Wolves 09/24/2011: Cracks Beneath the Paper

There were many reasons to be positive after yesterday’s win over Wolves.

Our first points since Bolton. Luis Suarez’s irrepressible form and inventive genius. Andy Carroll’s encouraging appearance in which he did everything but score. Lucas’s impressive defensive performance in the middle of the park. Steven Gerrard’s return to the Anfield pitch and a very sharp, energetic 10-minute cameo.

Hell, the fact that we managed to grind out the win after Wolves’ great start to the second half should be a justified source of celebration.

In fairness, credit must be given to the boys for sticking it out and digging deep in repelling the golden-clad attacks launched towards Pepe Reina’s goal. The post-match interviews have focused (and will continue to focus) on this ultimately winning performance.

But, unfortunately, the 3 points do not obscure what lies underneath: the fact that we remain a work in progress.

Not that we expected this to be the case at the start of the game, or indeed in the first half. The sumptuous football in display against Bolton a few weeks ago was back, at least for the first 45 minutes. This was the direct, incisive passing that we’ve seen work to such impressive effect against Bolton and in the first half against Sunderland. The Red dominance was such that a 2-0 half-time was no more than we deserved (and we probably deserved more).

But the mirroring of Sunderland’s second half in our own latter 45 minutes brought an unwelcome sense of deja vu. As the game wore on, the fans, the players and Kenny Dalglish knew this. Anfield was rightly subjected to taunts from the visitors for its subdued atmosphere, purely because everyone was so nervous that we would once again capitulate under pressure. And the pressure was there for all to feel after Steven Fletcher’s excellent finish in a criminally under-marked penalty box.

Mick McCarthy sent this troops out well fired from the tunnel, and his double substitution managed to unsettle Liverpool, even if it ultimately didn’t prove to be as game-changingly inspiring as he would dreamed. Liverpool committed that cardinal sin that Kenny condemned so strongly after our trip to White Hart Lane last week: starting slowly and on the back foot.

I’ve said time and again that our mental strength (or lack thereof) is our weakest link, and our second-half showing did nothing to dispel my beliefs as our new signings didn’t give us any evidence that they were big-game players, that they would impose themselves when things weren’t going well.

Charlie Adam rightly deserves credit for the way he went about his passing (and his shooting) in the first half, but he was too often found shirking from his defensive duties in midfield in the second half. His lack of defensive nous and urgency had Lucas scrambling everywhere to take up the work of two men, and the former will have to thank his partner for saving his skin on numerous occasions. Stewart Downing, an England international, should have given Wolves’ new teenage right-back a debut to remember for the wrong reasons. He still has to strike up a telepathic understanding with Jose Enrique down the left, with the latter’s overlapping runs often not found and instead sacrificed for unproductive forays into the middle.

At least Kenny appeared to realize Henderson’s ineffectiveness on the left, since there was no flank switching on display yesterday. But Kenny still has yet to realize Henderson’s ineffective on the pitch. Yes, this is a direct criticism of Jordan Henderson. While 7 games is not a lot for someone to truly establish himself in a Red shirt, anonymity game after game is not acceptable, especially when the reputed workrate only results in headless-chicken-like running to spaces that will not see a pass. Dirk Kuyt’s energetic and important 20-minute appearance off the bench, in which he immediately channeled his physicality and stamina into a nightmare for defenders, should really have shown Kenny that he made a mistake in not starting him. Aside from Kenny’s curious preference against Kuyt in Premier League games, Maxi Rodriguez would’ve proved to be more of a threat with his direct running, close control and short passing, but he was overlooked as well. So, too, Craig Bellamy, who I believe will play a big part in our season this year.

But no talk of substitutions in this match can go without mentioning Steven Gerrard’s impact on his Anfield return after a 6-month absence. The captain showed plenty of attacking verve, clever positioning and forward drive, linked up well with Dirk Kuyt, and reminded the league what he was capable of with a few great crosses and threatening runs. For those who had ludicrously started to write him off before his return, this was an encouraging display from the captain, who will once again be our key man when fully fit.

A word must be reserved for our strike partnership. Suarez’s inventive runs were once again the bane of the Wolves defence, and his performance fully deserved the goal he so thrillingly conjured at such a tight angle. But he remains, in chief, a creator and not a finisher. For him to fully take on the latter mantle, he has to work on his finishing. With the amount of chances put into the attacking third, yesterday’s chance creation was a cause for optimism, but the fact that they only resulted into two goals was a cause for worry. (What about Downing’s one-on-one against Wayne Hennessey? If he was taking a leaf out of Henderson’s book against Stoke, he needs to be reminded that he has chosen the wrong person to emulate.)

As for Andy Carroll, the simple fact is that he played well. He linked up well with Suarez, and was able to make his aerial presence count. Also unlucky not to score following a few good attacking headers, he needs to continue his improvement, but his movement and passing is there to show us that this is a partnership that might just work out.

His refusal to finish when presented with the game’s final chance has been put down as either an indecision due to lack of confidence, or a desire to toy with defenders to score a spectacular goal. Given the confidence shown in his display for the 90 minutes, I tend to go for the latter.

But his was a clear example of Liverpool needing to finish our chances.

Better, more clinical teams will be able to restrict our passing play and chance creation, and we will need plenty of mental strength and finishing ability to get results.

Tottenham 09/18/2011: Time for Introspection

I don’t get it.

I don’t get how we were beaten so comprehensively by a team that just a few weeks ago were labeled as also-rans and no longer realistic competitors for the Top Four. (For that matter, I don’t get how I bought into that hype.)

I don’t get why, with the threat posed by Gareth Bale’s raw pace, we opted to stick with Martin Skrtel as a makeshift right-back. John Flanagan deservedly his share of criticism following his positional mishap against Sunderland on opening day, but when you’re up against a left winger who on his day can terrorize even the finest of right-backs, you’re going to need a specialist on the right – and I don’t think he did too badly against opponents of a similar stature towards the end of last season.

Okay, perhaps Flanagan was not entirely match-fit, or even slightly injured, as has been suggested. That doesn’t excuse the positional naivety on show from said makeshift right-back, who was left utterly and depressingly exposed time and time again by Bale’s runs down the left. If the issue at hand is purely a lack of pace – understandable. But failing completely to keep even an eye on Bale’s positions required desperate attempts from Jamie Carragher and Daniel Agger to fill in for ignored space and make up for lost time.

I don’t get why, on evidence of his painful rightfootedness, Stewart Downing is still considered on the right. Surely him cutting in on his left foot is one of our most predictable moves, and surely there are far more threatening options, especially when Henderson, with his painful leftfootness, is wasted on the left. Against a team who can take their chances so effectively, the least we have to do is create chances effectively. On current evidence, not only does this switching of flanks bring instability and imbalance to our formation, it blunts our creativity and width, which was supposed to be the attribute that we were most lacking.

For that matter, I don’t get why, after a summer of splashing the cash and supposedly strengthening the Liverpool team with players who “want to be here,” we remain as one-man a team as ever. We have been led to believe that Stewart Downing possesses that X-factor, that pace, that crossing ability, to threaten a defence and set up goals. We have been led to believe that Jordan Henderson is ready-made for a Kenny Dalglish team, with a keen eye for a pass and all the workrate required from a top-class midfielder. We have been led to believe that Charlie Adam is the key ingredient we’ve been missing in midfield, with that creative vision we’ve been lacking since Xabi Alonso’s departure to unlock our opponents’ midfield and defence.

I don’t mean this as a criticism of their individual ability, but rather as an alarmed notice of their mental attributes, as was on show at the Britannica. When the going is smooth, as against Bolton and to a lesser extent as at Arsenal, we are capable of producing some sumptuous passing play, true to our much-vaunted pass-and-move philosophies. But when the going gets tough, we haven’t seen the most important attribute of a top-class footballer: that he can stand up and be counted.

That’s why I personally can’t wait for Steven Gerrard’s return. Ahead of his much-anticipated return to our first team, much has been made of his age and his supposedly-declining bursts of energy. But where he’s at his unstoppable best for Liverpool is his competitiveness and leadership. When the chips are down, he comes up with the goods. And he’s capable of driving his team on to come up with the goods if he can’t do it just as often anymore.

And that’s why I also don’t get why Dirk Kuyt didn’t even get a look-in for this game. There aren’t many games bigger and higher-profile than Spurs at White Hart Lane, and Kenny still opted to leave out our most consistent fighter.

Hindsight is twenty-twenty: on another day, perhaps Skrtel could’ve had a blinder against Bale, and perhaps Charlie Adam would not have been sent off. On another day, perhaps Andy Carroll could’ve shown the same mobility and awareness displayed by Tottenham’s own targetman, Emmanuel Adebayor, and perhaps Scott Parker would not have proved to be such a bargain signing for Harry Redknapp’s midfield.

But hindsight is useful in evaluating our own options and how we move forward from here. And thanks to hindsight, I now get that all of our failings in this match were of our own (un)doing. Today, we weren’t outdone by controversial refereeing decisions. We were completely outclassed in every department by our fellow contenders for a Top Four spot.

Liverpool, and Kenny Dalglish, will have to take a good long, hard look in the mirror and see how we can pick ourselves up from here. Things are suddenly not so rosy anymore.

The Road to Munich: A Look at the 2011-2012 Champions League

This year, we’re looking from the sidelines.

A pity, really, since this Champions League campaign promises to be one of the most exciting in recent years. First, a recap of this year’s group stage draw:

Group A: Bayern Munich; Villarreal; Manchester City; Napoli
Group B: Inter Milan; CSKA Moscow; Lille; Trabzonspor
Group C: Manchester United; Benfica; Basel; Otelul Galati
Group D: Real Madrid; Lyon; Ajax; Dinamo Zagreb
Group E: Chelsea;Valencia; Bayer Leverkusen; Genk
Group F: Arsenal; Marseille; Olympiakos; Borussia Dortmund
Group G: FC Porto; Shakhtar Donetsk; Zenit St Petersburg; APOEL
Group H: Barcelona; AC Milan; BATE Borisov; Viktoria Plzen

I’m not going to go in depth on each group, as there are definitely teams and leagues that I don’t follow enough and, as such, I don’t feel like I’d be able to contribute anything substantial in those regards. But what football fan doesn’t have an opinion about Champions League favorites? Without further ado, I present to you my picks on this year’s quarterfinalists, and a few honorable mentions.

Let’s start with Bayern. Without many major additions in the summer, aside from Germany’s first-choice keeper in Manuel Neuer, Bayern still possess a strong squad. On their day, Bayern have one of the strongest attacking forces in Europe and are able to choice from an in-form Mario Gomez, and the strikingly efficient duo of Ivica Olic and Thomas Muller. That is of course discounting the now-sulk-free Franck Ribery and the effervescent Arjen Robben, who I believe is one of the world’s best players when fit. And don’t forget Takashi Usami in reserve: you don’t join Germany’s most famous club on loan, as a 19-year-old, without having been capped for the Japanese national team, if you’re not something special. Bayern’s success is heavily dependent on Juup Heynckes’ ability to instill defensive organization in a newly-assembled backline, but their attacking options should ensure that they make considerable strides this year.

It’s City’s first appearance in the Champions League this season, but I’m tipping them to make a splash. Followers of the English Premier League won’t need any updates on how they’ve been doing this year, and the fact that this year’s title race is already shaping up to be the Battle of Manchester speaks volumes on the progress that City have made. Roberto Mancini is a seasoned Champions League campaigner, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some astute tactical deployments against the big boys. But against the highest caliber of European teams, City’s relatively weak defence will ensure that Mancini won’t be able to play a stereotypically Italian defensive game. With a starting backline of Ricards, Kompany, Lescott and Clichy, City will need to rely heavily on their men up front for points. But what a strikeforce they have: Carlos Tevez is currently their backup striker, and I think that’s all that needs to be said on this topic. This is a team whose attacking options will blow away many a team this year, and I’d say they’re a strong bet for a run to the quarterfinals at least, but I’d give City another year for further defensive reinforcements before tipping them as title contenders.

I don’t know what to make of Inter this year. They have a new coach and a new strikeforce, and I’m not convinced that they’re well equipped enough to go all the way this year. Diego Forlan was an inspired signing, but his European appearance for Atletico was enough to render him ineligible for further CL action this year, at least on the pitch, since Inter hilariously included him in their squad submission. Is Mauro Zarate good enough at the highest level? I’m not too sure, but Eto’o’s departure will absolutely be a blow to their chances. In Wesley Sneijder and Esteban Cambiasso, they have one of Europe’s finest midfield partnerships, and they will have too much top-level experience and quality for many teams, but Gianpiero Gasperini will have his work cut out if they are to make it further than the quarterfinals.

As for United, credit must be given to their gaffer for continuing to build world-class teams year in, year out. Sir Alex may only have brought in a few major signings this summer, but their returning loan stars seem to have stepped up to United’s level. Ashley Young has been turning in eye-catching performances, as has young defender Phil Jones, and Sir Alex has added a noticeable pass-and-move style that’s had the media and fans purring. Their success in Europe this season will be strongly dependent on whether or not these young stars have what it takes to carry their outstanding Premier League form into the Champions League. Are Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck capable of delivering at the highest level? Fabio Capello seems to think so. Will David de Gea get over his shaky start and cement himself as Spain’s best goalkeeping prospect? SAF seems to think so. And don’t bet against him for once again being able to instill a winning mentality in his squad: the current squad looks very promising, and a run to at least the semi-finals look on the cards.

There doesn’t exist a single discussion on managers in the football world that doesn’t involve Jose Mourinho, whose Inter team put on exhibitions on the art of defending en route to their Champions League success in 2010. His antics and so-called “anti-football” have alienated many a La Liga fan, but there’s no denying that the man is a master tactician. And he’s built a strong squad in Madrid in his own right, with star performers all over the pitch. Their key question: will Mourinho adopt an all-out defensive approach designed to breaking teams down? If that’s the route Real will be taking this season, I don’t see them lifting the Cup, as their squad isn’t as defensive-minded or -structured as Mourinho’s Inter.  But with Cristiano Ronaldo continuing to defy belief and break records, not many teams will be able to handle this Madrid attack. If Mourinho makes use of the attacking options at his disposal and his squad duly respond and turn on the style, then they are absolutely capable of going all the way. And don’t be surprised to see a trick or two up his tactical sleeve.

To continue with the manager talk, new dugout star Andre Villas-Boas has the unenviable task of bringing the European Cup back to Stamford Bridge for the first time in their history. Bigger-name and more established names have failed and seen the sack, but AVB made a huge splash on the European scene with Porto last season. The difference: Porto won the UEFA Cup, not the Champions League. The latter is a major step up, and AVB might face a baptism of fire in the toughest competition in the world. As a curious distinction from many of the sides I’ve mentioned above, Chelsea’s main weakness is their attack. Defensively solid with a world-class goalkeeper and plenty of experienced midfielders, they go into this year’s CL with an aging Didier Drogba and an out-of-sorts Fernando Torres. New signings Juan Mata and Raul Meireles will carry the bulk of Chelsea’s creativity on their shoulders, and for the time being it looks as though Daniel Sturridge is their only worthwhile outlet. A solid domestic start doesn’t take the focus away from their misfiring strikeforce, and it looks as if Chelsea will have to wait another year before shooting for top-dog honors again.

The European all-star team that is Barcelona have continued to recruit star names and to live up to their reputation as the planet’s finest football (and footballing) team. Who would’ve thought that Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez could make such instant impacts on the Barca first team already? Defensively sound with the best midfield/attack combination in the competition and an underappreciated work ethic, there’s not much else to say about Pep Guardiola’s team except that they’re once again the team to beat this season. Just how do you stop the Xavi-Iniesta-Messi axis and also deal with David Villa, Cesc and Sanchez? I’m looking forward to seeing the masterplans that other coaches will come up with against Barcelona though, and I have a feeling that this might just be the year that the mighty Catalans finally meet their match.

AC Milan completes my quarterfinal eight. Convincing winners of Serie A last season, they’ve strengthened wisely: Phillipe Mexes, Taye Taiwo and Alberto Aquilani all came in for little to nothing each. The latter injects some much-needed creativity in an aging midfield consisting of Mark van Bommel, Clarence Seedorf and Gennaro Gattuso, which marks Milan’s midfield as their weakest link. As with many of my tips, Milan’s attacking options are once again their strongest suit, with a mouthwatering selection headache between Ibrahimovic, Robinho, Pato and Cassano. They have plenty of European experience, but will age prove to be Milan’s downfall? Perhaps not in a more pedestrian league like the Serie A, but I struggle to see how they’ll be able to hold off the relentless energy of La Liga’s twin giants and both Manchester teams. Experience only gets you so far.

One honorable mention: luck is against Napoli for falling into this year’s Group of Death. In any other group, they could’ve had the chance to make a real impression and a run towards the knockout stages, but Group A’s Bayern and City seem to be a step too far for them right now, and don’t underestimate Villarreal for a second. They’ve made some astute signings this summer, and this group stage campaign will be a good chance for Napoli to assess their squad’s capability of playing at the highest level. A third-place finish would see them fall into the Europa League, and if that happens, I’d instantly consider them strong contenders.

And no, I don’t see Arsenal progressing very far this year. Wenger’s experience will help them progress from a tricky Group F, but they lack the world-class talent to carry them as far as the quarterfinals. Perhaps next year, if Wenger continues his spending ways.

But he’ll face a fight in getting there. As it stands, I’m tipping for Fortress Anfield to once again experience our famous European nights once again starting in the fall of 2012. It’s been a while since the spine-shivering YNWA anthem has reverberated around Anfield on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

Stoke 09/10/2011: Early Days

Let’s get the formalities out of the way.

A 0-1 loss at Stoke is by no means a devastating result. The Britannia is a formidable place to visit these days.

It’s hard to imagine that Stoke City were plying their trade in the Football League as recently as four years ago. To turn them into a very solid Premier League outfit is an often-underappreciated achievement, and plenty of credit should be going Tony Pulis’ way every season. As it stands though, Stoke are apparently a “rugby” side that play route-one football, bullying their opponents out of their way.

Just a few words on their playing style – I myself don’t see any problem with it. Football is ultimately a results business, and Jose Mourinho never seemed to get as much flak from Messieurs Wenger et al for playing a stifling and physical game. But that takes some of the limelight away from their actual style, which any seasoned observer would describe as multi-faceted. They have very decent wingers and are capable of playing some well-worked football on the ground. (I also feel the need to include a shout-out to Jonathan Walters – he’s been playing out of his skin, and generally very un-Jonathan Walters-like, since joining Stoke; I’ve been very impressed with him every time I’ve seen him in Stoke colors.) And they’re very much an ambitious club on the up: just look at their deadline day signings. My predictions for their season: top ten for sure, and possibly even darkhorses for a European place.

But, yet again, I digress.

Without being nearly as clinical as our performance against Bolton at Anfield, we took the game to Stoke last night. No question. We flew out of the traps and played some scintillating stuff, but I choose today not to focus so much on the positives, as I’ve already mentioned them in abundance in previous posts, but rather on areas in which we can improve.

Again, we were excellent until the penalty decision that’s been dubbed controversial by some. Now, there are plenty of grey areas with regards to penalty decisions, and we have to consider the pace of the game, which makes the referee’s job as tough as anyone’s. That is not the main point here. When the referee confirmed the penalty, Jamie Carragher, who is usually the first to protest any decision in his half, held his head in his hands. That body language, to me, showed plenty: penalty or not, he was the culprit. A seasoned European competitor allowed Walters, a Football League regular, to hold him off so easily and wreak havoc in his area. Like many of us Liverpool fans are beginning to think, Carra knew right away that it was his fault.

Forgive me here, but I’ve never been Carra’s biggest fan. It’s not a case of jumping on the bandwagon now; those of you that know me will be able to testify to that. For all the heart-on-sleeve commitment and the no-nonsense tackling that he contributes, he doesn’t play the ball out of defence, he doesn’t present any sort of threat from corners, and he will be continuously exposed this season due to his declining pace. I appreciate him for being our one-club man, but at the same time, I hope that as much as he turns up to save the day with an incredible last-ditch tackle, he will be mentoring the development of our new defensive partnership of Coates and Agger. And, please, stop hitting the ball over the top. It gets quite infuriating.

But the loss was always a matter of mental strength, which Carra does not lack at all. To be fair, I thought we coped with the “Fortress Britannia” quite well, but the decibels from the home section were not the defining factor. I maintain that ours is a season of transition, because ours is a squad that is relatively new to big game environments. In front of our own supporters with a lead splendidly earned, we rode on the confidence to finish Bolton off.  In adverse circumstances, where a great start is tempered by an against-the-tide penalty, our mental resolve is not quite the finished article yet. Charlie Adam and Jordan Henderson, who on their game (as against Bolton) can spot and pick out an inch-perfect pass, succumbed to an urgency that led to them only seeking out Hollywood passes while misplacing simple passes directly to the opposition on numerous occasions. The latter, of course, elected to finish straight at Mignolet’s legs not once but twice in a frantic 20-second exchange.

After his sublime left-footed effort two weeks ago, I thought Henderson had finally shaken free of the shackles that came with his pricetag and increased expectations. Perhaps this was purely a matter of inconsistent finishing ability, but in hindsight I would’ve preferred to see Lucas in that one-on-one situation, as I believe his mental strength would’ve brought us a goal. Sometimes it’s not just a matter of technical ability, as we’ve seen on multiple occasions through Dirk Kuyt.

More on finishing. As unpredictable and threatening as Suarez is, he is not yet a top-class finisher. A Liverpool-era Fernando Torres on top form, or for that matter a fit Steven Gerrard, would have not have chipped Bolton’s Jaaskelainen over the bar, and he’d certainly have been a surer bet to finish Mignolet’s parry straight to his feet last night. This is why I’m excited for Craig Bellamy’s return, and why I’ve clamored for a stop-gap, experienced finisher like Ruud van Nistelrooy or Diego Forlan. This is not to say that I was dissatisfied with Suarez’s performance last night, of course, not in the least. Quite the contrary, actually, and he really should’ve gotten a penalty against Upson.

A final word on mental toughness. We saw plenty of desire, albeit in a rushed frenzy, on the field last night, and I look forward to finally seeing Steven Gerrard back on the pitch to bring in some composure, and God forbid some save-our-skin strikes. But I was quite disappointed to see some of our on-pitch decisions last night. Given the threat that Charlie Adam poses on corners, I fail to see why he’s not in charge of corner duties, especially when Andy Carroll is on the field. We failed to keep a cool head towards the end of the game, electing instead to take short corners with non-crossers sending in the final ball, which of course led to clearance upon clearance from a resolute Stoke defence – this after Skrtel finished with aplomb at Adam’s inswinger against Bolton.

And where was Carroll? I have no problems with him not scoring, as we all know how hard it really is to change a game upon coming on as a substitute. But he was outside the box trying to get the ball and play simple passes instead of attacking crosses in it, and he was nowhere near any of the decent balls that came in off the feet of Enrique, Downing and Bellamy. I acknowledge that he is not currently on form, and that’s understandable, but the lack of desire and positional sense is not. Step your game up, Andy.

But to end this (apologetically long) post, I’d agree with Kenny in saying that we definitely deserved something, and with our players that if we play like this week in week out, we’d be in pretty decent shape come next May. And I’d also like to give credit to the way Kenny dealt with post-match questions on the referee’s performance: the epitome of class.

Alas, this was a result that wasn’t meant to be, and as such we continue our away woes – Tottenham at the Lane next week will be a severe test of our Top Four credentials. We’ve got more pressing matters to attend to closer to home, though: we all saw the importance of having a fearsome home reputation last night. Let’s get Fortress stenciled back in front of Anfield, boys.

Liverpool the Business: A Beginner’s Guide

Ever since Kenny’s return to L4 at the beginning of the year, ever since Luis Suarez walked through the Shankly Gates in place of El Nino, ever since we turned around our league form to come within an inch of finishing the season among the European places, most of what we’ve heard about Liverpool Football Club has been on the pitch. Rightly so, given the traditional “Liverpool Way” of focusing only on the next game and leaving everything else to the side.

A year ago, we were struggling with the Hicks and Gillett regime. “Finance” (or, more accurately, “refinance”) was probably the word that we Liverpool fans dreaded the most. Liverpool the business was hampering Liverpool the football club. We didn’t like Liverpool the business; we just wanted our football club back. Business and football were the last two words we wanted to see together ever again.

Oh, how a year has turned things around. Now, we can’t go a week without hearing an ex-player or someone in the Liverpool hierarchy sing the praises of the way FSG has revolutionized Liverpool as a business. Behind the scenes, the reality is that the business side, the “everything else” of our football club has undergone as radical a change, if not more so.

Let’s go all the way back to the Standard Chartered sponsorship deal. Now, before we fans got any wind of this partnership, we were cruising along perfectly content with the Carlsberg logo splashed across the front of our shirts. Sure, we saw O2 on the shirts at Highbury, and we saw vodafone, and subsequently AIG, at Old Trafford, and then we saw Ashburton Grove renamed as the Emirates Stadium. Those corporate sell-outs. Carlsberg: the best beer in the world. Liverpool: the best football club in the world. End of story.

But then, one fine (or cloudy, or rainy, I forgot which) day in 2009, the news came through that we struck the largest shirt sponsorship deal in football history. I very clearly remember that day. That was the day that made me sit up and take notice of what we were capable of achieving as a company. That day, on the back of a successful Premier League season, as I saw Rafa Benitez, Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres swapping shirts and posing for pictures with the Standard Chartered management, I realized that our club still had an amazing appeal to it.

This, remember, was a financially unstable club with rumors about our long-term financial stability. Amidst ownership struggles behind the scenes, we managed to pull off a deal like that. I almost immediately started idolizing Christian Purslow (and latterly Ian Ayre, when I read that he was the Commercial Director then). When it was first established that we had genuine financial concerns going forward, I didn’t panic. We even appointed Martin Broughton from the British Airways. Despite his outspoken Chelsea links, here was the chairman of one of Britain’s most famous corporations, brought in to “save” our club.

We would’ve been forgiven for thinking that ousting Hicks and Gillett was the final piece to the financial jigsaw.

But there are bits and pieces to the journey that cannot, and should not, be ignored. We saw Rafa overhaul the Academy. Yes, the headline news was that we want to go back to our famed traditions of graduating top players to our first team. But we didn’t just see Rafa take full control of our youth development. He restructured the Academy and brought staff in to take up managerial positions. He brought Kenny back to spearhead our youth recruitment drive and latterly as a Club Ambassador. These were all new roles. What Rafa noticed was not just that we were falling behind as football club; we were also falling behind as a company, a business, a corporation. And these were his first steps to establishing a structure at Liverpool, to the greatest extent he possibly could.

And when FSG recruited Damien Comolli and gave him the position of Director of Football (later renamed as the fancy Director of Football Strategy), it was not just a signal of our intent to bring in the world’s top footballing talent; it was our owners’ way of further instilling business organization and structure to Liverpool the corporation.

Outside the club, FSG helped us establish links with LeBron James, one of the biggest stars in modern basketball (and indeed in modern sports), in the process linking us with the Boston Red Sox. FSG and Standard Chartered put together our Asia tour this past summer with great aplomb, complete with a tour-specific website, extensive media coverage of all the players’ football and sponsorship activities, and a chance for our Chinese Reds to win a meet-and-greet with LeBron James. The express plan for our summer activities next year is a money-spinning trip to the US: imagine the fervor that would greet Gerrard, Suarez and co. as they run out onto the Fenway Park pitch.

But it’s not just the dollar signs and star brandnames that show our transformation as a corporation. Look at the way we have been catered to (in business terminology: customer experience) – comments in almost every LFC.tv article, expansion in the LFC.tv forums, the Bootroom Sports Cafe, our first ever official Supporter’s Committee, The Kop fan blogs and social network…

Oh, and don’t forget that key business buzzword: corporate social responsibility. For all the corporations that might have skeptical motives behind such activities (for example, a tobacco company sponsoring a health clinic), our family- and community-oriented traditions makes CSR a perfect fit for our promotions. Here’s an observation: have you noticed a significant increase on LFC.tv in the promotion of free football clinics in the Liverpool area? Coaching sessions in Korea? Summer camps for disabled children both in Asia (while others were promoting our business interests) and in the UK? We’re beginning to hear a lot more of these campaigns that are a win-win-win combination: they sustain our image and reputation within the footballing community; they help our players and staff understand the community better and thus form a stronger bond with Liverpool Football Club; and they bring us commercial opportunities in previously untapped areas. We are already in talks to establish Liverpool-themed cafes and lounges in India after setting up our academy there.

And on I ramble.

During my short working career, I’ve been exposed to the way businesses and corporations are run on a strategic and institutional level, and I hope I was able to give you some basic insight on the good work being done by FSG, and to help you make some sense of the commercial operations and developments that might sometimes slip under our radars.

I will wrap things up with a quote from Ian Ayre: “The absolute reality – in the case of Liverpool, not everyone – is that this is a global brand, one of only a handful of clubs that are truly globally recognized and supported.”

Liverpool as a business: I personally have been very excited about the way our management team has driven commercial growth and organizational change. Keep up the good work, gentlemen.

————

If you’re interested in further reading, here’s a list of articles that I’ve referred to in this post:

http://www.managementtoday.co.uk/news/1068601/Ian-Ayre-transformed-Liverpool-FCs-commercial-fortunes/

http://businesstoday.intoday.in/story/liverpool-fc-cafes/1/18199.html

http://www.bizjournals.com/boston/news/2011/08/04/lucchino-liverpool-football-club.html

http://www.bitc.org.uk/community/communitymark/communitymark_companies/liverpool_football.html

http://www.liverpoolfc.tv/corporate/charter

http://www.liverpoolfc.tv/corporate/lfc-is-listening

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703280904576246640754493456.html

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/sport/football/premier_league/liverpool/article6831489.ece

Swaps, Options and Futures

When the Hicks and Gillett regime was ushered out last year, I wondered if we were taking a massive risk in bringing in American owners yet again. When Luis Suarez was signed in January, I wondered if we were taking a massive risk in bringing in a top scorer from the Dutch league. When Fernando Torres was allowed to leave on deadline day, I wondered if we were taking a massive risk in breaking transfer records for an unproven replacement.

I wondered many times out loud, as we made our signings this summer, if we were taking massive risks. I questioned the wisdom of paying inflated fees for Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing. I doubted if Charlie Adam would be fit to lace Xabi Alonso’s boots. I hadn’t watched Jose Enrique much during his time at Newcastle. I hesitated about the signing of Alexander Doni, our umpteenth backup goalkeeper since Pepe took up his gloves between the goalposts.

These were average players, I thought, who were way too expensive as stop-gap measures while we would grind our way back to European football this term. We would probably have to let them go in search for better and more pedigreed replacements if we ever made it back to the Champions League, and even then we would lose out to the Cities and Chelseas in the race to pay big wages.

Yet, in they came, and out some others went. I wanted Charles N’Zogbia for 9.5m. I wanted Phillippe Mexes, Taye Taiwo and Nuri Sahin on free transfers. I read about Tottenham’s interest in Lassana Diarra on the cheap. I wanted Adam Johnson on loan. I wanted Aquilani to stay after some fine preseason performances. I didn’t want Insua, who I rate highly as a young defender, to leave. A few thousand miles away from the transfer action, I wanted a say. And after witnessing the second half meltdown against Sunderland, I unhappily thought I was vindicated, and all the delirium and euphoria from the exhilarating first-half showing came crashing down. Here we go again, I thought.

Then we went to the Emirates. And then we destroyed Bolton at Anfield.

I found myself suddenly opening my eyes to a Liverpool team that, for the first time in a long while, could play around with our personnel selection. Never mind Kenny’s 3-5-2 ploy against Stoke and Chelsea last year: we could now play all the formations in the world with our strength in depth. (Oh, the wonders of victory.) My eyes glittered as I thought of Suarez, no, Carroll, no, Suarez and Carroll, no, Suarez and Kuyt with Carroll coming off the bench, in attack. My heart fluttered when I saw a front three of Downing, Kuyt and Gerrard behind Suarez – or was it Suarez, Gerrard and Henderson behind Carroll? I got slightly disappointed when I realized I forgot about Maxi Rodriguez and Glen Johnson. I was even more baffled when I realized that we were launching outrageous attacking moves without Steven Gerrard. How on earth would we fit him back in the side?

As we passed and moved all over the pristine Anfield grass against Bolton, I saw Henderson’s defence-splitting chances, Downing’s touchline crosses, and Adam’s Hollywood passes. The glowing, glistening and glittering post-match reports only confirmed to me Kenny and Comolli’s transfer policy this summer: not only were we now loaded with alternatives in abundance, but we were now full of first-teamers who can create a damn good goal-scoring chance.

Upon the close of the Summer 2011 transfer window, Damien Comolli immediately lavished praise on our new owners. John Henry took a massive gamble and showed incredible patience, he said, because he was willing to buy before he sold.

I thought we were taking a huge risk when we let go of Aquilani again, despite some stellar performances in preseason. I thought we were taking a huge risk when we said goodbye and thank you to Insua. (Not so much Konchesky, Jovanovic, Cole, and Poulsen, among others, mind you.)

But when I woke up after the 11pm BST transfer deadline to see that Raul Meireles had left for Chelsea, I felt strangely un-disappointed. Because, like his news item on Liverpoolfc.tv, his importance had already been taken over by more exciting headlines. Craig Bellamy, a seasoned campaigner, was back, presumably as an impact substitute, and a high quality one at that.

And we signed Sebastian Coates, who I first saw playing an absolute blinder at the Copa America final against Paraguay before looking him up on Wikipedia, finding out he was 20 (unbelievably) and still playing in Uruguay, and subsequently making him my top defensive preference in the summer window.

Sometimes I get a bit too excited a bit too easily for my own good. Eh, it’s a risk I’m now willing to take. Hello, optimism.