Asking the wrong questions

In light of the news that Suarez was charged for using racist language against Evra, people have been divided on whether Suarez intended to cause offence to Evra, and whether Suarez is a racist. Most Liverpool fans that I know have said that because Suarez did not mean to cause offence, and because the word he allegedly used is not taboo in his home country, he should be forgiven. The other opinion is that he did use racist language and thus should be punished. Gus Poyet came out and defended Suarez saying that he was anything but a racist and that such usage was acceptable in Uruguay, and Liverpool fans are using Javier Hernandez’s previous usage of the word to talk about one of his teammates while he was in Mexico to further support the point.

However, this is the English Premier League, and just like foreign workers and immigrants are expected to live by English law, so too are footballers. You cannot use ignorance of the law as an excuse, or the fact that things are different in your home country. The question that should be asked is not whether Suarez is racist or whether he meant it – even if Suarez did, in the heat of the moment, say something extremely racist, it would be not clear-cut whether he is. Some people go to any lengths to wind up the opposition, and some feel that since racism is more offensive to some, it is an easy route. Suarez’s intentions may have been good, too. After all, Javier Hernandez, in praise of his Mexican teammate, used the same word Suarez is alleged to have used. However, that too, is not the issue.

The issue is not whether Suarez is a racist, or whether he intended to cause offence to Evra; it is where we draw the line in the Premier League as far as racism goes. The FA has to decide whether Suarez’s alleged use of ‘negrito’ is within or outside the boundaries of what is acceptable. If Suarez is not punished for his transgression, it could open up a can of worms regarding the treatment of racial issues in the Premier League. And what does this say about where footballers are in society? We would not tolerate such language in daily life, so why should footballers be exempt from it?

Lastly, while I feel Suarez should be punished, I feel the FA also need to take into consideration the intention behind the language. The maximum punishment for racial abuse is six games, and if it is shown that Suarez did not use the language in an abusive manner, or in a manner intended to cause offence, then he should not face a six-match ban. That way, the FA will have done their job well by both punishing use of racist language, and understanding the context it was in.


Looking ahead to the Swansea game

Liverpool must win tomorrow’s game against Swansea if they are to establish their credentials for the top four. Like Kenny said, this game is not done and dusted, and Swansea must be given their due respect. If Swansea have shown us anything this season, it’s that they can play, and they will make life hard even for the biggest teams. Arsenal needed a freak goal to beat them 1-0 at home, and despite playing Chelsea and Man City as well, they have a decent record with 12 points from 10 games. Their team likes to keep the ball moving, and they have actually completed more passes per game than either Liverpool or Arsenal. They are disciplined for the most part, and decent in attack as well, with all of the front three, especially Graham showing top form of late. So let’s take a more in-depth look at the Welsh team.

Most used formation: 4-2-3-1
Swansea like to play with a traditional back four with Angel Rangel the more attacking of the two full-backs, providing the threat on the right side. The two players in the “defensive midfield” roles are not the destroyers that one would expect from a newly promoted side, but more all-round players who seek to move the ball to the wings or ahead, and keep possession for the Swans. Allen is tucked in behind Graham, and plays as a trequartista. The wingers, usually Dyer and Sinclair, like to run at the defenders, and will usually run straight at goal and take a shot.

1. Playing as a unit – One aspect of Swansea’s game that stands out is the cohesion of the passing and movement, and the natural chemistry that exists between the players. Nothing about their style of play says “promoted side”. Their formation allows the natural triangles to be created that enable good passing, and all the players, even the centre-backs and the defensive midfielders look very comfortable on the ball.
2. Form of the players – 3.5 million pound striker Danny Graham has scored four times in his last four games, and is in excellent form. Allen, Dyer, and Sinclair, the other attacking players, have also contributed to Graham’s recent goal glut, and they will be a tough proposition for Liverpool’s defence in the upcoming game. It will be very important to offer as little space as possible to the forward players – Swansea play intelligently, and exploited the amount of space Wolves were giving them. Angel Rangel, their right back, has been in good form throughout the season, and looks to play precise lofted passes up to the strikers on the break.
3. Defensive discipline – What has made Swansea a decent team this year is the stability and understanding between the back four (and the two ahead of them), and how well they’ve played a very disciplined game for the most part. When on the defensive, Swansea tend to cramp the middle, and allow the opposition to move the ball to the wings, and if the ball is crossed in, they usually have the players in numbers to deal with it. Their defence is usually unlocked with good passing, as it would be with any team, but they will make a team work very hard for their chances.

1. Giving up possession in the middle – Swansea have looked slightly weak in the centre of midfield, and possibly because of their commitment to a more attractive style of football, have shied away from making tough tackles. This is a very big mistake to make at this level, and Arsenal created four goal-scoring chances from a direct turnover of possession in the first half of their game against Swansea. In fact, most of the goals against Swansea have come from plays that started in midfield. Liverpool need to capitalize on this.
2. Making Championship mistakes in the league – As Alan Hansen pointed out on MOTD, in the game against Wolves, Swansea pressed the panic button as soon as they conceded their first goal, and their defensive organization completely fell apart, which led to them throwing away 2 points. The goal against Arsenal came from some terrible misunderstanding by their goalie. All of their good work could be undone if they do not stop making these mistakes.
3. Poor away form – Swansea have picked up only 1 point (against a lacklustre Wolves team) out of 15 on the road, and although this has something to do with the fact that they’ve played Chelsea, City, and Arsenal, they have looked different at home and away. This may have something to do with the fact that they tend to play the same way home and away, and other teams adjust their styles. Their formation and attacking intent remains the same, and while this must be applauded, it is foolhardy, especially when Liverpool will throw everything at them at Anfield.

Important Players for Liverpool
Charlie Adam, Lucas Leiva – Like I said above, the game will be decided in the middle, and Swansea’s middle two are certainly there for the taking. Lucas will need to be on the top of his game to help out the defenders in dealing with Allen, and also in winning the midfield battles. Adam will need to play quick incisive passes as Swansea have had lots of trouble with those all season long, especially on the break.

Line-ups (Predicted)
Swansea: Vorm; Rangel, Williams, Monk, Taylor; Britton, Gower; Dyer, Allen, Sinclair; Graham
Liverpool: Reina; Johnson, Skrtel, Agger, Enrique; Henderson, Adam, Lucas, Downing; Suarez, Carroll

Looking ahead to the Manchester United game

More of the same, please

The biggest game in British football will be played again this Saturday, and it’s all set to be a cracker. Of late, Liverpool –Man Utd games have been characterized by high-scoring but somewhat conservative football, with most of the goals coming either from moments of brilliance, defensive errors, penalties, or a mixture of the three. But this one has the potential to be a lot more open. Man Utd have looked unstoppable for a good part of the season, with bursts of attack and inspiration coming from all over the pitch. Phil Jones has been fantastic going forward from defence, Ashley Young has added another dimension to United’s wing-play, and Nani has just been sensational. In addition, there is an element of fluidity in United’s game that was not present in the last few years, even with Ronaldo. However, United have compromised a bit defensively to achieve their quick attacking game, and their rivals have had plenty of chances in the last few games. So what are these weaknesses and how can Liverpool take advantage of them?

Man Utd Weaknesses
1. Defensive Organization – With so much of Man Utd’s time spent attacking, their defence has not been tested as much as in previous seasons, and thus many of their defensive weaknesses have been glossed over. One of the most noticeable changes in their defensive structure compared to previous seasons is the lack of it. With Phil Jones marauding forward at every opportunity, the back four doesn’t retain its shape as much. Add to that Evra’s natural tendency to advance the ball from the left hand side, and there’s a chance that unless Man Utd are actually sitting back, like they did against Chelsea after going 3-0 up, they won’t retain their defensive shape.
2. Susceptible to the Counter – Another weakness that arises from spending a lot of time in the opposition half, and using both central midfielders and a couple of the defenders to advance the ball, is the increased danger of being caught out with a quick counter attack. With both Jones and Evra joining in the attack, this danger is exacerbated, and a quick counter can prove really dangerous for United.
3. Little defensive solidity in midfield – Man U are one of the few genuinely top teams to still play with only 2 central midfielders, and even their most defensive one, Darren Fletcher, is not an out and out defensive midfielder. Their centre hasn’t really been put under too much pressure this year, and Liverpool could make some inroads by pressuring them when they have the ball and forcing them to make defensive errors. Also, by employing either Kuyt or Bellamy in a four-man midfield, Liverpool can outnumber Man U in the centre of the park, because one of them could help out Gerrard and Lucas in the middle. In addition, the fact that United have no out and out defensive midfielder means that Suarez or Kuyt could exploit the space between the defence and midfield.

1. Wings
– United have a history of some of the best wingers in the league, and this year it’s no different. Young has gelled in really well, giving United real width on the left hand side despite being right-footed. Nani is in the form of his life, especially so when he cuts in. One mistake that a lot of teams seem to be making is not closing down Ashley Young quickly enough. Kelly or Johnson will need to ensure that Young doesn’t get too much space to run at them because he will most likely get the better of them.
2. Multiple channels of attack – Because of their reliance on Scholes and Giggs last year, Man Utd had limited modes of attack since neither attacked the goal directly as much. Both used their passing ability and game intelligence to create goal-scoring opportunities. As a result, United’s mode of attack was predictable, with Evra moving the ball from the left, and Nani or Valencia from the right. This year, however, not only are the defenders getting involved more, United are actually moving the ball forward from the centre with slick passing. This is why they have been so lethal – it is impossible to stifle United because they move out of trouble with quick short passing and movement. It’s Evra and Young moving the ball from the left, Nani and Valencia from the right, and Jones and either Cleverly or Anderson from the middle. And I haven’t even mentioned the strikers yet.
3. Options – Not only do United have a fantastic starting XI, they also have players that can change the game, or the playing style. Giggs, Berbatov, Owen, and at least one of Park, Young and Valencia will be on the bench. They can provide Man Utd that much needed boost.

Lucas will be a key player for Liverpool

What Liverpool need to do
1. Lucas has to have a great game –
Of all the defensive-minded players, Lucas will be the one who will make the most difference. Nani has caused a lot of damage running into the middle of the park, where he has usually found a lot of space. He scored against both Chelsea and Norwich cutting in. It is up to Lucas to cut down that space. In addition, Lucas will be needed to help out both Enrique and Kelly/Johnson deal with the wingers. And he will be needed to keep possession in the middle if Liverpool do take the lead (which is a very important role for a defensive midfielder as it helps tire out and frustrate the opposition), and even initiate counter-attacks.
2. Find the perfect balance between pressing and sitting deep – Rooney and Hernandez’s pace, and Carragher’s lack of it, and the fact that Man Utd have looked weak on the counter would suggest that Liverpool should sit back, absorb Man Utd’s pressure, and look to counter. However, this would mean that Man Utd could bombard the Liverpool penalty area, and force an error, and there is no team better at doing this than United, as they have shown countless times when they need a goal in the last few minutes. If Liverpool press too much, however, United can play a quick ball forward, as they have also shown quite a few times this year, and most people would have their money on Rooney, Hernandez, Nani, and Young beating the opposing defender. Thus, Liverpool need to ensure that they get a perfect balance. United’s midfield in particular needs to be closed down quickly, and so too the runs of Nani and Young.

What should Liverpool’s starting XI be
The last time Liverpool played (and beat) United, the starting XI was a fluid 4-4-2, with a midfield four of Meireles-Gerrard-Lucas-Maxi, and a front two of Suarez and Kuyt. I would stick with a similar system, with a midfield four of Kuyt-Gerrard-Lucas-Downing, and a front two of Suarez and Bellamy. I expect there to be a lot of movement between Kuyt, Bellamy, and Suarez in such a system, and even Downing has shown that he can play on the right wing. This movement would cause havoc in Man Utd’s young defence, as Suarez and Kuyt did the last time as well. Also, since both Kuyt and Bellamy can play in the middle, they would help out Lucas and Gerrard close down United’s midfield, and the fullbacks in dealing with the wingers. And I would favour a starting spot for Kelly ahead of Johnson since I feel he is more defensively sound.
Kelly – Carragher – Skrtel – Enrique
Kuyt – Gerrard – Lucas – Downing
Bellamy – Suarez

Man Utd’s starting XI (Prediction)
Smalling – Jones – Ferdinand – Evra
Nani – Fletcher – Anderson – Park/Young
Hernandez – Rooney

Liverpool 3-1 Exeter

Luis Suarez 1-0

Maxi Rodriguez 2-0

Andy Carroll 3-0

Liverpool v/s Steaua Highlights

All the goals scored from Thursday’s game

Steve Gerrard Gerrard, He’s big and he’s… awkward?

That’s not exactly the song Scousers sing for Stevie G, but it might as well be. I just came across the video of the pre-match handshakes at the Liverpool-West Brom game, and saw this

Ouch! That must’ve hurt. Its not the first time Gerrard’s been merked by a kid, though, has he? We all remember this gem from a Chelsea mascot a few years ago.

Gerrard may be our inspirational leader on the pitch, but he’s also quite awkward and quiet when it comes to public appearances, like a lot of footballers seem to be. Here’s Gerrard, not exactly being a knight in shining armour.

And who can forget this interview after the Luton Town FA Cup game a few years ago. Not exactly awkward, but still funny.

Of course, put him on the football pitch, and he becomes quite the performer (jump to 1:38)

Gerrard’s Best Position

One of the biggest footballing debates in recent times, at least among the viewers of English football, has been Steven Gerrard’s best position. Is it out on the right, where he played from 2005-2007 for Liverpool? Is it on the left, where he’s occasionally played for England? Is it as an old-fashioned central midfielder, where he played for most of his Liverpool career until Benitez came in? Or is it just behind the centre forward, where he’s played since Torres signed for Liverpool? Lets take a look.

Out Wide
While most would think of Gerrard as a central player, he has shown that he can do a job out wide. In fact, he started his Liverpool career as a right-back, and temporarily played there in the final of the Champions League in 2005. He certainly has the qualities to succeed as a wide midfielder – he can cross well, he will have space to operate, his defensive duties will be more limited than that of a central midfielder, and he has the ability to cut in towards goal which is the last thing defenders want to deal with. However, there is a big problem with that – he hates playing wide, as he’s stated time and time again. Gerrard also isn’t the type of player who is good at keeping shape, and has the tendency to drift centrally, which makes the team narrower, and places too much responsibility on the shoulders of the full-backs. I think we can safely say, though, that Hodgson will only look at Gerrard as a wide player in case of an injury crisis, so its futile discussing that.

As a Central Midfielder
Now this is a position that most English pundits seem to feel Gerrard would be best at. He does seem to have all the qualities required of a good central midfielder – he’s an excellent passer and tackler, has very good movement and stamina, and loves to be in the thick of things. He does have one glaring weakness, however, and it is something that a lot of managers seem to have picked out – his tactical indiscipline. Its no coincidence that both Capello and Benitez have seemed reluctant to play Gerrard in his “natural position” – he makes too many mistakes to warrant a regular starting place there. Unlike Paul Scholes and Xabi Alonso, Gerrard prefers to play the game at the pace its being played at, rather than dictate the tempo of play itself. He is also guilty of vacating his position time and again, and being a bit rash with his tackles. Arrigo Sacchi once said of Gerrard:

“When I was director of football at Real Madrid I had to evaluate the players coming through the youth ranks. We had some who were very good footballers. They had technique, they had athleticism, they had drive, they were hungry. But they lacked what I call knowing-how-to-play-football. They lacked decision making. They lacked positioning. They didn’t have the subtle sensitivity of football: how a player should move within the collective. And for many, I wasn’t sure they were going to learn. You see, strength, passion, technique, athleticism, all of these are very important. But they are a means to an end, not an end in itself. They help you reach your goal, which is putting your talent at the service of the team and, by doing this, making both of you and the team greater. In situations like that, I just have to say, Gerrard’s a great footballer, but perhaps not a great player.”

In the Hole
This was a position that seemed perfect for Gerrard when he played there from 2007-2009. He linked up perfectly with Torres up front, the two combining to form one of the most potent partnerships in world football. He effectively had a free role, with limited defensive responsibilities. Alonso and Mascherano were rock solid behind him. It was the start of a golden era, and its no surprise that Liverpool had their best Premiership finish in 08-09. Then suddenly it all went wrong last year. What was the problem? Alonso’s departure had a huge effect on Gerrard’s game. Alonso was pulling the strings from his deep midfield position – controlling the tempo of the game, getting the ball to Gerrard where he was most dangerous, and usually starting the attacks for Liverpool. Lucas Leiva is not the same player as Alonso, and it was expecting too much from him to replicate Alonso’s game. Benitez would’ve done better to move Gerrard back, or look for a midfielder with a game similar to that of Alonso’s (easier said than done). Suddenly, Gerrard wasn’t getting involved in the game as much as he should’ve been. When he did get the ball, he got it from deeper positions, and didn’t have as many players forward to pass to. You have to try and set your formation to get the best players into the game, and Benitez had failed to do that. Also, opposing managers were now used to Gerrard playing in the hole, and a lot of them had a defensive midfielder man-mark Gerrard all game long in order to keep him quiet. A good example of this is last year’s game against Bolton Wanderers where Megson decided to use Muamba to man-mark Gerrard, meaning that until Sean Davis was sent-off, Gerrard was remarkably quiet and failed to influence the game. Megson himself admitted to this tactic in the post match interview

“Being reduced to 10 men at this level always has an impact, and when it happens against a team of Liverpool’s quality even more so. We were man-marking Steven Gerrard up until that point, and he was under a measure of control. But when Davis was sent off we were unable to use (Fabrice) Muamba as a man-marker from then on, you can’t do that when you only have 10 men. Steven is clever, he dropped deeper and deeper and orchestrated the game from then on.”

Within minutes of Davis being sent off, Gerrard played his part in creating Liverpool’s 2nd goal by playing the ball in for Torres to score, and then proceeded to score the third himself. You can see from the highlights below just how much better he was before and after Davis was sent off

So where does that leave us? Is Gerrard a jack of all trades, master of none? No. He still remains a world-class player, but the manager has to use him in a way that brings the best out of him. He is good enough for the team to be built around him. I think the key is in looking at the opposition. Unless Meireles turns out to be a lot like Alonso, I think Hodgson will do extremely well to play Gerrard in a couple of positions depending on the level of the opposition. This will require Meireles and Lucas to be quite versatile as well. Seeing as the “lesser” teams are the ones who are more likely to single out Gerrard and man-mark him, I would like Hodgson to play Gerrard as a central midfielder against those teams. As long as he plays with a defensive midfielder, Poulsen primarily, he can focus more on spreading the ball around and trying to influence play. Gerrard has been criticized for his lack of game intelligence, but that criticism is mostly in comparison to the cream of the crop, and I reckon he can certainly do a job from central midfield against most of the teams in the Premiership. As for the other games, the ones against the top teams, where maintaining tactical shape is of utmost importance, it would probably be better to play him just off Torres. He’s still not immune to being man-marked, which is what Guus Hiddink and Carlo Ancelotti have done at Chelsea in the respective fixtures against Liverpool, but then again, you can only prepare in response to your opposition so much, you have to try and be proactive to a certain level. If he’s really being played out of the game, then it’s up to the manager to see what to do – whether to take him off, or push him back and change the formation.

Getting the best out of him
I thought Benitez did an excellent job getting the best out of Gerrard, especially in the 07-08 and 08-09 seasons. Gerrard was at his attacking best playing behind Torres, and with Alonso and Masch behind him. However, there were times when Liverpool could not break down teams that parked the bus. They were excellent through the middle, but couldn’t create the space from wingplay. Unfortunately for almost all of Gerrard’s Liverpool career, he hasn’t consistently played with traditional wingers. The best ones were Pennant and Kewell, and they didn’t really play that much. As a result, the middle area has often been cramped, and Gerrard’s received little delivery from the wings meaning he often has to get out on the wings himself, where he’s wasted. Gerrard would be far more dangerous if he got on the receiving end of crosses. Also, think of all the room he’d have to operate in. Right now, the only player at Liverpool who fits the role of a winger is Ryan Babel, and he’s yet to establish himself. I’d actually like to see Hodgson try Babel at right wing, but that’s for a different article. Part of the reason for Gerrard’s inability to stick to his position in the middle may be the fact that there isn’t much activity on the wings to begin with, resulting in the middle getting crowded, and he is forced to find space out wide. Hodgson can’t be blamed for this, as this was a feature of both Benitez’s and Houllier’s Liverpool. Hopefully, he will rectify this in the future.