynamic duo, shamelessly dubbed ‘SAS’, came agonisingly close to providing Liverpool fans with the title they have craved so much since 1990. However, the obligation that Brendan Rodgers doubtless felt to fit them into his side was one of the factors which eventually cost us glory in my opinion.

Please read on.

Of course, that is no slight on Sturridge and Suarez as footballers. Please don’t take it as that. They are two majestic talents who were playing, in tandem, to an absurdly good level for a lot of 2013/14. Strangely, this is where the problem lay for me. There was no question that both had to be in our 11, so Rodgers’ hand was forced to a degree. He had to make sacrifices elsewhere.

It was hard not to be swept up by the furore of our title run-in, sprinkled occasionally by moments of ludicrous individuality from the aforementioned ‘SAS’. In fact, no. Drenched consistently with moments of ludicrous individuality. But it was those moments that masked what was in my opinion, at times, a disjointed Liverpool team. I’m sure Rodgers will have picked up on this too, hinting a few times that it’s not just results that satisfy him, he wants performances too.

Now, with Suarez gone, it’s time to change the dynamic. Will we look toothless in attack or is it time for others to make their mark as we make some adjustments?

First of all, I keep hearing that we have to replace Luis’ goals. Do we?! Why not look to become a better all-round team and subsequently concede a lot fewer? Then, perhaps even more frustratingly to me, I’m constantly told that we have to recruit a new striker to partner Daniel Sturridge. So despite looking stodgy in parts last season, due to playing two centre forwards and sacrificing control, people think Rodgers will actively look to replicate that system. This time with a player who unequivocally won’t be as good at football as Luis Suarez and thus won’t produce as many pieces of sudden brilliance to elevate us from trouble in games. Swansea’s Wilfried Bony is a perfect example. According to some, he should come in to partner Sturridge, meaning no remedy to last season’s unbalanced system and a personnel downgrade. No thanks.

The Bony link stems from a blinkered and simple theory that to score more goals you have to bring in a centre forward. This is, of course, reductive nonsense. By bringing in better players in other areas of the pitch we will become a more universal and cohesive team. Our control of games will increase, meaning we are likely to create more chances. And more chances results in more goals. All that without adding another central striker! Magic.

What I’m trying to say is, playing two up front was acceptable when we owned Luis Suarez. The quality of him and Sturridge dictated that. Without him, it is time for a reshuffle; we can place more significance on balance, fluency and tactical discipline.

Rodgers may have employed a diamond system with two strikers in the first half of our recent friendly with Manchester City, but I’m sure that was out of necessity to give Rickie Lambert some game time. I’m almost certain Brendan won’t select a front pair out of choice this campaign. Coincidentally, in the second half against City, when we reverted to a 4-3-3, we gained more control of the game.

That’s not to say I’m averse to adding another attacking player. In fact, I think we should. But shelling out around £20 million on a player like Bony, who can only really play one position, is illogical for me. I’d like to see us bring in a versatile forward; someone who could play on the side of a front three and also centrally. That way we could use the player with Daniel Sturridge in a 4-3-3, or in place of the Englishman when required.

What’s the point of spending that amount of money on a player who will only be a deputy for Sturridge?

We also possess a flourishing Raheem Sterling, who has everything to play as a ‘9’. Lazar Markovic could also slot seamlessly into a central striking role in my opinion. The key is, they are versatile; you can play them anywhere across an attacking three. Within Rodgers’ fluid footballing framework, I’m confident either could score goals playing through the middle. And don’t forget Rickie Lambert, who I have no doubt will prove to be a shrewd buy over the next couple of years.

Watch us develop this season. Less of the jaw-dropping spontaneity a certain Uruguayan brought, but we’ll be a better, more flowing, more cohesive and more structured football team. I’m sure of it. The mercurial flesh-fancier Suarez may have gone, but crucially Brendan Rodgers is still very much ours.

Friday 27 June 2014

England Exit - Who's to Blame?

England finished bottom of their group in Brazil. Who was to blame for their sorry performance?

So that’s it. 10 days after England’s World Cup began, bubbling with genuine hope and positivity, we’re going home. Without a win to our name. Bottom of our group.

Justifiably so, the inquest into what went wrong will begin. But unfortunately, specifically within the mainstream media, most fingers will be pointing in every direction but the right one.

Players, players, players. England haven’t got the players. England, with 22 of their 23-man squad playing regularly in the strongest league in world football, haven’t got the players. England, with their starting team against Italy worth roughly £200 million (minimum), haven’t got the players. Mexico, Chile, Greece, Nigeria, USA and Algeria all remain in the competition as I write. But of course, they do have the players. ‘They have easier groups; we were in the group of death’, you say? Costa Rica. They negotiated our group pretty smoothly. They topped it in fact. Although that’s irrelevant, because they have all the players.

What most of those teams have, that we distinctly lacked (and have been without for some time now), is cohesion; a tactical edge which allows us to dominate football matches structurally, and acts as a platform for the abundance of attacking talent we have to express itself. As long as we continue to dawdle in football’s dark ages, the so-called lesser nations will carry on developing tactically, and subsequently surpass us.

But for the odd player, the minnows don’t, and probably never will, possess an overflowing pool of talent. So they find ways of overcoming that. Most of the time, they are perfect tactically, lessening their need to rely on individuality and raw talent. Talent they simply haven’t got.

So, onto the blame game.

Just to make you sit up and take notice, I won’t be starting with who you think. I’ll begin with the faceless fools who appointed him as England Manager: the FA. The people who (somehow) hold the keys to our national football future. Until they have the courage and conviction to place a proper, progressive coach at the helm of English football, our national team will do nothing but sink slightly further. I have absolutely no doubt about it.

The man currently in the driving seat, weighing us down, is of course Roy Hodgson. Roy Hodgson. Disheartening isn’t it. After he effortlessly brought sorrow to Anfield for a brief, but far-too-long, period a few years ago, I didn’t think my antipathy for the man and his footballing ‘ideas’ could grow any more severe. But it’s happening. The way he sets his teams up is archaic; it always has been. From Malmo and Inter Milan, through to Finland and Liverpool. He keeps getting jobs, yet he’s a very, very poor football coach. His philosophy is everything I hate about the game.

Lovely man though. Important people on my television keep telling me.

Those who say we played well against Italy in our opening game are definitely wrong. We didn’t. A few talented individuals did. That’s different. As a collective, we were outmanoeuvred, particularly in the middle of the pitch. Pirlo floated about and directed the game with ease, backed up heartily by Daniele De Rossi and Marco Verratti; Antonio Candreva and Claudio Marchisio drifted in cleverly from the sides, to completely overwhelm and outnumber England centrally. Roy sat motionless, watching the inevitable unfold.

Most complaints after the game were of a similar nature: we didn’t keep the ball well enough. ‘Expert’ pundits blamed a few different players for this. Not one mention of the manager though. Of course not. If we hadn’t have been so outnumbered in central midfield, would we have struggled so much to keep the ball? No. So whose fault is that? Who places the players in a system?

That brings me nicely onto Hodgson’s illogical use of Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson as a holding pair in midfield. The Liverpool duo were left ridiculously isolated, tasked with distinguishing an interchanging Italian mid-section. I’m confident this was central to our issues. Henderson, at Anfield, has just completed the best season of his career so far, utilising his boundless energy in a box-to-box central midfield role. Gerrard has found a new lease of life in a red shirt, thanks to Brendan Rodgers’ tactical nous, stationed in front of the defence and behind two dynamic central players. This allows him to control matches from the rear of play with his vast passing range, whilst being shielded by two athletes in front.

Blessed with an ounce of sense, Hodgson would have mirrored Liverpool’s 4-3-3 to get the best out of both Gerrard and Henderson.

But instead, he played them as a flat, inflexible pair, simultaneously handcuffing both players. Henderson wasn’t given the license to use his endless dynamism and affect play at both ends of the pitch. Gerrard, with Hodgson’s team unable to retain the football, wasn’t allowed to dictate play. The straight lines, so synonymous with England in recent years, were more prevalent than ever.

Cesare Prandelli, less than an hour after narrowly missing out on qualification, resigned as Italy Head Coach. The honourable thing to do. Hodgson, for now anyway, insists on stealing a living. And what a living it is. According to Nick Harris of the Daily Mail, Hodgson is paid £3.5 million per year, making him the second highest earning manager at the World Cup. It takes the 66-year-old just under two weeks to rake in what Mexico Coach Miguel Herrera earns in a year. Scandalous. Nauseating.

Forget biting, Roy Hodgson is dangerous.

Tuesday 15 April 2014

Ahead of the Game: Manchester City

It’s almost here.
This Sunday’s title showdown at Anfield against Manchester City is definitely our biggest game since this, that and sliced bread according to anyone and everyone. I’d say it’s the biggest since last weekend’s win at West Ham. But hey, that’s just me being smart and spewing some clich├ęd football manager diction. Sorry Brendan.
Let’s not quarrel over the minutiae though. We have a game to focus on. One thing is unequivocal, a win would put us one significant stride closer to being crowned as league champions for the first time in 24 years.
The Reds of course sit on top of the Premier League, a position we held prior to our last meeting with City on Boxing Day 2013 – the reverse fixture at the Etihad Stadium. That game was clouded by a controversial offside decision, as Raheem Sterling was denied a perfectly good goal by an awry flag, and Liverpool went on to lose 2-1 despite controlling the majority of the match.
Rather than joining the futile, vitriolic castigation of the referee and his assistants, I took a quiet satisfaction from our display. A display in which we dominated and looked every bit of a match for one of the most talented squads in European football. On their own turf.
Team Selection
Our only long-term absentee ahead of Sunday’s tie continues to be Jose Enrique, withBrendan Rodgers confirming last week that we are unlikely to see him again this season.Daniel Agger and Joe Allen both sat out last weekend’s victory at the Boleyn Ground with niggling injuries, although I’d expect them to be available for this one.
If fully fit, I’d like to see Allen make an immediate return to the side, flanking Steven Gerrard with Jordan Henderson, at the deeper end of a midfield diamond. The Welshman’s pugnacious tenacity will undoubtedly prove pivotal in helping us monopolise a strong and creative City midfield – something we’ll have to do to stand a chance of taking three points.
After Lucas’ sophisticated cameo appearance last Sunday, I can almost hear you asking why I haven’t mentioned him. Well, as @DaveHendrick_AI rightly pointed out on this week’s Anfield Index podcast, it was Rodgers’ half-time change of system, rather than Lucas’ individual performance, which won us the game. Had Allen not been nursing a knock, I’m confident he would have been introduced instead of Lucas, in the same box-to-box role, and have done a similarly solid job.
At the attacking tip of the diamond it would be a straight choice between Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho: two young attacking midfielders who each week seem to be growing more and more into a red shirt and adding new strings to their respective bows. Who would I go with? I really, really don’t know. Come back to me on that one.
Despite Daniel Agger’s possible return to fitness, I’d like our back four to remain unchanged from the West Ham game. The Dane’s deputy, Mamadou Sakho, was excellent throughout the 90 minutes and is surely better suited than Agger to cope with the pace and power of Manchester City’s forwards.
To put it simply, as I’ve said before, Sakho is our best central defender and should not be sitting on the substitutes’ bench. There is a consensus that Agger is better on the ball than Sakho, and whilst he may look more elegant in possession, statistics certainly don’t support that belief. The 29-year-old has a pass success rate of 88.2% this campaign, compared to Sakho’s 92.2%. The latter rate is the highest of any Liverpool player and third best of all Premier League individuals in 2013/14.
Manchester City head into Sunday’s game having recaptured their goal-scoring form, netting 13 times in their last four league games. They have of course put that run together without talismanic striker Sergio Aguero, who looks set to make a return this weekend. The dynamic Argentinian has been hampered by a hamstring injury for the last couple of months, but City boss Manuel Pellegrini is confident his second highest goal scorer this season will be ready to face the Reds.
Speaking prior to his side’s meeting with Southampton last weekend, the Chilean said, “For this week it is too soon for him (Aguero) to start playing because he just worked two days but next week against Liverpool he will not have any problems.” The fact Aguero has been held back for this fixture is a sign of the magnitude of this match and just how far Liverpool have come in the past year or so.
Midfield marvels Yaya Toure and David Silva are also rumoured to have picked up slight knocks, but both are expected to start the game.
At the time of writing, I’m not overly nervous. In fact, I’m pretty confident. I was probably more uneasy about the West Ham game. Maybe that will change (it definitely will). The crowd is going to play a huge part in this one, without a doubt. My prediction? City will be thrown into a manic Anfield cauldron and won’t know what’s hit them.
We’re going to do this.

Ahead of the Game: Sunderland

Liverpool host Sunderland on Wednesday night, as the Reds look to maintain their imperious run of form.
Brendan Rodgers’ men are currently on an unbeaten streak of 11 league games, the fifth best record of any side in Europe’s top five divisions, and have won six consecutive matches, netting at least three times in each of those six.
This goal scoring feat has only previously been equalled in the Premier League by three teams: Arsenal, Manchester United and Newcastle.
Capital One Cup finalists Sunderland sit perilously in 18th position in the Premier League, after a damaging 2-0 defeat to Norwich at Carrow Road on Saturday.
The Black Cats do however have two games in hand on the four teams directly above them in the table, after their impressive exploits in both cup competitions, and will be desperate to take something from Anfield.
The reverse fixture between the sides at the Stadium of Light took place in September and ended in a pretty comprehensive 3-1 Reds’ victory.
Luis Suarez grabbed a brace that day, as he showed no signs of rustiness on his return to Premier League action after his long-term biting ban. And of course, he hasn’t looked back since.
Other than Jose Enrique with a knee problem, Brendan Rodgers has a full squad to select from for this game.
We have utilised a narrow diamond system in our last three matches, and despite it yielding reasonably emphatic results, I would like to see one or two changes.
The formation Rodgers has implemented in recent weeks places a heavy burden on our full-backs, both offensively and defensively, with no other wide support further forward. This was exploited at times by Southampton, Manchester United and Cardiff.
In my opinion, a 4-3-3, used in the resounding home wins against Arsenal and Everton and the away victory at White Hart Lane, offers more balance.
It also allows us to include Philippe Coutinho, Raheem Sterling, Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge in the same side; again, this was the case against Arsenal and Everton, as Coutinho attacked the space from central midfield and Sterling joined Suarez and Sturridge to form a menacing front trio.
Anyone suggesting that including this quartet would leave us too open defensively, have a re-watch of those games.
In defence, I think it’s time for Mamadou Sakho to return. The Frenchman was firmly establishing himself at the heart of the Reds’ back line when he picked up his untimely hamstring injury at Stamford Bridge in December.
I’ve heard a lot of people this week condemn a possible return to the side for Sakho, saying we need to stick with a settled defence. Listen, I’m all for a consistent back four, as long as it includes the 24-year-old.
To be as frank as I can, Mamadou Sakho is unequivocally our best central defender and should not be sitting on our bench.
Elsewhere, Brendan Rodgers will surely have an eye on a possibly looming suspension for Steven Gerrard. The Reds’ captain is one booking away from a two-match ban for accumulating 10 domestic yellow cards this campaign.
To put it simply, should Gerrard get booked in any of our next four fixtures he will be forced to sit out the two games that follow.
Obviously, with the visits of title rivals Manchester City and Chelsea on the horizon this is something to keep an eye on. Expect Lucas to replace our skipper midway through the next few games if we manage to establish a comfortable lead.
Put it this way, I’d be very surprised if Steven Gerrard played all of the next 360 minutes of football we are involved in.
It’s only right to mention the mercurial Luis Suarez. With his hat-trick against Cardiff, he took his goal tally for the season to a ridiculous 28 in 25 games, equalling Robbie Fowler’s Liverpool Premier League record.
I wouldn’t bet against him surpassing that on Wednesday, and who knows, he could even go past Cristiano Ronaldo’s highest total of 31. And yes, there are eight games still remaining.
As I alluded to earlier, Sunderland head to Anfield off the back of a significant defeat to Norwich on Saturday, and are without a win for six matches. In fact, Gus Poyet’s men have not scored in any of their last three outings.
Ask Black Cats’ fans who their best player has been this season, and you’ll receive a unanimous answer: Fabio Borini. The Italian forward, on loan from Liverpool, has impressed fans with his desire and tenacity particularly.
Unfortunately for those supporters, but gladly for us, he is ineligible to play on Wednesday due to the terms of his loan agreement.
The build up to this game reminds of the pre-match talk before Aston Villa’s visit to Anfield in January. The only question before that match seemed to be ‘How many are we going to score?’ We all know how that one started, and ended up.
Having said that, this Liverpool team seems to have a steely determination now; the bit is between our teeth and we can see the finishing the line.
Just expect goals.