EighteenAndFive

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

Category Archives: Tactical Analysis

Liverpool FC: Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez Partnership Starting to Provide Goals


WEST BROMWICH, ENGLAND - APRIL 02: Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez of Liverpool look dejected after a missed chance during the Barclays Premier League match between West Bromwich Albion and Liverpool at The Hawthorns on April 2, 2011 in West Bromwich, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Liverpool romped to a comfortable 2-0 win to register their fifth victory in their last seven matches last weekend against West Bromwich Albion in the Premier League with goals from Charlie Adam and Andy Carroll, but it is the front-line partnership of Carroll and Luis Suarez, finally starting to click, which may provide the best news of all to Kenny Dalglish and his team.

While Luis Suarez has quickly become a fans’ favourite and has wowed the general watching Premiership with a series of impetuous and talented displays, Carroll has taken more time to find both his form and a regular starting spot in Liverpool’s team after injuries, lack of fitness and a loss of form have stopped him reproducing his true abilities in Red.

As a result, Suarez has often been paired with Dirk Kuyt or deployed as a lone front man with Carroll forced to look on from the sidelines or the bench as Liverpool’s new No. 7 struck up an understanding with his new teammates in instant fashion.

Against West Brom, however, there were definite positive signs that the partnership between the two was starting to bear real, deliberate fruit.

Suarez: by far the more mobile, the outrageously talented, the constant threat.

Carroll: the powerful, the hard, the aerial threat and the juggernaut moving forward.

A classic “little man-big man” front two isn’t enough for Liverpool. The demands of winning games in the Premier League on a regular basis as to enter the top four requires more from the front men than merely outjumping and outrunning the defence.

Suarez has already proven that he can bring plenty to the table with his quick feet, improbable switching of direction in an instant and narky, irrepressible menacing of the back line.

Carroll now is starting to show exactly why Liverpool splashed out a record fee on him.

He has plenty more to do still, true; his movement and anticipation in and around the 6-yard box is way below what it needs to be, and he is taking a longer-than-hoped-for time to get his body back to full sharpness.

But he is on his way, and in the last two matches, has shown as much.

Against Stoke City in the League Cup, he showed flashes of determination and ability which will be seen more often as time goes on, and again against West Brom, the increment of improvement was clearly visible.

Most importantly of all, the link up between both players, lacking in many games until now, started to show real signs in last weekend’s game that it could be one which works well for Liverpool over the long term.

The most obvious example of all was Carroll’s goal—Suarez’s first time pass released Carroll, who finished well despite a slightly suspect first touch, though it was a relatively straight forward piece of combination play thanks to some awful West Brom defending.

Several other times during the course of the match though, both players linked up neatly between the halfway line and the edge of the penalty box.

Suarez himself scored a goal—correctly disallowed for offside—after latching onto a flick-on from Carroll, while some neat interplay and one-touch approach work was evident in both halves.

The Uruguayan hit-man has gotten frustrated in previous games with his English teammate’s lack of anticipation, but there were several signs in the West Brom game that the duo are getting to be on the same wavelength.

Carroll has begun to understand that Suarez will be looking to get on the end of, and give in return, first-time passes in the area between the midfield zone and penalty box; the more they continue to work at it, the more likely it is that such combinations will lead to goalscoring chances.

Eleven goals for Suarez, five for Carroll—those totals (goals scored for Liverpool since joining in January 2011) are not entirely impressive for either player when looked at on their own, but eight goals have been scored by the pair between the two when starting up front with each other—in just ten games.

There is much more to come from this pair up front for Liverpool in the games to come, and Andy Carroll is just getting towards his optimum match sharpness; it is clear that he will never be as swift and agile in his movements as his shorter colleague Suarez—but it is equally clear where Carroll’s own strengths lie.

Not only is he a potent aerial force, but Carroll’s best play comes when he is facing goal and driving towards the area from around the 25-30 yard mark.

His powerful presence and forward motion makes stopping him risky for defenders, by fair means or foul, and he can deliver a wonderful driven shot from around the edge of the penalty area—as evidenced by another moment of link-up play in the second half of the West Brom game when Suarez teed up his partner for a driven shot with a neat piece of hold-up work.

The duo have started Liverpool’s last two games in tandem, and between them, they have scored three goals in those matches—both away from home.

If they continue to work on playing together and continue to get the opportunity to do so in league matches on a consistent basis, Liverpool fans can rest assured that we haven’t even begun to see what amount of havoc these two boys can wreak on Premiership defences yet.

Liverpool Captain Steven Gerrard: Which Position Best Suits Both Player and Team?


Three games into the new 2011-12 season and Kenny Dalglish has fielded eight midfielders already—nine if you count Dirk Kuyt—as Liverpool’s new-bought squad depth shows early signs of paying dividends, allowing for several changes in personnel and tactics without sacrificing strength, balance or quality.

But someone has been missing off the list of midfielders who have had game time already—and I don’t mean Christian Poulsen.

Liverpool club captain Steven Gerrard, out of action since early March after having groin operations and suffering a setback because of infection, should now be just a matter of weeks away from making a competitive return to wearing the Red shirt.

Already in light training and integrating with the squad, Gerrard will be taking a keen interest on both new signings and first team veterans; sizing up who is having a good impact and who needs to step up to the mark.

Looking, perhaps, to see where he will fit back into the team.

Throughout his career Gerrard has played in almost every position for Liverpool except in goal—I think centre back might be missing from the list too, but that’s about it.

But which position brings out the best in Steven Gerrard?

And, more importantly, will that position also best benefit the team?

We take a look here at where Gerrard could fit back into the side, whose place he is most likely to take and how he will set about lifting the rest of the players to higher performance levels.

Position: Central Midfield

Suitable Formations: 4:2:3:1 and variations

Player Most Likely to Replace: Charlie Adam

Gerrard is traditionally “seen” as a central midfielder, though in truth has only started around a third of his total career matches in this position.

Though early on in his Reds’ career he was a great box-to-box player with his range of passing, shooting, tackling and physical levels, Gerrard has gradually moved further forward as he has gotten older and never really—either through lack of training/game time or of aptitude—developed the necessary skills to be a true top-class central midfielder such as positioning in the defensive third and being able to track late opposition runs from deep.

He’s certainly more than capable of holding his own in the position as all the above traits still more than apply, but is sure to need a full-on defensive midfielder alongside him such as Lucas Leiva.

He can be a great threat for the Reds from deep positions, but against good opponents must remain wary of his defensive responsibilities if he is to regularly play this position. For this reason in a true 4:4:2 I remain sceptical of Gerrard’s worth in central midfield; with nobody else to link up play between midfield and defence he would be straining to get forward to fulfil that role, which at the same time would leave his partner in the middle open to counter attacks and overloading.

Position: Right Wing

Suitable Formations: 4:2:3:1, 4:4:2

Player Most Likely to Replace: Dirk Kuyt/Jordan Henderson

With Stewart Downing having seemingly sewn up one spot of any attacking quartet, and with Luis Suarez likely to have another one at every available chance, Henderson and Kuyt have, in the early part of the season, looked in more or less direct competition with each other for a starting berth.

Both played against Arsenal but once Gerrard comes back it will likely be one or the other—at the most.

Gerrard enjoyed his most prolific spell in a Liverpool shirt when playing from the right side of the midfield and, while not his preferred choice of position, he can still offer certain attributes which will prove valuable to others in the team.

From a wide position in a 4:2:3:1 he will have ample time to roam infield, leaving the likes of Martin Kelly or Glen Johnson to overlap into the spaces he leaves, while his delivery from the channels has always been exemplary, something which would no doubt appeal to whoever starts up front for the Reds.

However, is this the position which makes the best use of him? Gerrard does not have the trickery or acceleration to beat players on the flank; he is fast but not lightning fast in tight spaces and uses power and audacity to beat opponents in the middle of the park. From a wide position Gerrard finds himself on the margins of the game at times and, becoming frustrated, looks to come infield more often than Dalglish might like, narrowing the game considerably.

In a 4:4:2 this would become more problematic as he could conceivably leave his right-back behind him without any adequate cover.

Many people would prefer to put Gerrard out wide to allow as many other strong attackers from the squad into the team as possible—but personally speaking, I’m not one of them.

Position: Left Wing

Suitable Formations: 4:2:3:1, 4:4:2

Player Most Likely to Replace: Dirk Kuyt/Jordan Henderson

Playing from the opposite flank, Gerrard is still likely to take either Kuyt or Henderson’s place as Downing would simply switch to the right, allowing both players to cut in on their favoured foot.

Gerrard has played this role occasionally for both club and country, but again the obvious tendency is to drift infield as he will naturally face that direction to be able to receive the ball to his right foot.

Cutting in from the left Gerrard would pose a severe threat to any opposition goal, but it is unlikely we will see too much of him in this position.

Position: Second Striker

Suitable Formations: 4:2:3:1 and variations

Player Most Likely to Replace: Jordan Henderson/Raul Meireles/Andy Carroll

A natural goal threat, Gerrard excels at getting beyond the striker and providing excellent support in and around the penalty box. A good finisher and aggressive in attacking positions, Gerrard almost looks like a centre forward at times.

He does have a tendency to neglect his back-tracking duties when playing this role and can leave the team a little weak in midfield at times, but the obvious benefits he brings to the team when in this role are huge.

Whether Kuyt, Carroll or Suarez are playing as the striker, Gerrard can link well with all of them and allow others to come into the game with his range of passing and willingness to get involved in combination plays.

He suffered in this role during the poor 2009-10 season as a result of lack of service to himself and Fernando Torres; a huge burden of play will fall on the shoulders of Charlie Adam should Gerrard play this position with regularity.

Personal Preference:

I have little doubt; I prefer to see Gerrard centrally.

An advanced role is where I hope to see him most—dead centre in a 4:2:3:1 is the ideal position for Steven Gerrard and, assuming the supply line to him remains open, where he is most devastating.

Against weaker opposition or at home where Liverpool intends on going for more goals, a central midfield role is certainly not out of the question assuming, as mentioned previously, Lucas or someone similar is in there as well.

A front four of Downing, Gerrard, Suarez and Carroll certainly appeals to me—as would swapping in any of Kuyt, Meireles or (when in form) Maxi or Henderson for any of those players.

One thing is for sure: wherever he ends up playing, Steven Gerrard will remain one of the most important and best players lining up in Red each week.

Karl Matchett offers live Premier League text commentary; next match: Chelsea vs. Norwich City (Saturday 27th August, 3pm UK/10am ET) plus updates of every Saturday match.
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Arsenal vs Liverpool: Five Key Battles for Saturday’s Big Premier League Match


Arsenal and Liverpool will do battle this weekend on Saturday in the first of the big clashes in this season’s Premier League. Last season these two teams fought out an exciting battle that culminated in two late penalties—the second of which came in the 98th minute, an equaliser from Dirk Kuyt after Robin van Persie scored a few minutes earlier—and a 1-1 draw.

Since then, both sides have had something of an eventful summer, for differing reasons.

While Liverpool have embarked on a spending spree to bring in the likes of Stewart Downing, Charlie Adam and Jose Enrique; Arsenal have seen their captain, Cesc Fabregas, depart for Barcelona and playmaker Samir Nasri is likely to follow suit in exiting forManchester City, the landing point of Gael Clichy.

Forward Gervinho has been brought in, but will be suspended for the match on Saturday, as will midfielder Alex Song. Defenders Johan Djourou and Keiran Gibbs departed the mid-week fixture injured, leaving the Gunners with a real shortage at the back.

Liverpool, for their part, will be missing right-back Glen Johnson and long-term absentee Steven Gerrard, but everybody else has recovered from their knocks and Dalglish has an almost full squad to choose from.

Here we take a look at the five key battles on the pitch that will have a big say on the outcome of the game.

 

1: Andy Carroll vs. Laurent Koscielny

After a difficult start to his career where he was sent off on his Arsenal debut (against Liverpool, ironically), Laurent Koscielny proved to be a decent acquisition for the Gunners. He excelled in leading the defence to press high up the pitch, something which could not be said for fellow centre-back signing Squillaci.

However, he is not dominant aerially and is also prone to standing off physical players—something Andy Carroll took full advantage of when playing against the Frenchman for old club Newcastle.

Recovering from injury last season when the Reds took on Arsenal, he did not have the impact he would have liked. Expect something very different this time around as Liverpool will look to press the advantage of having the powerful threat of Carroll to hold the ball up.

With any set pieces, Carroll is likely to try to attach himself near to Koscielny in an attempt to beat him in the air.

 

2: Aaron Ramsey vs. Lucas Leiva

Following the departure of Cesc Fabregas, the suspension of Alex Song and the likely absence of Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey is likely to be the focal central midfielder for the Gunners again.

Possessing a good range of passing and an energetic style of play, Ramsey is more than just a promising midfielder at this stage. He is far more likely than either Wilshere or Cesc to get involved in play inside the opposition penalty area and try to score as well as contribute to the link-up play for which the Gunners have become renowned.

For this reason above all others, Lucas Leiva will be a key player for Liverpool against Arsenal; he is the one player capable of tracking opponents’ runs through midfield, is a good tackler and is an expert at positioning himself well to pick up second-balls.

 

3: Arsenal Left-Back vs. Liverpool Right Midfield

Probably the one area for either team which could be filled by different people at this point; most of the starting eleven for Arsenal and Liverpool could probably be predicted but the left-back slot for the Gunners and the right side of Liverpool’s midfield/attack is very much up for grabs.

Following Clichy’s departure Keiran Gibbs stepped up last weekend to start the season at left-back but suffered an injury against Udinesein mid-week, leading to Thomas Vermaelen switching to that position from the centre. However after Djourou was almost immediately replaced after himself replacing Gibbs, Carl Jenkinson came on for his Arsenal debut after joining the club from Charlton in the summer. The youngster is a highly rated prospect but is untested in the Premier League until now and Arsene Wenger needs to decide if he is to be risked in such a big game. Of course, Liverpool faced a similar situation last season in this fixture and came up trumps after Jack Robinson replaced Fabio Aurelio to such good effect.

Armand Traore is the other left back on the Arsenal books at present.

For Liverpool, the right midfielder could be seen as a key player regardless of who is picked for Arsenal at left back; Jenkinson’s inexperience, Vermaelen being out of his primary position or Traore’s relative lack of game time for the Gunners recently could all mean that the Reds have an opportunity to exploit that area of the pitch.

Jordan Henderson started on the right against Sunderland on the opening day but was replaced around the hour mark by regular right-sider Dirk Kuyt. Henderson obviously offers good delivery and stamina on that side of the pitch but is certain to drift inside to a more central position too, while Kuyt will offer perhaps a little more width and better service in terms of getting into the Arsenal box to link up with the front men.

A third option—one which is perhaps likely to be seen at some point during the game even if not from the beginning—is to stick Stewart Downing out on the right flank and let him run at the Arsenal left-back as often as possible, cutting inside onto his favoured left foot.

 

4: Robin van Persie vs. Pepe Reina

As always, Arsenal’s main goal threat is highly likely to come in the form of newly-installed official skipper Robin van Persie.

Last season he beat Reina from the penalty spot while in the reverse fixture Reina spilled an apparently straight-forward catch into his own net.

On his day van Persie is a world-beater and his strike rate in the second half of last season was one of the few bright spots for the Gunners as their season collapsed around them. Regardless of who is paired at centre back for Liverpool—Jamie Carragher and Daniel Agger should be again after the latter recovered from a knock—it is likely that the Dutchman will get at least one opportunity on goal and it is then that Pepe Reina will be called upon.

As consistent and excellent a performer as can be found between the sticks in the Premier League, Reina is hugely important for Liverpool and is adept in his shot-stopping as he is in his organisation of the defence.

Thwarting van Persie for ninety minutes will go a long way towards helping Liverpool to three big points.

 

5: Jose Enrique vs. Theo Walcott

Liverpool’s newest recruit, Spanish left-back Jose Enrique, started against Sunderland last week just hours after signing from Newcastle United and put in an encouraging performance on his debut.

On Saturday he is likely to start again and will come up against Theo Walcott who should come into the starting eleven in place of the suspended Gervinho.

Walcott will of course offer a whole load of pace and will look to get forward and into the area at every opportunity, something which Jose Enrique will have to try to turn on its head to have his best impact for the club.

If Liverpool can have possession and Jose Enrique can get forward himself Walcott will be forced backwards to cover and be kept away from goal, something which will benefit Liverpool immensely.

Another advantage that Jose Enrique should offer Liverpool is his great pace which should nullify that of even Walcott who will usually use that attribute above all others to gain an edge over his opponents.

 

Predicting the Outcome:

You have to go all the way back to 1999-2000 season and a Titi Camara winner for the last time Liverpool managed to beat Arsenal on their home ground in the league—Highbury, as it was then—but the Reds will surely feel they have a massive chance to put an end to that run this weekend.

Arsenal are weakened through suspension, injury and having sold or nearly sold two key players; some fans are far from giving their unconditional support to a manager they feel has failed to strengthen the team in key areas and the Gunners are really going to come under scrutiny this season—rightly or wrongly, its going to happen—every time they fail to win a game, mainly as they are seen as the ‘easiest’ team to knock out of the top four spots.

Liverpool on the other hand are by-and-large happy with their summer dealings and in full backing of their manager and will take a decent travelling support to the Emirates Stadium.

They also have one other wild-card who wasn’t mentioned in the key battles: Luis Suarez. The Uruguayan magician will look to move in and out of spaces between Arsenal’s midfield and defence and it is here that the absence of Alex Song will be felt most keenly for Arsenal.

Despite all their apparent weaknesses however, Arsenal are never an easy fixture and if they start well and get into their passing game without Liverpool pressing them quickly they have the pace, movement and fire-power in Rosicky, van Persie, Walcott and Arshavin to really test the Liverpool defence who will still be getting put together one piece at time; Kelly and Flanagan will likely battle it out for the right back spot and Glen Johnson has yet to return.

It is sure to be an eventful game and will throw up some fascinating tactical battles all over the pitch—but I am firmly backing Liverpool to end an eleven-and-a-half year winless streak and take all three points.

 

If you can’t watch the match this weekend you can follow my live text commentary and analysis of the Premier League game between Arsenal and Liverpool this weekend, along with every other Premiership fixture on that day, on Bleacher Report. Become my fan now to easily find the commentary on Saturday from 12:30pm UK / 7:30am ET.

Liverpool Pre-Season: Why Fans Shouldn’t Worry About Conceding Too Many Goals


Five games, fifteen goals conceded.

Whatever way you look at it and regardless of the standard of opposition, that is not a welcome statistic, nor one which would usually be associated with Liverpool Football Club.

It’s just a couple of weeks before the 2011-12 Premier League season kicks off and Liverpool appear to still have more than just one or two creases to iron out within the side.

Often during a period of change for a club, on-the-field performances can take a hit as a result of new faces, changing targets and fan expectancy. However, none of this really should be affecting the Reds.

Liverpool’s target this season is what it has always been – finish in the top four and qualify for the Champions League, so that hasn’t changed. Don’t confuse ‘targets’ with ‘aims’ – the eventual aim is of course to win the league, but the minimum requirement, the target, is to break back into the top four.

Fan expectancy can fluctuate wildly, but again, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to people that Liverpool fans expect success; that is what we have been brought up on and that is what we aspire to get back to. In the main part, fans realise that success is not an instant reward and that there is a long process to get through, though of course some demand immediate returns in the form of constant silverware.

And changing faces? Well, unlike previous summers, I don’t think we’ll be seeing the back of too many people who we wouldn’t really want to be rid of, Alberto Aquilani potentially aside. The new players, Henderson, Adam, Downing and Doni, have settled in well and quickly and have arguably been some of the most consistent players during this pre-season, so that doesn’t appear to be much of a factor either.

So why is it that Liverpool have conceded three goals every match this summer?

Sunray Cave, Malaysia XI, Hull City, Galatasary, Valerenga; probably not a list of teams which have an awful lot in common with each other. Each of those five sides have put three past the red (and grey, and white) of Liverpool this pre-season. Valencia await in the final friendly and with the likes of Soldado, Mata and Aduriz providing the ammunition there is every chance that the nets at the Kop and Anfield Road ends will bulge again for the away side.

A week later Liverpool face Sunderland at home – the beginning of the new season and the first full term in charge for Kenny Dalglish since his return.

Will the Reds be ready in defence? Will they find their resolute performances which saw four clean sheets in February, three in four games in March, and three more in four games in April and May?

If they will be, why can’t they do it now, only a week or two before hand?

Let’s look at this objectively:

In five friendly matches, Liverpool have fielded five goalkeepers. Peter Gulacsi, Brad Jones, Martin Hansen, Alexander Doni and, finally last night, Pepe Reina.

The constant changing of a goalkeeper behind a defence – any defence – will always have a degenerative effect on the organisation of the team. We all know Reina excels at commanding the players in front of him and ensures that areas are properly monitored at set pieces. Brad Jones is the opposite of that, preferring to remain rooted inside his six yard area letting a more deep-lying defence do its job before he has to.

Hansen and Gulacsi are untested at first team level and nerves will no doubt have played a part in them attempting to direct the more experienced players in front of them – certainly Hansen’s spill on the Asian tour betrayed hints of that inexperience.

Then Doni, the new arrival from Roma, was only making his debut against Hull City. I don’t know how good his command of English is but I’m sure that after only a couple of training sessions he isn’t quite yet up to speed with how Dalglish and Steve Clarke like to organise the defence, where they hold the line, how they mark and many other facets of the defensive system.

Pepe Reina only returned to the fold against Valerenga after sitting out all summer recovering from a double hernia operation. He’s a great ‘keeper but even the best might take more than twenty minutes into their first game back to shake off the rustiness, even in something as automatic as communication.

Next we can look at the defenders who have played.

How many defenders would you expect to feature during the league campaign in a run of five matches? Just four, repeated each match? Throw in a few subs and make it six? An injury, maybe seven?

In these five matches no less than TWELVE defenders have featured at various times; John Flanagan, Jamie Carragher, Danny Wilson, Jack Robinson, Martin Kelly, Danny Agger, Soto Kyrgiakos, Andre Wisdom, Emiliano Insua, Dani Ayala, Glen Johnson and Stephen Sama have all played in different defensive roles, while outcast Philipp Degen also played, though in midfield.

While you could argue that the full backs have the same role regardless of who plays left or right, some of them have played on both sides. They have all played next to different team mates and with alternating players ahead of them in midfield. They have played different amounts of minutes and some, such as Johnson, have only just returned from injury. Fabio Aurelio, arguably the first choice left back at present when he can keep himself fit for more than five minutes at a time, hasn’t even made the pitch yet this summer.

Centrally, last season’s ever-present Martin Skrtel has yet to play as he recovers from a calf injury. The pairing in the middle has been asvaried and mixed up as a lucky dip fantasy football team. Kelly and Wilson barely played in the centre at all between them last season and have both been asked to feature there in the pre-season.

Throw in the added fact that ahead of the defence, the first choice organiser, water-carrier, ball-winner and loose-ball-picker-upper has been absent all summer through international commitments (along with the energy and determination that Lucas Leiva brings to the side) and it is clear that there are more than enough circumstances surrounding the defence at present that we shouldn’t be surprised that goals are being conceded.

Look also at the times that lots of the goals have been conceded: vs Malaysia, goals went in after 79 and 80 minutes; against Sunray on 90 and 91, Galatasary scored one after 83 minutes and Valerenga equalised last night three minutes into stoppage time.

Six goals out of the fifteen scored in or around the last ten minutes of the game.

This is pre-season; aside from the fact that the games mean nothing, the players are having to get through an awful lot of fitness and conditioning work prior to and after matches. Late on in essentially meaningless games there is a high chance that due to tiredness, lack of concentration or just that small edge of sharpness which comes as standard in Premier League games is missing – leading to goals needlessly conceded.

Of course we shouldn’t be happy that the Reds are conceding a lot of goals, nor should we ignore the fact. But it also shouldn’t be made to be a bigger issue than it is.

Its not an elephant in the room that nobody wants to see – Reina, Kuyt and Dalglish himself have already all alluded to the need to improve and I’m sure that the whole squad will get a thorough work out in the finer points of defending back at Melwood this week.

There are more than four weeks left of the transfer window and it is still possible that defensive reinforcements will arrive. But even if they don’t, it is not that big a deal.

Come Saturday 13th August, Reina will be in goal, Carragher and (presuming he stays injury-free) Agger will play in the centre and Glen Johnson will man one full back area with Dalglish likely to choose between Kelly, Flanagan and Robinson for the other, assuming nobody new arrives before then.

Lucas will be back, the formation and playing system will be decided upon, set and practised endlessly and the Kop will be so busy roaring Kuyt, Carroll et al on to score goals that the defending will take care of itself as Liverpool seek to start the season with a win. Hopefully there won’t even be that much to be done as Sunderland will have their own problems in integrating an entire new XI to play together.

Personally speaking, I am more concerned with Liverpool stepping things up with their movement, ball retention and energy, as well as getting more support to Carroll so things don’t have to be fired towards his head every time, rather than worrying about conceding goals and bringing in a new centre back. If Agger is fit he is better than anybody else we can bring in so I’m not bothered about arguing over Dann, Shawcross or anyone else.

But if you still aren’t convinced and think that stemming the flow of incoming goals before the match against Valencia is definitely, absolutely, can’t-possibly-be-anything-more-important-to-focus-on more essential, then ponder on this:

In the summer of 2006, Liverpool’s last friendly was against lowly German opposition Mainz. They battered us 5-0.

Later that season, we went all the way to the Champions League final in Athens.

So do pre-season issues and problems reflect on how the season is going to pan out? Not a chance. Just look at Bruno Cheyrou’s heroics before the serious games started.

So don’t worry about it. Don’t panic. Don’t criticise and write off the experienced stars and the promising youngsters, just because a bunch of players you’ve never heard of scored a few goals one month against us.

After all… it’s only pre-season.

Henderson, Adam & Downing – How Right are They for the Reds?


Alright, so I haven’t written anything on 18and5 for a while because, frankly, there hasn’t been anything compelling enough to write about. The signing by Liverpool of Jordan Henderson caused a fair bit of debate, mainly over the price tag I suppose, but all in all the completion of a transfer so early in the Summer was enough to assuage anybody’s doubts that it was the right thing to do, and things looked rosy. Then we had a quiet spell before the Charlie Adam deal was finally wrapped up, and again the odd voice was heard over whether he was the right signing for the club. Again though, things quietened down fairly quickly and it seemed most people agreed that the price (presumed around £8 million) was pretty good, considering Blackpool wanted £10 million or more just six months ago.

But now the Reds are on the verge of adding a third British player in Stewart Downing, for a fee rumoured to be between £18 – 20 million, and there seems to be a bit of a divide as to whether this approach to players is the right way to go.

edit – Alexander Doni has been signed by Liverpool since I started writing this, but as a second choice goalkeeper he doesn’t really affect any part of this argument!

There are several angles I want to answer this question from; or at least give my answer to it.

Firstly – the perceived ‘unspectacularness’ of the signings. Secondly – why these players have been targeted. And thirdly – how can they fit in and be the right signings for Liverpool?

Let’s go back to the beginning. Late into the transfer window in January, the Reds sell two forwards (Babel and Torres) and sign two forwards (Carroll and Suarez). Much rejoicing was to follow when Torres looked like Sean Dundee playing for Chelsea, and Suarez proved every bit as good as any newcomer we have seen over the past few seasons – probably since Torres himself came in and smacked 24 league goals in his debut season, in fact.

From then on, people seemed to think that all the new signings for Liverpool were going to be equally spectacular, equally mind-blowing in their impact, equally expensive as well probably. It was (rightly) pointed out that NESV/FSG had roughly broken even in January, with the two outgoing sales compensating for the two signings, and the management went right ahead and told us there would be spending in the summer, as long as the right deals were there.

So many names were thrown around – Phil Jones, Blackburn’s new kid on the block ‘destined’ for great things (so were Jamie Cassidy and Anthony Le Tallec I will add); Juan Mata, Valencia’s Spanish creative forward; Ashley Young of Aston Villa, Ezequiel Lavezzi, a hundred different others – that it seemed the home-based and household names of Downing and Adam held little interest for some supporters any more, especially as they were ‘old news’ as the club was linked with a move for both in the January window.

Now those two (well Downing hasn’t officially signed at the time of writing but it seems a mere formality given Aston Villa have accepted LFC’s bid) and Henderson have joined the club it seems that there is a slight feeling of anti-climax about Liverpool’s transfer dealings, despite the fact (or perhaps, for some people, because of it?) that Liverpool have spent somewhere between £42 million and £50 million this summer, recouping only around £1.5 million in return for the sale of Paul Konchesky to Leicester City.

Let’s stop and take stock there for a second. Fifty million quid spent, next to nothing brought back in.

Think back a year; the Reds brought in two Bosman signings (Cole and Jovanovic), a back-up ‘keeper (Jones), re-signed Aurelio for free, brought in Shelvey and Wilson on pre-arranged deals which though could rise significantly only initially laid out around £3 million in total for both, splashed out ten million on Raul Meireles and wasted about ten million and two youth players on Poulsen and Konchesky.

A total outlay of about £25 million… recouped in large part by the single sale of Javier Mascherano to Barcelona.

Oh, and Liverpool also sold Damien Plessis, Diego Cavalieri, Yossi Benayoun, Miki San Jose, Albert Riera, Krisztian Nemeth and Nikolay Mihaylov, all of whom brought in transfer fees. Aquilani, Degen, Insua and El Zhar were also loaned out to remove them (at least partly) from the wage bill.

This was nothing new – several transfer windows in a row Liverpool brought in more money than they spent. Is it any wonder we spiralled down the table? Now look back at our current spend: £50 million – so far. Is that not reason enough to be happy? Is it not better to have spent this money within six weeks on Premier League players rather than servicing two years’ worth of debt interest with it? Regardless of every single Liverpool fans’ opinion on these three players, should we not simply be pleased that we are once again in a position to do business rather than be forced to sell to cover the mismanagement of the club?

Henderson, Adam, Downing.

Not spectacular names. But names nonetheless, names who have or will agree to come to Liverpool to try their hardest, to play for Kenny Dalglish, to win trophies. That’s good enough for me for starters.

The second and third parts of my argument – why these three players and also how will they fit in to the squad? – link together somewhat, but let’s see first why the trio were targeted.

The Reds have a large number of midfielders now; Gerrard, Lucas, Meireles, Spearing, Maxi, Poulsen, Shelvey, Cole and Jovanovic (if you include him as a wide midfielder, though not his actual position he did play there mostly for the Reds) from last season and now the return of Aquilani plus Downing, Henderson and Adam. Lots of players for three or four positions, but we’ll get there in a moment.

I won’t go into the statistics too much at this point; they have been covered in many articles already by many blogs or writers and I’m sure most people reading this will probably have heard them already, especially the one about the three new boys combined having created enough chances between them last season at their old clubs to account for 56% of the total chances Liverpool as a whole created during 2010-11. If you didn’t know that one already, now you do!

But what precisely is it that they bring to the club? Henderson signed first, so let’s consider him. He can play out on the flank on the right as well as in his more favoured central role; he can play very much a box-to-box type of role or be much more the focal point of attack through the middle; he can pass well, has a very good cross on him and has pace and stamina to spare. Above all, it is perhaps the potential of the player that Liverpool have signed; at 21 years of age he is the youngest player to be signed for the first team for some time and he has yet the capability to get better at everything.

He already though offers an attacking presence, endless running and no shortage of creativity and flair in the centre. Saying that, I envisage that he will find more playing time, at the beginning of this season at least, out on the right flank – I’ll explain why a bit more in part three, though of course his crossing ability and pace stand out as immediate advantages.

Charlie Adam, well we can already see what he will bring to the club. The first thing is his set piece delivery, which Liverpool have been less-than-excellent at for some time. With Carroll, Kyrgiakos, Agger and Kuyt (and Gerrard, if he is not taking them now) awaiting set piece deliveries we should be a much more potent side than we have been from corners and free kicks. Suddenly we have gone from perhaps two alternately good and poor takers in Gerrard and Aurelio to both those two, plus all three new signings took various types of set pieces at their former clubs. Jonjo Shelvey, should he play more of a part in the first team this season, will also want to get a look in.

Other than that, Adam brings a certain balance to the midfield by being left footed. It might not sound like a big deal, but it can have an effect on game situations – how many times have we seen the ball move from the left side across the centre, then across again, and again, and again until it reaches the right flank, merely because Maxi-to-Lucas-to-Meireles-to-Gerrard-to-Kuyt involves all predominantly right footed players who prefer to shift the ball across themselves before making the pass, giving the opposition defence an extra half a second to narrow the angle, close a player down or mark a free runner. Mixing a left footed player in there gives the option of an inside-of-the-foot first time pass while the ball is travelling left to right, as well as a cross from deep without needing to check back inside first. I don’t know how long it will be before Adam puts a cross on the head of Carroll from a similar sort of distance and area of the pitch to that of Meireles for Carroll’s second goal against Man City last season, but I bet it’s not long – a chance which otherwise might not have been taken while one of the other midfielders switched the ball to their right foot.

Adam can also feature when needed further wide as a left midfielder, and presumably will have no trouble playing as either a deep lying player ahead of the back line (though I don’t expect him to need to play that role often) or in the ‘Steven Gerrard’ role behind one forward. However, I am fairly sure he will be the ‘second’ midfielder, the on-the-ball midfielder who gets our attacks going and probes the opposition midfield and defence with alternating long and short passes. That is the other thing Adam brings; a range of passing which the likes of Suarez, Gerrard and Downing eventually will thrive on with their excellent movement.

And so on to Stewart Downing. Why Downing is needed is fairly obvious; we have no left footed, left sided midfielder and haven’t had since Albert Riera effectively threw himself overboard mid 2009-10 season with his Rafa Benitez comments. Before that, a succession of failed Sebastian Leto’s, Mark Gonzalez’s and Harry Kewell’s have failed to consistently deliver from that side.

Left footed crossing from the left seems to be fading out somewhat in the Premiership as teams more and more often try the ole’ “switch the flanks” routine, having right footed players cut in from the left and vice versa. Great, and effective at times, but variation is the key to a successful attack and even as someone who does not, generally speaking, like wingers I can accept and indeed encourage the fact we need someone in the squad who is going to hug the flank at times, stretch the play, beat a defender and get a cross over.

I’ve heard the arguments about Mata over Downing and yes, he is undoubtedly a better player but he is also not the same type of player. Nor is Santi Cazorla, for whoever it was saying we should have signed him instead of Downing. He’s also not left footed.

I also read a complaint of sorts that Downing “just pushes the ball past the defender” to beat him and cross, presumably being a moan that he doesn’t do several step-overs first or some kind of Brazilian skill move which ends in -o. Erm, so what? Surely the whole point of having a wide player in the team – and the reason I don’t like them much – is receiving end product? If Downing has a way of providing that then that is what we need, no matter how it is delivered.

He can, of course, play right the way across the midfield having spent a spell in the centre of the park after James Milner’s departure, and frequently featured on the right flank for both club and country last term and before.

Downing is a good crosser, has a fair shot on him from around the edge of the area and does carry a set piece threat, though perhaps not on par with Adam. His right foot is not exceptionally strong but he isn’t afraid to use it, which is more than can be said for a lot of players on the Liverpool squad list. We know he will work hard, put in a shift and get through a lot of selfless running and will, in my opinion, be an asset to the club.

Could we have got a faster winger? Yes. Could we have got a cheaper winger? Definitely. Could we have got one who was faster, cheaper and provided the same number of chances that Downing will create next season? We’ll never know, but I would argue probably not. As for the people who think the transfers have been geared towards throwing the ball up towards Andy Carroll’s disturbingly hairy head, either have a word with yourself – this is a Kenny Dalglish side we’re talking about – or else just rest easily in the knowledge you are happily wrong.

Not that we’ll never do that; if you have a Rory Delap throw in, you use it; and if you have a hairy cannon-ball header of the ball, you use it.

And one other important offering from all three players. For far too long, Liverpool have been reliant on a few match-winners who, when missing, the team struggles to replace. I’m not just talking about goalscoring, but all areas of winning matches. Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard, obviously. Dirk Kuyt, Daniel Agger and previously Xabi Alonso, Javier Mascherano, Luis Garcia and Yossi Benayoun. Aside from Mascherano’s final (full) season and Alonso’s second season, all of those ‘match winners’ who have left the club suffered significant injury problems and missed at times fair chunks of almost each season. Gerrard last season only played slightly more than half the league games, while the normally reliable Kuyt also missed half a dozen games through injury. In fact, aside from Martin Skrtel, no outfield player managed more than 32 starts for Liverpool in last season’s Premier League. Go back even further – Kewell, Smicer, Berger, Owen, Fowler – all match winners who battled injury time and time again for the Reds until they were replaced.

I am not suggesting that the three new lads will immediately (or ever, if compared to Gerrard and Fowler) have a match-winning ability on the scale of these other names, but they do have their talents which can help the Reds win games. And last season Adam played 35 of Blackpool’s 38 league games. The season before, 43 from 46. Jordan Henderson played 37 of 38 last year and in his first full season played 33. Downing last season played all 38 games. He suffered an injury in 2009-10 but in 08-09 played 37 of 38. The year before, the full 38 again. The year before, 34. These three new signings have a track record of being fit and available for their teams, and that amongst all their other traits is also something to be admired; something which will benefit Liverpool a thousand times more than Kewell being injured even if you liked how he beat a man better than Downing; more than Berger being injured even if he had a harder left footed shot than Adam and more than Jamie Redknapp being injured for two and a half years even if he was club captain and Jordan Henderson never will be.

And so now to how these players can fit in to the squad, and why are they right for Liverpool.

This last part is a bit more tricky and involves a certain few assumptions on my part, but hopefully fairly safe ones.

My first assumption is that Dalglish is focussing on playing some variation of a 4:3:3 system at most times this season. It’s the only formation which makes sense to me really; whether that be a 4:2:3:1 or a 4:5:1 or a true 4:3:3. They are all very small variations of the same essential system. One striker, 2 supporting players in differing positions, 3 central players. We also saw a 3:4:3 (3:6:1, whatever you want to call it) a few times last season which is also adaptable from the 4:3:3 I propose that we will play.

Based on this, let us discount for now from the squad list all goalkeepers, defenders and the holding midfielders, which is a very specialised position and for which we have Lucas Leiva, Jay Spearing and if he stays Christian Poulsen. Conor Coady as a prospect looks like he may get game time in this position in a cup competition this season perhaps.

That leaves us with five positions to fill (two central midfield and the front three) from currently the remaining 10 midfielders – Gerrard, Meireles, Maxi, Shelvey, Cole, Jovanovic, Aquilani, Downing, Henderson and Adam – plus Kuyt, Suarez, Carroll, Pacheco and Ngog – fifteen players. Three per position is obviously too many in a season where we will play between 40 and 51 matches, compared to our usual 50 or more in a European campaign with at least moderate success in the domestic cups.

Milan Jovanovic is almost certain to leave shortly, while it seems likely that at least one of Maxi Rodriguez and Joe Cole will depart. It seemed sure after last season that Maxi would go after claiming he wanted to return to Argentina but his new squad number (11) seems to indicate that he will stay. The latest rumours for Cole have Aston Villa chasing him, though I am still tempted to keep hold of him for now. Ngog can leave if a team offers the right money for him, while Pacheco is likely to have another loan spell.

With Jovanovic, Pacheco and Ngog taken out of the equation we have 12 players for five positions. This is probably about the number we need to have – the argument will be whether the 12 players are the right 12 we need.

For me, Gerrard and Adam offer good compatibility with each other while Meireles and Aquilani, two more of who it has been argued that one could/should leave, offer great depth as alternatives for or alongside either player. That leaves Shelvey as a fifth, who has already shown his versatility playing both at right midfield and left back – though clearly has a future as a central player.

A front three of Suarez-Carroll-Kuyt is intriguing but simplistic; Downing and Henderson offer excellent potential on either side of that triumvirate for varying the method of attack. Quite clearly we want Suarez to start as many games as possible and he can play right the way across that 3 as well as being a ‘second’ striker if we alter the plan. Kuyt is similarly versatile, if entirely different in style.

Downing as mentioned already can play both sides of that system, offering regular delivery and width in an otherwise possibly predictable line-up. Please note, I say predictable, not stoppable. We know Luis will love to pick the ball up in the left channel and drive in towards the goal; which is not to say that defenders will be able to stop him. Downing however will offer an alternative option and allows Suarez to play more centrally at times, or else he will offer a direct goal threat cutting in off the right side onto his left foot, a la Adam Johnson for Manchester City.

Henderson on the right side of a three is an option which really interests me. I know Kuyt is the main man, and will likely continue to be so, but he can also play centrally and Henderson will certainly get plenty of chances, even if it is off the bench to begin with. But with his drive and pace and willingness to run at defenders I truly think he can be a massive part of the Liverpool attack this season. His crossing is very intelligent; not just curling a high ball in or flashing a driven effort across the box but actively searching out runners, high and low, something which both our January deadline-day buys will appreciate.

The former Sunderland man is also exceedingly capable of scoring a good few goals for the Reds from that position in my opinion; he can get in the box to provide great support very quickly and has a decent shot on him. I am particularly looking forward to seeing him in this kind of role for the Reds, even if long-term he might be being thought about within the club as a central player.

That leaves us with Maxi and Cole. Two different kinds of players, both who play from out wide on either side, neither of which are a ‘winger’. Maxi relies on movement and quick passing to be effective; Cole on technique and trying the unexpected. It didn’t work out for Cole last season but, and I fully appreciate I stand to be shot down somewhat here, I still would give him another chance, at least until January. I understand the wages could be prohibitive and if there is a buyer who will offer him first team action he might want to go, but I have always admired how Cole came back from criticism in the past (see as a young captain at West Ham, and later his work rate issues under Mourinho) and would like to see him do it at Anfield and deliver what he is really capable of.

And, I might add, this system with wide runners, good off-the-ball movement from any of them, cutting inside or staying wide, is another big reason for the signing of Charlie Adam, and why I think we will play a 4:3:3. His long range passes have been well highlighted, sometimes for good arguments (great passer) and sometimes for bad (comparatively poor pass completion rate), but with runners such as Downing, Suarez, Maxi or Henderson I think we will see the best of Adam from this second central position, right in the middle of the park with one (e.g. Lucas or Spearing) behind him tidying up and one (e.g. Gerrard or Meireles) taking up more aggressive positions in the final third. He can pick out the runners and the players at Liverpool are generally speaking more technically and tactically savvy.

Maxi I can take or leave; seven goals in three games was great but for eighteen months he has been alternatively good and anonymous and I would not look on with an enormous amount of regret – though with fondness, don’t get me wrong – if he was to eventually depart the club this summer.

Something else I’d like to bring up at this point; I have mentioned the duos of Meireles-Aquilani and Downing-Henderson ‘second’ when talking about players for each position. This doesn’t mean I see any of them playing a back up role. Fans need to understand now that there is not a ‘first eleven’ any more; there is not a first teamer and a back up for each position. There are back ups, no doubt about it, Poulsen will be proof of one if he doesn’t move on this summer and the recently arrived Doni will be one for Reina, but in key areas of the outfield team we need more first teamers than there are positions – and this is something which has held Liverpool back for far too long.

In central midfield, for example, teams don’t need two (4:4:2) or three (4:3:3) first teamers and two or three back ups, a top side playing three in the middle need four or arguably even five first pick central midfielders, as well as another one or two floating about spare.

There’s no list of “Centre mids: Lucas and Gerrard, then Meireles and Adam; right side, Kuyt then Henderson; up front, Carroll and Suarez, then Ngog.” No. Henderson will play right, and centre, and possibly left. Downing the same. Gerrard possibly even the same. Dirk will play right and up front, and in behind. Luis will play all over the show.

Dalglish is building a side capable of playing from one set formation, many systems – that’s the way it must be done. And therefore, players need to be able to play several positions if necessary; the more they can, the more chance of getting game time they have. Downing and Henderson in particular offer Kenny that.

Of course, if Kenny is going for a 4:4:2 then this ‘list’ goes out the window somewhat and we can expect another attacker to be on the way, along with at least one of the named central midfielders departing, but somehow I just don’t see it at this stage.

The eleven players who take the pitch on any given match day don’t alter the fact that it is a squad game now and we need so many more than 12, 13 or 14 players who can play well and often, which is what we’ve had before. I have to admit, though I still want a left back to come in, if we sign no other player after that I will be more than satisfied with the summer’s work by the club.

Were Henderson, Adam and Downing my first choice signings at the beginning of summer for the Reds? No. Do I think therefore that they are bad signings, or wrong signings now? Only time will tell, but I am confident they won’t be. They have been signed with a plan in mind, and if Kenny is the designer then we can’t go too far wrong. Players can get better playing with better team mates and all three players have stepped up a level in moving to Anfield. It is also a fact, long proven over time, that Kenny Dalglish improves players and can get better performances out of them over a season.

Maybe not spectacular signings, maybe not earth-shattering signings, maybe even one or two overpriced signings – but if they are the right signings for Liverpool Football Club, that is perfectly fine with me.

Hat-trick Hero Maxi but Suarez the Star Again for Liverpool


Liverpool boosted their chances of finishing in a European qualification spot in the Premier League this season and kept up their slight hopes of even nabbing Manchester City to the fourth and final Champions League spot with a 5-2 victory over Fulham at Craven Cottage on Monday evening.

Dirk Kuyt scored his ninth goal in eight league games and Maxi Rodriguez scored his second hat-trick in sixteen days – taking his personal tally to seven in three matches – but it was Luis Suarez, Liverpool’s new number seven, who stole the show again.

The enigmatic and animated Uruguayan was a thorn in the entire defence of Fulham from the very first seconds of the game, during which he set up the opening goal for Maxi after just thirty-two seconds, until the very last moments of the match when another mazy burst down the right channel almost led to a sixth Reds goal when Kuyt’s strike was blocked on the line.

Suarez’s close control made him impossible to mark tightly as he repeatedly spun away from the likes of Chris Baird and Carlos Salcido by each touchline, just as he has done in almost every game since he joined Liverpool from Ajax in January.

When the Fulham defence then stood off, he simply ran at them at full tilt, committing them at every opportunity and revelling in the space afforded to him and his team mates.

Four goals and a further direct involvement in eight goals for his team mates in his eleven matches so far have marked out Luis Suarez as the best Premiership signing of the winter transfer window by some distance and he has helped transform Liverpool’s attacking play with his dynamic movement and non-stop work-rate.

‘El Pistolero’, as he is known, has shown a willingness to buy into the team ethic which has been promoted by stand-in boss Kenny Dalglish from the first day he arrived back at the club and it is that as much as his ability on the ball which has endeared him to the Liverpool faithful in such spectacularly quick fashion.

If Suarez has been the focal point for Liverpool’s flowing attacks recently then a debt of gratitude must also be paid to two lesser-spotted players in the attacking third but no less important for that, for it is the sheer industry and tactical stability of Jay Spearing and Lucas Leiva which has allowed the Reds to flourish in an attacking sense over the past two months.

Working in tandem as though they had been central midfield partners for several seasons instead of several games, Spearing and Lucas have been responsible for breaking up attacks, stifling opposition creativity and launching wave after wave of Liverpool moves, culminating frequently in goal scoring chances for Suarez and his fellow attackers. Against Fulham, Spearing racked up an 82% success rate in his passing and made two interceptions and six successful tackles as he and Lucas completely dominated the midfield battle for a sixth game in a row; a magnificent return for a player making only his 25th career appearance for the Liverpool first team.

How Suarez has benefited from the quick turn-overs those two have won; and in turn what a great return he has given the Reds’ entire attack.

Just fourteen short weeks since Luis Suarez joined the Red re-birth under Kenny Dalglish – one can only imagine the terror he will wreak on the Premiership next season when the likes of Steven Gerrard and Andy Carroll are fully fit and firing and playing alongside him.

Full Back Injury Crisis at Liverpool: Will Kenny Turn to Youth Again?


Liverpool’s weekend defeat to West Brom was a bad day all round for the Reds; the loss of three points obviously being the biggest problem, not to mention losing to the man who wasn’t good enough to manage us, going ahead only to lose the match and generally not playing very well, but perhaps the most important issue in terms of the remaining Premier League games was the fact that Liverpool lost another two defenders to injury during the game – in fact inside the opening half hour.

First, the only senior full back still available, Glen Johnson, succumbed to what looked like a hamstring strain as he chased a long ball over the top of the Liverpool defence, before Daniel Agger, who switched to left back after Soto Kyrgiakos replaced Johnson, also fell foul of injury with suspected ligament damage behind his knee.

That now leaves Liverpool with just four fit senior defenders: Jamie Carragher, Martin Skrtel, Soto Kyrgiakos and Danny Wilson, all of whom are centre backs by trade. Despite having no less than seven senior specialised full-backs on the club’s books, not a single one is currently available for selection – Emiliano Insua, Philipp Degen, Stephen Darby and Paul Konchesky are all out on loan and Martin Kelly, Fabio Aurelio and now Glen Johnson are all injured.

Though Carragher, Agger and more recently Wilson have all filled in at right and left back when needed, and have at times performed admirably, there is something quite clearly missing when these naturally more conservative-minded players have to play in what has become an incredibly important position, even more so for a team like Liverpool which lacks natural width further up the field.

Against West Brom, and not for the first time this season, a lack of thrust and pace was blatantly apparent in the wide areas of the pitch when the Reds had possession and, though the overall play of the team was not good and cannot be completely blamed on the make-shift full backs, this obviously had an impact on Liverpool’s style of play and absence of pressure on the opposition higher up the pitch.

The Reds’ next game is against Manchester City at Anfield on Monday 11th April – and it is highly unlikely that any of the three injured full backs will have recovered by then. What then will Kenny Dalglish do to overcome the problems in the wide areas of defence?

Perhaps the most simple, and safe, solution would be to leave the back four as it finished the West Brom game – Carragher right side, Wilson left, Skrtel and Kyrgiakos in the centre. However, as mentioned, this leaves the Reds with problems in possession when trying to attack and as City’s own full backs – likely Zabaleta and Kolarov – like to get forward, it would make sense to try to exploit the space behind them whenever possible.

What other options, then, are open to Dalglish?

A return to the three man defensive system could be on the cards – the Reds certainly have the depth in central defence – but with no full backs available this would mean Danny Wilson would be deployed at wing-back and while comfortable and composed on the ball the young Scot has not shown the same aptitude nor inclination to get forward as, for example, Martin Kelly has when given the chance. This roving, attacking intent is even more important when playing with wing-backs of course as they must double-up as wide midfielders when the team is in possession.

And on the right side? Dirk Kuyt might be the most logical choice, given his work rate, stamina and sense of tactical responsibility, but he is no defender and truly no genuine winger. Even with Carragher on his shoulder telling him where to be, it would be a big ask of the Dutchman to perform this type of game against an attack as good and varied as Manchester City’s. Dirk also lacks the pace to get forward in support at a moment’s notice and also likes to float inside at times – as a wide midfielder this is fine when he has, for example, Glen Johnson on the outside of him to keep the width but if he is the only wide player in the team he would need to stay outside for most of the game, not something which comes natural to Kuyt.

Perhaps, therefore, the logical choice would be to promote from within. In Jack Robinson and John Flanagan Liverpool have two young full backs who have been in great form at reserve level for the whole season and have been involved with the first team squad on a number of occasions over the past few months.

Robinson, Liverpool’s youngest ever player having appeared at just 16 years of age on the final day of last season, is a fast and adventurous left sided defender; a naturally attack-minded full back who can beat a man with pace and put over a decent cross. He has been on the bench for Liverpool this season, though has yet to add to his cameo debut appearance, and though has struggled with injury of late for the Reds’ second string he did feature for the whole game against Everton in the mini-derby at the end of last month.

Flanagan, a right back who holds the number 38 shirt, has yet to make his debut for the Reds but has travelled with the first team squad as the “19th man” on a number of occasions recently and manager Dalglish himself has said that the young Scouser is pressing for first team action. Uncompromising in the challenge and a good reader of the game, Flanagan is perhaps less of a spectacular attacker than Robinson but no worse a player for it; he has made great strides over the past two seasons and is one of several young players who travelled with the Reds to a recent European away fixture.

With the likes of Jonjo Shelvey, Jay Spearing, Kelly and Wilson having all made impacts on the first team over the past couple of months, perhaps it is not so surprising that two of the younger members of the side might be called upon in such a big game. True, Spearing had played Cup games and had started a Premiership game the year before, but earlier this season Dalglish started him in the Merseyside derby when he played only a few minutes of league football this season before that – evidence indeed that Kenny trusts to the quality of the younger lads in even the very biggest of matches. Indeed, we might also point out that a centre-back could even be called up to the first team from the reserves as substitute, should all four seniors be picked. Conor Coady, who has already been on the bench for the first team this season, would fancy his chances of inclusion in that case.

After the defeat to West Brom, the challenge for fifth place is perhaps all but gone now; Spurs hold a five point advantage and have a game in hand. Perhaps this is a perfect time to integrate the kids into the team and give them their chance; with still a sizeable gap between Liverpool and the 7th place team in the league, even in the worst case scenario we wouldn’t drop any further in the table were the idea not to pan out.

City’s attack is often centre-heavy and reliant on clever movement by the likes of Tevez; perhaps, just as against Chelsea, deploying a three man defence of Carragher, Skrtel and Kyrgiakos would work very well in Liverpool’s favour? So often City attackers, even the wider players such as Silva and Johnson, prefer to cut in rather than work the flanks; bottle-necking the centre of the Reds’ defensive zone could negate the opposition attack to a huge extent.

Robinson and Flanagan both of course will have lots to learn in terms of defending – and indeed playing – at Premier League level, but that is certainly not to say they are not good enough. Look at the effect Martin Kelly had on the team; he is young and will make mistakes, likely ones that will cost the Reds a goal or two at some time. But he’s good enough to play, and has a consistently good effect on the team which undoubtedly outweighs the possibility that he could err from time to time.

Given the chance, Robinson and Flanagan could provide similar performances.

Playing with three defenders between these two youngsters significantly minimises the chance that their inexperience could give the opposition a scoring opportunity, while their need to make an impact and youthful energy would be a welcome addition to the side both in defence and further forward.

Even if Kenny chooses to stick with a back four for the City game, I would be highly in favour of perhaps Robinson starting on the left, with Carragher remaining at right back. A true attacking full-back adds so much to teams’ play and I feel it imperative that Liverpool try to incorporate this against Manchester City.

But with complete honesty and no rose-tinted, youth-exaggerating, trumpet-blowing biased point of view in sight, I would very much, tactically, technically and ‘long-term-edly’, like to see both Robinson and Flanagan given a chance next Monday night.

Careers are made, sometimes, by the chances taken when others fall foul of injury. Martin Kelly looks to be the next great example of just such a case – and there is every possibility that these other two local boys might just get their first big chance at Anfield in a few days time.

Preferred Reds side vs Man City (presuming no new injuries or returns from injury):

Reina
Skrtel    Carragher    Kyrgiakos
Flanagan                                                             Robinson
Lucas
Kuyt                       Meireles
Suarez
Carroll

Subs: Gulacsi, Wilson, Spearing, Ngog, Cole, Maxi, Poulsen.

or

Reina
Carragher    Skrtel    Kyrgiakos    Robinson
Spearing     Lucas
Kuyt        Meireles        Suarez
Carroll

Subs: Gulacsi, Wilson, Flanagan, Poulsen, Maxi, Cole, Ngog.

Three Centre Backs: A Long Term Possibility for Liverpool?


Over the past two league fixtures, Liverpool boss Kenny Dalglish has sent his team out to play in a formation rarely seen in the Premier League since the mid nineties – with a three-man central defensive line-up. Those who have known me for some time will know this is a system I have – often forlornly and wistfully! – advocated for many seasons. Needless to say, I was intrigued as well as delighted when the Reds took to the field with such a system in mind.

Statistically – including the most important statistic – it has been a success for the Reds as they won 2-0 at home to Stoke City, a team who caused Liverpool no end of problems in the reverse fixture only ten weeks previously, before nullifying the three-pronged attack of Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, winning by one goal to nil.

In both of those games, the opposition was restricted to a single shot on target apiece; fine work considering the (albeit with very different styles and abilities) artillery available to each side.

Against Stoke, Greek giant Soto Kyrgiakos manned the central role and was back to his dominating best as he out-muscled, out-jumped and out-manoeuvred the Potters’ latest addition to their exclusive 6’2″ and over club, John Carew. Either side of him was the adventurous Daniel Agger (left side) and Martin Skrtel, who though has not been anywhere near his best this season has, in this system, put in two highly accomplished displays.

While Kyrgiakos controlled the Stoke aerial threat, Skrtel and Agger maintained shape and a controlled pressure on the Stoke players trying to support the attack. Back in November, Liverpool time and time again failed to deal with the second ball against Stoke, or to pressurise effectively the runners from midfield who pressed the Reds back inside and around their own penalty area for large spells of the game.

Last week, the midfield of the home side was far more effective in this respect and with Lucas Leiva in particular getting through an enormous amount of work shielding the back three, Skrtel, Kyrgiakos and Agger were able to perform their defensive duties both comfortably and admirably.

One of the great strengths of the 3-man central defensive system is – given the right players – its tactical flexibility. In an instant and according to necessity, the three can become four or even five; add to this the likes of Gerrard and Lucas to form a shield in front of them and it is easy to see why it can be such an effective defensive system.

To examine just how this has effectively worked for Liverpool, let’s take a closer look at how the Reds set up.

Playing Daniel Agger on the left side is a bit of a no-brainer; he’s the only one of Liverpool’s centre backs who is left footed and does have experience playing in the full back role; essential for those times when the three does indeed need to become four. For example, in a counter attack situation where Liverpool have lost the ball when attacking down their left; as the opposition attack down their right flank, behind the left wing-back of Liverpool (Glen Johnson in these two fixtures mentioned) who would have pushed up during the attack, Agger can move across to an orthodox left full back position comfortably. The other two central players move across accordingly, leaving the right wing-back (Martin Kelly) to drop in on the right side, making a ‘normal’ back four – something which all modern Premiership defenders are both familiar and comfortable with, and which provides Liverpool with sufficient cover across the entire back line.

Likewise, down the opposite flank, Skrtel would have filled in at right back (he has appeared there before, albeit fleetingly, for Liverpool) and Johnson, Kyrgiakos and Agger would have tilted to the right accordingly. Against Chelsea, Jamie Carragher, who of course has played several seasons at full back through his career, came in on the right side and Skrtel moved to the centre.

For more sustained periods of pressure, such as Liverpool found themselves facing against Premier League champions Chelsea on Sunday, having both wing-backs tucked in narrower and slightly deeper offers a sturdy and impenetrable back five, difficult to find spaces between or play behind. In addition, this makes it possible for one defender to step up and apply pressure slightly higher than usual, knowing that he is covered behind by more than just one team mate.

And what about the flip side? Obviously, allowing for an extra central defender in the team means that one player from further up the pitch must make way. Does it then affect the attacking ability of a team?

In short, no, it doesn’t  – as long as the system is implemented well, tactically speaking, and the team has the right type of players to perform specific roles.

This is not a formation which any old team can play, or any old players can slot into seamlessly. Two of the biggest problems with teams playing this way in the mid-90’s was that a) defensive coaches were clearly not well versed in how to correctly utilise the system, or the wrong types of players were asked to carry out important roles (especially the wing backs) and b) coaches and managers seemed unable to see past the two-man forward line, resulting in somewhat predictable and at times unbalanced 5-3-2 or 3-5-2 formations. I would love nothing more at this point than to follow my brain into more detail on the possible alignments of the attackers, but that is for another blog, another time – for now lets concentrate on the defence.

One of the most important facets of modern day football is the attacking full back. Gone are the days of solid, dependable, halfway-line-sitting tacklers and hoofers, or at least from teams with aspirations of winning major trophies, anyway.

The wing back system allows a naturally attack minded full back to carry out exactly the type of job he prefers to do – attack at pace, carry the play, offer width high up the pitch and, hopefully, supply a stream of balls to the attackers. In a conventional four man defence, the very best full backs do this anyway of course – think Dani Alves, Ashley Cole, Maicon – but there is always a hugely demanding amount of pressure, both tactically and physically, on these players to be constantly alert and ready to dart back down the pitch at a moment’s notice in the event of losing the ball.

While no system should exonerate a defender from defending entirely, an extra man at the back always offers that increased cover in the event of a quick break from the opposition, spread over the entire width of the pitch if need be, and the rewards from the wide defenders being able to press higher up the pitch more often are easily spotted with the displays of Johnson and Kelly in the games since Dalglish took over.

There is another piece which adds to the attacking dimension of the team: the ball-playing central defender.

A defender who can bring the ball out comfortably is worth his weight in gold in the right team. In Daniel Agger, Liverpool have precisely that kind of player. Against Stoke Agger completed a fantastic 82 percent of his passes, and 78 percent against Chelsea. Not only is he capable of excellent distribution but the Dane also has the ability to run with the ball out of defence, a big plus point for two reasons.

Firstly, his running speed with the ball can see the Reds progress thirty metres up the pitch very quickly before the defending side has a chance to react – usually when a team plays the ball out of defence, the opposition will be clear on which player takes each man, which midfielder marks their opposite number etc – and not many players have the inclination or ability to deviate from such tactical instructions to close Agger down before he can pick out a team mate or make space for someone else to run into. As we all know, he also possesses a terrific shot with his left foot; I wouldn’t bet against him netting another long range effort before the season is out if this system is persevered with.

Secondly, once Agger has passed on the ball, he regularly continues his run up to the edge of the opposition penalty area, offering an option for a pass or cross. An extra man in an attack can make all the difference, and frequently the runner from the defensive line will not be marked, for the same reasons as given previously – the opposition already all have their men targeted, defender with forward, full back with wide player etc, and the sudden presence of a centre back in the penalty area can frequently go unnoticed.

Martin Skrtel also gave a great example of this against Chelsea as he made a run from deep, completely untracked in the Blues’ penalty area and could have had a chance at goal had the ball in not been cut out.

So two questions remain:

With all these great advantages, why don’t more sides utilise this system? And more importantly, is it a realistic option for Liverpool in the long term?

For the first question, to be honest, I don’t know, and I don’t care. Thoroughly unsatisfactory answer I know but the truth is I don’t pay attention to any club anywhere near as much as Liverpool, though I do love to watch as much football as possible. But I know Liverpool’s reserves and academy players and therefore know there are players who would, long term, fit in this system (Mavinga, Coady, Mendy, anyone?) and I know that many teams simply don’t possess coaches with enough know-how or invention to dream of doing it. The (tactical) coaching standard throughout the Premier League, in general, does not strike me as being extremely high beyond a magnificent grasp of organisation and percentage plays, compared to for example Italy or Spain. Udinese and Napoli have both been users of the three man defence, though Napoli for instance play a far narrower three man line than Liverpool have used (or that I would like to see used) but beyond the occasional Sam Allardyce three-at-the-back system (which barely counts, since it would likely be because Chris Samba was thrown up front, leaving three defenders covering his sizeable hole) not many Premier League teams have given it a try.

At this point I would like to point out that new coach Steve Clarke is likely to have had a huge influence on the excellent displays from Carra, Soto, Agger and Skrtel over the past two games in this formation and if so deserves just as much of the credit as Kenny Dalglish.

Under Rafa Benitez Liverpool did, the odd time, try to implement it – one time which sticks in the memory was a very good team performance against Newcastle, where Jan Kromkamp and Stephen Warnock were the wing-backs, of all people. The consensus appeared to be that playing three in central defence meant one was wasted when teams only played with one striker – three on one is unnecessary and can leave you overrun in midfield. Again, and here is the key point, the right personnel is what makes this system such a good one. Somebody like Agger, who is so comfortable in possession and tactically aware, is able to push up either through the centre or down one of the flanks, to make up the numbers in the middle of the park and swing the balance back in favour of your side.

And so to Liverpool; is it a possibility in the long term? Yes and no.

It is, because we’ve already shown it can work. And it is, because we have the players to do it with and, importantly, it allows us to utilise the remaining players in the squad to the best of their abilities. We don’t have real wingers at Liverpool, and I don’t like them anyway. In this system, true wingers become obsolete; the wing-backs fill their void in attack and the attacking midfielder and forward(s) are able to play with and around them, creating attacks in a variety of methods instead of just endless crosses, hoping one of them lands on or near an attacker.

But it is both unlikely and unrealistic to expect a team to keep one formation for every game of a season, especially a manager like Dalglish who has proven before that he will switch a team or a formation to suit each game – whatever gives his side the best chance of winning.

Another reason I think it could be: Micah Richards. I have him down on my “list” of signings for Liverpool – deride me if you will – and according to reports he was one of the players we looked at during the January transfer window. For me, Richards would be an absolute monster of a player for us in this system. On the right side of a three or in the middle (assuming Carragher on the right for constant shouted positional guidance!) Richards would offer the ability going forward that Agger gives on the opposite side, the comfort on the ball and the goal threat in attack, a great aerial ability at both ends of the pitch – and with Kyrgiakos out of contract in the summer that is a skill which will have to be filled, Andy Carroll or no Andy Carroll – and, crucially because no other Liverpool defender really has it, an abundance of pace. Until now Richards has been switched between right-back and centre-back at Man City, crucified because of his ‘poor’ positional sense and revered because of his physical prowess. Again, the extra man cover in defence will aid significantly in this regard until such time as his positional maturity increases, as it does with all talented young defenders. Our own Martin Kelly – another destined for greatness in the centre of defence in my eyes – seems to be the exception to this rule, rarely caught out of position in his 24 games for the Reds to date.

Not that the next name is likely to be a transfer target for Liverpool in summer but Jack Rodwell is another who would, long term, excel in this kind of role.

Liverpool’s next game is against Wigan Athletic at Anfield and it will certainly be interesting to see if Dalglish sticks with the three man defence or resumes with a ‘conventional’ back four. Either way, it will likely neither signify a preference nor a reluctance of King Kenny for one system or another; at this point he is likely to be largely picking teams based on what he has available to use.

But I for one am delighted to have witnessed two very good Liverpool performances utilising the three man defence, and hope to see much more of it in the future.

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.