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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Victory Over City Gives Glimpse of Liverpool’s Youth Culture Future


For the first time in what seems like an age, Liverpool’s conveyor belt of young talent, somewhat rusty and creaky in recent years with disuse, is finally back in motion.

Last night’s victory for the Reds over Manchester City was a point of celebration for many reasons, not least of all the comprehensive manner in which Kenny Dalglish’s patched-together team disposed of Roberto Mancini’s expensively-assembled legion of international stars, nor the occasion of Andy Carroll’s first goals for the club as our new number nine, but also because of the noticeable effect on a good first team performance from a number of locally-produced players.

Vice captain Jamie Carragher, central midfielder Jay Spearing and teenage full-back debutant John Flanagan made up almost a third of Liverpool’s outfield players who came directly through the club’s academy programme, local graduates who have made it to the biggest of all stages, playing in the Premier League at Anfield.

Add to that list left back Jack Robinson, still only 17, who was on the bench for the game as an unused substitute and the missing club captain Steven Gerrard and defender Martin Kelly, both ruled out through injury, and the local-bred influence in first team affairs is once again beginning to rear its head, with four local-born ‘regulars’ and two very promising full backs in the squad.

Not since Gerrard himself broke through to establish himself as a first team regular have Reds fans had someone local to back as they bid to make the grade; at least, not for any significant period of time.

Plenty of players have come and gone of course, some making a dozen or more appearances before succumbing to being released, sold on or deemed not good enough and replaced by imports from the continent and beyond.

Stephen Warnock, with 67 appearances, heads the list of those who ran a hard race but ultimately failed to make it as a regular, while the likes of Neil Mellor (22 games, 6 goals), Stephen Wright (21, 1) and Darren Potter (17) all had their moments in the first team before moving on. The list of players who graduated from the academy to make a handful of appearances is even longer – Lee Peltier (4), Danny Guthrie (7), John Welsh (10), Jon Newby (4), Jon Otsemobor (6), David Raven (4), Richie Partridge (3), Zak Whitbread (7), James Smith (1) and Layton Maxwell (1) are just some of them – while the likes of Paul Harrison, a goalkeeper who was on the club’s books during Rafa Benitez’s reign, made the bench over a dozen times for the first team without actually playing. New Wolves recruit Adam Hammill was another youth player who after several loan moves found himself transferred permanently without having worn the Red of Liverpool in a competitive game. Current full back Stephen Darby, on loan at present to Notts County, has also made 6 appearances and looks set to be another offloaded without quite proving good enough.

Add to that the list of players who were signed as youngsters, either at Academy or reserve team level, and had brief spells in the first team and the picture begins to take shape that perhaps things were not quite being done as they should have been somewhere along the line; whether in the scouting department or that of the coaching, perhaps we will never know. Sebastian Leto (4), Lauri Dalla Valle (1), Antonio Barragan (1), Miki Roque (1), Jack Hobbs (5), Frode Kippe (2), Gabriel Paletta (8, 1), Damien Plessis (8, 1) all came and went, while the likes of Paul Anderson, Haukur Gudnason, Miki San Jose, Alex Kacaniklic, Godwin Antwi and of course Krisztian Nemeth all left without a single minute of first team action to their name.

But now a new clutch of youngsters are at the club; both locally-born and signed from afar.

And perhaps a new era of Liverpool Football Club is upon us; not just in terms of the owners and the manager – which will surely be officially Kenny Dalglish, sooner or later – but also in terms of the effectiveness of producing our own new crop of first team players.

Martin Kelly, so excellent during the middle part of this season until his injury sidelined him, has now made 27 appearances for the club, more than any other academy graduate since Stephen Warnock left for Blackburn Rovers in January 2007.

Jay Spearing, repaying the faith shown in him by Dalglish of late and completely dominating the midfield last night alongside Lucas Leiva against £12 million Gareth Barry and £24 million Yaya Toure, has now played 21 times for the Reds, and recently penned a new contract as he continues his development. At 22 years of age, his push into the first team has come slightly later than some might say is the right age, but Spearing is now showing ample proof that he can be a part of the rebuilding of the Liverpool squad – certainly is some distance ahead of the vastly more experienced Christian Poulsen, who failed to even make the bench last night.

Flanagan and Robinson have each now made their Reds bows, while Thomas Ince also made his debut earlier this season, Andre Wisdom has figured on the bench and on-loan forward Nathan Eccleston has made 9 Reds appearances. Add to that Conor Coady who was recently handed a squad number and has been involved in first team travelling and training, as well as free-scoring striker Adam Morgan in the under 18’s (17 goals in his last 12 games at the time of writing) and it is clear that the young contingent at the club, brought up through the Academy at Kirkby from a variety of ages, are now reaping the benefits of both the faith in them by the main man at the helm, Dalglish – who of course oversaw their development as part of his Academy ambassador role – and also their string of coaches on the way up the Liverpool Youth teams’ ladders, culminating most recently in Rodolfo Borrell with the under 18’s and (latterly) John McMahon and Pep Segura in the Reserves.

At first team level this season, Danny Wilson and Jonjo Shelvey have also had some limited impact – neither bought to the club as ‘youth players’ as such, but at just 18 years old each certainly signings with more than half an eye on the future of the club. Current back up to Pepe Reina, Peter Gulacsi, joined the club as a 17 year old, initially on loan and later permanently.

Other youngsters plying their trade in both the under 18’s and reserves this season who have been brought to the club from other teams include the likes of much-talked about Raheem Sterling, a pacey and tricky wide man; Suso, a creative left-footed attacking midfielder from Spain, Kristjan Emilsson, an Icelandic forward with a knack of scoring goals and Toni Silva, a fleet footed and skilful Portuguese winger – all have impressed at various stages this season and look like they could make the next step, which would be to perform regularly at Reserve team level.

Of course, nothing is to say that any of these players are going to go on and have the kind of impact at the business end of the club as Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher have had. Those two combined have played over 1200 games for Liverpool and have won countless trophies and will go down in history as two of the finest players to grace the Anfield turf.

Indeed, it is even probable that despite the promise shown by many of these players, not all of them will make the grade at Anfield. Young Gerardo Bruna, still a reserve at the club, was highly thought of and a ‘sure-bet’ to make the left side of midfield his own but has even yet to make the bench for the first team and in all honesty does not look close to it now.

But it takes all kinds of players to make a club work and if we get even three or four of the very best of these youngsters into the team on a regular basis over the next couple of years, and the under 18’s coming up behind them can offer a similar output, then the long-term future of the club will certainly be secure – both in terms of quality and in having a good core of local-based talent playing their part in the revival of the club.

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.

Liverpool Summer Transfer Wishlist: Part 2 – New Signings


Previously this blog took a look at the current Liverpool squad and those who might be moved on in the summer – or more precisely, those who I would choose to be sold.

I split the players into three groups: those who simply aren’t good enough for Liverpool or contribute (next to) nothing to the first team (Degen, El Zhar, Konchesky, Poulsen, seven reserves); those who were or are a part of the first team but need to be improved on (Maxi, Aurelio, Jones, Jovanovic, Ngog, Ayala, Skrtel); and those who though I didn’t actively want to leave the club, may either have to be sold or could make way for a significantly improved player (Aquilani, Insua, Kyrgiakos, Lucas and Kuyt).

It was a long list of players to see leave the club, and as such, replacements would be needed. However as I laid out in Part 1, the exit of so many players does not mean that the same number have to come in to replace them. I totalled that between £25 and £29 million would be brought in by the first two groups, with another potential £23 – £28 million for the final batch.

So how many would I like to see come in, and perhaps more importantly, who are they?

In the first part of this article I made reference to the fact that the 3:4:2:1 system (3:4:3, 5:3:2,  3:6:1, call it what you wish) employed against the likes of Stoke and Chelsea was my formation of choice and that players I choose to ‘sign’ would be based primarily on that system, always with the proviso that they are able to adapt to alternative formations, much like our old 4:2:3:1 or Sunday’s (vs Man United) more clear 4:4:2.

So lets start from the back.

In goal, Pepe Reina and Peter Gulacsi for me is enough. We have talented young goalkeepers at the club (Jamie Stephens, Dean Bouzanis) who in years to come may or may not make the step up but Gulacsi for me is already there. He is still learning of course, but his organisation and technique is good and he is a big guy, able to dominate aerially and has a good deal of loan experience in the lower leagues. Should we need a more experienced reserve if Reina was to get injured, the ’emergency loan’ allowed for goalkeepers would suffice.

On to the centre of defence. Jamie Carragher, Daniel Agger and Danny Wilson would all remain at the club. If given the choice I would extend Soto Kyrigakos’ contract for the extra year; his aerial presence and experience has already proven vital for the club and I have no doubt he would put in good performances when called upon for a further season, much as he did as substitute against Manchester United at the weekend. Martin Kelly will also no doubt end up a central defender over time.

My one signing in this area of the pitch would be Manchester City’s Micah Richards. A few years ago Richards looked set to become an England regular when playing in the centre of defence alongside Richard Dunne under then-manager Sven Goran Eriksson. The past two seasons has seen him perform much more often at right-back, given his speed and stamina and poor positional play at times.

Bit of a strange reason to want to sign him for centre back then? Maybe, but that is another benefit of the three-man back-line; the extra covering defender can reduce the chances of a defensive slip-up proving costly. In addition, Richards would, as the right-sided of the three, be further away from the centre of goal than if in a traditional back four. Finally, with the likes of Carragher barking instructions at him the whole game long, not to mention Steve Clarke’s nous on the training pitch, I imagine the swift improvement in this area of Richards’ game would be evident.

What of his strengths? Well, his strength is one of his strengths, in addition to his other physical attributes. Rarely knocked off the ball and dominant in the air, which other than the aforementioned Kyrgiakos is perhaps something we lack at times. Richards is also a very comfortable player on the ball moving through the midfield and is capable of swiftly moving up to join an attack – much like Agger on the opposite side. We know what effect Agger can have on the team when he suddenly strides down the pitch; imagine for a moment the opposition not knowing which defender is going to get forward on either side at any given moment, and still with a rock like Carragher at the back for security. At 22 years of age Richards already has a lot of experience at the top level and his English nationality also appeals for both Premiership and European quotas. Richards has a lot of pace, which is certainly something missing at times from Liverpool’s back line. Having him in the team would allow us to press much higher up the pitch in some games, affecting our attack as much as our defence.

In terms of a back four, as already mentioned Richards is more than comfortable playing right-back. Signing Micah this summer would in my opinion be a fantastic piece of business and could prove (though costly) very possible, given that his current club City have been linked with the likes of Dani Alves, Sergio Ramos, Gregory van der Wiel and countless other expensive full-backs. Richards can also function as a wing-back if needed.

I suspect Richards would cost around the £10 – 15 million mark. Certainly expensive for a defender, given what we are used to paying, but I think this outlay would over the long term prove itself most worthy.

In the wing-back areas themselves; any signings would be partly dependant on Insua. If he stayed, a top class left sided player would be a priority, and no more would be needed. I have already blogged on my preferences for left back/left wing-back and out of this list, though Fabio Coentrao is probably the most well-known or spectacular player I would probably be more inclined to go with Benoit Tremoulinas for his defensive and crossing abilities, or Aly Cissokho if we were looking for a bit more pace and power. Cissokho would probably be more expensive though, which makes Tremoulinas my first choice. I expect a fee of around £5 – 6 million would be needed to bring Benoit to the club, though it could be considerably more if Bordeaux believe there are other interested parties.

Should Insua depart permanently, Mauricio Isla would be my next preference, on account of (as well as his numerous technical talents) his versatility. Though more adept as a wing-back than traditional full-back, he has the stamina to do either job and is a player who can play on either side, as well as in a central midfield role. I don’t expect Isla would cost more than a similar fee for Tremoulinas, perhaps even slightly less. As I said, I would only bring in Isla if Insua left – ‘Emi’ counts as a home grown player for Liverpool and already has a whole season of experience playing in the Premiership.

With Kelly and Johnson on the right side, as well as Richards as cover, the flanks are more than covered defensively.

Into midfield, which is probably the most contentious position. Gerrard has featured much more prominently as an out-and-out central midfielder under Dalglish; for my own part I prefer him slightly further forward on account of his defensive deficiencies. Yes Gerrard is a good tackler and works hard usually, but his positional awareness and tracking of opposition players is not well developed. See West Ham’s first goal for a prime example. However, the fact is he can play in both an attacking and more withdrawn role and is likely to do both over the course of any given season.

Therefore I will count him as one of my central midfielders, along with Raul Meireles and Jay Spearing, who I do believe has a future at the club. He has a good range of passing and is a confident player; I believe he can be a decent squad player for us in the coming seasons. Lucas would be the fourth, though I mentioned I would be willing to see him leave if, again, the player(s) coming in to replace him were better.

In Arturo Vidal I firmly believe we would have that player. The Chilean is a fantastic all-round midfielder; absolutely capable of being a holding and defensive minded midfielder – strong in the tackle, great stamina, and a very good passer of the ball. But he is also able to be more adventurous and has this season for Leverkusen shown a good goalscoring instinct – he has netted 9 goals from 23 starts in the Bundesliga so far. Vidal would likely be an expensive acquisition, probably in the region of £12 million or more, but for me is emerging as one of the top box-to-box midfielders in Europe. Come the end of this season he will be 24 years old; plenty of experience but again young enough to reach his potential in the years to follow.

Other midfielders I would consider would be Lyon’s Jeremy Toulalan, aggressive and more wily than Vidal perhaps but not as much of an attacking threat; Borja Valero, a terrific ball-playing midfielder from West Brom who has spent the past couple of seasons on loan in Spain, who I don’t see as being required by the club next season under Roy Hodgson’s stewardship; or for a more physical presence in the middle of the park players such as Yann M’Vila (Rennes) or Anatoliy Tymoschuk (Bayern Munich) – admittedly the latter there is much older and would be only a shorter term measure, but is a very strong presence on the field and may jump at the chance to play in midfield again after being forced to cover in defence for Bayern this term.

Whoever it would be, only one signing would be necessary in this department in my eyes. Gerrard, Vidal, Meireles, Spearing and Jonjo Shelvey would provide enough bodies in the centre of the park – not forgetting Alberto Aquilani. Should he return, he, like Gerrard, can play in either a central or more attacking role.

Further forward, I opted to keep Joe Cole and Dirk Kuyt. An additional two or three players could be signed for this role; at least one of which should be capable of playing as an out and out striker.

Since these positions overlap somewhat, I will clear up the forwards first. Carroll and Suarez are of course our first two, while I would like to count youngster Nathan Eccleston as a squad member next season, though it is possible he will be loaned out again for further experience.

Should one of the ‘new signings’ be capable of playing as a forward as well as an attacking, creative ‘in the hole’ type midfielder, we would have this player and Kuyt to supplement the attackers, as well as Dani Pacheco.

The player I would love to see for this position is a player who has scored against the Reds this season – Ezequiel Lavezzi. The Napoli forward would command a large fee I’m sure, £15 – 20 million probably, but would really add a new dimension to our side. He works the flanks very well, is skilful on the ball and is a good finisher with either foot. I have to admit, I think signing Suarez has made any chance of getting Lavezzi less likely; they are not exactly the same type of player but both love to drift into the left hand channel and run at the defence from there.

For my part I’m sure they would work well in tandem and Lavezzi can operate from the other side, and the thought of Lavezzi and Suarez playing either side of Andy Carroll is definitely one which appeals, though the fee and type of player may be prohibitive.

Guiseppe Rossi is an alternative to Lavezzi, while Iker Muniain has the potential to be just as effective in a similar role.

The other two players would be more attacking midfielders than forwards, and as mentioned beforehand should allow us to operate with wide midfield men or wingers if needed.

Sylvain Marveaux was heavily linked with a move to Liverpool in January before he needed an operation on an injury and given his free transfer status come the summer I feel sure he will end up a Liverpool player. Marveaux operates mainly from the left side, and though has had problems with injuries does come highly rated. He is pacey, something which benefits any attack, and would represent less of a financial risk given his contract is soon up.

For the other signing, I would like another option who is fast, can play either out wide or through the centre, and can run at defenders. Kuyt, Gerrard, Cole, Pacheco – all are capable of creating a chance out of nothing with a pass or clever movement, but only really Suarez has the dribbling ability in the squad which can really make defenders panic.

There are many players who fit the small criteria above, but the ones I would consider would be Ashley Young (Aston Villa), Balazs Dzsudzsak (PSV) and Alexis Sanchez (Udinese). I imagine all three would command fees of around the £12 – 18 million bracket. Of course, if Leo Messi decides he wants to come to Liverpool I will happily buy him a RyanAir ticket, though Tom Werner and John W. Henry may have to stump up a fair bit more.

Young is rather less adept at beating a man with skill than for example Sanchez, while Dzsudzsak has less blistering pace than either of the other two, but all three carry a real goal threat (in terms of creating as much as scoring) while Young and Dzsudzsak, a left footed Hungarian, also are something of set-piece specialists. With a Lavezzi-type player something of an unlikely signing at the moment, perhaps a combination of two of these players, as well as Marveaux, would be a more realistic scenario for the Reds.

So that just about wraps up the signings; Micah Richards (£10 m), Arturo Vidal (£12 m), Benoit Tremoulinas (£5 m), Ezequiel Lavezzi (£15 m) and Ashley Young (£15 m), as well as Sylvain Marveaux on a free transfer – a total outlay of £ 57 million in a best-case guess at the prices, tempered by recouping £34 million in player sales. While Lucas is included on this list, Insua, Aquilani and Kuyt are not. This results in a £23 million net spend by the club in summer, which I don’t feel is unreasonable or improbable. This could be further lowered if Aquilani was to be sold. It is important to realise as well than the likes of Maxi, Jovanovic and Skrtel are on heavy wages which would also be removed from the club’s outgoing payments.

This leaves the club with a squad looking like this (players in italics who can cover position; reserves who could feature for the first team in brackets):

Goalkeepers: Reina, Gulacsi

Central defenders: Carragher, Agger, Richards, Kyrgiakos, Wilson, Kelly (Wisdom, Coady, Mendy)

Right side defenders: Johnson, Kelly, Richards (Flanagan)

Left side defenders: Tremoulinas, Insua, Johnson (Robinson, Mavinga)

Central midfielders: Gerrard, Vidal, Meireles, Aquilani, Spearing, Shelvey (Coady)

Attacking and wide midfielders: Kuyt, Young, Cole, Pacheco, Marveaux, Lavezzi, Gerrard, Aquilani (Suso, Sterling, Silva, Ince)

Forwards: Suarez, Carroll, Lavezzi, Eccleston, Kuyt, Pacheco (Emilsson, Ngoo, Morgan)

Example team:

Reina
Richards Carragher Agger
Johnson                                Tremoulinas
Vidal        Gerrard
Lavezzi                         Suarez
Carroll

Subs: Gulacsi, Kelly, Kyrgiakos, Meireles, Aquilani, Young, Kuyt.

For me this gives a good squad depth and balance, with the option to switch formations comfortably with the players in the team; a midfield of Young-Meireles-Gerrard-Marveaux lines up just as well in a 4:4:2, or Vidal and Aquilani holding with Kuyt-Gerrard-Suarez behind a forward in a 4:2:3:1.

Should the Lavezzi-type player prove too costly, I would be tempted to go with Dzsudzsak as an alternative from the left; only Marveaux is naturally left-footed in that area of the pitch and his injury record means an extra player capable of playing on the left of a 4:4:2 or similar would be required. In that instance, Kuyt would be my choice to use as the third forward, with Dzsudzsak filling Dirk’s spot in the attacking midfielders.

Thanks for reading through this two-part feature and I look forward to hearing your thoughts on both the players I have chosen to come in and out of the club, as well as who you think we would be better off bringing in who I didn’t name!

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.