EighteenAndFive

In-depth and Intelligent Views on Liverpool FC & Football in General

Monthly Archives: January 2011

A Golden Sky: What Constitutes a Successful Season for Liverpool?


16th of August 2009, some time in the morning.

Myself, as with probably every other Liverpool fan, looking forward to the start of Liverpool’s Premier League campaign; the opening fixture of the 2009/10 season which was due to kick off in just a few hours.

Liverpool were supposed to win the league that season. It didn’t go as planned.

The season before, the Reds were absolutely flying. They came close to the Premier League title; as close as they had done (position-wise) since 2002 and their second-half-of-season form suggested that it was simply a matter of strengthening in one or two key areas and keeping the same form going.

Liverpool lost that opening game of the season, 2-1 at Spurs, and never really recovered. From then on it was a definite downward spiral, on and off the pitch. Crashing out in the Champions League group stage, losing in the F.A. Cup third round to lower-league opposition, defeats to the likes of West Ham, Aston Villa and Darren Bent’s beach ball, even losing the semi final of the Europa League to eventual worthy winners Atletico Madrid – it was all background noise in a story which had gone badly wrong for Liverpool.

Fast forward fourteen months and things had, incredibly, gotten even worse for Liverpool. Rafa Benitez was gone, leaving behind a tale of what-might-have-been after six years, five finals and four trophies; and Roy Hodgson had been appointed the new manager of the club. Defeats against the likes of Northampton and Blackpool, as well as against bitter rivals Manchester United, had ensured it was hardly the happiest of starts for the Englishman, despite an unbeaten run in the Europa League.

But then, something positive happened for the Anfield side. The club owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, were ousted from the club after an unsavoury series of courtroom episodes, the end result of which was the takeover of the club by Tom Werner and John W. Henry through their company New England Sports Ventures (now Fenway Sports Group).

It was a big moment for Liverpool; gone were the crippling debts and extravagant interest repayments – one estimate putting the fees owed to RBS at over £100,000 per day – along with the threat of having to sell the club’s best players. Gone were the lies and back-stabbings, the media-fuelled outbursts and in-fighting which had dogged the last two years under the American duo’s stewardship.

A particularly poignant line from the club’s anthem came to mind: “at the end of the storm, there’s a golden sky”.

Perhaps this was just the new beginning the club had been searching for.

Now as we all know, the team’s results did not improve straight away; nor indeed over an extended period. Hodgson was removed from office, voluntarily or not, but rightly so in either case.

And in came Kenny Dalglish. The wave of optimism, of relief, of happiness, which surrounded the club in the following days was incredible.

I can honestly say I cannot remember such a show of unity amongst fans like it, dating back to probably the run towards the 2005 Champions League final. It was amazing – even after the defeat to Manchester United in the F.A. Cup a day later, it almost didn’t matter: Kenny was back, ergo the club was safe.

And now we’re three weeks further down the line. A defeat to Blackpool, a draw with the Blue Shite, and then back-to-back victories and clean sheets against Wolves and Fulham – the first time in almost exactly a year that Liverpool have managed such a combination, since the wins over Bolton and Everton in January and February 2010.

So what next for Liverpool? What lies in store for the remainder of this season? The mandate back in July when Hodgson was appointed was to “steady the ship” – something that I would argue neither Hodgson nor his then-employers managed to do. Wednesday’s win over Fulham, however, left Liverpool in seventh position in the league: exactly the same place the Reds finished the 2009/10 season in, and a full five places above where we were when Dalglish took over.

Steadying the ship then, perhaps, has been achieved.

Now lets look ahead: Liverpool face a home game against Stoke City next week. Despite the dire performance against the same opposition at the Brittania Stadium only a few months ago, this Liverpool side looks a different proposition and we should be hopeful of a positive outcome in the shape of another home victory.

The day before the Liverpool-Stoke fixture, Sunderland (currently 6th, 5 points ahead of Liverpool) will host Chelsea (4th, nine points ahead of the Reds).

Sunderland have been in fine form of late, especially at home where they have lost just once all season, and it is not beyond the realms of fantasy to think that they could take something off the Blues at home – after all, they played them off the park at Stamford Bridge earlier in the season, winning 3-0 in the process.

Should the Black Cats manage to take something off Chelsea and the Reds do the business against Stoke the following day, Liverpool will be going into their clash against the London club at Stamford Bridge four days later only 6 or 7 (Sunderland win or draw) points behind them. Does a top four league spot suddenly become a possibility for Liverpool?

The Reds know how to beat Chelsea – have done so already at Anfield this season in one of the few bright spots of the Roy Hodgson reign – but knowing and doing are two different things. But consider: two more wins for Liverpool in the next two games, and the club could be just one victory off a Champions League place.

That would be some turnaround for the club in just over a month under the watchful and shrewd eye of ‘King’ Kenny.

By the time those next two games roll around for Liverpool, we will already know one thing for certain: which, if any, transfer opportunities end up being successfully targeted in this window. Bids have already been rebuffed for Ajax forward Luis Suarez and Blackpool schemer Charlie Adam, while the proposed loan of Aston Villa left back and Anfield old-boy Stephen Warnock has dragged on for some time and must be questioned now whether it is likely to happen; he is not in favour at his current club so nothing should effectively be holding up a loan deal for this amount of time.

Ryan Babel has left the club permanently, while youngsters such as Steve Irwin, Victor Palsson and Sean Highdale have left on a variety of temporary deals.

Whether any incoming deals materialise or not, Dalglish is already getting much more out of those already at the club than his predecessor managed. One or two new faces could perk the current players up and would certainly provide some welcome depth in key areas of the playing squad, but there is nothing to say, of course, that a £20 million player would hit the ground running, especially coming into a new league at the mid-way stage. On the other hand, a few good performances or even lucky moments in average performances could provide a real impetus for the team over the remainder of the league season.

Liverpool are also fighting on another front; the Europa League gets back underway midway through February with a double header against Sparta Prague of the Czech Republic. Liverpool will be favourites to progress and should they do so, either Lech Poznan or Sporting Braga should also present beatable opposition for a full strength Reds team.

There are several good sides left in the competition; aside from big-spending Manchester City, Spanish duo Sevilla and Villarreal, Dutch league leaders PSV Eindhoven and perhaps most interestingly from a Liverpool point of view, FC Porto – managed by linked manager Andre Villas-Boas – all remain in the hunt for a European trophy and will offer stern opposition should the Reds seek to go one better than last season in the competition.

Liverpool need, as a minimum, continental football next season. Whether Dalglish (together with his important back-room colleagues Sammy Lee and Steve Clarke) and the team really are capable of putting together such a massively improved second half of the season to clinch a top four spot remains to be seen – certainly the odds are against it and Chelsea’s recent poor form may have been put behind them with a convincing victory over Bolton.

But at least the prospect of it is within the realms of possibility and dreaming now – something inconceivable even only a month ago when the Reds were just four points off the relegation zone, and worse, back in October when languishing in nineteenth position. And at the very least, it seems the chances of a Europa League spot – almost always secured with a top six finish in the league – are vastly increased and could be enhanced further by one or two key signings this month.

The mantra of the very existence of the club is to win trophies – and the Europa League, both this and potentially next season, offers Liverpool a good chance to do just that.

Against Sparta and (should we go through) probably in the next round, it is conceivable that the squad could continue to be rotated, until (if and when) Liverpool reach the latter stages and a trophy seems a tantalisingly close prospect.

Only time will tell just how far Dalglish is capable of leading the club, both in the short and possibly long term.

Some fans would maybe even argue that the position of the team come the end of the season is almost irrelevant now; more important the facts that the club, both on and off the field, are back in good hands.

Such a reaction is understandable after the instability of the past couple of seasons, but is unrealistic in the modern football world – stars such as Fernando Torres need to be playing on the biggest stages of all and, questions of loyalty aside, at least a big step towards keeping the likes of him at the club would be qualification for the Champions League, or showing that we can be capable of doing so given stability and strengthening.

For what it’s worth, for me personally the season is certainly no write-off at this stage and a top four spot is not out of reach yet; nor is the Europa League trophy. Anyone wondering as to the value of this cup need only cast their minds back a year to the disappointment of going out at the semi-final stage, or back ten years to our last exhilarating victory against Alaves.

Liverpool’s season is not over, not by a long shot. A few more wins like we’ve seen in the past week or so and the old confidence could be flowing back through the club in a big way. And who better to lead us through those times than a man who has done it all at this very club?

Remember: Walk on, with hope in your heart.

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Liverpool’s Tactical Changes Leading to Improved Torres Performances


After scoring twice at the weekend against Wolves at Molineux, Spanish striker Fernando Torres has now scored nine in the Premier League this season, with three coming in his past three games.

While the undoubted great unmeasurable, confidence, has been a factor to Nando’s improved performances, the change in Liverpool’s match-day tactical approach is certainly also a huge contributing factor in bringing the best out of Torres.

Under previous boss Roy Hodgson, Liverpool frequently sat too deep and failed to get people forward to support Torres, often leaving him chasing loose balls by himself and far too isolated in attack when he did get the ball at his feet. Torres would often be left to start his runs towards goal from forty or more yards out, meaning by the time he was close enough to have a shot he would be tiring from the sprint and with an increased chance of losing control of the ball. It also meant that he was even further from his team mates, given that not many of Liverpool’s supporting attackers such as Maxi Rodriguez, Dirk Kuyt and Joe Cole are blessed with great pace.

Comparison between Meireles (away vs Wolves) and Ngog (h vs Wolves)

The most notable change in Liverpool’s play under Kenny Dalglish has been that of the return of the passing game for which the club became so famous in previous years. A slower, more patient build up allows the team to work their way forward as a unit, allowing more attacking players to be in position around Fernando Torres, who has been the lone forward in each of the four games Dalglish has presided over so far.

A second change is that more players break forward rapidly to get alongside and even beyond Torres when Liverpool counter attack teams. Against Wolves on Saturday, this was evident on several occasions from very early on in the game, where Raul Meireles sent a volley just wide from the right side of the area, right up to the end of the game where Torres released Meireles from inside his own half, who set up substitute Jonjo Shelvey for a chance at goal.

These quick breaks from deep by the midfielders were very much in evidence for Liverpool’s first goal against Wolves; Meireles again making the run down the inside right channel before laying the ball across for an easy tap in for Torres, who was also supported by Maxi.

The heatmaps to the right show the difference in emphasis on players: in the top heatmap, it is evident that Raul Meireles spent over half his time in the Wolves half of the pitch, and even up to a third of the game in the Wolves third of the pitch.

In contrast, David Ngog (lower map) who played as an out-and-out striker in the home game against Wolves just 24 days previously and under the instruction of former boss Hodgson, didn’t actually manage any game time in the Wolves penalty area and indeed spent twice as much time in his own third of the pitch than Meireles did in the victory on Saturday.

Passes leading to Torres' second strike vs Wolves

Passes leading to Torres' second strike vs Wolves

Looking at the former example of a tactical change under Dalglish, the better and more patient passing build up, an excellent and rewarding instance of this was the move leading to Torres’ second goal which came in stoppage time of the game against Wolves, giving Liverpool a 3-0 victory. The 31 pass move included almost every player, including Pepe Reina, and culminated in Dirk Kuyt being released down the left inside channel before finding Torres to score.

Torres effectively scored two easy tap-ins, the kind which he would probably score comfortably with his eyes closed, but the importance of these goals in showing Liverpool’s change in approach lies not only in the build-up; but also in the fact that Fernando was able to get himself into these areas without needing to charge goalwards from long distances out.

Above all else, Torres is a goalscorer.

He is capable of scoring from both winding solo dribbles and with strikes from outside the area – but his ability to get himself into “the right place at the right time” is something which marks out all good goalscorers, and something which Torres has not had the chance to exercise so much this season.

The pushing further up the field of the entire team and the shorter passes during the build up play both contribute to giving Fernando many more chances to get himself into clever spaces inside the area and as many a Premiership goalkeeper will attest to, if Torres is given the ball in the penalty box he will invariably manage a shot at goal.

Not every one will go in, but certainly more often than not he will make the ‘keeper work, and with Torres at Liverpool it has been a case of when the goals start to flow it is hard to stop them.

Three goals in as many games hints at a return to such prolific form – and with the next two games to come at Anfield, where Torres has such a formidable goalscoring record, there is every chance that his recent scoring streak will be extended, aiding Liverpool’s climb up the league table.

Kenny’s First Win as Liverpool Out-play and Out-fight Wolves


Kenny Dalglish picked up his first victory in his second spell in charge of Liverpool FC today as his Reds side swept Wolves aside with a 3-0 win at Molineux.

Just 24 days after the same side lost tamely at home against the then-bottom-of-the-league Wolverhampton outfit, Liverpool turned in a performance so far removed from that tepid and listless defeat that it is difficult to believe the new manager has had only a couple of weeks to turn around the Reds’ on the pitch fortunes.

Dalglish made just one change from the side which drew against Everton last week, with the oft-maligned Dane Christian Poulsen coming into midfield for Jay Spearing. Wolves also made one midfield change from their last match with Karl Henry replacing Mark Jones.

The first half was a scrappy affair for the most part, with Wolves keen on launching the ball towards forwards Kevin Doyle and Steven Fletcher at every opportunity, looking for the runs of the midfielders coming onto the second ball to pressure Liverpool around the edge of their own penalty box. For all their rugged approach to attacking however, the home side failed to create any chances of note and Reina remained largely untroubled in the Liverpool goal, save for a few crosses and set pieces he needed to pluck out of the air.

On the part of Liverpool, Glen Johnson and Lucas linked well down the left side to tee up a chance for Poulsen, but his shot was blocked, before a Meireles strike from the edge of the box rolled just wide of the far post. Fernando Torres had perhaps the best opportunity of the opening exchanges when he turned neatly inside his marker but his left footed effort was beaten away by Wolves ‘keeper Hennessey.

Liverpool had dealt well with everything Wolves had thrown at them and were certainly matching them for desire in the midfield scrap but the Reds were also passing the ball about well at every opportunity; difficult enough a feat considering the state of the pitch.

Meireles and Lucas in particular were causing problems for the Wolves defence with their runs from deep and it was one such run from the former which led to Liverpool’s first goal; Poulsen set Meireles away down the inside right channel and as he drew out the goalkeeper, the Portuguese schemer simply rolled the ball across the six yard box for Fernando Torres to tap home.

The half time lead was a deserved one for the Reds, who had played the better football without totally dominating the game.

Against Everton Liverpool were caught cold after the break as they conceded in the opening minute; this time round there was no such danger as the Reds came out looking for a second goal of their own – which Dirk Kuyt should have given them just minutes into the second period as he ran clear through, only to be denied by the Wolves goalkeeper.

Liverpool didn’t have long to wait though as Meireles scored his second goal for the Reds in consecutive games. A cross into the Wolves area was headed away to the number 4, who smashed in a first time volley which looped perfectly over Hennessey into the top corner of the net.

From that point on Liverpool were largely in control of the game and though the defensive line dropped deeper to combat Wolves crosses from wide, the counter-attack threat remained and the Reds always tried to get players forward in attack at every opportunity.

Wolves gave ex-Red reserve player Adam Hammill a debut with twenty minutes remaining and he could’ve scored with almost his first touch, swiping at a pull back just moments after Liverpool sub Shelvey could’ve done the same; his shot from a Meireles pass flying wide of the post.

Liverpool closed out the game by passing through the Wolves midfield and a magnificent passage of possession football led to the final goal; an excess of thirty consecutive passes leading to Kuyt bearing down on goal before he turned inside the last defender and the ball broke for Torres to lash high into the net with his left foot.

Plenty of positives for Liverpool with just their second away win over the season lifting them, temporarily at least, into the top half of the table and with Fulham at home to come during the week, the Reds will look to build up some momentum now with a run of results.

Meireles had a fantastic game for Liverpool with his runs from deep and finding space in the final third between Wolves’ midfield players, and his link-up play with Torres was a fine sight to behold for Reds fans starved of attacking intent in the first half of this season. Lucas was also a key player in the heart of the pitch and combined some good passing with his usual hard work and timely challenges.

Dalglish’s team have put in some improved performances since he stepped in as manager without getting the results – today Liverpool achieved both to rack up a convincing win away from home, keeping a clean sheet in the process.

With Steven Gerrard due to return from suspension and increased speculation over transfer targets such as Luis Suarez coming to the club, Liverpool’s season has never looked brighter than it does right now, testament to the fine job King Kenny has done in the short time since his arrival.

Welcome to 18and5


Hello all.

Welcome to the beginning of what, hopefully, will be the latest addition to an already-impressive array of blogs on Liverpool F.C. and the wider footballing community.

This blog will contain match reports, previews, transfer news, opinion pieces, statistical and tactical analysis pieces and player profiles; mostly focussed on Liverpool but certainly with other football clubs and teams thrown in for good measure.

Thanks for reading and hope to see you back regularly.

Karl.