Gerrard assist v/s Switzerland

Steven Gerrard’s beautiful assist set up Adam Johnson for England’s second goal against the Swiss in EURO 2012 Qualifiers.

In other Liverpool related international news, Pepe Reina conceded four goals as Argentina beat Spain 4-1 and Denmark (with Poulsen and Agger) beat Iceland 1-0.

Torres, Kuyt, Meireles, Shelvey and Ngoo goals

Liverpool players were in action yesterday and today. Torres scored 2 beautiful goals for Spain against Liechtenstein, gaining some much needed match practice, Kuyt scored a peno against San Marino, Meireles scored a beauty against Cyprus and Jonjo Shelvey and Michael Ngoo scored against Slovakia in the U19s yesterday. Shelvey looks like the real deal, creating a number of opportunities for the team, and is definitely one to look out for.

Torres 1st goal v/s Liechtenstein

Torres 2nd goal v/s Liechtenstein

Kuyt penalty v/s San Marino

Meireles v/s Cyprus

England U19 v/s Slovakia U19

The Lucas Role

Yesterday we got our first glimpse of how Hodgson’s Liverpool would line up, even though only one of the players on the pitch was brought to Anfield by Woy. I was impressed with the creativity in the starting XI, with the manager choosing to play Gerrard in the “Alonso” role next to Mascherano. It was vintage Gerrard, with crushing tackles, sublime long passes and the box-to-box play that was so typical of him earlier in his career.
More importantly, though, I was happy he chose to play Lucas as a defensive midfielder rather than along with one. We saw the lack of creativity in midfield last year when the infamous Lucas-Masch partnership started, and that was one of the major factors in Liverpool’s dour performances. Hodgson thus used Lucas in the same way as his current national team and former Gremio coach, Mano Menezes, used him in the friendly against the US a few days back.
With Masch’s seemingly imminent departure to Barca, we’ll be left with 2 defensive mids – Poulsen and Lucas. How will Lucas’s inclusion affect the team? Lets take a look.

There are 3 things a defensive midfielder is required to do today, as excellently covered by Zonal Marking – tackling, distribution & interception.
In all three areas, Lucas has improved vastly, although his tackling still isn’t up to the level of Masch’s (but then again, whose is?). A lot of Liverpool fans were moaning last year about the number of sideways and back passes he made, expecting him to replicate Alonso’s passing range despite the fact that he was never meant to replace him, but what they were forgetting is that when trying to keep possession, one of the most important things is to be patient and knock the ball around until one can actually make a through-ball that is effective. What Lucas will be very useful for, is helping Liverpool maintain possession, which he did excellently for Brazil against the US. I reckon it will be a tactic used more against the “lesser” teams and you can thus expect to see Poulsen starting ahead of him for the big games. While it is too early to judge the way Hodgson will set up his teams, he has a history of giving up possession to the better ones (like Mourinho did with Inter v Barca) in order to have an upper hand in position. As Egil Olsen once noted, there’s almost always a trade-off between position and possession.
Considering that Lucas will probably be paired with Aquilani or Gerrard in the centre, he can afford to focus more on the defensive side of his game and opt for safety rather than creativity when dealing with the ball. Although he has shown that he can make those game-winning passes on occasion , I would be surprised if Hodgson plays him alongside Poulsen and expects him to be a creator.
You can see in the videos below (which I created) how important Lucas is in a team trying to retain possession. In fact, his exchange of passes indirectly led to the goal, creating space for the player on the left to exploit and cross the ball in. (1st half – 3:15) Another one of his tackles allowed a forward run which led to a chance on goal. (1st half – 5:00)


We see more of his defensive side in the 2nd half, with no less than six successful tackles (at 0:08, 0:19, 0:22, 1:36, 2:11, 2:19) and a couple of interceptions (In the game against Arsenal he made 3 successful tackles out of 4 in the space of 11 minutes). He also made a really nice pass towards the end which led to a goal-scoring opportunity.

The game against the US was one of Lucas’s better performances. Lets hope he can give us a few more of those this year and the Anfield faithful can finally give him the respect he deserves.

A matter of knife and depth

(the “knife” in the headline refers to the surgeon’s knife, and nothing dangerous)

With the signing of Aurelio, Liverpool now finally have a starting left-back. While I would also love Insua to stay, it would be hard to argue that he’d start over Aurelio if both stay fit. Aurelio, of course, was excellent for Liverpool whenever he played, and was especially noticeable by his absence last year when we looked considerably weaker on the left with the young Insua starting. He was also statistically the most attacking left-back in the league in terms of goals and assists in 2008-2009. Additionally, with either Jovanovic, Babel or Cole possibly starting on the left for Liverpool, we will have a right footed player on the left wing, so Aurelio can give us the width on that side. He also gives us options with set-pieces. However, the elephant in the room is starting to make some noise and I will have to get to it – INJURIES!!!

Injury record of the most likely starting XI for Liverpool

07-10
XI: 25 starts, 3 subs
Outfield: 23.7 starts, 3.3 subs

(I have only taken Lucas’s last season into consideration because he wasn’t a starting player in the 2 previous seasons)

09-10
XI: 24.7 starts, 3.3 subs
Outfield: 23.4 starts, 3.6 subs

Aurelio has only started 40 games out of a possible 114 in the last three years, a very low number for someone who has been the best player in his position for the team. Unfortunately, that can be said of a lot of our team – Aquilani, Agger, Cole and Torres are all very injury prone. Those 5 have an average of ONLY 15.6 starts a season and 20.3 appearances overall, not very encouraging numbers considering the lack of depth in the squad. Add to that the fact that Glen Johnson and Gerrard have had their share of injury problems as well, and you are looking at a very unstable squad.

Our new Head of Sports Medicine and Sports Science, Peter Brukner, will have his job cut out for him, but I’m sure he’ll be up to it. How much of it is in his hands, however, is to be seen. You can take measures to ensure the players stay fit, but an injury-prone player will remain injury-prone, especially with the kind of recurring injuries Torres (hamstring), Aquilani (ankle) and Aurelio (every single part of his frickin body) have.

Roy can also do his bit to help the problem, and that is increase squad depth at the cost of first-team quality. Manchester United had a terrible injury crisis last year, with Carrick and Fletcher playing in defence at one point, but when you have utility men like John O’Shea and other squad members more than capable of filling in the boots of the first-team players such as Wes Brown, the Da Silva brothers, Anderson & Michael Owen, you can still get the results against “lesser” teams.

So what positions will we need to strengthen the most? A lot of fans want to see a new striker, but I believe we have sufficient cover for that position. If N’Gog isn’t good enough to stand in as cover for Torres, then Jovanovic and Dirk Kuyt can do the job in his absence. What is more important is a quick winger who can also play in the middle. Ryan Babel is the only one in the team who has the pace and ability to make a difference on the wing, but whether he has the consistency to do that is questionable. Not only will such a player provide us the width we’ve been lacking for so long (under both Benitez and Houllier), he can give us a Plan B. It is also important that any wide player that we sign can also play in the middle because all three of our attacking midfielders – Cole, Aquilani and Gerrard – are injury-prone.

The second position where we seem to be lacking depth is the full-back position. Whether Insua is staying or not, we will need a cover for left-back considering the amount of time Aurelio will inevitably spend on the bench. Our other option is Johnson playing on the left, but that leaves the right side short of cover. The ideal player in this situation would be someone who can play on both sides, and possibly at defensive mid as well, like a two-footed Mascherano. I would’ve said across the back four and defensive midfield, but we have six centre-backs, so that is a position that is sorted.

Lastly, I think we need someone who can play in either a central or a defensive midfield position. Lucas is the only person who can do that right now, and even he was converted from a somewhat attacking player to a slightly defensive one.

Who comes in is up to Roy, but this much is for sure – our squad at this moment requires a lot of luck in terms of fitness for us to contemplate a top four finish. I’m not saying it’s beyond Liverpool’s ability to bounce back, or that we will have an injury crisis as strong as last season, but Arsenal, Spurs & City all have deeper squads, and the battle for fourth will be even more heated than last season.

Likely starting XI

Gerard Hou?

Our ex-manager came out with some thoughts on Benitez’s reign recently. Speaking about the changes he brought through, he said
“One, the pattern of getting a foreign coach was already accepted. Two, he had a Champions League-winning team. Three, the team were already in the Champions League. Four, we had built new facilities. And five, it was a different training routine, different attitude and mentality.
“I claim that we – Phil Thompson, Sammy Lee and the staff – definitely turned it round. The chairman, when I left, said ‘You put the club into the 21st century’.”
He added: “Twelve out of 14 in Istanbul were players I had signed or developed. I left Liverpool with a team and in the Champions League, but when you finish seventh with Torres and Gerrard…
“When I came into the changing room in Istanbul, some of the players said: ‘Boss, it’s your team’. After Rafa Benitez left this summer, one of the players sent me a message. He said, ‘Boss, he hasn’t beaten you’.”

Now I am very thankful to Houllier for what he did for Liverpool. We consistently played European football under him, won the UEFA Cup in one of the most dramatic finals ever, and finished a slightly distant second to Arsenal in the 2001-02 season, and 2 League Cups and an FA Cup to boot. But for him to come out and criticize Benitez the way he has, while simultaneously taking credit for the Champions League win is laughable, pathetic and quite shocking, to say the least. Or is it? Especially when this is the same man who put the entire blame for France’s failure to qualify for the 1994 World Cup on one man’s shoulders (who, in turn, threatened to sue). Even Steven Gerrard had to come out in his autobiography and take away some credit for his success from Houllier, who apparently is the only reason Gerrard’s the player he is. Lets take a look at some of Houllier’s claims, then

1. The pattern of getting a foreign coach was already accepted
While this is true with Liverpool, there was already a trend in the Premier League to bring in foreign managers. Arsenal did it, Newcastle did it, Chelsea did it. And I can’t really think of any outstanding positives that Houllier being there brought for Benitez apart from Continental dietary standards and facilities.

However, would Benitez have not done that anyway? For a man so committed to overhauling an academy that has produced little over the years, you’d think bringing in dietary and fitness standards would be quite basic. Besides, I think Houllier leaving Benitez a piss-poor squad more than makes up any benefits that Houllier’s reign had on the “Rafalution”.

2. He had a Champions League winning team
Now I’ve heard some really idiotic myths that the media and casual football fans love to spout, but this one beats the lot. You’d think Benitez took over from the reigning European champions (He is now!, and Houllier is trying to get into the Fulham job. Any arguments for who’s more successful?)

Do you remember Liverpool’s performances in the 2003-04 Champions League? I don’t, because WE WEREN’T F**KIN IN IT! To even try and take any credit for the Champions League win shows how deluded Houllier has become. In 2002-03, we failed to get past the group stages, losing to Valencia twice (managed by ….? That’s right, Rafa Benitez) and failing to beat lowly Basel of Switzerland. In 2001-02, we did a lot better, losing in the quarters to Bayer Leverkusen. That’s the highest we reached under Houllier. We did better under Benitez in three out of the six seasons (and at least matched it in four out of six).

So I’m guessing Xabi Alonso and Luis Garcia did absolutely fuck-all in Champions League that season (despite the fact that one of them scored in each of the knockout rounds, with Luis Garcia being the top scorer for Liverpool with five!). Or that moving Jamie Carragher to centre-back, and keeping him there was not a sign of managerial aptitude that Houllier hadn’t shown by playing Carragher in 8 different positions as manager. Or that playing with 2 deep midfielders for all the knockout games (except the final, where Gerrard, not Hamann or Biscan played as one of the deeper mids in the first half, and we all know what happened with that) did not help.

I’m guessing Houllier also wants to take credit for Liverpool reaching the Champions League final in 2007, beating a Barca side with Messi and Ronaldinho and Chelsea along the way. That final, of course, had only four Houllier-era players in it.

3. The team were already in the Champions League
And who exactly were Liverpool’s competitors? Without a doubt, Arsenal was the most dominant a team has ever been in the Premiership, and Chelsea had Abramovich’s money, but Man U were the poorest they had been in a while. Ronaldo had just been signed, and Wayne Rooney was still at Everton. One only has to look at the teams that finished just below Liverpool – Newcastle, Villa and Charlton – to see the quality of the league. It would have been a shambolic failure had Liverpool not failed to make it to the Champions League. Even last season’s points total was higher than that of Liverpool in 2003-04.

Its not like Houllier had to contend with greater spending by the likes of Man City, Spurs, Chelsea or Man United, did he?

4. We had built new facilities
Fantastic job, Gerard! Now where exactly are all those players that should’ve been coming out of the youth system.

5. It was a different training routine, different attitude and mentality
As I’ve already argued in point 1, it would’ve been different had Benitez come in himself and made changes (which he did, by the way). As for attitude and mentality, yes, Liverpool had made the step up to almost consistent Champions League football, and almost pushing the top teams, though not quite, but Benitez took Liverpool to the next level in all aspects.

I’ll let the readers have the final say, but here are the teams Benitez and Houllier left for their successors. No arguments about who left the better team.

Houllier

Name Age Name Age
Jerzy Dudek 31 Steven Gerrard MBE 24
Stephane Henchoz 29 John Arne Riise 23
Steve Finnan 28 Anthony Le Tallec 19
Sami Hyypia 30 Chris Kirkland 23
Milan Baros 22 Jamie Carragher 26
Markus Babbel 31 Florent Sinama-Pongolle 19
Harry Kewell 25 Igor Biscan 26
El Hadji Diouf 23 Richie Partridge 23
Michael Owen 24 Gregory Vignal 23
Vladimir Smicer 31 Bruno Cheyrou 26
Danny Murphy 27 Patrice Luzi 24
Salif Diao 27 John Welsh 20
Dietmar Hamann 30 Neil Mellor 21
Darren Potter 19 Jon Otsemobor 21
Paul Harrison 19 Djibril Cisse 22

Benitez
Name Age Name Age
Pepe Reina 27 Steven Gerrard MBE 30
Diego Cavilieri 27 Lucas Leiva 23
Glen Johnson 25 Maxi Rodriguez 29
Philipp Degen 27 Jay Spearing 21
Stephen Darby 21 Damien Plessis 22
Jamie Carragher 32 Albert Riera 28
Daniel Agger 25 Ryan Babel 23
Sotirios Kyrgiakos 30 Jonjo Shelvey 18
Martin Skrtel 25 Fernando Torres 26
Martin Kelly 20 David N’Gog 21
Daniel Ayala 19 Nathan Eccleston 19
Danny Wilson 18 Milan Jovanovic 29
Emiliano Insua 21 Daniel Pacheco 19
Alberto Aquilani 26 Javier Mascherano 26
Dirk Kuyt 30 Nabil El-Zhar 23

Note: I have included players who were bought by the previous manager, but who arrived after the successor came through (so Djibril Cisse who was bought by Houllier, and Shelvey, Danny Wilson and Milan Jovanovic who were bought by Benitez, and conversely, Benayoun’s transfer was negotiated before Benitez came). Also, Joe Cole has not been included because he was signed by Hodgson and Insua has not been exclu

You must be Joecing!

Rumour has it that Joe Cole is very close to signing a deal at Liverpool. Apparently, Liverpool are ready to offer Cole £90000 a week, which will amount to 4.7 million a year. He’s a great player for free, don’t get me wrong, but for someone with his injury record, he’d be a big gamble, especially with the amount of wages he’s demanding at this point. Unfortunately for Hodgson, however, it seems he will have to pick all his players in the bargain basement.

For starters, we’ll have to look at where Cole plays. He’s played on the wings for a large part of his career, but seeing as we have 4 wingers/outside forwards who lack pace in Riera, Jovanovic, Kuyt and Maxi, his impact on the wings won’t bring anything new to our game. If he plays in the hole, that’ll mean sticking to a 4-5-1 system (whether it’s a 433, 4231, or 4141). In this situation, it’ll be best to play him as one of the two players behind the striker, usually Torres, in a 4-1-4-1, alongside Aquilani or Gerrard, with a defensive midfielder behind. Now this could work very well if one of these three is conveniently injured at some point, but otherwise, you’d either be resting a 25 million player, a 90000-a-week player, or Steven Gerrard, or playing them where they wouldn’t be as effective. And that money could be used to strengthen the left back, or defensive midfield position. I’m not opposed to a squad player for Gerrard and Aquilani, but you’d much rather have a younger player capable of playing multiple positions and happy to sit on the bench, and Cole is neither.

If we were to play a 4-4-2 with Cole, it’d mean he’ll either be played on the wings, or with a more defensive midfielder (not an out and out holding one, mind), and Gerrard and Aquilani are not exactly that.

In addition, knee injuries have meant that while Cole may retain his touch and trickery, his pace will have left him. Add to that the fact that Cole’s fitness record is not the best, and you have another Aquilani (if the esteemed Pete Brukner is to be believed, only Aquilani of the first season) situation. He has started 82 league games in the last four seasons, not exactly the best track record, especially for a team that doesn’t have the financial resources of their rivals.

For these reasons, I believe Cole is not the right fit for Liverpool, despite his fantastic technical ability and experience.

– Pepe