Manchester City 08/26/2012: The Glass is Half Full

Martin Skrtel and Luis Suarez got the goals for Liverpool—and what brilliant goals they were—but Brendan Rodgers’ side were culpable for the two goals they conceded to Manchester City in a pulsating 2-2 draw at Anfield on Sunday.

This was far removed from last Saturday’s calamitous showing at West Brom, with Liverpool exhibiting some impressive build-up play throughout the encounter with the Premier League champions.

But the old problem resurfaced again—that of Liverpool being the better team but failing to get all three points.

And now: the positives and negatives from Sunday’s matchup from Liverpool’s point of view:

Just the One Point to Show for It…

Once again, as so often was the case under Kenny Dalglish last season, Liverpool spent most of the 90 minutes as the better team.

But once again, we didn’t come away with the three points to show for their performance.

This time it wasn’t for a lack of Liverpool goals, but rather two uncharacteristic gaffes at the back.

Either way, Brendan Rodgers will have to work on setting a balance between an efficient attack and an efficient defence.

Otherwise, for a sloppy defensive error to once again take away almost all the good work Liverpool did in the midfield and up front would be a massive shame.

And it would contribute to them falling further behind in the league table.

…But the Passing Play and Closing Down Were Very Encouraging

But no way was this draw as hard to take as the opening-weekend defeat at West Brom, because the silver linings were that obvious.

If Rodgers and his squad wanted to prove that last Saturday was just a “one-off,” they put in a collective display that went lengths in doing just that.

Minus the Hawthorns collapse, Liverpool have seemed to take to Rodgers’ system very quickly.

Overall, the crisp passing play and tenacious closing down exhibited all over the pitch should bode very well for the future, even if they have only yielded the one point in two games.

Even when Carlos Tevez pounced on Martin Skrtel’s back-pass to equalize for City, Liverpool never looked settled for a point.

It’s this desire—if not the profligacy—that Rodgers and we hope will bode well for the future.

Defensive Lapses Cost Liverpool Two Points…

Back to the defence, because it deserves a portion of the limelight in the post-match wake.

There has been a vicious cycle at work at Anfield for the best part of a year now.

The lack of goals is being compounded by some glaring defensive lapses that are costing Liverpool points simply because of a relative lack of concentration from the back.

Given the eye-gorging scoreline at West Brom, this was exacerbated and seared in recent memory by the tireless running and pressing of Shane Long, but this goes back to last-gasp goals like that conceded to Manchester United’s Javier Hernandez last season.

Rodgers declared after the City game that Skrtel had the right idea in passing back to Pepe Reina for the Tevez goal, and that punting it forward would have been the simple option.

Except that the right idea was not accompanied by the requisite awareness, and that the simple option could have brought him two more points.

…But We Now Have a Real Third-Choice Central Defender

Martin Skrtel enjoyed an otherwise productive day against City, not least because of his frankly brilliant header to open the scoring.

But enough of him for now—some credit should be paid to his central defensive partner for the day, Sebastian Coates.

For all of his lack of match fitness, and for all of Daniel Agger’s classy defensive play, Coates showed on Sunday why he should absolutely have climbed over Jamie Carragher in the pecking order of center-backs.

To be sure, Coates did show moments of hesitation, including one in the first half that allowed Mario Balotelli to nip in and steal the ball, forcing Martin Kelly to concede a free kick.

But Coates put in enough well-timed tackles and good linkups with Kelly, Skrtel and Reina to show that all the hype surrounding his arrival at Anfield might not be unjustified after all.

No Goals from Open Play Yet…

The other side to the 2-2 draw, the other side to the two goals scored by Liverpool, is that we still haven’t notched from open play yet.

Perhaps this had to do with Fabio Borini’s narrow miss after Raheem Sterling’s brilliant cross from the left wing.

Or maybe to do with Luis Suarez’s still-profligate finishing in open play.

Or maybe, still, to do with Suarez’s poor decision making from the flanks, often leading to mishit crosses or mistimed passes.

The fact remains that, with Andy Carroll seemingly out of favor under Rodgers, Liverpool’s strikers just aren’t clinical enough at this stage.

…But Finally Some Set-Piece Threats

There’s a new-found set-piece prowess, though, that finally brings some variety to Liverpool’s goals.

Against Manchester City, Steven Gerrard delivered a picture-perfect corner that was met with a picture-perfect bullet header from Skrtel to open the scoring.

And, just minutes after conceding to Yaya Toure, Luis Suarez delivered a picture-perfect free kick that Joe Hart couldn’t do anything about.

This on the back of an inventive piece of set-piece play that Liverpool showed in a preseason friendly against Bayer Leverkusen, which was supposed to set Suarez up for a goal, but ended up leading to the rarity that is a goal from Lucas.

All without the £10 million left foot of Charlie Adam.

Lucas Got Injured…

Speaking of Lucas, Rodgers will be hoping that his injury troubles don’t resurface.

Having worked so hard back to full fitness—and indeed making it back to first-team football a couple of months before he was scheduled to fully recover from an anterior cruciate ligament injury—Lucas pulled a muscle just minutes into Sunday’s game.

The loss of Lucas back in November last year and its impact on the rest of Liverpool’s 2011-2012 season has been retold countless times.

While this muscle pull might not and should not be on the same scale as his injury last season, Lucas has become such an integral part of the Liverpool midfield that his loss would be felt all the same.

…But Joe Allen and Jonjo Shelvey Fit Right In

Of course, all this might sound a tad melodramatic, especially given the way Joe Allen performed having been moved into Lucas’ sitting role and Jonjo Shelvey’s encouraging shift in center midfield as Lucas’ substitute.

To say they equipped themselves well would be an understatement.

Allen, with his pinpoint passing, classy distribution, decision making and closing down, showed all of Anfield why Rodgers went all out for his signature this summer. He looks to be Liverpool’s best passer of the ball since Xabi Alonso.

Shelvey shelved his enthusiastic attacking instincts and the rawer side of his physical game to fit in perfectly with short, crisp passes, as well as good positional awareness.

With new loan signing Nuri Sahin looking on from the stands, Charlie Adam and Jordan Henderson will have every reason to fear for their first-team places this season.

Early Nerves from a Young, Young Liverpool Side…

For all of Liverpool’s excellent display against the reigning champions, we started off nervously, and the stray passes in the midfield showed their nerves.

It might have been a sign of the players still taking to Rodgers’ ideas, but it probably had more to do with the fact that Liverpool played their youngest starting XI since 2003.

The average age of the Liverpool players that took to the Anfield pitch on Sunday was 24 years and 364 days.

This could have backfired spectacularly against an experienced, world-class City team.

But in the end, it almost brought Rodgers three points, and indeed heralded the beginning of a new Liverpool era.

…But for Once, Some Young Talents to Really Get Excited About

A new Liverpool era that will be spearheaded by the likes of Allen, Coates, Shelvey and Borini.

And Raheem Sterling. (You were wondering when his name would be mentioned, weren’t you?)

For all those who weren’t aware of Sterling’s burgeoning reputation, this was a warm welcome to this exciting young talent.

Chosen rightly (or should that be leftly?) in place of the continually hapless Stewart Downing, Sterling stayed on for the full 90 minutes on his first league start for Liverpool; a sign of his stamina and energy, yes, but also a sign of his maturity.

And it was a maturity that saw some exquisite first touches, good linkup plays with Glen Johnson down the left and, perhaps most importantly, a continual drive to stay on his man and close down on the opposition.

He won’t be starting for Liverpool every week, but he will be one to watch this season and for years to come.

Conclusion

All in all, a good performance from Rodgers’ charges, but still plenty of work to do to turn performances into points.

The glass has suddenly become half full.

 

Original article from Bleacher Report

West Brom 08/18/2012: What Went Wrong?

After the opening weekend of the English Premier League season, Liverpool find themselves third from bottom in the league table, courtesy of a 3-0 loss against West Brom at the Hawthorns.

Perhaps equally memorable for Zoltan Gera’s long-range strike as it will be for Liverpool’s double-penalty farce, the game marked Liverpool’s worst-ever start to a Premier League season.

The saving grace is that Brendan Rodgers has time to turn it around, but in an increasingly cutthroat Premier League, the Reds must rebound quickly.

Hindsight is 20-20, but let’s now consider five things that Rodgers got wildly wrong in an embarrassing result for his new club.

1. Failing to Set Up His Defence Against Shane Long

The first error was made painfully obvious even from the opening whistle.

Shane Long has been known for his industrious work rate leading the West Brom line, and the partnership of Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger just didn’t do enough to contain his threat up front.

Taking their time on the ball and not being mindful of Long’s presence, Skrtel and Agger were at fault for the goal that secured West Brom’s eventual victory and for Agger’s sending off.

Whether the red card and the two penalties would not have been given in an alternate universe remains up for debate, but if Skrtel and Agger had so much trouble against a harrying Shane Long, how can they be expected to contain the likes of Carlos Tevez, Edin Dzeko and Mario Balotelli for Manchester City this coming Sunday?

2. Throwing Lucas Back into the Deep End

Last Saturday marked Lucas’ return to the starting lineup in a Premier League game for the best part of nine months.

Which in itself is commendable on Lucas’ part—but in hindsight perhaps Rodgers could have done more to ease him back into the team.

That Rodgers had no qualms about slotting him straight back into his starting XI was perhaps a testament to his faith in Lucas and Lucas’ own ability. While his partnership in central midfield with Joe Allen had plenty of encouraging signs, they were ultimately overrun by a physical duo of Youssuf Mulumbu and Claudio Yacob.

The argument for Lucas’ extensive gametime is perhaps that he has featured all throughout Liverpool’s preseason, but the EPL is a whole different beast.

3. Playing and Sticking with Stewart Downing

Stewart Downing was rewarded for his fine preseason displays with a starting berth on the right wing in a front three; only for Downing to reward Rodgers’ faith with a typically anonymous performance with no end product.

If there is one thing that Rodgers should take away from his opening-day loss, it should be that Downing only delivers in games against lower-league opposition (see his dazzling cup performances last term) and those with little to no implication (see his preseason displays and that in Belarus against FC Gomel, with whom a second leg at Anfield beckoned).

Time and again the ball fell at Downing’s feet, only for him to waste crossing chance after crossing chance, or to halt the play completely while he switched back onto his favored left foot (also known as his only operable foot).

Perhaps his replacement after Agger’s sending off—Jamie Carragher—could’ve done a better job.

4. Switching Luis Suarez and Fabio Borini’s Positions

After an eye-catching display against FC Gomel, Fabio Borini emerged as a decent goalscoring option for Liverpool, and his dovetailing with Luis Suarez seemed to be an encouraging prospect.

The Suarez-Borini partnership was going swimmingly until Rodgers decided to tinker with it by switching their positions.

Previously granted the freedom of the left wing, Suarez was utilized in a central striking role against West Brom, which allowed the opposing defenders to focus their attentions on him.

While his trickery and unpredictability still ensured that they had to endure an uncomfortable night, he failed to display the finishing composure that should be expected from a central striker.

By contrast, Borini, who previously excelled at finding the space that a predatory striker thrives on, was shunted out to the wing, where he, with lesser dribbling and outright pace, failed to trouble the West Brom defence.

Together with Downing, Borini formed an anonymous wing partnership and a toothless alliance with Suarez.

5. Delaying Andy Carroll’s Introduction

The nature of a Plan B is that it should be used if Plan A doesn’t work out.

But in the case of Andy Carroll, he might not even have taken to the Hawthorns pitch if it weren’t for Joe Cole’s hamstring injury just minutes after Liverpool’s No. 10 came on as a substitute himself.

In delaying Andy Carroll’s introduction, Rodgers seemed to tread in Kenny Dalglish’s footsteps, and that hesitancy and reluctance in making key substitutions will not augur well for both the Liverpool fans and for Carroll himself.

There is perhaps a case against sending on a striker—and a big targetman at that—when you are 3-0 down, but had he been introduced early, he would have given the West Brom defence something else to worry about against a 10-man Liverpool—and an extra outlet for the Reds attack.

The Silver Lining…?

The silver lining in Saturday’s cloud, of course, is that it was Brendan Rodgers’ first league game in charge of Liverpool.

The Rodgers revolution was always going to take time, and if anything, the West Brom result perhaps served to bring expectations down to earth, albeit in an extremely sobering manner.

Perhaps it will have taken such a result for Rodgers to realize some of the points made above.

Hindsight is 20-20, but retrospect is only useful when you act on your mistakes to tackle problems in the future.

The 3-0 loss against Steve Clarke’s side will have been for nothing if Rodgers doesn’t make changes accordingly in the games to come.

 

Original article from Bleacher Report

What Brendan Rodgers Must Do Before the Start of the Season

A week from this Saturday, the 2012-2013 EPL season kicks off—which means that all 20 Premier League clubs only have a week and a half to prepare for their first fixtures.

But Liverpool’s pre-EPL season preparations are by no means over yet.

Here are seven things Brendan Rodgers must do before he takes his Liverpool team to the Hawthorns next Saturday.

1. Go Through to the Next Round of the Europa League

First things first: Liverpool, after a year of complete absence from Europe, are back in the Europa League.

If they take care of business at Anfield against Belarus’ FC Gomel.

No matter how obscure their opponents this Thursday may be, Liverpool only hold a one-goal advantage, and any slip-up could be costly.

Liverpool and European football go together.

While the target for the season is to secure a top-four finish and return to the Champions League next season, they will need to ensure that they aren’t out of Europe this season before a Premier League ball is even kicked in anger.

2. Complete Deals for Joe Allen, Gaston Ramirez

Now onto transfer business.

Supposedly linked with substantial Liverpool bids are Swansea’s Joe Allen (The Independent) and Bologna’s Gaston Ramirez (The Standard); both midfielders would add quality to Rodgers’ midfield.

For a side that requires a metronomic playmaker in the midfield to keep the ball moving alongside a more defensive-minded partner (Lucas Leiva), Allen makes sense as an acquisition to bring more creativity and stability in the midfield, and he would also release Steven Gerrard to play in a more advanced position.

Ramirez would add speed and skill to the wings, which should be a key emphasis in Rodgers’ 4-3-3 formation. With few out-and-out wingers in the squad, Rodgers would do well to address this area by bringing in Ramirez.

The Liverpool squad would look much more complete if these two players are finally brought in—and it would do the squad a world of good if their transfers were secured before the Premier League starts for real.

3. Sign Daniel Agger on a New Contract

Besides bringing in some additional quality players, Rodgers will also need to keep hold of his star players.

Daniel Agger has been strongly linked with a big-money move to Manchester City (The Guardian), whose place at the top of English football, regular Champions League action and riches on offer will certainly be enticing.

Agger is one of the best defenders in England, ball-playing or not, and his passing quality and attacking instincts make him a perfect fit for Rodgers’ system.

To sanction such a move would not only be a PR disaster in Rodgers’ case—branding Liverpool as a selling club—but also a huge blow to Liverpool’s preparations for the Premier League.

4. Resolve Midfield Issues

Moving on to the midfield, where, regardless of whether Rodgers does bring in Joe Allen and Gaston Ramirez, there are still issues that must be resolved.

The first is obviously that of finding a regular partner for Lucas.

Steven Gerrard proved in the European Championships earlier this summer that he is capable of putting in a world-class shift in the center of midfield, but he has without doubt made a much bigger impact in a more advanced role over the years in a Red shirt.

With the departure of Alberto Aquilani, who on paper seemed a good fit in Rodgers’ possession-based system, someone needs to come in and fill that role.

Which then raises the issue of Charlie Adam, Jordan Henderson and Jay Spearing.

All three have their attributes—and Henderson seems to have the most potential out of the trio—but at the moment, Rodgers needs to sort out their exact roles in the Liverpool midfield, especially if he will only go with a midfield three.

And that’s not including the futures and roles of Joe Cole and Stewart Downing.

5. Find a Way to Incorporate Andy Carroll into the Side

Rodgers faces some headaches up front, too.

The most notable of which is a £35 million powerhouse headache wearing the No. 9 shirt.

Now that it’s clear that Andy Carroll is vehemently refusing a move away from Anfield (ESPNSoccernet), Rodgers will need to either find a club who will prove enticing enough (Newcastle), or accept that Carroll will be in his squad for at least the coming six months.

Which means that Rodgers will need to find a way to incorporate Andy Carroll into his side.

This after signing Fabio Borini, who seems certain to be Rodgers’ first-choice striker this term.

Find the right mix, though, and he might just be surprised what Carroll can bring to the team.

6. Sort out Player Loans

And after Rodgers sorts out his personnel situation, he will need to go one further and decide which ones to farm out on loan.

The likes of Raheem Sterling, Suso and Jonjo Shelvey all performed well in Liverpool’s preseason games and will likely get further chances to impress in their final friendly against Leverkusen this weekend, but only Rodgers will know how close to regular first-team action they might be.

The recent introduction of the U21 Premier League is a great reason to keep them on for regular action for the Liverpool reserves if they sit out their senior-team games, but conversely, a loan spell might do their Liverpool careers a world of good.

Of course, Rodgers will also pay close attention to the loan market to bring in players who might be made available.

7. Make Sure Luis Suarez Really Does Move on from the Evra Incident

The breaking news this Tuesday was that Luis Suarez signed a new contract with Liverpool (BBC Sport).

The on-field implications of this are all positive: There is no need to go on about the kind of explosive and unpredictable creative play that he brings to the Liverpool attack.

But equally, Suarez brings explosive and unpredictable liabilities off the field, which the Liverpool hierarchy will want to limit drastically.

Only a few weeks ago, Suarez seemed to reignite his race row with Patrice Evra last season—a move that Rodgers was quick to address in the media.

Rodgers suggested publicly that it was in the best interests for all parties concerned that Suarez “move on” from the controversy (The Guardian).

He will want to make sure he does move on and make all the headlines on the pitch, for all the right reasons.

Conclusion

So far, Brendan Rodgers has made a very good impression on Liverpool fans by saying all the right things.

But he will know as clearly as anyone that the ultimate judgment will be his results on the pitch.

To ensure that he gets off to a good start, he still has a lot of work to do this summer—all of which should ideally be done before the Premier League kicks off once again.

 

Original article from Bleacher Report