VAR isn’t perfect- but it’s a hugely positive step forward for football

This is an article I’ve been meaning to write for some time, and following the fracas which unfolded last night in the aftermath of Spain vs Morocco and Iran vs Portugal surrounding the use of VAR in both games, now seems like the ideal opportunity to discuss my thoughts on the matter.

At this juncture, I would strongly argue that overall, the implementation of VAR at the 2018 World Cup has been a significant net benefit for the tournament thus far. Up until last night’s events, I think public opinion would generally tend to agree that it has been a positive thing and has been used in a much more efficient and effective manner than was the case with its implementation in the FA Cup last season.

As far as I can count- and I have probably missed a few incidents- there have been 12 instances in this World Cup to date where VAR has been used by the referee to either award a penalty, to overturn a penalty decision, to award a goal or to disallow a goal. I have listed the incidents below:

France penalty vs Australia (scored): awarded for a foul which the referee initially did not give

Peru penalty vs Denmark (missed): awarded for a foul which the referee initially did not give

Sweden penalty vs South Korea (scored): awarded for a foul which the referee initially did not give

Iran goal vs Spain, disallowed for offside

Egypt penalty vs Russia (scored): awarded for a foul inside the box, after the referee had initially deemed it to have taken place outside the box

Australia penalty vs Denmark (scored): awarded for handball which the referee originally did not give

Brazil penalty vs Costa Rica overturned for diving, after the referee had originally given a foul

Iceland penalty vs Nigeria (missed): awarded for a foul which the referee initially did not give

Portugal penalty vs Iran (missed): awarded for a foul which the referee initially did not give

Spain goal vs Morocco allowed, after it had been initially ruled out for offside

Iran penalty vs Portugal (scored): awarded for a handball which the referee initially did not give

Now, from a personal perspective, having watched all of these incidents, I would say that only the Iran penalty awarded for handball against Portugal was an incorrect decision after the use of VAR.

Others might make a case for other incidents being less clear cut, but I would say in 11/12 of these cases, the correct decision was made after the referee had used VAR.

That’s roughly a 92% success rate, by my estimations, on decisions which the referee had initially got wrong, and was able to correct by consulting with VAR.

Of course, there have also been a handful incidents where VAR has missed fairly obvious fouls inside the box, most notably with Tunisia’s manhandling of Harry Kane in which England should plausibly have been awarded two penalties on the night, neither of which went to VAR review.

It is not perfect, and does not result in 100% refereeing accuracy. That is impossible, and the claim that VAR is somehow meant to eradicate all errors and controversy from the sport is absurd. That was never the purpose of VAR, and nor will it ever be, such is the nature of football. There will always be an element of controversy, to some extent.

Here, I’ll tackle some of the common issues and debates around VAR.

1. VAR doesn’t make any decisions- it is a tool to assist referees in making a more informed judgement.

This is perhaps the biggest misconception around VAR, and one which, bafflingly, many pundits and commentators continue to perpetuate and therefore misinform TV audiences, with false narratives such as “VAR has given a penalty”.

VAR stands for Video Assistant Referee system- it is not an autonomous piece of machinery and it has no power to make any kind of decision on any given incident.

VAR is comprised of a team of officials- in this case based in Moscow- who watch the entire match from dozens of different angles and will communicate with the on-pitch referee regarding an incident where they believe a clear and obvious error has been made, which needs to be reviewed.

The referee can then halt play, before re-watching the incident on a monitor on the side lines, after which he can either stand by his original decision, or change his mind having obtained new information. That’s all VAR is- a facility which enables referees to view more replays before making a decision, rather than relying on a snap judgement which is often incorrect.

That does not mean they will necessarily make the right call- as seen with the Portuguese ‘handball’ vs Iran- as the final decision is a subjective one made by the referee. VAR only serves to let the referee make a better-informed judgement.

2. VAR disrupts the flow of the game- but it’s for good reason

Of course, VAR disrupts the flow of the game by stopping play to review an incident, but it does so in order to allow referees a much better chance to make a correct call which could end up defining the match.

It’s a worthy and necessary use of time- unlike diving, and surrounding the referee with complaints- and for the most part in this World Cup, the delay caused by the referee consulting VAR has usually only been around 15-30 seconds and the efficiency of the system will only improve as it becomes more mainstreamed within the sport.

Refereeing without VAR still disrupts the flow of the game regardless, as referees consult with the linesman about a penalty incident which they are unable to review on a monitor (see the lengthy stoppage at the end of Liverpool’s 2-2 draw vs Tottenham at Anfield last season).

There is a legitimate concern around the passage of play between the incident and the decision to consult VAR- for example, when Sweden were retrospectively awarded a penalty against South Korea, the referee had to stop a South Korean counter-attack to pause play and review the incident.

What happens, in that instance, if South Korea score before the referee decides to give the Sweden penalty? That situation hasn’t happened yet, but is something which needs to be looked at as VAR becomes more widely implemented.

3. Just because VAR doesn’t get everything 100% correct, doesn’t mean it should be abandoned

VAR was never suggested as something which could completely eradicate controversy in football and ensure that no mistakes are ever made. It’s a false narrative invented by those who dislike VAR, and one which doesn’t make much sense at all.

As already discussed, VAR can never get anything wrong or right per se- it can only assist the referee in making a final decision after viewing additional replays. Mistakes can still be made, but that is the fault of the referee’s judgement, rather than the VAR system itself.

I would suggest that VAR has enabled referees to overturn at least 10 decisions they had initially got wrong in this World Cup, and in two cases (the Denmark handball vs Australia, and the Portugal handball vs Iran), the referee has still made a pretty questionable call.

That’s more an issue relating to the lack of clarity around the handball rule, however, than an inherent issue with VAR, which, once more, only serves to let referees make better-informed decisions (which they might still get wrong, but much more often than not they get correct).

Saying that VAR is ‘useless’ or ‘nonsense’ just because some incorrect decisions are still made- despite the vast majority it allows referees to get correct- is almost like saying CCTV should be abandoned because crimes are still committed and it takes too long to review the footage.

It is not 100% error-proof, and it never claimed to be so. The net benefit, in terms of decision-making, still makes VAR a hugely positive addition to football based on the evidence from this tournament so far.

4. VAR sanitizes the game and removes an element of debate and excitement… or does it?

This was a common argument about VAR before the World Cup- that introducing technology to reduce the likelihood of human error reduces the debate and discussion which has long been a part of football due to controversy around refereeing decisions.

Personally, I find this argument absurd in any case, as having bad refereeing decisions influence games just so people have something to talk about at the pub afterwards is hardly a solid case against VAR.

The great irony is, of course, that VAR has, if anything, made this World Cup even more exciting and controversial, rather than sanitizing football and reducing the scope for debate.

As I have outlined, it has got the vast majority of decisions correct, and the tension and anticipation as the referee pauses the game for a short amount of time to review an incident before (usually) overturning his original incorrect decision has actually added something quite enjoyable and dramatic to the experience- somewhat akin to the build up of anticipation as a decision is reviewed with Hawk Eye technology in tennis.

5. VAR is still in the very early stages of its evolution- it requires patience

The current version of VAR is far from perfect and as discussed, there is plenty of scope for the system to be tweaked and improved in the future, before it (hopefully) rolls out across all of Europe’s major leagues (it is already in use in Serie A).

The most obvious areas for improvement are in reducing the time frame required to make the decision, and to clear up exactly which incidents it can and should be used on.

There is also scope to make it clearer to fans inside the stadium what is happening, to avoid that element of confusion when no one is quite sure what is going on, and there needs to be a clear protocol for what happens if, for instance, there is a goal or another significant incident during the passage of play between an incident and the referee’s decision to stop play to review the incident on the recommendation of VAR.

I am firmly of the belief that allowing referees to make better-informed judgement calls on incidents which define games of football is absolutely a hugely positive step forward for the sport and will significantly improve the accuracy of how football is refereed in the future.

What is required is patience and balanced debate, rather than outright, poorly-reasoned dismissal of VAR as ‘nonsense’, just because people are highly sceptical about it and, understandably, uncomfortable about the idea of quite a significant change to the way the sport is officiated.

One cannot continually get frustrated and upset about referees making poor decisions which influence the outcomes of games, while also being so vehemently opposed to the introduction of technology which reduces the likelihood of incompetent refereeing influencing results.

It has its issues, and it is far from perfect, but already, this World Cup has shown how VAR can drastically reduce the scope for human error in deciding games of football by giving referees the information to make more informed decisions. That can only be a very good thing.

Real Madrid 3-1 Liverpool: Match review

Sometimes, in football, in life, everything just goes against you. Liverpool had one of those nights in Kiev. It’s the nature of the sport. It can be cruel, brutal and soul-crushing. Those three words are an apt description of how this latest cup final defeat feels in the immediate aftermath.

Liverpool have been the best side in the Champions League this season. No team has ever scored more goals in this competition in a single season. The football, at times, has been stunning beyond anything we’ve ever seen. Manchester City, Premier League champions with 100 points, sent crashing out, 5-1. Porto demolished, 5-0. Roma, in the semi-finals, 5-0 down at Anfield. This kind of thing simply doesn’t happen at this level.

To win the trophy, though, you always need a bit of luck to get over the line in the final. It’s a game of fine margins. Real Madrid have become the masters of riding their luck and obtaining those fine margins over the past three years. Liverpool, on this occasion, were on the wrong side of pretty much everything.

It’s a really strong, aggressive start from Jürgen Klopp’s side. Real Madrid were second best by some distance, struggling to cope with Liverpool’s sheer speed and intensity. When Dani Carvajal lashes the ball out 40-yards for a corner under absolutely no pressure at all, you could tell Zinedine Zidane’s players were rattled. Karim Benzema put the ball out of play under no pressure, too. Cristiano Ronaldo was more or less invisible.

And then disaster struck. When your best player, your talisman, has to leave the field with a shoulder injury after half an hour, it’s a hammer blow of the heaviest possible kind. Sergio Ramos knew precisely what he was doing has he wrenched Salah’s arm round at a bizarre angle before hauling him to the floor, as evidenced by his knowing grin to the linesman immediately afterwards.

The impact on Liverpool was two-fold. Obviously, the attack carried nowhere near the same level of threat thereafter, as Adam Lallana’s lack of pace and match fitness severely limited Liverpool’s forward line. Perhaps most significantly, though, was the mental aspect of Salah’s injury.

The players were visibly shaken at their star player having to go off so early in tears. They knew they had an almighty battle on their hands to get the job down without the Egyptian’s sensational ability to call upon, and that was the pivotal moment upon which the contest turned on its head.

Real Madrid were given an enormous lift and began to strengthen their grip on proceedings, with Luka Modric and Toni Kroos demonstrating once more why they have been the best midfield duo in world football for several years now. Liverpool’s pressing fell off dramatically as they dropped deeper and deeper, with that initial spark of the early stages put out by the shock of Salah’s untimely departure.

That said, Real Madrid were hardly battering the door down before they were gifted the opener in the most absurd circumstances imaginable, as Loris Karius inexplicably rolled the ball into Karim Benzema’s outstretched knee, as it trickled slowly over the line in agonising fashion.

Sadio Mané briefly gave Liverpool hope after stabbing home the equaliser from a corner, and shortly after saw a superb effort cannon back off the post, only for Gareth Bale to come off the bench and score one of the greatest goals you’ll ever see, a sensational bicycle kick ruthlessly dispatched with a stroke of utter genius into the back of the net. Fine margins.

When something like that happens, there’s not an awful lot you can do but applaud a truly magnificent individual effort, for which no Liverpool defenders could take any blame.

It felt like a killer blow at the time, and was compounded by another howler from Karius as he spilled Bale’s dipping 30-yard strike into the back of his own net to cap off a nightmarish evening for the German keeper.

It was a harrowing sight to see him in tears, apologising to the away supporters for his costly errors and in truth, it’s difficult to see a way back for him now at the club given the likely damaging effect this will have on his confidence.

To see such disgusting abuse thrown in his direction via social media is a sorry indictment of the way supporters treat footballers online, and while such a performance at this level is inexcusable, those errors were not intentional and from a human perspective, he’ll be going through a quite horrible time and should never have to face such vile treatment from his own supporters.

In the short term, it’s a really bitter pill to swallow and it’s absolutely gut-wrenching that such a remarkable European campaign should end in such devastating fashion. It’s the feeling of regret, that Salah’s injury deprived everyone of seeing a fully fledged Liverpool side push Real Madrid all the way, and only saw a pale imitation of the side thereafter.

Yet the memories of this run, of Porto, of Man City, of Roma, will live on. None of that is taken away by this single defeat and those nights were up there with the most joyous Liverpool fans have experienced this century. Only one team can win this competition and for Liverpool to go so close, with a squad depleted by injuries to key players (and having sold Philippe Coutinho in January), while disappointing in the extreme to fall short at the final hurdle once more, has exceeded all expectations.

It’s been a quite incredible season and with new summer signings to come in and further bolster this already brilliant Liverpool squad, the club is still on a steep upward trajectory under Klopp, in the best shape it has been in for some time.

With Naby Keita set to arrive, and a likely move for Nabil Fekir on the horizon, this Liverpool side is still far from the finished product and will continue it’s exciting evolution next season and beyond. With Champions League football already secured one more for 2018-19, Liverpool are very much back, dining at Europe’s high table once more.

Right now it hurts, a lot. It will take a while to fully get over that feeling of dreams being crushed. But to lose a final, you have to be in the final. The whole point in following a football team is to live the kind of joy and elation Liverpool have delivered throughout this latest chapter in the club’s European history, which so few clubs ever get to experience.

It’s been one hell of a ride. This single result doesn’t change any of that.

 

 

 

Liverpool 2017-18 Premier League end of season review

Job done. For the first time since 2009, Liverpool have achieved back-to-back top four finishes and have guaranteed their place in the Champions League for the 2018-19 season, courtesy of the fact that 4th place in the Premier League automatically qualifies four the group stages.

Granted, it became a slightly more complicated task than it ever needed to be, as points were spurned against the likes of Everton, West Brom (from 2-0 up), Stoke, all of which could be attributed to a combination of tired legs from the Champions League exertions and the selection of players whose lack of minutes this season meant they lacked any kind of rhythm.

The defeat against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge set up a potentially nail-biting final day for the second season in a row, only for Antonio Conte’s side to buckle with just a point from the final two games versus Huddersfield and Newcastle, thus making the task at hand a whole lot more comfortable for Jürgen Klopp and his players.

Yet Liverpool still had a job to do against Brighton, not least to make certain of top four, but also to regain some lost momentum in recent weeks ahead of the Champions League final in Kiev in less than two weeks time. As final days of the season go, this was just about the perfect afternoon in every respect, as Liverpool became the only side in the entire English Football League to finish the season unbeaten in the league at home.

An emphatic 4-0 thrashing, with Mo Salah breaking the record for goals in a 38-game Premier League season (32; his 44th in all competitions), while Dominic Solanke and Andy Robertson bagged their first goals for the club. Klopp was even able to substitute the entire front three in order to avoid any unnecessary risk of injury, giving valuable minutes to the returning Adam Lallana, who appeared sharp and will be an important asset to have as an option on the bench against Real Madrid.

There should be absolutely no underestimating what an achievement this is for Liverpool. While top four is often treated as the minimum expectation, the reality is that there are six strong sides in this league now- including two financial behemoths in the Manchester clubs- and that to finish in the top four is a difficult feat in isolation.

But to do so while also reaching a Champions League final with a squad down to its bare bones due to injuries to the likes of Joel Matip, Emre Can, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Joe Gomez- and until recently, Lallana and Nathaniel Clyne- is a remarkable accomplishment which deserves enormous credit.

The physical and mental energy this group of players have expended in order to reach the Champions League final has been vast, such that there has been an inevitable drop off in the league form. To haul themselves over the line- and to do so in the end with a five-point cushion over Chelsea- represents another season of significant progression, despite the slightly lower points tally in comparison to last campaign.

To put this into context, no English side has finished in the top four AND reached the Champions League final since 2011. On top of that is the fact that Liverpool have by far the lowest net spend out of any of the top six clubs since 2014, with £18 million. Spurs are 5th in that period with an overall net spend of £50 million, while Chelsea (£119 million) and Arsenal (£166 million) still linger well behind the two Manchester clubs, both of whom have a net spend of over £400 million in the same period.

What Klopp has done since his arrival in 2015 is to bridge this financial divide through astute signings and improving players on the training ground, building an identity and a distinct brand of football which has produced some of the most scintillating and memorable performances of any Liverpool side in many a year.

Consider that Liverpool’s two first choice full backs this season have been an £8 million signing from relegated Hull City and a 19-year-old academy product, both of whom have been outstanding and look set to be permanent features of the side for the foreseeable future.

We’ve witnessed Loris Karius display the kind of form which earned him his impressive reputation in Germany, while James Milner’s magnificent midfield renaissance has been another unlikely success story in a season largely dominated by the sheer and utter genius of a certain little Egyptian signed from Roma for what is now a scarcely believable £36.9 million.

It’s an individual season from Salah which goes down in the history books having surpassed even the very wildest of expectations. It’s now almost laughable to think that there were some doubts and concerns from some corners when Liverpool were initially linked to him. 44 goals, 14 assists and several cabinets full of individual accolades- including the prestigious PFA Player of the Season, and of course the Golden Boot- Liverpool have themselves a bonafide, world-class superstar who must now be considered alongside the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in the highest echelons of the elite bracket of the world’s finest footballers.

He’s scored virtually every type of possible goal, both against the lesser sides and in the biggest games in high-pressure moments, while his goalscoring exploits have also been astonishingly consistent across the course of the campaign, scoring against 17 different sides in the league (another record) with his longest goalless run being just three games (which has only happened on two occasions). There aren’t really enough words to describe his genius.

It speaks volumes of Salah’s brilliance that Roberto Firmino has developed into a world class number nine with 27 goals to his name, and yet finds himself only the second best player for Liverpool this season. The Brazilian’s unique skillset mark him out as the perfect fulcrum of this Liverpool attack, as it is Firmino’s movement, pressing and linkup play which creates the optimum environment for Salah to thrive.

Sadio Mané, meanwhile- Liverpool’s Player of the Season last time out- has somewhat been overshadowed by both Salah and Firmino, enduring a patchy first half of the season before finding his groove and adapting his game to fulfil the role of a quasi-number-ten link man between midfield and attack, knitting play together and taking up unorthodox pockets of space in slightly deeper positions, rather than playing as an out and out winger. His sheer intelligence- as well as his obvious physical and technical assets- make him such a precocious talent who remains a vital cog in the machine Klopp is building.

It speaks volumes of what Liverpool have achieved that Philippe Coutinho’s name has hardly been mentioned since his £149 million move to Barcelona in January- a decision which has seen the side move on to another level in his absence. While many were deeply concerned about the lack of a direct replacement at the time and the potential impact on Liverpool’s top four and Champions League prospects, Klopp has been absolutely vindicated in letting a player go who had made it clear he did not want to be a part this project any longer.

In came Virgil van Dijk, whose impact in his first half-season since his protracted transfer from Southampton finally came through, has been nothing short of sensational. The Dutchman has been entirely unphased by his status as the most expensive defender all time, such that the £75 million price tag is barely ever spoken about these days.

Winning 72.6% of his duels, van Dijk has the highest duel success rate of any player in the Premier League and on top of that, his Xabi Alonso-esque raking passes and Jamie Carragher-esque leadership and organisational qualities have made him a tremendous acquisition, fully justifying Klopp’s choice to stay patient and wait for his man, rather than sign an alternative centre back in the summer.

Although van Dijk alone has not been the saviour to all Liverpool’s defensive issues, he has certainly played a significant role in transforming the back line and instilling a new sense of assurance and confidence in the way Liverpool defend, such that set pieces are no longer a cause of panic.

Quite incredibly, Liverpool have conceded the fewest goals (22) of any side in the last 29 league games and have therefore had the best defensive record in the league for 75% of the season after the early hammerings against Man City and Spurs away from home. It’s a stunning statistic and one which defies the general narrative around Liverpool’s defensive frailties, and one which, if Liverpool can continue and build upon next season, could be the crucial difference in sustaining a serious title challenge.

The other obvious area for improvement lies in the number of points dropped at home by drawing games against the likes of Burnley, Everton, West Brom and Stoke. A few penalty decisions wouldn’t go amiss, either, as Liverpool end the campaign having won just one penalty at Anfield (fewer than Spurs), with some quite staggering fouls completely ignored by referees who appear hellbent on ‘proving’ how they won’t be swayed by the Kop- an absurd and worrying trend.

There has been a plethora of joyous moments to saviour, from Ragnar Klavan’s 94th minute diving header winner against Burnley away, to the second-half blitz which demolished Man City at Anfield, to Salah’s stunning four-goal haul against Watford in the snow. Upon reflection, those two 2-1 victories against Leicester City and Burnley either side of New Year’s Day stand out as pivotal games in terms of defining how the remainder of the season played out, as Liverpool dug in and scraped out 6 points despite being well below their best level.

The only real sour note come the end of the season is the cruel injury to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain whose debut season has been a pleasure to watch, overcoming much initial scrutiny and unjust criticism to become an integral part of the side, bringing pace, drive, dynamism and creativity to the midfield, forging a hugely promising relationship with Salah.

Reports suggest that Chamberlain won’t return until November at the earliest, which is an enormous blow both for the player, who now misses the Champions League final and the World Cup (in which he would probably have warranted a starting spot), as well as Liverpool. Both on and off the pitch, he has shown himself to be a class act, immersing him in the values of the club and becoming a genuine favorite among the supporters.

We find ourselves at what feels like a critical juncture in the club’s modern history, living through what is one of the most enjoyable and exhilarating periods supporters have experienced in a long while. Most importantly, none of this feels like the end of the road, or a flash in the pan, rather it is just the latest step forward in a journey of perpetual progression under Klopp which has seen the club catapulted back among Europe’s elite, and well on the way to re-establishing themselves as a regular Champions League outfit.

For prospective transfer targets, it’s a hugely attractive proposition and there can be few players in world football- other than those already at the very top clubs- who wouldn’t want to be a part of this project, playing alongside this group of players for this manager. Klopp has restored that elite status and with Champions League football on offer once more, one can expect a couple of significant acquisitions to follow in the footsteps of the incoming Naby Keita in the coming weeks.

Whatever happens in Kiev now, Liverpool have already achieved their basic objective at the start of the season and have yet another European campaign to look forward to next season. There is an ever growing sense that something truly special is brewing and while Pep Guardiola’s centurions will present a formidable obstacle once, there is every reason to believe Liverpool are positioning themselves for a serious title tilt as City’s strongest challengers next season.

The Reds are on the march.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Roma 4-2 Liverpool (6-7 agg.): Review

A lot is spoken about the state of the modern game and the manner in which football clubs at the elite level have morphed into global institutions, a sport largely shaped by who has the superior financial resources, increasingly detached from the supporters who comprise so much of what defines a club’s very existence.

What Liverpool did in Rome on Wednesday night went beyond reaching a European Cup final for the eighth time in the club’s history. The image of the players standing in front of the away support, holding a banner in Sean Cox’s name (as requested by Jordan Henderson), is one that will live long in the memory.

Here are a group of footballers who have experienced the greatest night of their professional careers together, creating their own piece of history. They choose to come out from the dressing room and share this moment with the supporters who have followed them, driven them on throughout this remarkable European campaign.

There’s Trent Alexander-Arnold, a 19-year-old kid playing for his childhood club, having played a prominent role in reaching a Champions League final against Real Madrid, going absolutely berserk in front of the away end alongside 18-year-old Ben Woodburn, dancing to the soundtrack of Allez Allez Allez. Two teenagers from the academy, quite literally living the dream.

It’s worth taking a step back in times like these in order to fully appreciate the magnitude of what this Liverpool side has achieved. Just over three years ago, Liverpool lost 6-1 against Stoke City in Steven Gerrard’s final game. It felt like the beginning of a slow, painful slide towards mediocrity while the chasm between Liverpool and their so-called rivals appeared vast.

Step forward into the present, and Jürgen Klopp has elevated the club right back into Europe’s elite in what is just his second full season in charge. The scale of transformation in such a short space of time is phenomenal. Just think- which prospective transfer target wouldn’t want to be a part of this team?

To be in this position is beyond the wildest expectations of even the most optimistic of supporters. A lot of people, a lot of football fans- most in fact- will never get to experience anything like this. So drink it in.

There are thirty-two teams in the Champions League group stages. Financial behemoths such as Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester United, and Manchester City. There’s perennial Italian champions, Juventus. Lionel Messi and Barcelona. All have fallen and just two remain.

Liverpool have reached this position with resources vastly inferior to the aforementioned sides. A 19-year-old academy product at right-back. A left back signed for £8 million from Hull City. A goalkeeper and a centre back in Loris Karius and Dejan Lovren whom many had completely written off and were consigned to the proverbial waste bin of players deemed not worthy of wearing the shirt.

A captain in Jordan Henderson who has been widely lambasted beyond all reason throughout virtually the entirety of his Liverpool career, whose leadership has been clear for all to see throughout these past two knock-out rounds in particular, stepping up to the plate and making himself counted on the very biggest stage.

This is a Liverpool squad down to its bare bones in terms of numbers. Joel Matip and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain out for the season. Emre Can seemingly having disappeared from the face of the earth and almost certainly heading for the exit door this summer. Adam Lallana- so influential last season- has barely kicked a ball this time round. Nathaniel Clyne, likewise.

In January, Liverpool sold Philippe Coutinho- arguably the best player at the club for the past three seasons or so- to Barcelona for £149 million, and decided not to pursue a direct replacement. Klopp believed his squad would be able to not only survive in the Brazilian’s absence but progress to another level. The way in which Coutinho’s departure acted as a catalyst for a new-found sense of unity and cohesion within this Liverpool side and the supporter base is worthy of recognition. To lose a player of that quality and achieve what Liverpool have done in the second half of this season speaks volumes of both the manager and the players.

It has been no ordinary European campaign. Many dismissed the two 7-0 wins in the group stage against Maribor and Spartak Moscow by focusing on the relative lack of quality shown by the opposition, but the fact of the matter is that these results simply do not happen in this competition. Those two 7-0 wins were a precursor for what was to come.

Champions League knock-out ties are supposed to be cagey affairs. A 0-0 draw away from home would be considered a decent result for most sides. Perhaps a narrow 1-0 lead to take into the second leg. At this elite level, sides very rarely ever run away with the tie in the first leg. Liverpool, though, don’t play by these rules.

Liverpool’s opponents in the qualifying round- Hoffenheim- had gone an entire Bundesliga season undefeated at home. Porto, Liverpool’s opponents in the last sixteen, still remain unbeaten at home domestically this season. Manchester City are on target for a record points tally having already been crowned Premier League champions with games to spare.

Liverpool 6-3 Hoffenheim

Liverpool 5-0 Porto

Liverpool 5-1 Man City

All of them systematically dismantled by the ruthless genius of Mané, Salah and Firmino, supported by a cast of grafters behind who provide the platform which enables them to unleash their explosive attacking talent.

And then on to Roma. Favourable opponents over Bayern Munich or Real Madrid, sure, but that comeback against Barcelona, sending the Catalans crashing out with a sensational 3-0 victory at the Stadio Olimpico, was repeatedly cited as evidence that they should not be underestimated.

To their credit, Roma gave a strong account of themselves over the two legs. To haul themselves back into the tie from 5-0 down at Anfield was impressive. It’s not easy to go away from home with a three-goal lead. Roma were always going to throw everything at it, playing without fear and with nothing to lose. Liverpool, by contrast, had everything to lose. This is not a side built to defend a lead by sitting back and soaking up pressure.

Prior to the second leg, Roma had not conceded a single goal at home in the Champions League all season. Liverpool, though, chose not to play by the rules once more. Sadio Mané’s strike settles the nerves early on, and it’s Gini Wijnaldum’s first ever away goal since joining the club which ultimately ensures Liverpool emerge victorious over the two legs. You could not write it.

In truth, the final 7-6 scoreline flatters Roma somewhat. There should be no mistaking that they were deservedly beaten by Liverpool, even if they did manage to make things excruciatingly close right at the death. The penalty against James Milner in the first leg is very fortunate, and the one given against Ragnar Klavan is absurd. Milner’s own goal- amusing as it is in retrospect- was another significant slice of luck in Roma’s favour.

They would argue that Alexander-Arnold ought to have been sent off for blocking a certain goal with his hand, which also would have resulted in a penalty. Edin Dzeko was also felled in the box by Karius, only for the linesman to award an incorrect offside decision. Liverpool, though, were denied a stonewall penalty of their own when Mané was barged to the floor in the opening few minutes by Kostas Manolas.

Overall, this tie was not decided by the referee, but by the gap in quality between the two sides, which ultimately saw Liverpool prevail by a smaller margin than ought to have been the case. Critics will point towards Liverpool’s defensive lapses in conceding four goals on the night, but when a side like Roma are playing without any fear and launching everything within their power at goal, chaos can ensue.

Virgil van Dijk emerges from the tie having fully justified his decision to join Liverpool over Man City. He has played a pivotal role in this European campaign and looks worth every penny of the £75 million Liverpool paid to make him the most expensive defender of all time. It doesn’t phase him, at all.

For every single Liverpool player, this was a collective triumph of resilience and determination in a scenario they have never faced before. You could see it when they collapsed to the floor at the final whistle in exhaustion, just how much energy was poured into this endeavour.

And so Kiev is the reward. Real Madrid, a side littered with superstars and a pedigree of delivering in the crucial moments of the very biggest games, lie in wait. The previewing of that fixture can wait for another day. There will be lots of talk between now and then about Klopp’s poor record in the finals, but to lose a final requires reaching a final, and the fact is that Klopp has defied all the odds in reaching this stage for the second time in his five seasons managing in this competition.

Now is not the time to overthink what lies ahead, but to relish the present and take in this spectacular feat in all its resplendent glory thus far.

Man City 1-2 Liverpool: Match review

Liverpool. Champions League semi-finalists. The first time in a decade. Back among Europe’s elite. The only English club remaining in the competition. From 32 teams down to four, and Liverpool are there, dining at the high table once more.

You don’t have to step back very far in time to a point where Liverpool supporters wondered whether these days would ever arrive again. The memories of Rafa Benitez, Istanbul and Athens felt increasingly consigned to the past, as opposed to something Liverpool could realistically hope to achieve one more in the near future.

It’s difficult to overstate the scale of what Jürgen Klopp has achieved here. When the quarter-final draw came out, pitting Liverpool against the bookies’ favorites for the competition in Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, the odds were stacked heavily against Liverpool. It was in every way, the toughest possible scenario.

This City squad is the most expensively assembled squad in the history of the game. That point is worth emphasizing. They’ve strolled their way to the league title and already have one domestic trophy in the cabinet this season. For Sheikh Mansour, Guardiola and the players, Champions League glory is the essential objective in their quest to transform City into a genuine European powerhouse.

Liverpool, by contrast, steeped in European heritage, have walked this road before. In the first leg, Anfield showed how this identity endures, harnessing a unique, collective willpower beyond anything any other English club is capable of producing.

The first leg was beyond a Liverpool supporter’s wildest expectations. Yet the sense of anxiety heading into the return leg was fever-pitch. The possibility of throwing away a historic European night, surrendering such an unlikely 3-0 advantage, was a prospect too excruciating to contemplate.

When you think of the worst possible scenario, Gabriel Jesus follows that very script with the early goal every single Liverpool supporter was dreading. What followed was up there with the most nail-biting, stomach-churning halves of football you are ever likely to witness from a Liverpudlian perspective.

Wave after wave of City attack, Guardiola’s unorthodox, front-heavy formation suffocating Liverpool with an ever-tightening vice-like grip of immense pressure. Any time Liverpool did manage to get hold of possession, the ball was like a magnet, immediately sucked straight back into City’s control once more. There was no way out.

Bernardo Silva rattles the post from distance. There’s a couple of penalty claims from Raheem Sterling. Leroy Sané has a goal controversially chalked off for offside. Liverpool rode their luck to an extreme at times, but solace could be found in the fact City had not managed to build on their 1-0 lead when the referee blew for half-time.

That whistle came at the perfect time for Liverpool and whatever Klopp said, or tactically tweaked, a different side came out in the second half, playing with a renewed sense of bravery and determination to see this job through.

It was always the case that Liverpool needed to find the back of the net just once to put the tie more or less to bed. While the supporters were consumed by nerves, this mantra will have remained at the forefront of those on the pitch wearing red. No need to panic. Score once, and it’s over.

When the opportunity finally arrives, in the 56th minute, there is no other man on that pitch with the clarity of mind and technique to execute what will go down as an iconic Liverpool goal. It’s a sublime demonstration of skill and composure from Mo Salah, who stands still, drinking in the adoration of the rapturous away end, the coolest man in the stadium.

It was he who started off this two-legged victory, and he who finished it off. It’s what separates the great players from the very top bracket of world class. Stepping up in the most crucial moments, deciding the fate of contests of this magnitude. As soon as that ball nestles in the back of the net, City are down and out. There is no coming back.

Roberto Firmino adds the sheen to a stunning victory by sliding home the winner on the night, ensuring that Liverpool would not merely secure their passage to the semi-finals, but do so with a statement of intent that will have the continent stand up and take notice.

That’s three wins against Guardiola’s City in a matter of months. Twice in a week. The symbolic and psychological aspect of this is significant when it comes to challenging City next season. They are not the indomitable force many assumed only weeks ago.

There are so many individual performances to pull out, worthy of individual praise. Trent Alexander-Arnold, a 19-year-old academy graduate, repeatedly targeted throughout both legs, emerges as one of the standout players from the tie. It’s a quite incredible display of maturity which announces his arrival as a player capable of performing on the very biggest stage, whose future is without limits.

In Andy Robertson, Liverpool have a left-back who five years ago was playing in the Scottish third division, signed for £8.5 million from relegated Hull City. He too emerges as one of the outstanding players from this tie, a remarkable success story for Liverpool’s scouting department, embodying the tenacity and resilience which saw his side emerge triumphant.

Let’s talk about Dejan Lovren, also. This is a player who has been written off time and time again, widely lambasted by supporters and the wider media, deemed not good enough to play for a club of Liverpool’s stature. On the night, he is Liverpool’s man of the match, delivering an immense performance of bravery and focus on the biggest night of his professional career. It’s a display worthy of tremendous credit, a demonstration that he is capable of performing at the very highest level.

Alongside him, Virgil van Dijk is involved in City’s early goal, but is an island of calm and assurance thereafter, commanding those around him and marshaling the defence with the authority of a player very much living up to his status as the world’s most expensive defender.

In midfield, Klopp was without arguably his two first-choice central midfielders in Jordan Henderson and Emre Can- the two figures you would probably most want to start when protecting a 3-0 lead. Instead, Gini Wijnaldum- signed as an attacking midfielder from Newcastle just two seasons ago- was tasked with shielding the back four, up against two of the finest playmakers the Premier League has ever seen in David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne.

On either side, there’s James Milner, having a midfield renaissance beyond all expectations as he enters the twilight of his career, covering more ground than any other player. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, widely ridiculed when he first arrived at Liverpool, playing his first season as a central midfielder, putting his body on the line for the cause.

The front three need no description of their own.

It’s nights like these that players and supporters live for. It’s why Liverpool are a European heavyweight. For all City’s superior financial resources and superstar individuals, they could not match it, despite throwing everything at it.

When every Liverpool player is standing their, in front of the away fans at the end, clapping along to ‘Allez, Allez, Allez’ and celebrating with the supporters, it’s a really rare and special moment. For many of them, it’s probably the best night of their professional careers and they’re choosing to share it with the fans, drinking it in.

When their players are walking off the bus to the sound of a megaphone blaring out pop music, into a shiny, spaceship-like stadium lined with plastic flags, it just isn’t the same. Atmospheres like that produced in the first leg at Anfield do make a difference. That kind of thing cannot be fabricated by corporate attempts to artificially generate something of the sort.

There is something strange about this City side, so supreme in their title triumph, but now with a prevailing sense of a season which promised so much, now somewhat underwhelming. It’s almost as if they are so used to winning comfortably, that whenever anything goes wrong- as has happened three times in the past week- it does not compute, and they malfunction.

As for Liverpool, there is nothing left to fear. Of course, Roma are now the favorable draw for the semi-finals, but having conquered the previous favorites for the competition, Liverpool have demonstrated that they are capable of beating anyone and they will continue to believe that is the case.

There was an excellent quote from Klopp after the game, as he said:

“The Champions League is not about perfection. It’s about the result.”

It’s a message worth reiterating. Liverpool will likely have to beat either Bayern Munich or Real Madrid if they are to make it Number Six in Kiev in May. Both of these sides are individually superior, but as both Liverpool and Roma have shown this week, that matters little in this competition.

Liverpool are just three games away from European glory now. There is every reason to believe they can go all the way. They have already surpassed all expectations.

Whatever the conclusion of this tale, it’s been one to savor.

 

Liverpool 3-0 Man City: Match review

These are the nights upon which Liverpool has built its European heritage as a club. Manchester City arrived at Anfield with the most expensively assembled squad in the history of football, managed by a man who is widely regarded as the very best in the business. It’s important to place this context at the forefront of analyzing this tie.

Much of the pre-game talk suggested that City were simply too good a football team to be overawed by the occasion, intimidated by a vociferous, hostile Anfield crowd on a European night. History has shown countless great sides crumble under such atmospheres. As it turned out, City would be no exception to that tradition.

Just imagine being on that coach. The extra confidence boost it must give you to have 50,000 fans roaring you on like that before, during and after the game. And then the opposite effect for the City players.

The sea of red passion which lined the streets of Anfield transferred to within the stadium, a wall of ear-splitting noise orchestrated by 50,000 supporters hellbent on doing absolutely everything possible to influence the outcome of the game. Intimidate the visitors, inspire the players in Red. That’s the mantra of all this- and it worked.

City began relatively brightly, up until Mo Salah opened the scoring in front of the Kop after 12 minutes to send the crowd into raptures. Guardiola’s side disintegrated both mentally and physically in the 20 minutes that followed; a collection of world class footballers having the greatest season of their careers, transformed into a quivering wreck of nerves- regularly misplacing simple passes- by a unique chemistry of supporters and players performing in tandem to their very highest level.

That first goal only happens because of Firmino’s determination to never give up on a loose ball, stealing ahead of Kyle Walker to prod a pass toward’s the lurking Salah. The Brazilian’s pressing was almost superhuman in the opening 45 minutes, to the extent that City simply could not play out from the back in their usual, calm manner.

There’s something romantic, mystical even, about 11 footballers driven on to such heights by an atmosphere like that, elevating themselves to a level with which the opposition- regardless of their wealth of quality- simply could not live with.

When Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain rattles in the second from 25-yards, City are not just unnerved, but their confidence completely and utterly shattered by the red storm unfolding around them. It’s an absolute thunderbolt from a player who was widely mocked for his transfer fee when joining Liverpool, now stepping up to the plate with a magnificent all-round performance on the biggest stage against the highest caliber of opposition.

City’s midfield of Fernandino, Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva have been virtually unplayable for much of the season; two of the best the Premier League has arguably ever seen, supported by one of the best anchoring midfielders around. Vastly superior in individual ability to Liverpool’s trio, they were unable to deal with the sheer relentless pressure they were put under throughout the first half. They were overrun and outplayed.

When Sadio Mané headed in Liverpool’s third on the night from Salah’s sumptuous chipped pass, the annihilation was complete. From that moment on, Liverpool had the commanding lead they could only have dreamed of. It would be a test of game management, discipline, and concentration for the remaining hour of the contest- qualities which Liverpool have long been accused of lacking, particularly against opposition of the highest quality.

If the first half was a demonstration of Jürgen Klopp’s blueprint of sensational, ruthless attacking football, the second half was equally impressive in terms of the manner in which Liverpool were able to dig in and withstand constant pressure from a City side desperately looking for an away goal to salvage a disastrous start to the tie.

Every single Liverpool player stepped up to the plate and made their contribution. Trent Alexander-Arnold put in one of the greatest performances by a Liverpool right by in many a year. He came in for plenty of criticism after recent games against Manchester United and Crystal Palace, and City clearly targeted him here with constant diagonal balls to isolate him one-on-one against one of the most precociously gifted wingers in world football at the moment, in Leroy Sané.

Trent dominated that battle all game, gettering the better of Sané time and time again with perfectly timed tackles, headers and interceptions. It was a remarkable display of maturity and passion from a 19-year-old kid, representing his hometown club, in the biggest game of his career, up against some of the most expensive footballers of all time. It was a performance to be proud of, in the extreme.

On the other side, Andy Robertson was typically terrific, exploiting Guardiola’s decision not to start Raheem Sterling by marauding up the left-flank throughout the first half. City could not deal with his bullish, driving runs, while he remained resolute as ever in his defensive duties in the second-half, effectively rendering City’s right-hand side impotent.

In the centre of defence, Virgil van Dijk delivered the kind of imperious display you would expect from the world’s most expensive defender, winning 100% of his duels and providing the commanding, composed presence which helped Liverpool successfully preserve a crucial clean sheet under immense pressure.

Alongside him, the much-maligned Dejan Lovren delivered the finest performance of his Liverpool career with aggressive, front-foot defending, constantly in the right place at the right time to clear any danger that came his way. He proved that he is capable of delivering at the highest level and he must now sustain this level if Liverpool are to progress further in the competition.

In front of the back four, Jordan Henderson gave a superb captain’s performance, snapping into challenges and breaking up play to stifle the threat of De Bruyne and Silva alongside James Milner, whose performances in midfield throughout the second half of this season have continued to surpass all expectations.

All across the pitch, there was quality and passion in abundance from Liverpool in order to manage the game so effectively after the first-half blitz.

This must go down as one of the all-time great Liverpool European performances; a display which will have made the rest of the continent stand up and notice. It’s a night of which the manager, the players and the supporters should be enormously proud. A collective spirit and unity that so few- if any- clubs are capable of harnessing to the same extent.

Importantly, the job is still only half done and the tie far, far from over. Liverpool, though, have put themselves in the best position they could possibly have conceived of at this stage. Something special is brewing.

Allez, allez, allez.

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.

 

 

Hector Bellerin and the Arsenal Fan TV fiasco

Over the past couple of days, there has been widespread attention across social media regarding comments made by Hector Bellerin about Arsenal Fan TV during a speech he gave at the Oxford Union last month. Although I am not an Arsenal supporter, I was fortunate enough to be there in person at the talk, so I thought I would share some thoughts on the reaction which has seen Bellerin come in for a hefty amount of criticism in recent days (much of which has come from those involved with the AFTV channel).

For those not aware, the Oxford Union is a debating society which invites speakers from all kinds of different backgrounds to either take part in a debate (usually political), or to give a talk about their career and personal interests, as Bellerin did. The Union is separate from the University of Oxford, although the vast majority of its membership is from the university.

There have been many high-profile football speakers in recent years, including Rio Ferdinand, Clarence Seedorf, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Edwin van der Saar. Bellerin is unusual in this context, in that it is very rare for a current professional footballer to speak at these events- most likely because any vaguely controversial opinions they might share will quickly be pounced upon and plastered all over the internet, as has happened with Bellerin over the past week.

It is probably no coincidence, therefore, that a scheduled talk by Mesut Özil this month has recently been cancelled. The reason for the cancellation has not been made public, but it seems likely that it may well be in response to the recent reaction to Bellerin’s visit. Özil is an even higher-profile figure than Bellerin and it is easy to imagine the fallout should he have made any controversial comments of note.

The majority of the time, when interviewed in the public domain- such as the post-match interviews on Sky Sports and BT Sports- players are well versed in delivering bland, pre-programmed responses such that they will avoid criticism and scrutiny around their choice of words. Very rarely will a player offer their own in-depth opinions or analysis after a game, as they will be trained to deliver the usual platitudes such as “we’ll have to work on this in training next week”, “I’m happy to have scored, but the team’s victory comes first”, or “we just take each game as it comes” etc.

Talks at the Oxford Union, by contrast, offer a platform for footballers to speak openly about a range of issues to an audience of several hundred young people, the majority of whom are in their early 20s. They will be asked a series of questions in an interview format to begin with, ranging from their experiences within the sport, to more general issues beyond the footballing sphere, before audience members are invited to ask their own questions.

When Bellerin was asked about his opinions on Arsenal Fan TV, this was a question raised by an audience member, to which he responded that he feels it is “really wrong” for an enterprise to be profiting from the club’s failures, thus questioning whether such people can really claim to be fans.

He also went on to say that people are perfectly entitled to make money as they wish, and that he only values criticism coming from his coaches, but that he is aware of the highly reactionary and often highly critical nature of Arsenal Fan TV.

The first thing to say, is that Bellerin is correct in a sense. Arsenal Fan TV does attract the majority of its viewership when Arsenal lose. Fans from other clubs will quickly flock to watch the videos every time Arsenal suffer a poor result to watch a variety of notorious figures vent their frustrations, often in an amusing manner, in front of a camera.

Arsenal Fan TV does also make money from this, of course, although the vast majority of contributors are not paid to speak on the videos. It is a platform which allows fans to have a voice as an alternative to mainstream media, and is inherently more emotive and strongly opinionated than traditional forms of football coverage.

Where I, and many others, disagree with Bellerin, is when he suggests it’s difficult to call someone a fan if they partake in such a platform which benefits financially when Arsenal underperform. Those who appear on Arsenal Fan TV- and other fan TV channels- are, for the most part, loyal and committed supporters who are fully entitled to give their opinion on the club to which they devote so much time and money.

Arsenal Fan TV also features heavy praise for players and their performances when the team wins, of course.

Bellerin, however, is entitled to give his own opinion in the same way that fans can openly and heavily criticise his performances. From his perspective, as a professional footballer, he is far less likely to be made aware of clips when supporters praise him and the team, than he is when he performs poorly and the team loses.

His view, therefore, is not fully informed and is heavily shaped by the negative side of Arsenal Fan TV and he most likely sees it purely as a source of wild, over-reactive criticism and even abuse, which he admitted he will often be sent clips of after a bad performance.

What I find most interesting and disappointing, though, is the manner in which a small comment he made as part of a 40-minute talk, is seized upon in a way which brands him as rude, disrespectful and detached from supporters. Throughout his talk, Bellerin covered a whole range of topics, ranging from mental health (i.e. how difficult would it be for a high-profile professional footballer to reveal they suffered from depression), a discussion of racism in football (with reference to the abuse suffered by Liverpool youngster, Rhian Brewster, with whom he shares an agency), his charity work (including raising funds for the victims of the Grenfell disaster) and the Catalan independence movement.

He came across as a thoroughly intelligent and well-spoken individual who clearly has an enormous amount of humilty and awareness of his fortunate position in society, speaking with honesty and intellect about topics far beyond his own career in the game.

I was also able to meet Bellerin in person before the talk, and he was both thoroughly engaged and laid back- a very easy person to get along with and not remotely pretentious or disinterested, as some footballers can come across.

I asked him about his toughest opponents in the Premier League this season (Richarlison was his answer), his thoughts on Spain’s chances in the World Cup (he said to keep an eye out for Isco as the key player of the new generation) and his experience of facing Mo Salah twice this season, to which he emphatically stated that the Egyptian is the signing of the season.

It is reflective of a wider scepticism towards footballers in general- often characterised as greedy and detached from supporters- that Bellerin has been the target of such criticism for what was a tiny proportion of his talk, while the rest- some of which was thoroughly insightful on some really important issues- is hardly even touched upon and discarded as irrelevant, while fans project their anger in his direction, ignoring the entirety of the wider context in which he delivered such comments (which, ultimately, was just an honest opinion for which he was asked to give).