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.

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!

Soto and Sami: In Praise of the Old Guard of Liverpool FC


At Anfield on Sunday 6th March, 2011, new heroes were sewn into Liverpool folklore: Luis Suarez for his magnificent skills and endless taunting of the Premier League’s top side’s defence and Dirk Kuyt for his first LFC hattrick and match winning goal-poaching. Liverpool beat their old foes by three goals to one with a fantastic display full of invention and determination and the goal-scorer and -creator named above have rightly taken a lot of acclaim.

But spare a thought for another, less heralded but every bit as important performer on the day; one who played slightly over an hour for the home side: Sotirios Kyrgiakos.

Named on the bench at the start of the game, Soto made his entrance after 24 minutes as a replacement for the hamstrung Fabio Aurelio. For a defender to enter the fray at any point as a substitute requires great powers of concentration and adaptation; for one to enter unexpectedly early in a game of such magnitude as Liverpool versus Manchester United requires something more – our big Greek needed to call on all his years of experience and his first-rate game mentality to get up to speed instantaneously, and given that he went on to give neither Rooney nor Berbatov the slightest sniff in the game deserves great credit for doing so.

He was, as always, a tower of strength in the air; all United’s crosses were ably dealt with by Soto and his partner in crime Martin Skrtel, while the ground-based duels were a similar story, with neither forward able to get a run on goal from either in front of or behind Kyrgiakos at any point. In the second half, with Liverpool leading and as they sat back looking to hit United on the break, the defensive line dropped deeper and the away side enjoyed longer spells of possession. But Kyrgiakos and his defensive cohorts remained unfazed and, save for the odd corner which needed Meireles to clear off the line, remained largely untroubled for the entire game.

It speaks volumes for Kyrgiakos’ professional attitude and winners mentality that he was able to step up in such a big game without any problems of ‘feeling his way into the match’ or making any early mistakes.

To me, it evoked memories of a similar game and similarly experienced Anfield defender; the man who Soto came in to replace no less. Sami Hyypia.

Almost two years to the day earlier, Alvaro Arbeloa was due to line up at right-back for Liverpool at Old Trafford against the same opposition, Manchester United. In the warm-up, however, Arbeloa suffered an injury and our great Finn Hyypia was drafted in as a late starter, given only a few minutes warm up time and asked to stop the (again) current league leaders from breaching the Reds’ goal. Liverpool turned in a masterclass performance that day too, winning 4-1 in Manchester and owing much to the outstanding performance of Hyypia who, like Kyrgiakos this Sunday past, showed great professionalism (and no shortage of ability) to come in unexpectedly and turn in a stellar performance for his team.

Sami and Soto carry some similar traits as defenders; both of course are exceptional in the air and commanding in the tackle and while neither are blessed with pace they are more than adept at reading the game and positioning themselves accordingly. Sami was perhaps more of an organiser and comfortable with the ball at either foot, and will for both his length of time spent at the club and the number of trophies he won while here be forever remembered as far more of an icon than Kyrgiakos is likely to achieve, but the playing similarities between the two are evident; testament of course to the fact that one came in to replace the other.

Kuyt and Suarez will take the plaudits for Sunday’s victory, and against the biggest opposition the attacking players who make the difference will usually be the most noticed. That is why teams pay such big fees for forwards.

But in Sami Hyypia and Sotirios Kyrgiakos Liverpool have been fortunate to have two defenders who, quite aside from popping up with the odd headed bullet of a goal, are consistently and quietly excellent in defence when it matters most; players who do not blow their own trumpet or kick up a fuss when left out of the team and retain the quality and mentality to switch it on at a moment’s notice when their team turns to them suddenly in a time of great need.

Two of those occasions recently have come against one of our biggest enemies of all, and Liverpool supporters everywhere should be grateful that we were able to turn to such giants; the old guard of the Liverpool defence, and players who we know will never let us down.

Liverpool Summer Transfer Wishlist: Part 1 – Player Sales


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next up soon, the replacements….

‘Bosman’ Signings Offer Value for Money in Both Transfer Windows


A few weeks ago I thought of a piece I wanted to write, regarding players who would be available on a free transfer this summer, having come to the end of their contracts with their current clubs.

The idea got put on hold because several of the players I was going to mention upped sticks and found a new club during the recently closed January transfer window, but since the essential point still remains, I guess it is still worth writing about.

For those who are not completely clued up on the ruling, the ‘Bosman’ signing came about as a result of a Belgian footballer, Jean-Marc Bosman, who took his club Liege to court because his contract with them had expired and they would not accept an offer from another team, Dunkerque of France, to let him move. The specifics surrounding the EU law can be found in other places – suffice to say that the end result was that the player got his way, meaning any EU player could leave his club for another EU club in a different country without them having to pay a transfer fee. Thus coining the term a ‘Bosman Transfer’.

The earliest most notable player who traded clubs in this way from the Premier League was Liverpool’s Steve McManaman, who left the club for Real Madrid in 1999. Liverpool have, over the years, made use of the system in the opposite direction with the likes of Markus Babbel, Eric Meijer, Andrei Voronin and, only seven months ago, Milan Jovanovic coming in on free transfers.

Other Premier League players who have transferred under the same ruling include Mathieu Flamini (Arsenal to AC Milan), Michael Ballack (FC Bayern to Chelsea), Olof Mellberg (Aston Villa to Juventus) and Claude Makelele (Chelsea to Paris SG). Had they been under contract, it is likely that all of these players would have commanded fees in excess of £5 million. Of course, the reduced cost to the buying club may not turn out to be quite such a considerable saving, given the increased wages the “free” player will ask for, but it certainly must make the negotiating part a lot easier when the selling club is no longer involved.

Back to the current players affected by this ruling, and it came to my attention that a large number of well-known players were approaching the end of their current contracts this season. This was around the beginning of the January window, when not much movement had taken place in terms of transfers, and I was wondering if perhaps teams were saving themselves almost entirely for the longer summer transfer window, when players would immediately be available to move on a free transfer and a lot of money could be saved.

In the end, of course – from a Premiership perspective – a lot of money was spent in the final week or so on players on much longer term contracts, while around Europe in the likes of the Italian and Spanish leagues, several almost-out-of-contract players were snapped up for much lower sums.

Take Ivan Rakitic for example. The Croatian, at 22 years of age, is a very talented ball playing central midfielder. After spending the past three and a half seasons at Schalke in Germany, he has moved on to Spanish outfit Sevilla, who picked him up for around € 1.5 million, perhaps a quarter of what they might have paid for him had his contract not been up in the summer. Of course, Sevilla could have gotten him for nothing in the summer, but they would have run the risk of increased competition from other clubs, especially if Rakitic had gone on to have a good second half of the season. Additionally, as Sevilla also completed the signing of Chilean midfielder Gary Medel in January, the two new-comers will have an extra half a season to bed into their new surroundings and perhaps even form a partnership in the middle of the pitch before launching a full season assault on La Liga and the Europa League – should Sevilla manage to qualify. As they currently sit in seventh position, the talents of Rakitic in the middle of the park, an area lacking in creativity and attacking quality for Sevilla this term, could well be the difference between European qualification and not this season – something which would make the € 1.5 m outlay look all the more of a bargain.

Other players such as Dutch top flight duo Ibrahim Afellay (PSV to Barcelona) and Urby Emanuelson (Ajax to AC Milan) chose to jump ship half a season before their contract expired; or perhaps rather, their clubs decided to cash in on them for what they could, rather than lose them for free in the summer. Both are quality young players with good futures ahead of them; potentially very good business from the two giant clubs who signed them. Nicola Legrottaglie swapped Turin for Milan and Mark van Bommel swapped the Bundesliga for the Calcio; short term measures perhaps for their new clubs, but the low transfer fees will seem to make it worthwhile.

So what about in the summer? Are all the best bargains now gone? Far from it.

The Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, Ligue 1 – all will see Bosman departures (and arrivals) come July and August.

In England, experienced campaigners such as Manuel Almunia (Arsenal) and Sotirios Kyrgiakos (Liverpool) are out of contract, as are creative midfielders Seb Larsson (Birmingham) and Zoltan Gera (Fulham). Long-term injury casualties Jonathon Woodgate (Tottenham) and Owen Hargreaves (Manchester United) are also facing an uncertain future, with neither able to play much football over the past couple of seasons.

Valencia stalwarts David Navarro and Vicente are awaiting a new contract offer, while FC Barcelona academy graduate Thiago Alcantara only recently signed pro terms for next season after initially being expected to leave the club. Backup goalkeepers from the two biggest clubs in Spain are also out of contract (Jerzy Dudek and Jose Pinto).

Sylvain Marveaux of Rennes, Danijel Ljuboja of Nice, Lyon’s Cesar Delgado and Auxerre pair Jeremy Berthod and Valter Birsa are just some of the bigger names able to leave France’s top division on a free transfer, while in Italy a whole host of household names face waits to see if they will remain at AC Milan beyond the summer – Marek Jankulovski, Alessandro Nesta and Pippo Inzaghi amongst them. Fiorentina winger Mario Santana and Palermo midfielder Fabio Liverani are both set to depart their clubs in summer as well.

Germany could see Ruud van Nistelrooy depart Hamburg for nothing, as well as the likes of Bayern Munich’s versatile Hamit Altintop.

The likes of Tim de Cler (Feyenoord), Luis Garcia (Panathanaikos), Banel Nicolita (Steaua Bucharest) and Thomas Hubschmann (Shakhtar Donetsk) prove that all over Europe, bargains aplenty are to be found this summer for those teams looking to reconstruct entirely on a shoe-string budget, or to find that extra player to take the team one step further without breaking the bank.

Of course, between now and the end of the season (and the end of those players’ contracts) it is not just all about sitting out the last few months and waiting for the offers to roll in; some players will desperately want to remain with their clubs and will be playing for their futures, some will be putting themselves in that wonderfully metaphorical shop window, while still others will be recovering from injuries or unable to break into the team.

There is always the chance that, free signing or no free signing, some of the elder statesmen of the game may not find the offers forthcoming, at least at the level of the game they wish to play at, and of course the clubs could decide – and no doubt will in several cases – later on in the season to offer players contract extensions.

Whatever players are left, it is almost certain that someone, somewhere, will be convinced they have made the signing of the summer when they snap up that missing piece of the jigsaw – for free.

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.