How Much Is Liverpool’s Luis Suarez Worth in the Current Transfer Market?

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The breaking news this Friday is that on the back of some truly incredible performances in the Premier League this season, Luis Suarez has put pen to paper on a new long-term deal at Liverpool, the club announced today.

There’s no disputing that Luis Suarez is one of the most feared and in-form players in all of world football. Having scored 17 goals and assisted four for the Anfield club in just 11 Premier League games, he has put himself firmly into the bracket of the world’s very best players.

Following the furore over Gareth Bale’s transfer to Real Madrid—which some outlets, like BBC Sport, have reported as the world record transfer fee, and others, like NESN, have claimed to still be No. 2 to Cristiano Ronaldo’s—football fans are naturally up in arms regarding player valuations.

Just a few months ago in the summer of 2013, Arsenal had a high-profile bid for Suarez rejected. Their £40 million plus £1 bid, based on a rumored clause in his contract, attracted nothing but scorn from the Liverpool hierarchy, who claimed that he wouldn’t be available even for £55 million, the going rate of Uruguayan strike partner Edinson Cavani, according to The Guardian.

So how does one go about valuating players’ transfer value? Are values arbitrarily assigned, or do they have some factual basis underlying all the public proclamations from managers and chairmen?

Without insider access to the boardroom and to the private financial accounts of most Premier League football clubs, here is a guide to working out how much Luis Suarez is actually worth in the current transfer market.

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Transfer Fee

Let’s start first with the most visible element: the transfer fee.
In what will surely be known as one of the landmark bargains of this decade, Luis Suarez signed for Liverpool from Ajax Amsterdam on January 31, 2011, the last day of the 2011 winter transfer window. His transfer fee, according to BBC Sport, was around £22.7 million.

From a financial perspective, regardless of what percentage of the transfer fee was paid up front to Ajax, Suarez’s transfer fee will be amortized over the course of his contract, which was initially five and a half years. (It has since been extended in the summer of 2012.)

Simple arithmetic gives us an approximate annual cost for Suarez, excluding his wages (which we’ll get to below), of £4.13 million.

To date, he has been at Anfield for around two years and 10 months, but for the purposes of simpler calculation, let’s consider Suarez as having been at the club for three years.

By January 31, 2014, he will have completed three years of his initial contract with two and a half years left, which would mean that the as yet “unpaid” total amortization cost would come to around £4.13 million multiplied by 2.5, or £10.3 million.

Previous Wages

With a base reference cost of around £10.3 million, let’s consider the second aspect: wages.

While Suarez’s starting wages in his first contract at Liverpool were about £40,000 a week, according to the Mirror, the new and improved contract he signed in the summer of 2012 tripled his weekly compensation to about £120,000.

Assuming the standard of 52 weeks in a year, this comes to a yearly total of around £6.24 million a year, just in wages.

Having signed his most recent contract at the beginning of August 2012, Suarez would be approximately a year and a half into his improved deal by the end of January 2014, keeping with the same benchmark time frame we suggested above.

By then, there would still be two and a half years into his contract left to run, which would come to a total of £15.6 million.

At this point in our calculations, Suarez’s base value thus far is £10.3 million plus £15.6 million, which comes to about a total of £29 million.

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New Wages

Now it’s time to consider the rumored new package that Liverpool have supposedly offered him. And this is where the less concrete part of our analysis starts.

While Liverpool’s official announcement yet again cites ”long-term” contract, this BBC Sport article claims that Suarez will be earning £160,000 a week until the end of this season (another half year), and then £200,000 a week for the next four years, in a deal that runs until 2018 and makes him the highest-paid player in the club’s history.

Based on these numbers, his entire new contract is worth a total of £42.6 million, which brings his whole valuation into a new light and onto a new level.

Let’s return to the base reference cost of £10.3 million. If we add this new £42.6 million wage value onto the reference cost, then a new total of about £52.9 million emerges.

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Club Performance 

Of course, we also have to take into account Liverpool’s performances and financial rewards as a result of their on-pitch displays.

Notice that the underlying assumption behind Luis Suarez staying at Anfield would be that Brendan Rodgers is able to lead his team to the Champions League next season: After all, a player of Suarez’s caliber deserves to be plying his trade at the top level of club football.

With this in mind, let’s venture into the world of Premier League finances and attempt to very roughly estimate how Suarez could potentially have his value further enhanced by his club’s performances.

According to the official Premier League website, the end-of-season payout based on league performance for Liverpool in the 2012/13 season came to a total of around £54.8 million.

However, given that the Reds finished in seventh place and considering our top-four assumptions to keep Suarez, let’s take Arsenal as a reference: The Gunners, who finished fourth under Arsene Wenger last season, raked in a total of £57.1 million, which we will use as a rough guide for a minimum league payout.

With Champions League qualification and assuming that Liverpool progress into the group stages of next year’s competition, we can refer to UEFA’s minimum group stage payout according to their official website: UEFA states that “each of the 32 teams involved in the group stage will collect a base fee of €8.6m,” which translates to about £7.2 million.

As a result, a minimum total of £64.3 million will probably arrive in Liverpool’s coffers just for playing in the Champions League group stages.

The Deloitte Money League, published every year, is a fascinating insight into the finances of the top European football clubs. Its 2013 installment reveals that Liverpool’s total revenues for the 2011/12 season were £188.7 million, comprising of £45.2 million from matchday revenue, £63.3 million from broadcasting and £80.2 million from general commercial activity, including sponsorships and partnerships.

As with any corporation, Premier League clubs will have bonus schemes in place, and Liverpool will be no exception. For the purposes of this basic calculation, we will purely take into account the revenue that comes with Champions League qualification, and not Liverpool’s overall income.

A wholly generous assumption is that the 20 players registered as Premier League players for Liverpool will divide the £64.3 million that comes with a group stage venture, and Suarez will get five percent of that, netting £3.2 million in addition to the previous base.

(This estimate, when considering his contributions to Liverpool’s 2013/14 season—he has been involved in 21 goals, 54 percent of Liverpool’s total haul of 39 thus far this campaign—and a logical bell-curve bonus distribution according to performance, may in reality not be too far.)

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Conclusion: £56.1 million

So what do we end up with?

Take the £52.9 million we estimated based on amortization of Suarez’s transfer fee and a projection of his future bumper contract and add the estimated performance-based bonuses of £3.2 million, and we arrive at the princely sum of £56.1 million, which, coincidentally (or not), was the almost the same rate the aforementioned Cavani left Napoli for.

If we go back to the Express article, we find that Suarez’s previous deal was reported to also include image rights in his weekly wages, so all inclusive, the figure of £56.1 million may be an accurate reflection.

Turns out this benchmark might have been chosen on purpose by the Liverpool hierarchy back in the summer.

But that’s only if we were to stick with a purely financial valuation of Luis Suarez, who, if he stays on at Liverpool, will surely go down as one of the club’s greatest-ever players in time.

Taking that into consideration, and the message that Liverpool would be selling its talisman and most important player of the current period, Brendan Rodgers may well consider Luis Suarez to be worth much more than £56.1 million.

Add that to Suarez’s current form at the club and his apparent turnaround in his commitment to Liverpool, and he might just be priceless in the eyes of all Liverpool fans.

Football is an emotional game, after all.

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League.

Premier League Preview: How Liverpool Will Line Up Against Cardiff City

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The last time Liverpool played Cardiff City, it was in the Capital One Cup final in 2012, when Kenny Dalglish’s side ran out winners in a thrilling penalty shootout after a 2-2 draw in extra time. This Saturday will mark the Reds’ first Premier League encounter with the Bluebirds.

From Cardiff’s point of view, there couldn’t be a worse time to face Liverpool, who have been in rampant form at Anfield this season—Brendan Rodgers’ side have scored 20 goals in their past five home games. Malky Mackay’s recent tension with his board, as reported by BBC Sport, can’t be a good distraction from their on-pitch duties.

As for Liverpool, Cardiff marks, on paper, a breather amid a tough December of fixtures. An away trip to White Hart Lane turned out surprisingly smooth for the Reds as they trounced Tottenham Hotspur 5-0, but trips to both Manchester City and Chelsea are on the horizon. A win against Cardiff would send them top of the Premier League, even if for only 48 hours.

But first, they must make sure they get all three points against Malky Mackay’s side, who are currently 15th in the table. Here is how Liverpool’s starting XI on Saturday might look like.

 

Goalkeeper: Simon Mignolet

Aside from Luis Suarez, Simon Mignolet is probably one of only two truly untouchable fixtures in Brendan Rodgers’ starting XI.

On to the defenders then.

 

Right-Back: Martin Kelly

Having made his return to competitive action for Liverpool as a substitute in their 4-1 home win over West Ham United two weekends ago, Martin Kelly has been working his way back to full fitness from a knee injury.

A first league start since a home defeat against Manchester United last September would do wonders for Kelly’s confidence and match fitness, and would allow Glen Johnson a break from his regular right-back duties ahead of the crucial matches at the Etihad Stadium and Stamford Bridge.

With injuries having hampered his development and undoubted potential at Anfield, Kelly will be looking to impress for about an hour or so—hopefully with the game safe and secure by the time he is substituted as Brendan Rodgers eases him back into the setup.

 

Left-Back: Jon Flanagan

With Jose Enrique out with injury and on-loan Aly Cissokho putting in woeful performances as a stand-in, Academy graduate Jon Flanagan has made the left-back slot his own in recent weeks.

His work rate and tenacity have impressed his manager and teammates alike, and he even ventured forward to score his first ever goal for Liverpool—a sweetly struck half-volley into the top corner—last Sunday against Tottenham.

He deserves another run-out against Cardiff as rich reward for his journey back into the Reds’ starting line-up.

 

Centre-Back: Martin Skrtel

Martin Kelly is a change on the right, but we advocate a regular centre-back partnership to continue building on its impressive recent form, and for that reason, we’ve continued with Martin Skrtel on the right side.

Per Liverpool’s official club website, Brendan Rodgers has said publicly that he has been impressed with Skrtel’s recent form and that he should be considered as one of the best centre-halves in the Premier League.

More of the same then, Martin.

 

Centre-Back: Mamadou Sakho

Rodgers continues to rotate his centre-back partnership, presumably to keep his players fit and happy, and as a result vice-captain Daniel Agger and Mamadou Sakho have both enjoyed starting berths in recent weeks.

Sakho’s impressive display at White Hart Lane last Saturday, however, showed why Liverpool decided to shell out around £18 million on the ex-Paris Saint-Germain youngster in the summer. His physicality, positional awareness and technique all shone in a convincing and dominant display at the back.

For that reason, Agger should continue on the bench for another week as Sakho continues his rise as one of the Premier League’s best young defenders.

 

Defensive Midfielder: Joe Allen

Since his costly (and frankly quite unbelievable) horror miss against Everton a few weeks ago, Joe Allen has fully rebounded in form and has won over many a critic with a series of assured and assertive displays at the center of the Liverpool midfield.

His tidy passing, constant harrying of opponents and intelligent movement have caught the eye of manager and fans alike, and should continue to be a fixture in the starting XI, especially in the injury absence of captain Steven Gerrard.

Against Cardiff City, Lucas should be rested in preparation for the major clashes to come, and as a result Allen should move slightly back into the defensive midfield position.

 

Central Midfielder: Luis Alberto

And in Allen’s place in central midfield comes Luis Alberto, who would be making his first ever league start for Liverpool after impressing in brief cameos this season following a summer move from Sevilla.

Alberto has played in both a more withdrawn role and as an attacking midfielder in his previous appearances for the Reds, both in the league and during preseason, but he would be a perfect fit for the regista-type role Gerrard has adopted this season, and as such should fit into the central midfield alongside Allen.

Rodgers will hope that Alberto takes advantage of a rare league start and displays more of the intelligence that he showed against Tottenham, where he created Suarez’s second goal of the game.

 

Attacking Midfielder: Jordan Henderson

A swashbuckling performance from Jordan Henderson on Sunday has seen the youngster grab the headlines—including this by the Telegraph’s Alan Smith—for all the right reasons.

Intelligent with his movement, aggressive in his pressuring and forceful in his running, Henderson was rightly named the Barclays Man of the Match in Liverpool’s demolition job over Spurs, where he also notched his first league goal of the season.

With movement, interchangeability and constant pressure a hallmark of Rodgers’ ideal midfield, Henderson has established himself as a vital cog in the Reds machine and will look to sustain his impressive form against Cardiff.

 

Left Forward: Philippe Coutinho

Our front three remains unchanged, simply because it has worked well in the absence of Daniel Sturridge.

On the left is regular No. 10 Philippe Coutinho, who normally operates best in the hole, but caused the Spurs defence all kinds of trouble with his close control, deft flicks and tidy passing from the left flank.

Coutinho, along with his colleagues across the frontline, will be a handful for the Cardiff defence.

 

Right Forward: Raheem Sterling

With two goals in his last three league outings, Raheem Sterling seems to finally have recaptured his impressive form at the start of his debut campaign last year, where he burst onto the scene at Anfield and catapulted himself into the England senior team.

He has emerged as a genuine outlet on the right flank, capable of both cutting in and bombing down the sideline, while his work rate and defensive contributions are both mature and underrated. And he has added goals to his game.

With Liverpool also developing a deadly streak on the counterattack, Sterling’s intelligent and quick runs past the last defender will make him a nuisance against Cardiff.

 

Striker: Luis Suarez

Is there any player more important to the Reds cause at the moment than Luis Suarez?

With 17 goals in just 11 Premier League appearances this season, not only is Suarez probably the most in-form striker in Europe, but he is on course to smash the all-time league scoring record, which would cap a brilliant season that—lest we forget—started with a five-match suspension.

With Gerrard out injured, Agger on the bench and other skipper options in Lucas and Glen Johnson rested for this game, Suarez may take to the pitch wearing the captain’s armband for the second time in his Liverpool career.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League.

Scouting Report on Reported Liverpool Transfer Target Konstantinos Mitroglou

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With just two weeks to go until the January transfer window swings open, rumors have been heating up at Anfield, and the latest player to be linked with a move to Liverpool this winter, according to Dave Filmer of the Metro, is Olympiakos striker Konstantinos Mitroglou.

Daniel Sturridge’s injury has left Brendan Rodgers with a single established striker in his ranks, and though Luis Suarez has been on fire for the Reds this season—he has scored 17 goals in just 12 games—backup forward Iago Aspas has struggled for both form and fitness.

BBC Sport has reported that Liverpool have opened talks with Suarez on a new contract to tie him down at Anfield, but considering his public flirtations with Arsenal and Real Madrid last summer and the injury situation at Liverpool, Rodgers would do well to strengthen his forward ranks.

Having already scored 22 goals for both club and country this term, Mitroglou has apparently caught the attention of many a top European club, with the likes of Arsenal also reportedly in the mix.

Just as we did with Martin Montoya earlier this month, let’s take a look at the pros and cons to Konstantinos Mitroglou’s potential signing, assess his potential role at Anfield, and evaluate whether he’d a good pick-up for Brendan Rodgers.

Pros

Just like Suarez, Mitroglou has been in outstanding form this season, with 13 goals in eight starts and two substitute appearances in the Greek Superleague.

And just like Suarez, it appears that Mitroglou has developed a fondness for hat-tricks: Nine of his league goals have come in just three matches, as he notched four hat-tricks in just over a month.

Equally comfortable with both feet, and physically imposing and dominant in the air, the 25-year-old Greek striker also possesses a quick turn of pace, a fierce long-range shot and a repertoire of fancy flicks and tricks. His passing and hold-up play also brings his teammates into the final third to score, making him a prototypical lone striker.

A tricky, unpredictable and high-scoring forward, Mitroglou celebrates his goals with an imaginary rifle and is also nicknamed “Pistolero” like a certain Uruguayan forward already at Anfield.

According to the Daily Star‘s Gary Jones, Mitroglou is rated at £7.5 million, which, for a striker enjoying a hot streak and at the top of his game, would almost definitely be a snip compared to the other more established names that might be on the market.

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Cons

While the price tag may be considered on the lower end of forwards linked with Liverpool, the obvious disadvantage behind a potential Mitroglou transfer would be his lack of experience in Europe’s top leagues.

Despite his recent accolades, at 25 years of age he is a relative latecomer to the big stage, having started his career at Borussia Monchengladbach’s youth academy before joining Olympiakos. After two loan spells—the second of which he won the Superleague Greek Player of the Year with Atromitos—he only recently established himself as first-choice at Olympiakos.

Having spent his entire senior career in Greece, Mitroglou would no doubt be making a big step up in quality if he does arrive in the Premier League with an ambitious club like Liverpool, who will be looking for an instant hit in any January transfer this season to help them on their way to Champions League qualification.

A fiery and combative character on the pitch, Mitroglou is a typical out-and-out forward whose work rate will not match that of the industrious Luis Suarez, who aids his team by dropping deep to start attacks and generally interfere with his opponents’ play in their own half.

Brendan Rodgers will be sure to drill his current system and philosophy, which prizes work rate and high-energy pressing all over the pitch, into his new charge if Mitroglou does indeed sign for the Reds.

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Potential Role at Liverpool

Given the importance of Luis Suarez at Anfield and the prospect of Liverpool signing him onto a new extended deal, Konstantinos Mitroglou would likely arrive knowing his status as first-choice will have disintegrated.

If Rodgers and Co. seal the transfer in the early days of January, Mitroglou may arrive while Daniel Sturridge is still injured, but given Sturridge’s impressive pre-injury form, the Greek striker will need to be on top of his game, both in training and in the Premier League, to dislodge Sturridge from the starting XI when he returns.

If that is the case, Mitroglou may have to bide his time on the bench and make do with an impact substitute’s role, at least in his first half season at Anfield.

Considering the difficulties that Iago Aspas and Fabio Borini have encountered in trying to establish themselves as Rodgers’ main striking options, Mitroglou will need to develop his all-round game and overall versatility across the front three if he is to give his potential manager a selection headache.

And even then, the likes of Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling will be around to make sure his journey to the starting XI won’t be easy. The road ahead for Mitroglou at Anfield may not be smooth.

Conclusion

Unlike Martin Montoya, who we recommended as a priority signing for Liverpool this January, Mitroglou doesn’t seem to represent an urgent need for the Reds this winter, especially if Sturridge returns from injury and sustains his free-scoring form.

The need for more strength in depth in the Liverpool front line is apparent, but given the narrow window for reinforcements, Rodgers should focus on other priority areas, like at left-back, defensive midfield and central midfield, before considering more options up front.

Back in October, Iago Aspas had been linked with a loan move back to Spain by Nick Lustig of the Daily Star due to his lack of first-team football, and Fabio Borini has already had to spend the season at Sunderland, so John Henry and Fenway Sports Group would need some convincing if they are to sanction another hefty bid for another third-choice striker.

And that’s if Mitroglou, an undoubted first choice now for club and country, is prepared to accept a move that would diminish his chances of regular football barring injuries to his colleagues.

£7.5 million for more goals isn’t a bad thing, but Liverpool are scoring enough already; they just need to plug the sometimes glaring holes in their midfield and defence. There are bigger priorities out there for Brendan Rodgers.

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League.

Andre Villas-Boas: 8 Things His Sacking Means for Tottenham Hotspur

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His face during the game and after the final whistle said it all: Andre Villas-Boas was a man on borrowed time. And on Monday morning, a day after a 5-0 thrashing to Liverpool at White Hart Lane, Tottenham Hotspur have confirmed the sacking of the Portuguese coach.

This news comes in a Premier League of increasing turbulence: Villas-Boas himself was only appointed Chelsea manager some two-and-a-half years ago, fired by Roman Abramovich just a year and nine months ago and brought to Tottenham a season and a half ago.

And now he’s found himself out of a job. Again.

While Villas-Boas will surely be wondering whether or not he will get another chance to manage in the Premier League, let’s look at eight things his dismissal means for Tottenham. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

 

A Sad End for Tottenham’s Winningest-Ever Coach

Surprise!

It might not seem it, what with the media, pundits and fans questioning his ability, but with 29 wins, 12 draws and 13 losses, Andre Villas-Boas is actually Tottenham’s winningest-ever coach in their history, with a win percentage of 53.7, according to the Telegraph.

Yes, conceding a whopping 11 goals to two teams in quick succession—which makes up almost a sixth of his entire goals against record at White Hart Lane—makes for terrible reading, but before we dissect the other implications of his removal at Spurs, we should take a moment and recognize the work that he has done as their manager.

Not only does he possess their most successful managerial record, but he also steered the club to fifth place last season, narrowly missing out on Champions League qualification, and is now actually only eight points off Arsene Wenger’s league-leading Arsenal, despite having sold Gareth Bale in the summer.

All this in an ever-increasing Premier League, which has also seen increasingly cut-throat approaches adopted by rival clubs to ensure that they stay ahead of (or at least in close competition with) the pack.

 

Premier League Chairmen Don’t Like Their Egos Bruised

Anyone who had any doubt that AVB’s career at White Hart Lane was in trouble during their hammering to Liverpool will have had their suspicions confirmed if they saw the facial expressions of Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy on Sunday.

Of course this hurt: Spurs were hosting one of their rivals this season for a top-four spot—and before this season, Liverpool were seen as having fallen even out of the top six that had inaugurated the hosts as a new member.

What Levy saw unfolding before his eyes was a statement of intent, a demolition job brought about by a manager with a well-defined philosophy. What Levy witnessed was a disintegration of his dreams in front of him.

Add the humiliating defeat to Manchester City just a few weeks before and it became clear that no matter how close Spurs would still be after finishing the match with no points taken, losing to clubs considered as rivals would turn out to be too much.

Never mind that Spurs had only ever qualified once for the Champions League, despite their status as top-four pretenders. Never mind that big games with rivals only account for a small proportion of your points every season.

This was a result that hurt, and in the eyes of Levy and owner Joe Lewis, something had to be done.

 

Momentum Can Also Go the Other Way

It was just a month ago that Tottenham had one of the meanest defensive records in the country, having conceded six goals in 11 league games, but a 6-0 defeat to Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium kickstarted a downward spiral that has seen them ship 17 goals in five matches.

While the official Tottenham Hotspur Twitter feed announced in the aftermath of the Liverpool defeat that their “unbeaten run in December came to an abrupt halt,” the reality was that they had won unconvincingly at two clubs struggling near the foot of the table.

A defence torn to shreds by Manchester City perhaps opened the door to confusion, panic and self-questioning in the Spurs defence, and they haven’t been the same since.

Just this March, Villas-Boas had proclaimed that Arsenal, who were trailing Spurs by seven points then, were in a “negative spiral in terms of results,” as reported by BBC Sport, and that “to get out of that negative spiral is extremely difficult.”

He’s now found that out himself. “Momentum” is always brought up in a run of positive results; alas, it can also go the other way.

 

Gareth Bale Was, in the End, Too Big a Loss

Twenty-one goals and four assists in 34 league games.

So goes the record of the current holder of the most expensive transfer fee in football history.

But Gareth Bale, to Tottenham Hotspur, was about more than just goals and assists: He was the face of a young and ambitious team led by a young and ambitious manager. He was even the face of the Premier League in NBC Sports’ high-profile marketing and build-up of their EPL coverage in the U.S. for the season.

And on the pitch, Bale represented that missing link—that all-important attacking player who was capable of influencing play from deep and transitioning seamlessly from defence to attack.

On paper, when the players who were brought in eventually signed, they would make up for Bale’s goals and assists as a collective. We all know how it has turned out in practice.

So besides all the other ominous warning signs on show on Sunday, Liverpool’s thrashing was also symbolic in that it was led by their new stand-in skipper Luis Suarez—a player who had threatened to leave Anfield the way Bale so spectacularly quit Tottenham.

Suarez hit two goals right out of the top drawer. Meanwhile, Gareth Bale kept doing his stuff in sunny Spain. Two different worlds, one “coulda woulda shoulda” scenario.

 

Instability Is a Constant at a Selling Club

Chairman Levy’s relentless ambition and ruthless ways have served Spurs in memorable ways down the years. Their astute £8 million capture of Rafael van der Vaart in 2010 was one of the finest transfer coups in Premier League history and, not so long ago, Hugo Lloris at the same price last summer was considered another fine example of Levy’s transfer acumen.

But on the flipside stands perhaps the underlying reason for such bargain hunts: The recent sales of the talismanic Luka Modric, van der Vaart and Bale have presented Spurs as an unstable selling club, and this reputation looks to have been enhanced.

It might be a hallmark of a rapidly evolving and rising club, but the constant chopping and changing of both managers and players will not install the sense of stability that is sorely needed even in the corporate world.

That things are different at White Hart Lane is a reminder that patience is a prerequisite after all, and too much change might not actually be a good thing. Other Premier League clubs would do well to take note.

 

You Can Actually Have Too Many Good Players

“You can never have too many good players,” so the football cliche goes. Players in form and players of great ability give managers selection headaches; the more the merrier, right?

If the situation at Tottenham is anything to go by, the answer to that is a resounding no.

We mentioned the prospect of having a group of new signings collectively replace Bale’s importance at Spurs. The very idea of it is appealing and also effectively mitigates the risk of concentrating the club’s fortunes on one single player, but the way it has been carried out has been horribly miscalculated.

We only need to look at the bench on Sunday, where record signing Erik Lamela was yet again kicking his heels (or not), and at Villas-Boas’ constant rotation of his midfield to guess that they simply have too big a roster of midfielders to be able to build any sort of continuity in the starting XI.

In a league that’s becoming more and more about midfield partnerships and dynamic movement, the infamous rotation at Tottenham has become a textbook example of why not to stockpile players in one position.

Perhaps we should just amend that age-old adage then: “You can never have too many good defenders when your first choice backline is injured.” Poor Etienne Capoue was hapless out of position as a makeshift central defender.

 

Did AVB Actually Learn from His Time at Chelsea?

A few months after his arrival at Tottenham, Andre Villas-Boas proclaimed that he had learned from his tough spell at Stamford Bridge, as reported by the Mirror, and the general feeling after his first few interviews and press conferences was that he had learned to open up to the media to get them on his side.

This was a new, softer AVB, they said. This was a less obstinate, a more open-minded AVB, they said. This was a great chance for him to prove that Chelsea and Roman Abramovich were a one-off, a mere blip in his bright career, they said.

A year later, according to BBC Sport, the same new AVB was sat in his chair getting involved in a high-profile spat with journalists over a few columns questioning his pedigree as a manager that he didn’t agree with.

Whether or not such accusations were fair is a discussion best left to the past, but by that time, it wasn’t just his methods of dealing with the press that had remained unchanged. His persistence with a physical midfield and a high defensive line had started to become major weaknesses and areas for opposing teams to exploit.

A strong, physical and energetic midfield that was supposed to provide a base for a budding Spurs attack had become an unimaginative source of creativity and the reason for a chronic lack of goals.

 

What Next for Tottenham?

It’s all well and good dissecting the ramifications of Andre Villas-Boas’ sacking and the messages it sends about Tottenham Hotspur, but as in any big footballing decisions, what matters most is how the club moves forward.

And in this case, though to a certain extent his departure was inevitable and understandable, there will be bigger things on Daniel Levy’s mind as he begins to contemplate life without his head coach.

Finding a manager with a pedigree and CV—or an ambitious vision and grand plan, as AVB once had—is hard enough to do, but finding one that can work within the constraints of a perennial Europe-chasing selling club and with a ruthless chairman and director of football is near impossible.

Unlike at Chelsea, where Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti had established an impressive winning record that proved too difficult to replicate, Andre Villas-Boas arrived at Tottenham to find a club striving to challenge for Europe but with the expectations of a top-four club.

Never mind the lack of available names in the market now; the job itself is fast becoming one of the most stressful in English football.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League.

English Football Weekly: Manchester and Liverpool Roar; Fletcher’s Return; Managing in the Premier League

EPL Week 16 recap: Manchester and Liverpool roar

It’s been a while since Manchester United have made the headlines for anything positive, so before we get to Darren Fletcher’s return to first-team action, let’s give United their due credit for a professional job on Aston Villa at Villa Park. Sure, it’s a ground where they’ve traditionally enjoyed success, but we also saw Danny Welbeck score two (two!) and Tom Cleverley score (score!). That Wayne Rooney played in a deep, prompting Scholes-esque role (and that Welbeck was finally deployed in his favored centerforward position) was curious—a sign of things to come?

Which result was the bigger statement this weekend—Manchester City scoring six against Arsenal, or Liverpool hitting five at White Hart Lane? We’ll leave the debate to you, but what’s clear is that Manuel Pellegrini and Brendan Rodgers, both known for their “philosophies” and approaches to the game, are apparently also masters in dissecting opponents and exploiting their weaknesses to the full. City’s sheer power through the middle saw Fernandinho and Yaya Toure give a midfield masterclass and completely blow Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere away, while Liverpool’s relentless pressuring, movement and dynamic passing dominated a Tottenham midfield that’s been tipped as one of the league’s finest.The gap between leaders Arsenal and fourth-placed City has now been reduced to just three. Liverpool are sandwiched just in between along with Chelsea.

That hasn’t deterred Everton, however, as they continued their impressive rise—documented in this column last week—with a 4-1 rout over Fulham, who themselves have exhibited signs of springing back into life under Rene Meulensteen. Seamus Coleman, Gareth Barry and Kevin Mirallas all got goals that their excellent campaigns thus far have deserved (so did Leon Osman), but Gerard Deulofeu’s injury will have been concerning for Roberto Martinez. An interesting set of December fixtures (Swansea away, then Sunderland and Southampton at home) may yet see Everton start the New Year in the top four.

 

Welcome back, Darren Fletcher

It was in 2010—over three years ago—that Darren Fletcher first captained Manchester United and then went on to be nominated as their vice-captain. He was named in the PFA Premier League Team of the Year in April 2010 after a successful season, and aged 26, he had already undergone a transformation from “not good enough” to become an important member of Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad.

So it was particularly poignant that Ferguson decided to pay Fletcher a special tribute in his retirement speech at Old Trafford, wishing him a speedy recovery and a quick return to first-team football. Of course, sandwiched in between was an unfortunate case of ulcerative colitis, which ruled him out of most of United’s matches for the seasons to come—and at one point, put his professional career into jeopardy.

And so it was particularly good news when Fletcher—widely seen to be a hardworking, honest model professional—returned once again to the field against Aston Villa on Saturday. The ovations were heard around Villa Park, and they won’t have been confined to Birmingham. But his presence and return will give David Moyes another experienced option in the Manchester United midfield, who have missed Michael Carrick and who haven’t been significantly bolstered or upgraded with the signing of Marouane Fellaini.

Best that Fletcher gets to work and returns to form as soon as possible, then.

 

Still want to be a Premier League manager?

In recent weeks, we’ve read all about how Martin Jol is utterly incompetent, recently that Steve Clarke was ultimately not good enough for West Brom, and now that Andre Villas-Boas has become the latest to lose his job as a Premier League manager. There are rumblings of Sam Allardyce being on borrowed time at West Ham. In the Championship, Owen Coyle and Dave Jones have been sacked in the first two weeks of December.

It’s a peculiarity in modern football that so much emphasis is still being placed on the manager—sometimes styled as “Head Coach,” sometimes “First-Team Manager,” among other iterations of the title. It’s not happened overnight, and it’s largely been done behind the scenes, but the European model of football operations, otherwise known as the corporatization of Premier League football clubs, has almost entirely taken over in the Premier League. With the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, perhaps only Arsenal employ a traditional all-powerful manager, but even he is working within the confines of a very American, very business-like setup.

So how much influence do Premier League managers actually have? Managers can bring a philosophy, a dream, a vision into their clubs, but how much room do they actually get to see it through? When your best players are being sold against your wishes and replacements are being brought in after consultation with “advisors,” “consultants” and “specialists” but not necessarily with you, how would you be able to fit them into your ideal starting XI to play the type of football you want?

Essentially, a Premier League manager has now become akin to a middle manager in the corporate world, who has to work within major constraints but is still expected to bring stellar results. Except corporate executives (generally) don’t have to endure mass protestations of “You’re getting sacked in the morning” from 40,000-plus fans every single week, which in turn put more pressure on chairmen, whose backgrounds are usually in other industries, to take action, all in the name of sporting glory—in a league where there can, alas, only be one winner.

The plus side? You get to do a job you “love” and have always dreamed about—and the payoff, in case things just don’t work out, is pretty attractive.
This piece was part of my weekly column on SWOL.co, where I take a look back at the weekend’s English Premier League and domestic cup action, related talking points and news surrounding English football at large.

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Liverpool Preview: 6 Key Battles to Watch on Sunday

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Michael Regan/Getty Images

This Sunday, Liverpool travel to White Hart Lane to take on Tottenham Hotspur in a clash that could see the Reds go just two points behind Premier League leaders Arsenal if results go Liverpool’s way. However, if the home side are victorious at White Hart Lane, Spurs will draw level with Liverpool on 30 points.

Not so long ago, a crisis was being touted at Spurs, and Andre Villas-Boas’ job was rumored to have been in danger, according to ESPN. Two wins on the bounce see them climb back up to sixth in the league, just two points off fourth-placed Manchester City, but first they must welcome the visit of Anzhi Makhachkala in the Europa League on Thursday night.

Tottenham’s recently creaking defence will be coming up against a Liverpool attack firing on all cylinders: Brendan Rodgers’ side have scored 34 goals in 15 games—the second-highest tally in the league—and boast an in-form Luis Suarez spearheading their strikeforce.

As Arsenal travel to the Etihad Stadium, Chelsea take on Crystal Palace and Everton play Fulham this weekend, Tottenham-Liverpool may yet have wider ramifications on the top-four race—and the European credentials of either side.

As we look forward to an exciting match on Sunday, let’s preview six key battles that will be taking place on the White Hart Lane pitch that may just hold the key to all three points for either side.

 

Hugo Lloris vs. Simon Mignolet

If it weren’t for Tottenham’s six-goal thrashing at the hands of Manchester City a few weeks ago, they’d still have one of the meanest defensive records in the Premier League. As it stands, with 16 goals conceded, they have the fifth-best defence this season, two places ahead of Liverpool with 18 let in.

A large part of Spurs’ defensive record has been down to their impressive French No. 1, Hugo Lloris, while Liverpool are indebted to Belgian goalkeeper Simon Mignolet for pulling off the third most saves thus far this season (55 in comparison to Lloris’ 39) and helping them to second in the league.

So White Hart Lane will feature two of the Premier League’s best goalkeepers. Given Luis Suarez’s form and confidence, and Tottenham’s fondness for long-range shots—according to InfoStrada Sports, 55 percent of their shots are from outside the penalty area this season (via TheScore.com)—they’d do well to be on their best form on Sunday.

Lloris will be wary of repeating his blunder against Sunderland on Wednesday for sure.

 

Michael Dawson vs. Luis Suarez

From Tottenham’s point of view, Liverpool’s danger man will undoubtedly be Luis Suarez. Hardly a surprise, of course—he’s leading the Premier League goalscoring charts with 14 this season, despite missing the first five games of the campaign.

He’s improved on his conversion rate to an impressive 25 percent (via BassTunedToRed.com). He’s added the free-kick to his arsenal of tricks. He’s cleaned up his act and cut out the petty moaning and unsavory simulation from his game.

In short: He’ll be a handful for Michael Dawson, to say the least.

Spurs skipper Dawson has put in some steady performances this season, but the Tottenham back line have already capitulated once against quality opposition (Sergio Aguero of Manchester City) and will be on their toes to prevent the same thing from happening at the hands (or feet) of Suarez.

A lot will thus depend on the midfield.

 

Kyle Naughton vs. Raheem Sterling

Before we get to the midfield, though, we have a Liverpool wing to address, and on their right flank, Raheem Sterling will come up against Kyle Naughton in a clash between two hot young English prospects.

Villas-Boas’ stand-in left-back Naughton will likely start in place of the injured Jan Vertonghen, while Sterling should reprise his starting—and starring—role for Rodgers for his fourth game in a row.

In particular scrutiny will be AVB’s fondness for a high defensive line, especially at home: As Liverpool showed against West Ham United on Wednesday, they’re capable of building quick counterattacks that tear through opposition midfields. Sterling himself burst through the middle and went clear on goal on several occasions, only for his finish to let him down.

Just like Philippe Coutinho on the opposite flank, Sterling’s cutting infield will mean that Naughton will likely be dragged inside with him on multiple occasions, leaving Glen Johnson to storm down the Reds’ right flank as a dangerous attacking outlet.

 

Paulinho vs. Lucas

The midfield battle won’t just be Paulinho vs. Lucas, of course, but this particular matchup—where both protagonists are not your stereotypical Brazilian flair players—is very much symbolic of the respective midfields on show this Sunday.

Paulinho’s brand of physicality has been a hallmark of the Spurs midfield play this season. Whether he’s been supported by Mousa Dembele, Sandro or Etienne Capoue, his barnstorming style lacks the intricacies and deft touches of Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela, yet Tottenham’s midfield domination over Swansea City at the beginning of the season provided a glimpse of the new Spurs.

By contrast, a Lucas-Steven Gerrard axis has more often than not been pedestrian and offered far less of a physical control in the middle of the park. Against sides with more robust midfields, such as Southampton, Liverpool have had their weaknesses exposed.

The injury absence of Gerrard—and Jordan Henderson’s fitness permitting—should see Joe Allen retain his spot alongside Henderson and Lucas slotting back in. The hope is that they will be able to offer the dynamism and relentless movement while Gerrard is out.

Villas-Boas has constantly rotated his midfield three this season, but whichever combination he puts out on Sunday, it will surely be a huge challenge for Lucas and Co.

 

Aaron Lennon vs. Jon Flanagan

Just as Sterling will prove a test for Naughton on Liverpool’s right flank, so Aaron Lennon will be a fearsome opponent for Jon Flanagan over on Tottenham’s right.

Martin Kelly’s return to fitness is a welcome boost for Brendan Rodgers, but he will likely keep his faith in young Flanagan, a right-back by trade, and reward him for a series of solid performances in an unfamiliar position with another start on Sunday.

That will suit Lennon down to the ground. In recent weeks, the Spurs No. 7 has regained his starting slot on the right wing at the expense of Andros Townsend, and his propensity to bomb down the touchline will take advantage of Flanagan’s weaker side. And there’s also his pace.

A Liverpool left flank of Flanagan and Coutinho may offer far too little in terms of physicality and defensive presence—the injured Jose Enrique will be fondly remembered—to rein in the likes of Lennon and right-back Kyle Walker.

Without a doubt, this will be a problem position for Liverpool.

 

Jermain Defoe vs. Mamadou Sakho

Prior to Tottenham’s last three matches, where they scored a total of four goals, they had scored just a solitary goal—from the penalty spot—in four games.

It would be unfair to heap the blame on four-goal, £26 million striker Roberto Soldado, but his replacement, Jermain Defoe, has seemingly won back his manager’s faith in recent fixtures.

It’s been well documented that an isolated lone striker has been at the root of Tottenham’s scoring problems this season. The lack of a Gareth Bale-like attacking midfielder capable of transitioning smoothly into the forward lines has been made clearer by the lack of mobility, and involvement in overall play, of both their strikers, who belong in the same “predator” category.

So while the Spurs midfield may well overwhelm Liverpool’s, the hosts’ strikeforce (if we can call it that) may not pose enough of a danger to a defence expected to be marshaled by the imposing and improving Mamadou Sakho.

Better for Sakho and Co. to focus on stopping the tidal wave coming in from the Tottenham midfield, then.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League.

English Football Weekly: Week 15 Recap; Everton’s Revolution; Match-Fixing Scandal

EPL Week 15 recap: A weekend of upsets

Not that an impressive 2-0 home win would’ve been at all upsetting for Fulham, but was it Rene Meulensteen at work on Craven Cottage on Sunday, or was it just another case of the “new manager syndrome”? Only time will tell, but the confidence—even arrogance—in the way the Cottagers set up against Aston Villa will bode well for their fight to stay in the Premier League, and marked a huge contrast to the soulless, dithering squad in the final days of Martin Jol. Even Dimitar Berbatov turned up to play. He might not be accustomed to the wrong end of the table, but he’ll be important in Fulham’s resurgence—hopefully.

It’s been a while since the Britannia has been regarded a fortress the way it was when Tony Pulis first took Stoke up to the Premier League. Back then, there were Rory Delap’s long throws and other manners of rugby football play. Now, there’s the maverick flair of Marko Arnautovic, the cultured finishing of Stephen Ireland—and apparently also the magician’s touch from Oussama Assaidi. An example of Stoke’s resolve and fight towards a mid-table place? Or a public appeal from Jose Mourinho to Roman Abramovich to land them a striker in the class of Radamel Falcao? Either way, much work to be done still.

Alan Pardew tried to offer some solace in his interview after Newcastle’s first win at Old Trafford in 41 years, but his smug grin, which has been doing the rounds on Twitter, will say all there is about what’s going on at Manchester United—and to an extent at Newcastle as well. For while United toil in ninth place, some 13 points off leaders Arsenal and seemingly having lost that famous comeback spirit, Newcastle have defied critics, predictions and a barren summer transfer window to storm into seventh place, just three points behind City in fourth and four points ahead of United. What a strange season it’s been.

There to take advantage of the dropping of points by Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City were Liverpool, who overcame a sloppy own goal and a 10-minute resurgence from West Ham to secure a 4-1 win. It’s been a few seasons since the Reds have found themselves still right in the mix in December, but the hard part is coming. Three formidable opponents and competitors, all away from home, will be obstacles to Liverpool finishing in the top four by the end of December. They’ll be hoping that Cardiff at home next weekend will provide some much-needed breathing space. Spurs, City and Chelsea will not be easy.

 

Young Everton are here to stay

There was never a chance Arsenal-Everton would’ve escaped mention on a weekly wrap; it was too exciting and unpredictable (see: “the perfect advert for the Premier League”) to leave out. But while football fans were expecting Arsenal to reaffirm their title credentials at the Emirates, instead we’ve come out of the game with a renewed appreciation of Everton and Roberto Martinez.

The manner in which Everton took their game to Arsenal was as impressive as it was audacious—possibly even ill-advised prior to kickoff. After all, Liverpool, having had quite a decent run of results this season, went defensive at the Emirates and still got battered. Surely Everton would’ve set up to defend a bit more, especially with Gerard Deulofeu on the bench?

Wrong. The difference between the Merseysiders is that the Blues have a far more industrious, dynamic and well-balanced midfield in comparison to the Reds, and it showed. There was Ross Barkley, brash and confident, taking on the likes of Aaron Ramsey and Mikel Arteta and strengthening his claims for a place on the plane to Brazil next summer. There was James McCarthy, working so well with Gareth Barry as the central midfield duo and largely nullifying the hitherto potent and unstoppable Arsenal attacking line. And there was Bryan Oviedo, who had impressed with goals in consecutive matches (including a famous winner against United), bombing down the flanks to such good effect that he might just render Leighton Baines a bit less indispensable.

It was a result, and a performance, to confirm that Everton aren’t now fifth in the league because of a fluke. It’s the start of a youthful revolution shaped by a young manager with a vision. The critics still have their knives out, of course, what with two key players and a secret weapon (Romelu Lukaku, Barry and Deulofeu) on loan, but that’s a concern best left for the summer—if it’ll still exist at all. If Everton qualify for Europe, they’ll be able to bring in a few good ones yet.

 

Match-fixing: The elephant in the room

So it appears match-fixing has finally arrived on English shores. The recent reports linking the Sodje brothers and the likes of DJ Campbell will have presented a huge step back for English football and the FA.

£70,000 for a red card? £30,000 for a yellow? Surely players on such lucrative salaries in the English game won’t even bat an eyelid, and surely the competitiveness of the Premier League and the Championship means that sporting integrity and the chance of glory should by default render match-fixing a useless force in England? Why would a player on £50,000 a week sell out for that?

As easy as it is to criticize someone for holding the above beliefs, it is a true pity—but a real necessity—that match-fixing has been revealed to affect the English game, even at the top level. It’s a pity because all along it’s seemed that English football was too competitive, too pure and too exciting to even consider the existence of corruption and the evil influences of money. And for a long time, this image was sustained.

But now that this news has surfaced, it’s come as a huge smack in the face, and many a pundit, follower and fan will be smacking his head out of sheer frustration at his own ignorance. Because given the amount of money in the global game—an amount which will only rise with time—what could possibly have made England immune to corruption? Where there’s money, there’s corruption: It’s a sad fact of professional sports, and now it’s all coming to light.

What’s important now is not to hide and be embarrassed about match-fixing in England, but for the government, the police and the FA to join forces and crack down on the antagonists. Heavy punishments should be issued for those found guilty, and points should be deducted—with relegation implemented—for teams that have been complicit, if it emerges that any might have been.

It’ll be a long, hard journey and will require active policing—even racism has apparently resurfaced in recent years—but it’s the only course of action that makes sense.

 

This piece was part of my weekly column on SWOL.co, where I take a look back at the weekend’s English Premier League and domestic cup action, related talking points and news surrounding English football at large.

5 Ways Liverpool Should Approach a Tough December to Stay in the Top Four

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Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

Second place, 15 matches played, 30 points, and a goal difference of +16. With four games left to go until the mid-season (and the January transfer window), Liverpool so far look in pretty good shape this 2013/14 Premier League season.

Their average of two points per game, if extended over the course a 38-game season, has historically been enough to secure a top-four spot by the end of the season—which, besides launching Liverpool back into the Champions League spotlight, should also be enough to secure Luis Suarez’s future at Anfield.

Before we look ahead to next May, however, let’s first acknowledge the obstacles to the Reds finishing their first half of the season in the top four—and there are many.

Starting with their remaining four fixtures in a busy December period—Tottenham Hotspur (away), Cardiff City (home), Manchester City (away), Chelsea (away), the latter two coming in the space of three days.

With Jose Enrique and Daniel Sturridge both out until at least January and Steven Gerrard sidelined for the Christmas period with a hamstring injury, according to the Telegraph, Liverpool’s problems are as much on the treatment table as they are with the fixture list.

But this is also a crucial period where Brendan Rodgers’ team will be tested on their ability to stay near the top, and where preliminary conclusions may yet be drawn about their quest to return to Europe.

Here are five ways Liverpool should approach a tough December ahead of them and still fly high in the top four come the start of January.

 

Keep Their Second-Half Setup Against West Ham

With the aforementioned Enrique, Sturridge and Gerrard out for the Christmas period, Liverpool’s best XI for the moment will have been their second-half, post-Gerrard substitution setup in Saturday’s game against West Ham United.

Glen Johnson seemed back to his best, and indeed was the provider of a very fine assist to Luis Suarez for Liverpool’s third goal of the night, while Jon Flanagan on the opposite flank stuck to his task and defended confidently.

Martin Skrtel looked more assured and assertive with the dominant Mamadou Sakho beside him, and with stability being the key in a defensive partnership, Brendan Rodgers would be wise to stick with them in the center, though the shambolic defending in conceding their own goal—in the process letting the Hammers back into the game—will have been a cause for concern.

Joe Allen in front of them was a livewire in midfield, seemingly over his catastrophic miss in the Merseyside derby a couple of weeks ago. If he continues his improvement, his probing passing and deceptively quick turn of pace should prove a very useful additional outlet in midfield, alongside the more workmanlike duo of Jordan Henderson and Lucas Leiva.

Philippe Coutinho and Luis Suarez pick themselves in the starting XI, while Raheem Sterling deserves a run in the side for his upturn in form and encouraging showing on Saturday, especially with Victor Moses’ cameo once again not providing any kind of imagination, creativity and game-changing potential.

The only change that should be considered by Rodgers and co.—besides any enforced through injury concerns—would be to shift Johnson over to the left and put Martin Kelly in on the right, especially against pacy right wingers that Flanagan might struggle against.

Otherwise, this is a team that can be decent at the back, strong in the middle and incisive up front.

 

Adopt a Relentless and Interchanging Midfield Three

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Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

It’s hard to imagine a Liverpool midfield without Steven Gerrard in it: He’s been ever-present for the Reds this season, and is both their assists leader (six) and third highest scorer (three).

Whether his world-class set pieces and impressive long passes compensate for his decreasing mobility has been a hot topic for debate (and best left for another discussion), but his more withdrawn, “quarterback”-like regista role has come with a diminishing ability to take games by the scruff of the neck and drag his team to victory.

Which means that in his absence, Liverpool fans may yet catch a glimpse of an ideal Brendan Rodgers midfield. To be precise, a relentless, dynamic and interchanging midfield three capable of supplying incessant pressure on their opponents, recycling the ball among one another, and contributing comfortably to the attack.

After his aforementioned horror miss against Everton in November, Joe Allen has rebounded in terms of his confidence, putting in good performances echoing his encouraging start to life at Anfield back at the start of the 2012/13 Premier League season.

His reverse pass to Martin Kelly in the dying minutes of the West Ham match on Saturday was a particular highlight, but it was his forward-thinking passing, neat touches and ability to move the ball out of pressure that caught the eye.

Add in the dynamism and famous work rate, as well as the at-times scintillating passing (though consistency is necessary) of Jordan Henderson, and Liverpool have got a young, energetic and deceptively quick British midfield core. And while Lucas hasn’t fully reclaimed his excellent pre-injury form, his positioning and tactical awareness have been triumphed by Rodgers (and are debated constantly among Reds fans).

Altogether, the Gerrard-less midfield that will travel to such opponents as Spurs, City and Chelsea will exhibit a stark contrast to the captain’s prompting from deep.

Which can mean that Liverpool are short of a sure-fire set piece specialist. But also that their opponents now have to focus on defending against an interchangeable unit instead of one single playmaker.

 

Continue to Refine Their Counterattacks

Pepe Reina he might not be just yet, but Simon Mignolet has been earning rave reviews for his improvements in distribution: A couple of quick long throws set up dangerous counterattacks for his teammates on Saturday.

(Needless to say, Mignolet’s shot-stopping has already far exceeded Reina’s levels of the past few seasons.)

And Arsenal they might not be just yet, but Liverpool have evidently worked on their counterattacking plays to make use of their pace in attack.

Previously it was in the 3-5-2 system that featured Suarez and Daniel Sturridge up top. But against West Ham, as in his stellar start to his Liverpool career, it was Raheem Sterling who frequently burst through the opposition midfield and rush onto passes down the center. If it weren’t for his lack of a clinical finish, the home side would have scored at least two more from those breaks.

As dominant as Liverpool aspire to be in ball and possession retention, there’s no reason to discourage them from working on breaking, attacking and scoring at speed. Even without Gerrard’s 40-yard passes to feet, they possess accomplished passers like Allen and Coutinho, and with the inventiveness of Suarez and Sterling, the counter should be a Liverpool staple.

Especially in away fixtures against teams who like to overload in the attack and pile up in their final third, exactly Liverpool’s big upcoming tests at White Hart Lane, the Etihad Stadium and Stamford Bridge.

If Liverpool can withstand some inevitably strong attacks from their hosts, they should look to capitalize on their relatively soft underbellies and hope to snatch goals—and points—that way.

 

Improve Decision-Making and the Final Ball

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With 20 goals in their last five matches at home, it wouldn’t seem on the surface that Liverpool need work on their finishing and final ball.

Indeed, Luis Suarez needs to be given lots of credit for his massive improvement in finishing off his chances. In the context that he used to be a profligate striker who often frustrated Reds fans with his poor finishing, this article from BassTunedToRed.com tells us that his conversion rate has jumped from 8.2% in the Kenny Dalglish era to a staggering 25% this season.

But even though they scored four goals against West Ham on Saturday, there was ample evidence, especially in the first half when the visitors shut up shop in front of their penalty area, that Liverpool took one touch too many or played one pass too many.

Coutinho continually decided to attempt to play a colleague into space when shooting from range would’ve been more beneficial, while Sterling’s final ball, even when sent through on goal, seemed to be just lacking in confidence.

And we don’t have to go too far back to see a glaring example of Joe Allen’s composure in front of goal, or Jordan Henderson’s lack of an assured finish at the end of a lung-busting run at Arsenal, to know that this is an area where Liverpool still need to improve on.

Given their proneness to conceding from just one solitary defensive mistake, they should work on taking their chances when they create them. Against smaller teams that they’ve admittedly demolished in recent weeks, chances will come by simply because of their relentless pressure and approach play, but goal-scoring opportunities will be few and far between in the coming few weeks.

Of course, 1-0 is all it takes to take home three points, and Liverpool started their season off with three well won, if not entirely convincing, 1-0 wins, which featured lots of deep defending. But to do that, besides holding firm and keeping a clean sheet, you need to take that one chance when it comes by.

 

Approach Tough Away Matches Fearlessly and Confidently

With 34 goals scored in 15 league games thus far—the second most in the Premier League—it’s clear that when Liverpool feel like it, they can turn on the style and blow opponents away with their attacking play.

A large part of that—nine goals, to be exact—is admittedly down to the now-injured Daniel Sturridge and his impressive all-round contributions up front for the Reds this season, but Luis Suarez’s form and the overall cohesiveness in attack means that they remain an offensive force to be reckoned with.

So why did they go to the Emirates and come away with a comprehensive 0-2 loss when they could’ve started the game on the front foot if they’d been set up to do so?

A look at Roberto Martinez’s impressive setup at Everton shows that a consistent mental, technical and physical approach, once ingrained throughout the squad (which includes the coaching staff and management team), can take their game and impose it on whichever opponents they come up against.

They’ve done it against Manchester United, and they did it just this Sunday night with a fearless, confident and assertive display at the Emirates, when they forced a 1-1 draw against league leaders Arsenal.

Brendan Rodgers will realize that his squad has deficiencies—which squad doesn’t?—but he will also know that keeping the same identity in whatever fixture can reap large benefits and may even spring the odd surprise.

Just look at Liverpool’s trip to Manchester City last season. Granted, City weren’t managed by Manuel Pellegrini then, and Liverpool had a Steven Gerrard blockbuster to thank, but if Pepe Reina hadn’t rushed off his line, the visitors would’ve taken home an impressive 2-1 win.

More of that please.

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League.

Scouting Report on Reported Liverpool Transfer Target Martin Montoya

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Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

The latest rumor doing the rounds at Anfield links Barcelona full-back Martin Montoya with a move to Liverpool in January, and according to the Guardian, the Reds’ Managing Director Ian Ayre traveled to Catalonia to open transfer talks.

In light of the recent injury blow to joint top scorer Daniel Sturridge—who, as reported by BBC Sport, is set to miss the next two months with an ankle injury—and the projected absence till February of left-back Jose Enrique due to a knee problem (c/o BBC Sport), both of which leave the squad short of first-team options, the recent Montoya links will be positive news for Liverpool fans.

Despite a surfeit of options in the center of defence following the Reds’ deadline-day swoop for Mamadou Sakho and Tiago Ilori, they remain short on the flanks, given Enrique’s injury, on-loan Aly Cissokho’s disappointing form, and Martin Kelly’s continued absence.

Young Jon Flanagan, who impressed in his first few outings in the first team under Kenny Dalglish but suffered a loss in confidence and form since, has defied his critics in recent weeks with encouraging performances filling in on the left, but he remains a back-up option—and a specialist right-back.

Which brings us—and Liverpool, allegedly—to Martin Montoya. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons to his potential signing, assess his potential role at Anfield, and evaluate whether he’d be a good pick-up for Brendan Rodgers.

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Pros

The first pro is arguably the most obvious: Martin Montoya is a La Masia youth product and has grown up in the Barcelona way since the age of eight, before graduating to the first team in the 2011/12 La Liga season.

Considering the passing-dominant style of football that Brendan Rodgers wants to implement at Anfield, Montoya, with his comfort on the ball and encouraging passing statistics—this article from Squawka shows his pass success rate in the 2012/13 season to be 91 percent—would seem to be an instant cultural fit into the philosophies currently being put in place at Liverpool.

A just reward for his perseverance in the Barcelona setup, Montoya was awarded an extended run-out in the Blaugrana first team in the injury absence of regular right-back Dani Alves last season, and took his opportunity with both hands, making Alves bide his time on the sidelines despite the latter returning to fitness.

In his time with the first team, Montoya showed a tremendous work rate, as well as consummate ease transferring play from defence to attack, while his defensive work was uncompromised by his willingness to go forward and take on opponents. The same Squawka article quoted above provides the statistical underpinnings of Montoya’s solidness as a full-back.

In his seven appearances this season, Montoya has, according to WhoScored.com, averaged 2.9 aerial duels won per game, more than any Liverpool defender in this campaign, while his 2.9 tackles per game is bettered only by Glen Johnson (Jon Flanagan’s five tackles per game is averaged over the course of three appearances).

Then there’s his impressive versatility, which has seen him play on both flanks at Camp Nou with ease. His current status as first-choice back-up to Dani Alves suggests that he is most comfortable on the right, but he has also played on the left on three occasions this season.

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Cons

Such is Montoya’s completeness as a full-back that he hasn’t shown any obvious weaknesses during his time at Barcelona, besides the lack of a sustained run in the first team due to the importance and outstanding form of Dani Alves.

However, he has been dribbled past by an opponent an average of 1.3 times per game this season, higher than any Liverpool full-back, suggesting that work may be needed on both the mental and physical aspects of his defending.

His 0.3 key passes per game is lower than Johnson, Cissokho and Enrique (with Flanagan once again excepted), though his tendency to dribble may offset that as different facets of attacking and creative contributions.

Potential Role at Liverpool

Work rate, stamina, unsung squad player without a sustained run at the top level—on paper, Martin Montoya sounds a lot like Alvaro Arbeloa, who was signed by Rafa Benitez in January 2007 and went on to become a key part in his impressive Liverpool team.

Indeed, with the stats showing Montoya to be a reliable and all-rounded full-back capable of playing on either flank and of the odd surge forward, the 22-year-old Spaniard may prove to be an equally inspired capture in just a few months, if Ayre manages to secure a deal to capitalize on Montoya’s contract situation.

And at Anfield, Montoya would likely arrive as instant competition for Flanagan on the left flank in the short term. As impressive as Flanagan has been with his defensive work rate, he has not offered much of note going forward.

Enrique’s bursts into the final third, as an outlet for the likes of Philippe Coutinho, have been missed, and Montoya might just provide a bit more incisiveness and attacking threat with his dribbling and forward runs.

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What about in the medium to long term? Well, it’s becoming a well-known fact that Glen Johnson is about to enter the last 18 months of his contract, where in a year’s time he will be allowed to negotiate pre-contract deals with foreign sides—and even leave Anfield on a free transfer in the summer of 2015.

If he were any other key first-team player, Liverpool would have begun negotiations on a contract extension with Johnson already. But, as dissected by James Pearce in the Liverpool Echo, Johnson’s current £110,000 p/w deal at Anfield means that the 29-year-old will almost certainly have to consider a pay cut if he is to stay at Liverpool.

Which may explain why Managing Director Ian Ayre is reportedly so keen on securing Montoya’s signature this January, instead of leaving it till the summer to bring him to Anfield on a Bosman free transfer. If Montoya impresses in the next six months, Liverpool may well have secured their next long-term right-back on the cheap.

Conclusion

All of this leads to our conclusion that Martin Montoya should be a key priority for the Reds this January transfer window.

Whether it’s for the short term—to fill in for Jose Enrique and challenge Jon Flanagan—or for the long term—as a potential replacement for Glen Johnson if a contract extension doesn’t progress as smoothly—Montoya has the ability to establish himself in the Liverpool first team.

Compared to Johnson, a regular top performer for four seasons and an integral part of this attack-heavy Liverpool team, Montoya still has some development to do before he will mature and evolve into a top-class complete full-back, but his grounding at La Masia will have provided a stellar platform for his continued growth.

At a potentially discounted price due to his contract situation, Montoya would be too good an opportunity to pass up—and a potential regret for Brendan Rodgers and co. if he ends up at a Premier League rival on a free come next summer.

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League.