Saturday, 27 October 2012

Being Liverpool... means being patient

The last time Liverpool faced both Manchester clubs and Arsenal in their opening 5 fixtures, it was the baptism of fire that immediately showed up Roy Hodgson.  Roy’s Reds took 1 point from these fixtures, earned in the opening day home draw against Arsenal.

Brendan’s Reds have walked away from their first 5 fixtures with a similar result – 1 point earned against Man City.  But the similarities stop there. Regardless of the fact that these matches were played at home, facts do not lie.  Liverpool, with a new manager, adjusting to a new system, played against established sides that finished 1st - 2nd - 3rd the season before.  Kenny’s Liverpool from last season managed 2 points in the exact same fixtures – and he had the fortune of not having these games in such close proximity to one another, at the start of the season. And anyone sensible who watched the matches under Rodgers would have seen that stupid defensive mistakes (and a “complicated” referee, in one case) undermined positive performances in all 3 fixtures.
But of course, many Liverpool fans were, and still are, even with the recent 7 points from 9 available, insistent on judging the team too early, and losing total faith with the system and Rodgers himself. 
Rodgers' tactics differ in important aspects to those of Dalglish
Rodgers vs. Dalglish
That’s not to suggest the results are acceptable.  Of course they are not.  Liverpool are hardly the type of club to be satisfied with even the recent 7 point recovery (against Norwich, Stoke and Reading)  that has culminated in a current 12th place slot in the league table.  I’ve seen these sentiments echoed on social media, informed blogs and pub conversations, and the concerns seem to be the same.  Would results be different under Dalglish?  Is Rodgers really the man to take the team forward?
We can’t know what the results would have been under Kenny, but of course, so many things would have been substantially different, and all we could do is speculate about the transfers, the tactical decisions and, ultimately, the results.  Can we really know if Kenny would have offloaded Charlie Adam?  Would he have even considered someone like Joe Allen?
There are clear signs to read in the Rodgers regime, and one just needs to pay attention to them. Some fans suggest that Kenny’s Liverpool also prioritised passing and held possession well.  The statistics do correspond to this.  But there is a marked difference in the approach under Rodgers. Liverpool now play far more patiently, dominating possession to far greater levels, with less emphasis on a more direct attacking style.  It’s not to say that a patient approach hinders the effectiveness of the attack – in fact, I’d argue Liverpool’s ability to penetrate defences is better now than it was under Kenny.  At times, it sometimes felt like Kenny’s Liverpool relied a little too much on that flash of individual brilliance from someone to make the difference in a game.  Under Rodgers, that reliance is decreased to an extent, because the team’s tactical approach is far more conducive to being more creative in the final third.  We’ve seen goals this season from various players, and what’s been encouraging is the fact that many of them have come from midfield already – Gerrard, Sahin, Shelvey.  Suarez may have missed a ton of chances under Rodgers – but I’m struggling to remember him getting so many clear, obvious chances under Kenny.  We can bemoan Andy or Luis’ conversion rate under Kenny, but good chances were at a premium.  Now, the team is better configured to creating the right quality of chance, as opposed to a huge quantity of them.
Under Rodgers, Liverpool are also, quite significantly, playing 4-3-3 and similar variants (4-2-3-1, 4-3-2-1, etc). Kenny often used a 4-4-2 system.  Kenny also focused on very different types of players, and prioritised different technical qualities - for example, if he was still manager, would Suso have played as much?  Or would we still see Stewart Downing bombing crosses expectantly, hoping for bodies in the box?  Would we have been hoping for one of Carroll’s rare standout performances as opposed to the intelligent off the ball movement of Borini?  Again, it isn’t fair to speculate, but it isn’t clear that Kenny would have applied Suso and Sterling (in particular) as consistently as Rodgers.  And both those players are two standout performers thus far this season.
You can’t win anything with kids… or can you?
Alan Hansen’s infamous quote above has run miles in my head since the season’s start.  Rodgers has been true to his word about playing those who illustrate that they are good enough.  If the likes of Sterling and Suso can keep someone like Downing on the bench or out of the squad, it says a lot about the tactical and technical priorities of the Liverpool manager.
The young boys delivered well against Young Boys of Switzerland
I, for one, cannot help but feel a significant debt of gratitude to Rafael Benitez.  The legacy he has left in the academy with bringing players like Sterling, Suso and Shelvey to Liverpool may well be his most significant long term contribution.
Rodgers’ application of the “kids” is significant.  The 3 mentioned above along with Wisdom, Allen, Borini and Coates have all had moments of sparkle – some more than others (Sterling and Allen have arguably been Liverpool’s best players thus far this season).  Rodgers has had no favours done to him by recent history - Liverpool’s last few transfer windows have had more bad memories than good.  Ex-Red Dietmar Hamann emphasised that point in his recent tweet about Liverpool’s spending last summer in particular, which set terrible precedents in what Liverpool pay for players, not to mention which players were chosen to be signed.  Imagine for a moment if instead of Downing, Liverpool had pursued Juan Mata, as was rumoured.  It could have been the Reds dialling 9-Juan-Juan on occasions where attacking impetus was required.
But as it is, Rodgers is getting some unique performances out of the youngsters.  The Capital One Cup match against West Brom was, for me, Liverpool’s most complete performance thus far, if nothing else because a significant number of Rodgers’ boxes were ticked. Patience, possession, passing, penetration.  Defending with the ball.  And a winning goal which was ultimately created by the system, not by one player’s unique individual brilliance.  Most of the team that produced that was 22 or younger, with only Downing, Carragher, Assaidi and Sahin as the “elders” in the team.
From a transfer point of view, Rodgers’ gem is by far Joe Allen, and I hardly think many Liverpool fans will disagree that a midfield 3 of Gerrard, Sahin and Allen looks far more intimidating than last season’s dysfunctional configuration of Downing, Gerrard, Adam and Henderson. When Lucas comes back, it’s going to be intriguing.  We haven’t had a midfield orchestrator of Allen’s quality, with fantastic awareness, ball control and passing touches since a certain Xabi Alonso marshalled the midfield.  If Allen and Lucas (in theory) are automatic first choice players, it could be an interesting competition between Sahin, Shelvey and Gerrard for the final attacking midfield spot (especially considering Gerrard’s form is mixed at present).
Improvement needed…
Naturally, the positives need to be taken account with a sense of perspective.  It’s clear that while Liverpool has made progress, there are still several things that they need to work on.
One thing that has been very common in Liverpool’s adoption of the system is the issue of holding the ball, especially when defending a lead.  The match against Reading was a blatant example of how not to do it – it became more “death by football for anxious Liverpool fans” rather than for the opponents.  Ironically, I think it was still an important result.  Liverpool produced a 6/10 performance with a clean sheet and 3 points, and most importantly, got away with it.  Notwithstanding the striking issue, and Suarez’s inability to score the “easier” chances, Liverpool have to be realistic that until they can recruit a quality #9, they need to get used to defending with the ball and stacking up the 1-0 wins.  That’s why, in a strange way, the disappointment of deadline day has a unique silver lining – the lack of the goalscoring punches means that the team will be forced to master certain aspects of the system which otherwise may have been treated with complacency.
Understandably, it won’t happen overnight.  After all, typically if Liverpool is 1-0 up, one doesn’t exactly expect the voices in the Kop to cheer for defending with the ball.  The last 10 minutes against Reading were completely characterised by long “Hollywood” passes down the field, anxiously being chased by Sterling and Suarez, but ultimately resulting in careless turnover of possession.  Liverpool eventually needs a mindshift, and the execution on the pitch will follow.  I would argue, ironically, that the 2nd goal would have been far more likely to arrive if the ball had been retained better.  Reading, needing to chase the game would have tired themselves out and overcommitted in attack, leaving far more favourable spaces for Liverpool to exploit.  And besides, one thing that we can all guarantee is that it would be impossible for Reading to get back in the game without the ball; hence the importance of making them work for it!
Gerrard's form has been mixed in terms of adapting to Rodgers' philosophy
One of the biggest culprits here is Steven Gerrard.  This is dangerous territory for me to criticise – after all, Gerrard often plays that long ball because his vision allows him to get away with it and the result is often outstanding.  I hope that Gerrard, and many of the others who prefer those long passes will take their cue from Joe Allen.  He is a great example of the right attitude towards retaining the ball, playing the short passes that may not be spectacular, but keeping the ball.
Something else that has been inconsistent is the pressing and the defensive shape of the team.  For example, against Manchester United, Liverpool immediately defended far too deep following Gerrard’s opener – their defensive line was just about on the 6 yard box for Rafael’s strike.  Man Utd didn’t play their way into Liverpool’s box through superior skills or attacking movement – Liverpool practically invited them in.  There are many other examples where the pressing game dropped off, especially against Udinese, and the 2 goals conceded against Norwich.
Not that Liverpool should be pressing too much – you can’t press for the full 90 minutes - but that’s where defending with the ball comes in handy to help the players rest.  So the two concepts are always going to be linked.
Liverpool’s movement to create space and passing options is also in need of improvement, especially in the final 3rd.  Sometimes the players look static and it takes a skilful move from an Allen (usually) to beat or attract defenders and open up a pass.  It was intriguing that instead of berating Skrtel’s poor pass to Reina against Man City, Rodgers instead suggested that he was concerned that Skrtel’s teammates hadn’t given the Slovakian enough passing options, forcing him into a dangerous pass.  I’m sure many Liverpool fans would disagree with the assessment, but it does illustrate just how the manager wants his team to implement the system.
Other intriguing issues have been highlighted – is Suarez really fit as the #9? Once a #9 is signed, will Suarez be more heavily leveraged as the creator?  His assists against Norwich and Reading certainly provide some evidence.  Does Gerrard warrant his automatic starting place anymore?  The form of Shelvey and Sahin, added to Gerrard’s costly turnovers of possession, do build a case, but there must be doubts if Rodgers really has the courage to drop the talismanic leader. 
There are also hints already of possible further transfer priorities in January.  The natural #9 is the obvious one, but Liverpool also need further cover for Lucas (Allen can deputise, but he can’t play every game either!), possibly Reina (although Brad Jones is certainly playing his way into consideration) and without doubt, a new first choice left back if Jose Enrique cannot meet the standards that Rodgers has set (I wonder if the Spaniard is not another name in those infamous envelopes).
Signs of progress
But while there are things that need improvement (and there always will be), there are definitely signs that Rodgers’ regime is beginning to show fruit.
For starters, Liverpool haven’t had a controlling midfielder the quality of Allen since Alonso, and that is possibly an understatement since the Welshman has already drawn comparisons with the Barcelona maestro Xavi.  Allen is just 22, and it’s scary to think the recently crowned Welsh player of the year could be even better in a couple of years.  Rodgers’ other signings have also had their moments.  Sahin already looks a dangerous prospect in that attacking midfield role, while Borini’s off-the-ball movement has already paid dividends – check out how he opened up space for Shelvey’s second goal against Young Boys as an example.
Sterling scored the first of many (hopefully) against Reading
The emergence of Sterling, Suso and Shelvey in particular into the system is fantastic.  All of them have made significant contributions.  Sterling’s impact has been incredible, and someone of his ability to keep his head up and be more aware of the options around him can only flourish in a system like this.  Suso is also well suited to the Rodgers style, and his second half substitute cameo appearance against Man Utd was quick to produce a meaningful attack that led to Gerrard’s goal.
What has been most impressive however, is how the team has taken to the passing style.  It’s not perfect, but pragmatically, I was expecting the team to struggle to adapt.  That adaption has been faster than expected.  Liverpool look a far stronger team tactically.  They play attractive football.  They are creating greater quality of chances and even though several players have been offloaded,  the system is threatening to bring out the best in many players, and suddenly even Steven Gerrard has potential competition for his 1st team place.  Liverpool’s second string side has looked effective – granted, they lost to Udinese after the wheels came off in the second half, but the first half performance provided clear evidence of what they are capable of.  They were never going to get it right perfectly, but the system is coming together.  When, as examples, youngsters like Jack Robinson or Andre Wisdom can play under a system like this and look effective enough to compete for first choice fullback positions, that creates depth practically out of nowhere.
The tactical approach is extremely sound.  Only in one game so far this season has Liverpool been tactically outsmarted – against Arsenal (and even that may be of debate).  The rest of the poor results come down to poor execution of great tactics, a far cry from some of last season’s matches where Liverpool’s tactics weren’t always designed to get them to naturally come out on top.  For example, contrast the home fixture against Man City last season, where the game was relatively even, vs. this season – Liverpool were by far the dominant side this time around – points were dropped due to stupid mistakes, as they were against West Brom.  Even with 10 men, Liverpool dominated Man Utd and still deserved the 3 points against the old enemy. That comes down to the value and strength of the system that Rodgers has introduced. 
There may still yet be speedbumps – Liverpool enter a difficult patch of fixtures with Everton, Swansea, Newcastle and Chelsea coming up.  But even if the results aren’t ideal in those matches, the signs are there for Liverpool fans to see the improvements, if they choose to.  And if we can be patient and allow the team to continue working to master the system, allow the January transfer window to bring its reinforcements (hopefully!), and tolerate the results for a bit… it’s possible that Liverpool could surprise us all. 
Time will tell – we need to support in spite of the results… and be patient.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

I Know What You Did Last Summer

12 months ago, if the recent piece ( ) in the Echo is to be believed, then Sunderland boss Steve Bruce contemplated asking for £4 million to sell Jordan Henderson.

Liverpool offered £14 million, raising it to £16 million a bit later.

In the same transfer window, Liverpool spent £20 million on Stewart Downing, and £7 million for Charlie Adam.  6 months earlier, a rather poorly timed exit by Fernando Torres left Liverpool with mere hours to purchase a new #9.  They responded quickly – too quickly – with a move of £35 million for Andy Carroll. 

Believe the article, or not, but it’s clear that those numbers left a bitter taste in the mouths of Liverpool fans come the end of the 2011-12 season.  The team’s potential, galvanised by fantastic runs to both domestic cup finals were totally undermined by the side’s stale performance in the league. We were meant to believe the excuses, especially that of conspiring woodwork. 
There was very little criticism directed to FSG, though.  Many were grateful that they’d allowed so much money to be spent – yet behind the scenes, I would imagine the Americans were wondering where the return for those investments were.

Fast forward 12 months, and the anti-climax of deadline day in the summer transfer window.  And a 2-0 defeat to Arsenal. Pandemonium! Hate mail and negative sentiment directed at Ian Ayre, FSG, and even (in my opinion, pathetically) Brendan Rodgers, and all of a sudden, Liverpool have had a shocking transfer window and we’re doomed to fail. 
Some of us have short memories, don’t we?

FSG learn from their mistakes… again
Now don’t get me wrong, it’s poor planning that an obvious #9 is missing from the squad.  But I think we need perspective.  We need to look at the other transfers.  The players who came in, the players who left.  The money we did receive.  The context of Liverpool living for 3 years outside the Champions League with its estimated £20 million annual pot.  Liverpool’s inability to bring in revenue to the extent of clubs like Arsenal and Manchester United. And quite critically – the infamous transfers of the previous regime, which clearly affected not only FSG’s willingness to spend, but created the impression in some clubs that you can milk Liverpool for transfer money.

Ultimately, the blame rests with FSG.  But not entirely in the manner one may think.  Before Brendan was appointed, there were rumours aplenty that FSG were considering a structure inclusive of a Director of Football, or Sporting Director.  It was a template they appeared to feel would work – and it certainly posed sense in assisting with issues of scouting, transfer negotiations, and being an important conduit for interaction between manager and owners.
This template disappeared once Brendan was appointed.  I have a couple of ideas of the reasons why. One thought comes from Brendan’s possible request to have greater control over matters – something which possibly caused FSG to forgo their preferred model and give Brendan that responsibility.  The other idea is that FSG decided to split the roles and give Brendan the responsibility of identifying preferred targets, while Ian Ayre would take the lead in securing them.

Whatever the real reasons, I have every confidence in Rodgers’ ability to spot talent that is realistically obtainable.  If Liverpool aren’t able to recruit it, either they don’t have enough money, or the wrong person is trying to negotiate these deals.  And it is in that respect that I think FSG have just had another mistake which they will be learning much from.  I still think FSG are interested in getting this right.  They’re making dumb mistakes – but, as an example, just the bravery they showed in dismissing Dalglish and hiring Rodgers tells me there is more to them than many think.  Some Liverpool fans would prefer a rich Arab / Russian oil billionaire as our owners – fine, but consider that Chelsea and Man City had to spend £673 and £572 million respectively since 2003 to fast-track their teams into championship winners (Source: ).  That kind of spending will never make sense, no matter how many trophies you win. And I’m one of those dumb fans that doesn’t want Liverpool to buy success anyway – it’s more satisfying to build it.
It sounds like, particularly as it relates to Dempsey, there was more to the debacle.  The erroneous stunt where Dempsey was listed as a player on the Liverpool website some weeks back did nothing to foster a positive atmosphere for a transfer of the American from Fulham to Anfield.  If the stories are true that Fulham accepted lower priced offers from Villa and Spurs and expected a higher fee from Liverpool, I hardly blame them for doing that.  Besides, Liverpool’s last summer transfer window didn’t set a particularly good precedent for a club intending on paying bargain prices.  If we think we should be happy about paying premium prices for players like Dempsey, we’re in big trouble.  Don’t chastise Liverpool and FSG for being fussy about Dempsey’s fee. I’d rather ask why it appeared Dempsey was our only option.

So FSG’s will learn from this – the hard way. Last season they trusted too much in their charges,but now they have made the mistake themselves.  Whether it is to free up more funds in the January transfer window, to improve the scouting process, or better yet, hire a proper Sporting Director / Director of Football to deal with these issues, they will have to respond well.  I blame FSG only because they’re responsible for setting up a structure of resources and people to bring in the right players.  Clearly the structure has some gaps.  But it is certainly not cause to lose all faith, they’re learning a valuable lesson.  I read a fantastic tweet that summed it up – it’s not about blind faith in FSG, and they are still learning.  But they are not idiots, nor are they Hicks and Gillett (credit to @ErinNYC75 for that one).  Besides, in context, our transfer window wasn’t all that poor.
Our 2011-12 summer transfer window – in context

While many want to judge the transfer window’s success purely on the failure to capture a #9, I think we need to be a bit wiser than that. 
Let’s get the negatives out the way.  In my opinion, Liverpool’s transfer window lowlights were in a few areas:

1.       Goalkeeping cover
We didn’t need Reina’s clanger against Hearts at Anfield the other night to remind us of the concerns that remain about our keeper.  It’s an expensive position to recruit when you’re looking for quality (upwards of at least £8 million, probably).  The fact remains, he lacks competition, and I’m not so keen on Jones as a deputy.  Nonetheless, Rodgers will need to keep an eye on his keeper, and if further clangers follow, expect this to be a priority position come the new year.

2.       Right wing / right wide forward
It’s clear that Rodgers likes to play a 4-3-3 / 4-2-3-1 variant, where the width is intended to arrive from the fullbacks and the movement of the front “wings” tends to be inside towards the box.  It’s the kind of system that gets the best out of Suarez’s exceptional movement and positioning.  Our problem is that we have ONE Suarez.  Now finding another one is difficult, and it’s not to say that Sterling or Assaidi aren’t capable of doing the job – they may well do so.  But I worry that that Liverpool’s greatest attacking threat comes predominantly from the left, and in time, that may become predictable.  I hope that Liverpool address this in January, but it’s more likely to be addressed next season. 

3.       The goalscorer
And so we approach the controversial issue.  I think having Carroll loaned out is still a win-win scenario.  The lad can build his confidence at a team where the playing style suits his strengths far better.  His wages are covered.  And Liverpool don’t spend time trying to force him into the team just for the sake of his transfer fee, and instead focus on testing things which are actually worth trying.  For example, I would rather try Gerrard as a “false 9”, or promote Morgan to the first team, than try and fit Andy into the system.  Ironically, we spent much of 2010-11 trying to accommodate Andy – even though we weren’t playing the Rodgers style.

With Carroll, we need to be prepared – he’ll do better at West Ham, and immediately, the accusations will come from media and opposing fans alike that he has been loaned out erroneously.  Let’s not kid ourselves.  We won’t play Allardyce football – and that brand of football will suit Andy perfectly.  It will hopefully suit Liverpool’s pockets too, in time. I’m not saying this because I don’t like Andy – I do – but I think he’s a square peg in a round hole while in a Liverpool shirt.
The issue here is not Carroll’s departure – we needed someone in REGARDLESS of Andy’s presence or not.  One can only hope the results aren’t too badly affected by the lack of a #9 – but if they are – FSG will at least see the fruit, or lack thereof, of their mistake, and hopefully address it swiftly.

The highlights of the summer transfer window
I still think it was a good transfer window – no, it wasn’t the best we could have had, and it is not exactly hard to improve on the transfers 12 months ago, but our objective was to improve the squad – and that was achieved in most respects.

1.       Outgoings
Over the last few years, Liverpool have accumulated some players who are not of the standard we need, are far too costly to keep, or don’t fit into Rodgers’ style of play.  This transfer window addressed most of all three.

I expected the departure of Aquilani.  Getting rid of the old campaigners Aurelio, Bellamy, Maxi and Kuyt dealt with the wage issue.  Spearing leaving on loan was a good move, but I think he needs to be shipped out eventually.  Even though he contributed many assists last season, Adam just didn’t illustrate the quality we needed overall.  As for Carroll – his loan is a great idea.  He’ll do well at West Ham.  It will increase his confidence, contribution, and most importantly – value. 
Joe Cole and Downing still remain. It will be hard to ship them out at reasonable prices, but Rodgers seems to have an idea of how to get some better performances out of Downing at least.

2.       The core remains
A big fear with this transfer window was not that Liverpool wouldn’t improve the squad, but rather than we’d end up short of one of our talismans.  Agger, Skrtel and Suarez were at significant risk of being sold.  The rumours flew aplenty about Suarez early on, especially with the notions that FSG were none too happy with the racial abuse allegations from last season, but a new contract put that issue to bed.  (I still fully expect a Spanish giant to change that in a couple of years though.)  Skrtel and Agger were both courted by Man City, but we kept them – and that is really encouraging.  Now regardless of the discomfort around Agger in particular, the fact remains, Liverpool did not sell – and that is a good sign.  How many Liverpool fans would have been happy with signing Dempsey and losing Agger, I wonder?

3.       Great players arrived – for present and future
It’s hard to remember a transfer window for Liverpool where we signed someone like Joe Allen.  Someone that young, with that much immediate raw talent, that he can come in from his first game and look like a future star.  Comparisons to Xavi seem almost insane – but the Welshman can play, and his read of the game is a perfect fit to Rodgers’ style.  I remember seeing so much disappointment from Liverpool fans about his signature, because he wasn’t a big spectacular name – yet he’s already illustrated at his tender age that he’s teaching his teammates something about how to play football.  The best part is that he is only 22.  He’s already looking better than any midfielder we’ve had for the last 3 years – including Gerrard.

The other signings are appear to be good value – the only concern is possibly Borini, who doesn’t resemble a 15-20 goal-a-season forward. However, he’s just 21 - that could well change.  He’s already shown flashes of good movement and energy (especially against Man City). 
I am impressed Liverpool’s capture of Sahin.  I don’t think there was any chance of buying him – but we have one year to make the guy fall in love with the place, so that IF the chance arises, we should be in a good position to make him sign permanently.  And even if we don’t, to get a player of his quality in a time when he quite rightly could choose more money and Champions League football should give you an idea of how well Liverpool have done.

As for Assaidi and Yesil, they are two obvious talents – bought at prices to rival that of the most outstanding negotiators.  Time will tell if these two emerge as the kind of players we need, but they look like very talented prospects.  If the latter in particular scores some goals – I’ll bet the reservations about Dempsey will disappear.
One of the other criticisms labelled at FSG is that they didn’t replace all the players we lost.  Yet Bellamy and Kuyt didn’t play every week, and Maxi even less so.  Aurelio played once (I think)!  We signed players to play to Rodgers’ new system.  We didn’t need to replace every single player like for like.   It’s a thin line of forwards, I agree, but take into account that Rodgers wants to see more goals from the midfield as well.  We’ll have to wait and see how the results evolve.

4.       The fountain of youth
The introduction of some academy graduates into our first team is very encouraging.  Sterling is as exciting, if not more, than Joe Allen.  Morgan looks a solid player as well.  And I for one really hope Suso and Ngoo get a chance to play.  

The introduction of these lads, combined with the existing youthful crop of Shelvey, Robinson, Flanagan, Kelly and Coates looks interesting.   Sterling, Shelvey and Coates joined Allen and Borini in a side that ran the English champions off their feet at Anfield.  Yaya Toure, arguably the best midfielder in England currently, professed that it was the hardest game he’s played since he joined Man City.  Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but that experience came from a team who were largely a bunch of kids.
The importance of patience

The situation isn’t ideal, but it’s hardly time to panic.  And if some of us were expecting outlandish money like the fee the Mancs resorted to for RVP, we had all the wrong expectations.  No, we don’t have an oil billionaire at the head of our club – be careful for what you wish for, I would say.  We need to be realistic, and patient.  FSG wouldn’t have introduced so many changes in the summer if they weren’t at least remotely interested in the future of the club.  Even if the cynical ones out there believe it’s purely about shortening the wage bill so that the club is sold, it could be far more disruptive to Liverpool to change ownership again in a short space of time, so I for one hope that is not the case.
Liverpool are also paying for last summer.  Not only in money, but in reputation and negotiation leverage. A precedent was set and it needs time to be forgotten. Or is someone going to try and convince me that Adam, Downing, Henderson and Carroll are in the same class as Allen?

The key, as always, is patience.  The fixture list hasn’t been kind to us in the opening matches, and Liverpool will have faced 3 of the top 5 from last season by the end of September – so if we have a poor start, the league table position will need a pinch of salt to digest.  Rodgers’ revolution will take time.  I’m willing to give Rodgers the benefit of the doubt because even though he’s likely disappointed about deadline day – he’s one of the few who won’t sit and give up on Liverpool.
Neither should we.

As for FSG, they continue to learn.  And hopefully, they learn quickly.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Beginning the Brendan Rodgers Blueprint

“Our idea is to pass teams to a standstill so they can no longer come after you. Eventually you wear them down.”

Barcelona’s style has proven effective, difficult to beat – and to replicate

It’s difficult to dispute that football’s DNA has been significantly affected in recent years by the Spanish passing armada of Barcelona and the Spanish national team.  It’s ludicrous that so many players of such rich technical ability exist in one team, let alone that they execute a passing and possession masterclass to such a rich extent. It’s a paradigm shift that has divided the footballing public...  Some call them boring, others magnificent.  Some consider it predictable, others appreciate its true, practical difficulty and marvel at its execution.

Whatever your opinion, some key truths abide.  Total football, or “tiki-taka” as it is also known, has at its core, passing, and possession.  And intelligent execution of positioning and movement.

And somehow, Brendan Rodgers, a self-confessed student of this footballing style is planning to introduce it (or something close to it) into the Anfield grounds this season.

Defending Rodgers…already?

It’s been an intriguing summer.  The Anfield gates still seem to hold painful memories for some Liverpool fans of a coronation cut short disrespectfully for King Kenny.  Others still seem unconvinced by the choice of manager, having expected Liverpool, a club held by the strings of its history, to attract the likes of Pep Guardiola and the like to resurrect its fortunes.

No matter what you may think of Fenway Sports Group at this point, understandably there are mixed feelings for what we can expect of the season ahead.  And while their choice of manager is both bold and intriguing, I think if we’re realistic, we need to take stock of the fact that Liverpool don’t (arguably) necessarily  tend to recruit a definitive proven manager (as in, already having a decent managerial track record before appointment) with the exception of Houllier and Benitez.  And those two had mixed success – whether you believe they received the support they wanted or not.

In 1959, I’m sure that most Liverpool fans wouldn’t have expected the incredible effect Shankly would have on the club over the following 15 years (not that comparisons between Rodgers and Shankly are necessarily fair).  That decision was made, albeit under the atmosphere of lower expectations.  Consider what the likes of Wenger, Mourinho and Guardiola have achieved – could anyone really assess what they would achieve at the start of their careers?  What evidence did Arsenal, Chelsea and Barcelona really have to suggest they would be successful?  Some will point to the fact that those 3 sides had great players in their squads – yet I don’t think Liverpool squads at various points in the past 20 years have been lacking in talent all that much.

Not that I immediately expect Rodgers to be in that class of manager.  To be honest, like many fans, I’m cautiously optimistic, and curious about the nature of football he’ll bring.  But there is something about him - his demeanour with the press, and his quotes about the football which speak to an ideology of how the game should be played.  The manner in which his players have responded to him.  The fact that he’s a constant student of the game.

Rodgers has proved mostly eloquent in front of media… so far

Sure, we need to be careful not to be taken in by the romance.  I remember falling into that trap and suddenly having my emotions exposed as Sebastian Larsson scored the opener against Liverpool in their first game of last season.  Many Liverpool fans felt robbed of the positive energy they had accumulated for that first match – but that comes with inappropriate expectations.

So, no, I don’t expect a magic turn around – because Liverpool is a club that, in the last few years, has been completely wrecked by mismanagement at various levels.  That’s why I’m one of those (few, it seems) that believe FSG are doing the right things to rebuild the club.  They’ll make mistakes (and have done so already) – but they’re a far cry from any leadership Liverpool have had for a while.

Rodgers, meanwhile, may still yet encounter his pitfall. It could be the first three tricky home games against the top three from last season, or the inevitable mind-games from Fergie, or even media backlashes against the quality of his signings (or lack thereof, if it pans out that way).  It could be the point of the season where fans and media commence pre-emptive reflection that Liverpool’s rebuilding process is not occurring fast enough.  It could be the pressure from dealing with so many levels of control at the club (compounded, incidentally, by Pep Segura’s recent departure).  It could be all those and more.  When those moments arrive – Rodgers’ character will need to hold true.

What we can expect from this season

What I do expect, though, is for Rodgers to focus on the football when those situations arise.  He appears stubborn to defend his philosophy, but that I feel is a positive quality and it’s one of the best character traits that one sees in most successful managers around.  And when the goals aren’t there, I hope he’ll talk about Liverpool working harder to create better chances in front of goal, rather than bemoan the woodwork.

Some of his ideas make me genuinely excited, because even though Liverpool dominated many a game last season, they seemed ironically easy to defend against, and fairly predictable against the bigger clubs.  Their attacking play down the middle was mostly ineffectual, and the most penetrative passes tended to arrive from the flanks or creative mischief from Suarez and Gerrard, or the late runs / Hollywood passes from Adam (oddly one of the best assisters of last season).  They didn’t put “weaker” sides away consistently enough either.

Pressing high up the pitch is a key principle in Rodgers’ approach

Many an article has been written talking of Rodgers’ pressing philosophy, again modeled on Barcelona’s blueprint.  “You win the ball back when there are thirty metres to their goal, not eighty,” as Pep Guardiola pointed out once. The high pressing principle does much to change the dynamic of Liverpool’s attacking and transitional play.  It speaks to creating different kinds of opportunities in the opponent’s half, and a completely new level of dominating play.

Then there’s the concept of resting with the ball, and exhausting opponents by passing them into submission.  It sounds so simplistic – but it’s incredibly difficult to execute well, and it will force many of the players to expand the quality and speed of their positioning, movement, and decision making.  When attacking, it’s a system that isn’t reliant on pure pace, or that very kick and rush direct style – it’s reliant on technique and vision, awareness and speed of thought.  And as the pre-season illustrated, it takes discipline.  Many of our players still resorted to long aimless passes simply because the old style made it relevant.

Make no mistake, the system will separate the men from the boys, so to speak, but I firmly believe, if it works, the world class qualities of the some of the players will have their opportunity to shine.  Even those players who have been maligned (here I want to pick on Downing in particular) could have the chance to show more promise based on what the system forces them to do.

So what can we expect to see?

There will be shades and flashes of intrigue… and concern.  If the performance against Gomel at Anfield is anything to go by, the system could reproduce some of Gerrard’s best football again, in his effective attacking midfield role, only this time with more players of greater technical ability like Suarez.  Hopefully Allen, Borini, Assaidi illustrate this too.  So expect more out of Gerrard.

I also expect the system to highlight the depth of the squad… or lack thereof.  The transfer window isn’t closed, but even if Liverpool do sign a couple more players, I suspect some key issues in the depth of the squad will raise their heads (I mentioned as such in a previous blog).  I still feel cover is needed for Enrique at left back, and the team still lacks a proven goalscorer - unless Borini surprises us, but even then – he’s one player.  City and United both have at least four recognized strikers!  One suspects another reserve keeper will be needed too.  I also think the sheer number of games will prove telling, and if Rodgers starts to feel the heat early, there may be pressure to use a strong run in the League Cup, FA Cup or Europa League to alleviate concerns.  The other argument for depth is that if this team expects to qualify, and remain in Europe, they need to get used to the fitness and competitive requirements of matches in midweek as well on the weekend.  So a Europa League run has certain appeal to it from the perspective of getting the players used to a certain schedule.

Borini is one of those expected to shoulder the goalscoring burden
Of course, there will probably arise a time when the results don’t seem to be coming in.  That inevitable slump, or bad patch(es), moments where the confidence will ebb and flow.  It’s at this point that Rodgers will need to illustrate significant moments of character – possibly even against an Anfield crowd that may have mixed feelings of his progress at that point.

What I hope will happen is a gradual shift into less reliance on specific players as opposed to a system.  After all, even with the abundance of talent in the Barcelona / Spain squads, a weaker side can still produce victories because the system is so effective. Despite a very strong squad and excellent first team players during the Benitez era, on many an occasion, Liverpool were claimed to be over-reliant on Gerrard and Torres.  I believe that, should Rodgers implement his system to its full potential, ideally the reliance on players even as talented as Suarez will diminish.  Liverpool will find the ability to generate results based on a successful application of the system.  What is interesting is that the system is probably quite sensitive to quality on the extremes.  So those players who lack the abilities to adapt to it are likely to be shipped out sooner than later.  And those players with significant talent will probably make the system look like the most effective football Liverpool have played in years.

So the blueprint of Brendan Rodgers encompasses it all - passing, patience, poise, positioning, possession, penetration… what we can hope is that Liverpool adapt quickly and successfully.  Because if they do, the performances will be relentless in fighting for the points.  And if the performances are inspired, the last ingredient is the famous Liverpool support to make Rodgers’ words come true:

"I want to use the incredible support to make coming to Anfield the longest 90 minutes of an opponent’s life."

A bold statement.  An audacious goal.  And one I (and many others) hope to enjoy.

Brendan Rodgers – good luck.  YNWA.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Liverpool’s Squad & Transfer Strategy For 2012-13

Rodgers was officially announced as new Liverpool boss on the 1st June 2012

And suddenly, just like that, the business end really starts.  Like it or not, Liverpool fans would do well to get behind the new manager Brendan Rodgers, and any other senior staff on the way.  Some may have complained that it took too long to appoint him.  Yet had FSG been quicker, the conspiracy theorists would have complained about alleged behind-the-scenes pre-emptive discussions between FSG and their new appointment while Kenny was still in charge.  Many would have been distressed at how disrespectful that was – even though that was likely done to Houllier (and probably to Hodgson).

Of course there will be those who differ in opinion – and some will treat Rodgers with the same indifference afforded to Hodgson, and others will show him affection in hope of the promise of a big future.  Either way, his success depends on a few things, not least of which Liverpool’s existing squad, any transfers in / out, and the support FSG give him in all respects.

I can’t speak for the third item on that list.  Even though FSG have been in charge for over 18 months, it feels like a nervous courtship all over again.  But all the right messages seem to have been communicated in the process of announcing Rodgers as manager, so I assume he’s got the full (or close to it) support of the men from Boston.

Tactical options with Rodgers, of course, are interesting.  Observations of Swansea suggest a very quick pressing game, heavy emphasis on transitions, keeping the ball and making opponents chase you, and potentially more penetrative, possibly even likely to create better goalscoring chances…?

Some of his statements already imply that he sees opportunities (necessities, more likely!) to improve the squad in certain positions.  Swansea’s brand of football was a joy to watch the past season, and Rodgers’ chosen tactics could bring out the best in players like Reina, Agger, Lucas, Johnson, Enrique, Suarez, based on positional play.  It will take time for the others in the squad to adopt the style successfully, although I would imagine the more “direct” style players may be good for tactical variation. 

However, there are some key issues that Rodgers will have to address, as far as the squad’s composition, balance and application is concerned. 

For starters, I really would like to see Rodgers rotating the squad to create options and experience.  The League Cup and Europa League ideally need to be used as grounding points this season to give squad players more game time and experience.  Too many players last season got too little consistent game time, and that affects their impact when being forced into the squad.

We also need to be realistic about several aspects of the squad strategy for next season.  It’s doubtful after the frivolous spending of last season that FSG will allow similar spending levels for this summer.  Liverpool’s wage bill was the 4th highest in the league last season, meaning FSG will want to trim it down where it makes sense.  And any Liverpool fan who expects the summer to pass without incident as far as one of our star players leaving may be too hopeful.  I’m being pessimistic, but I think we could experience at least one high profile departure – with Reina, Agger, Skrtel and Suarez being the players most at risk.

Then of course, there is the suggestion that Rodgers could be ruthless, and prepared to cut losses by selling players to bring in more suitable players.  Bold, but again, if backed by FSG…

So with that in mind, time to look at some thoughts on the squad strategy for next season, which ideally will occur sooner rather than later to the new man in charge…


It’s very rare that a team needs to use their 3rd and 4th choice keeper in a squad.  One hopes the incidents leading up to the FA Cup semi-final against Everton don’t repeat themselves, but ultimately they highlighted some issues.  Brad Jones’ attitude is great, but I really think he needs more time between the sticks in match situations – and hence would be my favourite to loan out, with option of a recall in emergencies. 

Reina has been poor – his shot stopping seems to have become non-existent, and instead of buying us undeserved points (like he did so often in 2010-11), he cost us a few times this past season.  He needs competition desperately; there must be consequences for poor performance.  Doni looks a useful stopper, and it would be great to see him play more often. 

Saves like these were in short supply last season from Pepe

Rodgers’ chosen tactical approach ironically would leverage Reina’s bravery on the ball – and Reina is capable of the odd assist every now and then – so one hopes Pepe sees this as an opportunity. No transfers expected here – although if Reina insisted on leaving, then it’s an option to sell him but for enough funds to bring in a younger replacement of the same class.

Full Backs

This is a key position for Liverpool – particularly since much of the build-up play starts out wide from the back.  The good news is, Rodgers’ tactical approach may take advantage of some available talent.  At right back, we're spoilt.  Flanagan had some poor games, but that's probably due to a lack of confidence that comes from a lack of a run in the team.  Martin Kelly’s potential is still untapped, and he looks an outstanding player for the future – so more rotation would be great. Glen Johnson is looking world-class – he just needs to stay fit!

Enrique was a good signing, but slumped in form, and didn’t get dropped.  That’s not a good sign of squad depth to create rotation, so left back is a key position to strengthen in the summer.  Although, as an alternative, Kelly (at RB) and Glen Johnson (at LB) combination has worked well on occasion. Either way, Enrique needs competition.  Ideally someone who can cross well, especially from deep (one of Enrique’s weaknesses) and pacey enough to handle super-fast counter attacks (as opposed to how Enrique handled Ramires in the FA Cup final).

For me, Robinson & Flanagan must be used in the cup competitions, or the Europa League - we must take advantage of these fixtures to really give the squad players a good go.

Centre Backs

Our first choice central defence pair is comparable to the best in the league - Kompany/Lescott, Terry/Ivanovic, Vidic/Ferdinand, Vermaelen/Koscielny, etc.  But it's clear that Agger has a massive influence over its effectiveness – Skrtel tends to play worse when he’s compensating for the misgivings of his defensive partner.  I also don't think Coates should be loaned out.  Alternatively, Liverpool need to bring in a solid and experienced centre back to rotate Skrtel & Agger, lest they too become complacent.  Agger is the key; not only is he an outstanding defender, but he leads by example as well, and his presence attacking corners tends to get us goals.

Carragher has been a fantastic servant to the club, and I don’t think anyone disputes his commitment.  But ultimately, some of his performances haven’t been great, and it may mean time to see him take up that coaching role we all suspect he would like one day. 

Of course, as mentioned before, all this assumes our 1st choice partnership remains intact.  There’s a shortage of proven centre backs out there, and Skrtel in particular will not lack potential suitors.  If he does get sold, let’s hope it’s for the 8 figure sum we expect, and an equally outstanding defender gets purchased in our direction, one very comfortable on the ball as Agger often illustrates.

Central Midfield

This position is a big issue.  Against the midfields of Newcastle, Spurs, Arsenal (as examples), Liverpool lack the quality to take control of games, placing more reliance on the wide play, making them predictable.  If there is one thing that excites me about Rodgers, he should be able to teach the players here how to be more penetrative through the middle, which is something Liverpool lacked in many matches against more capable central midfield opposition. 

Rodgers’ immediate problem is the number of players in the squad who play in the middle – Gerrard, Shelvey, Henderson, Adam, Spearing, Lucas (as well as Cole and Aquilani when back from loan).  You'd think with so many, there was competition for spaces, but as an example, Hendo's extensive run in the team probably resulted from a lack of meaningful competition in most cases.  It also means that unless something unusual happens, we’re unlikely to see incoming transfers in this position.  The other irony is that only two of them – Lucas and Spearing – play that pivotal defensive midfield position.

Rodgers will do well to realise that Lucas is unlikely to be the same (at least immediately) after such a serious injury.  Liverpool cannot afford to force him to play every game like they were.  While Spearing is a good squad player with a great attitude, a third defensive midfielder is definitely needed, especially given the passing responsibilities Rodgers may impose on a player in this position.  It makes me hope rumours linking Liverpool to players like Seydou Keita are true.

After his injury in November 2011, Liverpool struggled to fill the boots of Lucas in midfield

The rest of the central midfielders need to be rotated based on performance.  I also would love to see more of Shelvey – his attacking instincts imply a great deal of talent.  For me, Hendo played too much and seems too intimidated in big matches where the pressure is on.  Adam is a challenge to manage, since he produced so many assists – but I’m a firm believer if you deliver that many corners without beating the first man, you deserve to be dropped.  Adam is a squad player – nothing more.

Were it up to me, Hendo, Shelvey and Spearing would form the basis of a trial midfield in League Cup and Europa League matches – that would give them experience, keep them match fit and more importantly, give them the responsibility to lift their game.

Then of course come the two wildcards returning from loan - Joe Cole and Aquilani.  I don’t believe Cole has much more to give, but I feel for Aquilani, who hasn’t really got the chance to prove his talent since being signed by Rafa as “Alonso’s replacement”.  Given the wage bill, I think it’s likely that both will be sold, but if one does stay – I really hope the Italian gets his chance to come back into the team.  His technical skills could be great foil for players like Suarez to exploit, and would possibly be quite suited to Rodgers’ approach.

Wingers & “Wide Forwards”

It’s on the flanks that Liverpool’s squad begins to show imbalances, although, we should take into account that Rodgers may not have need of traditional wingers, since his tactics generally rely on width from the fullbacks, or “wide forwards”.  Nonethless, assuming (on occasion) Liverpool need to apply a slightly more direct, counter-attacking style, the squad lacks the correct players.  We only have one “true” winger.  Maxi, Kuyt and Bellamy are all best employed as “wide forwards”, and with the exception of Bellamy, seem to lack the pace needed to run the wings like your traditional wings.  Maxi and Kuyt are likely to leave in any case, and given age and wages, should be sold.  I adore both players, especially Kuyt for his work-rate, but younger players are need with the technical skills matching that of a Suarez.  Bellamy’s experience would be a great element of balance in the squad.

It brings us back to Stewart Downing – enough has been said about him to bemoan his contribution (or lack thereof), so if Liverpool cut their losses and sold him at a cut price, that would be fine with me.  I don’t see him settling into the Rodgers’ style of play in any case.  I’d also love to see Sterling come into the team – and my suspicion is that depending on transfers, this could be likely.

In fact, Rodgers’ tactics may define the transfer priorities to a wide forward on the right (Suarez would be my choice on the left) with similar levels of technical skill to penetrate defences.

This for me would be the best way to really get the best out of most technically gifted player, who I had the privilege of seeing in the flesh in the infamous World Cup 2010 quarterfinal against Ghana here in South Africa.  I remember noticing something distinct in that match.  His movement off the ball, playing off Forlan was some of the best I’ve seen.  Suarez thrives best playing off other players on the pitch who attract defenders and create space – his career alongside Huntelaar at Ajax is also proof enough.  

Some of Suarez's best moves start out wide, cutting inside

Suarez is also, another player at most risk of leaving.  Rumours suggest Juventus, PSG and Real Madrid already amongst the admirers, and if Liverpool don’t bring in trophies, or Champions League football quickly, it may force the hand of our most talented player.


That leaves the goalscoring department, which was much analysed over the past season, with the Opta faithful amongst us counting the woodwork, shots, corners and clear cut chances to death. 

Carroll may have ended the season well, but his shortcomings are exposed.  He’s not a clinical finisher by any stretch.  If we keep him, I see Andy as an expensive, but potentially useful squad player.  He needs competition, and a more natural goalscorer to learn from. Question is, do you buy another big man? Or a mobile, pacy goal-poacher?  There are arguments for both, though I prefer the latter, to offer tactical options and versatility.  This would be a major transfer priority for me as well.

It’s interesting, but the squad isn’t overtly lacking in talent or depth in most places.  One gets the impression that a couple of shrewd, potent signings are all that will be needed to turn Liverpool’s fortunes quite impressively.  Or the new boss could surprise us, and overhaul the squad completely.

The question then beckons – who to bring in? The speculation suggest Brendan Rodgers will receive £30 million plus any fees from player sales, so assuming that he sells the likes of Downing, Maxi, Kuyt, Cole and possibly Aquilani, we should hopefully be looking at a transfer kitty of £50 million. The targets will vary, and the speculation will be rife with many players that been linked / interesting thus far.  I won’t attempt to offer names – that would ruin the speculative fun of chasing various tweets on the subject.  Besides, there’s someone else more primed than me to solve that problem.

Mr Rodgers, welcome to Liverpool Football Club.  No pressure.