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

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.

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.

The End of an Era

The title perhaps suggests this will be just another salivating borefest committed to regaling all with the deeds of the second best ever manager of England’s top flight in the wake of his retirement, but nothing could be further from my mind.  As the season draws to a close I see a great deal of “endings”, and it feels almost like this is the moment when the latest era of England’s top flight has drawn to a close.  Next season everything will probably remain much as it is, but with sufficient difference to suggest a new era has dawned.

Let us get the elephant in the room out the way first.  Fergie has ruled the Premier League with an iron fist practically since its inception.  In recent seasons he has flown dangerously close to the line of flaunting political power over on the field events, though perhaps “dangerously close” is mere irony.  Such arrogance is not easily won however, and though I am happier to finally see the back of him I cannot deny that his record, especially in the league, is something that most managers would dream of when starting out.  His status in the media is such that should he take up a post at United that is for all intents and purposes a “Director of Football”, then one could easily predict such a position immediately being hailed as the “new way forward for British football” by all the media monkeys who to that point had waxed passionately about the folly of clubs like Liverpool for attempting the same.

It not just the end of Fergie’s era either.  With four of this season’s top seven clubs sporting new managers, including each of the top 3, the start of next season will seem more akin to massive upheaval than a breath of fresh air.  Arsene Wenger can probably count himself lucky to be among the three who kept their posts, having earned a stay of execution in a manner not unlike Wigan retaining top flight status each season since taking on Martinez as manager.  Perhaps the final failure of Wigan to stay up is the end of an era in itself; eight seasons of clawing their way from mediocrity to catastrophe.  Furthermore, the remaining two managers of top seven clubs who did not get the sack are yet to be in their posts for twelve months, and come next season somehow Rodgers will have been at his club for less time than only 6 other EPL managers.  Change indeed!

Further change has been seen in the decline of Stoke, the final bastion of traditional British football, and the rise of an increasing number of clubs sporting continental approaches.  Rodgers’ work at Swansea was improved by Laudrup taking the club to the League Cup and into the EPL top 10.  Rodgers himself dramatically changed the creaking, long-ball tactics of his predecessor into a passing machine that promises much in the future, even though presently it is little more than a flat-track bully.  Although he started out with the Barcelona style firmly in mind, lately we have seen the depth of his tactical knowledge as the side has imitated both Dortmund and Real Madrid in recent weeks with some success.  More clubs than before have adapted systems using odd-numbered striker counts (4-5-1, 4-3-3 et al), and on more than a few occasions we have seen three-at-the-back in imitation of the success of Juventus.  Although British referees continue to allow thuggery on the pitch in the name of the English Game, the modern European systems are gradually taking over.  4-4-2 will never die, but gone are the days of a 6’2” brute with some ability in the air being requirement enough for most clubs.

I feel it is also the end of England football’s “Golden Generation”, the one that achieved exactly as much as all the generations before it barring that which won the ’66 World Cup – nothing.  The supposedly 4th ranked side in world football has failed even to beat lowly Montengro in each of their last three meetings, and with Roy Hodgson at the helm one cannot imagine a future much more rosy than the present pot of decaying bulbs.  All their super-stars are fading too: contract extensions or otherwise, Lampard and Rooney are largely out of favour at the only clubs that admire them, Terry is struggling with fitness and age, former stalwarts Owen, Carragher and Scholes have finally put up their boots, and Steven Gerrard, at times a mere shadow of the player he was, is urged more frequently by Liverpool fans to focus on club rather than country as Ferdinand has done.  It would appear that England will struggle to qualify for the next World Cup, and who would the media blame then?

Perhaps they should blame the FA?  After all, this is the organization that refused to take on Harry Redknapp at a time when Spurs were looking to get rid of him he was available!  This is the same organisation that, in an effort to improve the quality of British footballers, doubled the required number of players who were born or taught football in England for each 25-man EPL squad, and figured that would be enough.  In the wake of this change at the start of the 10/11 season, the EPL champion was eliminated from the Champions’ League group stage in successive seasons (11/12 and 12/13).  Prior to this season, and going back to 04/05, an English club reached the CL final every season outside 09/10.  7 of those 8 finals appearances belong to Liverpool, Chelsea, and United, none of whom have the same managers as then, and Liverpool doesn’t qualify for any European competition next season.  The 8th is Arsenal, who have failed to get out of the last 16 two seasons running.  CL title holders Chelsea, who many felt were lucky to even reach last season’s semi-finals, also failed to get through the group stage this season.  One has to wonder whether English football is really able to compete at that level any more.  Is this the end of an era of English dominance in Europe’s premier club competition?

If anything, the FA should have been taking notes of the changes in German football rather than simply increasing quotas.  The Bundesliga has had a CL finalist in 3 of the last 4 seasons, including both finalists this season.  German football burst onto the international stage with their new-look youth at Euro 2008, and since then has gained nothing but respect and “momentum”.  With the fortunes of Barcelona fading and reports of some dissent in the ranks, one wonders whether the current chapter of Spanish football too is drawing to a close, to be replaced by the efficient Germans who can only have thrived while staying within their country’s league thanks to excellent administration.  By contrast, the FA is failing England, not just in terms of international football, but also in their flawed, random decision-making and non-independent, unchallengeable tribunals that make a mockery of justice and understanding in the league.  How long before their arrogance will be taken to task by those with the power to enforce change?

Off the pitch another era is drawing to an end.  With government’s apology and the reopening of the inquiry, the Hillsborough stadium disaster will finally be once again what it always was; an avoidable human tragedy.  Gone in time will be the stigma that it was caused by Liverpool fans, the same fans that a handful of seasons before had caused English clubs to be ejected from European competition through their actions at Heysel.  It did not matter that football hooligans were a plague that affected the entire country, and that Europe already viewed English football dimly; Liverpool was the scapegoat, and at Hillsborough became repeat offenders.  Nothing makes a bigger statement than heavily punishing those at the pinnacle of success; just ask Luis Suarez.  With the generation of anti-Liverpool sentiment now certain to fade away a new dawn awaits the club, and with it an opportunity to return to the summit of a league in which it has at times seemed to have been deliberately oppressed.

The king is dead.  Let the battle for the succession commence.

Henderson Coming of Age

Jordan Henderson’s career at Liverpool may be plotting a similar course to that of Lucas Leiva. Derided at first, but now one of the team’s most important players, the England U21 captain is changing the fans’ perception. For some he still doesn’t do enough, being more a jack-of-all-trades than a master of one, but he seems to have the right attitude, working hard for the team no matter where he plays; a midfield Dirk Kuyt.

Initially he was overlooked, as Rodgers was intent on selling the player to a Championship club, but that seems to have given the player the incentive to improve every aspect of his game. Good management, or good fortune? As a result, Henderson was largely spared the terror of the season’s opening four fixtures, playing a total of only 71 minutes before he got a full half a game under his belt against Wigan on 17 November. In total he has spent 1317 minutes on the pitch, almost 600 minutes less than Joe Allen who made 25 appearances, and only 400 minutes more than Sturridge who only started playing in mid-January. Through the season he has scored 5 goals and has 4 assists, making him Liverpool’s 4th most important league goal-getter behind Suarez (28), Gerrard (18), and Sturridge (10). With either a goal or an assist every 147 minutes, Henderson is one of the more efficient attacking midfielders in the league.

A statistic that really sparks my interest though is that when one looks at the goals scored vs goals conceded during the time when Henderson was on the pitch, in only 2 games during the entire season was Liverpool the worse side, including the final 25 minutes as one of ten men against Manchester United, who needed the referee’s intervention to win the game with a controversial penalty during that time. The only other game Liverpool were worse off was at Spurs.

In total Henderson made 28 appearances for the club in the EPL this season. I removed 4 of these when looking at the stats critically because they were 79th minute or later substitutions, usually to remove a tiring player (Allen, Sturridge) rather than as a game-changing attempt. During all 4 Liverpool neither scored nor conceded.

Liverpool conceded a goal in only 6 games while Henderson was present. The aforementioned United and Spurs games, the 2-2 draws with Manchester City, Chelsea, and Arsenal (where he played the full 90 each time), and the 2-1 win over Aston Villa (where he scored the equaliser). In terms of not conceding while he is on the pitch, Liverpool keep a “clean sheet” 3 games out of 4. This is an incredible stat for an attacking midfielder, and really highlights his contribution in tracking back and helping the side keep a good shape without the ball.

Less impressive is that Liverpool have only been the better side (in terms of goal difference) in 9 of those 24 appearances, which is obviously not the conversion rate one would hope for from an attacking player. It is however important to understand that he was taken off against Swansea, West Ham, Reading, and Everton with the scores at 0-0, and his replacement fared no better as the games stayed that way – Liverpool simply weren’t capable of winning on the day. He helped keep WBA at 0-0 for an hour at Anfield, only for Liverpool to lose by 2 goals after he’d been substituted. In only one game did an “underperforming” Liverpool score after Henderson was taken off – at Spurs, where they lost anyway.

He came on against Wigan when Liverpool were already 4-0 up and the heat had gone out of the game. He came on for 20 minutes at Stoke with Liverpool 3-1 down and not even pretending to contest the tie. His 21 minutes at Goodison Park saw no goals scored, with the exception of Suarez’s stoppage time goal being incorrectly disallowed. So that’s 8 of the remaining games explained in terms of football being very much a team sport, with Liverpool having an inconsistent team.

However, if one considered a player’s contribution each game to have been worth the entire 90 minutes, Liverpool have been unbeaten since last November while Henderson is on the pitch, and one cannot say he’s dodged the tough games because he played more than 10 minutes against the entire top half of the table outside Manchester United and Spurs since then. Liverpool have a goal difference of +0.88 per game while he is on the pitch, mainly because outside the Newcastle 6-0 he didn’t feature in the high scoring wins (he had late cameos against Norwich, Swansea and Wigan when Liverpool were already well up, and missed the Fulham game).

Perhaps more enlightening would be to look at the games where he did not play more than 10 minutes. In these 12 games Liverpool’s record is: W3 D5 L4. This gives us 1.17 points per game which is very far off top 4 standard (1.82 points per game), though with the caveat that he didn’t play any of Liverpool’s difficult first 4 games. Over the remaining games: W11 D8 L5. This is 1.71 points per game, which while still not top 4 standard would at least see Liverpool into the top 6 (from 8th last season). Incidentally, if one took the score during Henderson’s time on the pitch rather than the game’s final result in these fixtures, then Liverpool would have achieved W9 D13 L2 over those games. In other words, Liverpool would have taken 1 point less, but would have seemed almost impossible to beat. Perhaps a bit more infuriating to watch, Liverpool would seem a far more stable side in this season where stability has all but eluded the club.

Banned but not beaten

The ramifications of the FA “independent” panel’s 10-match ban of Luis Suarez are only just beginning to be felt.  Unlike with the racial abuse case against the same player the judgement has not met with widespread acclaim, but instead has drawn criticism from many quarters.  Not just for the panel not having any members truly independent of the FA, not just for the political interference by the Prime Minister, and not just for the length of the ban.  Most people thought the panel would have an easy rationale for their conclusion – “Suarez picked up a 7 match ban in Holland for much the same thing, and clearly hasn’t learned his lesson so we made it 10”.  Instead they claimed that they did not look at his prior incidents, which is actually how things should be done because events that happened in previous seasons are never considered when a repeat offender stands before them in other cases to date.  Perhaps they stuck to that rule as ammunition against any potential appeal (“we could have banned him for longer but were lenient, and therefore consider your appeal frivolous so we will extend the ban”).  But even were such deviousness false, failure to use the player’s ‘previous’ directly undermines their case.

What is worse is that Liverpool FC have absolutely nothing to gain by appealing.  The expectation is that the media will seize upon it as yet another act of insolence by player and club.  The reality is that the 6 games Suarez will miss at the start of next season cannot be avoided.  So why risk having the FA increase the ban, when the games eaten up by a potential ban reduction will occur this season, and never mind the games for which Suarez will naturally be eligible to play while the appeal is in progress?  The greatest harm has already been done.

It’s ironic.  This case highlighted the flawed genius of Luis Suarez more than any other, and has polarised people into those who believe he is a cancer and should be ejected from the English game, and those who believe his on-the-pitch genius more than makes up for his dark side.  But the outcome of the trial has thrown into far starker relief the inconsistencies of the FA.  People too are concerned at the stance of the FA that an appeal would be considered frivolous – the inability of those victimised by the FA to challenge the ruling in a separate court has become a talking point.  How can it be fair if one can only complain to the people who have already decided you are guilty, correctly or otherwise?  The entire FA process, or rather the lack thereof, is coming under increased scrutiny.  The time when people will refuse to be dictated to by them just came a large step closer.  Suarez’s and Liverpool’s defeat may yet prove to be a victory for football in England.

But should it be a defeat for Liverpool?  Under Benitez, Fernando Torres was elevated into the upper tier of world-class strikers.  But in the 08/09 season Torres picked up several injuries that saw him fail to play a third of the league games, with not a few of his 24 appearances being as a substitute or as a player removed from the field before full time while he sought match fitness.  The result?  Liverpool finished second that season, reaching their highest ever points tally for a season, and scored over 100 goals in all competitions.  This is the clearest evidence I can find that a star player is made so by a functioning unit around him.

The same has happened to Suarez under Rodgers.  The team has been aligned with his strengths, and he has scored 30 goals in all competitions; the last Liverpool player to do that was Torres in his first season with the club.  Before that one has to go all the way back to Robbie Fowler – even Michael Owen never hit 30 in a season.  Suarez also has 5 assists, which is the second highest at the club this season behind Gerrard.  Such a source of goals is something so valuable that a club should only move the player on if the player desires it – money cannot make up for it, and another 5 or 10 Downings or Allens will not make Liverpool a better side.

But the problem is what will happen to Liverpool when Suarez does not play.  In European competition Liverpool struggled without him, needing his goals ironically to draw critical games.  Daniel Sturridge said he had something to prove against Chelsea.  Well, he’s still got work left – 10 games leading the line in the absence of Liverpool’s greatest attacking threat and most creative player.  Now is the time to really see whether Liverpool have progressed as a team during the course of the year.  Taking Suarez away will obviously make the side weaker, but that does not permit what remains to display relegation quality.  The trip to Newcastle this weekend was a likely stumbling block even though they lie just above the relegation zone as they are the equivalent of an upper-mid-table side at home.  But now Liverpool need to show they can still perform, and this will prove a good test of their mettle.  If Liverpool want to challenge for the title in coming seasons, they need to demonstrate an ability to get results even when they are not at their best.

I believe those players who pull their weight in the squad will be separated from those that do not over the remaining games this season.  I was expecting a generally quiet summer transfer window, with activity centred around the centre-back position, but depending on how the team plays between now and then a mass clear-out may instead be on the cards.

The Illusion of Force

I often wonder whether Brendan Rodgers truly understands his squad, but just as often I wonder whether he sees something that I can’t, due no doubt to his exposure to the side in training every day of the week, but the squad just can’t reproduce it regularly enough on match days.

The result at Southampton was either a debacle or hubris, but on which side of the line one falls in assessing the relative ease with which they picked Liverpool apart at will while conceding very little against what has become one of the strongest attacks in the league, depends on whether one looks to blame the manager or the players.

Is it fair to blame Rodgers?  He was forced to make 3 changes to a team that had won 3 on the bounce, replacing Carragher with a decidedly skittish Skrtel, Reina for the Jones fumbletron, while Lucas being replaced by any other player in the league is a step down varying only in depth.  A side that either keeps a clean sheet or concedes two goals having 3 unplanned defensive replacements is surely more likely to perform at the level of the latter no matter what other changes are made to compensate.

Is it fair to blame the players?  Rodgers eschewed caution by essentially playing 4-2-4 long ball in response to his injury woes.  With Skrtel and Jones both increasing ill at ease playing it out from the back, and with the preference to play all of Coutinho, Suarez, Downing and Sturridge, rather than a more pragmatic 4-5-1 omitting one of the latter two players for Henderson, Southampton found it all too easy to both win and control the ball in the middle of the park.  With their high line and intelligent pressing they were always going to take the game to Liverpool, who have floundered more often than not when under pressure.  For a side trying to play tiki-taka, a sudden change of formation and style to something that cried out for Andy Carroll was akin to suicide.

But in fact this has been coming; Liverpool have simply been fortunate in dodging the bullet until now.  In many ways the changes that Rodgers tried to instil in the squad for this game as a result of the injuries made at least as much sense as they seemed moments of madness.  Southampton do press hard and high, so playing a very direct brand of football will not only keep them at arm’s length, but will have a chance of catching them cold at the back, particularly with the pace of Downing and Sturridge and the desire of Suarez.  Playing direct puts the control of the game into the hands of Jones, Enrique and Gerrard who are all good at picking out distant targets, rather than relying on the desperate quality of actual footballing skill possessed by Jones and Skrtel, particularly in the absence of Lucas.  And yet…

And yet Rodgers picked Allen as the midfield anchor and as part of a midfield 2 rather than a 3 to boot, something he’s not been part of at either of his most recent pair of clubs.  Liverpool might as well have started with 10 men, as not only has Allen’s form been in dramatic decline since the return of Lucas, and not only is he not a specialist defensive midfielder, he is also carrying a shoulder injury in need of surgery!  Why drop a half-fit player just to play another half-fit player out of position, especially when the more defensive-minded and fully fit Henderson has been in impressive form since the turn of the year?  The choice of Allen over Henderson makes sense if one is more worried about what Liverpool will do with the ball than without it, but if you plan to play a direct game of hitting balls over the heads of the midfield, or passing it to Gerrard as the catalyst for the same, then the on-the-ball impact of Lucas’s replacement is surely likely to be far less than his abilities off the ball, where Henderson excels due to his relative pace, energy, and physicality; three areas that are decidedly not Allen’s forte, injured shoulder or not.

I do have some sympathy for the swing-door that is Skrtel.  He is terribly at sea in a zonal marking system, and is poor man-marking powerful forwards.  Under Kenny Dalglish and Roy Hodgson he was in safe territory playing to his strengths, and to his credit preformed at a consistently high standard.  But now he’s a deer in the headlights and he simply isn’t able to cope.  He’s a good enough player to play for a top 6 club, but that club isn’t Liverpool given our system (if something that concedes 2 or more goals every other game can be called a “system”).  Sadly the stats tell the tale with startling clarity: when Skrtel plays Liverpool lose as often as they win.  Every other defensive player with a decent number of appearances at the club has lost less and won more often than when Skrtel has been in the team – and this is over each player’s career at the club, not just this season.  In fact in games when Liverpool’s “core” of Agger, Johnson, Lucas, and Gerrard have all started together without Skrtel, Liverpool score at 2 points per game, which is league top 3 standard.  When Skrtel is present instead of Gerrard the PPG is 1.53, and that’s the best of the rest of the combinations of 4 of these 5 players starting!  It’s remarkable that we’re talking about Liverpool’s player of the year last season as being the albatross about our neck, especially since a replacement like Carragher has hardly plugged the goals against leak and Agger has himself been culpable for many defensive lapses, yet the evidence suggests that Rodgers was foolish to not accept 20 million pounds for Skrtel in the summer.  (Credit to Dan Kennett of The Tomkins Times for these stats – they’re simply too incredible to not repeat: read his article here)

That’s not to say Skrtel is the weak link, of course.  Rodgers’ tactics against Southampton may have seemed plausible in his mind, but playing 4-2-4 as the away side is an exercise in futility, and even more so when applying it to a squad that has been eating, drinking and sleeping pass and move philosophies with a view to tiki-taka mastery.  Had he taken a step back and viewed it objectively he would surely have recognised it as madness.  After all, he’d tried the same plan at home against Spurs the previous week, and had only won because Spurs dominated the game to such a degree they figured it wasn’t important which team they back-passed to.

For me this loss should have been a massive wake-up call for Rodgers.  This is not a team where telepathic links exist between players, and definitely not in the mould of Mascherano, Alonso, Gerrard and Torres.  With such a fragile structure one can’t make wholesale system changes and expect them to work immediately.  Rodgers needs to be more pragmatic, needs to be more cautious when setting up his team.  Yes, Suarez and Sturridge have performed well together, but Suarez has been a goal machine all season playing as a false 9.  Adding Sturridge takes that role away from him, diminishes him.  I question whether Sturridge has actually helped us.  He’s helped Downing, certainly, but has he helped Liverpool?  He doesn’t track back, so he can’t be played wide, and playing him in the middle forces Suarez out wide or back into midfield, where after an hour he’s a spent force.  If Sturridge can be convinced to work harder when we don’t have the ball, though his history with Chelsea suggests it isn’t possible, then it is Downing who must make way, not a midfielder.

I would have started the Southampton game as follows:

Jones

Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique

Henderson Allen

Downing Gerrard Coutinho

Suarez

Although neither Allen nor Henderson are specialist defensive midfielders, both can operate as part of a double pivot, and both are able to recycle possession quickly and effectively.  Note that I would have assessed Allen’s fitness before making this decision, but if the sports science people said he and Lucas could play 45 minutes each then I would have risked Allen ahead of Lucas and hoped to pull him at half time for a more attacking player like Shelvey, Suso or Ibe, switching to a 1-2 triangle and running at them.  Keeping 5 in midfield with the double pivot would have protected Skrtel and would have improved our ability to pass it out from the back as we would likely always have an extra defender as an out-ball rather than a hoof upfield to an area of the pitch where the club has exactly zero players who are good in the air.  I would also have planned to sub Coutinho for Sturridge later on, moving Suarez wide.  The addition of pace through the middle with a more aggressive midfielder in the hole (Gerrard dropping deeper to act as the fulcrum in Allen’s place) would keep Southampton’s back line in check.

That is not to say this would have worked!  But it seems much more logical to stick with what system we’ve worked on all season rather than to charge balls out at an organised side at home, particularly since the frontal assault didn’t exactly work in the previous game.

Rodgers needs to stop being so naïve.  We beat Spurs because we took our chances, but a glance over the results obtained this season would show that we are just as capable of not taking our chances, and on any other day would not have scored one more than them.  Taking out a critical element of the midfield (Lucas) would almost certainly halve our already slim chances of winning with 4-2-4.  To an extent I’m pleased he tried anyway, but he should have made changes during the game when he saw it wasn’t working, and being 2 down within 25 minutes is a fairly clear sign it wasn’t working.  He stubbornly stuck to his plan, and Liverpool ultimately paid the price.  If he learned from that, fine.  If he didn’t, then he’s not the manager to take Liverpool back to the top, because learning from one’s mistakes is an absolutely critical element of any endeavour at the highest level.

 

League or Cup?

I recently got into an online debate where my views that we should simply abandon the cups were vehemently opposed.  I suggested we take on Oldham with the following XI: Jones – Wisdom, Carragher (c), Coates, Robinson – Coady, Allen, Suso – Sterling, Shelvey, Borini.  Shelvey as a false 9, with Suso as a false 10, 4-1-2-3.  The bench was to contain Suarez, Sturridge, Henderson and some kids.  When asked “What if the tie was United at Anfield, rather than an away fixture against Oldham?” I replied I would field the same side.  Some agreed with the sentiment but the point was raised that Rodgers wouldn’t hear the end of it from the Kop.  I said it was part of the manager’s job to manage the expectations of the Kop.

The following statement kept coming up throughout the debate: “I want a cup run but not at the expense of the league”.  All this told me was that people wanted a cup run.  “Yes, yes, it mustn’t affect the league, but that doesn’t happen, so we’ll take a cup run especially since we’re practically through to the 5th round already” mentality; people who blindly believe that cup runs don’t influence league form, despite the evidence to the contrary last season where Liverpool reached 2 finals but fell completely apart in the league around the time of the first.

It wasn’t just Liverpool though – clubs that won the FA Cup either lifted the EPL title or didn’t compete for it.  In the latter case the fixture load was shown to be overwhelming.  If you can win the league you can win the cup, but winning the cup does not guarantee you can win (or even compete) in the league.  Going back to the 2000-2001 season, the team that won the FA Cup won the league twice, came second twice, and finished 3rd or worse on the other 8 occasions.  In fact, the team winning the FA Cup finished 3rd with as few as 69 points twice during this period, where prior to 2010 it was common for the 3rd placed team to finish near 80 points.

It’s fairly clear that an FA Cup run hurts one’s chances of finishing with as many points in the league as one would want, unless one’s squad is deep enough with sufficient quality to win the double; even Chelsea with their rich squad and bloated success in the FA Cup couldn’t finish within 5 points of the league winners in 3 of the 4 seasons they won the FA Cup under Abramovich, most recently finishing 6th in their Champions’ League/FA Cup winning season where their league form actually deteriorated after Villas Boas was sacked.

So surely if one is weighing up the options of cup run vs league run then one needs to assess the effect extra fixtures has on the team’s league form.  What better test than European competition?  Ignoring Liverpool’s home-and-away qualifier against FC Gomel prior to the EPL season opener, Liverpool played 8 fixtures in the Europa League this season.  In the EPL fixture immediately following these 8, Liverpool drew 5, lost 2, and won 1.  The won game was against West Ham, where Diame’s injury turned the tie on its head; a lucky escape for Liverpool!  Pardon me for not being encouraged by this, especially since Rodgers has only signed one player thus far while letting go of Joe Cole; I’ll believe we have signed Coutinho when I see him with pen in hand at Melwood.  The squad is too thin, and we’ve done nothing about that.

So as far as I am concerned, if we are to be serious in our efforts to reach the top 4 this season (or at least finish a plucky 5th), then the extra fixtures in the Europa League and the FA Cup (and the rescheduling of the fixture against Swansea due to their participation in the League Cup final) are a burden we can simply not afford.  I understand the need to keep players sharp, but Liverpool travel to the Emirates on Wednesday to face a side that has had an extra day’s rest, and against whom a win could put us in prime position for 6th ahead of them (or even 5th if Everton continue their slide).  If we’re going to be plucky in the league, then why not be plucky in the FA Cup with the kids?  Give them the incentive to win by promising them starts in the next game no matter the opposition.

I’m confident the side I picked above will beat Oldham anyway; all this “showing respect” is utter nonsense for the quality of players we possess relative to theirs.  I’m tired of hearing how opposing managers of bottom table sides like Norwich and Aston Villa are doing well with their clubs and how we will have to play well to win.  Twaddle!  Shankly made his players believe they were unbeatable, and then when they walked out on the pitch they proved him right.  Rodgers needs to start doing that as well if he’s to have a successful career in charge of Liverpool.  But until he can we’re just better off without distractions that do little to enhance the stature or bank balance of the club.