Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Bleak times for Liverpool

16 games played, 8 games won, 8 games lost. For those of you horrible at math that’s half the games lost. More alarmingly 6 of the 8 losses have come in the last 7 games with only the delightful win over Man Utd sneaking into the sequence. After a record breaking season last time around and a genuine good feel about the current one, Liverpool are in a bigger mess results wise than they’ve ever been under Rafa Benitez. Not even in his first season in charge, a season in which he had to field the likes of Biscan, Diao, Nunez and expect goals from Baros and Cisse, has Rafa experienced losing 6 game in a matter of few weeks. It’s safe to say that things couldn’t be that much worse at Liverpool at the moment. That is until you realize that half the squad is out with injuries/illness and two key players, Gerrard and Torres, face playing uncertainty at best and surgery at worst. Those are the bleak times indeed.

Who is the blame for this mess though?

Is it the owners? If the fans of the club you own are demonstrating against you on daily basis it must be because you’re not doing a very good job. While the Americans may be doing the best they can, they’re certainly not doing well enough nor are they doing what they promised they’d do. Granted the financial crisis is hitting them as hard as everybody else and because of this alone Liverpool may have to tighten their belt even further in the transfer market, but would it really hurt them to even pretend like they’re working towards the new stadium that’s been on hold for a couple of years now? Would it really hurt them to at least tell the fans that the stadium is on course and will be built soon enough? They’ve lied about spending £20mil on players each summer so why not throw in a white lie once in a while to keep the fans going at least? This is what businessmen do. If you are sleazy, moral less, American businessmen and we know you are, you should go all the way and do it properly.

Is it Rafa Benitez? Some fans want him sacked while others want to give him more time on the basis of him overachieving while working on a tight budget. Then there is the third group, the ones who can’t quite figure out what’s best for the club at the moment.

One thing to remember when judging a manager is to realize that you can’t form an objective opinion on the basis of the present. Any manager in the world, past or present, can win or lose a few games on the bounce. That’s the nature of the job. There are so many things that decide games that you cannot pin it on the manager, either good or bad, in the short run.

However, the problems Benitez is facing now could be a result of accumulated mistakes in the past couple of years. Let’s toss aside for a moment the fact that he cannot spend as much as Ferguson, Hughes or even Redknapp. Let’s just look at what he can spend.

In his first 3 years at the club he managed to unearth indisputable success stories like Reina, Skrtel, Agger, Aurelio, Insua, Alonso, Arbeloa, Garica, Benayoun, Kuyt and Torres. Even the likes of Bellamy and Sissoko, players whose time at Anfield turned sour in the end, were sold at a profit. Some of the above mentioned players may not have turned heads but they have all proved to be genuine value for money.

Now, if we look at the last two seasons we see the signings of Cavalieri, Degen, Dossena, Riera, Keane, N’Gog, Johnson, Aquilani and Kyrgiakos. How many of those will prove to be value for money signings? We already know that Dossena and Keane, worth £27mil combined, haven’t. For £3mil Cavalieri doesn’t seem like a bargain either. Riera and Kyrgiakos could prove to be decent signings for money spent while the jury is still out on Johnson and Aquilani. Johnson, while a fine footballer with a lot of potential for improvement, could still prove too costly at £18mil. That is when we take into account Liverpool’s budget. Aquilani, while a very talented player who may become a big man at Anfield, does not seem like he’ll have a telling impact this season.

If we look at Benitez’ signings in his time at Liverpool it does seem like his touch for bargains has deserted him in the last couple of years.

It does seem like money has been wasted in the last two seasons more than in the previous seasons under Rafa. Even if some of them go on to prove themselves worthy of their fees, where are the bargains? Have the scouts Rafa used in his first few years at the club been doing an inadequate job? Is it simply a case of Rafa trying to go for more expensive players but has instead been caught in the very dangerous £15-20mil per player land, where you’re neither getting a world superstar nor a bargain? It’s difficult to know from the outside but the transfer machine isn’t quite functioning at Liverpool at the moment.

Buying and selling players aside, it has to be said that uncharacteristic mistakes have been made both on the pitch and on the touchline this season. Defenders cannot defend, midfielders are neither helping the defence nor forming attacks and wide players are all struggling, apart from Benayoun. Up front Torres is isolated and asked to be Superman every week.

There is no doubt that Liverpool are missing a quality central midfielder with Alonso gone, Aquilani unavailable and Lucas not good enough to do the job a central midfielder at Liverpool is asked to do. However, Gerrard has been an option alongside Mascherano prior to his injury and he wasn’t used there. Instead he spent his time sleeping just behind Torres while Mascherano, Lucas and Kuyt struggle to get him involved in the game. Then there is Benayoun, one of the best Liverpool performers this season, being shunted out to the left and made completely ineffective in recent games.

There is no doubt that Rafa Benitez makes all his tactical moves based on his in depth analysis. He doesn’t just do it randomly so when he continually plays Lucas alongside Mascherano or plays Benayoun on the left it’s because he is convinced those are his best options at the moment. It just appears that he is wrong. Liverpool’s game is suffering and Torres’ magic up front isn’t enough to win games on regular basis.

Make no mistake though, Benitez is feeling the pressure. On one hand he is convinced his decisions are the right ones and he won’t budge, while on the other hand the pressure appears to be clouding his judgment at the moment. Especially when you look at some of his substitutions. They’re mostly ineffective because they’re either too late or involve wrong players. But when we criticize a manager we have to acknowledge that behind the suit and the personality we get to see twice a week, there is just a man and when he’s standing on the touchline, with another loss looming, he must feel the pressure. It must affect his decisions, even to a point where he deliberately tries something slightly outrageous as a way to signal to his critics that he sees the tactical moves that his critics don’t. That’s human nature. That’s the nature of football managers. They are proud and stubborn and the more they’re pushed the more stubborn they become.

Then there are the players, who simply have to take some of the blame themselves. A manager may be responsible for it all in the end, but too many players at Liverpool are either hiding or showing themselves only when they make huge errors. They have to emerge from that, stand up and play for themselves. They all have to stop thinking about the team and play as individuals to the best of their abilities. When each player manages to raise his own game so will the team.

As a red man myself I know how frustrating it is for everybody at the moment. With every added loss comes another dose of lethargy and the tunnel keeps getting darker. You feel the urge to stop moving towards the light. Don’t do that. Critisize the manager, the players, the owners or the fans. Vent your anger to make yourself feel better. Just know that with or without the American owners, with or without Rafa, Liverpool will bounce back. Injuries will clear up, confidence will return and Liverpool will get back to winning games. It may be painful in the meantime, but soon enough we’ll be plotting a way to win the title once again. For now, we just take it one game at a time and manage the best we can with all the qualities and faults that the manager and the players have.

”Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars." - Kahlil Gibran.

And in football, joy is only a game away.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Building an Academy's reputation

Your club’s youth academy is poor? It hasn’t produced a useful player in years? You want to fix it? Just pretend it’s good.

Say you and I go to a pub. We have a few drinks and we start talking about football. Football talk being what it is, there is nothing more exciting than talking about the stars of tomorrow. It is not interesting to you and me that Messi is the best player in the world. We know he is, talking about it bores us. Instead we start talking about quality youngsters. If I tell you there is a talented young player and he comes from Boca Juniors’ academy you will ask if he is anything like Riquelme, Tevez or Gago. If I tell you a player comes from Barcelona’s academy you will ask if he is the new Messi, Iniesta, Xavi or Bojan. If I tell you a player comes from Liverpool’s academy you will instantly dismiss him.

Building a youth academy’s reputation is vital and probably the most important part of developing a well functioning factory of footballers. When the car you’re driving is produced in a proven, well respected factory, a BMW perhaps, you automatically assume its quality. It is the same with football academies. At a club like Barcelona, Sporting or Boca there is a lot of excitement about any young prospect that is around the first team squad because of their recent young players.

Young players are being dismissed on the basis of a lack of good players coming out of the academy in the past 10 years. People are automatically assuming that the new young player is not very good because the young players before him weren’t good either. One player making it opens the door for another player. Two players making it opens the door for the third player. By the time the fourth player is about to get the chance the doors are wide open and he is already being given the benefit of the doubt and he automatically brings excitement without people knowing how good a player he actually is.

It’s an evil circle though. You won’t give the benefit of the doubt to a player coming from an unsuccessful academy but you can’t change the reputation of the academy without one or two players showing that the academy works.

In the long run, for the benefit of the academy, it might be a good idea to give a couple of players a genuine chance to establish themselves in the squad. Use them as rabbits in a long distance race. They may not turn out to be great players a couple of years from now but it may reverse the trend at a failing academy. They may show other young, perhaps more talented players, that it is possible to make it. Just one successful young player can make all the difference. Just look at Mario Ballotelli at Inter. A club that hasn’t been famous in a long time for having a good youth setup gave a debut to Balotelli two years ago. The excitement builds up and by the time Santon emerged everybody at Inter were excited about him. “Wait, did he come from the same youth team as Balotelli? He must be quite good then”. Indeed he was, but he also entered the scene with full backing from the fans and pundits.

Usually one or two young players making it at a club invites a flood of other players emerging. Examples of this are the Liverpool youth teams in early to mid 1990’s, West Ham’s successful youth teams, Barcelona’s long run of success in this department etc. Man Utd’s case is rather interesting as well. After producing the likes of Beckham, Scholes, Giggs and the Neville brothers in pretty much one go, Man Utd saw the emergence of Wes Brown and John O’Shea, which in turn inspired the emergence of Jonny Evans. Now, you can’t tell me that players such as Brown, O’Shea and Evans would have ever made it had they not been a part of a previously successful academy. You can’t tell me that there is not a defender or two at a “failed” academy, like Liverpool’s, as good as those 3 Man Utd players were at the same age. So what’s going on? Why do O’Shea and Evans get the benefit of the doubt but not one young Liverpool defender does? Could it be that Alex Ferguson, having previously seen what his academy can produce, is more inclined to give a young player a break than Rafa Benitez, who doesn’t have any precedent of his youth system churning out a good, young player?

Sometimes it’s not even about making the young players feel more confident about their chances of making the first team. Sometimes it’s about the supporters instead. Building a feeling among them that when a young player is about to get the chance that he might actually be quite good and not instantly dismissed. It’s about giving supporters a few previous “positive cases” which gives them confidence for future youngsters coming through. This positive climate, in turn, gives the emerging youngster a far more comfortable platform to perform. While the pressure of being the next big thing might be a heavy burden for a youngster, at the same time all of them want to be recognised and portrayed as extraordinary talented players. Even when their talent doesn’t warrant it.

A lot of fans around Europe are crying for their club’s youth system to produce a home grown player good enough to play for the first team. They’re asking how a system that employs so many coaches and spends so much money can’t produce a player once in a while. With every barren year the confidence in the academy fails and it automatically belittles the whole organization. Hence the product that comes out of it is belittled as well, long before it’s actually assessed. Heck, sometimes it doesn’t even get the chance to be assessed because it’s either automatically dismissed or dismissed very quickly.

Having great coaches is only a small part of having a successful academy. A club can pick and choose the coaches for its academy but they’re not likely to create a much different outcome on that account. If this was the case then every club would just send a few people to copy everything a successful youth system does and that would be it. Job done. If that was the case then Ajax’s academy would produce top class players every year. Surely they’re not doing things differently on the training ground all of a sudden. Ajax is in fact a perfect example of the importance of having confidence in an academy. After many years of producing great players the club allowed the academy to ruin it’s reputation by dismissing the players that started emerging in the late 1990’s. A couple of years went by, Ajax started investing in older players from the outside and the reputation of the finest academy in the world kept declining. It has reached a point where nobody expects Ajax to produce a great player any time soon. This, at the most successful academy of all time? This, at Ajax’s academy?

Ajax let their momentum of producing young players expire and it is crucial that this doesn’t happen. There is nothing that benefits a line of any production as the momentum of successful production. Barcelona is an example of this. They give a player or two a chance every season. They come into the team with the full backing of everybody at Barcelona and they do well enough so that the next couple of players in line can get their chance the following season. Of course not every young player turns out to be the next world superstar. Some of them don’t even properly make it at Barcelona. However, they still do well enough and sometimes even better than their ability would suggest by riding the good feel of it all. This alone is worthy of another try and this is why young players are constantly being given a chance.

Building the reputation of a youth academy is a tricky project. Is it worth giving a few talented players the chance, which could harm the first team in the short run, in order to open doors for superior young players being given the benefit of the doubt in the future? You decide.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Sticking my neck out...

... as I predict the 2009/10 season.

La Liga predictions

Barcelona will start the season slowly and they will keep losing key players to injuries. In contrast, Real Madrid will start the season flying. However, by February the form of the two teams will even out. Villarreal will finish 3rd in the league with Atletico Madrid beating Valencia to the 4th place. Sevilla and Deportivo will struggle throughout the year while Espanyol enjoy their best season in a long time.

Sevilla’s manager Manolo Jimenez will lose his job a few months into the season and Juande Ramos will return to Sevilla. Manuel Pellegrini will be under pressure by the end of the season (see below) after a great start at Real Madrid.

Kaka will sustain an injury only a few weeks into the season and the injury will keep him out for two months. In contrast, Zlatan Ibrahimovic will suffer a knee injury and miss two months as well, but his injury will happen in November.

Player of the year in La Liga will be Raul. Zaragoza’s Ewerthon will be the unlikely hero in Spanish football. Villarreal’s defender Gonzalo Rodriguez will be a target for most big clubs in Europe next summer.

Seria A predictions

Juventus will play the most attractive football in Italy and still come up short. Inter will win the title. However, come the end of the season everybody will be talking about Juventus’ attacking brand of football and their exciting 4-3-3 formation. Ciro Ferrara will draw comparisons with both Fabio Capello and Pep Guardiola. Roma will struggle for results while Fiorentina will enjoy their best season in recent years.

Milan’s coach Leonardo will not be sacked despite serious criticism throughout the season. However, while Milan keep their faith in Leonardo the media will continue to link Genoa coach Gian Piero Gasperini with the job. Roma’s coach Luciano Spalletti will be sacked though and his replacement will either be Roberto Mancini (if available at the time) or Napoli’s former coach Edy Reja.

At Inter, Diego Milito will outscore and outperform Samuel Eto’o. At Roma, Francesco Totti will have a slow start but will bounce back and enjoy his last strong season in 2010. The unexpected star of Seria A will be Udinese’s Alexis Sanchez. By the time the season ends he will move to one of the big clubs and be labelled as the “new Cristiano Ronaldo”.

Player of the year in Seria A will be either Rafa Van Der Vaart or Wesley Sneijder, whichever one signs for Inter.

Premier League predictions

Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham, Sunderland and Aston Villa will have satisfactory seasons. Everton, Manchester City, Stoke and Wigan will struggle. Blackburn will finish in top half of the table whereas Bolton will fight relegation. West Ham will be the disappointment of the season in the Premier League.

In early 2010, Arsene Wenger will announce that he is leaving Arsenal at the end of the season. He will then be courted by either Real Madrid or Barcelona, depending on which team looks likely to end up 2nd in La Liga. Manchester City will fire Mark Hughes in February. The man to immediately take over will be Felipe Scolari.

Robin Van Persie will finish as top scorer in the Premier League with 23 league goals to his name. Pushing him for the throne will be Fernando Torres, Darren Bent and Jermaine Defoe. Didier Drogba will struggle for goals while James Beattie will end the season with 3 Premier League goals for Stoke, mainly due to injuries.

Wayne Rooney will sustain an injury at some point during 2010 which will sideline him for 6 weeks. His appearance at the World Cup will be doubtful. Other relatively seriously injured players will be William Gallas, Brede Hangeland and Javier Mascherano.

Player of the year in the Premier League will be Frank Lampard.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Most expensive party in the world

If you’re in doubt about who the biggest name in Spanish football is at the moment, let me enlighten you. It’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Actually, no it isn’t. It’s World Player of the Year 2008, Cristiano Ronaldo. Not quite. The biggest name in Spanish football at the moment is of course Mr Galactico and everybody’s favorite party uncle, Florentino Perez.

The Real Madrid president made his comeback on June 1st almost 3 and a half years after he left the club. And what a comeback it’s been. The power shopping began in Spain before the famous cheque book was flashed in Italy, England and France. None of it has been bargain shopping either as Florentino Perez does not enjoy buying anything on sale, let alone footballers. So far £220mil has been spent on new players and there could be more to come.

There is no doubt that Florentino Perez wants the very best players at Real Madrid and unlike last time around, he’s now spending all of the money available in one go. Already Spanish experts are lauding this Real Madrid group of players as the best ever. As debatable as that may be, just the fact that such discussion exists is exactly what Perez wants. Real Madrid has to be the biggest in all aspects and thus they must have the best players money can buy.

But what about the fact that Real Madrid have spent over £200mil on men chasing a football at a time of the worst financial crisis in recent history? At a time when regular people are barely allowed to enter banks, Perez has managed to borrow an outrageous sum of money from various Spanish financial institutions. On paper it is the club that’s actually borrowed the money, but in reality it’s Perez who has gathered the cash. When former Real Madrid president, Ramon Calderon, tried going to the bank he was gently turned down. When Perez did it they welcomed him with open arms.

Why does the world of finance respect Perez so much? Well for starters he is the president of ACS, which is one of Spain’s largest companies in its field and employs more than 100.000 workers. Then there is of course Perez’ name in football, which is synonymous with “spend a lot – have a lot to show for it” ideology. On top of that he’s a genuine man of his word and he always delivers on his promises.

While there is no question that football, and especially Real Madrid need Florentino, why does he need Real Madrid and this particular project? He is after all one of Spain’s most influential men, he’s rich, respected and he’s already experienced being the president of Real Madrid once. Why come back and take on an even bigger challenge? The people in the business world will tell you it’s because he loves being in the spotlight while people in football will tell you it’s because the city of Madrid need someone like Perez, a man with grand contacts in the business world, to overtake Barcelona once again. Both theories are most likely true, but I do wonder if perhaps he feels the need to redeem himself, to show that he’s learned from his past mistakes. Another important aspect this time around is the fact that he had no opposing candidate running against him for the presidency and he was therefore under no genuine pressure to outline his plan in great detail. Instead he came in, looked at the transfer market and signed the players that he could. Then he could look at rectifying the problems that in the end ruined his previous term.

The two negatives that stand out from Perez’ first time at the club are the lack of homegrown players making the first team and the lack of defenders and defensive players in general. The arrival of Raul Albiol and Alvaro Arbeloa indicates that Perez is aware of the need for defensive reinforcements while Xabi Alonso represents a player who will bring a lot of stability to Real Madrid’s midfield. On the other hand, Perez’ faith in the likes of Esteban Granero, Toni Adan, Miguel Torres and perhaps Alvaro Negredo shows that he wants to keep Real Madrid’s kids close to home.

All things said and done, one thing is for sure: nobody knows how to throw a party in world football like Florentino Perez. Almost a decade ago he took control of Real Madrid, promised a team of “Galacticos” and invited us all to ride along on the journey. He’s back now and the invitation is still as fresh as ever.

Roll out all the stars. Roll out Xabi Alonso, Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, Raul and Benzema, but above all roll out Mr Galactico. In his hands there is always the rolled up match programme, as he sits in the president’s chair at Bernabeu. Cracking an ear to ear grin every time Real Madrid score a goal.

Welcome back uncle Perez and thanks for inviting us to the most expensive party in the world.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Let Juventus entertain you

Seria A is bit of a mess at the moment. Unbearable taxes are putting restraints on even the richest clubs in Italy. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Kaka, the two giants in Italian football over the last 5 years, have both left for Spain. Fiorentina, while often exuberant and exciting, do not have a team good enough to challenge for any major trophy this season. Roma are Roma, eternally disappointing and always only a game away from an embarrassing whooping against any English team. Milan is the geriatric department and they don’t seem likely to offer us anything new or remotely exciting this season either. With that depressing outlook in mind, why should we even bother with Seria A this season? The answer is Juventus. Let the forever boring Old Lady entertain you.

Starting from the back, it’s fair to say that Juventus boast one of the best keepers in the world, if not the very best. World cup winner Gigi Buffon, as well as being Juventus’ vice-captain, an inspiration and a true gentleman, is also a man who makes very few mistakes between the stick. He will rarely feature in any “play of the day” report, but try and compile a YouTube video of his mistakes and it will be a very short and uneventful clip. An odd slip with the ball at his feet is the best material you’ll come up with.

In defence, Juventus can call upon a large variety of options. On the right it will be a contest of the old guard, namely between Zdenek Grygera, Jonathan Zebina and Hasan Salihamidzic. Grygera in particular is a solid defender and will probably get the nod. On the left Cristian Molinaro seems to be the obvious choice, but talented 22 year old De Ceglie is not far off either. Lauded as one of the brightest young defenders in the league, this could be his year. It is however in the centre of defence that Juventus can offer most quality and also biggest variety of players. Gio Chielini, rated by many as one of the best central defenders in the business, will be paired with one of Fabio Cannavaro, Nicola Legrottaglie and on-loan Martin Caceres (Barcelona). At the moment Cannavaro seems to be the favorite but with Legrottaglie enjoying a fine season last time around and young Caceres determined to rebuild his career after a poor year in Spain, it could be quite a battle.

The centre of midfield is often referred to as the “engine room” and this really seems to be the case at Juventus. New signing, Brazilian hyper, wild child Melo, will team up with former Liverpool ball winner Momo Sissoko in what looks to be an all action midfield. As alternatives Juve can call upon the born again, Chelsea misfit Tiago and the ever so reliable Christiano Zanetti. If Christian Poulsen stays he too might get another chance to prove himself after a poor first season at the club. Whichever pairing Juve choose it strongly indicates a conscious choice of fielding a ball winning, physical imposing midfield. Any two, out of the five above mentioned players, are capable of covering a lot of grass and will serve as a safety platform to the offensive part of Juventus’ game.

It is, however, just in front of the two holding midfielders that things get really interesting. Early indications, after analyzing Juventus’ pre season games, suggest a 4-2-3-1 formation in which Juventus’ new and unproven manager, Ciro Ferrara, looks to field three floating offensive players and one stationary striker, last season’s brilliant Amauri (the alternatives are David Trezeguet and Vicenzo Iaquinta). The group of players that will be considered for the three slots behind Amauri consists of Mauro Camoranesi, Claudio Marchisio, Alessandro Del Piero, Sebastian Giovinco and the new signing Diego. The Brazilian maestro, signed from Werder Bremen, already looks very comfortable in a Juventus shirt and providing he stays injury free, should almost singlehandedly revolutionize Juventu’s game. Young Giovinco will also want to prove himself. Being 22 he can no longer hide behind the “talented youngster” tag. It’s time for the “atom ant” to come out and play.

Ciro Ferrara’s loose 4-2-3-1 formation and his fresh ideas of a more attacking style of play is already causing waves of both excitement and frowning in Italian football. Juventus is probably the only team in the world that would rather win ugly than win pretty so young Ciro is already a brave man, tearing down walls and kicking up a fuss. On top of that, Juventus’ director Alessio Secco has promised Juventus’ fans a brand of football “similar to that of Barcelona”. My, my, my.

Juventus most certainly won’t be strong enough to push for the Champions League trophy this season. They’re not even likely to win the league as Inter are simply too strong for everybody in Italy at the moment, especially after signing true heavyweights like Lucio, Motta, Milito and Eto’o. However, what Juve are likely to achieve this season is admiration from a lot of neutrals both in Italy and the rest of Europe. For an eternally unattractive club this will be a monumental change of philosophy.

Are Juve about to trade in their “Old Lady” for a young, sexy, teen girl?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Liverpool are ready to win the title

Experiencing the first genuine title challenge since 1997, Liverpool are back as serious contenders for the English crown. Not only did they challenge Manchester United from start to finish, even spending a few weeks as table toppers, they also finished the season with massive 86 points, which is a club record. To put things into perspective, 86 points would have won them the league in any country except Spain and of course England. Judging a team’s strength based on points amassed in one particular season is not an accurate science, but what it can tell us is that in a season of 38 games Liverpool can put together a series of results good enough to win the title.

The experience of coming so close to winning their first title since 1990 means that Liverpool will not allow themselves to go backwards this season. They did that in 1998, in 2003 and in 2007. After amassing an impressive number of points the year before, each time they went backwards the subsequent season. However, whereas the achievements in those years were built on shaky teams this time around it’s a different story. This team is not an overachieving one. This team got the 2nd place and 86 points on merit.

Liverpool’s big strength at this point in time is their experienced, yet fresh starting 11, which was one of the key reasons behind last season’s title challenge as well. If we look at what Liverpool’s starting eleven will be like at the start of the season in August, it shows that the youngest player is 24 and only one player is over 30 and that’s a central defender. What this means is that there are no inexperienced or unfulfilled potentials in the team. There are no kids that need to be carried by older players and there should be less inconsistent performances. What “finished article” players do better than their juniors is adapt to whatever the circumstances on the pitch. During unusual and unexpected moments in a given game, like being a goal down at home to bottom of the table team, a more mature group of players is less likely to panic and freeze up. They’re less inclined to try and force plays that don’t seem likely to come off. Instead they can regroup quicker as a unit and look for alternative solutions. Mature players can also last the distance of a 9 months season better than a hopeful 20 year old and this automatically means a more settled team.

While a team’s defence is always the platform, you rarely talk about the back four actually winning the title. However, Liverpool’s defence could be the difference between challenging for the title and winning it. Why? Simply because it looks like Liverpool’s back four will consist of better ball players compared to last season. Johnson looks likely to replace Arbeloa on the right while Agger is back to give Liverpool another attacking dimension from the back. Whoever is chosen on the left, whether it’s Dossena, Aurelio or Insua, it means that Liverpool will field a back four where at least 3 players are genuinely comfortable on the ball and are not afraid to attack. Potentially we’re talking about a set of defenders that can comfortably bomb forward. Regardless of whether they approach the games as attacking or controlling defense, the quality on the ball will be there. If Liverpool do field a backline of Johnson, Carragher, Agger and Insua and even if Rafa Benitez insists on them working as a tight defensive unit, they will still do it with a lot more comfort on the ball, thus allowing themselves more time and space.

Another case for a better defence is the emergence of Agger as a defensive leader. Morten Olsen, the national coach of Denmark, claims that Agger has now developed into a defender that can lead the rest of the team. He is now firmly the organizing central defender for the national team and has been trusted with lot of responsibility. Unfortunately for Liverpool, Agger’s maturing both as a person and as a player was happening while he was injured and they couldn’t reap the benefits of his personal development. However, he is fit now and this new dimension in his game could possibly ease up the pressure on Carragher as well as allow Rafa to finally begin to trust the rarely tested Skrtel/Agger partnership.

As for Alonso, Liverpool fans shouldn’t worry about it. He’s more than welcome to stay at the club, but if he leaves Liverpool will have the money and the pulling power to replace him adequately. Rafa Benitez can walk up to any club president and offer £30mil for a central midfielder whom he can promise the role of a playmaker at one of the biggest clubs in the world, playing just behind Gerrard and Torres. What player will say no to that?

Taking everything into consideration, Liverpool seem to be on the brink. Perhaps they’re the only team out of “top 4” who actually seem to be on an upward curve. Man Utd are having personnel difficulties. Chelsea don’t seem to have the required quality in attacking positions and Arsenal are shaky. Liverpool look like the strongest team on paper and they are ready to take the next and final step. Only a couple of years ago Liverpool didn’t seem that close. Miraculously enough the tables have turned completely and other top 4 teams have allowed Liverpool to sneak up on them.

Since 1997, Liverpool have felt many times that they can win the title. Now they actually believe it and that’s a victory in itself. It’s also the final obstacle before lifting the Premier League trophy.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Alberto Aquilani - the good, the bad and the ugly

With a an important season ahead of Alberto Aquliani, whether it’s in Italy or England, I offer my views on both his qualities and shortcomings.

The good

- A midfielder with built in Italian comfort on the ball, which means that his first touch is sublime and he can move the ball around on both of his feet. It allows him to take a bit more time on the ball in the centre of the pitch and this could come in handy in the 100mph Premiership.

- Playing as a very mobile central midfielder allows him to arrive late in and around the box and score goals. This is not another Xabi Alonso, a centre circle “tick-tack” metronome. This is a completely different player in a sense that he moves where the ball is regardless of his initial position on the pitch.

- Respectable shooting ability from distance which has not yielded enough goals so far in his career. A lot of his shoots seem to go on target and trouble the keeper, as well as hitting all sorts of woodwork but the important thing is that the willingness to shoot from distance is there. A little bit of tweaking and a bit more experience and he could be an accomplished goalscoring midfielder.

- His height (6ft2in) is another positive aspect of his game as it allows him to command a presence in midfield that the likes of Ballack and Vieira had due to their stature. When he’s on the pitch you know he’s there. His height does not compromise his mobility though.

- Even though he has in time established himself as a central midfielder he’s a player who is comfortable playing out wide as well as just behind the striker. In fact it is behind the striker that he enjoyed his best games for Roma before eventually settling into a central midfield role alongside De Rossi.

The bad

- He has a tendency to dwell too much on the ball at times and if he doesn’t see options in front of him he can be pushed into giving it away. Roma manager Luciano Spalletti has spoken of this problem and this is one of the reasons why a more experienced Pizarro is preferred to Aquilani alongside De Rossi at times. However the general opinion is that this is something that can be worked on and is one of the reasons why Aquilani has worked on bulking up his upper body, which is quite impressive for an originally gangly character, in the last couple of years.

- Speaking of his physical strength again, while his upper body has become much stronger his legs are still weak at times and he’s not the most comfortable player going into tackling battles. However if you have a more physical player next to him he can get away with it.

- While he definitely isn’t slow for a midfielder he does, at times, appear one paced in a sense that he lacks that bit of dynamism in his game. He’s not someone who can burst through everything and everybody in a way that Gerrard, Essien or Cambiasso can. These are the players, who when being angered can take the pace of the game to a higher level. Aquilani, so far, hasn’t showed this quality. He’s more a “let me play the game at my pace” sort of player.

- As mentioned earlier there is not enough end product in his game at the moment. However he’s also lost a good chunk of his career to injuries and hasn’t really had an opportunity to work on this part of his game extensively, especially in games. For instance he started the 08/09 season like a man possessed, scoring 3 goals in the first 5 games, before being struck down with several niggling injuries throughout 2009.

The ugly

- Injuries. Please sort it out Alberto. It’s the only thing genuinely holding you back. Get fit and ready and everything else will naturally fall into place.