EighteenAndFive

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Henderson, Adam, Downing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Liverpool Return to Europe: 5 Youth Players in Europa League Squad


Kenny Dalglish will take charge of his first European game as Liverpool FC manager tomorrow night in the Czech Republic as the Reds take on Sparta Prague in the Europa League. Dalglish and his players flew today out of Liverpool and after naming his squad, five youngsters from the reserves and academy teams are included in the large travelling party, as is £35 million man Andy Carroll, though the former Newcastle forward will take no part in the game as he continues to recover from injury.

Captain Steven Gerrard and centre back Daniel Agger stay at home on Merseyside as they continue to recover from knocks sustained in the past week or two, though Raul Meireles has recovered from the bug which saw him substituted against Wigan Athletic at the weekend.

Joe Cole returns to the squad, while Christian Poulsen misses out as his wife has gone into labour. Youngsters Conor Coady, Raheem Sterling, Tom Ince, Jack Robinson and John Flanagan also make the trip as Dalglish names 23 players in total for the game squad.

Full list:

(GK) Reina, Jones, Gulacsi, (D) Johnson, Flanagan, Aurelio, Robinson, Kyrgiakos, Wilson, Carragher, Kelly, Skrtel, (M) Meireles, Cole, Maxi, Jovanovic, Lucas, Coady, Ince, Sterling, (F) Pacheco, Kuyt, Ngog (travelled but not playing: Carroll).

From this list we can see that David Ngog is almost certain to start a game for the first time since Roy Hodgson’s final game as Liverpool boss, against Blackburn Rovers. Luis Suarez is cup-tied and is not in Liverpool’s Europa League squad. Dalglish is not likely to tinker hugely with his side, though players such as Jovanovic and Joe Cole, who have not figured a lot over the past month or so, could gain some valuable playing time, while Spanish starlet Dani Pacheco could also play at some point.

Liverpool do not have a Premiership game this weekend, meaning a full week between back-to-back games against Thursday’s opponents. This leaves ample time for recovery if ‘King’ Kenny wishes to select a full strength eleven for the first leg, in the hope of building up a good lead for the second leg at Anfield.

With Meireles and Lucas the only recognised central midfielders in the party – though Aurelio has performed there of late – Conor Coady will be hopeful of taking his place on the substitutes bench. While 16 year old Sterling grabbed the headlines for his midweek five goal haul in the Youth Cup, he may have to wait for his chance to figure for the first team; Coady has been a consistent and stand-out performer for both Liverpool and England sides over the past year and both Flanagan and Robinson have been included in first team squads this season already. Tom Ince impressed hugely in a loan spell with Notts County earlier this season and may also push for a place on the bench.

With so many players having travelled it is difficult to predict a side, but bearing in mind that I don’t think Kenny will take out too many first teamers for this first leg, I will go with the following line up:

(4:4:1:1) Reina; Kelly, Carragher, Skrtel, Johnson; Kuyt, Lucas, Aurelio, Cole; Meireles; Ngog.

Subs; Gulacsi, Kyrgiakos, Wilson, Coady, Jovanovic, Maxi, Pacheco.

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.

Fernando’s Departure Doesn’t Hinder Rejuvenated Reds


I’ve taken an extra day before writing this, just to make sure I’m not saying it with a rush of blood – but I’m not distraught that Fernando Torres has left the club.

Annoyed by his timing; yes. Annoyed by his destination; definitely.

After all the things Torres said about the team, about the club and its’ supporters, I hardly thought that he would up sticks and depart from Liverpool (by helicopter or otherwise) in this manner, with this amount of notice. Leaving mid-season is not ideal; handing in a transfer request less than a week before the window shuts is downright ridiculous.

Yes, Torres must have been upset and annoyed and frustrated over the past eighteen months or so, but then either he shouldn’t have allowed himself to be swayed by promises last summer or he should have held himself in check until the end of this season. At the very least, handing the transfer request in at the beginning of the transfer window would have given the Reds a little more time to prepare and look for his successor; but then, would we have been able to hold Chelsea to paying a full £50 million for him? The deals which went down in the end for Liverpool – one number 9 out, one number 9 in – left very little room for manoeuvring and negotiation; something which probably pushed both transfer fees up a little.

When it was announced on the official Liverpool website that he had indeed handed in a transfer request, I really did feel gutted. I had spent the whole day telling people he wouldn’t leave; I felt it was partly mind games on the part of Chelsea ahead of our match with them at the weekend.

But when all was said and done, when it became apparent that our ‘Nando was indeed going to leave the club, I realised something.

For all Torres’ statements in support of the club and fans over the years, for all his great moments in and around the opposition penalty box, for all the improvements in his game since he joined us – and make no mistake, Liverpool improved Torres greatly as a player – he was still prepared to wash his hands of the club in an instant.

I cannot do that.

I’m a Liverpool supporter, and I’m in it for life.

We welcomed Torres into our club, we helped him grow into the very fabric of the team and the city. We sang his name, we chanted for him, we bounced for him and we celebrated goals with him, 81 times.

When John Barnes left the club, I was shocked. I didn’t realise at the time, being younger as I was, that heroes would or could ever depart the club. When Robbie Fowler left the club, I was upset and frustrated. When Gerrard almost left the club, I was treading rapidly down the same path.

But not this time. The trials – and the trial – of Liverpool over the past three or four years have taught me one thing at least: after the club itself, the fans matter most. This time, I won’t let the departure of a superstar get to me mentally the way it has done in the past. Perhaps it is because we have replacements coming straight in, perhaps it is just because I’m more used to the way football works now, but I’m not distraught that Torres has left – in fact, I am increasingly looking forward to this new era of Liverpool Football Club – new forwards, new manager, new owners who are willing and able to move quickly and decisively in the transfer market.

Which brings me to the better part of this article.

Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez – Liverpool FC’s new deadly duo, or so we hope.

I don’t need to cover the ‘potential’ and ‘risks’ associated with the players, that has been covered extensively and very well in some quarters, but what I would say is that the combined efforts of the duo playing together could turn out to be rather significantly more than the sum of the parts.

Liverpool haven’t really had a forward pairing who have complemented each other on a long term basis – Gerrard and Torres perhaps had a year or so, regularly broken up by injuries and poor form – since the days of Heskey and Owen. Carroll and Suarez each have abilities which should dovetail wonderfully with the other, as well as having some key attributes in common: the ability to take on players, the knack of scoring from both inside and outside the area and, most of all, that innate and ever so important desire to win.

While Andy Carroll will certainly be more of a central reference point for Liverpool, he is capable of dropping deeper and linking play very well indeed, and can actually put in a very good cross as well. I’m already getting tired of people saying having Carroll with no wingers is pointless – for starters, name me wingers who can cross with regularity and consistency? And secondly, our new Geordie forward is as good with the ball at his feet as any ‘small’ forward in the league. Watch back the Newcastle game against Arsenal – it wasn’t just in the air that Carroll dominated the Gunners’ back line.

Luis Suarez of course will be utilised in a more fluid role, being as he is capable of playing all the way across the front line.

Looking at how they might fit in to Kenny Dalglish’s team in the early days, we might suppose that a 4:2:3:1 (or variations thereof, such as a 4:5:1 or more fluid midfield of 4:1:4:1) will be the order of the day for the remainder of the season, supposing that most players remain fit and available.

With Carroll as the top man, Meireles and Lucas would be able to continue their burgeoning partnership in the middle, with Steven Gerrard playing ahead of them through the centre. Meireles and Gerrard, as we’ve seen, can swap quite easily and either one of them can play the deeper role alongside Lucas (or Poulsen) or a more advanced central role.

On the flanks, I suspect that Maxi Rodriguez may be the early loser after these two incoming transfers; Dirk Kuyt, while out of form recently, is still an integral part of this Liverpool team and is likely to keep his spot on the right side of the attack, with Luis Suarez, Liverpool’s new number 7, slotting in on the left side, from where he will be able to make his trademark runs across the attack and cause all sorts of havoc for the opposition defence. Get him one-on-one against some ponderous centre-backs as Suarez cuts in from the left, and we will see the real tangible values of the Uruguayan in no time at all.

Should Dalglish want to slightly change the attackinging balance, a true 4:3:3 is now possible for Liverpool to attain, with Suarez and Kuyt either side of Carroll.

In terms of pure numbers, Liverpool are no better off following this transfer window. Paul Konchesky (loan to Notts Forest), Ryan Babel (£6m to Hoffenheim) and Torres (£50m to Chelsea) have all left, while the two forwards Suarez and Carroll came in. In terms of net spend, with only a £2m outlay, there should still be plenty of spending power available to the management come the end of the season.

And quality?

The loss of Torres is undeniable. He was, and presumably remains, a world class striker. But have Liverpool seen enough of that over the past eighteen months? Absolutely not. Some performances were below par this season and his usual injury problems persisted during the whole of 2010. He seemed to recovering his touch following Dalglish’s appointment and the Reds’ improved tactics, but if he didn’t want to be at the club, we were never likely to see the 2008 version of Torres return to the Anfield pitch on a regular basis.

Ryan Babel was a maverick; capable of moments of genius, but far, far too infrequently to be considered any kind of first team regular. And Paul Konchesky’s time at Liverpool never looked likely to succeed from day one.

In have come two big name, big fee players; players who will be first team regulars immediately, and both with undeniable talent. Should they manage to, as I suspect they will, bring out the best in each other – and that of Gerrard, Meireles, Glen Johnson and Kuyt in attack – then the overall benefit to the squad will be enormously greater than that which has been lost.

Torres might have left, but Liverpool Football Club are absolutely on the path upwards, fuelled with optimism and desire and a real belief that the team can become great again, sooner rather than later.

Don’t bet against them proving just that against Fernando’s new club at the weekend.

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.

Kenny’s First Win as Liverpool Out-play and Out-fight Wolves


Kenny Dalglish picked up his first victory in his second spell in charge of Liverpool FC today as his Reds side swept Wolves aside with a 3-0 win at Molineux.

Just 24 days after the same side lost tamely at home against the then-bottom-of-the-league Wolverhampton outfit, Liverpool turned in a performance so far removed from that tepid and listless defeat that it is difficult to believe the new manager has had only a couple of weeks to turn around the Reds’ on the pitch fortunes.

Dalglish made just one change from the side which drew against Everton last week, with the oft-maligned Dane Christian Poulsen coming into midfield for Jay Spearing. Wolves also made one midfield change from their last match with Karl Henry replacing Mark Jones.

The first half was a scrappy affair for the most part, with Wolves keen on launching the ball towards forwards Kevin Doyle and Steven Fletcher at every opportunity, looking for the runs of the midfielders coming onto the second ball to pressure Liverpool around the edge of their own penalty box. For all their rugged approach to attacking however, the home side failed to create any chances of note and Reina remained largely untroubled in the Liverpool goal, save for a few crosses and set pieces he needed to pluck out of the air.

On the part of Liverpool, Glen Johnson and Lucas linked well down the left side to tee up a chance for Poulsen, but his shot was blocked, before a Meireles strike from the edge of the box rolled just wide of the far post. Fernando Torres had perhaps the best opportunity of the opening exchanges when he turned neatly inside his marker but his left footed effort was beaten away by Wolves ‘keeper Hennessey.

Liverpool had dealt well with everything Wolves had thrown at them and were certainly matching them for desire in the midfield scrap but the Reds were also passing the ball about well at every opportunity; difficult enough a feat considering the state of the pitch.

Meireles and Lucas in particular were causing problems for the Wolves defence with their runs from deep and it was one such run from the former which led to Liverpool’s first goal; Poulsen set Meireles away down the inside right channel and as he drew out the goalkeeper, the Portuguese schemer simply rolled the ball across the six yard box for Fernando Torres to tap home.

The half time lead was a deserved one for the Reds, who had played the better football without totally dominating the game.

Against Everton Liverpool were caught cold after the break as they conceded in the opening minute; this time round there was no such danger as the Reds came out looking for a second goal of their own – which Dirk Kuyt should have given them just minutes into the second period as he ran clear through, only to be denied by the Wolves goalkeeper.

Liverpool didn’t have long to wait though as Meireles scored his second goal for the Reds in consecutive games. A cross into the Wolves area was headed away to the number 4, who smashed in a first time volley which looped perfectly over Hennessey into the top corner of the net.

From that point on Liverpool were largely in control of the game and though the defensive line dropped deeper to combat Wolves crosses from wide, the counter-attack threat remained and the Reds always tried to get players forward in attack at every opportunity.

Wolves gave ex-Red reserve player Adam Hammill a debut with twenty minutes remaining and he could’ve scored with almost his first touch, swiping at a pull back just moments after Liverpool sub Shelvey could’ve done the same; his shot from a Meireles pass flying wide of the post.

Liverpool closed out the game by passing through the Wolves midfield and a magnificent passage of possession football led to the final goal; an excess of thirty consecutive passes leading to Kuyt bearing down on goal before he turned inside the last defender and the ball broke for Torres to lash high into the net with his left foot.

Plenty of positives for Liverpool with just their second away win over the season lifting them, temporarily at least, into the top half of the table and with Fulham at home to come during the week, the Reds will look to build up some momentum now with a run of results.

Meireles had a fantastic game for Liverpool with his runs from deep and finding space in the final third between Wolves’ midfield players, and his link-up play with Torres was a fine sight to behold for Reds fans starved of attacking intent in the first half of this season. Lucas was also a key player in the heart of the pitch and combined some good passing with his usual hard work and timely challenges.

Dalglish’s team have put in some improved performances since he stepped in as manager without getting the results – today Liverpool achieved both to rack up a convincing win away from home, keeping a clean sheet in the process.

With Steven Gerrard due to return from suspension and increased speculation over transfer targets such as Luis Suarez coming to the club, Liverpool’s season has never looked brighter than it does right now, testament to the fine job King Kenny has done in the short time since his arrival.