Crystal Palace 1-2 Liverpool: Match review

In many seasons of recent years gone by, Liverpool do not come back to win that game. Selhurst Park has felt like something of a cursed stadium for Liverpool ever since the infamous debacle at the end of the 2013-14 season, but since Jürgen Klopp has arrived he has now won three consecutive games there.

It’s a ground which is right up there among the most hostile atmospheres of any Premier League club and as an opposition player, it cannot be a pleasant place to play football for 90 minutes. To be able to rise above that and come out with three points despite a performance which was well below par, coming off the back of an international break, speaks volumes of the mental resolve this Liverpool side have.

There was the comeback against Leicester at Anfield in late December, when Mo Salah’s brace delivered a crucial three points after Jamie Vardy’s early opener. Again, away against Burnley, Liverpool found a way to grind out three points in difficult circumstances thanks to Ragnar Klavan’s stoppage time winner.

Here, it was Salah who delivered the killer blow to send Roy Hodgson’s Crystal Palace plummeting further towards the drop zone, while simultaneously ensuring what could prove a hugely significant victory in terms of securing Champions League football for the Reds again next season, opening up a 10-point gap on Chelsea before their encounter with Tottenham Hotspurs on Sunday.

There was a sense of deja vu when Palace took the lead after 13 minutes when Loris Karius collided with Wilfried Zaha who had reached the ball first. It was a tactic which Man United deployed effectively at Old Trafford, targeting Trent Alexander-Arnold with long, diagonal balls into the right channel, and one which Palace were able to exploit multiple times on this occasion.

Luka Milivojevic made no mistake from the spot, dispatching an excellent penalty into the bottom right corner. As is often the case against lower quality opposition, when they are given a lead to protect, they can prove very difficult to break down as there is little incentive to commit many numbers forward. In truth, Zaha carried Palace’s attack almost by himself, constantly tormenting Alexander-Arnold with a wicked combination of speed and trickery.

The first half’s major flashpoint came when Sadio Mané picked up a booking for simulation in what was the first of a number of controversial refereeing decisions in the game. Mané’s leg had clearly been tripped up inside the box, but it was his theatrical and delayed collapse to the floor which drew the yellow card, as opposed to a penalty.

As both Jamie Redknapp and Graeme Souness explained at half-time, it was both a clear foul as well as an exaggerated reaction by Mané, who delivered one of the strangest individual performances of the season in a number of ways.

Indeed, it was Mané who ghosted in ahead of Mamadou Sakho to stab home the equalizer early in the second-half after superb work by James Milner to lose his man and deliver the cross, as Liverpool came out of the blocks quickly with a point to prove.

Palace responded well, however, and began to crank up the pressure themselves with Christian Benteke missing a couple of glorious, gilt-edged opportunities to make his mark against his former club, displaying a lack of composure and confidence from a striker who has scored just twice in the league all season.

A further bizarre incident involving Mané came as he found himself hacked down on the edge of his own penalty area. It appeared an obvious foul, only for the referee not to award a free-kick. Mané then decided to pick the ball up- a clear, deliberate handball- for which the referee correctly awarded a subsequent free-kick, but astonishingly lacked the conviction to issue a second booking.

Klopp intervened soon after to remove Mané from the action before he got himself a red card in what was a very sensible change. Adam Lallana’s rotten luck continued as he was forced off with what looked like a serious injury only three minutes after entering the fray, but it was another midfield switch which significantly changed the complexion of Liverpool’s forward play.

The midfield had been lacking creativity and spark throughout, before Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s introduction brought a much-needed injection of energy, drive and incision. Chamberlain had combined well with Milner to tee up Salah who was unable to get the final touch on the cross, but it was a warning sign of what was to come.

A draw would not have been a disastrous result for Liverpool here, but with the opportunity to make another significant leap towards securing a top-four finish up for grabs, there was never any chance of settling for a point.

Chamberlain delivered a precise, raking pass to Andy Roberston on the edge of the Palace penalty area, which the Scotsman cushioned perfectly into the path of Salah whose first touch and right-footed finish bore the hallmarks of a player who has the all-time Premier League record for goals in a season in his sights, bagging his 37th of the campaign in all competitions (29 in the league) to send the traveling Kop into raptures.

A crucial late interception from Virgil van Dijk and a last-minute tackle by Roberto Firmino, tracking back to his own corner flag, helped haul Liverpool over the line and withstand a barrage of long balls by a desperate Palace side to preserve the hard-fought victory.

It was one of those wins which feels very much like more than just three points, as Liverpool showed once again that they are capable of grinding out results on the rare occasions when their scintillating attacking play doesn’t quite click into gear.

It’s one more vital step towards that top four finish, helping maintain the positive winning momentum heading into the first leg of the Champions League tie against Manchester City. This was the first hurdle of a pivotal period for Liverpool, successfully passed, in the sweetest- if not most comfortable- of manners.

 

 

 

Debunking the Jordan Henderson myth

Here we are again. The international break. Otherwise known as a drab, Premier League-deprived, two-week period where England fans come together in a collective lambasting of Liverpool and England captain, Jordan Henderson.

Every. Single. Time.

Gareth Southgate announced on Wednesday afternoon that Henderson would occupy the captain’s armband for England’s Friday night friendly against the Netherlands (coincidentally with their newly appointed national team captain being Henderson’s Liverpool team mate, Virgil van Dijk).

Here are some of the replies on Twitter when it was announced.

Such profound, well-articulated, level-headed, well-informed insight from the England faithful. You wouldn’t expect anything less.

Let’s dissect the responses, then.

“One of the most average players in the league”, doesn’t quite add up when Henderson has more or less been an automatic starter for Liverpool for over half a decade now, including being an integral member of the 2013-14 side whose title challenge just so happened to fall off the rails when Henderson was suspended in the final few games of the season after a late red card in the win against Manchester City at Anfield.

“Someone who shouldn’t even own a pair of football boots”. Well, that just doesn’t make any sense, given he is literally a professional footballer (for a side in the last eight of the Champions League) who needs football boots to do his actual job.

“He wouldn’t even make the Scotland squad”. Really? I think you’ll find this is, again, factually incorrect, based on nothing but a bizarre hatred of a player who is repeatedly targeted by fans on social media in a way which often goes well beyond the usual level of criticism in football, to outright abuse.

Unfortunately, this abuse sometimes even comes from those who spuriously claim to be “Liverpool fans”. See below for a cursory glance at his Instagram after Liverpool lost to Spurs in October.

DNTBk_GWkAANCn4.jpg

Absolutely charming. Quite what these so-called “fans” are trying to achieve by dishing out vile abuse to a footballer- who is also a human being with normal feelings like the rest of us- I have no idea. You’d be naive to think they don’t read it, either.

Aside from the online abuse, there’s also a strange online obsession with Henderson as a player who apparently, only ever passes backwards. It’s one of those confirmation-bias perceptions which people are determined to prove in order to suit the viral, vitriolic anti-Henderson agenda.

So I looked up the numbers on Squawka to compare other holding midfielders from the top English clubs and found the following to be true.

Percentage of passes played forwards in the Premier League this season:

Jordan Henderson: 67%

Nemanja Matic: 68%

Fernandinho: 66%

N’Golo Kante: 62%

Mousa Dembele: 64%

So there we have it. Maybe actually watch Henderson play football for Liverpool and you’ll spot his raking, cross-field 50-yard passes which he executes multiple times every game to switch the play and set Liverpool on the attack, or the manner in which he can set the tempo of a game better than any other midfielder in the Liverpool squad with his incisive, forward passing.

Remembering that this is a player who, when last deployed in a more free-roaming role in 2014-15, racked up 14 assists and 7 goals from central midfield- a tally most top-level midfielders would be pleased with.

Then there’s the whole captaincy debate itself. The notion that it’s a “joke” that Henderson should be England, or even Liverpool captain.

Yet almost every manager throughout Henderson’s professional career has deemed Henderson worthy of the responsibility of being captain. He took on the armband at England U21 level. Brendan Rodgers made him Liverpool vice-captain before awarding him the full-time role following Steven Gerrard’s departure in 2015. Jürgen Klopp has since retained Henderson as his skipper, while Gareth Southgate has made Henderson captain of the senior England side on multiple occasions since Wayne Rooney’s international retirement.

As it stands, it’s currently between Henderson and Kane in terms of who will lead England at the World Cup in Russia this summer.

There is a reason for all this. Those who work with Henderson in the sport at an elite level on a daily basis respect and admire his qualities. He’s clearly well-liked and highly respected by his teammates, too, and conducts himself in a manner befitting of such a responsibility at Liverpool.

Leadership is one of those qualities which is almost impossible to define without any inside perspective on what a player does on the pitch. One can only assume that the reason Henderson has continually been entrusted with the captaincy role is that he fulfills the criteria his managers and team mates want from their skipper.

Never involved in any controversies and always one of the hardest-working players on the pitch, Henderson is a model professional. Off the pitch, he’s also an excellent club ambassador, as shown by messages such as that he posted to Liverpool fans via Instagram following severe travel disruption for away supporters after the away leg of Liverpool’s Champions League last-sixteen tie against Porto.

DWGjROFX4AElsDr.jpg

There are few figures better qualified to discuss Henderson’s captaincy credentials than Gerrard, who most would agree is Liverpool’s greatest ever club captain. Speaking in his 2015 autobiography, Gerrard said:

Jordan was one of the Liverpool players I cared about most. I always had a good feeling he would become a vital player for club and country. I could see a lot of myself in him.”

More recently, in February this year, following more public criticism of Henderson, Gerrard stated:

“I think we’re a better team with him in the XI, I think he brings an awful lot to the game that I appreciate as a midfielder.”

Taking on the captaincy role after Gerrard was always going to be an enormously difficult challenge, as Henderson constantly- and unfairly- finds himself judged against the credentials of his predecessor, whose status at Liverpool is virtually impossible to replicate.

Henderson is far from the perfect midfielder, but he is nonetheless a very good one. Any claims that he’s “average” or “mid-table” standard are quite simply, nonsense. The job he does in anchoring the Liverpool midfield is one of the most demanding roles arguably in the league at this moment in time, having to cover an enormous amount of ground to provide a solid basis for Liverpool’s scintillating, attack-oriented side to flourish, while also having to protect the back four, at times, almost by himself.

He’s had some poor games this season, as well as some very good ones. Injuries over the past three seasons have undoubtedly disrupted his ability to remain as a consistently influential figure, although those issues appear to have been less of an issue this season.

If you’re picking a Liverpool midfield to start against Man City in the Champions League quarter-final, Henderson, alongside Emre Can, is almost certainly in that starting XI.

The fact that England have few, if any, better options in terms of central midfielders capable of controlling games from deeper positions is not Henderson’s fault. He has never quite delivered his best performances at international level thus far, but at the present moment in time, he certainly warrants his place in the squad, and most probably in the starting XI.

You never see the same degree of mass-abuse for the likes of Eric Dier, John Stones, Kyle Walker or Adam Lallana, for example.

For Southgate, and for Klopp at Liverpool, Henderson remains a key figure and maybe, just maybe, those working in management have a more informed perception of his qualities as a footballer than those who perpetuate the mythical bandwagon of Henderson being the apparently ‘useless liability’ that Twitter might have you believe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The revival of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain under Jürgen Klopp

Rewind back to 31st August when Liverpool announced the signing of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain from Arsenal in a deal worth £35 million. From the Liverpool side, there was a mixture of cautious optimism and heavy skepticism about the hefty fee for a player with more question marks than answers around his ability to be a key player at a top English club. From the Arsenal side, his departure was largely met with derision and bitterness, with Chamberlain lambasted for “jumping ship” to a rival side.

Indeed, there was a rampant surge of wild criticism and abuse in the immediate aftermath of his transfer, at which point Chamberlain was only making brief cameos off the bench with his confidence sorely lacking. He was being widely mocked for “swapping one bench for another”, with many already writing him off as a total waste of money.

It’s indicative of the sheer lack of patience and wider perspective in football that Chamberlain was given such harsh treatment upon his arrival before he even had a chance to prove himself. Moving to a new city, playing with new teammates and under a new manager with completely different demands and a whole different style of football to what Chamberlain was used to at Arsenal; it was always going to take him some time to settle in and adapt at Liverpool, especially with the amount of media attention following his transfer.

Fast forward to the present, after the initial teething process, and Chamberlain has established himself not only as a useful squad player, but as someone who has a great deal to contribute to the first team at Liverpool, both now and for many seasons to come.

His breakthrough performance came in January’s momentous victory over Manchester City, in which Chamberlain tore through the City midfield before lashing in the opening goal from outside the box, before setting up Roberto Firmino’s second-half goal with a sumptuous outside-of-the-boot through ball from a deeper position to carve out an opening for the Brazilian.

Chamberlain was full of energy, dynamism and quality on the ball against arguably the strongest side in Europe this season, going toe to toe with the likes of Kevin de Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan and demonstrating his ability to perform at that elite level. The focus for Chamberlain has long been performing at a high level consistently, rather than just in flashes.

He had done so throughout much of November and December for Liverpool, before going off the boil somewhat after his virtuoso display against the champions-elect. In the past couple of weeks, however, Chamberlain has regained his groove with a fine display in the 4-1 thrashing of West Ham, in which he dribbled past four players before sliding a pass through for Mo Salah to score in the second-half.

He followed that up with another classy performance against Newcastle at the weekend, providing the spark which ignited what had been a cagey opening against Rafa Benitez’ well-drilled outfit. Aggressively driving through the heart of the midfield, Chamberlain used his pace and awareness to create an opening, electing to pick out Salah rather than shooting at goal himself.

The Egyptian did the rest and from then on, Liverpool strolled through the game at a canter, with Chamberlain at the heart of a dominant and assured team performance, looking every inch at home in the central midfield position he claims to be his strongest.

Chamberlain looks a far more confident player now than he has done for some time, and that surely has to come down to Klopp’s role in helping him use his strengths in his preferred role as part of one of the most exciting attacking sides on the continent- in keeping with the German’s proven track record of developing and improving players through work on the training ground.

In terms of distance covered, Chamberlain is running 7.43 miles per game for Liverpool, which is over a mile more than he was managing at Arsenal in the opening three games of this season prior to his transfer, while he is also averaging 69 sprints per game, versus only 50 sprints per game at Arsenal, demonstrating the extent to which he has bought into Klopp’s high-intensity brand of football. The transformation already has been stark.

He’s also taking on 2.15 shots per game, versus 1.60 shots per game at Arsenal last season, upping his shooting accuracy from 44% to 64%, again demonstrating his increased confidence in front of goal, and while scoring his still an area he must look to improve in, his tally of three league goals (four in all competitions) has already surpassed his highest total for a single season at Arsenal, while he also has six assists to his name.

Positionally, he looks increasingly aware of his role in the midfield trio, thriving with space to drive into in front of him and able to use his ability to pick out an incisive pass to any one of the front three, which suits him far better than when he is tasked with playing further forward in a wide role. In the past couple of league games, he has shown his ability to help control the tempo in midfield by constantly showing for the ball and playing simple passes, picking his moments to drive forward and commit defenders.

Importantly, there is still plenty of scope for Chamberlain to continue developing and further improvements are surely likely once he has a full pre-season of training under Klopp, rather than arriving at an awkward time as he did this season. His progression so far has been greatly encouraging, having left a club which now finds themselves in something of a crisis, instead taking a brave career decision to become an important part of an exciting team who are on a steep upward trajectory.

Beyond his progression on the pitch, his maturity and intelligence in his handling of the media have been befitting of his growing stature and already it seems as though his teammates value his positive influence as a member of the dressing room.

Although he is still far from the finished article, Chamberlain deserves great credit for knuckling down and taking a bold career move which has so far paid dividends. There is every reason to believe he can be an integral part of Klopp’s plans for years to come.