Where’s the money, FSG?

I suppose I’m someone who sees the glass half-empty.  Liverpool’s performances between the last time we faced Norwich, which was matchday 6 of the league, and the same fixture this coming weekend show a simple trend; Liverpool either win or lose the game in the first half.  Obviously there are exceptions, such as the game at West Ham where Diame’s injury was a cruel blow that cost them 3 points, but for the most part unless Liverpool are tactically adept in the first half they create too much of a hole for themselves to play out of in the second.  In other words, although Liverpool’s second half performances generally improve, they cannot improve enough in games they fell behind in order to win.

The primary cause is that the Liverpool players react poorly to pressure when trying to play the ball out from the back.  Opponents like Stoke and Manchester United press very well without the ball, though Stoke does not employ the tactic against all opposition.  Liverpool’s system of keeping the ball on the floor and passing it through several stages from keeper to striker has an inherent weakness in this its primary strength.  If the opponent presses with poor co-ordination, then accurate passing and smooth transition between defence and attack can take several opposing players completely out of the game for the duration of the move.  While the team won’t score from every such opportunity it is certain that being the beneficiary of such chances is a great advantage in the game.  However, if the opponent presses well, or Liverpool fails to pass accurately, the opposition will regain the ball high up the pitch in a position where their players are not significantly outnumbered by Liverpool defenders.  This is extremely dangerous, and indeed such “final third regains” are a noted metric in leading to goal-bound efforts or cardable offences on the part of defenders desperate to snuff out a dangerous attack.

There is one caveat; no team can press continuously and accurately for 90 minutes.  This is because pressing drains far more energy than passing, so there comes a time when the side pressing must instead choose to stand off, handing the advantage back to the passing team.  The concept is that as long as the passing side does not fall too far behind, they will score late goals against exhausted opposition, who will also be unable able to reply with goals of their own because it is their attackers who are tired.  So Liverpool improving in the second half is matter-of-course; either their opposition have tired from pressing, are behind in the game because they failed to defend against the onslaught in the first half, or have obtained sufficient advantage to not need to press.  The former has been something of a rare bird, though perhaps the Everton game is the best example, where Liverpool could have stolen 3 points at the death but for a poor call from the linesman in a game where Everton were the better side for more than an hour.  This leads me back to my opening statement – Liverpool win or lose in the first half.

The remaining category of games Liverpool play would be those where the opposition does not press, but rather cedes space and allows Liverpool to take the ball relatively unchallenged into their half of the field.  Sometimes they do this because they will be satisfied with a 0-0 draw (for instance the Stoke game at Anfield), sometimes they will do this because their strength is on the counter-attack, and sometimes they’re just trying to lose by as few goals as possible because the fixture is a mismatch.

This is borne out in peculiar manner.  Liverpool have played 11 matches against clubs in the top half of the table and, by sheer coincidence, the same number against the bottom half of the table.  Of those against the bottom half, Liverpool have won 8, drawn 2, and lost 1; a remarkably good return.  The top?  Won ZERO, drawn 5 and lost 6.  The inference is clear: the teams that let Liverpool play have a bad time of it, while the teams that impose themselves are successful.  Perhaps this is not surprising, as it is commonly accepted that the side intent on defending stands the lower chance of winning, but surely Liverpool should have had at least some success against its peers?  Perhaps draws at Stamford Bridge, Goodison Park, and Swansea count as successes – in 3 fixtures time, having played Manchester City and Arsenal away, Liverpool will have 5 fixtures remaining against top half clubs, all of which will held be at Anfield, which suggests success against the top half is sure to follow.

I think it is important to look at why we lose in the first half.  It is clear that mistakes are being made and addressing these will be far more beneficial than practicing beating poor teams by more.  Rodgers’ strategy is to exploit passing triangles by creating as many as possible across the pitch.  The formation that best does this is 4-1-2-3.  It is achieved by the full backs pushing forward beyond the defensive midfielder to occupy a zone on their own, and the forward 3 occupying different lines to the central striker (who can play ahead of them as a traditional number 9, a la Torres, or deeper than them as a false 9, a la Messi).  This stretches the formation to 1-2-1-2-2-2-1 (or 1-2-1-2-2-1-2 with the false 9), with the first 1 being the goalkeeper, who is encouraged to behave more like an outfield player when the side has the ball.  Due to its diagonal nature this formation creates a lot of space “between the lines” that traditional defences employ, and can therefore make life very difficult for teams that choose to not continuously press as a team against the ball carrier and the players to whom he could pass.

The same “seven zone” system can be reached when starting with 4-2-3-1, though often the midfield players are required to take different roles when the side does not have the ball, which inhibits the transition to 1-2-1-2-2-2-1 to a certain extent.  Also, because the wide forwards are more involved defensively, this shape does not suit a false 9, because he would typically be the deepest of the forwards and would therefore prefer someone ahead of him on the pitch to pass to – otherwise the defenders simply mark him out of the game.  Of course, if one has a powerful team of versatile players a la Barcelona, then it doesn’t really matter; Iniesta, Xavi, and Messi are often enough to win by themselves.

So the choice of system determines the types of players one would use, unless a lack of suitable players is available.  In 4-1-2-3 for instance, Liverpool would absolutely start with Lucas as the “1”, players like Enrique and Johnson who are closer to wingbacks than traditional full backs, and Suarez as a false 9.  One of the remaining midfielders must be more attacking while the other more controlling, such as the roles taken by Gerrard and Alonso respectively under Benitez.  And here is where the first problem arises.  Rodgers has decided that Gerrard will take the controlling role, INSTEAD of Joe Allen who is a specialist in that position and is weaker anywhere else on the pitch.  Ergo, Liverpool should not play 4-1-2-3 with Lucas, Gerrard and Allen.

In order to keep Lucas and Gerrard as the deeper players, a true attacker like Shelvey should be the third midfielder, but his season has waned since he was sent off against United.  Suso is perhaps not yet ready to play at Old Trafford either. The only other midfielder we have is Henderson, who has impressed as the season has worn on, but he is more a utility midfielder able to play at a decent standard in any position; in other words, he is the perfect squad player but perhaps not the perfect player in any specific position in the starting line-up.  Furthermore, with Enrique injured Liverpool only have one wingback in Johnson, and the next best fit fullback is 19 year old Wisdom, which means that our lone wingback will also have to play on the wrong side of the field.  Add to this that our best left wing is Sterling, someone who has shown absolutely no understanding with Johnson throughout the season.  So isn’t it asking for trouble to play Johnson out of position on the left, Wisdom in an unfamiliar wingback role on the right, Gerrard and Allen in reversed roles, and Sterling on the same flank as Johnson in an attacking 4-1-2-3 away at Manchester United?

Surely it made much more sense to be a bit more pragmatic as the 8th placed side travelling to the home ground of a team at the top of the both the form and league logs who have scored more than a dozen goals more than any other side in the league?  Surely it was better to start with the more defensive 4-2-3-1 with the plan of keeping the crowd silent for 20 minutes?  While 4-2-3-1 does not open up the pitch in quite the same way as 4-1-2-3, having the extra midfielder in a double pivot means the team’s shape is a lot less susceptible to high pressing because the side without the ball will not press with more than half the team against the fullbacks, centre backs, double pivot and goalkeeper.  This would largely eliminate the system’s primary weakness against pressing, and it would be stronger without the ball, something that can only be advantageous against the league’s top scorers; Liverpool would always be second best if the game against United came down to a straight shootout of who could score more goals faster.  To win this game Liverpool needed the patience of a war of attrition; United’s attack floundering against the defence while their attackers tired while chasing dead ends in futile pressing.  All-out attack is not the only way to win.

Rodgers changed the formation to 4-2-3-1 at half-time, removing Lucas who was being overrun both with and without the ball because the formation chosen by the manager was utterly wrong, and bringing on Sturridge to act as a lone striker ahead of Suarez in the hole.  This meant that Allen dropped back into a more comfortable deeper role, though still not his best role.  Outside a schoolboy error from Skrtel, Liverpool were the better side from then until the end of the game, but that isn’t surprising as United stopped pressing once they were two goals ahead.  Fergusson brought on Jones to mark Suarez out of the game once Liverpool looked dangerous going forward, and that was that.  Liverpool lost in the first half, and simply because the manager made an avoidable error.  After the game he said we deserved a point; and we did because we put United under considerable pressure through the second half.  But starting with the wrong idea tactically cost us that point, Mr. Rodgers; it certainly cost us the chance of an unlikely 3.

But that isn’t all that concerns me right now.  Throughout this season and the last we have been told that the owners are prepared and capable of spending at the same level as our peers in the transfer market.  Yet these same owners balked at 6m for a forward we’ve desperately needed through the first six months.  This transfer window was supposed to be one where there would be “significant backing” for the manager, but a single deal for a striker worth 12m does not equate as “significant backing” in my book, especially since the same player was available at the same fee 6 months ago and we declined.  We are supposedly in talks with Ince and another youth goalkeeper (to replace Doni, presumably), and seem intent on loaning out Coates without first getting a player in reserve despite Agger’s injury record and Carragher’s continuing decline; in other words we’re keen to repeat the mistake we made earlier this season with strikers by being understaffed at CB.  We also persist with playing Gerrard as a deep-lying midfielder so that he gets in the way of the other players in the squad (Allen, Henderson, Sahin while he was here) while leaving us short in attacking midfield – his speciality. You couldn’t make this up.

These things alone would not be such a concern if we had a deep squad.  But let’s name them shall we:

Starters: Suarez, Johnson, Sturridge, Enrique, Skrtel, Agger, Gerrard

Squad: Borini, Assaidi, Allen, Lucas, Henderson, Shelvey, Sterling, Downing, Wisdom, Kelly, Robinson, Carragher, Jones, Doni, Suso

Deemed surplus: Coates, Carroll

If we trim those who are under 21 we have 17 players not including Andy Carroll.  Given that a Premier League club may register no more than 25 players over the age of 21, this shows that Liverpool are not one or two players short of a competitive squad; we are EIGHT short before we even consider quality!  Somehow we are not in the slightest bit interested in changing that during this window.  If the owners are willing to back the manager, then why are we so interested in saving a few million pounds by waiting until the summer (when transfer fees are typically lower) when we run the risk of losing our transfer targets to clubs like Spurs who let us do their scouting for them and then just offer more money and a chance to play in the Champions’ League?  We’re being penny wise and pound foolish by relying on players like Downing, Carragher, and a bunch of teenagers instead of getting Sturridge when he was available the first time (or at least settling for Dempsey), and at least being in the market for a left wingback, centre back, and defensive midfielder to cover for Enrique, Agger and Lucas.  Even then we would still be half a dozen players short of a squad, though a few Liverpool players will be old enough to need to be registered next season (Downing and Doni could leave at any time to balance this).

It all boils down to a stunning lack of foresight from our inexperienced management team, both in the transfer market and on the pitch.  Hopefully they can improve next season, because they certainly can’t get much worse.

7 thoughts on “Where’s the money, FSG?

  1. Hey Thundyr, the Man Utd game was certainly the proverbial game of two halves as you say. Utd could’ve been 4-0 up at half-time and certainly should’ve added to their solitary strike with RVP missing a glaring chance in the first half to add to his opening goal. Once Sturridge came on I agree with you that we were a different team and, while I cannot argue with the eventual 2-1 defeat, I felt we showed up well in the 2nd half.

    The transfer activity – or rather the lack of activity – is a huge concern but, for a seasoned Liverpool fan, not surprising. It is not just this current ownership and management who act sluggishly in the market; we have a long-held reputation for dallying and delay in transfer negotiations while other more decisive clubs benefit. The only time I can remember us acting quickly was the disastrous Kenny Dalglish summer window that saw Downing, Henderson and Adam join Liverpool! We routinely miss out on targets like you say, players such as Dempsey – who clearly wanted to join Liverpool – where we baulked at a measly £6M (we paid that for Charlie Adam??!?!) and Sigurdsson (who is clearly motivated more by money so I’m not disappointed to see him go to Spurs nor am I surprised by his extremely limited impact at White Hart Lane). Even Sturridge was originally offered in the Torres deal (£45M plus Sturridge) so it was exceptionally shrewd of us to take £50M and then fork out £12M for the same player…lol.

    But you are right! Our squad is threadbare! Sterling has looked lethargic recently and his lack of impact against a full back as poor as Rafael should confirm to Rodgers that the youngster needs an extended rest. The last thing we need is to overplay Sterling and see his career stalled in the manner of Jack Wilshere having been ridiculously overused by Arsene Wenger in his debut season. Suso has also looked lightweight in recent games and a spell out of the spotlight would be ideal. Joe Allen too has struggled recently and Lucas is clearly still working to overcome his lengthy injury. I thought, as you do, that the Tom Ince deal was supposed to be a ‘done deal’ but, typical of Liverpool, it has encountered delay. Mind you, a rumoured £6M fee for a player we let go for £250k 18mths ago just further proves the lack of foresight at Anfield. Stewart Downing disappeared without a trace at Old Trafford and that performance for me confirms he is not good enough for Liverpool. Yes he has shown some better form over Christmas but, at £20M and an England international, you need better against the top teams. A really poor effort from Downing! Henderson, though again improved on his early form, still looks well short of what we need and Coates, for me, looks a long way short of being a competent EPL defender and I’d be looking to sell if we got an attractive offer. But you’re right! Where is the cover at left-back!??!!? How can a club with any credibility enter a season with just one specialist player in a vital position!?!? And, worse, do nothing to remedy that?!?!

    Unbelievable, yet such is the poor overall quality of the EPL that I wouldn’t be surprised to see Liverpool mount a challenge for that 4th place come May!

  2. In 2010/2011, Liverpool had wages of 129million. This compared to United £153m, Arsenal 124m, Tottenham 91m, Newcastle 54m. This was prior to Dalglish splashing all that cash and bringing in on mostly high wages, Henderson, Adam, Downing, Enrique, Coates, Bellamy. We got rid of some players too, but nowhere near as much, so the salary should have gone up in 2011-2012.

    This year, we’ve got rid of quite a few big earners, but not fully, since we’re still almost certainly paying some of Cole’s wages, some of Aquilani’s wages etc.

    So a wage bill that was already too high, especially given that we’re not in the champions league, or have a big earning stadium, needed to be cut down. It was then increased in 2011-2012 to ridiculous levels, and now we have brought it back a bit more to normality, but STILL the wage bill will be too high for an 8th placed club. So bringing in lots of players, perhaps 8 players given the state of the finances is not what’s needed. We simply can’t afford it.

    And although the new tv deal will be coming in soon, and will provide quite a lot of extra money, there still isn’t going to be a huge amount of money.

    Gerrard’s salary is 140k per week +bonuses, and he hasn’t played like a 140k player, nor has Reina played like an 80k per week player. Suarez will be on similarly high wasges, perhaps a bit less than Gerrard. Skrtel and Agger have signed new deals, they’ll be on big salaries, Johnson 100k, although I read an article saying he’s on 140k. reportedly Jamie Carragher is also on around 80k per week. For what?! He doesn’t play. How many 8th placed premier teams can play bench warmers 80k per week. And Rodgers spoke of a new contract for him! :o

    The wage problems are just too great. Too many players on too much money that they aren’t worth. So actually stripping down the squad to its bare bones and using youngsters is – depsite the fact fans won’t like it – very sensible until the wasted wages clears somewhat.

    Wasted wages for me are those that aren’t really played but still have high salaries relative to what they do or we still pay for despite them not being here e.g. Carra, Carroll, Cole, Aquilani, Spearing, Downing, Henderson, Sahin (gone now), Assaidi, Wilson, Doni, Martin kelly.

    Reina and Gerrard are not wasted wages, but they’re not value for money this season so far. By all means if any of those above become a first teamer, then keep them, but as it stands they are overpaid and providing little. Carra going will make way for 2 decent players to come in who can fill up the squad. Same goes for a few others.

    • I’ve been sceptical about Gerrard’s performances myself – he just doesn’t seem cut out for this style of play and is holding back players like Allen and Sahin (why we got in two new players for the same role is beyond me – at least Sahin is off the wage bill now). Having said that, in his last 7 matches Gerrard has 4 goals and 6 assists – he impacts the score sheet every 63 minutes, which is more often than Saurez (6 goals, 1 assist). Okay, outside United that’s not against the strongest opposition, but I don’t think we can ask for more than that even at 140k/week.

      Cole and Aquilani have been sold, btw – so we’re not paying their wages any more, though apparently we “paid off” Cole, so I don’t know what that cost the club in the end. I’m not convinced Reina will be here beyond the summer. Not that I think Jones or Butland are better, but Reina just hasn’t got back to his best and if we get an offer over 10m I think we’ll end up accepting it. Jones has 5 appearances in the league, kept 2 clean sheets, and we haven’t lost when he’s played even though he’s cost us 1 goal. Reina with 18 appearance has 5 clean sheets, and has cost us 2 goals and an additional 3 errors that led to shots. Right now I can’t say either player impresses me. As for Carra, he should either coach with LFC or play at another club for now. With Coates apparently out of favour that means we need 2 centre backs in the summer, in addition to cover at LB, DM, and AMC. 3 players out (if Reina goes), 5 in minimum (including a replacement keeper). We still need to dump Doni, Carroll and Spearing (and Assaidi unless he improves). That should leave the wage bill a touch lighter, with enough to fund more youth players.

      But even if we do all that we will still be at least 5 players of age short of a squad – and that means we can only realistically compete in one competition next season (hopefully the league). Consider how our form has improved since we stopped playing midweek games – even Rodgers remarked on it so he’s aware that the squad is too thin, yet isn’t doing enough about it.

      • Hi guys, great points! Wages in the EPL in general are ridiculous, but especially for those average players who inexplicably command huge salaries. There can surely be no better example of an average player earning outrageous wages than with Theo Walcott’s recent signing of a £100k per week deal at Arsenal?!? To clarify the Joe Cole and Aquilani situations; Joe Cole, despite his cheeky chappie comments of “just wanting to play football”, is having his ‘meagre’ £30,000 per week wages at West Ham topped up by around £50,000 per week by Liverpool for the remainder of his initial 4yr contract at Anfield….a period of some 18mths. I don’t know the details regarding Aquilani but my guess would be an equally ‘shrewd’ negotiation on the part of Liverpool…hmm.

        I share your joint fears about the future of Andy Carroll, a £35M investment on presumably a similarly inflated salary. Put simply, we haven’t a prayer of offloading Carroll for anything more than £15M, and I’m being optimistic at that fee. A figure nearer £10M would be more likely for a player who has scored one goal during his spell at West Ham thus far and is never ever fit. No doubt we’ll either end up loaning him out again next year or taking a huge financial hit on any sale. Agree with you Thundyr regarding Assiadi, he looked decent early on but runs head down and down too many blind alleys for me. I thought we’d sold Spearing to Bolton but stand corrected if it was just a loan deal? Reports are suggesting a loan move for Coates to Wigan for the remainder of the EPL season. He badly needs first-team football because he looked severely overweight and off the pace on his last appearance; and at £7M it’s time he made an impression or instead we sell in the summer. I still think Reina is a top keeper although I admit his form hasn’t been as consistent as in previous seasons. Rumours link him with a return to Barcelona and frankly if he was offered that chance there is no way he would turn it down. Nor would I! A return to the Camp Nou either this summer or the following year to replace the departing Victor Valdes would make sense for Reina. I’m unconvinced by Butland and would prefer to see him perform regularly in the EPL before committing huge funds to buy him. Perhaps I’m scarred still by the reputation of Anfield as something of a graveyard for promising English keepers; Scott Carson and Chris Kirkland send shudders down the spine.

        But still, like you both say, we need defensive options centrally and on the left and further options in attacking wide positions. I’m disappointed that the vastly improved Jonjo Shelvey seems to have been relegated to the bench; I think a Lucas, Allen and Gerrard midfield is far too sluggish although Jordan Henderson has shown a decent run of recent form. Personally I’m a big fan of our U21 captain Connor Coady and would like to see him exposed to the first team squad (centre back or defensive midfield) ahead of the poor Coates and to learn from Carragher. I’m excited by the links to Inter’s Coutinho and also wonder why the Tom Ince deal has ground to a halt? But some clear progress on the field over recent weeks, lets continue that into the bigger tests against City and a demoralised Arsenal!

        • Well, I wouldn’t call a 5-1 win over West Ham demoralizing. But hopefully that and a presumably easy trip to their weak FA Cup opposition will make them just complacent enough to give us a half time lead at the Emirates. We have to be very careful though – Arsenal are as much a second half team as we are; in fact they’re one of the few sides who have more of their goal difference in the second half than us. Walcott may be over-rated, but he’s knocking them in regularly right now, and I sure hope that Skrtel taking a rest was just that – Carragher will be a massive liability against the Gunners.

          If Spearing was sold – fantastic. I was under the perhaps mistaken impression that we’d only got rid of him for a season. The Ince deal seems to be stumbling along thanks to Blackpool (where have I heard that before?), and right now it looks more likely that he wont come. Ditto Coutinho. For a club that used to offer far too much for players, now it seems we’d rather save a million than have the player we want; it’s all rather frustrating.

  3. If you take Gerrard over the last 6 games, and he can keep that form up for the rest of the season, then fine, he’ll have had a good season. He’s played well a few times over those 6 games. Taken over the whole season though, 5 goals, 8 assists, over 2070 minutes is affecting the scoreline every 159 mins (for a player that takes all penalties, most corners and a fair few free kicks), Suarez is just over 100 mins to affect the scoreline (with no penalties, no corners and some freekicks). 5 goals and 8 assists is still good of course, but not by the standards of Gerrard. Last year I thought Gerrard had a poor season, and yet he had 10 goals and 6 assists from 21 games (he’s played 34 this season already). If you think that I’m being too harsh and that Gerrard is older now and can’t be expected to perform like he used to, well then that’s my point, why is he getting paid more than he used to when delivering less.

    When both Aquilani and Cole left we agreed to pay up some of their contract, which is effective to us still paying them. Of course it will probably be written down as a one off payment in the accounts, and so will be cleared next year, but in real terms, no different to me. But I take your point, strictly speaking they are off the wage bill.

    Couldn’t agree with you more on the goalie situation. I’m not confident in Jones. Very nice guy, but put him under pressure and he looks like he’ll make errors. And Reina hasn’t returned from his holidays except for one or two games where he did ok.

    Perhaps a small squad is something we need to get accustomed to, unless we can get back in the champions league.

    • What is important to remember about Gerrard is that he’s playing a lot deeper than he was last season; he will score and assist less as a direct result. So have had such an impact on the score sheet recently is very encouraging. I still don’t think he’s being played in the correct position: Lucas then Allen then Gerrard in terms of back-to-front is the way I think will show more success. If we’re not doing that then one of the former pair have to miss out for Henderson. If we’re going to try to manage 4-2-3-1 and 4-1-2-3 in the same game it is even more vital that Henderson starts as he’s the only one capable of running all over the park.

      If we’re going to try make do with a small squad, then I think we should just set out our stall in that way. Focus on the league as it is the only route back to the CL. Field second string and youth teams in the cups, including the EL. Don’t care about results: motivate them to win with the carrot of getting another game. That immediately implies specifically not playing Sturridge, Suarez, Gerrard, Agger, Lucas in these games ever, even in the final. Ok, maybe in the final, just not against a team like Bradford. If the owners aren’t happy with that approach then ask for blank cheques; they’ll either help us get a full squad or allow the manager to continue in the same manner. Either way the focus is on the league. Does Rodgers have the balls for that? I strongly doubt it.

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