EighteenAndFive

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

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Can King Kenny Steal 5th Place for Liverpool From Tottenham?


After the Europa League exit at the hands of Braga last week, Liverpool’s sole route back into European football next season must come via a fifth place finish in the Premier League. Though seventh place last season was enough for the Reds to face continental opponents this term such as Napoli and Sparta Prague, Birmingham City’s League Cup triumph and the guarantee of either Stoke City or Bolton Wanderers appearing in the FA Cup Final in May means that England’s top league will this season contribute just one place to the Europa League for the 2011/12 campaign – fifth place, which is currently occupied by Tottenham Hotspur.

Given that even Liverpool spent much of the latter months of 2010 hovering around 15th place in the table under Roy Hodgson – even as late as the end of October the Reds were in the relegation zone – even the prospect of finishing in the top six has to be viewed as some sort of achievement, and is even an improvement on last season’s seventh place finish, all of the credit for which must go to current caretaker manager Kenny Dalglish.

But a sixth place finishing would indicate no European football for Liverpool next season, something which hasn’t been the case since Gerard Houllier’s first full season in sole charge, back in 1999.

So it is possible that King Kenny can take Liverpool one giant step further and sneak the fifth place finish which would at least see the Reds compete in the second-tier of European football again?

Is it even something Liverpool fans want? The Reds are all about challenging for honours and playing the biggest sides in the world. That is where we want to be; that is where we must be. And some have argued that, while admittedly a winnable trophy, the Europa League could provide a distraction from seriously challenging for a top four spot next season; a sort of second League Cup in disguise.

For what it’s worth, personally I would very much want to be in the Europa League next season. I would argue that we should always try to win each trophy we can, and our record in European football – nobody has won more Europa League/UEFA Cups than Liverpool – is something which we should proudly defend, not be irritated by.

Those who think differently should muse on this: as a result of being in the Europa League this season, Liverpool’s European coefficient will have dropped significantly, especially going out at a relatively early stage of the competition. Should we not be in any European competition next season our rating will drop even more alarmingly, quite possibly putting the Reds out of the top seeds should we manage to qualify for the Champions League in a years time.

Might I add further, for any prospective signings this summer – the name of Liverpool FC is and will always be a draw, but might it not be even brighter a light if European football can be offered immediately?

So can we do it? Can King Kenny lead Liverpool to an unlikely fifth place finish? A brief look at the fixtures remaining suggests it is possible, if not probable. Liverpool and Spurs are just four points apart at present, though the London side have a game in hand. Liverpool have to travel to The Emirates to play Arsenal as well as receiving Manchester City and Spurs themselves at Anfield, with the remaining five games against sides in the bottom half and therefore in the large group involved in this season’s relegation battle – just six points separate Newcastle (11th) from Wigan (20th).

Spurs on the other hand face four similarly struggling teams, mid-table Stoke, a home derby against Arsenal and three difficult trips to Chelsea, Manchester City and of course Liverpool.

Given Man City’s involvement in the fixtures between the Reds and Spurs, it is not inconceivable that Roberto Mancini’s inconsistent Citizens could be part of the battle, but they have an extra four points on Spurs and five victories in their final eight matches would almost guarantee them to finish above Liverpool.

Now to take a closer look and see just what the Reds need to do to take fifth place.

The first game in April sees Liverpool travel to West Brom to face the man Dalglish succeeded on the Anfield throne, Roy Hodgson. West Brom are a decent footballing side and showed just last week against Arsenal that they can match the big guns at home, but Liverpool have improved markedly under Dalglish away from home (three wins from five away league games under Dalglish, one win from nine under Hodgson) and if the squad comes through the international break unscathed we should be hopeful of taking all three points. The returns to fitness of Steven Gerrard, Jonjo Shelvey, Fabio Aurelio and Martin Kelly may come at different times throughout the month but if any of the four come back for the West Brom game it would boost the Reds’ options considerably.

Spurs meanwhile face Wigan at the DW Stadium. Though Wigan are bottom, they have caused Spurs problems in the past couple of seasons. Then again, Spurs also beat them 9-1 in 2009. In addition, Spurs face Real Madrid in the Champions League just three days later and I fancy they may rest one or two players after the international break and before this big fixture. I’m going for a Wigan victory.

Next up, a home game to Manchester City. This could go either way – the reverse fixture saw City win 3-0 though Liverpool did play well up to a point that day and certainly deserved a goal at least; a three goal defeat was harsh. The lesser-evil-half of Manchester are certainly more functional than spectacular this season, though the returns from injury of Carols Tevez and Adam Johnson will give them a big boost in the attacking areas. A win in this game would be a big boost for the Reds in the run in, and nine days to prepare between the WBA game and this one it is certainly a possibility, but it is a close game to call and I will go with a draw.

Sandwiched between the two legs of the Real Madrid game, Spurs face Stoke. Regardless of resting players, Stoke’s away form is poor – eleven losses this season in the league – and I think Spurs will beat them.

Arsenal away is third in April and is the one game during the last two months of the season which I could see the Reds slipping up in. Arsenal are strong at home and of course one of the best sides in Europe; on their day they can beat any team convincingly. Of course, if Almunia plays in goal for Liverpool there is always a good chance of being gifted a goal…. Nonetheless, I don’t imagine Liverpool will go through the remainder of the season unbeaten so I will elect this game as being a defeat, with the proviso that I will be very happy to be proven otherwise!

Spurs also play Arsenal just a few days later in a midweek North London derby. Arsenal usually beat Spurs late on in these games and though I would like it to be the case again as the Reds seek to overcome the white half of North London, I feel Spurs will win this game. From here on in, Spurs fixtures may be changed or re-arranged depending on their progress in the Champions League.

Liverpool finish April with a home fixture against Birmingham – battling relegation or not, the Reds should win this game at a canter. We have been generally strong at home and barring further injuries most of the squad should be available by this time. Birmingham have struggled for goals this season and I would expect Liverpool to win this game comfortably if they are at their best. As with all the games in April, the Reds will have a full week to prepare for the fixture as a result of being out of the cup competitions.

Roy Hodgson rears his head in this blog again here as he takes his West Brom side to White Hart Lane. Reds supporters know all about Roy’s away form – Tottenham win in this one.

In the final month of the season, Liverpool will first receive Andy Carroll’s old side Newcastle United. Though I hope he has opened his account for the Reds before this game, it would be rather poetic if he was to net the winner in this match, given he cost us three points in the reverse fixture when he was still wearing black and white! Again, at home this is a fixture I would expect Liverpool to win; Newcastle have struggled somewhat under Pardew and few sides can cope with Liverpool in full flow at home.

The day before the Liverpool-Newcastle game, Tottenham face Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Another London derby, though less intense, Chelsea will by this time hopefully be in full flight as they storm back to rob Manchester United of the Premiership title! Even if they don’t, only very, very good sides beat them at Stamford Bridge (nudge nudge, wink wink) and I have to choose a loss for Spurs.

The visit to Fulham I also expect Liverpool to win; though they are just three points off the relegation zone at the moment, between now and this fixture Fulham face the likes of Blackpool, Wolves and Sunderland and I expect they may have taken enough points to secure their status for another season, making this fixture something of a dead rubber for them. Hopefully of course Liverpool will still be aiming for fifth place, and I would back Dalglish to outfox an old adversary in Mark Hughes, once a player of Manchester United while Dalglish was the same for Liverpool.

Spurs face Blackpool at home on the same day as Liverpool-Fulham and though the Tangerines are inherently unpredictable, this has to go down as a home banker.

Then Spurs take their extra game in hand – a very difficult trip to Manchester City. The two sides met in a similar fourth/fifth place battle one year and five days previously to when this tie is due to take place – Spurs won that game 1-0 at Eastlands and in doing so won their shot at the Champions League. This season, it is City who have the edge at this moment in time and who will surely be determined not to repeat their mistakes of last season. This game truly could go either way – Spurs are sure to attack and hope to outscore City, similarly to how they approached the game last season, while City’s style is not so rash or gung-ho. With Spurs’ porous defence away from home (24 conceded in 15 games) and City’s strong home record (2 defeats in 15) I’m going for a home win, putting Manchester City in the Champions League in the process.

That takes us to the penultimate game of the season when Spurs visit Anfield in what could prove a crucial fixture in the battle for fifth place. Should the games beforehand go as I have predicted (highly unlikely I know!) at the start of this game Liverpool would have 58 points and Tottenham 61 points – the Reds having made up ground of just 1 point between now and then. With a lot riding on the outcome of this game, and with it being played at Anfield, I have to again go with a Reds win. We have a good record at home against Spurs and I can see this continuing. That puts us level on points with Tottenham – with just one game apiece to play.

At this point of course, goal difference would come into play. At this moment Tottenham have a slight advantage over Liverpool, +7 compared to the Reds’ +5, but if the likelihood of my guesses of match outcomes being all correct are slim then predicting the goals scored and conceded in each one would be mostly futile. But let’s guess anyway. I’d imagine Liverpool could add a further +6 to their goal difference with the 3 wins over Birmingham, Newcastle and Fulham. The draw vs Man City and a win and a defeat against West Brom and Arsenal respectively could easily come out at 0 – leaving the game against Spurs to add another +1, giving a total goal difference of +12 come the end of the Spurs game.

For their part, Spurs could even out the loss vs Wigan with the win vs Stoke, and likewise the loss vs Chelsea and the win vs Arsenal. Home wins over West Brom and Blackpool could easily add +5 to their difference, with defeats to Man City and Liverpool lowering that to +3, giving Tottenham a total of +10.

That would put Liverpool in the final fifth spot, though of course very little attention should be paid to such guesswork for the goals scored for and against.

Whoever had a better goal difference, going into the last day of the season both sides would know that a big victory could seal a Europa League spot, while anything less would mean nothing at all to play for outside of the domestic cup competitions next season – unless of course, Tottenham manage to dispose of Real Madrid, the winners of Barcelona-Shakhtar Donetsk and then vanquish Manchester United, Chelsea, Inter Milan or Schalke in the final of the Champions League. As Reds fans, we should not be hoping for this somewhat improbable outcome – Spurs as holders would go into the Champions League, bumping Man City down to the Europa League, taking the third and final English slot in the process!

Back to the Premiership – Liverpool face Aston Villa at Villa Park, with ex-Reds boss Gerard Houllier presumably still at the helm, while Tottenham have a home game against Villa’s Midlands rivals Birmingham City. Either or both of these clubs could be in relegation trouble come the last game of the season, and my money would be on the Blues. Despite their Carling Cup win Birmingham have been poor in the league and with West Ham’s resurgence, Blackpool’s habit of pulling a victory out at unexpected times and the undeniably qualities of teams such as West Brom and Wolves, the Blues are really going to struggle in my opinion to survive the drop.

What that means in terms of Liverpool is one of two things: either they could already be relegated by the time this clash comes around, resulting in a straight forward win for Spurs, or they have one last chance to win on the last day of the season to stay up, meaning much more of a battle – presumably. In either case, I would have to go with a Tottenham win. Spurs are strong at home and the teams down at the bottom are often down there for a reason.

That leaves the Reds in battle at Villa Park – where I believe they will also win. Villa should have clocked up enough points by then to ensure their own survival and with one or two players possibly moving on come the end of the season, their end of season games could become something of a stroll. Liverpool can afford no such luxury of course, and I would hope the motivation of continental football would be enough to see us home with three points to end the season.

64 points to end the season is far from the best total Liverpool have managed in recent seasons, and indeed only beats last season’s seventh place finish by a single point, but given that we had taken only 25 points from our first 20 games, taking an additional 39 points from the remaining 18 matches would really be an incredible achievement.

To put it into perspective, the 20 games under Hodgson clocked up 1.25 points per game, averaging out at 47.5 points for a full season, good enough for about an 11th place finish over the past five years – the 18 games under Dalglish (would) rack up 2.17 points per game, which if extended over the course of an entire season would amount to no less than 82 points, enough for a third place finish in most Premier League seasons.

Europa League football next season is certainly a possibility for Liverpool. If it actually does come down to goal difference whether Liverpool finish 5th or not, nobody could have asked anything more from Kenny Dalglish – apart from maybe putting his boots back on to knock in a couple of extra goals for us.

We still need favours from other teams to give ourselves a chance of making it – Wigan, Chelsea and Manchester City all took points off Spurs in my thoughts above before the Liverpool match, and it doesn’t take a genius to work out which of those is most unlikely – but it seems clear all the same that the clash at Anfield on May 15th could turn out to be a pivotal one for Liverpool, not just for this season but for the seasons ahead as well.

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!

West Ham Defeat Shows How Much Work Remains To Do For Liverpool


Liverpool suffered their first defeat in nine matches at Upton Park yesterday as the Reds’ faint hopes of snatching a top-four spot were surely extinguished.

Having seen Spurs lose to Blackpool midweek, and with Chelsea not in league action until Tuesday evening, Liverpool had a chance to put pressure on the two sides immediately above them against a bottom-of-the-league West Ham outfit, who had won just once in their past six league fixtures.

However, Liverpool were second best for the majority of the game and the home side deservedly took the three points; goals from Scott Parker, Demba Ba and Carlton Cole proving enough despite a Glen Johnson tap-in with five minutes left on the clock which brought the possibility of snatching a point.

In truth, Liverpool looked sluggish and devoid of ideas for too much of this game. The passing and movement at the club has improved considerably over the past month or so, paving the way for many of the victories during this period which Liverpool have amassed, but yesterday it was in scant evidence. Too many players, especially in midfield, wanted to take too many touches on the ball and did not look to move it on quickly. With little or no movement up front for large portions of the game, the midfield battle was all too easily won by the Hammers, with Hitzelsberger and Parker overrunning Lucas Leiva at times, not helped by the obvious lack of match practice from Steven Gerrard.

Gerrard was beyond poor; his passing and set pieces were well below the high standard expected of him. His shot from twenty yards in the second half, which was tipped over by ‘keeper Rob Green, was one of the few positive contributions the skipper managed during this match as he struggled to find the rhythm of his play and resorted to trying to do too much himself. It has been remarked in many places that Gerrard’s most effective position is not in the centre of midfield but in a more advanced role behind the forward; not only is it his most effective area but it is, it must be said, also the area where he affects Liverpool’s defensive wall the least.

Liverpool’s captain is a great player, but his awareness at times when his team is without the ball is poor. For the first goal, he could certainly have done more to protect a large area behind him, which an opponent utilised to set up the goal for Parker. It’s not the first time Gerrard’s lack of tracking back has come at the expense of a goal, and playing in a central midfield “2” he cannot afford to do this.

Dirk Kuyt and Martin Skrtel are two first team players for Liverpool, but both had poor games against the Hammers, which follows a pattern set over much of the past season and even before.

While Kuyt’s ability to pop up with an important goal at times, as well as his often-cited work-rate, tactical responsibility and professionalism, makes him a likely figure to remain at the club beyond the end of the season, his technique and decision making can leave a lot to be desired at times.

Martin Skrtel has no such redeeming qualities in the goalscoring department, which you might expect from a defender. However, his constant and unerring ability to give away pointless free-kicks by jumping in front of attackers to win ‘nothing’ balls, his sub-standard aerial ability and his surprising lack of strength at times – showcased by Carlton Cole, of all people – mean that while he is a ‘good’ defender, he will never be a great one. And to become a great team again, Liverpool need to re-build a great defence.

Further forward, Luis Suarez was a bright spot in an otherwise murky Liverpool display yesterday. This is not coincidence. On Thursday evening, Liverpool fielded nine players from the start who played a large part in the game against West Ham. Of the others, Gerrard was returning from injury, Suarez was ineligible for the Europa League game, while Agger missed out versus West Ham through injury sustained in the Sparta match. With Martin Kelly and Raul Meireles picking up injuries at Upton Park as well, fatigue and tiredness will be taking its toll on the team around this time of year. Another factor towards that was the lack of rotation of the first team under the previous manager Roy Hodgson, who fielded a “full strength” eleven almost every league game.

While this defeat in no way should undo all the hard work put in by the team over the past month or so, it is important Liverpool get back to winning ways as quickly as possible. Of course this will not be easy, given the next match is at home against league leaders Manchester United – but then again, what better game to do it in?

For all the negatives to take out of yesterday’s game, and there were unfortunately quite a few, it is worth acknowledging that the understandings being built up all over the pitch between Meireles and Suarez, or Kuyt and Kelly, were still in evidence at times and are still very much in their infancy. Suarez played only his third game for the Reds and already he has scored once, set up one goal and struck the woodwork twice; his footwork and swift changes of direction make him a real handful for defenders and he has shown enough in this short time to suggest that once his team-mates get to know his runs, Luis will be a great supply of goals for the Reds.

In addition, record signing Andy Carroll is yet to figure for his new club and will be another option for the team which is still trying to find its way in attack.

I suppose overall this has been rather a negative article – though not exactly my intention, it does certainly show that while Liverpool are improving – and they still are, regardless of one defeat – there is still a lot of work to do. From the moments that Rafa was replaced by Roy, Aquilani and Insua were loaned out and replaced by the likes of Konchesky and Poulsen, this was always going to be a season of recovery and patching up. The important thing is to build as many positive relationships on the pitch throughout the club as possible, and carry these over into next season.

If Liverpool finish the season in sixth place in the league – where they currently sit – it will have been an improvement on last season’s placing and a huge improvement on when Dalglish took over in January. Though the Europa League is not the target for the Anfield club, qualifying for it again next season (which is not, by the way, guaranteed with a sixth place finish) will provide the chance of competing for a trophy, one which we must lay a claim to winning this year too, the chance of blooding further the promising youngsters at the club in the atmosphere and environment of Continental football, and will still lure quality players to the club in the summer transfer window.

The decline of the club over the past twenty months has been halted. One defeat does not alter that. It will take some time, a lot of hard work and dedication and some very smart and brave decisions to reverse it entirely.

But the club is back on the rise now, everyone is pulling in the same direction, and good times are surely still ahead.

Hodgson: Why Roy Was Never The Right Man For Liverpool FC


When Roy Hodgson was appointed boss of Liverpool Football Club back in July, his arrival was met with little in the way of fanfare or ringing endorsements from the supporters of this famous club.

His predecessor, Rafa Benitez, was a great fan favourite. By the end of his tenure he may have divided opinion somewhat, but the Spanish tactician had led Liverpool to seven semi-finals, five finals and four trophies in his six years in charge and brought Liverpool back into the footballing mainstream in terms of huge, successful European clubs.

Whoever took over the reins was always going to have a big job on their hands; not just in terms of following Benitez’s initial popularity on the terraces but also because the club was in the midst of a huge split between the boardroom and the fans.

So why was Hodgson appointed?

A dreadful 2009/10 season saw Liverpool finish in a lowly seventh position, after a year of poor results and inconsistent performances. Roy Hodgson was seen as the man who could bring stability to the club; to arrest the slump on the field and help the club through a difficult period off it with the impending board takeover.

Hodgson had just won the League Managers’ Association award and led Fulham to the Europa League Final in the previous season and was perceived – at least by most in the media and one or two in the temporary Liverpool boardroom – as the steady hand the club needed on its tiller; a man who could take the rough with the smooth and could work within a budget in the transfer market, as well as getting the very best out of the players already at the club, something which Benitez had failed to achieve the previous season with a group who had finished second in the Premiership the previous year.

So why were Liverpool fans so unimpressed?

The answers were to become very apparent in the following six months which led to Hodgson’s swift departure from the club.

First and foremost for a large number of supporters would be the results. After all, as we are so often told, management is a results-based business. But Liverpool’s results were nothing short of unacceptable. Defeats at Anfield to Blackpool and Northampton and away from home to the likes of Stoke City, Newcastle United and of course, Liverpool’s closest rivals Everton, saw players who had won major finals and taken on the finest teams in Europe with a swagger only eighteen months previously, struggle to impose themselves and keep any sort of attacking momentum going against teams such as Wigan and Wolves.

Hodgson amassed an extremely poor 25 points out of a possible 60 from his league matches in charge of Liverpool, in addition to 10 from 18 in the Europa League and a third round defeat to Northampton in the League Cup. Hardly inspiring stuff, any way you look at it. And this was nothing new – Hodgson’s 35% Premiership win rate at Liverpool compared almost exactly with his 33% rate at Fulham and 34% at Blackburn. Liverpool supporters knew what was coming.

So what of the performances? Defeats can perhaps be accepted, if not liked, were the performances to be brave and committed. If luck isn’t on your side – if a beach-ball interferes, for example – then what can you do?

But no.

The performances were not inspiring, were not committed and were not full of self-belief and a unified dedication to improve the team’s league standing.

They were limp, tepid, defensive and cautious. The tactics were wrong, the player selections were arguably wrong – though who is to say which players would have performed better given the jobs asked of them – and the astonishing lack of any kind of alternative match plan to turn to when results were going against Liverpool belied a man out of his depth with the level of expectation that comes with managing this Football Club.

Hodgson himself alluded to the fact that he had no intentions to change the way he worked to suit the players at Liverpool FC – his methods, he said, had translated from the clubs he had managed in Sweden, Switzerland and beyond, and he had firm belief that they would do the same at Liverpool.

Now, in fairness to Roy, a manager must have an absolutely iron-clad belief that what he is doing is right; if a manager doubts himself and his methods, how can any other coach or player buy into them? But a sign of a good manager is also one who takes note when his approach is not working and is able to change accordingly to make the best use of the players at his disposal.

Hodgson’s archaic and ill-fitting 4:4:2 system may have worked a treat at Fulham, where defensive organisation and forwards who hold the ball up were the name of the game, but the players at Liverpool are rather more inclined to take the initiative in any given match; to press their advantage of being superior players and, in the best instance, to pass the opposition into submission. To winning matches.

The narrowness of Liverpool’s attack, especially away from home, only served to enhance the view that this was not the approach the Reds should be taking to win games, while the continual line of deep defenders stopped both the team’s ability to break out of their own third for any regular length of time and, just as importantly, prevented Pepe Reina from performing his natural role of dominating his penalty area and cutting out opposition chances before they became fully formed.

Hodgson also appeared to be unable to coax the very best out of his players. Fernando Torres has had the finger pointed at him all season – but he is not the only one who hasn’t shown his true ability. Dirk Kuyt, Glen Johnson, Milan Jovanovic and Joe Cole have all struggled to find any kind of regular form and there can be little doubt that, aside from the prohibitive tactics employed by their then-boss, Roy’s man management skills left something to be desired.

Torres was not defended by his own manager when Manchester United boss Alex Ferguson accused him of diving at Old Trafford – a foolish comment in itself given that his own defender O’Shea was lucky not to be sent off for fouling Torres – while Cole and Johnson both suffered public accusations of poor form from Hodgson.

Then we have Hodgson’s substitutions – or lack of them. Quite aside from waiting far too long to make the changes themselves, Roy’s like-for-like switches failed to change the game in Liverpool’s favour and, even more bewilderingly, on occasions he failed to even utilise his quota of three subs, despite Liverpool not leading and attacking substitutes being available on the bench. Case in point: versus Birmingam at St. Andrews, 0-0, Pacheco, Babel and Ngog all on the bench. Roy’s two changes were made after 76 and 78 minutes, and none of the three attackers were brought on.

Hodgson’s entire match attitude reeked of mediocrity and acceptance of avoiding defeat.

The transfer dealings of Roy Hodgson were also poor pieces of business. Though it is difficult to truly know how much of a hand he had in them all – ex-MD Christian Purslow is widely ‘credited’ with the signing of Joe Cole for example – there can be no doubts that Paul Konchesky and Christian Poulsen, two of Liverpool’s biggest failures since the infamous summer transfers of 2002, came in under the instruction and request of Hodgson. Brad Jones was necessary cover so can be discounted, while Raul Meireles, surely the club’s best signing during the Hodgson period, was so frequently played out of position in a bemusing right midfield role that it must be questioned just how much Roy knew about him before he joined the club – and if he did know that Meireles was a central midfielder, why he purchased him with little intention of playing him there.

But perhaps the most damning indictment of all that Hodgson was patently unsuited to being manager of Liverpool FC came in his press conferences and media interviews.

Previously seen as something of a media darling, Hodgson’s quotes – after, admittedly, several convincing and encouraging initial statements during pre-season – quickly became something rather horrifying to fans. A series of mystifying at best and downright ludicrous at worst statements would follow each game, which somehow always failed to reflect what everybody had seen during the match and inevitably tried to dampen down expectations at the club – not something that supporters want to hear.

From the post-derby interview, surely Liverpool’s most desperate performance of the season at the time, during which Hodgson tried to claim that it was the best performance of the team in his tenure and that we had matches our cross-city rivals and were unlucky in defeat; to the misguided attempt to placate fans after the horrendous loss in December to Wolves at Anfield; suggesting that expecting to beat teams bottom of the league was unrealistic and disrespectful.

Suggesting, of all things, that the fans might have to get used to such defeats.

Liverpool FC fans do not want to hear that defeat might be a necessary outcome. They want to hear, and rightly so, that their team will produce improved performances so that the risk of defeat will be minimised. And that their manager is a leader who offers a vision to make Liverpool a side which is not just hard to beat, but difficult to not lose against.

Up until that point, Hodgson had not won over the Liverpool supporters. But his comments afterwards ensured that he never would. He referred to the famous Kop support, and stated how he had never been afforded it.

But there are things that Roy never understood about Liverpool, and never will. Goodwill and unswerving support aren’t just given, they are earned. Though the team might not win every game, fighting the club’s corner, working hard, believing in the cause and respecting the knowledge of the supporters goes a long way to proving a manager to the club’s fans.

It is hard to see just where Hodgson ever immersed himself in the traditions of this football club, on or off the pitch.

Roy Hodgson was never the man for Liverpool Football Club. And most supporters knew that from the very beginning.

This article was originally published in Well Red magazine issue 6. The magazine by Liverpool fans, for Liverpool fans.

Left Backs for Liverpool: Problem Position Up For Grabs


Deadline day, January 2011. Liverpool complete the signings of Ajax and Uruguay forward Luis Suarez and Newcastle and one-time England cap Andy Carroll. In addition, Fernando Torres departed for the plastic-themed surroundings of West London.

And there was one other outgoing transfer, albeit on loan, which – understandably – didn’t cause quite as much excitement around the club. In fact it was more one of relief in some quarters, while in others an ironic and muted lack of surprise.

Over the past couple of weeks, despite the January transfer window for the Premier League closing, the number of “exclusives” surrounding new-comers to Liverpool FC has barely diminished at all. In fact, perhaps borne of the large sums spent on Suarez and Carroll on deadline day, the rumour mills have furiously cranked up their valuations of all players being linked with the club, taking FSG’s willingness to splash the cash as a sign that every transfer will be of a similar scale in the summer.

It won’t be that way, of course. In the summer Liverpool may indeed make a signing or two for big money. But lets not forget the net outlay of the club in January, despite breaking their own transfer record twice in a matter of hours, was around the £2 million mark. The sales of Ryan Babel and Torres almost totally paid for their replacements, and senior figures within the club effectively admitted that the asking price for Carroll would determine that of Torres, to ensure Liverpool were as close to breaking even as possible.

The other factor to consider, in terms of team re-building and probable targets, is that the permanent position of manager has not yet been filled. Of course, most fans now will want ‘King’ Kenny Dalglish to stay at the helm, which is the danger the owners knew they faced when they asked him to step up last month, but if results and performances continue improving as they have done thus far, it would be on merit that Dalglish was a contender, not merely because of fans’ wishes – but that is a debate for another place.

Besides, to some extent the appointment of Damien Comolli as Director of Football Strategy will alleviate those transition periods, as the club will already have been targeting potential signings and will be able to hand over a list to choose from to any new first team coach.

And so back to that other outgoing transfer on deadline day.

Paul Konchesky, the man who became the unwitting figurehead of the Roy Hodgson era at Liverpool, left on loan to Championship side Nottingham Forest. The former Fulham, Spurs and West Ham full back was brought in by the former boss and – like the man who signed him – very rarely looked comfortable or capable of stepping up to the required level.

His departure means Liverpool are left with just one recognised left sided defender in the senior squad, Fabio Aurelio, and even he has been playing in the centre of midfield of late. Glen Johnson and Danny Wilson have played (well) at left back over the past six weeks for the Reds, while young prospect Jack Robinson continues to impress at reserve level and was included in the travelling party for the first leg of Liverpool’s Europa League game in Prague.

But it is an area where, quite clearly, Liverpool still need to find a player with the ability and consistency to play regularly and contribute to both attacking and defensive sides of the team. It is an area of the team where, arguably, the Reds have been looking to find the right man for for over a decade.

John Arne Riise made the position his own for several seasons and for the first three years of his time on Anfield was irreplaceable, but his form declined rapidly towards the end of his stint at the club. His last meaningful contribution in Red, an own goal against Chelsea in the Champions League, was symptomatic of that.

A year and a month ago, Liverpool had no less than three left backs, all of which had their own qualities but none of which had that extra something special which made them stand out. Emiliano Insua, loaned out to Turkish side Galatasary this season, seemed to have made the position his own for much of the campaign but, as is normal with young defenders, was caught out of position after his regular forays forward too often to be regarded as the immediate answer. Andrea Dossena shortly afterwards departed for Napoli where his defensive proficiencies are somewhat negated and his physical abilities stand out in his preferred wing-back role – ironically a system Liverpool recently implemented to great effect – while Fabio Aurelio missed most of last season, again, with a succession of frustrating injuries.

Before them came a line of tried and untrusted players: European Cup winner and perpetual scapegoat Djimi Traore; the great nearly-man Gregory Vignal; the shoe-in for greatness Christian Ziege; and Stephen Warnock, linked with a loan move back to the club in January and who is to date, until Martin Kelly surely overtakes him at least, the man with the most appearances to his name (67) after graduating from the club’s academy since Steven Gerrard’s breakthrough.

Speaking of Kelly, there is of course now an argument for keeping him on the right side and England’s international right back, Glen Johnson, on the left side of our defence – but even in that case, Liverpool require a recognised left sided defender who can put pressure on Johnson, or any other team mate, to claim that position as his own and really offer Liverpool something special in attack and rock-solid in defence.

This week alone, Liverpool have been linked in various newspaper columns with Newcastle United’s Jose Enrique, a talented and calm-headed player who is yet to be recognised at full International level by Spain, and Celtic’s Honduran Emilio Izaguirre – the Mirror stated that Dalglish had specifically travelled to the Old Firm game on Sunday to watch him in action. If that was the case, Izaguirre certainly did his cause no harm, keeping a clean sheet and setting up the second of Celtic’s three goals with a typical raid down the left side and early low cross to the back post.

Though I rate Enrique as a good player, there are certainly others I would love the club to be looking at as possible additions for the role. Here are a few of them:

Aly Cissokho. The Lyon and one-time France left back; Cissokho combines huge athleticism with a natural inclination to get forward and provide attacking width. A good crosser of the ball and sure with the ball at his feet, Cissokho’s age (23) also makes him an attractive investment for a club looking to rebuild somewhat. A potential downside may be his fee; Lyon paid 15 € million for him and he still has three years left on his contract after the current season ends. Also not a goalscorer; has only netted one league goal in his professional career to date.

Benoit Tremoulinas. Another French defender; Tremoulinas is a constant supply of crosses for current club Bordeaux. In the 2009/10 season he was the top assisting defender with an impressive 7 from his 34 appearances, now-Arsenal forward Marouane Chamakh being one of the key beneficiaries of his deliveries. Though he has yet to be capped by France, Tremoulinas has been included in squads for the national side and is perhaps unfortunate that players like Clichy, Evra and Sakho are also vying for similar roles.

Mauricio Isla. The Chilean wing-back is a versatile performer, who can operate on either side – something which would appeal if Johnson was to continue on the left perhaps? – as well as further forward as a wide attacker. His pace and stamina lends itself to his obvious technical gifts; he is comfortable with the ball at either foot and can give good delivery from wide areas. Currently playing for Udinese in Italy; a work permit should not be too much of an issue given he has been a regular in the national side over the past year.

Fabio Coentrao. A name on everybody’s lips since his performances at the World Cup in 2010, but a name which before then probably not many people who don’t get to see too much European football knew of. His attacking instincts are obvious and, aside from his crossing and passing ability, he is more than comfortable coming infield and targeting a shot at goal. Another who is capable of playing in a more advanced position; Coentrao is perhaps the least solid in defence on this list, but the most spectacular in attack. A player made for a three-man defence, perhaps?

Jeremy Mathieu. A third Frenchman on the list; and another one rarely seen in International squads. The burly Valencia full back does not look as though he should be possessed of blistering pace and an ability to get past opposing defenders with ease, but he is and he does. At 27 years of age he is older than others on this list, but with young Jack Robinson in the wings perhaps that might be what is required? Often targets the byline to reach before pulling back crosses into the near post, and is as strong as an ox in the tackle. Rarely lets crosses beat him when at his best.

Other names such as Atletico Madrid’s Felipe – if he could stay injury free – would be welcomed as targets; Real Madrid’s Marcelo may become available if Los Merengues are indeed targeting a new left back of their own as has been reported, while Sampdoria’s Reto Ziegler has long been linked with a move to Liverpool.

While no definitive answer is likely to be forthcoming until, at the earliest, June or July and once the permanent manager has been appointed, Liverpool’s plethora of scouts around the globe will almost certainly have “find a new left back” somewhere near the top of their to-do lists.

Of course, it may just be that Jack Robinson makes the breakthrough to the first team during the second half of the season, Dalglish is appointed boss and believes him good enough to stay in the team from then on, in which case Liverpool can happily divert several million from the transfer kitty in other directions!

But until, and indeed even if, he does, an absolute necessity for the Reds is to find a player who can do the job in the meantime – and I would say they could do much worse than starting with any one of the five names on the list above.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steadying the ship then, perhaps, has been achieved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remember: Walk on, with hope in your heart.

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.