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.

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.

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.