Bananas

QPR vs Liverpool was exactly the same kind of bananas as much of last season.  Hopeless defending, clinical finishing.  While it is true that QPR bagged a pair of own goals it’s common knowledge that these things tend to arrive as the result of pressure, and in both cases had the defender missed it a red shirt in the shape of Balotelli was waiting unmarked to take the tap-in.  QPR probably deserved a point today, but in football you don’t always get what you deserve.

What went wrong?

Rodgers continued the Gerrard as no. 10 experiment but it didn’t fail as a result of Gerrard not being up to the task; in fact his effort on the stroke of half time was Liverpool’s best of the first half.  The problem came from the supply, or rather the complete absence thereof.  QPR pressed well and Can and Henderson did not perform well as the double pivot.  The build-up from the back plan simply didn’t work without players capable of retaining possession and then getting it forward.  Lovren and Enrique running wide to the touch line and then hoofing it didn’t help either, but the primary fault was a lack of players coming deep to collect the ball in the middle and then distribute it.

A secondary issue was that Balotelli was largely isolated and unable to deal with Dunne in the air.  This left him frustrated and Liverpool without the ball, and his play was never particularly inspiring, leading to him being unable to test the ‘keeper despite having several good chances in the second half.

I do not think that the experiment failed due to Gerrard’s position, but rather that we probably needed Allen’s ability to retain possession more than Can’s physical presence.  I can understand Rodger’s desire to start the more physical midfielder against the expected aerial bombardment, but in all honesty I felt Can failed to impose himself on the game and that created significant problems both with and without the ball.

It could have been much worse; Johnson was pretty lucky to escape a red card when taking out two QPR players on the goal line without touching the ball.  Fortunately it was QPR – against a better team we’d have headed in at least 2 down after 45 minutes and lost by more.

Defending.  The two efforts that hit the bar and the two goals QPR actually scored underlined how poor this Liverpool side is at defending.  I normally reserve some praise for Enrique, but I thought he was poor today.  Glen Johnson didn’t really add much, even though it was his pass that created the opening own goal.  We just look that much more solid with Moreno and Manquillo, which really is saying something as both are new signings and both barely 20.  It is likely that Rodgers rested them with the pair of meetings with Real Madrid and later Chelsea on the horizon.

What went right?

Pressure.  Sterling caused a lot of trouble throughout the game, tracked back, and ultimately it was his free kick win and quick thinking that lead to the opening goal.  His “assist” for the winner should not go unnoticed.  My man of the match.

The introduction of Coutinho.  This largely coincided with the departure of Sandro, but the little magician was at his best today.  He found the space Lallana could not, and his link-up play with Sterling was superb.  He took his goal really well too.

Switching the midfield around.  Once again having Henderson not part of the double pivot brought more energy to the front line.  With Gerrard deeper Liverpool could build from the back with greater confidence.  While we conceded more goals in this formation, QPR were a threat even from open play prior to the change.  Their goals both came from set pieces; Liverpool’s Achilles’ heel since the turn of the century.

Mignolet.  For the first time in a long time he pulled off some top class saves in difficult positions.  There are saves keepers should make, and he regularly has to make those, but he has a poor record saving the shots that are just a fraction harder.  Today he put in a huge performance and if he can keep that up will be certain to see off the Valdes talk.

All in all an ugly 3 points, but 3 points nonetheless.  For the record I predicted a scrappy 2-1, with the score either 0-0 or 1-0 to the visitors at half time.  Not entirely wrong, but it pretty hard to predict 4 goals in 8 minutes at the end of the game.

Last season 7 clubs had won half or more of their games at the same stage, all of which would go on to finish in the top 8.  So far only 5 clubs have won 50% or more of the 8, though Manchester United travel to West Brom tomorrow for their respective 8th round fixtures.  Those 5 clubs are last season’s top 3, plus Southampton (who seem to have a habit of making fast starts) and surprise package West Ham.  Last season 10 of the clubs had conceded fewer than 10 goals at this stage.  This season only 5, with West Brom one of those (conceded 9) and unlikely to keep a clean sheet against United’s firepower (none of whom will be rested as they have no midweek football commitments).

This is the worst showing in these terms (games won and goals conceded) since the last post-World Cup year in 10/11.  So perhaps, like then, only 3 clubs will score more than 68 points (72 has been necessary for 4th the last few seasons), and if we can learn to regularly win ugly like today then we stand a great chance of being one of those 3.

We might have lost Sturridge for another month, but that guy Own Goal came through for us again…  In 12/13 he was our 4th best scorer and we may need him to the same degree again this season (presently O.G. is top scorer with Sterling on 3).

A Stuttering Start

P7 W3 D1 L3 GF10 GA10 GD0 Pts:10.  1 clean sheet in the last 15 (all competitions).

Not the stuff of legend.

Another terrible season following a second place finish in the league was definitely not what Liverpool supporters were hoping for, but this start makes it seem like history is repeating itself.  Again.

But is it?  What has changed, and what needs changing?

Everyone will immediately attribute our struggles as: “No Suarez”.  But I don’t think that is true.  It has an element of truth to it, of course, but I do not think that is the key issue for Liverpool.  “No Sturridge” is much closer to the heart of the matter.  It’s not just about the goals we lose without the league’s top striker from last season, though everyone will harp on about it as though Liverpool will score a maximum of 70 goals this season simply because Suarez’s 31 must be discounted.  It simply doesn’t work that way.

What has changed about this Liverpool side is that Brendan Rodgers has opted to play a lone striker system, rather than the 4-diamond-2 that was so deadly last season.  This is partially due to the absence of Suarez, though the manner of the rout at White Hart Lane earlier this season does not suggest that Sturridge and Balotelli cannot work together.  The change is mainly due to the way opposing teams changed their approach by targeting Gerrard.  The deep-lying playmaker role needs time to make the right decisions of how to distribute the ball, and without it Liverpool’s incisive and rapid forward play disintegrates.  Now we pass it around more like Rodgers’ Swansea, giving the opposition time to arrange their defensive lines and in so doing immediately eliminate the threat of quick players like Sturridge, Sterling and the newly arrived Markovic and Lallana.  The diamond simply wasn’t working and in Sturridge’s absence Rodgers was forced to abandon it rather than persist with an untried striker combination like Balotelli and Borini (B&B rather than the SAS, a somewhat different context).  Additionally, Gerrard was being targeted when the opposition had the ball by overloading his zone and giving players a free run at a centre back partnership low on confidence.  Something had to give.

As a result the team’s play has been patchy, mirroring the other times when we have had a lone striker, including Suarez.  In Rodgers’ first year, Suarez led the line for the first 21 games of the season prior to the arrival of Sturridge.  While it is true that a radical change of style contributed to significant difficulty over this period, Liverpool could only manage 31 points over that period despite Suarez scoring 15 times.  Yes, Liverpool would have been significantly worse off without him, but the record with him in the side was nothing remarkable despite his goals.

In the 13 games that followed (ending with that bite on Ivanovic) Liverpool scored 20 points.  This represents a minor improvement of 0.06 points per game; something merely in line with the progression to that point.  But then Suarez missed 10 games, and Liverpool’s record shot to W7 D2 L1.  That’s almost twelve times the improvement in points per game (0.7 vs 0.06), and Suarez was NOT in the side.  Something else clicked, and that something else created the platform for the rest of last season.

Once Suarez returned he was a different player, not only because his focus became purely football but also because in Sturridge he had a partner with whom he could wreak havoc.  While it cannot be denied that Suarez is the more capable player, without Sturridge alongside him Liverpool could only maintain 2 points per game over the rest of the season.  Were Suarez the destroyer most media outlets chose to label him after Liverpool sold him, then Liverpool would have won the title.

The bottom line is that the enforced change of system this season and the loss of BOTH Sturridge and Suarez have caused Liverpool considerable trouble since Roy Hodgson decided that listening to medical advice was beneath him.  Up to that point Liverpool were 3 points better off than in the corresponding fixtures the previous season, despite changing fully half the starting XI.  Liverpool need to clone Sturridge so that they can switch them when one gets inevitably injured.

People also say that Liverpool’s defence continues to be poor, especially in the light of that damning clean sheets statistic mentioned earlier.  And yet there is something Liverpool are doing now they didn’t do last season; concede only 1.  Last season in the league Liverpool conceded twice in 16 of 38 games – in fact coming into this season they had conceded at least 2 in 4 of their previous 5 league fixtures.  So far this season it’s 2 from 7, a 15% improvement.  While the results haven’t similarly improved, due to a paucity of goals at the other end, there is room for some encouragement.

When taking into consideration that in these exact 7 fixtures last season Liverpool scored 13 points, the “hole” into which we have dug ourselves is hardly deep at this stage.  An improving defence will go a long way towards getting those 3 points back later – perhaps in the shape of beating a relegation candidate on their ground rather than being thrashed by Hull.  Besides, the last 3 goals Liverpool have conceded were a penalty for a foul outside the box, a “best goal of his career” wonder strike from a centre back 25 yards away (yes, read that again for context), and an unfortunate double deflection from a set piece leading to a tap-in against the Swiss champions on their turf.  These are not the same kind of defensive error as Kolo Toure passing to the opposing striker at the edge of the area, for example.  Defensive errors leading to goals were an aspect of Liverpool’s play last season as reliable as SAS scoring first.  This is not to say the defence is sound at this time (it’s still 1 clean sheet in 15!) but given that 3 of the back 4 have changed it’s just possible that it may become so.

Brendan Rodgers also revealed a tantalizing something in the just past game against West Brom; the position of Coutinho.  In an interview prior to the start of the season, Coutinho said that Rodgers claimed he was perfect as a volante, a number 8, rather than the number 10 role he has occupied for much of his Liverpool career.  At the time I thought it a curious development; Coutinho is no Alonso, nor is he a box-to-box player like Gerrard or Henderson.  He’s crafty with excellent ball control and vision; he should be further forward.  And yet against West Brom he looked much more comfortable than he has been for some time, when perhaps he was guilty of trying too much and therefore being dispossessed, over-hitting his passes or just giving it away cheaply.  With him deeper and Henderson further forward, but both able to drop back and help Gerrard, the Liverpool midfield looked much more dynamic.  With Raheem Sterling and Adam Lallana both impressing both wide and centrally, Brendan Rodgers will have a difficult task dropping one of these players when Sturridge is fit (assuming he wants to revert to the 4-diamond-2 with Balotelli and Sturridge as strikers).  But it almost seems as though Balotelli himself will be cut, leaving something like this as the ‘best XI’:

Mignolet

Manquillo Skrtel Lovren Moreno

Henderson Gerrard Coutinho

Lallana Sterling

Sturridge

This is an evolution of the diamond aiming to overload central midfield with overlapping wingbacks to keep the opposition back line honest.  It can mutate to 3-4-3 with Gerrard dropping back between the centre backs as well, similar to the job Mascherano does for his Spanish club.  Regardless of the final formation, with Coutinho able to have that little bit more time on the ball than he had as a number 10 he can control play more, especially since alongside him Gerrard is the master of the 40-yard pass and one can’t conceivably mark BOTH of them out of the game without some risk.  The tricksy one-two players in Sterling, Lallana and Henderson then dominate the forward line, with pace to burn among their number and in the form of Sturridge as a through-ball outlet.

Although Liverpool had to scrap to beat West Brom, in truth the game seemed fairly straight-forward to my eyes, with the visitors not presenting much threat.  The late switch of bringing on Lucas and pushing Gerrard forward was also a pleasant change that WBA simply couldn’t handle, ensuring an untroubled last half hour and hinting that Gerrard as an attacking midfielder/deep-lying forward is not yet done.

It all seems rather exciting.  It’s much too early for despair anyway; Liverpool fans were laughing at Manchester United just after the start of the season, but it is they who sit 4th on the table while we languish in 9th (albeit only 1 point adrift).  Besides, if establishing a working system costs the team 8-10 points over the course of the season, well, 74 points is still comfortable enough for 4th.  And that’s all we are looking for anyway.

The Liverpool year in review

This will not focus on solely the 2013 calendar year, as New Year’s Day 2013 fell in the middle of last season’s match week 20, leaving some clubs to play only 37 league games in 2013.  Instead I’ll look at the last 38 games so that we’re comparing apples with apples, and have a full season worth of games to consider and to compare with full seasons for some perspective.

First a look at the top of the league table over the period:

Club P W D L GF GA GD Pts CS
Arsenal

38

25

7

6

70

35

35

82

13

Man City

38

25

5

8

86

39

47

80

16

Man United

38

23

8

7

70

37

33

77

14

Chelsea

38

23

8

7

71

40

31

77

10

Spurs

38

21

10

7

53

44

9

73

11

Liverpool

38

21

9

8

87

40

47

72

15

Everton

38

18

13

7

54

35

19

67

17

[CS: Clean Sheets]

All those City losses on the road in the latter half of the year have cost them top spot, and look firm favourites now for the 13/14 title as their squad depth and ruthlessness at home should see them through.  But I wouldn’t count Arsenal out yet…

A continued and disturbing lack of goals for Everton and Spurs see them needing to rely on tight wins time and again, and while such battling mettle is fine in the short term they lead the mini-league in point-hampering draws and don’t seem out of the woods just yet.  With difficult Januaries for both clubs on the horizon, one of them may just slip too far out of the congested race for a Champions’ League place to have much say in their own fate.  Spurs too are struggling to keep clean sheets, and a side with a 0.5 goal difference per game (normally perfectly fine for a CL place) should be seen as an outsider in a league where 5 of their rivals are all scoring more than an extra +1 goal difference per game over the last 38.

Liverpool continue to push the boundaries of what constitutes outlier behaviour.  In the 13/14 season they have hit the woodwork TWICE as often as the next club, coming on the back of 3 consecutive seasons of hitting the woodwork the most.  I guess it’s encouraging that the players are getting themselves into the position to actually hit the goal frame so often, and when allied with scoring a staggering 87 league goals over the last 38 games (10 more than the club’s highest ever full season in the EPL era) suggests the club has fearsome attacking potential.  However it’s also obvious that goals and goal difference don’t count if you can’t get the right results: Manchester City sit 4 places and 8 points higher on that table with the same GD and 1 goal fewer.  It is remarkable that the third most prolific goal scoring side, Chelsea, have scored a massive 16 goals fewer than Liverpool over the period (while conceding exactly as many goals but with 5 fewer clean sheets) yet have garnered 5 more points, enough to take the CL place were this an actual season.  Liverpool need to cut out their tendency to concede twice against the better equipped clubs if they want to break into the top 4.  They can take heart that goal difference is typically an indicator of a club’s potential, as goal difference follows league position within a place or two, but should be aware that the shortage of strength in depth could well cost them a place in the top 4 despite the sublime form of Luis Suarez.

It is important to remember that the 12/13 season saw Spurs finish fifth with 72 points.  This was the first time a club scoring more than 70 points failed to qualify for the Champions’ League via their league position.  But as one can see Liverpool over the last 38 fixtures have the same 72 points yet sit an incredible SIXTH on the table.  It really is that tight for the CL places this season!

Side shows: Tim Howard with the Golden Glove, Luis Suarez with the Golden Boot, manager of the year Arsene Wenger.  An interesting spread.

Here’s an interesting stat: the last time Liverpool won an away game against any of the sides in the current top 8 that Howard Webb handled was 26 October 2008, when we beat Chelsea at Stamford Bridge to end their ridiculous unbeaten home streak; it is also the only such win.  In the games between Liverpool have drawn 2 and lost the other 6, most under clouds of controversy (mainly penalties given vs not given).  It’s become fairly clear that Webb is swayed not only by the home crowd, but also by the occasion (and not just in games involving Liverpool).  His decision to not even card Eto’o for his straight-red opening challenge on Henderson yesterday is just another example of his inability to make the big calls in important games.  It is human to not want to spoil the spectacle by dishing out an early red card that will likely influence the result, but his refusal to leave unpunished several heavy challenges (Oscar’s two-footed scissor challenge on Lucas is a no questions asked straight red as well, even if there remain only 30 seconds on the clock), the “team fouling” of Suarez, and never mind ignoring both legitimate penalty calls for Liverpool – Suarez again! – as well as that for Chelsea when Lucas was not penalised for taking Hazard down, suggests he is simply unable to avoid the pitfall of coming into a game with pre-conceived notions.  Despite the typical British media fanfare over Mourinho’s cowardly attack on Saurez, the player has in fact been one of the standout players this season in terms of both ability and conduct, so any bias Webb may have had regarding the player’s inability to remain upright when in contact should never have been present.  It begs the question: is it better to bottle a call by not issuing a deserved red card, or bottle a call by incorrectly issuing a red card?  Given that Howard Webb regularly makes game-changing gaffs that favour the home side, if he is the FA’s top referee then surely the English game is in danger of becoming a parody.  However, when he has refereeing abominations like Lee Mason and the thankfully departed Mark Halsey for company, I guess it’s hardly surprising that he’s top.

On the whole, Liverpool can feel disappointed to have slipped from top of the table to fifth in only 72 hours, but they should feel encouraged by their goal scoring feats, solidity at the back against the lesser clubs, and that scoring 36 or more points in the first 19 games of a season is something they’ve only done 5 times before in the EPL era.  While it’s likely they will become the first side that was top at Christmas to finish outside the top 2, Brendan Rodgers’ work in progress is definitely making strides in the right direction.

Must Win

Liverpool approaches another landmark game this weekend; one that I feel will define the first part of the first half of the season.  And no, it is not likely to be a blood-and-thunder affair the likes of the Merseyside Derby, nor is it a rattling of spears between Champions’ League rivals.  No, Liverpool merely take on Southampton at Anfield.  However I firmly believe that this game is the most critical of the first 6 despite its low billing and likely poor odds from the bookies against a home win.

How can I claim this game is more vital than the recent trip to Wales, or the visit of United?  Several reasons, really:

  1. This is our first ‘easy’ game – in week 2 Aston Villa, although a team that barely escaped last season’s relegation battle, was an away fixture that followed their win at the Emirates and a surprisingly strong showing at Stamford Bridge; a minefield rather than a banana skin.  Liverpool had a habit not so long ago of not winning the easy games (eg the same Aston Villa at Anfield last December at a time when some thought we’d “turned the corner”, only for us to lose 3-1 despite dominating every metric tracked).
  2. Suarez serves the last game of his suspension, with the Reds P9 W7 D2 in those he’s missed.  Sometimes the last step is the hardest, as everyone already has eyes on the conclusion – a mouth-watering trip to Old Trafford in the Capital One Cup next week when he is eligible to play for the first time since April.
  3. Sturridge, Agger and Toure are not fully fit, Johnson and Cissokho won’t play, and Coutinho left the Liberty Stadium with his arm in a sling and will be out for 6 weeks – the ‘key player’ injury list is just about longer than that of the fit players.  Coutinho especially will be missed, as he along with Suarez present our most creative output, with Aspas not up to speed despite his hard running and good movement off the ball (Borini, mark II).
  4. The starting XI will likely once more contain mainly players under 23, most of whom made their Liverpool debuts during this calendar year – an inexperienced side brimming with promise, but who have not yet fully appreciated how deep one can and must dig for results in this league.
  5. Lucas and Gerrard struggled in their last game after the international break, and we will need them to be on form – though reports suggest that our tough pre-season training schedule is what is adding to those heavy legs that have seen us unable to score a second half goal so far this season despite always entering the half ahead.
  6. Our tactic of trying to get in front and then defend, rather than trying to push on and score more as we did last season, is not one that will bear fruit for an entire season.  Rodgers needs to pick his moments to mix it up, and this may be one of them.  Such action could be something of a gamble without a proper number 10, and with a defensive plan of little more than “2 deep banks of 4” a la Hodgson – apparently abandoning playing from the back or resting with the ball due to Mignolet’s discomfort on the ball.
  7. As impressive as Simon Mignolet has been, Liverpool have faced an alarming number of shots on target this season – 20 thus far, a league high.  Someone is going to punish us rather than settling for the draw as Swansea appeared to, and it could just as easily happen in the next game when our guard is down for this ‘easy home game’.
  8. Sakho got through a lot of work at the Liberty, and had some impressive match stats, but it should be remembered that his debut (allied with the absence of Agger, Johnson and Toure from the regular back four) ended a 5 match clean sheet streak in the league.  More questions to be asked next time out for sure, especially of his occasionally poor timing of challenges outside the box.
  9. Liverpool are top of the league, and that comes with a certain amount of pressure.
  10. Southampton were the last team to beat the Reds (back in March), though admittedly not at Anfield.

We can take comfort that Liverpool under Brendan Rodgers have lost only 5 games in all competitions at Anfield (P28 W15 D8 L5), and no team in the bottom half of the EPL table has scored a goal at Anfield or emerged with any points this year, apart from West Ham whose 0-0 came when they were 12th on the table but about to climb up to their finishing position of 10th.  In fact, among teams in the bottom half only Aston Villa and Newcastle scored at Anfield since the beginning of last season.  Although Stoke ended the season outside the top 10, their Anfield 0-0 came at a time when they were in the top half of the table – perhaps balancing the West Ham result.

The implications of a win are worth mentioning.  It would put Liverpool on 13 points from a possible 15, and would keep them at the top of the log regardless of other results.  Going back a decade to Arsenal’s Invincibles season, only 6 clubs have come away with W4 D1 in the opening fixtures of the season (with 5 clubs hitting a perfect 15, finishing in the top 2 each time).  In 3 of those that club won the title.  On a further 2 occasions that club finished 3rd.  The odd man out is Portsmouth back in 06/07 when they were top of the log after 5 fixtures, but eventually finished 9th.  Portsmouth had not won all their first three (as Liverpool have this season), and had only played teams who would finish in the bottom half of the table in their opening 5 fixtures (unlike Liverpool who have played the league champions, among others).  Another morale-boosting win should set our sights firmly on the top 3, with the prospect of one of the most dangerous players in the league set to return to the side immediately after the final whistle.

It seems too early for the league leaders to have a ‘must win’ game, and yet each season is a set of stepping stones; each one missed sets one back more than one might expect, especially when the step to it appears easiest.  Liverpool are where they are despite not having played especially well for more than 45 minutes of any of their fixtures thus far, and despite Brendan Rodgers’ apparent allergy to making tactical changes even when the opposing manager has turned the game around and has 70% possession.  They need to begin to demonstrate greater ability on the day in order to avoid getting sucked back into the whirlpool of ifs, maybes, and might-have-beens of the last few seasons.

My selection for the match – 4-3-3 with the ball, high line; 4-5-1 without it [no more two banks of four!]:

                             Mignolet

Wisdom       Toure(vc)         Sakho         Enrique

Gerrard(c)      Lucas

Aspas              Henderson                Moses

Sturridge

The Perfect Start

How important is winning all your opening fixtures of the new season?  After all, in the 08/09 season, Manchester United started D-W-L-D, but still went on to win the title.  It turns out that the top clubs regularly start with win streaks, and while that does not necessarily lead to title success it does seem to tie in with Champions’ League qualification.  Or maybe that’s just because they are already the best clubs in the league…

On 16 occasions in the last 10 seasons a club won 3 or more of its opening fixtures in succession.  In only one season (the aforementioned 08/09 season) did no club have a perfect start.  Here are the perfect starts:

Season Club Win Streak Points Final Pos’n Prev. Season
03/04 Arsenal 4 90 1 2
Man Utd 3 75 3 1
04/05 Arsenal 5 83 2 1
Chelsea 4 95 1 2
05/06 Chelsea 9 91 1 1
Man Utd 3 83 2 3
Charlton Athl. 4 47 13 11
06/07 Man Utd 4 89 1 2
07/08 Man City 3 55 9 14
09/10 Chelsea 6 86 1 3
Spurs 4 70 4 8
Man City 4 67 5 10
10/11 Chelsea 5 71 2 1
11/12 Man Utd 5 89 2 1
Man City 4 89 1 3
12/13 Chelsea 3 75 3 6

 

On only 3 of these 16 occasions did a club that won at least its opening 3 fixtures not finish that season in the top 4.  On each of those occasions that club had finished the previous season 10th or higher on the log.  The only other time a team with a perfect start finished outside the top 3 was Spurs in 09/10, finishing 4th from 8th the previous season.  While there is no connection between these events, it is striking how regularly a team capable of a perfect start finishes in the Champions’ League places, provided it finished the previous season within striking distance of the top 4.

Also of interest is that on 3 occasions a club won its opening 5 before dropping points.  On each occasion that club had won the league the previous season, but would go on to finish second despite their perfect start.  On only 2 occasions did a club win more than 5 on the trot at the start of the season – Chelsea in 05/06 and 09/10 – and in both cases they went on to win the title.

Only 5 times did a club with a perfect start not improve their league position relative to the season before – the 4 occasions when the title holder finished 2nd or 3rd, and Charlton Athletic.  Charlton’s opening 4 wins that season came against newly-promoted Wigan and 3 clubs that would go on to finish below Charlton on the table (14th placed Middlesborough, while Sunderland and Birmingham were both relegated); nice easy fixtures.

Now that Liverpool have started with a perfect three wins, having  finished 7th last season, the chances of qualifying for the Champions’ League this season seem good indeed.  But since no side that only won its first 3 won the title its still too early to consider a title challenge.  If they’re yet to drop points 3 more fixtures down the line then things might be clearer…

And the winner is…

The new football season opens and the transfer window shuts, and now it’s all down to the football finally, at least until January when everyone once again goes crazy over unrealistic marquee signings or watching their club being linked with dozens of new names each day. Did you know that Liverpool were going to sign 147 different players this window? I can only imagine how many Manchester City were “certain” to add to their squad. There were several big headlines, notably Bale to Madrid and Ozil to a different part of north London, but a lot of it left me with some head scratching.

Spurs bolstered their squad with a host of players from the Bale war chest, notably Soldado, Lamela, and Paulinho, but the question remains whether they replaced Bale’s quality. After all, last season Bale scored more goals from outside the area than any other player in Europe’s top 5 leagues (goals outside the area being the most difficult to come by), and yet Spurs only scored the joint 5th most goals in the Premier League (behind United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool – the old top 4). Certainly Spurs have more players to help get the ball in the box now, as well as some new finishers to replace the fading Adebayor and Defoe, but I’m not convinced the scales remain balanced. Even if they do, perhaps they’re still only good enough for 5th? Time will tell, but my suspicion is that Spurs will take time to settle into life without Bale.

Chelsea and City threw money around as usual, with some big names arriving in the Premier League. But in the past some big foreign names made little impact in the league with its different levels of pace and power, and different style of last-ditch defending. The real question is whether adding big names to teams already comprised of only big names actually makes those teams stronger; the failed Galacticos experiment being a prime example. More expensive to maintain, certainly, but stronger? Changes in management at both clubs too will affect early season performance, and while Mourinho remains revered he would himself admit that he has in general performed below expectation since leaving Chelsea, and therefore has some ground to make up. One of the surprises of the transfer window were the rumours of Mata being disillusioned, and of course there were the annual fantasy links of Torres back to Liverpool (and somehow able to recapture his 2007 form simply by touching the “This is Anfield” sign), but I’m sure that Mourinho will manage those situations well enough now that he has E’too. Regardless, City and Chelsea are the teams to beat now, and few have picked other clubs to finish ahead of either of them. That comes with a certain amount of pressure as well, of course, and the disinterested manner in which City finished last season and appear to have started this campaign suggests that for all their wealth they remain a group of individuals rather than a team.

The big transfer shock was Arsenal making a large bid for a top player, and then actually handing over the money. Less of a shock was that the player was not a defender. One day I am sure that Wenger will realize that sharpening an already sharp sword doesn’t help you win a battle where you must also rely on your threadbare jerkin and rusted armour. While I fully expect Ozil to make the Gunners a flat track bully not unlike Liverpool last season, it should be kept in mind that Liverpool finished nigh on 30 points behind the league leaders; attack is only one aspect of football. You need Henry AND Viera to win the league… Besides, for 45m pounds in an exceptional attacking player they could just have kept Van Persie.

What should have happened was that Ozil should have gone to the red half of Manchester. There he would fill the gaping hole left by the loss of key players to age or transfers. Without a creative midfield, United will live and die on the performances of Van Persie, Rooney and to a lesser extent Hernandez and Valencia. Their aging and ponderous centre backs are not protected by a solid defensive midfielder either; their Stoke-like defending of everyone inside the goal posts while on the edge of the 18 yard box against the pace of Sturridge and the trickery of Coutinho should have scared the daylights out of their supporters last weekend; you can’t expect to get away with that all season. The purchase of Fellaini fills neither of these voids, and outside their opening fixture United have been disappointing.

Which brings us lastly to Liverpool.

Retain Suarez? Check (Add a 30 goal forward to a team that won 6 of their last 7 league games, with 1 draw and only 1 goal against? For free? Best deal of the window.)

Sign more wide players and sell Downing? Check (Aspas, Moses)

Sell loose cannon Shelvey and get a replacement? Check (Alberto)

Get another left back? Check (Cissokho)

Sign another centre back? Check Check! (Sakho Ilori)

Trade a fading Reina for a real shot stopper? Check (Mignolet)

Refuel Henderson’s third lung? Check

Win some of the opening fixtures against difficult opposition? CHECK!!

While few people expect Liverpool to remain at the summit of the league long enough to make a difference, it is notable that the club addressed every weakness in the squad barring a backup for the irreplaceable Lucas Leiva. In terms of the transfer window, where United did nothing, Arsenal spent money mainly to appease the fans, and Spurs traded a powerhouse player for some second stringers, Liverpool clearly did the best business. How they go from there is now down to the players and the manager, but the way their team spirit has come shining through in the opening fixtures suggests a wind of change around L4.

A change for the better.

Here’s the league table for this calendar year. Arsenal played in a game in hand on January the first, so in order to compare apples with apples I included all the fixtures from that round even if some of those games happened to fall in the last days of December.

Club          P     W     D    L    GF    GA    GD     CS    Pts

Man U.     22    14    5    3    42     17    +25    11    47

Arsenal     22    14    4    4    38    21    +17     8    46

Liverpool  22    13    6    3    46    17    +29    13    45

Man City  22    14    3    5    40    21    +19    12    45

Spurs        22    13    6    3    34    22    +12     6    45

Chelsea    22    13    5    4    40    22    +18     8    44

CS: Clean Sheets

Only 3 points separate the top 6 teams after 22 matches, so it’s all to play for with no real favourites for the crown. With Liverpool having most goals, most clean sheets, joint fewest goals against over the period, and third on that table, it’s hard not to be optimistic about getting back into the top 4.

Open letter to the FA from John Henry

Dear Mr. Gill, and members of the FA board,

While this may come as something of a surprise, we at Liverpool FC find ourselves indebted to you for your actions concerning Mr. Suarez last season.  We had a dilemma of where to play Mr. Sturridge, and fortunately you gave us 10 games to experiment without any pressure.  So far 8 of these have flown by faster than the summer transfer window, and Liverpool FC have only conceded goals in 2 of them, both of which we won by 2 goals.  Admittedly one of these games was against a lower league side and losing 2 second half goals to them was our own damn fault, so please do not take that as criticism of your recommendation to rest Mr. Suarez.

Taking Premier League encounters only, the table for the 7 game period from the day Mr. Suarez began spectator duty until today is as follows:

Team W D L GF GA GD Pts
Liverpool 6 1 0 13 1 +12 19
Chelsea 5 2 0 11 5 +6 17
Arsenal 5 1 1 12 6 +6 16
Spurs 5 1 1 8 4 +4 16
Man. City 4 1 2 13 6 +7 13

Manchester United lie 8th on this table, after Stoke and Aston Villa (both of whom played Liverpool during this period), with a mere 2 wins.  This despite having the winner of last season’s Golden Boot fit for every game, as well as the manager of the only side to take a point off Liverpool in this period.

All I can do is apologise for our reaction, as well as that of our fans, to your assessment of the role of Mr. Suarez in our first XI, and any further suggestions regarding our starting line-up will be greatly appreciated in future.

Regards,

John W. Henry

PS: Mr. Sturridge has scored 8 goals in these 7 games, as well as a brace in the cup tie, and would like to add his personal gratitude to mine.

The more things change…

Déjà vu?  Lots of possession, some scintillating moments on the ball, woodwork figures on the rise, opposition ‘keeper good enough for man of the match, and a blunder at the death by a central defender to undo all the hard work.  All straight from last season’s play-book.

Except that Liverpool won.  There were two critical differences this time out against Stoke, and it was these that provided the “correct” result for the first time in many a year for Liverpool – the first time Liverpool have won on the opening day since 2008.

Firstly, the manager in the away dugout was not Tony Pulis.  Although the Stoke team sheet was no different, Mark Hughes has the unenviable task of making his hoofball side be a bit more cultured.  I’m not sure he can, at least not without compromising results or shortening the careers of his beanpole squad.  For all his efforts at keeping the ball, it was clear that Stoke’s primary danger men – Crouch and Walters – simply weren’t involved enough, with the result that Stoke barely had a corner all day.  They were only dangerous from set plays as per the regular script, leading to the penalty award where Agger threw everything but the correct part of his body at a ball heading straight at the Liverpool ‘keeper.  But they were not as disciplined at the back as in times gone by, and the goal they did concede was little more than a hopeful punt from outside the area.  There was every suggestion that Pulisball would not have conceded on the day.

Secondly, the Liverpool custodian was Simon Mignolet, replacing Pepe Reina who was signed with a reputation as a penalty saver.  Except that Reina only saved 5 EPL penalties from the more than 35 he faced during his time with the Reds, and in recent times it was clear he wasn’t getting any better.  Mignolet struggled with Crouch’s height in the first half, something Stoke failed to exploit throughout the game.  While Kolo Toure certainly put himself about, making it as difficult as possible for the away side to gain any purchase in the final third, ultimately it was Stoke’s lack of application that favoured Liverpool and an otherwise jittery ‘keeper making his debut.  Mignolet’s double save after the penalty saved the hosts as many points, but there was the suggestion that Pulisball could have won on the day.

About the only laughable thing that happened was a commentary gaff after Walters’ miss.  “He normally blasts those straight down the middle”, as though that is the perfect way to score from the spot.  It was also a statement made in apparent ignorance of the graphic shown moments before the penalty, where Walters hit every penalty low to the left last season, barring his embarrassing miss at Old Trafford which barely clipped the centre of the crossbar on its way into the Stretford End.

All in all, this game was a minor miracle – Liverpool won when their best on the day simply hadn’t been that good, and their worst threatened to come back to haunt them, much like the game in Scotland the previous weekend.  For the most part the pundits had predicted a Liverpool win, but throughout the game it looked as though my 1-1 pick was going to turn out to be disappointingly accurate.  I’d rather be wrong if it means the Reds win, but I wouldn’t be so smug about getting this game’s winner right as many of those patting themselves on the back are today.

Having said all that, Liverpool maintained a “recent” trend.  In 9 of their last 10 matches where they scored first they won, with the other a draw the result of squandering a two goal lead at the Emirates in 6 second half minutes.  One can extend that by another five matches, going back all the way to the visit of Wigan last November, to where Liverpool’s record reads P15 W13 D1 L1 when scoring the first goal, with an aggregate goal difference of +36, keeping 11 clean sheets.  Of course, Liverpool only scored first 20 times in the league last season (with four 0-0), so improvement here could see a dramatic upswing in fortunes for the club.  Scoring first in 25 matches at that rate would see the club reach a minimum of 67 points.

Life without Suarez has been interesting thus far.  Having served 5 of his 10 match ban he must be a little dismayed that Liverpool have won 4 and drawn the other (the home derby).  Admittedly Liverpool mainly faced relegation material in those matches (Newcastle, QPR, Fulham, Everton and Stoke) – oh wait, no they didn’t.  Mid-table fodder, then.  *Ahem*.  Over the same period, Arsenal have 3 wins, a draw, and a loss, though at least the draw was against last season’s champions.  Suarez might wonder whether either club needs him.  I’m sure that once he is back he’ll remind everyone why his goals last season were so important, as he often scored the 1st or 2nd goals for the club, rather than the 5th or 6th.  As seen in the previous paragraph, scoring first is rather vital to Liverpool, so one can only look forward to his return.

Which brings me finally to Willian.  Supposedly “our” marquee signing of the window he’s trotted off to Spurs when Liverpool refused to raise their valuation of the player.  As with Costa, Liverpool don’t really *need* another attacking player at this time of no European competition, and for me the more important signing was Cissoko who we got on loan with an option to buy – and that’s a smart deal right there.  Do we care that Spurs continue their trend of spending their money on our targets?  Not if they keep finishing outside the top 4 while we instead draw ever nearer to challenging for it ourselves.  It’s not the strongest XI that wins the league title anyway, but rather the strongest 25 man squad.  With the likely exit of Bale to follow and his replacements being older players on higher wages with fewer international caps *between them* I’m not convinced the Spurs 25 is stronger than ours, and frankly I’d be tempted to say their best XI is not much better than ours either: I’d take Sturridge over Soldado every day of the week for starters.  Is losing out on these players disappointing?  Yes, but one can’t buy the title in a league with at least two other teams already trying to buy the title and with a two hundred million pound head start, so Liverpool are better off signing those quality players who really want to wear the Liverbird.

The more things change the more they really do remain the same.

Always the victim

The leap from 4th to 1st is greater than that from 7th to 4th, even though it’s still “just” 3 places.  In the Premier League the “top” 3 clubs, namely Manchester United, City and Chelsea, find themselves in a tier of their own, though the points gap between 3rd and 4th last season belied the size of the gap in quality.  The next four clubs, namely Arsenal, Spurs, Everton and Liverpool (in the order they finished last season), are clearly a step below, and maybe more than one step at that.  Liverpool’s inability to lure the very best players into the fold, and its present tendency to aim to pay low transfer fees and wages, surely puts it on the back foot when faced with the task of competing with the deep squads of the top 3, the post-Champions’ League exit surge of Arsenal, and the consistency of Spurs.

But there is more to a football club than just money.  As Bill Shankly famously said, “A football team is like a piano; you need three people who can play it, and eight to carry it.”  The eight who will carry the piano will not likely cost a fortune to acquire, and often most of the three to play it come through the ranks to dominate rather than being bought as the finished article.  As such, Liverpool’s financial position and lack of recent “major” silverware should not be a greater obstacle than those faced by its peers in the league’s second tier.  Arsenal’s squad is just as threadbare, as seen by their inability to contest for more than one prize each season and typically losing out on that one anyway.  Spurs are as much a one-man team as the Steven Gerrard-inspired Liverpool that won the Champions’ League close on a decade ago, and their one man will likely be in Spain by the end of the month unless David Levy is suddenly bereft of his senses.  And Everton are, well, Everton – in far worse financial shape than most of the clubs in the top 10, and with a manager who recently failed at what he did best, namely keeping Wigan up.  If these are the clubs we’re competing with at present we should have nothing other than confidence!

Regardless of the future of Luis Suarez and that of whatever fee the club agrees to should he move, Liverpool look much closer to having the 8 to carry the piano than they have since 08/09.  In the dark days post-Benitez there were very few players in the team who were all of regularly fit, good enough to wear the shirt, and determined to achieve something other than a transfer while wearing it.  While there is no doubt that a player like Jordan Henderson is not likely to start many front-line games this season outside injuries to others, his desire to play and determination to have an impact could become infectious if nurtured.  Liverpool’s most improved player last season is the new benchmark for performance at the club, and those like Assaidi and Downing, who are not really worse in terms of skill than recent wide players like Albert Riera and Ryan Babel, will find themselves side-lined rather than being pressed into action each week to see when they’ll come good.  While it is true that outside Suarez and possibly Coutinho, Liverpool do not have the 3 necessary to play Shankly’s piano, at least now more players check the right boxes and the team should be capable of greater consistency, an area last season where the club struggled most.

Pre-season has gone swimmingly considering the injury to Sturridge and the general absence of Suarez, who hasn’t racked up a great many minutes due not only to the debate over his future but also the fact that he won’t feature in any of the club’s first six fixtures in the coming season.  So despite not having either of the club’s strikers that ended last season, in 5 friendly games against average opposition Liverpool have scored 13 and conceded nil.  If that is a foretaste of how much of a flat-track bully Liverpool has become, then we should rejoice; the 20 wins the club needs to truly challenge for top 4 can come almost exclusively from the bottom half of the table without needing any more 20 million pound players.  Last season Liverpool lost games against Aston Villa, Southampton, and Stoke, and had draws with Stoke, Sunderland, Newcastle, and Reading.  The other 13 fixtures against the bottom half of the table were all won, 7 of them by margins of 3 goals or more, and let’s not forget that at the time of playing the fixtures against Stoke they were in the top 10.

The presence of Kolo Toure, while not a player on whom I would stake my house, should allow us the continuity from Carragher, just in a more physically capable body.  The new players up front – Aspas and Alberto – will simply provide alternatives to Downing, Sterling and Assaidi, and the former has announced himself with 3 goals and 2 assists in the pre-season games.  Simon Mignolet has been one of the league’s better custodians over the last few seasons; better than Reina certainly, who left his heart at the last World Cup.  But don’t take my word for that: this is an excellent piece on how the two players match up statistically, and if you’re a Reina fan it doesn’t make for good bed-time reading.

What has also been interesting from pre-season is Rodgers’ use of a midfield diamond without Downing, who is probably the only bona-fide wide man in the squad.  Although Coutinho patrols the left most often, he tends to come inside both with and without the ball, taking up the trequartista role behind the front two.  What was also interesting, especially in the most recent game against Olympiakos, was how often the midfielders ahead of Lucas were in the opposing area, with Allen, Gerrard and later Henderson all finding themselves as the most advanced player.  The pair of holding midfielders employed by Rodgers at the start of his tenure in the absence of Lucas seems well and truly past, and should bode well for the coming season.

Do we need Diego Costa alongside Suarez and Sturridge?  If we’re competing in Europe, absolutely.  But since Liverpool can throw their weight behind a league challenge without needing to worry about European distractions, I would have to say we only need Costa if Suarez is not a Liverpool player next month.  What Liverpool needs more is players like Lucas and Henderson – solid, determined, good enough and proud enough to wear the shirt.  Let’s worry about the marquee signings once we have 25 players over the age of 21 all of whom are at Henderson’s level at least.  Make-weights like Spearing and Downing need to be moved on, and inconsistent players like Enrique, Allen and Johnson need to raise their daily standard or face the same.

A recent article on The Tomkins Times looked at goal difference, and how it is often a “truer” reflection of the ability of a squad than its league position.  Perhaps my most important take away from the piece was that a team with a low goal difference but high points finish clearly “overperformed” during the season, and was likely set for a mighty fall the following season, as indeed happened to Newcastle over the past two seasons.  But when one looks at how Liverpool have performed in terms of goal difference versus the rest of the league since the start of the Benitez era, well, we discover something truly alarming.

Only once has the club with the highest goal difference NOT won the league title – 08/09 when Liverpool lost to Fergie Time despite a better goal difference by 6 than United.  Since then, and counting that season, Liverpool have finished behind at least one club with a worse goal difference every single season.  It’s always a different club as well, so it’s not as though Spurs, say, just “overperform” every season.  In fact, it can only be concluded that Liverpool have consistently “underperformed” since missing out on the title.

But when one digs a bit deeper, one finds something else.  Liverpool’s average goal difference in the 4 seasons prior to 08/09 was 28 – 3 seasons in the 30’s and the 11 from Benitez’s first season with the club.  In 08/09 the club’s goal difference was 50 – a staggering improvement, and one clearly destined to “regress to the mean”, suggesting that Liverpool would not challenge for top honours again immediately even had they won the title.  In the four seasons post-08/09, Liverpool’s average goal difference is only 19, with last season’s 28 being the highlight (26 of which was amassed in the second half of the season).  If Liverpool can continue to improve that goal difference, preferably into the 40s, then one might see a Liverpool capable of winning the title.  Rodgers wants 20 more goals this season, but 20 fewer conceded will do just as well.

We’re well on the road to recovery, and are no longer in “deer in the headlights” mode when we go behind, as I mentioned in an earlier blog.  Now we have to get our heads out of our bums and stop being the victim.  Until recently, Liverpool were always content to find ways to drop points because there was someone (Halsey, Webb, the FA) or something (a beach ball) to blame.  Champion sides always find a way to win.  It’s high time Liverpool started acting like a club of champions once again.

Minimum Wage

Not football related, but anyway…

How much research goes into determining the value of the minimum wage? Do governments determine a menu for a typical month for lower income workers, calculate the average cost of purchasing that menu from national supermarket outlets, look at the costs for rental, electricity, water and rates for lower income housing, and then use these figures to determine a minimum earning for a single person to live in their country? If they do not, then minimum wage is nothing but a thumb-suck that most likely bears no resemblance to reality, and debate on whether increasing it will improve lives is irrelevant. Work out what these people need, and decide whether that will be the minimum wage and/or the minimum government subsidy – either way, people cannot live below that line without making sacrifices that may affect their health. Governments supposedly care about the health of their citizens…

But this must come with education that this wage is insufficient to support a family – if you want a wife and kids then you need to improve yourself and in so-doing your employment level before you can support them, or your partner must earn a living as well. For too long, especially in South Africa, people have cried about empowerment while hiding behind hand outs – you can’t have it both ways. If you are to be empowered then you need to take responsibility for your decisions and your life, otherwise you must accept that empowerment can never be a reality in your life and you will always survive only at the mercy of others.

I say bring back National Service, for both genders. Being in the army is a waste of time only for those who have the education to succeed in the business sector. For the rest, a bit of physical fitness, some harsh lessons in discipline, being taught and working in at least one trade (part and parcel of army life post-basic training), and being given a minimum wage salary for the full period (with the military benefits of free food, clothing, and a dry place to sleep) might just wake up the slumbering people of this country. Once you’ve been earning an income in an honest trade, and have been taught the correct skills in it, a “normal” person can no longer sit around the family shack doing nothing while everyone in the family scraps for food. If such a person can do that, then he deserves the nothing that he has. You never know – it might just improve employment and crime figures without really needing to try.

Then we might be able to put to work those people who would rather sit on their hands or stand on street corners with stolen sandwich boards proclaiming their hunger. Have them rebuild the squatter camps into low-cost apartment blocks. Once a person has helped make something he will find it hard to turn his back on it by desiring what he had before. Yes, it’s not a “white man’s house”, but it is the first step along the path of that dream. You dream your own dreams – your government cannot and will not realize them for you.