EighteenAndFive

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

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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.

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Liverpool Summer Transfer Wishlist: Part 1 – Player Sales


After the recent turbulent times the club has been through, much hope rests now that the club can return to its former state – namely, that of progression and togetherness and most importantly winning trophies. For that to happen, this pre-season could see Liverpool delve heavily into the transfer markets in both directions, in an attempt to restructure the squad and add further top quality players to compliment the recent arrivals of Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll.

And, in turn, it stands to reason that a number of familiar faces could depart Anfield for pastures new, to leave behind (for some at least) memories of great games and faithful supporters.

So which players leave, and which ones stay? How does a team plan for a new generation when so many star names are at the club?When some areas of the pitch have good depth and others fall woefully short?

The truth is, as supporters, we can only guess who is on the club’s short-list and especially at this time since we don’t even yet know who will be the permanent manager come summer. In the most part we probably all think and want it to be Kenny Dalglish, who along with Sammy Lee and Steve Clarke have done so much good work in such a short time, but it could yet be another new man.

But for the meantime, the wondering and waiting must go on and so I will turn my attention to the matter in the only way I know how; by putting forward my candidates for transfers in and out of the club, and my reasons why.

At this point I would like to make a few things clear before naming names; I have no insight to club matters or player transfer valuations, I have no idea if players have been targeted outside the ‘media knowledge’ thus far and I certainly have no idea what formations or system the yet-to-be-decided manager will turn to in the new season.

And for that last reason, my ‘incoming transfers’ will be based on Dalglish remaining boss, and the 3:4:2:1 system (3 centre backs, 2 wing-backs, 2 central midfielders and 2 players in behind and either side of 1 centre forward) being the dominant formation. Largely because it is my favoured one, and partly because we have employed it to great effect recently and I hope it continues. Of course, no formation is so foolproof, and no great manager is so foolhardy, that one single system would be used in every game of a season, so the pool of players in the squad must be capable of switching to a 4:2:3:1 or a 4:4:2, for example.

But the incoming transfers are for the next article. This one is concerned with those to leave the club.

The players I would have to leave fall into three categories: players who I don’t believe are of the quality to play for the club, players who have contributed to the first team but who I believe need to be moved on for the betterment of the team, and players who might have to be moved on depending on a variety of factors.

Perhaps the casual observer might say the easiest group is the first one, but the truth is, fans will always be divided over what players are of the right ‘quality’ for Liverpool FC.

For me it is relatively straight forward though. Without meaning any disrespect to players who have worn the famous Red of Liverpool, something I will never do (other than replica shirts of course!), there are players who clearly belong to this list.

Loanees Nabil El Zhar and Philipp Degen head the names. El Zhar never made the impact at the club that his first few substitute appearances hinted at, and as a free transfer arrival he was more of a speculative signing than one Rafa Benitez really believed would be a key piece of the jigsaw. Degen had what can be described as a torrid time in England; his first season was blighted by injury and even in the second season when he made something more of an impact on the first team, his physical attributes were largely negated by the fact he couldn’t tackle, regularly failed to mark his opponent and rarely managed to last the full ninety minutes.

Both players are likely to leave on free transfers in the summer, or as close to it as to make the fees ‘nominal’.

A third player on loan is also likely to leave permanently in summer – Paul Konchesky. The unsuitability of the English left back to the Anfield club are well-documented and as I do not intend to use this piece as a place to make any player a scapegoat, I will merely say that he should never have been signed and we all know it. His Premiership experience and English nationality means there will likely be no shortage of takers for the ex-Fulham man, and though we will not claim anything like the £4-5 million we paid for him (plus youngsters Dalla Valle and Kacaniklic) we could expect to recoup perhaps £2-3 million.

Christian Poulsen could fit into either of the first two categories, given that he has had a long and reasonably distinguished career, but the bottom line is he hasn’t been good for the Reds, so he goes into the ‘not good enough’ section. Again, we are not likely to recoup the £4 million we spent on him, but a return of around £2-3 million could be expected.

Finally, a host of youngsters will as is usual depart the club. For me those who I would not expect to remain beyond July/August are Stephen Darby, Gerardo Bruna, Martin Hansen, Nikola Saric, Stephen Irwin, Deale Chamberlain and David Amoo. Darby with six appearances has made the most impact at first team level, while Bruna and Amoo may fetch six-figure sums each. I would be surprised if the total fees garnered from young players leaving the club surpassed the £1 million mark, but one of those two could fetch that in add-ons and future payments.

Onto the second group. These players have contributed to the club in various ways, but should in my opinion be allowed to move on as we seek to improve the squad.

Maxi Rodriguez would be my first name on this list. Maxi is a clever player and has produced some good performances, but all too often goes missing for large parts of games. Statistics put Maxi high on the list of productive players – his pass completion ratio, for example, is usually very high – but this doesn’t give a full measure of his performance. Maxi is one of those who is relatively frequently caught in possession and therefore loses the ball without actually making a pass; this wouldn’t be picked up in a statistic but certainly impacts on Liverpool’s game on the field of play. While the Argentine was signed on a free transfer, his large wages mean we would be unlikely to rake in any larger kind of fee for him; I suspect a fee of around £1 million might be payable to release him from his contract but a buying club would be unlikely to fork out more initially as they would probably have to match his Anfield wages.

Fabio Aurelio is next. Though he has been at the club for approaching five years, he has never enjoyed a season-long run in the first team on account of his terrible luck with injuries. He was re-signed in the summer after initially being released, so I suspect he may be granted a free transfer if any club is interested in taking him. If not, again the Reds may bring in a small amount, but don’t expect it to be large.

Back up goalkeeper Brad Jones is my third player in this category. Doubts about him surfaced when he joined, but he has proven an able deputy to Pepe Reina in his few appearances. However, he is never going to replace Reina as number 1 and given that we have a talented young stopper in Peter Gulacsi on the books, who Dalglish has entrusted with the ‘keeper’s bench spot even since the return of Jones from International duty, I would not be surprised to see the Aussie leave. Gulacsi has gained enough experience through loan moves to cope with being our second choice goalkeeper and selling Jones may bring in another £2 million or so, similar to the fee we paid for him last summer.

Another summer arrival, Milan Jovanovic, would also be allowed to leave. ‘Jova’ started well at the club but has been unable to force his way regularly into the team and given that he would have a significantly larger resale value than most players so far (perhaps around the £4 million region) I would be inclined to let him go. There would be no shortage of takers, having been on the shortlist of many teams before leaving Standard Liege, and Milan does not really fit into a system that I would like to see the Reds employ regularly.

A player who seems to split opinion next; David Ngog. Some say he’s nowhere near good enough, others say he doesn’t get enough credit. I am somewhere in the middle; he’s certainly not a bad player but I feel he will always struggle to become a regular at the club. That, combined with his probably resale value, makes him an asset the club can afford to cash in on this summer. A £6 million fee was mooted last summer with WBA interested, so if he is rated at around the same value in July, or possibly slightly more, I would take the offer. Carroll and Suarez each have a certain way of playing and while I agree we need to have as many options as possible in attack, I think Ngog is the least compatible of our forwards with the other players. A player signed for only £1.5 million; Ngog would represent a good profit and would allow funds to be directed towards more suitable players.

Now finally onto two defenders, Dani Ayala and Martin Skrtel. Ayala is a competent defender and has performed well on loan this season in the Championship, but I believe both Kelly and Wilson are far superior at this time and will only get better. Add in Daniel Agger, Carragher and Soto Kyrgiakos and Ayala is already quite far down the pecking order. He would likely command a fee in excess of £2 million, perhaps double that in time, and I would take this as a good offer. Skrtel has been something of a mainstay of the team for a number of seasons now, but in that time has not progressed from a good defender to a great one, or even a very reliable good one.

His faults in each game are repetitive and predictable, and he does not give confidence in dealing with the ball in the way that Carragher and Agger do. His mis-timed challenges on forwards when the ball is clearly un-winnable often lead to dangerous free kicks, his aerial prowess is poor and he is neither a commander nor an organiser of the defence. He is however a great tackler, a good marker (though perhaps less so from set-pieces) and is rarely injured, plus he has a very good reputation, especially around Europe. Skrtel could comfortably command a fee in excess of £5 million and perhaps as much as £7 m. As Liverpool rebuild their team, the defence must be spot on and Skrtel is the first real “first teamer” who needs replacing.

That pretty much concludes the list of who I want to see offloaded this summer. But there is, as I said, one other smaller group of players who I would not exactly want to sell, but would accept the sale of in the interest of improving the side further.

First and easiest is on-loan midfielder Alberto Aquilani. I like Aquilani – he’s a great passer of the ball, has wonderful vision and, as he proved in the last months of last season, knows where the goal is. We’ve been crying out for a player of his type at times this season and I would certainly welcome him back into the fold next season. However, Juventus do have a purchase option written into his loan contract, which I am led to believe is around the £13.5 million mark. Should they match it, there would not be a lot Liverpool could do now to stop him leaving. However the Italian side do not appear to have the funds to spend on Alberto; rumours in the media have circulated of them trying to lower the agreed price further. For my part, if they can’t pay that fee, I wouldn’t sell him. If Aquilani is keen on a permanent move back to Italy, and another buyer is interested, then I would certainly hope that the Reds hold out for offers in excess of £12-14 million; after all, this was a signing which would have cost Liverpool in excess of £20 million all told.

Emiliano Insua, also on loan this season, is another in a similar boat. The left-back was all set to depart permanently last summer after Liverpool accepted an offer from Fiorentina for him (around £4 million) but they were unable to match Insua’s wages at Liverpool, and so instead he left on a temporary deal for Galatasary. The Argentine has not been a regular in Turkey though, starting just eight times in the league so far, and is unlikely to stay there long term. Thus, if a bid around the same amount came in this summer it might prove worthwhile offloading him, but if he was to stay at the club, again, I would not be disappointed. Indeed, with his attacking instincts and crossing ability Insua might indeed be a great option for Liverpool as a left wing-back.

Next up is a defender out of contract in the summer – big Greek Soto Kyrgiakos. His two year deal expires in the summer and while it would be understandable if he was allowed to move on – he is our fourth choice centre back and his age will be 32 when his deal expires – but he is a usually solid and dependable player and his experience has proven vital for the club already, and no doubt would do again. His contract does include the option to extend for a further year and I would like to think the club will exercise this option; quite aside from his playing abilities, it certainly does the younger defenders at the club such as Coady, Wisdom and Mavinga no harm at all to learn off a rugged and fearless player like Soto as much as a cultured and classy one like Agger.

Finally, two key first team players make this section. Players who for years have divided fan loyalties, only to prove time and time again that they are players for the big occasion, players who can make a difference and players who at the end of the day can win the team points.

So why do I include them in a list to possibly sell? Simply because, part of rebuilding a club involves removing some well-worn and hard-working parts of the first team to make way for fresher faces, new ideas and different problems for opposition to work out.

And so, step forward Lucas Leiva and Dirk Kuyt. Lucas has been Liverpool’s most consistent player over the past season and a half, and I say with no hesitation that I would be pleased if he was in a Red shirt next season. The only two reasons that I would contemplate selling him are because 1) his resale value would be fairly high, perhaps in the region of £5-8 million and 2) because I believe the players I have in mind as replacements would serve the club even better than Lucas can.

For Dirk, we all know his strengths – not just his hard work, but his selflessness, his ability to score a goal at important times, his sense of tactical responsibility and his record-breaking number of sales as the face of the official club calender. Alright, maybe not that last one.

Come the end of the season, Kuyt would have one year left on his contract and at 31 years of age in the summer his resale value would probably be at only around £3 million, despite his qualities. For that reason, I imagine Dirk is the least likely to leave of the players on this list. At the time of writing, he is thought to be in discussions over a new contract at the club. For my part, as mentioned, I won’t be disappointed to see him stay at the club but I do believe we need alternatives in attack to continually playing the same faces. Kuyt needs to be pushed as much as any other player and I would like to see him play more in a central attacking role than out on the right side. In my preferred formation, Kuyt would be one of our options to play as one of the two behind the centre forward, or as the centre forward himself.

And so we end the list. In pure number terms it seems like a lot – 18 who I want or expect to see leave the club, plus another 5 who could go either way. But in reality, only Maxi, Ngog, Poulsen and Skrtel are first team members out of the 18 – the rest are on loan, reserves or players who contribute so little to the first team as to make no difference – back up ‘keeper Jones, perpetually injured Aurelio and out-of-favour Jovanovic have made just eight league starts in all and total less than 900 minutes of Premiership game time between them.

Those eighteen players would bring in an estimated £25 – £29 million which should be comfortably enough to replace three or four first team players with. The key with “selling to buy” is to use the money brought in to sign (hopefully) ‘better’ players without denting the squad depth – selling/releasing eighteen players doesn’t mean eighteen more have to come in because as shown above, only a handful contribute to the ‘real’ depth of the squad. Even if Jovanovic (for example) needed to be replaced as well as the four ‘first teamers’ mentioned, an average of £5-6 million per player is not a bad amount to have to spend, especially with Bosman transfer bargains (see this article for more detail) a possibility and the hope that the new scouting and recruitment effort coordinated by Damien Comolli pays dividends.

In addition, if Aquilani, Insua and Lucas all left the club, a substantial £20 – £25 million could be recouped by the club which would effectively only need to go towards replacing Lucas in the squad.

Perhaps the numbers still seem too large; perhaps it seems like overkill. After all, I myself have argued that the quality of the squad is still there and that this similar group of players finished second in the league only twenty months ago. And I have no doubt that almost everyone on the list will have a supporter prepared to argue in their favour, and probably rightly so.

But if this is to be a brave new era for Liverpool Football Club, it seems right to me that we begin it as we mean to go on – by filtering out that which can be improved upon, and not being afraid to sell on genuinely good players when it is for the overall betterment of the team.

In my opinion, the sale of the names above would be the way to do just that.

Next up soon, the replacements….