Sterling Qualities!

In just over a fortnight, the Premier League season will be upon us once again. Weekends will assume a deeper meaning, and thoughts of summer holidays and World Cups in far flung lands, will fade hazily into the memory banks, perhaps retrieved and discussed at some later date, when other matters appear less pressing.

Liverpool begin their campaign on Sunday August 17th, against what will become: Ronald Koeman’s “new look” Southampton team – a situation forced on the Dutchman by the mass exodus of last year’s team from St. Mary’s – but will the Reds start ready? Pulling out of the Loic Remy deal, albeit for the right reasons, has pushed many fans into a fretful mood. Worried about a lack of options up front, some point to the loss of Luis Suarez and the signing of Rickie Lambert as massive cause for concern, particularly in the goals department.

sterlingqualities

Today, it can appear that the club only have three strikers on the books; in the shape of Daniel Sturridge, Fabio Borini and Rickie Lambert. If you were to look at those names in a vacuum, you may well have a mild cause for concern, however, there’s more to it than that.

Consider another name to add to that trio, a fouth member of the quartet, who can add 15-20 league goals this season, and ten assists to go with them. Reus? Benzema? No, not a “marquee signing”, a player who has performed already at the club; someone who knows the systems, and the styles the manager wants to play; someone with pace, tactical cleverness, and a killer instinct. Consider, Raheem Sterling.

Raheem Sterling has all the attributes to become a world star, and to do so playing for Liverpool. The development shown by the young man during his twentieth year, can be described as nothing less than stratospheric – from a troubled youngster with potential, to a core component of the most potent attacking trio in the league. That Sterling transformed himself from a lad who most fans wanted to send out on loan, to being the best player on the pitch in many games in the second half of Liverpool’s season, could be regarded as inconceivable; it may be unfathomable, given the company he was in (not just on his own team); nevertheless, it occurred.

The stats confirm just quite what a remarkable trajectory Sterling’s season took last year. Having not started a game in the league until Palace at home on 15th October, Sterling played just 174 minutes of Premier League football before making his second start of the campaign away at Hull on December 1st – a game in which he played poorly. Subbed off on 65, he started and scored in the next match – a 5-1 demolition of Norwich at Anfield (Luis Suarez bagging the other four)- and never looked back, starting 21 of the final 24 games and scoring eight more goals.

Given that he only played half a season last year, we can expect nothing but more improvement from the 19 year old in terms of numbers. Sterling’s stats last season show a goals per 90 min ratio of 0.37 – better than Eriksen, David Silva, Oscar, Barkley, Lallana and Wilshere – all players who primarily play in the number 10 or from wide, like Sterling. His shooting accuracy also compares well, better than all of the above, bar Eriksen, with whom he ties on 67%. Whilst his key passes, and chances created stats lag a little behind Silva and Eriksen, his successful take ons, interceptions, and percentage of total duels won, have him either first or second in the same company of six.

As mentioned above, Sterling was mainly deployed as either a wide forward or at the tip of the diamond in a number ten role. It seems likely that he’ll be used in these positions again; however, given his pace, shooting accuracy, tactical awareness and eye for goal, I’d have no reservations playing him as a support striker with Sturridge or Lambert, should Rodgers go for two up top, especially given the strength in depth, and the options available in the positions behind. We’ve already seen, with his goal against Olympiacos (scored inside 10 minutes of his first pre-season game), just how potent he can be. I’ve said on record before that I can see Sterling having as big an influence as Michael Owen did; for his pace, age and the impact he can have on the league, and my opinion has strengthened in that regard, as he has more to his all round game than Owen ever had.

My gut feeling tells me that Liverpool, Brendan Rodgers, and even FSG, want another striker, and are likely to bring one in. Whether they do or not remains to be seen. Whatever happens, wherever Sterling plays, I’ll tell you right now – I see him scoring twenty goals this season, starring for Liverpool, and winning Young Player of the Year. Why? Simply put: because he can!

Stats from http://www.squawka.com

This post was originally written for and published on Anfield Index 30/7/14

http://anfieldindex.com/9621/sterling-qualities.html

Neil Patterson

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Write-Off Liverpool FC at Your Peril

Football has returned, finally! Club football I mean, the good stuff, the stuff that matters. Yes, the Premier League kicked off its new season last Saturday and, by now, all 20 clubs involved have played their opening two matches. The biggest game of the season so far took place on Monday night, when last year’s Champions, Manchester City, took on and defeated the runners up in 2013/14, Liverpool FC.

Write Off LFC

When evaluating how the final league standings might appear come the end of May, many look, understandably, at the course the previous campaign took, and where the teams finally came to rest, before predicting how the current season may take shape. Pundits, journalists, broadcasters & fans, each has his or her opinion, based on a variety of criteria – some scientific, others not so logical. In this article, I’ll concentrate on pundits/broadcasters and journalists predictions for the top four, with particular reference (of course) to LFC.

@AngryOfN5 has compiled a table of predictions, which can be found on the blog angryofislington.com. The table contains predictions from 60 recognised sports journalists, broadcasters and pundits, of their picks for the final top four standings for 2014/15 (two have only picked their top 2, and one her first place only).

There is no great surprise, when looking at the compilation, that Manchester City features very prominently on the list. The twice Champions and holders of the Premier League trophy feature in 83% of participants’ first two places. The slight surprise comes however, in the fact that only 25%, or 15 of those asked, have Pelligrini’s men first. This may be down to a number of factors, including a perceived lack of hunger (having won the league last year), and a possible shift in focus to the Champions League.

The main factor though, arguably, is the perceived strength of the other moneybags club in the mix – Chelsea. The plaything of a Russian billionaire, an oligarch of questionable ethics, the West London club have once again dipped into their bottomless well of cash to bring Diego Costa, Cesc Fabregas and Felipe Luis to Stamford Bridge. These additions to a squad that performed well last year in finishing third, plus the know-how of Jose Mourinho at the helm, have made the Blues many “experts” favourites for the title this year. Two thirds (66.6%) have Chelsea as their Champions for this season, with a staggering 93% tipping them to finish in the top two.

Alright, these estimated finishing positions cause little bewilderment. Both teams hold, by far, the most cash in the division; both finished in the top 3 last year, and both have strengthened. However, when we begin to look at the picks for third and fourth position things become a little weirder.

Arsenal features prominently in the running for third place. Just over 56%, or 32 of the 57 respondents, chose Arsenal as their third place team. In and of itself, this leads to little shock – Arsenal finish in the top four recurrently, and the additions of Debuchy, Chambers and in particular Alexis, perceptibly make them stronger. The peculiarity in the list comes from the other team that appears at regular intervals in the third placed column; that of Manchester United. Almost 16% of predictors have made Louis van Gaal’s team their third placed finishers; fairly baffling, given their form last season. If you add that number to those who misguidedly have the Red Devils finishing even higher, you arrive at a figure of 20.5% who expect United to finish third or above in 2014/5. Mad eh?

Things get crazier still when you consider that only 5 out of 57 selectors nominated Liverpool as their third placed team – less than 10% – and just 10.25% have the Anfield Reds in their top three. It doesn’t end there. 26 out of 57 pundits, journalists and broadcasters (the repetition is warranted to drive home that those involved, supposedly, have a deep knowledge of the subject) have Manchester United finishing fourth, whilst only one third have Brendan Rodgers’s side fourth. An eye-watering 65% (almost two thirds) of those whose predictions were recorded in this table, have decided that Manchester United will finish in the top four this season, with just 43% tipping Liverpool to make it.

This seems to me to be highly bizarre. I find it very difficult to understand on what criteria these “experts” base their predictions. Manchester United have signed three players to date, whilst Liverpool have signed nine (including Balotelli). Manchester United have failed (so far) to cover the positions that needed reinforcement, Liverpool have not. Manchester United are starting life under another new boss (the third different boss in three seasons), meaning a period of acclimatisation for all concerned is bound to follow, Liverpool are under the guidance of a manager who has already served two full seasons, and has the complete confidence and understanding of his players. It has been widely recognised that Manchester United need serious surgery; the squad looks thin and short of quality in many areas, the youth cupboard, seemingly bare.

That Liverpool have been written off, surprises me less than how much Manchester United have been overrated. Most who look from a distance, imprudently attribute Liverpool’s success last year, solely, to Luis Suarez. Those who possess a touch more wisdom will remember that in Luis Suarez’s previous two full seasons at Anfield, the club finished 8th and 7th respectively. The player undoubtedly improved last year, but, quite clearly, so did the players and the team around him. Suarez’s move to Barcelona will have a bearing on the Reds, the style of play may be more measured, or at least less frenetic, and his individual brilliance will obviously be missed; but those who believe his departure signals Liverpool’s demise, will be rudely awakened as the season progresses. For what it’s worth, this writer believes that Liverpool will finish third or higher this season.

In conclusion, I’d like to share a couple of pieces of information, which further highlight the preposterous nature of the afore-mentioned “expert” predictions. Since 2004/5, ten full seasons ago, and the year that Liverpool won its fifth European Cup/Champions League, only twice has the team finishing in second position, dropped out of the top four the following year – Liverpool in 09/10 (amidst the Hicks and Gillette debacle) and Chelsea in 11/12 – going back further, Newcastle were the previous team to accomplish that embarrassing feat way back in 1998. And as for going from seventh to first, that’s never happened – John Motson and Dion Dublin take note- NEVER! In fact, the team finishing seventh has only ever breached the top four in the proceeding year twice in Premier League history. On both occasions, the same team managed to accomplish this; the instances occurred in 2000 and 2014; the club concerned? Liverpool!

 

Neil Patterson

 

This post was originally written for and published on AnfieldIndex.com  Aug 27th

http://anfieldindex.com/10163/write-off-liverpool-fc-peril.html

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Liverpool Set Up to Deliver Knock-Out Blow in Title Fight

As the Barclay’s Premier League roars down the home straight in 2013/14, two of the three title contenders come face to face on Sunday in a duel which will have an immense impact on the final destination of this year’s Premier League crown.

Manchester City will arrive at Anfield second in the table knowing, in this unprecedentedly open and somewhat bizarre campaign, that a loss against Brendan Rodgers’s inspired Reds could spell the end of their title hopes. In Manuel Pellegrini’s first season in charge at the Etihad, City will enter the arena in the unenviable position of being favourites to win the league, yet underdogs in the match betting.

That Liverpool are narrrow favourites to win this crucial clash is a testament to the performance of Brendan Rodgers’s team over the course of the season, particularly at home. Liverpool have lost just once at Anfield in 2013/14, winning 15 of their 17 games to date. Unbeaten home and away in 2014, the Reds have racked up 19 goals in their last five home games against the likes of Arsenal, Everton and Tottenham, whilst conceding just five in reply.

Manchester City’s away form has improved in recent weeks, after a poor start to the campaign. Kompany and co. won once in their first six attempts on their travels, losing four. That trend has been reversed somewhat, as Pelligrini’s side have been unbeaten away since November 10th, however two draws in the last four (against Norwich and Arsenal) are bound to have sewn a few seeds of doubt in the minds of the champions of two years ago.

Liverpool were beaten 1-2 in the reverse fixture in late December, however it was widely recognised that the Reds were the better team by some distance. Poor officiating and an unfortunate Mignolet error were costly that night, whilst the absences of Steven Gerrrard and Daniel Sturridge from the squad hardly helped matters. At Anfield though, there are no such injury worries and, in fact, the shoe may well be on the other foot. Sergio Aguero, whose been out for some time, only has a 75% chance of starting, with Fernandinho also a major doubt for the vital encounter.

The latter would be a major loss for City, should he be ruled out. The screening and protection that Fernandinho provides the back four is key to the way Pelligrini’s side plays, and Javi Garcia, his likely replacement, whilst being a top player, doesn’t have the same mobility or energy as his Brazilian counterpart. With Liverpool’s relentless high pressing game likely being carried out by Sterling, Henderson and Allen (if not Coutinho), whoever plays in the defensive midfield position for City on Sunday is sure to come under immense and often sustained pressure. This is likely to be the key area of the game, and if Liverpool can pressure City and nick the ball back high up the pitch, then the pace and quality of Suarez, Sturridge and Sterling could cut City’s back four to ribbons.

Liverpool should have no fear going into this game. Of course, it’s a huge match which could determine the outcome of the Premier League race this year, but the Reds are under absolutely no pressure. Unlike City, who’ve spent hundreds of millions over the last couple of seasons in the specific aim of becoming the Premier League’s (and Europe’s) dominant force, Liverpool have already achieved their aim for this season. By ensuring a top four finish and achieving Champions League football, the primary target has been hit, and at a canter too. Unlike Manchester City’s, the Liverpool players have already vastly exceeded most fans’ expectations and can make an assault on the title from a position of relative freedom, the freedom that has made them such a joy to watch this season.

Prediction: Liverpool 3-1 Manchester City

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Get Smart!

In this shorter than usual post, I’ll be looking at a topical talking point which has been thrown up by this week’s Champions League matches, specifically those involving English clubs.

 
The issue in question is (in case you hadn’t already guessed) that of the professional foul, the one denying a clear, goal-scoring opportunity, which produces a red card and, if the offence occurs within the penalty area, a penalty kick too.

 
Both games involving English teams produced incidents which saw the home teams (Manchester City and Arsenal), reduced to ten men, whilst simultanaeously conceding a penalty. The subsequent clamour from pundits and the media, about the “unfairness” of the punishment has been all but deafening. But why, and why now?

 
The rules have been enforced in this way, for almost as long as I can remember, the best part of the last twenty years certainly, so how can anybody claim that it is unfair? Granted, the award of a penalty and a red card may be harsh, but unfair? I think not. Talk of a double punishment may also hold some water, however there is a reason for this – namely to stop these kinds of fouls from occuring; to eradicate them from the game, through fear of the consequences.

 
The last man/red card rule was thought up for precisely this reason; to stop defenders and/or goalkeepers from cynically taking out the attacking player, with the intention of preventing a clear goalscoring opportunity, a la Schumacher on Battiston for example. Before its introduction, these type of “professional fouls” were all too common in the game. Needless to say, the introduction and enforcement of the, now well understood, rule has not rid the game of these challenges completely, but it has significantly limited them in number, and that can only be a good thing.

 
The desperate, last ditch challenge is nearly always a dangerous one, often a reckless lunge. It’s very rare that one of these lunges is successful, and, even if the defender gets a slight touch on the ball, they can result in serious injury – Wes Brown on Gaston Ramirez being a recent example of this.

 
These desperate challenges need to be removed from the game, defenders and goalkeepers need to re-evaluate their approaches to these one on one situations. Jockey the forward, show him down the side you want him to go down, stay on your feet, don’t throw youself at the forward’s feet, don’t lunge in, and (in a defender’s case) if all else fails, trust your goalkeeper to make the save.

 
Referees have this week been accused of “ruining the game as a spectacle”, by pundits and disgruntled managers alike. Not normally one to defend referees too much, I’d have to completely disagree with this perceived wisdom. The referees in both games simply applied the laws of the game as they are, and they were one hundred per cent right on both incidents. Both De Michelis and Szczseny attempted desperate challenges, when very unlikely to win the ball; both took the respective forwards out, both denied clear goal-scoring opportunities. Unfair? Not a chance.

 
If you want to accuse somebody of “ruining the game”, the only people you can look at are the players that made those ill-advised challenges. Simply put, they should’ve known better. It’s the culture of the sport, particularly in England, to blame referees and managers, absolving players (in the most part) of all reponsibility, in order to progress, the balance needs to be redressed somewhat.

 
When the referee applies the laws of the game objectively and correctly, he is in fact doing the opposite of ruining the game. If more referees, particularly in England (Mr. Webb) applied the rules in such a way, rather than refereeing context (effectively making a mockery of the game), then football would be a lot better.

 
Should the rule be changed? Well, if it was changed, the number of Wes Brown style challenges would surely increase, along with the number of likely injuries. Forwards would get even less protection than they have now, the quality of football would likely diminish, along with the number of goals scored.

 
The only way a change might work would be to award a penalty goal (similar to a penalty try in rugby), to the attacking team in a situation where a goal-scoring opportunity has been denied, and give the defender a yellow card. The severity of this punishment might also act as deterrent enough, however I’m fairly certain most football fans wouldn’t really want to go down that route.

 
In conclusion then, while the rule may anger and upset some, it is understood and acknowledged by all. That being the case, and having been so for twenty odd years, it’s not the rule that needs to change, rather the players’ approach to dealing with desperate one on one situations. As Michael Ballack says “The player knows if he touches him, it’s a red card. He must be smarter.”

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Gone in 54 Seconds: Out-Gunned and Blown Away

Pre-game nerves, lingering doubts over top four credentials, residual post transfer deadline blues, concerns over squad strength, fears of being overrun in midfield, pessimistic predictions of an “inevitable” slide down the league, were all cleansed from the minds of Liverpool supporters within 54 seconds of kick-off at Anfield on Saturday, along with Arsenal’s hopes of remaining atop the Premier League for another weekend.

The moment that Luis Suarez stole in behind Per Mertesacker to nick possession after Aly Cissokho’s long throw, the omens appeared to be good – Suarez’s nimble mind and matching feet too quick for the giant German, who could do nothing but concede an early free-kick. LFC fans rubbed their hands with glee, this was Gerrard territory, and held a long breath in anticipation. The Captain did not disappoint, his unerring delivery just begging to be turned home, and so it was by Marin Skrtel. 1-0 Liverpool, 54 seconds gone.

(Gerrard has long been hailed for his set piece delivery, but this season his quality from dead balls has risen almost immeasurably, and in particular his delivery from slightly deeper, wide free-kicks is a bonafide weapon which Liverpool are exploiting to great effect.)

What followed Skrtel’s opener was, quite simply, the finest first half of football ever witnessed; one that will go down in the annals of Premier League history as just that.

Arsenal, the league leaders, and in possession of the best midfield in the Premier League (on paper certainly), were completely thrown out of their stride by the speed and agression of Liverpool’s pressing game. Coutinho, Henderson and Sterling led the way, but every man in red was sharper, hungrier and quicker to the ball than his opposite number.

Martin Skrtel powered home a header from another Gerrard delivery (this time a corner), arching his thumping effort majestically into the top corner, beyond the despairing leap of Oxlade Chamberlain on the line. The corner, a result of Jon Flanagan’s effort having been saved by Szczesny, at the end of a free flowing move which originated from a thumping tackle by Liverpool’s other fullback, Aly Cissokho. Cissokho’s honesty and hard work is beginning to win over the Anfield crowd after a frosty initial period, and the former French international is improving with every game he plays.

Liverpool’s third came after just sixteen minutes, however it’s no exaggeration to say that by the time it did arrive, it could’ve been the Reds’ fifth. Phillipe Coutinho, tenacious, aggressive but yet fantastically skilful and in possession of velvet boots, combined deliciously with Suarez to put Daniel Sturridge through on Szczesny, a chance which the striker skewed wide. Almost immediately afterwards, another Gerrard corner found Suarez on the edge of the box. He took one touch, and unleashed a 25yard volley that rattled the post with such ferocity and velocity, that Szczesny was left waiting for a postcard. The rebound fell to Kolo Toure who steered it wide, with the goal gaping.

Raheem Sterling it was who supplied the third goal for Liverpool, another move born out of the home side’s agressive pressing. Jordan Henderson hustled the hugely disappointing Mesut Özil off the ball, and carried the it forwards before releasing Suarez, whose low cross was perfectly angled and weighted for Sterling (who’d sprinted flat out to get to the far post) to tap home ahead of Sturridge.

 
Two minutes later it was four, and again Coutinho was involved. This time, the Brazilian pilfered the ball thirty yards from his own goal, before releasing a perfect throughball for Daniel Sturridge (already on his way), to race onto and calmly slot past Szczesny, low into the bottom corner.

 
Liverpool 4 – 0 Arsenal, inside twenty minutes! Anfield in raptures, and the expressions on Arsenal faces said it all. Bemusement, shock, surprise, disbelief, even despair. The Gunners simply blown away! That Arsenal arrived as league leaders, having won eight and drawn two of their last ten, had been rendered an irrelevance, along with Wenger’s men’s impressive defensive record (just four goals conceded in their previous ten games in all competitions), as the Reds swashbuckled and rampaged their way to the fastest 4-0 lead in Premier League history.

 
The rest of the first half settled into a pattern of deep Arsenal defending, brought about by sheer, unadulterated terror, until the the whistle finally sounded brief respite for the eviscerated Gunners.

 
Raheem Sterling added a fifth for Liverpool early in the second half, as he sprung the North Londoners faulty offside trap yet again, to race clear and slide past the a beleaguered Szczesny at the second attempt. Suarez, who’d revelled in his more creative role, came oh so close to getting on the scoresheet; first from a 30yard free-kick which Szczesny did brilliantly to claw out from underneath the angle of post and bar, and then after combining with Sterling, before slotting home- only for Sterling to be correctly flagged offside.

 
(At this stage, Raheem Sterling will be singled out for praise. Unlucky not to complete his hat-trick in the second half, the nineteen year old was the stand-out player on a pitch resplendent with international talent. Since his return to the starting line up, he has been a revelation. His pace, trickery, work rate, strength and movement, make him a real worry for any defender. His performances are improving with every game, and as his confidence has grown, so has his level of consistency, now seeing him regularly weigh in with assists and goals.)

 
Arteta grabbed a morsel of consolation, coolly chipping home from the spot, after Steven Gerrard’s botched tackle on Oxlade Chamberlain had seen Michael Oliver point to the spot. That the Arsenal fans cheered the goal like it was a match winner, went a long way to illustrating the utter dominance which Liverpool had displayed on the day; Jack Wilshere’s petulance and indiscipline in defeat, crystallising that sense still further.

 
A watershed moment then: for Liverpool Football Club, whose fans can say with certainty that their team is back amongst the Premier League elite. For Brendan Rodgers, whose detractors, and there have been a vocal few, no longer have sticks with which to beat him. Resounding victories in big games against rivals such as Tottenham, Everton and Arsenal have seen to that. And for Arsenal? Who knows? It’s historically true, that this is the month when recent seasons have fallen apart, and with a daunting fixture list ahead, they’ve gotten off to the worst possible start. Their fate is in their own hands however, they are still in the argument, albeit slightly quieter now.

Signing off with stats.

Liverpool remain unbeaten I.A.C. this calendar year.

Liverpool have the top two goal scorers in the Premier League: Suarez 24, Sturridge 15.

Coutinho has the most completed through-balls in the Premier League: 12. Suarez 11.

Liverpool have scored the most goals from set pieces in the Premier League: 23

Liverpool have scored ten more 1st half goals than any other Premier League team: 40

Liverpool have hit the woodwork five more times than any other PL team: 19

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Reds Look Like The Real Deal

Face of the Bill Shankly statue at Anfield, home of Liverpool FCTrying to evaluate where Liverpool Football Club are, on the pitch, has been somewhat tricky so far this season. Saturday’s resounding victory over Fulham though, poor as the Cottagers were, along with the last two league results and performances (including defeat at Arsenal), have gone some way to shedding some light on the matter.

 

 
It’s been a season of different styles and results for LFC far. From dogged performances at the beginning of the campaign – three hard fought 1-0 victories in a row – to chaotic away days (Newcastle and Swansea particularly spring to mind). Comfortable victories at home to West Brom and Fulham, and a couple of lacklustre performances in defeat against Southampton and Arsenal.

 

 
With the absence of Luis Suarez for the opening six games, the varying form of new signings, the plethora of injuries which have afflicted the squad, and the pool of talent available to him, Brendan Rodgers has employed several different formations thus far too. After beginning the season with a 4-2-3-1 (in the absence of Suarez), Rodgers adapted to a 3-5-2 upon the Uruguayan’s return.

 

 
This seemed a great fit, given the players at Rodgers’s disposal- an abundance of good centre backs for example – and it is a good option, particularly if Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique are fit to play the wing back roles. However, without those two stretching the play and providing options, the midfield can become overrun, leaving the defence vulnerable. This is borne out by the fact the the side failed to keep a clean sheet whilst employing three centre backs.

 

 
As mentioned already, it’s a good option to have, and it’s good that Rodgers is keen to have different methods of playing, to be employed as and when required. However, it’s no coincidence, for me, that the Reds best team performance of the season came with a switch back to a 4-3-3 cum 4-1-2-1-2. With Coutinho back in the side, a player who contibutes hugely to Liverpool playing well, not just through his individual ability but also because of the partnerships he forms with others around him (notably Jordan Henderson), this is surely the Reds’ best formation.

Much has been made of the problem in central midfield at times for LFC this season. As mentioned above, the 3-5-2 can highlight shortcomings in this area, however some have been quick to point accusatory fingers at Lucas and Gerrard, even calling for one or other to be dropped/replaced. Saturday highlighted, for me, that a slight shift in formation and the addition of Coutinho along with Henderson, makes all the difference to Liverpool’s central area.

 

 
With Lucas allowed to sit as the one real defensive midfielder, he can drop in and cover when the full-backs push on and the centre-backs split, this is a role he relishes, and there are few better at it in the league. Jordan Henderson’s pressing, in tandem with Coutinho pressing at the apex, allows Gerrard more time on the ball, and the freedom to pick passes – which he does better than anyone. Coutinho and Henderson, as alluded to above, work fantastically well as a pair, affording opposition players no time to settle. Each knows where the other is and where he will be, they inspire each other with confidence, and both play better for having the other in the side.

 

 
With that midfield quartet, operating in a somewhat flexible sort of narrow diamond (as they did vs Fulham), Enrique supporting on the left, Johnson on the right, doing what only he can in his position, Suarez and Sturridge up front, and the strength in depth the club now has at the back, the Reds look like the real deal. The formation and personnel (along with the poor quality of the opposition) allowed Liverpool to utterly dominate possession, and therefore totally control the game at the weekend. A fact shown up only to clearly by looking at the stats – 32 attempts (more than any other team this season), 10 on target, 68% possession, 722 passes – 260 of which were in the final third.

 

 
The other advantage that the switch to 4-1-2-1-2 brings is on the bench. Whilst the idea behind LFC playing 3-5-2 is to get all the best players on the pitch, it often means not playing players in their preferred positions, and (earlier in the season in any case) led to the bench being made up of players unlikely to change a game. 4-1-2-1-2 allows for players to play in their best positions, whilst maintaining a strong bench – if Skrtel and Agger play, Toure and Sakho will be on the bench, along with Moses, Luis Alberto, Sterling and Joe Allen, all players who can come into a game and have an effect on it.

 

 
Regardless of formation, Liverpool have started the season well. Being clear in second place after almost a third of the season, should have met the expectations of even those with the most exacting of standards. There are those who will say that the toughest tests are still to come, and they may be right, however this season has shown us already that even those who’ve topped the league for the last few years, and longer, are not to be feared in 2013/14.

 

 
Where the Reds can go from here is largely up to them. Liverpool may not yet be good enough to go to the Emirates and win, but truth be told, to win the league, that isn’t necessary. There are plenty of points to be gained from beating the bottom twelve or thirteen sides home and away, and Liverpool’s record at Anfield against the top sides is formidable. The spirit within the camp is better than it has been in years, the squad has largely returned to full fitness, and with FSG seemingly likely to invest again in January, there should be no limit to Liverpool’s ambition this season.

 

Shankly statue image by Ben Sutherland

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Reds Can Dare to Dream

Liverpool FC photowall

2014: The Next Chapter?

The new Barclays Premier League season is (almost) four games old, and at this early stage of the campaign, Liverpool Football Club sit in joint first position. It’s been a long time since the Reds occupied the top spot, even for a short while (2009 to be precise), however, providing Brendan Rodgers’s band of brothers avoids defeat in Wales this evening, their ownership of this coveted position will be confirmed for another week at least – but can this last? In this article I’ll examine whether Liverpool’s great start is just that, or whether Reds can expect their team to secure a top four spot, or even push for that elusive first Premier League crown.

At the beginning of the season, before a ball was kicked, breaking into the top four was the specified aim for Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool. In the second year of his three year contract, Brendan Rodgers will be acutely aware that only the achievement of a Champions League berth, or at the very least, a very strong challenge which falters at the last will see him afforded the chance to conitinue his work. Tough ask as it may be, it is a task that this Liverpool squad, and its management team, look capable of achieving.

As a subscriber to The Tomkins Times, I took part in a survey which involved predicting the outcome of every Liverpool game this season, win, lose or draw. Upon completing the list of results and tallying up the points, I arrived at a grand total of 74. Optimistic, I thought as I reviewed the list, casting a more scrutinous eye across the predicted results. Eventually, and still somewhat disbelievingly, I accepted that perhaps this total was more readily achievable than I had imagined, and submitted my findings. So far the results have gone as predicted – nine points from the first three games.

A points total of 74, should it be achieved, would virtually guarantee the Reds Champions’ League football. In fact, since the Premier League was awarded its fourth Champions League place in 2001/2, only once has that threshold been breached by a team finishing fourth (Liverpool 07/08-76 points).

So, what looked possible before a minute was played, now looks readily achievable given the Reds’ fine start -three games, three wins, maximum points and no goals conceded. This last statistic could prove to be particularly crucial this year, if Liverpool are to be successful. From what’s been seen so far, the league as a whole looks incredibly tight. With the financial implications of dropping out of the division so stark, and the added factor of extra television money being splashed around by many of the traditionally “smaller” clubs, competition is fierce, and so far goals have been at a premium as a result. Having a solid defensive unit, and the ability to keep plenty of clean sheets, will be a necessary skill set for a team with aspirations of climbing the league this year.

It’s perhaps of little surprise that the teams looking the most confident at the top of the league thus far, are the teams who’ve enjoyed stability in a managerial sense over the summer. Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool lead the way (the latter the only team still with a 100% record in tact), while those who’ve made changes at the top, are struggling at the moment to find their identities under their new bosses.

Manchester United look laboured under David Moyes. Without a goal in open play since the opening day of the season, and with players seemingly lacking that extra edge they used to find when inspired by Ferguson, it could be a long season at Old Trafford. Across Manchester at the Etihad, City have spent big on both players and manager. Manuel Pellegrini brings great European pedigree to Eastlands, and will undoubtedly be a success there in the long term. However, as any new manager does, he’s taking time to adjust to the Premier League, and this together with City’s new signings taking time to bed in, and an ongoing, poor away league record (4 wins in 11), could leave the door open for rival clubs.

Jose Mourinho is facing difficult times at Stamford Bridge too. It looks like the squad he has doesn’t suit his preferred style of play. He has few wide options for example, and he lacks a commanding centre half, with John Terry well past his peak. On top of that, allowing Lukaku to go to Everton on-loan appears a hideously bizarre decision, given that Ba has been largely unconvincing, Torres remains a shadow and Samuel Eto’o has been grazing for the best part of three seasons. In short, Chelsea are great between both boxes, but appear to lack conviction in either penalty area.

Turning attention back to the club at the heart of this article, Liverpool have been quietly making their case for some time. Since December 30th 2012, the Reds have lost just three Premier League games out of twenty two, picking up 48 points from a possible 66, that’s more than Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, City or Spurs have garnered over the same 22 game period. Liverpool have also scored the most goals in the league since January 1st 2013, upto and including this weekends fixtures, the Reds, of course, yet to play.

This article comes with the caveat (to be expected) that the season is only a few weeks old, and that things can change, but at the moment the signs are good for LFC. Rodgers has been assembling the squad he desires for some time now, and three windows in, it’s beginning to look stonger on quality and deeper in talent.

The acquisitions of Luis Alberto and Aspas offer technical ability, quality on the ball and a goal threat off the bench, traits which Moses serves to enhance, as well as providing a more direct, pacy and physical element to play in the final third. While Mignolet has been brought in to replace Pepe Reina, who had possibly lost a little hunger, the defence, seen as the weak link last season, now has a plethora of great options. Sakho is widely regarded as one of the most promising centre-backs in Europe, Ilori adds pace, youth and coolness on the ball, whilst Kolo Toure brings, a wealth of experience, wonderful charisma and leadership, and a winning mentality to boot.

The one area in which the club was seen to fail in the summer’s transfer window was in signing another top attacking talent. Mkhitaryan wanted Dortmund, Costa was oh so close, and Willian reverted to type and followed the £s to Chelsea. Disappointing as it may have been, for some, not to snare any of these big names (dodged a bullet on Willian imo), the Reds did keep the biggest name of them all.

That his name hasn’t been mentioned in this article until now, is a testament to what a great job the club has been doing without him, however in nine days the Liverpool faithful will welcome back the man who scored more than twenty league goals for the Reds last term. It may be a cliche, but Suarez’s return will seem like a brand new signing and, given the man’s talent and stature, it’s the best attacking signing that Liverpool could possibly have made.

Suarez’s return can help the Reds to maintain their fantastic start to the season. His trickery, flair and goals, will add that extra zip and unpredictability to Liverpool’s attacking play. A friendly fixture list (on paper), the fantastic team spirit fostered by Brendan Rodgers, the work ethic, a strong squad, well rounded with youth and experience can all help propel Liverpool up the league this season, but how far?

A top four spot seems a real possibility, but can Liverpool fans dare to dream of more? Yes, why not? The accepted wisdom says it’s impossible for team to come from outside the top four to win the title (there have only been very rare exceptions in the Premier League era). However this is an exceptional year, with some exceptional circumstances and, with that, and the stats for the last six months in mind, the dream, however unlikely, is most certainly still alive.

Image by Ben Sutherland

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