EighteenAndFive

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

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Arsenal vs Liverpool: Five Key Battles for Saturday’s Big Premier League Match


Arsenal and Liverpool will do battle this weekend on Saturday in the first of the big clashes in this season’s Premier League. Last season these two teams fought out an exciting battle that culminated in two late penalties—the second of which came in the 98th minute, an equaliser from Dirk Kuyt after Robin van Persie scored a few minutes earlier—and a 1-1 draw.

Since then, both sides have had something of an eventful summer, for differing reasons.

While Liverpool have embarked on a spending spree to bring in the likes of Stewart Downing, Charlie Adam and Jose Enrique; Arsenal have seen their captain, Cesc Fabregas, depart for Barcelona and playmaker Samir Nasri is likely to follow suit in exiting forManchester City, the landing point of Gael Clichy.

Forward Gervinho has been brought in, but will be suspended for the match on Saturday, as will midfielder Alex Song. Defenders Johan Djourou and Keiran Gibbs departed the mid-week fixture injured, leaving the Gunners with a real shortage at the back.

Liverpool, for their part, will be missing right-back Glen Johnson and long-term absentee Steven Gerrard, but everybody else has recovered from their knocks and Dalglish has an almost full squad to choose from.

Here we take a look at the five key battles on the pitch that will have a big say on the outcome of the game.

 

1: Andy Carroll vs. Laurent Koscielny

After a difficult start to his career where he was sent off on his Arsenal debut (against Liverpool, ironically), Laurent Koscielny proved to be a decent acquisition for the Gunners. He excelled in leading the defence to press high up the pitch, something which could not be said for fellow centre-back signing Squillaci.

However, he is not dominant aerially and is also prone to standing off physical players—something Andy Carroll took full advantage of when playing against the Frenchman for old club Newcastle.

Recovering from injury last season when the Reds took on Arsenal, he did not have the impact he would have liked. Expect something very different this time around as Liverpool will look to press the advantage of having the powerful threat of Carroll to hold the ball up.

With any set pieces, Carroll is likely to try to attach himself near to Koscielny in an attempt to beat him in the air.

 

2: Aaron Ramsey vs. Lucas Leiva

Following the departure of Cesc Fabregas, the suspension of Alex Song and the likely absence of Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey is likely to be the focal central midfielder for the Gunners again.

Possessing a good range of passing and an energetic style of play, Ramsey is more than just a promising midfielder at this stage. He is far more likely than either Wilshere or Cesc to get involved in play inside the opposition penalty area and try to score as well as contribute to the link-up play for which the Gunners have become renowned.

For this reason above all others, Lucas Leiva will be a key player for Liverpool against Arsenal; he is the one player capable of tracking opponents’ runs through midfield, is a good tackler and is an expert at positioning himself well to pick up second-balls.

 

3: Arsenal Left-Back vs. Liverpool Right Midfield

Probably the one area for either team which could be filled by different people at this point; most of the starting eleven for Arsenal and Liverpool could probably be predicted but the left-back slot for the Gunners and the right side of Liverpool’s midfield/attack is very much up for grabs.

Following Clichy’s departure Keiran Gibbs stepped up last weekend to start the season at left-back but suffered an injury against Udinesein mid-week, leading to Thomas Vermaelen switching to that position from the centre. However after Djourou was almost immediately replaced after himself replacing Gibbs, Carl Jenkinson came on for his Arsenal debut after joining the club from Charlton in the summer. The youngster is a highly rated prospect but is untested in the Premier League until now and Arsene Wenger needs to decide if he is to be risked in such a big game. Of course, Liverpool faced a similar situation last season in this fixture and came up trumps after Jack Robinson replaced Fabio Aurelio to such good effect.

Armand Traore is the other left back on the Arsenal books at present.

For Liverpool, the right midfielder could be seen as a key player regardless of who is picked for Arsenal at left back; Jenkinson’s inexperience, Vermaelen being out of his primary position or Traore’s relative lack of game time for the Gunners recently could all mean that the Reds have an opportunity to exploit that area of the pitch.

Jordan Henderson started on the right against Sunderland on the opening day but was replaced around the hour mark by regular right-sider Dirk Kuyt. Henderson obviously offers good delivery and stamina on that side of the pitch but is certain to drift inside to a more central position too, while Kuyt will offer perhaps a little more width and better service in terms of getting into the Arsenal box to link up with the front men.

A third option—one which is perhaps likely to be seen at some point during the game even if not from the beginning—is to stick Stewart Downing out on the right flank and let him run at the Arsenal left-back as often as possible, cutting inside onto his favoured left foot.

 

4: Robin van Persie vs. Pepe Reina

As always, Arsenal’s main goal threat is highly likely to come in the form of newly-installed official skipper Robin van Persie.

Last season he beat Reina from the penalty spot while in the reverse fixture Reina spilled an apparently straight-forward catch into his own net.

On his day van Persie is a world-beater and his strike rate in the second half of last season was one of the few bright spots for the Gunners as their season collapsed around them. Regardless of who is paired at centre back for Liverpool—Jamie Carragher and Daniel Agger should be again after the latter recovered from a knock—it is likely that the Dutchman will get at least one opportunity on goal and it is then that Pepe Reina will be called upon.

As consistent and excellent a performer as can be found between the sticks in the Premier League, Reina is hugely important for Liverpool and is adept in his shot-stopping as he is in his organisation of the defence.

Thwarting van Persie for ninety minutes will go a long way towards helping Liverpool to three big points.

 

5: Jose Enrique vs. Theo Walcott

Liverpool’s newest recruit, Spanish left-back Jose Enrique, started against Sunderland last week just hours after signing from Newcastle United and put in an encouraging performance on his debut.

On Saturday he is likely to start again and will come up against Theo Walcott who should come into the starting eleven in place of the suspended Gervinho.

Walcott will of course offer a whole load of pace and will look to get forward and into the area at every opportunity, something which Jose Enrique will have to try to turn on its head to have his best impact for the club.

If Liverpool can have possession and Jose Enrique can get forward himself Walcott will be forced backwards to cover and be kept away from goal, something which will benefit Liverpool immensely.

Another advantage that Jose Enrique should offer Liverpool is his great pace which should nullify that of even Walcott who will usually use that attribute above all others to gain an edge over his opponents.

 

Predicting the Outcome:

You have to go all the way back to 1999-2000 season and a Titi Camara winner for the last time Liverpool managed to beat Arsenal on their home ground in the league—Highbury, as it was then—but the Reds will surely feel they have a massive chance to put an end to that run this weekend.

Arsenal are weakened through suspension, injury and having sold or nearly sold two key players; some fans are far from giving their unconditional support to a manager they feel has failed to strengthen the team in key areas and the Gunners are really going to come under scrutiny this season—rightly or wrongly, its going to happen—every time they fail to win a game, mainly as they are seen as the ‘easiest’ team to knock out of the top four spots.

Liverpool on the other hand are by-and-large happy with their summer dealings and in full backing of their manager and will take a decent travelling support to the Emirates Stadium.

They also have one other wild-card who wasn’t mentioned in the key battles: Luis Suarez. The Uruguayan magician will look to move in and out of spaces between Arsenal’s midfield and defence and it is here that the absence of Alex Song will be felt most keenly for Arsenal.

Despite all their apparent weaknesses however, Arsenal are never an easy fixture and if they start well and get into their passing game without Liverpool pressing them quickly they have the pace, movement and fire-power in Rosicky, van Persie, Walcott and Arshavin to really test the Liverpool defence who will still be getting put together one piece at time; Kelly and Flanagan will likely battle it out for the right back spot and Glen Johnson has yet to return.

It is sure to be an eventful game and will throw up some fascinating tactical battles all over the pitch—but I am firmly backing Liverpool to end an eleven-and-a-half year winless streak and take all three points.

 

If you can’t watch the match this weekend you can follow my live text commentary and analysis of the Premier League game between Arsenal and Liverpool this weekend, along with every other Premiership fixture on that day, on Bleacher Report. Become my fan now to easily find the commentary on Saturday from 12:30pm UK / 7:30am ET.

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.

Hat-trick Hero Maxi but Suarez the Star Again for Liverpool


Liverpool boosted their chances of finishing in a European qualification spot in the Premier League this season and kept up their slight hopes of even nabbing Manchester City to the fourth and final Champions League spot with a 5-2 victory over Fulham at Craven Cottage on Monday evening.

Dirk Kuyt scored his ninth goal in eight league games and Maxi Rodriguez scored his second hat-trick in sixteen days – taking his personal tally to seven in three matches – but it was Luis Suarez, Liverpool’s new number seven, who stole the show again.

The enigmatic and animated Uruguayan was a thorn in the entire defence of Fulham from the very first seconds of the game, during which he set up the opening goal for Maxi after just thirty-two seconds, until the very last moments of the match when another mazy burst down the right channel almost led to a sixth Reds goal when Kuyt’s strike was blocked on the line.

Suarez’s close control made him impossible to mark tightly as he repeatedly spun away from the likes of Chris Baird and Carlos Salcido by each touchline, just as he has done in almost every game since he joined Liverpool from Ajax in January.

When the Fulham defence then stood off, he simply ran at them at full tilt, committing them at every opportunity and revelling in the space afforded to him and his team mates.

Four goals and a further direct involvement in eight goals for his team mates in his eleven matches so far have marked out Luis Suarez as the best Premiership signing of the winter transfer window by some distance and he has helped transform Liverpool’s attacking play with his dynamic movement and non-stop work-rate.

‘El Pistolero’, as he is known, has shown a willingness to buy into the team ethic which has been promoted by stand-in boss Kenny Dalglish from the first day he arrived back at the club and it is that as much as his ability on the ball which has endeared him to the Liverpool faithful in such spectacularly quick fashion.

If Suarez has been the focal point for Liverpool’s flowing attacks recently then a debt of gratitude must also be paid to two lesser-spotted players in the attacking third but no less important for that, for it is the sheer industry and tactical stability of Jay Spearing and Lucas Leiva which has allowed the Reds to flourish in an attacking sense over the past two months.

Working in tandem as though they had been central midfield partners for several seasons instead of several games, Spearing and Lucas have been responsible for breaking up attacks, stifling opposition creativity and launching wave after wave of Liverpool moves, culminating frequently in goal scoring chances for Suarez and his fellow attackers. Against Fulham, Spearing racked up an 82% success rate in his passing and made two interceptions and six successful tackles as he and Lucas completely dominated the midfield battle for a sixth game in a row; a magnificent return for a player making only his 25th career appearance for the Liverpool first team.

How Suarez has benefited from the quick turn-overs those two have won; and in turn what a great return he has given the Reds’ entire attack.

Just fourteen short weeks since Luis Suarez joined the Red re-birth under Kenny Dalglish – one can only imagine the terror he will wreak on the Premiership next season when the likes of Steven Gerrard and Andy Carroll are fully fit and firing and playing alongside him.

Liverpool Summer Transfer Wishlist: Part 2 – New Signings


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

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

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

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

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

So lets start from the back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goalkeepers: Reina, Gulacsi

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

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

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

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

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

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

Example team:

Reina
Richards Carragher Agger
Johnson                                Tremoulinas
Vidal        Gerrard
Lavezzi                         Suarez
Carroll

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liverpool Summer Transfer Wishlist: Part 1 – Player Sales


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next up soon, the replacements….

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.

Left Backs for Liverpool: Problem Position Up For Grabs


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steadying the ship then, perhaps, has been achieved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remember: Walk on, with hope in your heart.