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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

An ode to Daniel Sturridge

It feels like it’s been a long time coming. Daniel Sturridge’s Liverpool career has been in steady decline for some time now and a parting of ways has seemed increasingly inevitable. Tonight, his loan move to West Bromwich Albion has been confirmed and in truth, he’ll almost certainly never pull on the Red jersey again.

It’s a move which makes perfect sense from the player’s perspective. He wasn’t getting regular minutes under Jürgen Klopp and at 28 he will want to be playing as much football as possible before he enters the twilight of his career. West Brom offers him that opportunity where he will be the undisputed star player, tasked with firing in the goals to keep the Baggies safe from relegation.

He’s a player with a point to prove and will be looking to force his way back into the England squad ahead of the World Cup in the summer, which will surely be his last chance to play in a major international tournament.

Born in Birmingham and with several family members living in the city, it’s very easy to see why the move was an attractive proposition for Sturridge. He deserves it, after all.

His Liverpool career is one which contained some sensational high points, and yet the overriding feeling is a sense of what might have been. Arriving from Chelsea in January 2012 for £12.5 million, Sturridge’s arrival was met with a mixture of scepticism and cautious optimism- clearly a hugely talented individual, but without the consistency to fully establish himself at a top club.

Instantly, Sturridge made his mark, scoring within 10 minutes of his debut and from that point he never looked back. 11 goals were plundered in his first half-season at the club and it was immediately clear that Liverpool had found themselves an absolute bargain.

With Luis Suarez suspended for the beginning of the 2013-14 season, it was Sturridge who stepped up in the Uruguayan’s place to spearhead Liverpool to three consecutive 1-0 victories. Once Suarez returned, the pair struck up a phenomenal partnership which will live long in the memory, with Sturridge racking up a remarkable 24 goals in what was the finest season of his career.

There’s no doubt about it- Sturridge at his peak was right up there among the very best strikers not only in the Premier League, but in Europe. He had it all. Blistering pace, trickery, vision, intelligent movement and devastatingly clinical finishing. He scored all kinds of goals, too.

His 25-yard chip against West Brom (somewhat ironically, now) is perhaps one of the great forgotten Liverpool goals of recent times- a finish of sublime quality which never quite got the credit it deserved. Only a handful of players in the world would even consider attempting such a shot, let alone execute it to perfection.

Liverpool might have fallen at the death in their pursuit of the title, but for Sturridge, his trajectory only looked upwards. Suarez left for Barcelona in the summer of 2014 and it was up to Sturridge to take the centre stage as Liverpool’s main man.

And then the injuries set in, of almost every type imaginable. Calf, hamstring, thigh, hip. You name it. Sturridge’s body all but gave up on him. The wriggly arms became a rarer and rarer occurrence, as Sturridge managed just seven league starts in the entirety of 2014-15. It should have been the season where he cemented his world-class status and yet looking back, it signalled the beginning of the end for Sturridge as a genuinely elite centre-forward.

Despite the overwhelming notion that Sturridge was never a natural fit for the high-intensity, pressing brand of football advocated by Klopp, the German’s arrival in 2015 saw Sturridge’s game time managed effectively as the injuries appeared to dry up to a degree. Klopp quickly ensured that Liverpool would no longer be reliant on Sturridge’s fitness, opting for either Roberto Firmino or Divock Origi as his preferred choices to lead the line, but Sturridge still had an important role to play as he bagged 13 goals in what was a mini-revival, making him the top scorer for the club in 2015-16.

Scoring in the Europa League semi-final victory at Anfield against Villareal, Sturridge helped Liverpool book their place in the final against Sevilla. That night will be remembered for Liverpool’s second-half capitulation, but it was Sturridge who opened the scoring with one of the great Liverpool goals of the 20th century. A stunning, outside-of-the-boot curler from outside the box, right into the far corner. It was a goal worthy of winning any cup final and it’s a travesty that it will ultimately be cast aside given the manner in which Liverpool collapsed in the second-half.

The following season, however, Sturridge once again found himself on the periphery of Klopp’s plans, consigned to a regular place on the bench, starting only seven league games in the whole of 2016-17. Even still, he made another vital contribution in his superbly taken opening goal in the crucial 4-1 win over West Ham in the penultimate game of the season, which proved pivotal in helping Liverpool secure their top four finish and consequent return to the Champions League.

This season, Sturridge’s demise has only continued and it’s impossible to blame the player for wanting to leave given the predicament he found himself in. Two goals in two games against Huddersfield and Maribor were rewarded with virtually no further first team action, with Dominic Solanke edging ahead in the pecking order despite never having scored a senior goal in English football.

Quite clearly, Sturridge is nowhere near the player he once was. The cumulative effect of his countless injuries over the past four years has visibly resulted in the loss of his pace and acceleration of old. He no longer possesses that explosiveness and ability to burst past players like he used to. For some time, he’s looked like a player never quite fully confident in his own skin, not able to trust his own body.

You’ll rarely ever see Sturridge sprint anymore, or make penetrative runs in behind opposition defences. He’s adapted his game to become more efficient but less dynamic in his movement and while he still possesses enormous quality as a finisher, so many of the assets which temporarily made him a world-class striker have been stripped away.

It is with great sadness, therefore, that Sturridge finally leaves Liverpool with a whimper rather than one last hurrah. There will always be a feeling of considerable regret that he was never quite able to fulfil his vast potential, which he only got to show for one season. He had all the ability to become a legend at the club, but physically his body could not sustain it.

A tally of 63 goals in 133 appearances (many of which came from the bench) is, nonetheless, a record to be proud of. While there have been numerous attempts at questioning his attitude over the years, based on very little evidence, Sturridge has also shown himself to be a hugely popular figure who has always given his maximum to the cause. His loss to the dressing room will surely be significant,

Liverpool wave goodbye to one of the finest footballers to have played for the club in modern times, as well as a genuinely good-humoured and likeable personality.

It’s been a pleasure.

 

 

 

 

Why Liverpool cannot afford to wait until the summer to reinvest the Coutinho money

It’s become a cliché line now that the January transfer window isn’t the right time to make signings, as the best players generally aren’t available and clubs will demand an extortionate premium to even consider selling their prized-assets half way through the season.

It’s a theory which, when you look at the actual evidence, doesn’t quite add up. Some of Liverpool’s best signings in recent years have come in January. Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho just to name a few of them. Virgil van Dijk has, of course, also finally completed his much-protracted transfer from Southampton to Liverpool for £75 million this month. Alexis Sanchez has joined Man United from Arsenal, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan going the other way in exchange. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang looks likely to be heading to the North London club too. Chelsea are reportedly close to agreeing a deal for Edin Dzeko.

It’s simply a myth that important signings cannot be made in January. Ultimately, if clubs offer enough money for a player they really want, there’s nearly always a price at which a deal can be done- as ultimately proven by Barcelona’s successful £142 million move for Coutinho, which was enough to persuade Liverpool to part with the Brazilian at such a crucial juncture in the season.

For Liverpool, it is absolutely imperative now that at least a significant proportion of that money is reinvested into the squad in order to maximise their prospects of success in the remainder of the season. With the top four race still in the balance and upcoming ties in the FA Cup and Champions League, there is a huge amount at stake for Liverpool and while recent reports suggest Jürgen Klopp might be content to wait until the summer to bolster his squad again, Coutinho’s departure significantly weakens Liverpool’s chances of winning a trophy and qualifying for the Champions League.

Waiting until the summer while sitting back and watching rivals strengthen, risks Liverpool perpetually building for the future without quite doing enough to achieve their goals in the present.

In selling Coutinho, Liverpool effectively lost two players in one, given the Brazilian’s propensity to play either in the front three or as the most advanced midfielder. Liverpool now find themselves in a situation where they are almost entirely reliant on all three of Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mané and Mo Salah to remain fit and available for the rest of the season, which is highly unlikely. Even if they do, issues of form and fatigue inevitably come into the equation.

The drop-off in quality for attacking options beyond the first choice trio is stark, with Dominic Solanke and Danny Ings hardly of the required quality, with the former never having scored a senior goal in English football and the latter having missed nearly two years through injury. Daniel Sturridge, meanwhile, appears well out of the picture and has been strongly linked with a move away to either Inter Milan or Sevilla this month, which would only further deplete Klopp’s attacking resources. Even when fit, Sturridge is miles off the player he used to be before the injuries took away his explosive pace and razor-sharp finishing.

Liverpool cannot, therefore, leave themselves so vulnerable that one injury to any one of the front three would be disastrous. The argument that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or Adam Lallana could fill that gap doesn’t hold much strength, given that both players do not supply enough goals or assists and are best utilised in the midfield positions.

With an initial £102 million banked from Coutinho’s sale, it would be negligent to jeopardise a season which holds so much promise, but is now so finely in the balance given the paucity of attacking resources at Klopp’s disposal beyond his first choice players. While January might not be the easiest time to find the best deals, it would be worth slightly paying over the odds for another premium forward option in order to ensure that Klopp retains the ability to rotate his forward options without losing too much quality- which has underpinned so much of Liverpool’s relative success so far this season.

With that in mind, here are a number of potential options Liverpool might look at- not all of the same style, and not all necessarily easy to acquire at this stage in the season- but players which, if Liverpool offered enough money for, could contribute significantly in the remaining months of the campaign.

1. The obvious choice- Thomas Lemar

It’s something of a mystery quite why Liverpool haven’t made their move for Lemar this month (unless they have done so in private without it being picked up by the English press). The Frenchman was strongly linked at the end of the summer transfer window and Monaco have continually made noises this month to suggest they would be willing to sell if the right offer came in, which recent reports suggest would be below the original £90 million figure quoted to Arsenal in the summer.

Lemar is not a direct replacement for Coutinho style-wise, but he could similarly operate as one of the wide options in the front three as well as an attacking midfielder. He’s more of a creator than a prolific goal scorer at this stage in his career, but at only 22 he has vast potential to develop further. His form for Monaco has been well below par this season, although injuries and persistent transfer links may well have a major part to play in that.

The idea that Liverpool might be prepared to wait until the summer for Lemar, if true, is a risky one, given that his price tag would surely sky-rocket if he has an impressive World Cup campaign with France. Even worse, were Liverpool to slip outside the top four spots this season, they would have absolutely no chance of landing a player like Lemar in the summer, regardless.

There have been rumours that Lemar would rather stay at Monaco this month to ensure regular playing time ahead of the World Cup- although he would almost certainly get plenty of game time at Liverpool were a move to materialise, given the volume of games that remain and the need for rotation.

If Liverpool could get a deal done this month, it would be a major boost ahead of the second-half of the season, allowing him half a season to settle in while immediately improving Liverpool’s attacking depth and giving Klopp the opportunity to potentially rest the likes of Mané or Salah in league games ahead of the Champions League, for which Lemar would be cup-tied.

2. The “Premier League proven” option- Riyad Mahrez

Liverpool have categorically denied their supposed interest in Mahrez this month, although this often been the case in the past before they have gone on to sign players. The Leicester winger has been consistently linked with a move ever since the Foxes’ title triumph in 2015-16, but it has never quite materialised. It’s clear that Mahrez would like to make the next step in his career and would surely have no qualms about swapping Leicester for Liverpool.

In terms of versatility, Mahrez doesn’t quite offer as much as Coutinho or Lemar in that he wouldn’t provide a realistic option in midfield, but he would certainly supplement the forward line with regular goals and assists from the right wing, significantly lessening the burden on Salah. At 26, he’s approaching the prime of his career and could still kick on a level alongside better players and Klopp’s proven track record of unlocking potential.

After an indifferent season last time out, Mahrez has been showing the kind of form which saw him named PFA Player of the Season in 2015-16 and has a wealth of experience in this league already. Mahrez also has the added bonus of being available for the Champions League if he were to join, although he would be cup-tied for the FA Cup.

It’s more of a gamble, but one surely worth taking and most likely Mahrez would not cost quite as much as the astronomical fee quoted for Lemar.

3. The previous target- Julian Brandt

Rewind to before last summer and Julian Brandt was widely reported as Klopp’s number one priority transfer target, only for the German winger to opt to remain at Bayer Leverkusen in order to keep up his guarantee of regular playing time, which would be more of a challenge at Liverpool.

It seems incredible now, but Salah appeared to be an alternative option rather than the very first choice and the Egyptian has quickly secured superstar status since his £36.5 million move from Roma with 24 goals already in his debut season.

Brandt, however, is surely still a player on Klopp’s radar and significantly he will be available for a free transfer in the summer of 2019 when his contract expires with Leverkusen. Were Liverpool to put an attractive sum on the table now, that could potentially tempt Leverkusen to take the money rather than lose one of their star assets for just the meagre reported £11 million release clause which comes into play in the summer, when they would also be at the mercy of Bayern Munich further asserting their hegemony in the Bundesliga by handpicking another excellent young talent.

The major sticking point would be the fact that Leverkusen are currently second in the table and chasing Champions League qualification- although as Liverpool showed with Coutinho and Barcelona, if the offer is big enough, more often than not there is scope for deals to be done.

4. The American dream- Christian Pulisic

Back in August 2016, Liverpool made a measly £11 million bid for Pulisic, widely regarded as one of the rising stars of the Bundesliga and the poster boy of American football. The diminuative winger has continued to build his reputation and is a player clearly admired by Klopp- and, apparently, by FSG who would be keen to have potentially America’s finest footballer of modern times from a commercial perspect.

Still only 19, Pulisic has already featured in the Champions League with Borussia Dortmund, also racking up 55 Bundesliga appearances and 20 international caps for the USA. He is still raw in many aspects- notably in terms of goal-scoring- but his sheer speed, supreme dribbling technique and versatility makes him a hugely promising prospect and one which would potentially be a key part of Klopp’s Liverpool side for years to come, while also being able to contribute in the short-term.

Dortmund are currently 6th in the Bundesliga, although only a point behind second place, but the propsect of not finishing in the Champions League places is more than possible and would be a factor in terms of convincing the player to make his move.

5. The wildcard option- Nabil Fekir

Fekir is enjoying a remarkable season with Olympique Lyon with 16 goals and 5 assists to his name in 19 Ligue 1 so far, who currently sit 2nd in the table behind PSG- against whom he recently scored in a stunning last-minute victory over the French champions.

Liverpool have not been strongly linked with Fekir before, but in terms of what he could offer he would bring a huge amount to the team. Able to operate across the forward line and as a number ten, Fekir brings prolific numbers from multiple positions and, crucially, could potentially operate in the central role in the forward line, able to drop deep and link between the midfield and the attack while also providing a goalscoring threat and creativity.

Liverpool don’t currently have an established, quality alternative to Firmino in that role and a player like Fekir would certainly bolster Klopp’s forward line significantly for the remainder of the campaign. At 24, again, he has considerable potential to continue to build on his current upward trajectory having recovered so impressively from a Cruciate Ligament injury which curtailed his 2015-16 season.

 

 

 

Coutinho’s departure: what it means for Liverpool going forward

So there we have it, at last. On 6th January, Liverpool confirmed they had reached an agreement with Barcelona for the transfer of Philippe Coutinho, with reports suggesting an initial, up-front fee of £105 million, followed by £37 million of plausible add-ons, taking the total package up to £142 million- making the Brazilian the third most expensive player of all time, after Neymar and Kylian Mbappé (£200 million and £167.5 million to PSG respectively). In truth, it’s been a long time coming.

Ever since the Neymar transfer in the summer, Barcelona have been aggressive to the point of outright disrespectful in their relentless pursuit of Coutinho, with the player clearly desperate to make the move to the Catalan club when the opportunity first arose. It didn’t suit Liverpool to sell in the summer, however, regardless of the fee- while Barcelona’s derisory offers were well below his market worth, anyway.

Back then, Liverpool didn’t have enough time to search for an adequate replacement and it was entirely in the club’s best interests to keep Coutinho heading into the new season. Had the offer been made right at the start of the transfer window, it may well have been a different story but such was the lack of time left that it never made sense to consider any of Barcelona’s offers. The cost was simply too heavy and keeping Coutinho- once is feigned back injury cleared up- would ultimately prove hugely beneficial in terms of his contribution to Liverpool thereafter.

For all the talk of the risks around forcing an unhappy player to stay at the club, Coutinho’s performances went up another level, regularly delivering world-class displays and prolific goal returns once he returned to the first team fold following his feigned “back injury”. In his 20 appearances this season (17 from the start), he has racked up 12 goals and 8 assists- thus averaging a direct goal contribution every game.

There are very few- if any- attacking midfielders of his ilk in the world capable of producing such impressive numbers, while also heavily influencing games in terms of his all-round contribution on the pitch. Coutinho has undoubtedly elevated himself to world-class status this season, having been previously a mercurial talent who only offered flashes of brilliance with a tendency to drift in and out of games.

Why, then, would Liverpool cash in on their prized asset this month, having fought so hard to resist Barcelona’s advances in the summer, with so much currently at stake? There’s a top-four spot to play for, along with the Champions League and FA Cup- for which Coutinho’s presence would enhance Liverpool’s prospects of success this season.

Liverpool held all the cards on this deal, with Coutinho having penned a new five-year contract in January 2017, with no release clause. There was never any obligation to sell right now at such a crucial juncture in the season and Jürgen Klopp’s overall project at the club. It didn’t need to happen.

Of course, it is simply impossible and counter-productive to keep hold of a player forever when he doesn’t want to be there. Mid-way through the season, however, seems an entirely unnecessary time to buckle to his commands, though. Liverpool could have dug in and kept Coutinho until the summer, before granting him his move at a time which would suit all parties.

That way, Liverpool would’ve benefited from his contribution for another five months, while the player would have been able to leave in a much more positive light than the toxic situation which has surrounded his protracted departure. Barcelona, meanwhile, have all-but-won La Liga already and cannot use Coutinho in the Champions League anyway. A January deal for a summer sale seemed like the obvious solution.

Yet when Coutinho decided to effectively go on strike, feigning another injury- this time his thigh- and refusing to travel to the club’s warm weather training camp in Dubai, the decision was made to cash in, rather than ride out the storm and dig in to keep him one more time. It’s a decision which ultimately prioritises the interests of the player and Barcelona, ahead of Liverpool’s own.

The ramifications of it are unclear, as of yet. It leaves a significant, gaping void in the squad, which needs to be filled this month if Liverpool are to maintain the positive momentum built up over the last couple of months. That means bringing in a high-quality replacement in January. With Monaco reportedly very reluctant to sanction any deal for Thomas Lemar this month, it’s not clear who that replacement might be.

There may well be a deal already lined up behind the scenes, of course, as was the case with the signing of Virgil van Dijk. One would think that given the amount of time Liverpool had to prepare for Coutinho’s eventual departure, they would have done all the groundwork to more or less tie up a replacement already. Whether that turns out to be the reality will become clear over the coming weeks.

What is abundantly clear, throughout all this, is that Klopp has allowed the deal to happen and therefore feels he is in a position to let a player of Coutinho’s quality to move on, without damaging what he’s building at Liverpool. For the FSG-sceptics, it might well seem that the Coutinho deal has effectively funded the Van Dijk acquisition, but all the evidence suggests that Liverpool were looking at Van Dijk well before Barcelona ever regiestered their interest in Coutinho. These owners are fully behind Klopp and thus the decision would not have been made without the manager’s approval.

Klopp’s statement explains his position very clearly:

“Players will come and players will go, that is football, but as a club we are big enough and strong enough to continue with our aggressive progression on the pitch, even when we lose an important player. We have never been in a better position in recent times, as a club, to react in the right way. We will use our size and strength to absorb moments like this and still move forward.

“I have been here long enough now to know in the history of Liverpool, key players have left before – but the club always goes on. You cannot transfer the heart and soul of Liverpool Football Club, although I am sure there are many clubs who would like to buy it.

“I have so much belief in the talent we have here already and even more faith, together with our owners, that we will make continued investment into the playing squad, which will allow more growth and more improvement.”

He is absolutely right in saying that Liverpool have not been in a better position to build from a setback like this for a long time. This is not the travesty that was losing Fernando Torres or Luis Suarez, as Liverpool have three elite tier attackers in their armoury in Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané. Coutinho’s loss is a heavy blow to take, but it need not be a fatal one.

Long-term, Klopp will have confidence in building a stronger, more balanced side, using the money wisely to buy players who want to play for the club and fit exactly into what he’s trying to achieve. There is a strong base to build from, and if smart reinvestments are made, Liverpool can move on from this and continue their upward trajectory.

In the short-term, however, it’s a major gamble for Klopp and one which could well define his time at Liverpool. Qualifying for the Champions League again this season is the bare minimum requirement, and to do so without Coutinho is now a much greater challenge than it would have been. That’s not to say it’s impossible- especially if Liverpool can bring in a quality replacement- but the task is undoubtedly more difficult now.

Importantly, any replacement would not be near Coutinho’s level, while they would need time to adapt, settle into the system and would also most likely be cup-tied for the Champions League. Clubs will also be fully aware that Liverpool have the Coutinho money in the bank and with it being January, they will surely look to drive up their prices should Liverpool coming knocking.

In the immediate-term, therefore, it’s difficult to see how Liverpool benefit from this, as Coutinho’s departure directly weakens prospects of success on all three fronts for the remainder of the season- even more so if a replacement isn’t brought in this month, with Klopp preferring to wait until the summer rather to get his ideal targets.

In terms of the player himself, the manner in which this has all unfolded is hugely disappointing- but perhaps unsurprising. It’s a well-documented fact that South American players ultimately tend to aspire to play for one of the big two clubs in Spain and for any player, an offer from Barcelona is one which cannot be turned down.

Coutinho has given Liverpool five years, but hasn’t won any silverware and approaching his prime years, he’ll want to be rectifying that fact by playing for a club virtually guaranteed of winning trophies year in, year out. Footballers have short careers, and for a non-local player with no pre-existing loyalty to Liverpool, it’s to be expected that he would do whatever necessary to make the move happen.

All that said, for a player who owes his development almost entirely to Liverpool, so widely adored by the fanbase, to fake injuries and make himself unavailable for the Champions League qualifier earlier in the season, and most recently the Merseyside Derby, is a real shame to see, and tarnishes his reputation to some extent.

While not quite on Suarez’ level, Coutinho is one of the finest players to have played for the club this century and it is with great regret, from a Liverpool perspective, that the best years of his career will be spent elsewhere. He will undoubtedly be a major success at Barcelona.

From a personal point of view, I’m hugely disappointed the deal was allowed to happen in January. I would’ve had no qualms with agreeing a deal to let him go in the summer, but such is the importance of the next five months that losing Coutinho in January places all that at great risk.

Ultimately, now, we have to trust that Klopp has a plan in place to deal with the loss of such a quality player without it derailing a season which holds so much promise. The focus has to be on securing a replacement as soon as possible- which doesn’t mean spending for the sake of it- but Liverpool cannot afford to wait until the summer to replace such an integral part of both their midfield and attacking options.

With 54 goals (many of which were phenomenal, long-range strikes) and 43 assists since his debut in January 2013, no player has contributed more than Coutinho in that time. It’s very easy to convince ourselves that everything will be fine and that his departure isn’t as severe a loss as many- myself include- suggest it to be, but make no mistake- Liverpool are bidding farewell to a truly outstanding footballer. That shouldn’t be downplayed. The coming weeks and months will fundamentally prove whether this has been a brave and well-calculated gamble, or a costly error.

Cheers for the memories, Phil. It’s a shame it had to end this way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Virgil van Dijk signs for Liverpool: comment

Finally, it’s official. News broke this evening that Liverpool and Southampton had been in advanced discussions over a deal for Virgil van Dijk, having repaired their relationship after the summer’s transfer fiasco. Significantly, the player still had his heart set on working with Jürgen Klopp despite strong interest from run away league leaders Manchester City. Within the hour, it was confirmed.

Van Dijk is a Liverpool player. £75 million- a world record fee for a defender. The Dutchman will join the club officially on 1st January, wearing the number four shirt. It’s the biggest statement signing of FSG’s tenure and crystal clear evidence that they are willing to back Klopp to the absolute hilt to get his prime targets, having now secured Van Dijk, Mo Salah and Naby Keita in a matter of months.

It’s about time Liverpool acted like a big club in the transfer market and regardless of whether the fee seems excessive, this was a deal which the club simply had to get done. For too long, the defence has been neglected with hardly a penny spent on investing in new players since Klopp’s arrival. At Anfield, the defensive record has been superb this season but familiar frailties on the road have already proven costly and with a Champions League last-sixteen tie on the horizon, Liverpool needed reinforcements in the centre back department.

Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and pay the asking price to get the best players- and Van Dijk is just about the best possible centre back Liverpool could realistically buy at this moment in time. Klopp has been patient in refusing to pursue alternatives in the summer and keep faith in his current options and finally he has his man.

It’s important to remember that Van Dijk hasn’t been in top form for almost a year now, with a severe injury curtailing his game time and subsequent form in early 2017, while his performances for Southampton have been below par this season- perhaps a direct consequence of having his head firmly on Merseyside, following the frustration of not been allowed to make his move in the summer.

The Dutchman will not immediately solve all Liverpool’s defensive issues but he will go some way to improving them. A new goalkeeper, for instance, is still something which needs to be looked at in the very near future. But Van Dijk’s arrival means a constant weak spot in this Liverpool side has finally been addressed- a centre back with virtually all the attributes needed to thrive in this Liverpool team.

It’s an expensive, but wholly necessary piece of the Klopp jigsaw- much like Keita. Van Dijk is a player Klopp can now build his defensive unit around for years to come. Not only supremely gifted in terms of his defensive instincts, quality in possession, aerial dominance and composure- Van Dijk is also a strong character and vocal leader capable of effectively organising a back line- qualities this Liverpool side has so often been accused of lacking.

Playing centre back in this Liverpool side, where the emphasis is heavily on attacking and scoring goals, is perhaps one of the most difficult tasks for any player in this league. They’re often left more exposed than centre backs for almost every other side in the league, without a solid midfield shield. To be able to play in such a system requires exceptional individual quality which the likes of Dejan Lovren in particular have been unable to consistently provide in recent seasons when tested by quality attackers.

Liverpool’s defensive structure under Klopp has gradually improved, such that they generally don’t give the opposition many opportunities in dangerous areas. However, a tendency for individual errors to gift opponents goals has proven costly on multiple occasions, which, regardless of tactics, can only truly be solved by buying better players.

It’s unrealistic for Van Dijk to immediately slot in and perform at his highest level. Klopp may choose to bed him in slowly at first until he adapts to the style of play and his new team mates. It’s also not clear who will be the main partner for Van Dijk once he fully settles in, given the impressive recent form of Ragnar Klavan alongside Lovren in Joel Matip’s injury absence. Matip would perhaps be the most obvious choice- another comfortable ball-playing defender- but crucially, Klopp now has a wealth of options in that department from which to choose.

In the short term, Van Dijk’s arrival could well be a game changer in terms of how far Liverpool can progress in the Champions League this season and how high up the league table they can finish. In the longer term, the club have acquired a centre back who has the potential- under Klopp’s management- to become one of the very finest in his position in Europe.

That he chose to stand by his desire to join Liverpool rather than taking an easy Premier League title by choosing Man City speaks volumes of his attitude and desire to be part of what Klopp is building here. Van Dijk should be afforded patience regardless of the transfer fee and it might take him a while to get fully up and running- some initial bedding in time should be accounted for.

It’s not only the most expensive transfer Liverpool have ever made, but a genuine statement of intent from both the owners and the manager that they are willing to do absolutely everything to give the club the best possible chance of competing for silverware, both domestically and on the continent, for years to come.

Anfield moaners and the home burden

Wednesday night was grim in every sense. The weather, the quality of football on show, the result. All of it was not conducive to any kind of great atmosphere, which is to be expected for a mid-week game against West Brom. Yet, the sheer amount of negativity, moaning and derision virtually from kick-off was unfathomable given Liverpool’s excellent recent form- despite the recent frustration of the Merseyside Derby.

As a disclaimer, Liverpool obviously should be capable of beating a dire West Brom side at home regardless of the atmosphere and although unfortunate once again with a key refereeing decision to deny Dominic Solanke the winner, they didn’t do nearly enough throughout the game to make it difficult for the visitors.

That said, this home crowd really don’t help the team at all. In fact, they do very much the opposite on occasions like this. Rather than making Anfield a hostile cauldron for away sides, it seems to have more of a negative effect on Liverpool, acting as a burden rather than the advantage it ought to be.

From very early on, Loris Karius was getting pelters from all across the stadium, people howling at him to release the ball quicker even when the option wasn’t there to do so. Throughout the game, the crowd were constantly on his back, howling and shouting whenever he had possession. For what purpose?

Karius actually had a decent game- one of very few Liverpool players to emerge with any credit, making a couple of important stops and distributing the ball swiftly and accurately, despite the ridiculous slaughtering from the crowd for no apparent reason. Of course, people have their doubts over his ability and it is perfectly legitimate to feel that Simon Mignolet is a better goalkeeper, but ultimately the crowd ought to be supporting whichever eleven players the manager puts out to get a result, regardless of personal agendas.

You often hear that social media- namely Twitter- accentuates the very worst in fan bases with reactionary opinions and criticism, but it felt like that kind of hyper-critical mentality filtered into the stadium on this occasion. It’s not the first time, either.

The degree of impatience even within the first twenty minutes was something else, with plenty of people screaming at players to shoot from impossible positions. West Brom aren’t a very good side, but they were well organised and dogged in their approach, which proved difficult to break down- as these teams often are. An ounce of patience and positivity from the crowd would be no bad thing, rather than hounding their own players when it’s 0-0 at the half-hour mark.

It’s understandable that people get frustrated when Emre Can and Gini Wijnaldum are as pedestrian and lacklustre in midfield as they were, but it surely cannot help the players at all when their own supporters howl and moan at them incessantly throughout the game. People get annoyed at Philippe Coutinho for forcing the issue and playing ambitious passes which didn’t come off, but to expect players to relax and keep knocking the ball around the box patiently waiting for an opening is somewhat incongruous with the impatience coming from the stands telling them to blast one at goal from distance.

Of course, it’s a two-way thing in that sometimes, the players have to give the crowd something to get excited about first- but the level of background negativity and criticism from the home crowd last night was frankly ridiculous. Other big teams have similar problems at times, trying to break down compact opposition, but rarely do you hear home supporters lambast their own players from so early on in the game.

It’s perhaps part of the reason why Liverpool haven’t scored a single winning goal in the final 20 minutes of any game this season. Rather than that sense of inevitability and belief that the goal will eventually come, it’s more a feeling of dread and frustration which translates on to the pitch. Having been at the Emirates and White Hart Lane before, those grounds don’t seem to have that same ambience in those situations- while both Arsenal and Spurs have been masters of scoring important late goals in recent seasons.

That anger and frustration would be better directed at West Brom players for their persistent time-wasting and at the referee for not punishing them for taking a good half-minute for every goal-kick or throw in. Make it a cauldron of intimidation so that the referee feels he has no option but to award the Solanke goal. Imagine that exact goal had been Marcus Rashford at Old Trafford, it’s not easy to imagine how it most probably would have stood. Atmosphere does make a difference in these kinds of moments.

Ultimately, the crowd wasn’t the reason Liverpool failed to beat West Brom. A lack of urgency, creativity and composure were to blame for that. But when we have a manager like Jürgen Klopp who continually emphasises the importance of having the crowd on side, what happened on Wednesday night goes against that very philosophy and makes it more difficult for the players to deliver. Anfield should not be a burden, but at the moment it feels like exactly that.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Alberto Moreno and the fickle nature of football fans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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