Monthly Archives: January 2012

Mid Season Analysis: Liverpool Edition

George Gillette and Tom Hicks, the two owners that no one at Liverpool wanted at the club were finally gone, there were new owners and the team had an iconic figure whose appointment as manager brought optimism and changed the way the club performed on the pitch. Liverpool were one of the from teams on the back end of last season, they had a team that had some good players and all that it needed was added investment in several key areas for the team to not only compete for a top four position which was the goal at the start of this season, but there was hope that with the right additions this team may go toe to toe with the big boys of the league.

Credit has to be given where it is due, Liverpool are generally playing some of the best football that they have been playing for years, and that has to be down to the coaching staff. The team looks better in possession, and you have fewer and fewer occasions where the ball is aimlessly hoofed forward in the hope that something positive may come of it. This team has one of the best defensive records in the league, and together with Manchester City, Arsenal and Tottenham they are one of the teams that generally give out few clear cut goal scoring opportunities on most of their games.

The mantra for any championship team has always been “good offence will win you games but a good defence will win you championships.” That has been true for almost any championship winning side that was not Real Madrid in the mid 90’s to around year 2000. Whilst that mantra is true that any great team will almost always build around the foundation of a strong defence, reality is that no team however strong at the back will win anything without having a decent attack, and therein lays the fatal flaw in the way Liverpool is set up this season. Teams that have either won the league or have actually made it to the Champions League have had an attack that has generally generated goals at an average rate of around two goals a game come the end of the season. Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham are all teams that are above, within or within touching distance of that rate as things are at current moment whilst Liverpool is a team that is averaging a goal a game at current rate. It thus is a good pointer as to why they are below all the teams above them and a good pointer as to why all the teams above them have a superior goal difference despite all of them bar Manchester City have taken in some heavy defeats this season.

The other recurrent fixture at Liverpool it seems is their ability to play lights out almost every time they face a top team, their record of points collected against the top teams in the land has always been impressive, but what good is that when they cannot act as a launch pad to achieve greater things? Constantly dropping points against mid level teams and relegation battlers is a problem that this team has had for years, it is something that had found its way to the team this season. Also of concern has to be their home form, six draws at home at the halfway point of the season should not be acceptable for a team that aspires to do great things.

The transfer market acquisitions by Liverpool have somewhat not worked out, and one has to question as to whether or not the team got it right when they went on to offload some players that have turned out to be key to the teams that they moved to. It cannot be argued that the team did not do well in getting rid of some players that did not deliver for the team, shedding their contracts can only be seen as a positive; but the downside of the window is the fact that to date some players that came in for big money have not either lived up to their reputations, justified the fees they came in for or both.

Kenny Daglish had a good midfield set to build around: He had a brilliant defensive midfielder in Lucas Leiva that he hang on to, great passer of the ball and a technically brilliant central midfielder in Alberto Aquilani that he let go, a midfielder that was key to what they did at the back end of last season in Raul Meireles that he sold to Chelsea and a good captain in Steven Gerrard who though at the twilight of this career has shown that he can still get it done. A question and a rather good question at that is, are Charlie Adam and Jordan Henderson who is so often played out of position better players? Raul Meireles has been putting in some good performances for Chelsea ever since he got there, Alberto Aquilani is a player that impressed at Juventus last season and is a key piece to what A.C. Milan are doing this season as they run most of their attack through him, letting him dictate the pace of their game.

In attack, Liverpool for the better part are creating a bit more than they did in seasons past, they are simply not clinical enough to kill any of the games that they work so hard to a point where they drop points when they deserve to get the maximum. An issue with the front line and the midfield is the fact that they have all these players that are good in a team setup, players that come in and collectively do well, but how many players does this team have that can do something special, players that can come up with something from almost nothing?

Luis Suarez is one player that can do that yet even he hasn’t lived up to expectation. His form and return on goals is worrying especially seeing how well he does for Uruguay, his inability to convert some clear cut chances into goals is a pointer that maybe more work is needed on his finishing. His movement in the final third, his close control and technical ability, his trickery and understanding of the game are rather impressive and if Liverpool maybe starts playing a lineup that can compliment his key strengths when he gets back, maybe he will be a better player and a far much better contributor to what they do on the offensive end. He seems to be a better player when they have Maxi Rodriguez and Craig Bellamy playing as a front three for the mere fact that they have the movement and that they link up better with him rather than a lineup that includes a combination of Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson/Dirk Kuyt out wide.

Stewart Downing is a player that has immensely disappointed to the Reds, the statistics don’t paint a good picture and his performances on the pitch are mostly nothing to talk about. This is a player that could beat his man while he was at Middlesborough and Aston Villa, a player that could score and had an impressive cross completion rate. At Liverpool, he is a pale shadow of the player he was, he is a player who is so out of form and short in confidence that he takes absolutely no risk, shows no initiative or willingness to try and do anything special with the ball and it is hurting Liverpool. The best wide players on the respective teams all take a risk, sometimes they lose the ball when they should have passed it, sometimes a defender reads their intention and robs them of the ball, but sometimes, a good number of times they ask the question of the fullback in question, beat him and open up the teams play in dangerous areas on the way to creating a chance, scoring a goal or giving a pass that leads to an assist. That Downing shrinks every time an opposing player approaches him with the pace and ability he showed at previous teams is worrying for a player that should be at the peak of his powers, constantly passing the ball back to Jose Enrique or a midfielder may be good for ball retention, but the sheer lack of enterprise in his play costs the team more.

Andy Carroll was a £35 million on the January transfer window and maybe the fee piled more pressure on the player to go out and deliver above and beyond what his capabilities were; grossly overpriced he was but a good player, an impressive player he was at Newcastle. Whilst he was a good player with the Geordie, he doesn’t seem to fit the current system that Liverpool are trying to play, and it is difficult to see how any striker would deliver with what is offered to him. Over at Newcastle, he had Joey Barton playing accurate forward balls, he had a midfield that was willing to link up better with him and players that gave him an added option to play with. Spaces were created not only for the onrushing players, but it somehow gave him more time to think and sometimes come up with something, it was a gambit that also won them a lot of free kicks in the opponents half. Over at Liverpool, he is so isolated upfront that it sometimes looks unreal. Luis Suarez can come up with something special, but for a target man like Carroll who doesn’t possess qualities like a Zlatan Ibrahimovic, it is a crime to expect that he would deliver in such circumstances. The notion that it is also okay to whip in crosses and expect that he will latch onto them when he is the sole player in the box is atrocious attack play that will sap him of confidence. He isn’t perfect though, his movement is nowhere near what he had when he was at Newcastle, and he doesn’t put himself about nearly as much.

Charlie Adam is a player that started out well, but his last performances have been bad. He is a player that was brought in because he had the ability to pick out a pass and he was fantastic on set piece duty at Blackpool. There were limitations to his play that everyone knew he was coming in with and they were his lack of speed, the fact that he wasn’t as effective when it came to defence, and a realization that although he had a fantastic left foot, his performances were vastly erratic.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that he does blow hot and cold.

Jose Enrique has been one fantastic buy for Liverpool, most consistent player they have had this season. He is defensively solid and offers Liverpool more stability than they have had at the back in a long time. The one thing he was known for at Newcastle was the fact the he was great going forward, so it somewhat comes as a disappointment that most of his final balls are wanting. That is something that can be worked on, ability like that doesn’t disappear…………….he is in my opinion the buy of the summer window for Liverpool.

Jordan Henderson is a player that seems to be improving with every passing game, he is one that was brought in for the future and some of his earlier performances were bad. He seems to be playing better in a more advanced midfield role similar to what he had at Sunderland and it would be a pity for Liverpool to get him back wide when Gerrard regains full finess.

In January, Liverpool’s primary concern may be to go out and get another winger, the type that can do something special with the ball and a player that can offer them some clinical finishing in the final third. I just hope that they do not look at statistics as a tool to go on and decide whoever it is they are going to sign. While it is a useful tool that can show who is effective and who is not, statistic as a tool (in football) when it comes to signing players is something that can mislead more often than not. A player sometimes may look the part on paper, yet there are so many intangibles that can be applied to any one given player that cannot make their way onto the stat sheet.
Good examples are the fact that Rooney, Robin Van Persie and Lionel Messi are probably some of the best players at pulling their defenders of position with their movement and drawing them deeper into midfield. It is a ploy that these respective teams use well to release players through the gaps that have been created, and it is something that has created not only goals, but a system of play in attack built around their qualities.
Javier Hernandez is a player that attacks spaces at every opportunity, yet he is only known for the goals he scores. That is something that passes through un-noticed, and maybe if Manchester United had a player that could play the slide rule pass or play the eye of the needle stuff more competently they would have a far goal getter than they have right now.

Statistics may show you how many assists are created, how many chances a player creates. Sometimes, the pass that precedes the assist is normally the pass that unlocks everything; it is the reason as to why Alexander Hleb was important to Arsenal, the reason as to why David Silva, Jack Wilshere and Tom Cleverly are important for their respective teams. If Liverpool wants to get some special players, maybe the human touch in scouting is a far better tool compared to Opta stats. There have been some real bargains the past two seasons like Javier Hernandez, Laurent Koscielny, Daniel Sturridge, Demba Ba, Gervinho, Darren Bent (when he moved to Sunderland), Yoann Cabaye, Jose Enrique, Mikel Arteta, Oriol Romeu, Steven Fletcher, Wes Brown, Bryan Ruiz, Moussa Dembele……..the list is huge. All these players and many more show that there needn’t be a breaking of the bank to get some quality into a team, that one can get some key pieces at favorable prices and get far more quality when compared to someone that spent huge on a player like Fernando Torres, Ashley Young, Stewart Downing, Andy Carroll, David De Gea, Darren Bent (ever since his move to Villa).
There is no one that forces a team to go out there and pay over the odds for any one player, and maybe, just maybe, teams may have to look to the fact that there may be a player that they want but cannot get at the valuation offered. If that be the case, surely looking for a cheaper option in a world where talented players can be found by good scouting networks is a better and more viable option that lands a player that may deliver without having who is not only overvalued and on a huge salary but one who the team can sell without making huge loss compared to what the player came in for.
This window is an opportunity for Liverpool to get one or two players in as it is for every other team out there; if they spend wisely and find quality then they are better placed to compete. It will also put less pressure on the manager to play some players that cannot deliver but whose hefty transfer fees demand that they warrant more minutes than their performances would deserve. It is an issue that teams have to adapt to when t comes to players like Torres, Downing, De Gea and Samir Nasri.
Conversely, if they spend as they have the past two windows they are likely to be worse of, Chelsea will probably strengthen, Arsenal are not only going to get some key players off the injury list this month, they might invest if they can get a player or two at the right price, Tottenham might not invest, but they are on one great run at current moment, and everyone may be wise to probably see that United probably will spend if they lose to City and drop more points in the upcoming league games.

Finally, Suarezgate came to an end, the FA report is one of the most complete accounts on why they chose to believe Patrice Evra and not Luis Suarez and I find it hard to believe that there are people that still think that they would rule any other way on the basis of what they had.
It also raises some questions like:
a) If Liverpool knew that he had come up and used the word “Negro” and in his account to both Dirk Kuyt and Damien Commolli he seemed to use it in a derogatory manner, why did Liverpool attack Patrice Evra’s take on things when their statements to the match official pretty much backed up Evra’s story?

b) Why would two people who were spoken to in two different languages give the same answer to Andre Marinner and go on to  say they both  misunderstood what was said in the exact same way when Suarez is fluent in both Spanish and Dutch and both Commolli and Kuyt are conversant with the languages in question?

c) Did Suarez really think that using the term “Negro” would be acceptable to cool a situation as heated as the one he had with Evra, and by extension that someone would think that he used it in a favorable manner?

d) Why was Kenny Daglish asking for the matter to be resolved quickly when it was Suarez and his representative that asked for more time?

I thought Suarez was guilty in an earlier post, that he had dug himself into a hole, but I must say that Liverpool acted with great folly when it came to the handling of this matter. Commolli and Kuyt by changing their statements to match up with what Suarez story was made them appear as false witnesses and only sealed the talented player’s fate.
After his ban is over, Suarez should concentrate on the game, and he should probably work on having a better reputation on the pitch.

Next up, Chelsea and their defensive high line.

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Mid Season Analysis: Arsenal Edition

The crisis club. That was what Arsenal was known as after their awful start to the season. Seven points from the first seven games was relegation form, not the form that was expected to contend for the title if not comfortably make a Champions league place come the end of the season. Pundits were predicting that the team would not make the top 8 positions let alone be able to compete or the top four places, but a strong end in 2011 had Arsenal in the top 4 and a degeat to Fulham still has them within touching distance of what many considered to be the primary objective of the team this season.

The transfer policy that was employed by the club was somewhat to blame for the poor start to the season. The right players were brought in, and one has to be impressed with the kind of money that these players came in for. However, one has to wonder what the team could have accomplished had these players been bought earlier in the transfer window, how much better the team chemistry would have been if most of the players that came in the final days of the transfer window had been signed earlier. One wonders how many points Arsenal would have dropped if this team wasn’t learning on the go as they did in the month that followed the closing of the transfer window and how much better off the team would have been going forward.

Looking back at the signings, Arsenal are one of the teams that struck gold in the transfer window, players came in for fees that were favorable to the team and they have delivered immensely once they started ticking as a team. The one player that Arsenal lost and they will always miss has to be Cesc Fabregas: The best final ball merchant in Europe went back to his boyhood club and some of the fluidity that we have become accustomed to seeing Arsenal play with was somewhat lost.
Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy were the two other first team regulars who left, both joining the Citizens and getting big pay hikes while at it, none of the will be severely missed.
This current Arsenal team may have less talent compared to previous teams and they may not have a midfield game comparable to what they were used to playing even last season when they lacked Cesc Fabregas (something that may be attached to the absence of Jack Wilshere).

Talent is one thing that the previous teams had but they lacked depth and more importantly, they lacked restraint. So many were the occasions when Arsenal were leading by two goals yet rather than slow things down they needlessly chased a third goal to kill of a game in the process either losing it or getting a point from a game that they deserved to get all three points.  That Arsenal team was the most exciting team to watch in England, and only paled to Barcelona on the European stage, but it was also an Arsenal team that lacked balance, an Arsenal team that lacked strength in depth.

With the addition of Per Mertasacker, Arsenal finally has a defence that copes better at set plays. Arsene Wenger also had something that Arsenal never had in previous seasons which was a good amount of defensive cover at center half.

In Mikel Arteta they have a midfielder with experience that not only reads the game well, but is able to make the sacrifice that was lacking in previous Arsenal midfields i.e. a midfield player that commits himself going forward when needed and stays back when the team needs him to cover or play deeper. A midfielder that slows the game down when the team is up and a player that offers leadership so sorely missed at the center.
Gervinho, Walcott and Chamberlain now offer this Arsenal team a direct route that they never had with Nasri and Fabregas and it is a reason as to why Arsenal may not be as cutting edge as they were when that has Nasri and Cesc.

Andre Santos will be missed for the mere fact that not only had his defence picked up substantially, he was so good going forward, that he was an option that Arsenal never had with Clichy who whilst extremely solid on his day on the defence rarely had the end product required on the offensive end.

Positives can be taken from the recovery that Arsenal has undergone the past few months, but there is always room for improvement. The January transfer window offers that reprieve to teams that might want to strengthen the team in hopes to better their chances of either winning a trophy or improving on performances by bringing in some players that they think fit their style of play. Arsene Wenger might be one of the best managers out there, and that he does what he does on a budget as small as he has had in previous seasons is enviable, but he has often not bought according to what the team needs when it came to January and that player or two that they have needed to incest in at this critical period has almost always come to be the downfall of the team come seasons end.

This season a top four position may be harder to come by when compared to previous seasons where Arsenal has almost always had a great start such that an end of season collapse has rarely meant that they are in danger of not qualifying for the Champions League.
A left back is somewhat needed for the mere fact that Andre Santos is still going to be out of action for some time and Arsenal cannot rely on having Kieran Gibbs as the only left back on the team with his fitness issues.
A loan move in January is a far better proposition that buying another left back, it is a more logical move. If Arsenal is to go on and buy a defender, it has to be someone that can play multiple roles rather than going for a defender that can only slot at a single position. The team has had the required numbers at the back by having two players at every position, but have been severely unlucky to go on and have all fullbacks out of action at the same time due to some serious long term injuries……………that is something that no one could have foreseen.

The other issue is that Arsenal need a striker that can take some of the load off Robin Van Persie, a player that they can rely on to come in and give the from striker in England an opportunity to sit some games out. Park probably needs a run of games with the team to get some form going, but it is unlikely to happen once everything is put into perspective; Van Persie’s rich form and the added competition for a top four place mean that there is less room for Arsenal to maneuver when it comes to the front line setup. A far bigger issue is the fact that Arsenal have overly relied on the same front three the whole season: Andriy Arshavin is probably the most talented player they can bring in on the wing, but though he has the potential to win any game or come up with something special when people least expect it, he has largely been a pale shadow of what we have come to see or expect. He still loses a lot of balls, and while his work rate at defending is somewhat better compared to his nonchalant attitude of seasons past that made Gael Clichy one of the most targeted leftback’s in the league, he is still somewhat a liability in a team that has a better focus this season when it comes to defending. The other options available to Arsene Wenger are Yossi Benayoun, Rosicky, the latter who looks a far much better player at the centre of the pitch, and a fantastic young talent in Oxlade – Chamberlain who Wenger seems reluctant to use at this moment in time.

Lucas Podolski was linked to Arsenal, but he doesn’t want to make the move because a lack of playing time or time needed to adapt may hamper his chances of making the German team to the European Championships especially in a country where there is so much exciting talent. He would have been an ideal player for Arsenal due to the fact that he can play on the wing and as a central striker, and a player with his qualities when it comes to positional flexibility is what is maybe needed going forward, a player that can not only give the Robin Van Persie some room to rest, but a player that can seamlessly slot it for either Gervinho or Walcott without loss in quality in attack. As far as Podolski is concerned, he is a talented player and maybe Arsenal are/were interested in him, but the question that needs to be asked is whether or not Arsenal can take the risk of waiting for him or any player that comes to mind as regards the frontline. It is folly in my opinion to go with the forward line as is simply due to the fact that this teams injury history is nothing to be smiled at; that Robin Van Persie has had a fantastic calendar year that hasn’t had any injuries should be a bonus, but Arsenal have to plan for one should it come. Thierry Henry is a short term fix over the next two months while Maroune Chamakh is away, and it somewhat gives Arsenal the numbers needed for that period in time, but long term planning is needed as pertains to this position.

In midfield, the team has managed well, but someone has to wonder as to whether fatigue will eventually catch up with this team. Mikel Arteta has been a permanent fixture on the Arsenal team ever since he arrived; only missing the Carling Cup games and a dead rubber tie in the Champions League. Alex Song is another first team player that only misses games when suspensions come about, while Aaron Ramsey has had to play more and more games because Rosicky is in and out of the team with injuries, and the team has had the disadvantage of not having either Jack Wilshere or Abou Diaby available due injuries. While fatigue may be an issue, signing a player at this point and time doesn’t look likely, and it would be suprising if Arsenal made a move. Any moves in this position are likely to be made at the end of the season.

Lastly, I think that the biggest hindrance to Arsenals transfer activity has to be the wages they pay players, some players that do not deliver for the team. The wage system as structured for this team may be good fro the dressing room because a lot of players earn salaries at a similar level and that no team player on the first team earns vastly more compared to his team mates. But it is flawed in the aspect that some players earn way more than what their performances would warrant and this in itself puts the club at a disadvantage when it comes to contract renewals or when the team wants to sell the player and later finds out that there is no one willing to pay the high salaries that they were offered. The sooner Arsenal fixes the salary issue, the better they will be going forward.
Andriy Arshavin, Manuel Almunia, Nicklas Bendtner, Neves Denilson, Sebastian Squillaci, Carlos Vela and Marouane Chamakh are all players at the employ of the club, players that don’t seem to have a future in the team going forward. Most of these players bar Carlos Vela are on big salaries, and the team has to probably take hit on their sales and possibly look at the savings that they can make on salaries as a bigger gain. Almunia has a contract that ends this season, and he is the one player that Arsenal may not be able to get a return on, however small the fee would be, as for all the others, a possible sale this transfer window or the nest will offer the team not only a boost in revenues, better wage bill and better financial state going forward, it will also free up some squad places for players that could be signed to replace them. This has been Arsenal’s Achilles heel.

Next up, Liverpool and the ended saga that was Suarezgate.