Joe Allen: 5 Areas of Improvement Next Season

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Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Philippe Coutinho, Iago Aspas, Jordan Henderson, Luis Alberto, Stewart Downing, Joe Allen.

Discounting the versatile Luis Suarez, who might be on his way out of Liverpool anyway, the anonymous Oussama Assaidi and reserves Suso, Raheem Sterling, Jordon Ibe and Jonjo Shelvey, that’s six players considered first-team options in Liverpool’s attacking midfield.

And that’s also excluding Daniel Sturridge, who has experience drifting in from wide, and Steven Gerrard, who has been moved back to a more withdrawn playmaking role.

After an excellent start to life following his £15 million move from Swansea City last summer, Joe Allen’s form dipped spectacularly as he transitioned from a mainstay to a passenger to an observer. (We placed him in the attacking midfield bracket above as he cameoed in such a role in the second half of the season, though he will obviously also be considered in a deeper position.)

With such formidable competition in the first team next season, how can the Wales international keep his place in Brendan Rodgers’ team?

Here are five areas of improvement for Joe Allen in the coming season.

 

Fitness

The first order of business is physical fitness.

Joe Allen notably struggled with a shoulder injury since October, according to the Liverpool Echo, which impacted his performances for the club as he gradually diminished in influence and physical presence.

Early in the season, when Liverpool struggled to adapt to Brendan Rodgers’ new system, Allen was the standout performer in the heart of the midfield, and even when Lucas was out due to injury, he filled in as a defensive midfielder with impressive ease.

When news emerged of his injury troubles, his drop in form became understandable, but the bigger question was why Rodgers continued to play him despite the shoulder problems.

Allen ultimately missed the end of the season, so he will have had a full summer of rehabilitation before returning to action in the first team.

If he does get over his injuries, perhaps Liverpool fans can see Allen return to his previous good form?

 

Tackling

Standing at a diminutive 5’6″, Joe Allen’s size does not constitute as an advantage considering that he plays at the center of midfield in a physical and fast-paced league.

While the aforementioned shoulder injury had a part to play in his less wholehearted physical performances after October, the turning point for his confidence (and subsequently, his form) was arguably the 2-2 away draw at Everton on October 28, when Allen proved an unfortunate mismatch against the formidable Marouane Fellaini.

What Allen lacks in stature, unfortunately, it seems he also lacks in tackling. In the previously listed EPLIndex analysis piece, in a comparison with 13 other Premier League central midfielders, Allen’s tackle success rate was the lowest, at a mere 64.81 percent.

That he conversely ranked near the top for minutes per possession won (10) had a lot to do with his interceptions, for which he deserves credit. But he also placed bottom in the minutes-per-defensive-error chart (384), which will be a cause for concern.

If he is to establish himself in a high-energy, pressing midfielder who’s focused on winning the ball back, he will need to rely on far more than just his anticipation.

(Stats from @Kopology‘s excellent article in EPLIndex.)

 

Transitioning in the Counterattack

Early last season, when Brendan Rodgers’ new Liverpool side was largely focused on replicating his Swansea successes, much of the approach play was concentrated in short passes and dominating possession in the midfield.

Joe Allen, who thrived in his debut season in the Premier League in such a system, unsurprisingly stood out as the player most comfortable on the pitch. Even the likes of Steven Gerrard struggled at the beginning, when Liverpool were trying to find form on the pitch.

As the Reds’ identity began to change during the season, however, things started looking different.

There was much more variability to the attack. While keeping possession was still an important facet of an evolving Liverpool, more long balls were used, especially as Gerrard got into his rhythm of spraying passes all over the pitch from his deeper playmaking position, while counterattacks became much more efficient and devastating.

Add in the speedy January signings in Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge, and suddenly, Liverpool became a team that pounced on the break and could break past opponents if necessary.

A Joe Allen who is most adept at recycling the ball soon found himself out of the team (though his injuries had played a major part as well).

To get his place back, he will need to make up for lost time and catch up with a new, slicker Liverpool.

 

Final Ball

Stewart Downing made the headlines in his first season at Anfield for notching zero goals and assists, despite being known as a fine crosser of the ball.

So a Welsh Xavi that draws blanks in both areas (in league play) will be equally frustrating and surprising.

It’s not that Allen isn’t good at passing. He is: At an average 89.7 percent pass success rate, he was the most accomplished passer in the midfield and forward areas.

But a simple drill into passing statistics explains his lack of a telling contribution to the Liverpool attack: With 0.8 key passes and zero through-balls per game, Allen just didn’t impress. Compare that to Steven Gerrard, who averaged 2.6 and 0.3, and Philippe Coutinho (1.5, 0.8), and the difference becomes clearer.

A single-faceted midfield player may thrive in a single-minded game, but in an ambitious Liverpool side aiming to vary attacking approaches, Allen needs to vastly up his impact in terms of the final ball.

(Stats from WhoScored.com.)

 

Shooting and Goalscoring

Now, it’s all well and good for a central or defensive midfielder to play a simple game and not manage a single goal throughout a league campaign. (Joe Allen did score two goals elsewhere, against Oldham Athletic in the FA Cup and against Zenit St. Petersburg in the Europe League.)

But as a player who has the positional and technical awareness to cameo as an attacking midfielder, and as a central/defensive midfielder lacking in the previous attributes, perhaps a little more contribution in terms of goals is in order.

Joe Allen simply does not possess the power in his shots to contribute goals from long range, nor the composure and finishing required to put away clear-cut chances. His usual position further behind the attack prevents him from getting in the thick of the action.

Who wouldn’t welcome a Joe Allen who added goals to his game?

But focus on improving the first four aspects and that will already be enough to secure Allen a place in the first team this season.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and other Premier League-related matters.

English Football Weekly: Week 2 Recap; Fulham’s BT Outrage; Final Week of Transfers

EPL Week 2 Recap: Routines, Blanks and Upsets

Simply because the bore draw between Manchester United and Chelsea doesn’t really deserve center stage in any weekend roundup do we give it just that. But we should’ve known, for this was David Moyes’ first big game as United boss, and Jose Mourinho’s first in his second reign at Stamford Bridge. Mourinho’s team selection—a curious 4-6-0 with no Juan Mata or Fernando Torres—overshadowed the match itself, while Wayne Rooney’s performance overshadowed the teamsheets in turn. All the same, it will be seen as a point gained for Chelsea, and for United, an uncertain buildup to Liverpool this weekend.

Speaking of Liverpool, they’re one of two teams who still hold a 100% record this season. And we’re only two games in. This is a big deal at Anfield though: It’s been five seasons since they’ve won their first two league matches. Daniel Sturridge, just as he was against Stoke City last weekend, was the match-winner this time around at Villa Park, as Liverpool transitioned from a dominant possession-heavy side to a deep defensive shape against the young counterattacking pace and power of Aston Villa. Whisper it quietly—but could Kolo Toure and Simon Mignolet actually be upgrades on Jamie Carragher and Pepe Reina?

The other team is, of course, Tottenham Hotspur, and that’s not the only similarity: They’ve also only scored two goals in two matches, both from the same striker. Different from Sturridge’s two excellent match-winners, however, is that both of Spurs’ goals have come from the spot. Roberto Soldado has proven a reliable option from 12 yards, and the Mousa Dembele-Etienne Capoue-Paulinho midfield triumvirate looks formidable and indomitable. What Andre Villas-Boas has to solve now, given that Gareth Bale looks even closer to the exit, is finding that player to link the midfield play with Soldado. Erik Lamela will do just fine.

Swansea City got outplayed on the ball by a confident and powerful Spurs, but that wasn’t the only upset of the weekend. By now, you’ll have heard about newly-promoted Cardiff City’s famous 3-2 home win over big-spending Manchester City. Cue the headlines about money not being important and that football will still triumph at times. Of course, such headlines ignore the fact that Cardiff may still face a hard season ahead, and City will in all probability finish in the top two. Anyway. Manuel Pellegrini and Joe Hart have a lot of work to do—and who better to have scored the winner than ex-United man Frazier Campbell? Karma, eh?

Oh, Modern Football…

This season, followers and viewers of the Premier League in England will have another broadcaster to choose from: BT Sport have joined Sky in carrying PL coverage, and have already been competing to gain viewers with a variety of different features and attractions. (Brian Barwick has more on the Daily Mail.) Unfortunately, there are inevitable downsides to those fans who still decide to attend matches live—and as Fulham fans found out at Craven Cottage on Saturday against Arsenal, it might prove to be a long season in the stands. The reason? BT’s new cameras are quite blatantly blocking the view of season ticket holders.

Now, it’s all well and good to be advancing with the times when it comes to studio technology, and BT (and Sky) have done excellent work improving their coverage. But surely the core of football is the fans at the stadiums, and no amount of media rights or television deals should obscure this fact. It gets a bit tricky when older stadiums like Craven Cottage are involved, as they’ll likely require more intricate planning and reconstruction to allow for this type of equipment to be installed. But BT’s statement in response didn’t just lack class; it was a slap in the face to the match-going Fulham faithful.

“BT doesn’t decide where cameras are placed at Premier League football grounds, but we always try to minimize the impact of them for fans at the match. We’re sorry if any fans at Craven Cottage are upset by the camera position, but hope that thousands of Fulham and Arsenal supporters, who couldn’t make it to the match, enjoyed the game on BT Sport.” (Daily Mail) Given the choice, I suspect those supporters to plump for the insight and analyses of Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville—who are fast proving to be a star draw—than the monotonic commentary of Michael Owen. Just sayin’.

Loans at Anfield and Blockbusters at the Emirates

Rejoice, for it’s the last week of the summer transfer window! What’s been an interesting start to the season—with a new era of unpredictability across Premier League results, and with the enhanced coverage that has been introduced to TV audiences—has been obscured by the long-running sagas that have dominated the summer. When is Gareth Bale moving to Real Madrid? Wayne Rooney to Chelsea? Willian to Liverpool—sorry, Spurs—sorry, Chelsea? What’s Joe Kinnear doing to stop players arriving at Newcastle United? Is Arsene Wenger ever going to sign someone?

Quietly doing their work behind all the smoke and (lack of) fire are Liverpool, who are still doing this work now because their previous work to land Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Diego Costa and Willian failed. So it’s time to knuckle down and actually aim for realistic targets, which is why the rumors of Juan Mata making a move to Anfield have died down and those linking Victor Moses with the Reds have ramped up. Linked to Liverpool back in the Rafa Benitez days, Moses has fallen off his star at Chelsea, but still has loads of potential. Not a marquee signing for sure, but look at Toure and Mignolet for more reasons to believe in the “transfer committee.”

Over at the Emirates Stadium—where they’re reportedly smoking something—there finally seems to be some activity. Yes, that’s right, a “chief negotiator” has arrived at Arsenal’s London Headquarters to work on transfers, according to the Daily Mail, which makes you think why he didn’t do that a couple of months earlier, when he’d still have time to get signings in, you know, before the season actually started. Two seasons ago, that infamous loss to United prompted some frantic last-gasp transfer activity. The Gunners are being linked with Karim Benzema and Angel Di Maria this week—but last time around, it was Andre Santos. Watch this space.

 

This piece was part of my English Football Weekly column for SWOL.co.

Aston Villa 0-1 Liverpool: 6 Positives and Negatives

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Michael Steele/Getty Images
An exquisite goal from Daniel Sturridge sealed the points for Liverpool in what was a hard-fought afternoon at Villa Park, where the Reds managed to brave a second-half Aston Villa onslaught to take home a 1-0 win.

After their impressive opening weekend win against Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium, Villa put in an impressive performance against Chelsea, only to end the match empty-handed.

But Paul Lambert’s young side had already shown that their energy and pace would have the potential to cause opponents problems this season.

Liverpool traveled to Villa Park on the back of a 1-0 home win over Stoke City on opening day, an arena where the home side had secured just one victory in their last 15 meetings.

With the maximum six points after two matches, Liverpool have secured their best league start in five years, with Sturridge getting match-winners on both occasions.

What else did we learn from Liverpool’s victory on Saturday? Read on for our take on the positives and negatives from the match, and let us know your opinions in the comments below.

Daniel Sturridge with Yet Another Match-Winning Performance…

It’s tempting to say that it was all Philippe Coutinho, who allowed the goal to happen with his expert dummy on Jose Enrique’s pass, but in reality it was all Daniel Sturridge.

One shimmy, two shimmies, another rounding of the keeper, and—just as the ball looked like it was forced a little too wide—a quick swish of the outside of the left boot. 1-0.

More than a few shades of Luis Suarez to the goal, but for Liverpool fans, this shouldn’t be news anymore.

Daniel Sturridge has produced the goods time and again since his January move to Anfield from Chelsea, and after his blistering match-winning strike against Stoke last week, it was yet another Sturridge beauty that won it this time around.

However, it wasn’t just the goal that set Sturridge apart.

It was his hunger, his attitude, his work rate and his overall movement across the pitch, chasing down balls in the second half when Aston Villa had the majority of the possession.

But it will be his expertly taken goal that sticks with everyone until the visit of Manchester United, and rightly so.

Brendan Rodgers has since claimed, via the Telegraph, that Sturridge has all the tools in his locker to become the best English striker in the Premier League.

And why not?

On this form, Sturridge should be wearing the No. 9 shirt leading the line for England at the World Cup next summer, if passage to Brazil is secured.

…But Philippe Coutinho Must Learn to Deal with Extra Attention

If Sturridge stole the limelight and Philippe Coutinho seemed to take more of a backseat on Saturday, that’s because, in many aspects, that was indeed what happened.

The Reds came flying out of the blocks, and for the opening 40 minutes they took the game to Villa, playing an enjoyable possession-based style of football, but Coutinho was noticeably subdued.

Full credit to Paul Lambert and his charges, who already showed their admirable work rate and intense midfield pressure on Arsenal talisman Jack Wilshere at the Emirates last weekend. At the weekend, they appeared to replicate this tactic on that most influential and unpredictable of playmakers, Coutinho.

That his touch seemed to be slightly off didn’t help his cause, and that he helped create an exquisite goal by not touching the ball in the build-up further reflected an altogether quiet showing from the Brazilian starlet.

In a high-tempo match against a high-energy Villa team, Coutinho put in an admirable shift doing the defensive work, especially after Liverpool ceded possession of the ball to the hosts.

His tracking back was important, and his work off the ball will have impressed Rodgers.

It’s not just about the flashy stuff all the time, but Coutinho must surely be wising up to the fact that he’ll be attracting much more attention in his first full campaign in English football than he did in his first half season.

But that just shows the impact he’s made since arriving from Internazionale—and even good players are allowed a quieter game once in a while.

Kolo Toure and Simon Mignolet Impress Again…

Since the turn of the year, Liverpool have enjoyed an impressive league record—losing just three out of 20 matches in the 2013 calendar year—and January signings Sturridge and Coutinho have captured most of the headlines.

But their new signings this summer will claim a bigger say in what happens for the second half of the year, and in these first two showings, Kolo Toure and Simon Mignolet have already established themselves as fan favorites.

Let’s start with Kolo Toure, who followed up a strong performance against Stoke with another commanding display on Saturday.

Against the considerable pace, energy and power of Christian Benteke, who has carried last season’s form into this, Toure was impeccable. He also kept Benteke’s forward partners Gabby Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann quiet.

His pace, positioning and experience were on full display as he was at the center of a resolute Reds defence, especially in the second half when Liverpool sat back and defended more deeply.

His use of the ball and his passing game also caught the eye in the aesthetically pleasing opening 40 minutes.

Having earned Liverpool two points with his double save at the death last weekend—one of which was a penalty save against Jonathan Walters—Mignolet displayed his considerable shot-stopping abilities with impressive stops on Saturday, including a thrilling near-post parry of a powerful Benteke low drive.

So much for the negative impact that Jamie Carragher’s retirement and Pepe Reina’s loan departure to Napoli was supposed to bring.

In fact—whisper it quietly—maybe their replacements have even been an upgrade.

…But Lucas Exposes Himself as the Weak Link in the Team

Yet another Liverpool upgrade on show at Villa Park was defensive midfielder Lucas Leiva: He has seemingly recovered from his injury nightmare, and his performance levels have stepped up a notch from the unconvincing displays in the second half of 2012/13.

The problem is, even an improved Lucas has his faults, and more often than not, it was Lucas who threatened to shoot his team in the foot with a series of mistimed challenges and poor positioning in the midfield.

It is commonly said that Liverpool are another attacking player away from assembling a much more accomplished side capable of challenging for the top four—Brendan Rodgers has claimed, through the Guardian, that he is still on the lookout for a left winger—but reality dictates otherwise.

With Luis Suarez still to return, and Kolo Toure and Aly Cissokho providing experienced additions to the backline, Liverpool are balanced across the team, with the notable exception of the central midfield line.

The easiest reference was on show at White Hart Lane on Sunday. Tottenham Hotspur’s midfield trio of Mousa Dembele, Paulinho and Etienne Capoue provided pace, energy, tackling, positional nous and attacking threat in a dynamic Spurs performance, even if life after Gareth Bale wasn’t the most inspiring in terms of chances created.

With Lucas marshaling the defence against Villa, it was his mistakes that led to a succession of set pieces that troubled the Liverpool box, while Benteke and co. were put through because of his lack of positioning.

If Liverpool are to build a competitive side capable of sustaining a challenge near the top of the tree, they must acquire an upgrade in the defensive midfield area. A decent squad player Lucas might be, but a top-four starter he is not. Etienne Capoue only cost Spurs £9 million.

Brendan Rodgers the Realist…

For the first 40 minutes or so at Villa Park, Liverpool were the embodiment of a Brendan Rodgers ideal:

Positive attacking movement, dynamic interchanging across the midfield and forward lines, patient distribution at the back, impressive maintaining of a high line of defence, constant pressing to win back lost possession and composed clearing of the lines across the floor.

Given the way that they sat back and absorbed the incessant pressure with a defensive line after the 40-minute mark, one could be forgiven for thinking that the players let complacency set in, never seized the initiative back, and had to ride out the storm as a result.

That would’ve been cause for an internal inquisition from Rodgers and his backroom team after the final whistle had gone.

Not so.

As it turned out, sitting back and defending more deeply was part of Rodgers’ game plan against a threatening and pacy Villa side, according to this BBC Sport report. Liverpool’s aim was “to just to keep our lines tight together and deny them many chances”—and they did just that.

Which is yet another encouraging step in the evolution taking place at Anfield since Rodgers’ appointment last summer.

From a team setting out to play a possession-based game perhaps a bit too stubbornly, Liverpool developed into a fearsome counterattacking unit with the help of January arrivals Sturridge and Coutinho.

And now they’ve even added a mean streak to their game that sees victory as the most important aim of all.

Brendan Rodgers, the philosopher, the ideologue…the realist? Who would’ve thought it?

…But Winning Ugly is Better Than Not Winning at All

As Liverpool prepare to take on Notts County in the second round of the League Cup on Tuesday, a sobering reality sets in: They are in this position because they didn’t manage to qualify for any European competition this season.

Or in other words, last season’s seventh-place finish was simply not good enough.

As club owner John Henry jetted in to deal with the Luis Suarez situation a few weeks ago, he will have reminded Rodgers of his objectives this season.

Indeed, in this Telegraph report, just as telling as his stance on keeping Suarez was his public pronouncement that he had high expectations and intended to “surprise people this year.”

Small wonder, then, that Rodgers has developed and integrated a more pragmatic side that sees victory just as important as the football.

To date, the 2013/14 Premier League campaign has yet to see the scintillating football that resulted in high-scoring margins like the 6-0 win at Newcastle United’s St. James’ Park, and Daniel Sturridge is the only player to have scored in a Red shirt this season.

But a win is a win is a win. And three points is three points is three points.

As they look to progress through to the third round of the League Cup and then onwards to prepare for the visit of Manchester United this weekend, they’ll be aiming not to appear in the second round again anytime soon.

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and other Premier League-related matters.

The Football Business Column: Enhanced TV Tech, Total Immersion and Video Games

New season, new technology

It’s a new season in the English Premier League. For American fans, this season’s experience should be vastly different from previous years: NBC has taken on the exclusive broadcasting rights to the English top flight in a way that has revolutionized coverage of football in the US; the marketing efforts that have gone behind promoting this whole new offering, as well as the degree of professionalism and thought put into assembling a top-notch broadcasting team, deserve mention and full credit.

But there have been more subtle improvements in Premier League broadcasting that new EPL fans in America would perhaps have taken for credit. The first is the introduction of goal-line technology. In what’s been a considerable (and frankly surprising) turnaround, the higher powers in the game have approved its use, and HawkEye technology—which is known for its use in tennis—has been installed across EPL grounds this season, and it was immediately put to use on Saturday when Hull City goalkeeper Allan McGregor parried a shot off the line against Chelsea. No goal was given, but a long overdue addition of some simple technology in the game: The lack of emotional and irrational debate on online forums in its immediate aftermath was welcome.

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Courtesy of SI.com

And just like TV viewers will have been able to see the HawkEye analysis and replay of McGregor’s decision, so they too were treated to another simple data set on Saturday. When Liverpool’s Daniel Agger handled inside the box and Stoke City midfielder Jonathan Walters prepared to take the penalty, a brief infographic of Walters’ previous penalty attempts flashed onto the bottom of the screen. Walters had a tendency to shoot towards the keeper’s right, and it turns out that Simon Mignolet had the same information as we all did—just that he’d had it prior to the match—and dived onto his right. A little additional feature for viewers: Nothing too major, but some helpful graphics are always welcome.

GoPro goes pro

In the new era of Manchester City, they’ve been one of the quickest in European football to adopt and embrace the latest in technology. Their social media presence and YouTube features have won rave reviews for their interactivity with fans and depth of coverage, and their latest partnership proves that City are once again on the frontier when it comes to technology in football.

On August 21, City announced that they will be partnering up with California-based video camera-maker GoPro to go even more in-depth into the lives of professional footballers. GoPro has been popular amongst extreme sports enthusiasts, and will now be used to film exclusive behind-the-scenes happenings in and around the football club. Players will be wearing it in training (and have done—see the promotional video) and pre-match routines, similar to Nike’s highly-rated “Take It to the Next Level” commercial series.

With Google Glass the newest hype in American sports—the discussion now is on whether referees in the NBA should wear it on the court—how long will it be before the latest technology is widely adopted in the English game? Exciting times.

The business of football games

Football fans can be divided into two camps: The ProEvo camp (Pro Evolution Soccer, or Winning Eleven) or the FIFA camp. It’s not surprising that EA Sports, the developers behind FIFA, have seized on the world’s most popular game as a huge business opportunity, but it wasn’t always that way. In fact, there were once major doubts at Electronic Arts whether to develop the game at all. For a fine, fine piece of journalism marrying video games and football, check out this piece on the story of FIFA.

So how best to capture the worldwide football fanbase? EA Sports have recently entered into partnership deals with Manchester City (yup, them again), Liverpool and Everton to act as the clubs’ official video games partner, which means that their coverage on the FIFA games will be even more extensive. Everton’s Goodison Park will be eligible for selection as a stadium in-game, and the EA Sports team have traveled onsite to capture the likenesses of their players to deliver a more authentic representation of the teams in the game. (Here’s a video of Liverpool players getting their images captured.) And of course, there will be EA Sports-sponsored corners in the stadiums for fans to play with each other—and for EA to promote their FIFA games.

Oh, and there’s a final category of football fans. That all-encompassing category—Football Manager. Take it from me: It is a magnificent game, but be warned, for you might end up spending hours on it. That is, if you’re not already an FM fan. Here’s another fine piece of writing covering the FM mania.

 

This piece was my first instalment of my new biweekly column for SWOL.co, in which I discuss some of the latest news, trends and developments on the business side of football—everything including marketing, strategy, technology and finance.

Ranking Liverpool’s Central Midfield Options

With less than two weeks to go until the summer transfer window closes, Liverpool are still active in the market, having confirmed on Tuesday the signing of French left-back Aly Cissokho from Valencia on a season-long loan, as reported by Andy Hunter in The Guardian.

In less encouraging news for the Reds, Brendan Rodgers’ high-profile move for Shakhtar Donetsk winger Willian has apparently fallen through due to interest from Tottenham Hotspur, according to BBC Sport.

However, Liverpool’s transfer activity this summer has meant that all positions have been strengthened at the club, barring one: central midfield.

As we ponder whether this is down to Rodgers’ confidence in his own options or that he is still scouring the market for a quality addition, let’s take a look at the central midfield options currently at his disposal—and why not rank them in order of importance?

Read on and let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

 

5. Luis Alberto

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 Vince Caligiuri/Getty Images

At a Glance

New signing Luis Alberto, who arrived from Sevilla this summer after spending last term on loan at Barcelona B, comes in fifth on our list, simply because his status is still as a young squad member.

Alberto honed his skills at the Sevilla academy, making 77 appearances and scoring 25 goals for Sevilla B and graduating to the first team, before heading out to Camp Nou on loan.

Strengths

Comfortable on the ball, both in dribbling and passing, and with a knack for scoring goals—he scored 11 goals while on loan at Barcelona B last season—the versatile Alberto is capable of filling in across the midfield and forward lines.

He was played in a deeper, more withdrawn position during Liverpool’s preseason tour and provided glimpses of a typical Spanish cultured midfielder, also scoring a goal in a friendly against Valerenga.

Weaknesses

What counts against Alberto at the moment is his lack of experience at the top level of club football. While he made a few appearances for the Sevilla first team, he’s done most of his goalscoring and made most of his impact playing in the B level in Spain.

We would also expect that Alberto undergoes some strength training so that he won’t be overwhelmed by the physicality of the Premier League.

Importance

At £6.8 million, his transfer didn’t come too cheaply for a reserve, so we wouldn’t be surprised if he made appearances off the bench or in domestic cup competitions, but he will have to deliver consistently impressive performances to force his way up the ladder.

 

4. Joe Allen

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 Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

At a Glance

A key cog in Rodgers’ Swansea City side, Joe Allen was his first signing after his appointment as Liverpool manager last summer, and cost a cool £15 million.

After starting last season in inspired form alongside Lucas, Allen’s confidence petered out after suffering near-total domination against the towering Marouane Fellaini in the Merseyside derby.

Asked to fill in at defensive midfield following Lucas’ injury, Allen’s form continued declining with a reported shoulder injury, before the Brazilian’s return allowed Allen to finally cut his season short and go under the knife.

Allen has started the season well, performing to rave reviews in Liverpool’s preseason tour, buthe  was an unused substitute in their first league game of the 2013/14 season against Stoke City.

Strengths

Allen’s biggest strength is undoubtedly his comfort and technique on the ball, which means passing is his strongest suit. Early last season when he started his Anfield career, his short passes enabled an effective recycling of the ball in the midfield, whereas his long passes reminded the Kop of former favorite Xabi Alonso.

As a player who came of age in Brendan Rodgers’ passing system, Allen was the first to arrive with the philosophy ingrained in his midfield play and is deployable in all three lines of the midfield: defensive, central and attacking.

Weaknesses

His diminutive stature, however, continues to be a glaring weakness, especially against more physical sides that take advantage of their height in the Premier League. This was presumably one of the reasons he wasn’t chosen in Liverpool’s first league game this season against Stoke.

For a midfielder in a dynamic and interchangeable team, Allen’s goalscoring leaves much to be desired. He has improved his attacking presence, however, and scored a goal in Steven Gerrard’s preseason testimonial against Olympiakos.

Importance

While his form after the opening few months of last season left a poor impression on many Reds fans, he displayed his undoubted quality before sustaining his shoulder injury.

A passing team like Liverpool will always have a place for technically gifted and composed midfielders like Joe Allen, and his ability to play further up the field will work in his favor, but the reality is that Allen is very much a squad player at the moment.

 

3. Jordan Henderson

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 Stu Forster/Getty Images

At a Glance

Following the departures of Stewart Downing, Charlie Adam and Andy Carroll, Jordan Henderson is the only “big-money flop” left at Anfield from the financially disastrous reign of Damien Comolli and Kenny Dalglish.

The quotes are in place in the previous paragraph because of the way Henderson has turned his Anfield career around. From being offered to Fulham as a makeweight in a deal for Clint Dempsey (which ultimately fell through), Henderson has stormed back into first-team contention and has impressed Rodgers with his work rate and ability, so much so that he was awarded a start in Saturday’s match against Stoke, where he put in an impressive performance.

Which makes us think if Henderson hadn’t been bought for £16 million, he might even be seen as a shrewd capture now.

Strengths

The first thing that comes to mind regarding Henderson is his sheer persistence, hard work and professionalism, making him a likeable character and a player who has come through adversity and an underwhelming first season with aplomb.

But there are other clear factors that work in his favor: His technique is underrated—his passing and finishing abilities can sometimes go under the radar—whereas his work off the ball is instrumental in putting pressure on opposition midfields and defences, a key facet of Liverpool’s current approach. His positioning has also improved by leaps and bounds, and with an evident rise in self-confidence he is much more likely to assert himself on a match.

There’s also his versatility. While Henderson started his career as a central midfielder, he was played predominantly on the right in his final season at Sunderland and in his debut season at Liverpool, and he has also featured on the left and in the central attacking midfield positions under Brendan Rodgers.

Weaknesses

While Henderson has a variety of skills and is a valuable squad player, he can only be classed in the “jack of all trades, master of none” category at the moment: There isn’t any outstanding attribute in his locker that elevates him towards a permanent first-team starting place just yet.

Importance

It is precisely due to this versatility and all-roundedness as a midfielder that has seen Henderson become an important part of the squad, and his attitude and improvement have considerably moved him up the pecking order.

Liverpool’s pursuit of Willian outlined Rodgers’ wishes to strengthen his attacking midfield, and it’s probable that he will look to strengthening the center of his midfield down the line, so the 2013/14 season might prove to be make-or-break for the No. 14.

But there’s no denying how far he’s come from the shy, gangly and often-criticized youngster that came from Sunderland on a price tag that was simply too big.

 

2. Lucas

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 Mark Thompson/Getty Images

At a Glance

At this point, we’ve all heard of the journey that Lucas has taken from Liverpool scapegoat to Anfield hero. The Brazilian midfielder, who arrived as a 20-year-old prodigy from Gremio in 2007, has undergone a near-complete transformation in his Anfield fortunes.

From being fourth-choice in a formidable midfield lineup under Rafael Benitez featuring Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano, Lucas backed his claims for a first-team place with his hard work and attitude, and as the latter two left, he became first-choice for the defensive midfield position.

Since then he has also gained recognition at the international level, as he has taken up the famed No. 5 jersey for the Brazilian national team on many occasions.

Strengths

Starting out as a box-to-box midfielder in Brazil, Lucas has since been recalibrated as a defensive midfielder at Anfield. His short-passing skills have carried through, while he’s massively improved his tackling—he frequently tops the charts with the number of tackles he commits for his club.

The No. 21 might be more famous for his dedication to the cause and professional attitude, as he finally won over the Reds faithful with his hard work. The Brazilian went from being cast aside as not good enough at the beginning of his Reds career to being voted the Standard Chartered Fans Player of the Year of the 2010/11 season.

Weaknesses

Despite such an impressive turnaround, to a certain extent Lucas has combined two of the weaknesses of the box-to-box and defensive midfield positions.

His goalscoring, while never prolific even in Gremio colors, has been almost non-existent for Liverpool, and his preference to stay back and anchor the play, while an important element of the midfield, has deprived the team of an extra source of goals.

In addition, while his tackling has often been praised, his positioning is still yet to match that of top-notch, world-class defensive midfielders. His tendency to play reactively has led sometimes to gaping holes in the center of midfield, allowing opponents to attack through the middle of the park. His turn of pace has also come under the spotlight in duels with fast and physical attacking midfielders.

Importance

There’s no denying that Lucas assumes an important place in Liverpool hearts: Fans have taken to him after his “transformation,” whereas managers and coaches have always been a big fan of his attention to detail and willingness to learn. The fact that Brendan Rodgers has not been linked with a defensive midfielder this summer indicates the trust that he has in Lucas.

However, Lucas’ second place on this list hasn’t come about solely because of a complete skill set or a reputation as a world-class defensive midfielder. Rather, it is because he is the sole member of the Reds midfield that has a more defensive or destructive tendency.

 

1. Steven Gerrard

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 Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

At a Glance

Steven Gerrard, the boyhood Liverpool fan who has become a Reds icon, one of the greatest midfielders in his generation, a proven match-winner and big-game player, and arguably the best Liverpool player of all time.

Our recap of his greatest achievements at Anfield would serve as a better tribute (or introduction) to the current Liverpool skipper.

Strengths

Simply put, Gerrard has it all: pace, power, dribbling, passing, finishing, long-range shooting, set-piece delivery, heading, tackling and—most important of all—the ability to inspire and lead his teammates to victory.

At his peak, Gerrard was one of the premier midfielders on the European continent and frequently won Liverpool matches singlehandedly.

Weaknesses

As he’s aged and as he continues to age, however, Gerrard has moved into a more withdrawn position in the midfield, and his direct match-winning influence as waned.

His tendency to adopt a freer role and relative tactical indiscipline have also been put forth as weaknesses in his game, especially in a metronomic current Liverpool setup.

Importance

There have been many false seasons of transitions at Anfield in recent years, but as Brendan Rodgers’ revolution shapes up and enters a critical year, the leadership of Steven Gerrard is needed more than ever.

He continues to dictate results from a deeper position in the midfield—his nine league goals and nine assists last year are a testament to his continuing importance—and his status as a role model serves to inspire new generations of talent and act currently as the best ambassador for Liverpool Football Club.

 

Further Additions Needed?

As in any positional analysis, besides dissecting the merits and roles of each player currently available, an additional exercise is needed: introspection on whether further strengthening is needed.

There is a host of midfield options, with a vast array of talent and attributes, currently at Brendan Rodgers’ disposal, and he has duly taken advantage of these resources by deploying different midfield combinations in different scenarios.

However, it is clear that to move forward as a club and regain the formidable dominance of years gone by in the middle of the park, additions are needed at Liverpool.

Let’s look first at the defensive midfield position, for which Lucas may be the only specialist currently at the club.

We touched a bit on his weaknesses—areas that a high-caliber signing like Tottenham Hotspur new boy Etienne Capoue could have addressed impressively—and while he has been on his way back from injury and into peak form, a top-tier defensive midfielder must be brought in sooner or later, if Liverpool are to succeed on the domestic and European levels eventually.

Then there’s the matter of Steven Gerrard’s ageing years.

It would be silly to expect anyone to go in and replace Gerrard and his talismanic, near-superhuman powers when he eventually retires, but the effort must be made to secure this long-term replacement before the need becomes urgent.

The likes of Luis Alberto and Joe Allen do not offer the same completeness that Gerrard has for many years. Jonjo Shelvey was once tipped as the captain’s successor, only for high expectations and underwhelming performances to lead to a summer move to Swansea.

Which leaves Jordan Henderson, and at this point in time, the No. 14 still has plenty of work to do before he comes remotely close to inheriting Gerrard’s position.

There are, of course, prospects in the Academy that have been earning rave reviews: The likes of Jordan Rossiter, Jordan Lussey and Daniel Trickett-Smith have been touted for big things, but surely time has to be afforded to these young talents.

For the time being, what’s clear is that Liverpool presently have a good array of options in the midfield, but to push on and secure a bright future, more work has to be done.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and other Premier League-related matters.

English Football Weekly: Style, Efficiency and Early Observations from Week One

City, United and Chelsea Turn on the Style

Manchester City might have been the latest to start their Premier League season, but by Monday night they were topping the table. Newcastle United have always been willing prey for City, but the manner of the 4-0 dismantling showed plenty of promise for season to come at the Etihad Stadium. Edin Dzeko, who didn’t end up on the scoresheet, was central to their attacks throughout, while Fernandinho and Jesus Navas made big impressions on their debuts. Manuel Pellegrini’s appointment raised expectations of adding a style element to City’s play, and if Monday’s result was anything to go by, City fans have a lot to look forward to this season.

Not that Manchester United were too far behind. David Moyes has had two competitive matches in charge, and both of them have been convincing wins. This latest result at the Liberty Stadium not only confirmed the sheer class of Robin van Persie, but also went about disappointing some critics who had been writing off Moyes’ chances at the reigning league champions (myself included). There are long ways to go yet, but Danny Welbeck doubled his league tally last season in one match on Saturday. In his cameo, however, new Swan Wilfried Bony showed enough to suggest that he, too, will be a force to reckoned with this season.

Save the biggest celebrations—certainly the biggest at a stadium on opening day—for Jose Mourinho’s return to Stamford Bridge. The Happy One was welcomed back in heroic fashion, and duly delivered a sublime display of attacking football in the first half, before Chelsea calmed down in the second. The trio of Eden Hazard, Oscar and Kevin de Bruyne were all over the pitch, interchanging play nicely with Fernando Torres, while Frank Lampard provided a timely reminder of his undeniable goal-scoring prowess. The football that Chelsea played in the first half was out of this world. Who would’ve thought that possible under Mourinho?

 

Three Points and Early Conclusions

Plenty of domination, possession, exciting attacking play and shots on goal, but Liverpool once again had a solitary goal to show for it. The difference: the winner was scored by a still-not-fully-fit Daniel Sturridge; a heroic double save was required at the death by their first first-choice keeper in eight seasons; and it was their first opening-day home win in 12 years. Results and points have always teetered on a fine edge for Liverpool, and a win to kick off the season bodes well for the future. Kolo Toure, Jordan Henderson and Iago Aspas impressed, and if Willian really does arrive at Anfield, this could be a forward line that oozes quality—and goals.

Tottenham Hotspur also endured a nervy afternoon at sprightly Crystal Palace. For Spurs fans, this was possibly a sign of things to come, if indeed Gareth Bale does depart White Hart Lane for pastures new, but there were signs of comfort as Paulinho, Nacer Chadli, Roberto Soldado and later Etienne Capoue all debuted to great effect. Unfortunately for the Eagles, their lack of Premier League-quality players was all too evident: Here, endeavor just wasn’t enough. As for Tottenham, this new forward line could do with a sprinkle of Bale’s quality, but they showed enough to suggest that life after Bale might not be too bad after all.

Even given Arsenal’s lack of transfer activity, the ease with which Aston Villa came away with all three points will have been alarming. Indeed, most forums exploded with the anti-board (and anti-Wenger) anger usually reserved for the likes of Rafa Benitez at Stamford Bridge, and the atmosphere at the Emirates Stadium has gotten all the more venomous. You get the feeling that this is a make-or-break season for the Gunners, and it might be too late even for that. As for Paul Lambert’s side though, they look young and irresistible, especially if Christian Benteke continues his imperious form. His penalty-taking, though, needs some work.

There were also wins for West Ham United, where Stewart Downing finally did something resembling decent wing work, Southampton, where Rickie Lambert followed up a debut England goal with a peerless penalty winner, and Fulham, who left the Stadium of Light with a good three points. Sunderland failed to capitalize on their dominance, while Cardiff City and West Bromwich Albion just didn’t have enough in the tank. As for the most entertaining encounter? A 2-2 draw between Everton and Norwich. Ricky van Wolfswinkel’s excellent debut was only one out of multiple encouraging signs of things to come at Carrow Road.

 

Latest Signings and Verdicts

As we enter the final two weeks of the transfer window, the rumors are really heating up. It’s well-known that Arsenal need to strengthen—badly—and in delaying their transfer activity to after their first loss, Arsene Wenger may well have to repeat his panic buy period of 2011. But there are other teams who still need to add. There’s Newcastle United, who haven’t really strengthened at all this summer, and Crystal Palace, who still lack the quality to compete in the Premier League, and Manchester United’s joint bid for Marouane Fellaini and Leighton Baines reflects the need to improve the overall squad still.

But there have also been some excellent business done in the past week. Hull City added two Tottenham midfielders in Tom Huddlestone and Jake Livermore, who should add class, composure and PL pedigree to the Tigers squad. Etienne Capoue to Spurs was a shrewd piece of business, while Pablo Osvaldo to Southampton has been a real statement of intent. But Darren Bent and Scott Parker to Fulham represent exactly the type of low-risk, high-possible-return transfers that the Premier League needs more of. These are two new arrivals who could slot in immediately at Craven Cottage—and become instant hits.

 

This piece was my second instalment of English Football Weekly for the 2013/14 season for SWOL.co.

Liverpool 1-0 Stoke: 6 Things We Learned

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Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

 

Kicking off the 2013/14 English Premier League season, Liverpool secured their first win of the new campaign. The victory came in their first game against Stoke City on Saturday, courtesy of both Daniel Sturridge’s sublime 25-yard strike and Simon Mignolet’s thrilling double save right at the death.

In the process, the Reds finally ended their opening-day hoodoo: This was Liverpool’s first opening-day home win in 12 years, and while it was done in style, it wasn’t without its fair share of drama.

But Brendan Rodgers will have been delighted to see his new signings come through the game in fine form, and he’ll have been happy to end the first week of league action with three points and a clean sheet.

Here are six things we learned from Liverpool’s 1-0 win over Stoke. Enjoy and let us know your views in the comments below.

Kolo Toure: One of the Best Signings of the Summer

Let’s start with the individuals, and one of the standout performers on Saturday was Liverpool’s new No. 4, Kolo Touré.

Slotting seamlessly into the heart of the Reds defence, Touré was at his imperious best, closing down attacks, moving the ball purposefully and committing whole-hearted tackles. More importantly, he ensured that the retired Jamie Carragher wasn’t a big miss.

His presence alongside Daniel Agger ensured that the high defensive line was a success, and allowed full-backs Glen Johnson and José Enrique to bomb down their respective flanks at will.

On the attacking side, there was also his scintillating charge up-field on an attack that he instigated; he ended up inside the box as an unorthodox forward option as Daniel Sturridge opted to shoot.

And if it weren’t for the crossbar at the Anfield Road end, Touré would’ve opened his Reds account on his debut from a first-half Steven Gerrard corner.

Add his wealth of experience and the fact that he’s clearly already gained the trust of his manager and teammates, and Touré represents a fine addition to Brendan Rodgers’ squad.

At a total transfer cost of zero, Kolo Touré, who joined Liverpool on a free from Manchester City, might turn out to be one of the best signings in the whole of the summer transfer window.

Jordan Henderson Fully Deserves Brendan Rodgers’ Faith

Throughout preseason, Joe Allen earned rave reviews from his manager, colleagues and fans alike for his hard work and improved showings compared to last season, and was widely expected to have forced his way into first-team contention in one of the advanced midfield positions.

So it came as something of a surprise that Jordan Henderson was the one chosen to start alongside Philippe Coutinho and Iago Aspas behind lone striker Daniel Sturridge on Saturday.

Perhaps this was a decision taken with the opposition in consideration: After all, Joe Allen’s form went downhill after he nearly suffered humiliation against the towering Marouane Fellaini in the Merseyside derby against Everton last year.

But Henderson’s performance proved that it was much more than that. In a performance showing plenty of energy, hard work, useful movement and goal threat, the No. 14 was one of the most impressive Liverpool players on the pitch.

And if he had shown a bit more composure in a one-on-one against AsmirBegović, or curled his shot just an inch closer to bounce in off the woodwork instead of back out, Henderson would have notched the goal that his performance deserved.

A far cry from his status last year as a makeweight in a player-plus-cash deal to Fulham for Clint Dempsey, and from his reputation as yet another big-money flop from the Damien Comolli-Kenny Dalglish era.

It seems that even Brendan Rodgers has been won over by the enthusiastic and professional Henderson. If he keeps up his form and confidence, any new attacking signing—and Luis Suarez—might face a fight to take his place from Henderson.

Await Lucas and Daniel Sturridge’s Return to Full Fitness

There was a period last season when Liverpool looked just a bit too lightweight in the center of midfield: Following Lucas’ enforced absence due to injury, Joe Allen, who was carrying a shoulder injury, had to deputize in a defensive midfield role that ultimately became the undoing of his early promising reputation.

And even when Lucas returned to the first-team fold, he was nowhere near the Lucas that Anfield had come to know and love.

Too many times he was found wanting in the midfield, seemingly having lost his pace, acceleration and tackling nous due to lack of match practice. And his absence of mind and body was to blame for one of the most embarrassing goals Liverpool conceded last season—a simple stroll through the middle of the park by Southampton’s Jay Rodriguez.

Fast forward a few months, and Lucas has seemingly returned. His tackling and positioning were much improved against Stoke, and even if he still had the tendency to commit a needless foul or to be just slightly too reactive, the defensive midfield area became much less of a liability.

Leading the line was another player stepping up his return to full fitness.

Daniel Sturridge, who had only made his first-team comeback in a preseason friendly a week prior against Celtic, scored two goals in a behind-closed-doors midweek friendly against Newcastle United. He also fired in the winner on Saturday with a rather sumptuous strike from 25 yards out.

There was still room for improvement: Sturridge’s movement, pace and strength still seemed a bit rusty, but a Sturridge on his way back to full fitness still proved the difference on the day.

A few weeks down the line, Brendan Rodgers could well have a fully fit Lucas and Sturridge in his side. That would be a massive boost to the team, judging from Saturday’s display.

Simon Mignolet Passes His First Test

It’s never easy for a goalkeeper making his home debut at Anfield, especially a new first-choice keeper.

For the best part of eight seasons there has been one main man between the sticks. That man was Pepe Reina, who signed for the Reds in the summer of 2005. He has since departed on loan to Napoli.

Simon Mignolet certainly had the hearts of most Liverpool fans in their mouths as his early flap at a deep cross allowed Robert Huth to hit the bar with a fierce volley.

A solid flying save from Jonathan Walters later, and Mignolet soon rediscovered his confidence, and never looked back.

And he passed his Anfield test with flying colors as he became Liverpool’s first-ever goalkeeper to save a penalty on his debut. His stop from Walters’ last-gasp spot-kick was as thrilling as it was important, and his instinctive save from the follow-up ensured that the Reds would end the day with three points instead of one.

A special mention to Mignolet’s opposite number, Asmir Begović, who, barring a fine match-winning strike from Daniel Sturridge, kept Liverpool at bay time and again with a series of excellent stops.

That Liverpool were linked with both Mignolet and Begovićc this summer will have been encouraging in hindsight to Liverpool fans: Both showed their undoubted quality on Saturday and either would have represented fine signings by Brendan Rodgers.

A Nervy Win That Should Become Routine

As usual, Liverpool’s opening goal was met with a series of attacks from the opposition in response.

Last season, the period immediately following the Reds taking the lead was the period that Liverpool were the most vulnerable to conceding a goal.

Against a physical Stoke City side, Liverpool fans could have been forgiven for worrying that the equalizer would come immediately—or indeed would arrive inevitably as Begović represented a one-man wall preventing the home team from extending their lead.

Sure enough, Daniel Agger obliged with a handball inside his own penalty area, and Brendan Rodgers had Simon Mignolet to thank for saving the day: The fevered celebrations from his outfield colleagues in the immediate aftermath were a sight to behold.

But as the game wore on and became increasingly nervy, it looked more and more like the type of game that Liverpool would have thrown away last season.

Instead, they held on to preserve the narrow one-goal lead, and in the process ensured that this season’s start—unlike last year’s 0-3 capitulation against West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns—would ultimately be an encouraging one.

With the first potential banana skin out of the way, Rodgers needs to ensure that this mentality persists in his young side. Their attention must now turn to transforming those narrow leads into routine wins.

A Result That Bodes Well for the Future

It is precisely the end result that may shift the expectation from an inevitable dropping of points to a routine three points on the board.

A young and technical Liverpool side, especially one playing a higher defensive line, had always been susceptible to a physically dominant team: Stoke’s 3-1 win over the Reds just over half a year ago was testament to this.

If the relentless and eye-pleasing attacking can be turned into three points, and if the dominance in possession and shots on goal can be translated into match-winning goals, then Brendan Rodgers will have added the all-important end result onto his formula.

With the arrival of Coutinho and Sturridge, Liverpool have had to rely less on the talismanic Luis Suarez, and if Iago Aspas and company provide further upgrades to Rodgers’ squad options, this could be a Reds side that has access to further victories.

Perhaps it is too early to draw definitive conclusions for the season to come from their opening game, but it’s clear that the signs at Anfield were encouraging.

Now for the hard part—ensuring that they can sustain this for 38 games over the course of a season, starting with a visit to Villa Park this coming Saturday.

As Rodgers will remember well, a certain Christian Benteke tormented them at Anfield last December.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and other Premier League-related matters.

Why Philippe Coutinho is Liverpool’s Most Important Player This Season

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Michael Regan/Getty Images

 

Amidst all the posturing from Luis Suarez and the public relations moves by Steven Gerrard during Liverpool’s preseason tour of Asia, the convincing wins and the classy performances of their new star Philippe Coutinho have perhaps gone under the radar.

In the media, the Liverpool headlines are on Suarez’s future at Anfield, or on further speculation of the next signings to arrive at the club. And abroad, it was all about Gerrard and manager Brendan Rodgers, and how the club conducted themselves during the whirlwind tour of Jakarta, Melbourne and Bangkok.

Whisper it quietly, but Liverpool have got themselves going in professional fashion this summer. The early signings in June might have petered out into an unsteady July, ending with a slightly controversial loan move for Pepe Reina to Napoli, but Liverpool have nonetheless strengthened their squad.

Four clean sheets in four preseason friendlies, all won with respectable margins, shows a new-found efficiency about the Reds, with the players focused on doing the job with minimal fuss and keeping an eye on their defensive responsibilities.

A quick comparison with Manchester United’s nine goals conceded in five preseason fixtures under David Moyes shows not only the stability that a year brings for a new manager, but also the importance of a settled squad enjoying their responsibilities and their football.

And spearheading the Reds into an exciting new era is their young Brazilian wearing No. 10, signed only in January from Internazionale, aged still 21.

Simply put, Coutinho has got it all: dribbling ability, pace, acceleration, work rate, composure, creativity, flair, an eye for a telling pass, innate understanding of his position, match-winning unpredictability.

Even the usual worries for a South American player arriving in the Premier League were allayed instantly: he started his Liverpool career with a bang, and finished the second half of the 2012-13 season with that same bang, notching three goals and five assists in just 12 starts. There were no signs of him struggling with the long-infamous physical side of the English game, and in the process he made himself known as a master of the through-ball.

Worries about “second-season syndrome”? So far unfounded, after a thrilling series of performances in Liverpool’s preseason, with three goals in just four matches. Since Luis Suarez’s competitive ban towards the end of last season,Coutinho has assumed the central attacking playmaker role—the No. 10 role—effortlessly.

Which means, even if Suarez stays at Liverpool, he will face a fight on his hands to retake his favored role behind Daniel Sturridge (or another option like IagoAspas, depending on Sturridge’s injury status) from Coutinho.

Rodgers has claimed, via the Mirror, that he structured his team around Suarez last season in a bid to keep his No. 7 at Anfield. On current evidence, Coutinhohas already shouldered much of that burden, and the way Liverpool’s attacks have been channeled through him this preseason suggests the Brazilian prodigy is now the focal point of the Reds’ attack.

So what’s next for the youngster who was let go by Inter for just £8 million? The easy answer is that the only way is up and the world is at his feet.

While Suarez still recorded an impressive season last year and was Liverpool’s undisputed player of the season, it was their January signings Sturridge andCoutinho that settled the squad’s nerves in front of goal, and pushed them towards a pacy, technical and dynamic attacking style.

Suarez’s public flirtations with Arsenal and Real Madrid this offseason have harmed relations with his fans and manager. While Gerrard has scored two goals this preseason and looks to be storming back to full fitness, he is alas 33 and will be orchestrating and influencing play from his new deep-lying position.

Which leaves Coutinho as the new talisman, the new provider of match-winning brilliance, the new fan favorite—already reflected through this season’s shirt sales, according to the Daily Mail. (Edit: Steven Gerrard has since resumed his usual No. 1 place on the list, but the point still stands.)

And Liverpool’s most important player coming into the 2013-14 season?

If he manages to sustain his form over 38 Premier League games and moves Liverpool back into the top four, don’t be surprised to see Coutinho in the running for both the Player of the Year and the Young Player of the Year awards come next May.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and other Premier League-related matters.

Jordon Ibe: First-Team Player or Liverpool Loanee?

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 Alex Livesey/Getty Images

 

With four new signings confirmed in June, Liverpool entered their July period with, by and large, a healthy squad, and until their defeat against Celtic in Dublin on Saturday, the Reds had won all six of their friendlies, scoring 17 goals and letting in only one.

Slightly unusually for a Liverpool preseason, not many fringe players got a run-out during the seven matches. The group that toured Asia with the club mainly consisted of the tried-and-trusted first-team contingent, including the four new signings. All of them had made sizeable appearances for the first team before, bar one.

Jordon Ibe, signed from Wycombe Wanderers in December 2011, was the jarring exception.

The 17-year-old winger, who had only made his senior debut in May with a productive start against Queens Park Rangers, where he notched the only assist of the game for Philippe Coutinho’s long-range strike, traveled with the first team.

Not only that—he figured prominently and finished the seven-game schedule as one of the most impressive performers over the preseason period.

Scoring his first ever senior goal in the first preseason match against Preston North End, Ibe never looked back as he displayed pace, power and raw ability with a series of exciting performances that showed just why he is so highly rated in the corridors of Melwood.

Indeed, his most exhilarating contribution was his burst of pace and subsequent pass that set up Oussama Assaidi and Raheem Sterling for a simple finish in Indonesia.

The question now is whether Jordon Ibe is good enough to become a member of the first team this season or if he should spend time out on loan to gain experience elsewhere.

Ibe the Loanee

Let’s first consider the case for Ibe the loanee.

The most immediate rationale for Ibe going out on loan—be it to a team in the Championship or in the Premier League—is his young age and lack of top-flight experience.

At just 17, Ibe has plenty of years in front of him, and a season honing his skills to deal with the physicality of top-level English football would do him plenty of good.

Just ask Jonjo Shelvey, who spent the first half of the 2011/12 season on loan at Blackpool: Shelvey scored six goals in just 10 appearances for the Seasiders, was recalled amid an injury crisis and went on to become an important squad player for the next year. (Ultimately, he didn’t fit Brendan Rodgers’ plans and was sold to Swansea City this summer, but that should not be a deterrent here.)

A season away from Anfield at a club that could grant him regular playing time could prove vital in his development. This kind of thinking would presumably be behind the recent loan departures of young left-back Jack Robinson and midfielder Suso to Blackpool and La Liga new boys Almeria, respectively.

In a squad that currently boasts a host of options in Ibe’s attacking midfield position—Raheem Sterling, Iago Aspas, Philippe Coutinho, Joe Allen, Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson, Oussama Assaidi, Luis Alberto, Fabio Borini, Steven Gerrard, Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge are all capable of playing there—the No. 44 may find his first-team chances limited in his first full season in the Liverpool senior team, to cup and substitute appearances.

To ensure his development isn’t stunted on the bench, Rodgers may well consider sending Ibe out on loan.

Ibe the First-Team Player

But with the raw speed, dribbling and ability to excite that Ibe has in abundance, Liverpool fans would be forgiven for wanting the young prospect to fly down the Anfield wings and terrorize opposition defenders.

And it is this combination of raw ability that sets Ibe apart: None of his direct rivals in the first team have such an impressive combination of physical attributes, and those who have the pace (like Coutinho) may not marry it with the dominant physique that Ibe also has.

Does this mean there might be a place for him in Rodgers’ first-team squad?

Given current rumors, it would be unrealistic to assume that both Downing and Suarez will still be at the club by September, and given that Rodgers prefers using Sturridge and Borini as out-and-out strikers and Gerrard in a more withdrawn playmaking role, Ibe could well fit in as a squad player whose unique attributes will grant him playing time.

After all, it was comfort on the ball, pace, dribbling and upper-body strength that saw Raheem Sterling become a key member of the Reds XI just a year ago, albeit in an injury-stretched squad—and Sterling earned rave reviews and an England call-up to boot.

Against lower-table teams who might have a tendency to play more defensively and to sit back and deny space to Rodgers’ possession-based footballing approach, Ibe could be another option that provides the cutting edge that Liverpool have sorely lacked in recent seasons, another outlet on the flanks, another potential source of goals, and perhaps even another match-winner.

Any concerns that Ibe would be overexposed at such a young age—Sterling himself burned out after a sustained period in the first team and found himself out of the team in the second half of last season—should be dispelled after Rodgers’ experience with Sterling.

At any rate, the additions of Aspas and Alberto, two seemingly immediate squad players, have upgraded the quality of the bench in that area of the pitch, which should ensure more necessary balance in first-team appearances across the board.

Conclusion

And it is under this premise that we will conclude for now that Jordon Ibe deserves a run in the first team, an arrangement that could end up working well for all parties.

Ibe could get further chances to shine and make a difference, while Brendan Rodgers will have another potential match-winner with a unique set of abilities at his disposal over the course of the season.

Things could change in the remaining weeks of the summer transfer window, of course: Liverpool could end up letting go of two attacking players and getting none, making Ibe a more essential keep, or they could also sign one of the multitude of players currently linked to Anfield.

At the time of writing, however, all signs point to Jordon Ibe enjoying a productive spell of first-team football, not at somewhere else on loan, but as a Liverpool player.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and other Premier League-related matters.

English Football Weekly: Hello, New Season! Predictions, Teams and Players to Watch

Top Four Watch: A Reality Check for Manchester United

Manchester United won the Premier League at a canter last season, but 2013/14 won’t be so easy for them, especially with Sir Alex Ferguson having retired in the close season. So it’s a dilemma for David Moyes: Does he want the SAF effect to wear out, or can it keep papering over the cracks? Regardless, this is not a strong United squad—Robin van Persie is arguably the only world-class player in the team, and there should be upgrades to the defence and midfield at the very least. Both of which haven’t happened.

Across town, the noisy neighbors are about to crank the volume and heat up. Manchester City ruthlessly dispensed of Roberto Mancini, and brought in Manuel Pellegrini with eyes on bigger prizes. And they’ve provided the financial backing to ensure it happens. It might not sit well with some, but the splurging done on the likes of Fernandinho, Jesus Navas, Stevan Jovetic and Alvaro Negredo has ensured that City start the season with a formidable squad. They’ll take some beating—and might still bring in more players before September.

But there’s Chelsea to deal with, and Jose Mourinho has been building an encouraging team. Contrast their buying policy this summer with his first year in 2004, and it’s clear that there’s a much stronger emphasis on youth this time around. There’s been plenty of movement in the forward lines, but like United, not as much in the middle and at the back. Can Mourinho reestablish Stamford Bridge as a fortress with a less convincing backline? If he does—and adds Wayne Rooney and/or Samuel Eto’o—Chelsea would take the fight right down to the wire.

Every year, Arsenal get written off as the team to drop out of the top four, but this year, Tottenham Hotspur look the real deal. Regardless of Gareth Bale’s destination, Andre Villas-Boas has already ushered in a new forward line: Roberto Soldado, Paulinho and Nacer Chadli are hugely impressive additions that will ensure goals and excitement up top. This is a squad that could well finish third—and if Bale stays and carries his form from last season, might be dark horses for the title outright.

As it stands, my top four picks (in order from 1st): City, Chelsea, Spurs, United.

Relegation Watch: Underachievers and Disappointments

As in any early-season relegation predictions, let’s look first at the promoted clubs. Cardiff City, backed by an ambitious Malaysian owner, have been the most aggressive, and their big-money signings Andreas Cornelius, Steven Caulker and Gary Medel bode well. Hull City and Crystal Palace don’t look as confident on paper though. Steve Bruce has added a contingent of Premier League players who he’ll be hoping can contribute something more than just experience, but Crystal Palace in particular look in trouble. Their biggest summer signing? Dwight Gayle from Peterborough. For £8.5 million.

Newcastle United have had a worryingly weak summer window, especially when compared to other sides around them. Only Loic Remy has arrived as a first-team player, and with the backroom turmoil involving Joe Kinnear’s appointment as Director of Football, they look more likely to underachieve further than to get back to mid-table mediocrity. Sunderland, despite their busy summer, also look shaky. Their summer activity seems more quantity than quality, although the same was said last year, of course, of Aston Villa (more on them later).

Southampton and Villa move from relegation candidates to top-half contenders in my book, so we’ll finish this list with Stoke City, who managed to finish six points clear of the relegation zone last season. After a few years of stagnant progress and luxurious spending, Stoke have replaced Tony Pulis with Mark Hughes, but while he hasn’t gone on a ridiculous QPR-style splurge, he’s only signed two players. Decent players, Marc Muniesa and Erik Pieters, but the overall squad may not have the quality to sustain their Premier League status for another year.

As it stands, my relegation picks (no particular order): Crystal Palace, Hull, Stoke.

Teams to Watch: It’s All Happening in Wales—and Maybe the Midlands?

We touched on Cardiff a bit in the previous section, so let’s start with that. Here is a team led by an ambitious owner and a young and talented manager, Malky Mackay, and with the exception of three big-name signings, a squad that they’ve taken largely from the Championship up to the Premier League with them. But further additions look likely before the transfer window shuts, and in Kim Bo-Kyung, Cardiff might just possess one of the unsung heroes of the season. And—he’s 34 now—but we can’t afford to forget about Craig Bellamy.

But Cardiff will be no match for the slick and classy unit that will take to the field at the Liberty Stadium this season. In their third year in the Premier League, Swansea City look closer to European qualification via league finish than ever dropping out, such is the success that they’ve enjoyed. Michael Laudrup has strengthened brilliantly this summer, with Wilfried Bony, Jonathan De Guzman and Jonjo Shelvey his most high-profile signings. The challenge for them now is to push on—and balance their Europa League campaign while they’re at it.

Southampton are a curious case. They finished just five points above the relegation zone last season, but the mood at St. Mary’s is optimistic, as well it should be. Mauricio Pochettino has fashioned a young, energetic side specializing in pressing and counterattacking football. That there’s not been much transfer activity this summer suggests that he has confidence in his squad rather than the lack of player availability: After all, their two additions, Dejan Lovren and Victor Wanyama, provide enough pedigree and suggest that they too will be looking at the top half.

Let’s round this off with Aston Villa, who went through a dangerous slump midway through last season. Paul Lambert’s gamble with his young signings paid off in the end—we all know how Christian Benteke turned out, but Ashley Westwood and Matthew Lowton were inspired signings as well. This summer he’s added another contingent of young prospects, but as Villa march on comfortable in this new philosophy and system, the likes of Jores Okore and Antonio Luna could have just as big an impact.

Players to Watch: AKA Fantasy Picks

Now that we’re done with our team to watch, here are some players that are either very interesting signings or ones to pay attention to this season. Fantasy picks? You’ll be sure these aren’t your Robin van Persies or Gareth Bales, so there might just be a bargain or two to be considered here.

First, a trio wearing Liverpool red. You’ve probably heard enough of Philippe Coutinho by now, but the rave reviews are worth the while and do him justice. He’ll be looking to turn that productive and exhilarating half-season partnership with Daniel Sturridge into a prolific one over the course of the season. And helping them do that will be Iago Aspas, signed from Celta in the summer. He’s had an encouraging preseason for Brendan Rodgers, and his brand of football, mixing technique and aggression, reminds of a certain wantaway No. 7.

If you’re new to this column and missed out on last season’s episodes, you’ll come to realize my admiration for Swansea and Michael Laudrup. Michu was the unquestionable bargain buy of last summer, and this year he’ll be back in his support striker role he started in, following the exciting acquisition of Wilfried Bony. Michu enjoyed his most prolific spell in a Swans shirt when he played behind a strike last season, and Bony blew Malmo FF away with a competitive debut double after a thrilling 31-goal season with Vitesse Arnhem. Watch this space.

What about that most maligned, big-money, ex-Liverpool duo now at West Ham United? Well, soon to be at West Ham anyway, given that Stewart Downing’s move hasn’t been officially confirmed yet, but for a combined sum of Downing’s Liverpool transfer (£20 million), Sam Allardyce will be bringing in Downing and Andy Carroll. That’s a crossing and heading partnership that Kenny Dalglish failed spectacularly to harness at Anfield, but could be right up Big Sam’s alley. And they’ll be looking to impress in a World Cup year.

Our final pick belongs to the team that might gatecrash the top three in spectacular fashion: Tottenham Hotspur. Bale’s contribution may be sizeable as always, or the signings that his transfer fee brings in could well take the squad’s overall quality up a notch. Where am I going with this? Well, Villas-Boas has chosen Roberto Soldado to spearhead his attack as a lone striker. With Chadli, Aaron Lennon, Paulinho and Mousa Dembele supporting him already, Soldado looks to enjoy a Premier League goals feast.

 

This piece was my first instalment of English Football Weekly for the season for SoccerWithoutLimits.com.