Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain: slowly but surely proving his worth to Liverpool

Rewind a few months to the ridiculous hysteria which surrounded Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain following his £35 million move from to Liverpool from Arsenal. He was lambasted left, right and centre at every opportunity from fans of his old club, social media in general and even from Liverpool supporters seemingly prepared to write him off as a “flop” after a couple of brief cameo appearances off the bench.

After his first start in the League Cup defeat against Leicester, viral video compilations of him getting tackled and misplacing passes were making their way around Twitter and Facebook.  Arsenal fans claiming they “robbed” Liverpool for £35 million (or £40 million, as widely quoted to further emphasise the point). Liverpool fans questioning why on earth so much money had been spent on a player with just 9 league goals in his entire Arsenal career to come and sit on the bench.

None of this was ever justified. Of course, questions were raised as to whether Oxlade-Chamberlain would justify such a hefty outlay given Liverpool’s abundance of attacking riches and the more pressing need to upgrade at centre-back. While the career move represented a clean slate for Oxlade-Chamberlain, he was never given a fresh start by fans and the media who were keen to put him down, for whatever reason.

He was unfortunate in the way his arrival coincided with Liverpool’s torrid September, in which the team’s overall performances and disappointing results were completely unfairly attributed to Oxlade-Chamberlain despite hardly getting any minutes on the pitch whatsoever- an easy scapegoat for misplaced criticism.

Oxlade-Chamberlain arrived as a player with a reputation for inconsistency and being injury-prone, with no clear sense of his best position. At times, he was sensational for Arsenal (see his performance against Bayern Munich in the Champions League in 2014), demonstrating vast talent and potential, while on other occasions he would fail to live up to the expectations he had built for himself when he first broke through as a highly promising teenager.

Liverpool were never signing the finished article, rather a player with plenty of key attributes suited to Jürgen Klopp’s style of football and with the potential to develop into a more well-rounded player under the German’s management with a much-needed change of scene after having stagnated somewhat at his previous club.

Despite the absurd obsession with writing him off at the very first opportunity, Oxlade-Chamberlain has stayed patient and has had to bide his time to get minutes on the pitch, adapting to Klopp’s tactical demands and settling into a new environment. To begin with, he was mostly given only very short appearances off the bench in which he would always look bright and positive without being able to build up any real rhythm due to a lack of regular game time.

His lack of confidence was also clear when he first joined, often taking the easy option, afraid of making a mistake and lacking faith in his own ability to drive at and beat opponents, which is a great strength of his. Gradually, we’ve seen him grow into his own skin at Liverpool over the past few months to the point where he now looks very much like an established and valuable member of the first team squad.

He might not be a nailed on starter when everyone is fit, but rarely has that been the case and the importance of having strength in depth to allow Klopp to rotate the squad during a densely packed fixture schedule will be imperative to what Liverpool are able to achieve this season- and something which was clearly absent last campaign.

With his versatility in being able to play across numerous positions both in midfield and attack, Oxlade-Chamberlain lessens the burden on the likes of Sadio Mané and Mo Salah, providing another pacey wide option should either of those two be unavailable- as has proven the case with Mané of late. Philippe Coutinho has also had his fair share of injury struggles, while Adam Lallana has barely featured at all, and thus the presence of Oxlade-Chamberlain has been much more of a necessity than many might have expected when he first joined.

After netting his first goal in the 7-0 drubbing of Maribor in the Champions League, Oxlade-Chamberlain has cut a more confident and relaxed figure, able to express himself more freely on the pitch and demonstrate what he has to offer. Having enhanced his reputation with promising performances against Huddersfield and Maribor at Anfield, he was rewarded with a first league start away against West Ham, in which he scored a crucial third goal at a time when West Ham had just pulled one back and were piling on the pressure at the other end. Liverpool went on to win 4-1, with Oxlade-Chamberlain’s goal a key moment in changing the momentum in the contest- a deserved reward for his persistence throughout the game.

Fast forward to the present, Oxlade-Chamberlain has started consecutive league games for the first time for Liverpool, having been one of the standout performers in the 1-1 draw against Chelsea, picking up an assist for Salah’s goal with a neat, prodded through ball to set the Egyptian through on goal. Described by Klopp as “dynamite”, his ability to drive past opponents on the ball with pace and control, both centrally and out wide is hugely effective, and while there remains considerable room for improvement in terms of his end product, he has shown a capacity to deliver excellent crosses into the box and use the ball wisely in attacking areas.

In the 3-0 victory against Stoke, Oxlade-Chamberlain was again one of the top performers for Liverpool- not spectacular by any means, but quietly efficient and more than capable in his role, contributing in no small part to a highly impressive team performance and result as Klopp was able to rotate five of his front six with no discernable drop-off in quality- Oxlade-Chamberlain being the only one of those to start both the previous two games.

Heading into the hectic festive period, fatigue and injuries will inevitably rack up- not just for Liverpool, but for most if not all sides- and Klopp will undoubtedly be aiming to get the very most out of all his resources. The likes of Mané, Firmino, Salah and Coutinho will not be able to start every single game and therefore there will be plenty of minutes for the likes of Oxlade-Chamberlain, Daniel Sturridge and Dominic Solanke. With a highly favourable run of fixtures coming up, plenty of points are there to be won and how well Klopp is able to rotate his side will be a defining factor in how Liverpool negotiate a busy December and, crucially, to avoid burnout in January, which proved so damaging last time out.

We haven’t seen the best of Oxlade-Chamberlain yet and there is surely plenty more to come, both this season and beyond. While he hasn’t exactly produced any fireworks as of yet, he’s shown himself to be a more than capable member of the squad with the ability to go up several levels further. There is something to be said for a quietly efficient, dependable and versatile player of his ilk who can be dropped into a number of positions and do an admirable job for the team- both in his contribution on and off the ball.

Now the nonsensical criticism surrounding his arrival has finally dissipated, Oxlade-Chamberlain is slowly but surely, week by week, proving his worth as a valuable asset for Liverpool.

 

 

 

Liverpool 1-1 Chelsea: Match analysis

A point against Chelsea should never be considered a bad result. The manner in which Liverpool had two points taken away from them so late on, however, makes it feel much more like a defeat. Bolt that on to the capitulation against Sevilla in midweek and Liverpool have picked up two ostensibly decent draws against two strong sides, yet the overwhelming sense is one of a huge missed opportunity.

It’s always incredibly frustrating to concede a late equaliser, especially when so close to securing what would have been a hugely significant three points against a top four rival, but some perspective is needed here. This was an extremely close game of football between two fairly evenly matched sides and the degree of malcontent about Liverpool’s performance should not be exagerrated.

Of course, Liverpool’s apparent inability to see games out from winning positions is a real concern. Dropping deep and inviting Chelsea on was always a risky strategy as it allowed the visitors to pile on the pressure and camp deep inside Liverpool’s half. That said, Liverpool were undone not by a defensive mistake, but a flukey, mishit cross by Willian which happened to loop perfectly in to the top corner beyond Simon Mignolet’s reach. Some have suggested Mignolet ought to have done better, but it would be pretty harsh to attach too much blame to the Belgian here given the awkward trajectory of the ball and the fact it was so unexpected (and most probably unintended). It’s one of those unfortunate things which happens in football from time to time.

On the balance of play, Liverpool could feel slightly hard done by in not taking all three points having dominated large periods, while Mohamed Salah so very nearly snatched a late winner with a snapshot saved by Thibaut Courtois right at the death. Chelsea, meanwhile, will feel much better about the result having spent much of the game defending, although they were able to cause problems when they did venture forward- particularly through the superb Eden Hazard- the best player on the pitch alongside Salah.

Jürgen Klopp’s decision to rest both Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino and hand starts to Daniel Sturridge and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was a real curveball and one which had mixed results. Sturridge struggled to truly imprint himself on the game, despite having a good chance blocked by Cesar Azpilicueta in the second-half and some smart hold up play at times. Oxlade-Chamberlain, on the other hand, did himself no harm at all with another positive and direct performance, poking the ball through cleverly to assist Salah’s opener.

The logic behind resting Firmino and Mané in such an important game wasn’t clear, but presumably Klopp will have done so with Wednesday night’s trip to Stoke in mind. Firmino looked visibly exhausted in the second-half against Sevilla, while Mané’s hamstring issue needs to be carefully managed. It was a strange choice to rest them here, rather than against Sevilla, nonetheless.

Alberto Moreno, meanwhile, gave the perfect response to his first real poor performance of the season against Sevilla which earned him swathes of criticism for his mistakes leading to two goals. The Spaniard was back to the level he’s been at for the vast majority of the season, aggressive but controlle in the tackle on numerous occasions.

Throughout the first half, Liverpool dominated possession without ever looking all that likely to score, while the threat of Hazard and Alvaro Morata proved problematic at times when the ball was turned over quickly, enabling Chelsea to break and exploit the spaces left behind the Liverpool midfield as Jordan Henderson and James Milner struggled to strike up an effective partnership between them.

Henderson is enduring a particularly rough patch at the moment following his struggles against Sevilla and it’s difficult not to feel as though the number six position doesn’t get the best out of his attributes, while Milner looks far from suitable in central midfield against this calibre of opposition. His positioning and touch left much to be desired, while Philippe Coutinho endured an unusually quiet game stationed in an advanced midfield role- providing very little in the way of defensive cover and tracking back.

Salah, with much of the limelight on him against his former club and given his phenomenal start to life at Liverpool, looked the likeliest route to goal for Klopp’s side and nearly curled in the opener in the first-half, firing narrowly wide after spinning away from his marker with ease. While the Egyptian’s pace, movement and goal-scoring have received much deserved adulation, his hold-up play and ability to stand his ground against physically imposing defenders is an underappreciated aspect of his skillset and was clearly to see on this occasion.

Indeed, with the first-half ending goalless and the second-half very tight and difficult to call, it was the former Chelsea man who eventually opened the scoring with a cool right-footed finish to slot past Courtois after latching on to Oxlade-Chamberlain’s pass. While his celebrations were decidely muted, this was a significant moment for a player who is rapidly establishing himself as one of the finest in the Premier League- if not in Europe, hitting his 15th goal of the season to stay top of the leaderboard.

He was never fully given the chance to show his worth at Chelsea, but this was just the latest indication that Roma’s loss is Liverpool’s significant gain, with £36.9 million looking increasingly incredible value as the weeks go by and the goals fly in.

It should have been the goal to secure a momentous victory for Liverpool to firmly establish themselves in the top four and take advantage of Spurs’ dropped points against West Brom. Yet when Liverpool needed an out-ball to hit on the counter-attack late on, the option wasn’t there and the ball just kept on coming back at them.

Rather than being proactive and maintaining the intensity, Klopp waited until after Willian’s goal to finally bring on Adam Lallana and Mané to chase a late winner, but in truth the changes ought to have been made much earlier as the signs were there that Chelsea were turning up the heat while Liverpool’s energy levels dropped off.

While the manner of the equaliser was difficult to accept and not the direct result of a defensive error, Henderson was guilty of getting dispossessed inside his own final third- and the warning signs had been there before. The spaces in Liverpool’s midfield were far too easy for Chelsea to exploit once possession had been turned over, while Liverpool ought to have done much better in terms of keeping the ball and taking the sting out of the game. Game management is something this side must still improve on quite considerably.

Overall, however, there were positives to be taken in the way Liverpool asserted themselves against the reigning champions and played with tenacity and confidence without several key individuals from the start. Oxlade-Chamberlain took his opportunity to impress, Moreno bounced back impressively, while Salah continues to go from strength to strength. Had a couple of credible penalty claims for handball against Gary Cahill gone Liverpool’s way, it could so easily have been a very different story.

Klopp will be disappointed not to have secured all three points, but given the heavy defeats against Man City and Spurs, it was important for Liverpool not to lose against another top side here. While the result feels like a bitter blow in the immediate aftermath, after four wins and two draws Liverpool find themselves in a solid run of form and now have a platform to build on heading into a densely packed festive fixture schedule in which plenty of points are there to be won.

 

 

 

 

 

Alberto Moreno and the fickle nature of football fans

People were waiting for this to happen. It was always going to happen at some point, too. Eventually, Alberto Moreno would make a defensive mistake leading to a goal (on this occasion, two) and Liverpool fans would come crawling out to slaughter the Spaniard and claim “we were right all along- he’s an absolute liability”.

In fact, I’m pretty certain there are swathes of so-called Liverpool fans who are happy Moreno finally cost his team a couple of goals so that they can be “proven right” and their agendas satisfied once more. It’s all a bit mad, the whole thing.

Very few people expected Moreno to still be at the club come the start of this season, having made just two league starts in the entirety of 2016-17, relegated to the role of benchwarmer as James Milner was converted into a makeshift left-back while Moreno watched on.

Virtually no one would’ve expected Moreno to start the first game of the new season against Watford, let alone establish himself as Jürgen Klopp’s first choice left-back, especially after the summer signing of Andy Robertson. Quite justifiably, there were plenty of sceptics at first, yet slowly but surely Moreno won over his critics and more than warranted the faith shown in him by the manager.

The erratic defensive errors which littered his first couple of seasons at the club appeared to have been cut out as Moreno began playing with more focus and concentration than we’d ever seen before. Rather than bombing forward at every opportunity and vacating his position, leaving the left-hand side massively exposed, Moreno has shown a more mature approach in sensibly timing his raids up the wing, bringing real pace and drive to Liverpool’s attack at the right moments.

While his end product can still improve, his delivery has proved a real weapon from out wide as demonstrated by his three assists in the Champions League so far. He’s also winning more aerial battles and lunging into tackles far less often, timing his challenges much better.

I wrote a piece a couple of years back about how if Moreno’s weaknesses could be corrected, he has the raw skill set and potential to be a genuinely top-class left-back. It’s taken him a while, but as is often the case with full-backs he has matured significantly with time and we’ve seen the player many believed we’d signed from Sevilla in 2014 when Moreno came to Liverpool billed as one of the best young left-backs in Europe.

I’d go as far to say that he’s probably been Liverpool’s second best- or at least most consistent- performer this season after Mo Salah and it hasn’t gone unnoticed with the national set-up, earning a recall to the Spanish squad in the recent international break. That’s quite some achievement, given the wealth of options they have in that position.

Such has been the extent of Moreno’s renaissance that Robertson has hardly got a look in, which, although unfortunate and harsh on the Scot (he has performed very well when given the chance), is simply down to the fact that Moreno’s form has made him virtually undroppable so far.

There is a large enough body of evidence now, three full months into the season, to say with some confidence that this is not merely a purple patch for Moreno, but evidence of him working hard on the training ground to correct his faults and become a much-improved player. For that, he deserves great credit.

And so on to the Sevilla game. We’ve seen Moreno lose his head completely against his former side before, with his infamously poor performance in the Europa League final in 2016 after which many Liverpool fans had completely written him off. On this occasion, his first half was generally in keeping with his impressive performances this season, but as happened in Basel, it was like watching a different player (and a different team) in the second-half.

It was Moreno who gave away the free-kick leading to Sevilla’s first goal, before giving away the penalty leading to their second, thus completely changing the complexion of the game as the home side seized the momentum and constantly had Liverpool on the back foot.

The free-kick was unnecessary to give away, but the execution of the goal was outstanding. Wissam Ben Yedder’s darting run across goal and flicked header was timed to perfection and have Moreno very little chance to do anything about it. Sometimes in football, teams score very good goals which are extremely difficult to stop. While Moreno should’ve avoided giving the free-kick away in the first place, this kind of thing happens all the time (see Lucas Leiva’s entire Liverpool career) and on this occasion is just so happened to result in a goal.

For the penalty, it’s worth mentioning that Philippe Coutinho plays a pretty risky pass to Moreno in a dangerous position with two Sevilla players already closing him down. It’s fizzed at him with some pace and he mis-controls it with a heavy touch. He doesn’t see Ben Yedder lurking behind him until it’s too late and in sticking his foot out lightly treads on the striker who proceeds to take another three steps before eventually throwing himself to the floor.

It’s an unfortunate one and the referee takes an absolute age to give it following howls from the home crowd. Moreno obviously makes contact with Ben Yedder but his theatrics are what convinces the ref to give the penalty. Again, it is avoidable and Moreno shouldn’t be dangling a leg in the area like that, but it’s still quite unfortunate.

Needless to say, if Sevilla don’t score a stoppage-time equaliser then there’s arguably much less scrutiny on Moreno as everyone is delighted with Liverpool winning the group and progressing to the knockout phase. As it happened, the capitulation is being attributed almost entirely to Moreno and all the reaction is bolted on to his reputation based on performances from several seasons ago.

People have an established image of Moreno as an erratic, error-prone footballer who cannot defend properly and this reputation has fuelled the backlash since the Sevilla game. No one takes account of the fact it’s an emotional occasion for him playing against his boyhood club in front of a hostile crowd, let alone the fact his wife gave birth at the weekend (which he missed in order to play against Southampton). All this is going through his head, because he’s a human being.

In this context, there is, of course, an argument that Klopp might have given him the night off and given Robertson a game instead, but it’s worth considering the external factors which influence how players perform on the pitch from time to time.

Unfortunately for Moreno, vast swathes of fans appear happy to discard him once again and let a mad 15 minutes take precedence over what has been a very strong season for the Spaniard so far. Supporters appear to do very little actual supporting of certain individuals at the club- Jordan Henderson being another- and it’s a great shame to see Moreno so widely chastised and his significant progress written off on the basis of one really poor half of football in a crazy match (which still sees Liverpool in prime position to win the group).

Thankfully, in Klopp, Liverpool have a manager who backs his players to the hilt- which sometimes brings him criticism- but in this case, Moreno won’t be written off by the manager so flippantly. He’s had a thoroughly consistent and impressive season so far as one of the best performing left-backs both domestically and in Europe and he has built up more than enough credit in the bank to justify continuing as Liverpool’s first-choice. Supporters ought to be backing him, too.

 

 

 

 

 

Liverpool 3-0 Southampton: Analysis

There have been more spectacular performances from Liverpool this season, but none quite so comprehensive from back to front throughout the entire ninety minutes. This was a confident and accomplished demonstration of vast superiority against a side whom Liverpool failed to beat (or score past) on four separate occasions last season.

Three successive victories against Huddersfield, Maribor and West Ham saw Liverpool enter the international break on a relative high after steering their season back on track, with the likes of Adam Lallana, Sadio Mané and Philippe Coutinho all returning to the fold ahead of the most fixture-congested period of the season.

Indeed, Jürgen Klopp was finally able to field Coutinho, Mané, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah in the same lineup for a Premier League game for the first time ever and perhaps unsurprisingly, Southampton found themselves overwhelmed and simply unable to cope with the speed and movement posed by Liverpool’s incisive attacking play.

In keeping with the pattern of recent victories, Liverpool did not come flying out of the blocks from the start, rather taking their time to ratchet up the pressure and move through the gears, although there was a definite sense of purpose with the pace at which the ball was shifted from side to side in the opening exchanges on this occasion.

The visitors were able to hold firm until the half-hour mark, only for Salah to make the breakthrough a minute later with a sumptuous curling strike from 20-yards- arguably his finest of a rapidly growing collection of Liverpool goals so far. Just ten minutes later, the Egyptian notched his second brace in as many games, calmly converting from close range after an intelligent run to latch on to Coutinho’s inch-perfect through ball.

While in recent times, a 2-0 lead has often felt like a precarious situation for Liverpool given the capacity for defensive capitulations, there was no sense of concern at any stage here as Liverpool strolled through the second half with consummate ease. Dejan Lovren made one excellent block to deny Sofiane Boufal inside the penalty box- the Croatian stepping up impressively on his return to the side after much justified criticism of late- but that moment aside, Southampton were unable to cause Liverpool’s back line any serious problems.

That said, the injury to Joel Matip further highlights the need for Liverpool to strengthen at centre back in January and attempt to make sure Virgil van Dijk is back at Anfield sooner rather than later- this time in red colours. Lovren and Ragnar Klavan will face much tougher challenges together should Matip remain out of the picture for some time and it is not a partnership which can be relied upon long-term.

It was Liverpool’s fifth clean sheet in the past seven games, with just a single goal conceded at Anfield in the Premier League this season- a pattern which, if continued, will go some way to ensuring a hefty points haul from home fixtures this season- and one which must now be translated into performances on the road as well.

The points were wrapped up in emphatic style in front of the Kop, as Mané’s clever pass released Firmino inside the area, with Coutinho on hand to follow up the rebound from Fraser Forster’s initial save, capping off a classy return from injury for the Brazilian with his fifth goal since rejoining the fold after his summer transfer saga. It was the kind of late run into the box which has become an important feature of Coutinho’s game and the hallmarks of all the best goalscoring midfielders.

In Salah, Liverpool now have the current top scorer in the Premier League, with the Egyptian now the fastest Liverpool player of all time to reach nine league goals, ahead of the likes of Robbie Fowler, Fernando Torres and Luis Suarez. Salah is now just one goal behind Lionel Messi in all competitions this season and has already surpassed both Mané and Firmino’s tallies from last season, continuing a sensational start to life on Merseyside.

Elsewhere, Firmino delivered another typically selfless and hugely effective display up front and could consider himself unfortunate not to get on the scoresheet, but such is the manner in which he creates space and carves out chances for those around him that he remains so integral to this Liverpool side. Jordan Henderson, likewise, asserted his presence all over the pitch, snapping into tackles, intercepting loose balls and controlling the midfield battle.

The one major surprise in the lineup was the absence of Joe Gomez after his man of the match display for England against Brazil last week, but presumably Klopp is saving his legs for the upcoming trip to Seville and the visit of Chelsea thereafter. His replacement, Trent Alexander-Arnold, stepped in seamlessly and delivered another hugely encouraging display, showing a maturity far beyond his years as he dealt comfortably with everything thrown at him while also offering an effective attacking outlet.

For Klopp to be able to take off Mané, Coutinho and Salah early with the result already secured is a luxury Liverpool aren’t used to, but the introduction of Emre Can, James Milner and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (not to mention Lallana or Daniel Sturridge) was evidence of the strength in depth Liverpool have (everywhere but centre back) which will prove crucial for the gruelling winter schedule.

Liverpool appear to be developing a very useful habit of picking up points against lesser opposition without having to play at their absolute finest, instead finding a way to simply exert their superiority and control games from start to finish. Sterner tests lie ahead- particularly with Chelsea next up in the league- but Liverpool have now built a platform upon which to build and put together a sustained run of form.

We haven’t seen Liverpool hit their peak yet this season, but recent signs suggest they are gathering momentum just at the right time as the chaotic festive period looms large.

 

Dissecting Liverpool’s Emre Can contract stand-off

Reports from various reliable outlets in recent days have suggested that Liverpool are increasingly resigned to the prospect of losing Emre Can on a free transfer upon the expiry of his contract next summer. Negotiations have dragged on for months on end but appear to have now reached an impasse whereby the German’s departure looks like an inevitability unless there is a drastic change in circumstances very soon.

The sticking point seems to have centred not around Can’s wage demands, but on his insistence on the inclusion of a release clause in a new contract, to which Liverpool have refused to back down. The situation now leaves Can free to open talks for a pre-contract agreement with other clubs in January to secure his future ahead of the summer in which he will no doubt hope to play a major part for Germany at the World Cup.

The situation is clearly far from ideal from Liverpool’s perspective, although it is arguably a product of a summer transfer window in which several high profile players- none more so than Philippe Coutinho- were prevented from securing big-money moves elsewhere and held to the terms of their current contracts.

In doing so, Liverpool kept hold of a key asset for another season, with Coutinho’s form prior to his recent injury suggesting he will continue to be a hugely important player for Jürgen Klopp for the time being. The fallout from this transfer saga- and others, including that of Virgil van Dijk and Alexis Sanchez- means that other players are more likely to demand release clauses when signing future contracts to avoid finding themselves in similar scenarios.

It’s a very difficult one for Liverpool to manage. On the one hand, losing Can for nothing will be a heavy blow given his current market worth is probably in the region of £40-50 million. After years of inconsistency and development from the raw talent Liverpool paid £9.8 million to sign from Bayer Leverkusen in 2014, Can has finally begun to fulfil his vast potential as a supremely gifted midfielder.

To see him leave Liverpool just as he enters his prime years, playing his best football elsewhere, effectively undermines FSG’s entire philosophy of unearthing talented young players on the cheap before developing them into the finished article. Can is not yet the finished article, of course, but having put all the graft into his development up until now, it would be a great shame to see him reach his peak level at another club.

It’s difficult to know quite how good Can could become, as he still has a tendency to fluctuate quite considerably in his performance level- although 2017 has been by far his most consistent year so far. On an off day, he can be hugely frustrating with his lack of positional discipline, rash tackling and tendency to take too much time on the ball.

At his very best, however, you can see how he might one day become one of Europe’s very best in his position. His ability to drive past opponents on the ball with a rare balance of physical strength and elegant technique, along with his penchant for long-range strikes and impressive passing vision make him a fearsome prospect to behold.

Some would argue that he doesn’t perform at this level often enough to warrant a regular place in the Liverpool side, although at 23 it’s easy to forget how much time he still has to improve and perform consistently. Indeed, it was Can who regularly stepped up and delivered crucial performances in the second half of last season to help drag Liverpool across the line to a top-four finish, while his contributions in the play-off tie against Hoffenheim this season were pivotal in securing a return to the Champions League.

The problem Liverpool have, however, is that granting Can his wish of a release clause would set a dangerous precedent for future contract negotiations. By giving him an easy exit route, the likes of Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah could be justified in requesting likewise when they begin new contract talks. You might be able to keep Can for another season or two, but the knock-on effect of institutionalizing release clauses is not something Liverpool can afford to do for the sake of keeping one player. Of course, in theory the release clause could be set at an astronomical price- but the likelihood of the player actually agreeing to that would be slim.

There’s also the question of whether you really want to keep hold of a player who is so keen to have a release clause in their contract, as it hardly indicates a steadfast commitment to Liverpool’s long-term ambitions, which, ultimately, is what Klopp is there for. He’ll want players who actively want to be a part of what he’s building- not just to use Liverpool as a convenient bridge to their next career step.

From the player’s perspective, it’s perhaps even more difficult to analyse. If wages aren’t the issue- as reported- it seems unlikely that game time is the main factor, either, as Can is almost always a nailed on starter for Klopp when fit and available. Whether he might want further assurances with the impending arrival of Naby Keita on the horizon, is a possibility, but given his ability you would expect he’d be prepared to fight and keep hold of his place in the midfield. He also seems to have a good relationship with Klopp and you could rarely ever question Can’s commitment on the pitch for Liverpool.

The possible clubs mentioned as suitors- the likes of Juventus, Bayern Munich, Man City and Borussia Dortmund- reflect how highly he’s thought of by the continent’s elite teams, but the question around a guaranteed starting spot seems even more complex at these clubs where the competition is likely to be even more extreme than at Liverpool (less so in Dortmund’s case).

Of course, it may well be a case of feeling he has more chance of winning silverware elsewhere, but Can is hardly at the level of Fernando Torres or Luis Suarez who were quite clearly the best players at the club and could justifiably argue they deserved to be playing for one of the very best sides in the world. Can still has a long way to go until he reaches that status and at present, I would argue he’s not even in Liverpool’s top five players.

If Liverpool do manage a highly successful season (i.e. another top-four finish, progression to the Champions League knockout stages and perhaps winning the FA Cup), Can could still have a change of heart. At present, though, it looks unlikely and it’s difficult to escape the feeling that Liverpool fans will massively regret seeing him play elsewhere in the future.

Whether negotiations could have been handled differently to avoid reaching this stage is difficult to assess. It seems as though the club are very keen for him to sign, but not at the expense of their principles, while Can doesn’t appear to be actively pushing for a move- but is more than happy to move on if he isn’t offered the release clause he desires.

It’s a frustrating and unfortunate situation, but a case where Liverpool standing their ground at the cost of losing one talented individual might well be the only option. The arrival of Naby Keita means Liverpool already have a genuine top-class midfielder secured, although the likelihood of Coutinho also leaving means the midfield will need further surgery next summer- perhaps with the addition of Schalke’s Leon Goretzka who has been touted by many as an ideal replacement for Can.

For the time being, Can remains an important player for Liverpool’s aspirations this season and any suggestions that he should be “phased out” given his likely departure are misplaced. He can still play a crucial role for Klopp until next summer and while his likely departure will be a considerable blow to take, Liverpool cannot simply bow down to his requests and must safeguard their position for future negotiations.

It’s a messy and unfortunate situation- and from a personal perspective it would be a huge disappointment to see Can leave next summer- but one which is ultimately bigger than any one individual.

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Jürgen Klopp’s tactical tweaks have helped Liverpool regain momentum

Following the 4-1 drubbing at the hands of Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley, Liverpool were firmly installed as the media’s “crisis club”. A season which had initially promised so much appeared on the brink of coming off the rails with Jürgen Klopp under increasing pressure to quickly find a solution to his side’s struggles.

With Liverpool leaking too many goals at one end and misfiring at the other, a change in system seemed a necessity given that the personnel at Klopp’s disposal cannot be changed until January, at least.

Three games in the space of a week against Huddersfield, Maribor and West Ham simply had to yield three wins in order to get Liverpool’s season back on track. On paper, these are the kind of fixtures Liverpool should be expected to take maximum points from but the reality in recent seasons has suggested otherwise. Breaking down compact, stubborn opposition whose sole objective is to frustrate Liverpool and defend in numbers is never an easy task.

Yet Liverpool have found a way to put three wins together, each by a three-goal margin, despite not playing scintillating football and without several key players including Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana. One major criticism of Klopp during his tenure at the club has been a tendency to stick with the same system regardless of the kind of opposition- a “one size fits all” 4-3-3 formation.

When all the necessary component parts are fit and available, it all clicks perfectly and Liverpool have shown themselves to be an irresistible force when at full flow. The problem has been that this system has proved fragile, in that it often requires Liverpool to be at their very best in order to get results, leaving them exposed when not executed properly.

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Klopp’s favoured 4-3-3 shape has regularly seen Henderson left isolated in the midfield at times this season, creating too much space for one player to cover and consequently leaving the defence without adequate protection. With both full-backs bombing forward to support the attack, the balance seemed too heavily weighted towards attacking, with the back line too easily exposed by a simple ball in behind and centre backs dragged into wide areas where they don’t want to be. The likes of Manchester City, Sevilla and Spurs all exploited this systematic imbalance.

Against Huddersfield, however, a small tactical tweak from Klopp saw Gomez remain far more conservative in his positioning, tucking in almost as a third centre-back for much of the game and rarely venturing forward beyond the halfway line, creating a much more compact defensive structure which compensates for the weaknesses in individual personnel, to a degree.

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This meant Liverpool always had three bodies back at all times, while the inclusion of James Milner meant he could drift out to the right and provide some of the natural width which would usually come from the full-back. At times Liverpool’s shape appeared more like a 3-4-3 in possession, with Milner and Moreno occupying typical wing back positions.

A similar system was again used to good effect against Maribor- albeit with a slight change in personnel- before Klopp once again tweaked the system more significantly against West Ham.

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The surprise inclusions of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sadio Mané in the starting lineup saw Klopp try something we haven’t seen before, deploying what was predominantly a 4-2-2-2 shape with two pacey wide men and a front two of Mohamed Salah (a role he played numerous times alongside Edin Dzeko for Roma) and Roberto Firmino, both of whom would frequently interchange and pull out wide, making them almost impossible for defenders to pick up.

At times, Oxlade-Chamberlain would shift infield to form more of an orthodox midfield three, with Mané pushing up to join the attack, while the robust combination of Emre Can and Gini Wijnaldum provided a solid foundation for Liverpool’s more explosive players to play with freedom going forward without leaving too much space in behind.

It was noticeable how both Moreno and Gomez held their positions much closer to the centre-backs, rather than marauding up the wing, instead choosing their moments more carefully for when to join the attack. Other than one defensive lapse by Gomez, Liverpool again looked far more secure at the back and were able to largely dominate the game with a balanced system which allowed them to control all areas of the pitch.

Under Klopp, Liverpool have developed a tendency to lurch between the extremes, as regulation, run-of-the-mill victories against lesser opponents have not been all that common. In the space of a week, Liverpool have churned out three comfortable wins, scoring ten goals and conceding just one without having to be anywhere near their very best level.

Tougher challenges are still yet to come, with a home clash against Chelsea on the horizon soon after the international break, with Liverpool needing a statement result against a top four rival to truly kick on and continue climbing up the table.

However, if Liverpool can continue to pick up mundane victories in the manner they have been able to against the likes of Huddersfield and West Ham, that will bode very well for the remainder of the season as this is where most of the points are there to be won.

Although sometimes accused of being too stubborn and one-dimensional in his tactical outlook, Klopp has shown flexibility in his approach, setting his side up to control games, stay patient and wait for the breakthrough without having to blow teams away, in the knowledge that by keeping a solid foundation and not allowing themselves to be over-exposed, Liverpool’s superior individual quality will usually be enough to pick up the points against the vast majority of sides the come up against.

 

 

Is Mohamed Salah’s exceptional start becoming underrated at Liverpool?

Wednesday evening. An important Champions League tie at Anfield in which Liverpool are fully expected to take another three points from Maribor- yet the visitors are far more stubborn than they were on home turf and make themselves a difficult challenge for Liverpool to break down. 0-0 at halftime and a sense of frustration starts to emerge.

Just four minutes into the second-half, however, Liverpool find that moment of genuine quality to make the breakthrough. Trent Alexander-Arnold delivers a promising cross from the right flank and it’s absolutely no surprise to see Mohamed Salah on the end of it, deftly flicking the ball into the bottom corner on the volley with a sumptuous piece of technique after making a trademark intelligent run to get himself into a scoring position.

It was Salah’s 10th goal of his debut season at Liverpool in his first 15 starts (16 appearances in total), with three assists to his name as well. For context, that’s the same record as Fernando Torres and three more than Luis Suarez managed in his first 16 appearances at the club. Yet Salah isn’t even a striker by trade, even if he finds himself taking up central goalscoring positions on a regular basis. For a wide forward to be hitting these numbers so soon after arriving represents a phenomenal start to life at his new club.

The extraordinary thing about Salah is that despite such a prolific return, there has been a significant focus from fans and pundits alike about his supposedly “poor” or “wasteful” finishing and that he ought to be converting more of the big chances he has missed. While it’s true that Salah has spurned numerous excellent opportunities, what he’s essentially being criticised for is not having a goal tally on the level of Lionel Messi. Had he scored even half the big chances he has missed so far this season, he’d probably be nearing 20 goals already and on his way to a Ballon d’Or.

This is a player Liverpool signed for £36.9 million, it’s worth remembering. Salah’s pace and intelligent movement is what allows him to get in the situations where he is expected to score with such regularity. Of course, he could be more clinical but the simple fact is he is performing at a level which puts him among the very best in the world in his position. In fact, his conversion rate of 27% is considerably better than Cristiano Ronaldo (10%), Lionel Messi (19%) and Harry Kane (14%).

Of all the “wide forwards” in Europe, only Neymar- the one who cost nearly £200 million- has more goals (11) in all competitions than Salah (10) so far, with Raheem Sterling equal in second place having also hit his 10th of the season against Napoli on Wednesday evening. Having joined a new club, learning a new system under a new manager with new teammates, Salah has hit the ground running and is delivering a goal return better than virtually every other winger in Europe apart from the world’s most expensive player of all time.

The likes of Luis Suarez, Ronaldo, Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappé, Gareth Bale, Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery, Alexis Sanchez and Eden Hazard all have fewer goals to their name than Salah at the time of writing, nearly all of which are unanimously considered “world class”- or at least have been until very recently.

Since after the 2013-14 season, Liverpool’s highest goal scorer in a single season has been Philippe Coutinho with 14, last season. In 2015-16 and 2014-15 respectively, the top scorers in all competitions were Daniel Sturridge and Steven Gerrard (both 13 goals). The fact that Salah is already on 10 with seven months of the season left to play is quite remarkable in that context.

There is, of course, always the threat of injury especially given the kind of explosive player Salah is and the number of minutes he’s getting, but should he remain fit for the vast majority of the remainder of the season, a tally of 40 goals is not unfeasible. When he first signed, something around 15-20 would’ve been considered a very decent first season at Liverpool and he’s not far off achieving that already.

He’s scored all kinds of goals, too. Poacher’s finishes inside the six-yard box. Running the length of the pitch before coolly slotting the ball home against Arsenal. A bullet header from a near-impossible angle against Leicester. An exquisite first touch to control a long ball before rifling in a low finish against Burnley. A flicked volley from a cross against Maribor. A side-footed finish on his weaker right side against Spurs at Wembley.

The debate is often raised around whether Liverpool require an orthodox striker with a more prolific goal return than Roberto Firmino and yet this negates the fact that Firmino’s movement and work rate is a key part of the reason why the likes of Salah and Sadio Mané are such a constant goal threat, benefiting from the space and opportunities opened up by Firmino.

Had Liverpool spent £60 million on a “traditional” number nine in the summer- perhaps Timo Werner or Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang, for instance- most fans and pundits would be lauding their impact had they managed 10 goals in their first 15 starts. It seems, almost paradoxically, that because Salah is a wide player, he’s getting far less credit than he deserves for his performances thus far and the speed at which he has settled in and made such a telling impact.

The focus on his end product is not to even mention his exceptional first touch, spatial awareness, dribbling in tight spaces, physical strength, work rate and one-touch passing, all of which make him such an incredibly dangerous player for defenders to deal with.

Having already won every player of the month and goal of the month award for Liverpool, along with two Champions League player of the week awards, Salah’s impact is clearly not going unnoticed. Yet there still appears to be a reticence to fully praise what he’s achieving as though his missed chances somehow discredit what is an outstanding goal return of its own accord.

It’s very easy to take for granted having a winger who’s currently scoring a goal every 1.5 games, but the reality is that only one player on the planet in the same position is managing more than Salah in that regard. It’s not often a transfer can be regarded an unmitigated success- especially given value for money- so soon into the season, but Salah can surely be considered among Liverpool’s very finest acquisitions this century, even if he isn’t fully appreciated just yet.

At 25, you would expect his development to continue on an upward trajectory and in all probability, in still adapting to his new surroundings, he’s got another few gears to go through still. It’s a frightening prospect to behold.