Liverpool Must Improve on FA Cup Display for Merseyside Derby vs. Everton

Liverpool Must Improve on FA Cup Display for Merseyside Derby vs. Everton
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Goals from Victor Moses and Daniel Sturridge—both assisted by Luis Suarez—took Liverpool into the FA Cup fifth round with a 2-0 win over a spirited Bournemouth side at the Goldsands Stadium on Saturday.

Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe will have been pleased with the manner his side went about the game, as they fearlessly went about attacking their esteemed visitors in impressive fashion, only for the final finish to let them down.

His opposite number, Brendan Rodgers, will be glad to have overcome a potential banana skin fixture with a performance that was more professional than it was impressive, but one that did the job nonetheless.

But it is exactly because of the nature of the Reds’ win that they must improve on Saturday’s performance when they host the visit of high-flying and fellow top-four challenger Everton on Tuesday, in the 222nd Merseyside derby.

 

 

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Concerns at the back: A return to 3-5-2?

That Liverpool are now besieged with a host of injury problems is no longer news, but Rodgers and Liverpool fans alike could be forgiven for fearing the worst after Martin Skrtel received extended treatment off the pitch for a blow to the head.

His subsequent return to the field with a bandage around his head was comforting as it was important, but he will be paying further visits to club doctor Zaf Iqbal in the build-up to the Everton game.

With Glen Johnson out injured, Martin Kelly was granted an opportunity to stake a claim for a first-team place. But yet again he looked labored and still some way short of full match fitness as he faced a quick and dynamic Cherries left flank.

Not that fellow full-back, the perpetually out-of-position Aly Cissokho, fared any better. Not only was he lacking in defensive positioning, but he failed to provide any inspiration going forward.

This compounds the problem that Rodgers already has, with Daniel Agger, Mamadou Sakho, Jose Enrique and Glen Johnson—arguably the Reds’ first-choice back four—out on the sidelines.

In this context, the return of Jon Flanagan, and the man he replaced, was illuminating: Kelly could have been withdrawn to preserve his match fitness, but Rodgers showed Flanagan’s importance by giving him some minutes of his own to prepare for the derby.

With the current holes in the Liverpool squad, and the in-form partnership of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, don’t be surprised if the 3-5-2 formation seen earlier this season returns on Tuesday.

For maximum work rate, positioning and defensive awareness, don’t be surprised if both starting full-backs on Saturday are replaced for Everton: It could yet be the in-form Raheem Sterling and Jon Flanagan who assume the wing-back roles in the derby.

 

 

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Gaps in the middle: Fitness is the key

With his inconsistent performances in the Liverpool midfield this season, club captain Steven Gerrard has had both his importance to and role in the squad questioned this campaign.

With Brendan Rodgers’ decision to move him into a holding midfielder role, Gerrard’s time to adapt to his new position has attracted criticism, while Jordan Henderson, as the only other fit senior midfielder in the squad, has been nigh-on anonymous in recent games as Gerrard’s midfield partner.

Saturday, however, showed just how important Gerrard still is to the Reds cause. Some excellent tracking back and timing in the tackle allowed the skipper to avert danger on a few occasions, while his passing added some much-needed directness and variability to the Reds’ approach play.

And while Henderson once again had a quieter game, his work rate and presence in the midfield remains important, especially when the advanced midfielder in front of him is the physically slight Philippe Coutinho.

But as much as their presence in the middle of the park enabled Liverpool to come away with a win, it was very much a gamble to start both players amid the club’s injury troubles.

The competitiveness of the game, and the dogged spirit of the Bournemouth players, ensured that the visitors had to wait until the hour mark before Liverpool gave themselves more of a cushion in the game.

Running themselves into the not-so-well-groomed ground at Goldsands Stadium won’t have done Gerrard and Henderson any good ahead of Tuesday’s derby, where Everton’s powerful and dynamic midfield will pose far bigger problems than Bournemouth’s.

Whatever spirit and attitude they showed in the FA Cup on Saturday, they’ll have to replicate it and then some if they are to get an important result against Everton in just a few days.

 

 

Julian Finney/Getty Images

Consistency in the attack: A second chance for Victor Moses?

Before we go into more detail on Liverpool’s first goal, let’s devote a few column inches to the Luis Suarez-Daniel Sturridge forward partnership.

The burgeoning strike duo, who were in such exciting form prior to Sturridge’s injury, have shown signs that they are back to their exhilarating best in Liverpool’s past few games. Saturday yet again saw “SAS” work in tandem for an impressive second goal, even though Suarez went a second consecutive game without scoring.

But enough about their collective excellence: More interesting was Victor Moses’ display against Bournemouth.

Critics will dismiss Moses’ performance as it came against a Championship side in the FA Cup, but what was evident for all to see were his much improved attitude and the attributes that have always threatened to show themselves on the pitch.

Time and again, Moses showed great acceleration to get past his man on the left wing, and good awareness in passing, positioning and attacking. His first goal, a combination of an excellent first touch and a clinical finish, was deserved reward for an encouraging first-half performance.

Simply put, this was more like it from Moses, after what has been a thoroughly disappointing six months in a Liverpool shirt.

And it comes at a good time for Brendan Rodgers, who could do with a selection headache and will have been pleased that Moses grasped a chance to impress with both hands.

If Sterling is indeed employed as a safe defensive option but an intriguing counterattacking weapon in the derby, then Moses could yet reprise his starting role against Everton.

Alongside an interchanging strike partnership of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, Victor Moses might just salvage his Reds career yet.

But just like the rest of his teammates, simply replicating their display against Bournemouth won’t be enough: They’ll have to improve on that to get a morale-boosting win over a tough rival on Tuesday.

 

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

5 Transfer Targets Liverpool Must Land to Keep Them in Top Four Contention

Twenty days into the January transfer window, and no new signing has been strongly rumored to be close to a switch to Liverpool, much less seen at Anfield.

Given the momentum that the Reds have regained following the tough Christmas period, Liverpool fans would be forgiven for waiting anxiously for new signings to strengthen Brendan Rodgers’ squad to face the business end to the Premier League season.

Not that there haven’t been any rumors of player transfers, though: Almost no day passes without a new name surfacing, which has prompted even more discussion and debate about which players Liverpool should really be looking at.

After club owner John W. Henry flew into Merseyside and witnessed a frustrating 2-2 home draw with Aston Villa on Saturday, perhaps the need for further reinforcements has become more pressing than ever, if they are to achieve their ambitions of returning to the Champions League.

Here are five transfer targets that Liverpool must look to land this January to keep them in top-four contention for the rest of the season. Let us know your picks and views in the comments below.

 

Mohamed Salah

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Not necessarily the most urgent need on the pitch by any stretch of the imagination, but FC Basel’s Mohamed Salah represents a winger who can break open defences with his pace and contribute goals from the midfield area.

After incessant rumors linking Salah with a switch to Anfield almost all winter, Chris Bascombe of the Telegraph reported yesterday that Liverpool may finally be ready to launch a formal bid for the Egyptian winger.

With Daniel Sturridge returning to the side following an injury layoff, a current forward line featuring Luis Suarez, Sturridge and Raheem Sterling has goals, pace and dribbling in abundance, but Philippe Coutinho, who arrived last January, hasn’t found his top form for the Reds this season.

If Salah could be another source of match-winners to Anfield, he could turn out to be an important signing for Liverpool this January.

 

Antonio Candreva

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A recent new name linked with a move to Anfield is Lazio’s Antonio Candreva, who, according to Charles Perrin of the Express, is reportedly in the middle of a £7 million co-ownership tug-of-war between Lazio and Udinese.

That Candreva is linked with a move to Liverpool is somewhat surprising: The Premier League hasn’t enjoyed a good track record with Italian midfielders, and the Reds have only recently rid themselves of a big-money transfer failure in Alberto Aquilani.

But Candreva might bring something that Aquilani was never known for: pace, stamina and work rate, on top of some much-needed composure and passing ability in the midfield.

Equally comfortable in the center of midfield and on the wing, Candreva would bring an assured presence to Rodgers’ midfield amid the recent experimentations of Steven Gerrard in a holding role and the recent injury to Lucas, sustained against Aston Villa on Saturday.

 

Martin Montoya

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Besides the midfield, another priority for Liverpool this January has to be in defence.

The centre-back situation is currently embarrassingly chaotic as Martin Skrtel and Kolo Toure just can’t seem to stop leaking goals, but with Mamadou Sakho and Daniel Agger to return, the more pressing need lies in the full-back area.

Glen Johnson has exhibited a disappointing and alarming decline in form this season, while Aly Cissokho’s constantly underwhelming performances are not helped by Jose Enrique’s continued absence.

The solution? A soon-to-be out-of-contract Martin Montoya of Barcelona, who has been strongly linked with the Reds. According to Liam Prenderville of the Mirror though, Montoya seems content to stay at Camp Nou and wait for a new deal.

Ian Ayre and Co. must act fast to secure a player who would be an excellent versatile defender to join the Liverpool ranks.

 

Fernando Reges

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Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Given Lucas’ injury on Saturday—he left Anfield on crutches, according to the Express—and a lack of true defensive options in the Reds midfield, it’s the defensive midfield area that they truly need to strengthen.

A name that’s been thrown around is Fernando Reges of FC Porto, who, according to Ben Jefferson of the Express, has piqued the interest of Brendan Rodgers and his management team.

Considering that he will be out of contract in the summer and that his rumored extension agreement may just be a transfer tactic, Reges would be far too good a signing to pass up on.

He would bring pace, power, stamina, excellent tackling and short passing skills to the Liverpool midfield that has been short of a strong defensive presence this season, and would be an instant upgrade in the starting XI.

 

Yann M’Vila

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But if the Reds do miss out on Fernando Reges, all would be forgiven if the midfielder signed instead would be Yann M’Vila of Rubin Kazan.

As we discussed in our scout report on M’Vila last week, he would bring a complete package of strength, stamina, power and pace, allied with composure and ball-playing technique.

Given his history of off-field controversies, he does bring with him some baggage, but if he performs to his potential, M’Vila could anchor the Reds midfield for years to come and establish himself as one of the premier midfielders in all of Europe.

The latest rumor from the Mirror is that Brendan Rodgers is now considering a loan move for M’Vila first, before signing him on a permanent deal in the summer.

Whichever path both player and potential manager choose to go down, if Liverpool were to sign just one player to instantly make a splash this January, it would have to be Yann M’Vila.

 

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

Liverpool 2-2 Aston Villa: Positives and Negatives from Reds’ Anfield Draw

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This Saturday, Liverpool hosted Aston Villa at Anfield in what turned out to be a thrilling Premier League match, as Andreas Weimann and Christian Benteke had the visitors storming into a first-half lead before the Reds mounted a comeback via Daniel Sturridge and Steven Gerrard.

Under pressure right from the start of the match, Liverpool got what their sloppy and uncertain play deserved when Weimann nipped in to score from a Gabby Agbonlahor cross, before Benteke doubled Villa’s lead 10 minutes after their first.

Sturridge’s finish to cap off some excellent combination play from the hosts was what they needed right on the stroke of half-time, and Gerrard calmly slotted away a penalty after Brad Guzan was adjudged to have fouled Luis Suarez in the box.

Here are eight positives and negatives from Liverpool’s draw at Anfield. Let us know your thoughts and views in the comments below.

 

The First Half Was an Indication of What Liverpool Still Lack…

All throughout the season, Liverpool have generally been solid against most opponents; their fourth-place standing in the Premier League will be an accurate reflection of that.

But against a certain style of team, the Reds have encountered an almost fatal Achilles’ heel: pace and power on the break, through the middle of the park.

So it’s no surprise that, after a comprehensive home defeat at the hands of Mauricio Pochettino’s Southampton and Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, an unfancied Aston Villa side led by Paul Lambert were just one goal short of taking all three points at Anfield on Saturday.

To be sure, Brendan Rodgers’ tactical experiment backfired spectacularly—and we’ll have more on that later—but the deep prompting of Ashley Westwood and the power of Fabian Delph, allied with the pace of Agbonlahor and the industry of Christian Benteke and Andreas Weimann, meant that the hosts just didn’t have enough in the tank to deal with an impressive first-half performance from the visitors.

If the Reds’ back four were on a whole unconvincing, it was the midfield that allowed Villa to storm in. After 22 league games, this remains a glaring problem for Liverpool.

 

…But the Second Half Showed How They Have Grown

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All the same, credit must be afforded to the way the home side came back in the second half.

A flowing move deep in stoppage time in the first half, featuring an exquisite Jordan Henderson back-heel assist, ended with a clinical Sturridge finish and sent the Reds back to the dressing room with some encouragement.

And while Rodgers erred with his starting lineup, there was no prolongation of the same old problems when Lucas was introduced at the expense of Philippe Coutinho, which helped restore balance in the Reds’ approach play.

More importantly, and perhaps the silver lining from the game, was Liverpool’s mental resilience in mounting their comeback in the second half.

Regardless of whether their penalty was from a Guzan foul or a Suarez dive—and the debate will rage on for some time yet—a newfound aggression, not to mention familiarity with the system, was evident in the second 45 at Anfield.

 

The Midfield Is Still Alarmingly Short of Real Options…

But back to the midfield, which, when the dust settles from the two dropped points, is ultimately the root of the Reds’ current troubles.

The current senior central midfield lineup at Anfield stands as thus: Steven Gerrard, Lucas Leiva, Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen.

Glaringly missing from the quartet is a specialist defensive midfield with pace and capable of breaking up attacks and clean, crunching tackles to start counterattacks. The role of such a player cannot be understated: He provides the shield in front of the back four and alleviates both the midfield and defence by providing an additional safe outlet in the middle.

While all the noise after last weekend’s victory at Stoke City was about Steven Gerrard’s new role as holding midfielder, and while he even replaced Lucas in the latter’s now customary position, it was evident from the first 45 minutes that the captain just doesn’t have the legs or the cautiousness to excel in that role.

Henderson, tasked with being a defensive option, a midfield runner and an advanced attacking outlet, was simply overawed.

 

…But in Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling They Have the Future

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On the bright side, Henderson replied to those who leveled at him the criticism that he shies away when his captain is in the same side with a mature and intelligent performance in the heart of the midfield.

While taking on the three aforementioned roles simultaneously was always going to be hard, he showed good responsibility tracking back and also inventiveness going forward, as shown clearly from his sensational back heel to set Sturridge up for Liverpool’s first goal.

So besides his famous work rate and never-ending harrying of his opponents, Henderson has also added flair and guile to his game.

Alongside him was another young starlet who had been written off for the majority of the 2013 calendar year. Raheem Sterling has been in exciting form since returning to Rodgers’ first team in December, and against Villa he turned in a performance that will have justified his manager’s continued faith in him.

Probably one of the few positives of the first half, Sterling then went on to cope well in a less familiar role at right wing-back in the second half, but yet he still timed his forward runs perfectly and showed his maturity and strength on the ball while doing his defensive work.

While the midfield is clearly in need of quality additions, in Henderson and Sterling—if they can keep up their development under Rodgers—Liverpool already have two key cogs in their ever-developing machine.

 

Brendan Rodgers’ Tactical Naivety Cost Liverpool Two Points…

Rodgers has rightly received many glowing plaudits from the way he has managed and grown this Liverpool side into genuine top-four contenders this season, yet Saturday will have been one of his lowest points as a Reds manager.

If not for the sheer reason that he couldn’t continue Liverpool’s momentum and home form, then definitely because it was his tactical naivety and proneness to tactical experimentation that cost his side two points.

The same fixture last season ended in an embarrassing 1-3 home loss to the Villans, and while Sturridge’s early goal handed Liverpool all three points at Villa Park back in August, the second half also saw the Reds kept at bay against an incessant and dominant Villa side.

After suffering the same fate against similarly fast and physical teams this season, Rodgers yet again faltered in selecting a weak midfield core of just Gerrard and Henderson, and in going with a conventional 4-4-2, left his left flank exposed with the rapidly deteriorating Cissokho and the weak Coutinho.

 

…But He Will Have Learned Painful Lessons

So Liverpool fans will be hoping Rodgers has come away from the draw thinking not only about their spirited second-half comeback but their shockingly disjointed first-half performance.

Twenty-two games in is not necessarily the time for Liverpool to be experimenting with new tactical systems, especially when their previous one had been working so well. They had just started seeing some impressive results.

Rodgers will also realize the importance of Jose Enrique and even Jon Flanagan’s imminent returns from injury, while Joe Allen can’t come back into the side quickly enough. And while Lucas might not be the best specialist defensive midfielder, it was his introduction that restored a sense of balance to the team in the second half.

A switch out to the left for Suarez with Sturridge as the central striker also didn’t have the desired outcome, though it was Suarez, of course, who won the equalizing penalty.

Having a fit and firing strike duo of Suarez and Sturridge would be the dream of many a Premier League manager, yet Rodgers needs to find a formula that can keep them scoring and assisting each other without adversely affecting the points on the board.

 

The Top-Four Race Has Now Been Blown Wide-Open Again…

In the immediate aftermath of the game, Liverpool remain fourth in the Premier League standings with 43 points on board.

With third-placed Chelsea on 46 having played a game less, there is already a small gap between the Reds and the top three of Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea, but Rodgers will now be looking nervously over his shoulder.

For both Everton and Tottenham can come dangerously close to Liverpool—and in the former’s case, even overtake their Merseyside rivals—if results go their way in the remainder of this Premier League weekend.

And if David Moyes finds a way to end Jose Mourinho’s impeccable home record at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, Manchester United will suddenly storm back into top-four contention.

It’s a tight league this season, and the constant stress can’t be doing any good for everyone, especially the Liverpool manager.

 

…And Next Week’s Merseyside Derby Will Be Massive

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As Tottenham look to continue their resurgence and possibly end Week 22 level on points (but with a vastly inferior goal difference), Liverpool will know that their main rivals to date are still Everton, who have impressed many pundits and fans with their enterprising and aesthetically pleasing style under Roberto Martinez this season.

Which makes the upcoming Merseyside derby on January 28 arguably one of the most important in recent seasons, simply because of the potential ramifications.

A thrilling 3-3 draw in the reverse fixture in November could well have ended in three points to the Red side if Allen had converted his easy chance, but it also showed the propensity of the Blues to score and come back. Liverpool required a returning Sturridge to save a point off the bench at the death.

While in reality there are only ever three points at stake, the proverbial “six-pointer” game applies more aptly to the 222nd Merseyside derby.

Liverpool’s next fixture will be an FA Cup tie against Bournemouth, but Brendan Rodgers can be forgiven if he is already setting his sights on the following Tuesday. It could define Liverpool’s season—and, indeed, even their short-to-medium-term future.

 

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

The 5 Best Talents to Watch out for at Ajax and PSV Eindhoven

Over the years, Dutch football academies have been famous for their young talent who are known for their technique, flair and vision, and at the core of their legacy are the famous production lines at Ajax and PSV Eindhoven.

The list of prospects developed at both football clubs who have gone on to prosper elsewhere and become world-class players is too long to even delve into here; it is merely an indicator of the talent that the Netherlands have at their disposal.

Just as the World Cup finalists of 2010 are starting to see their spots threatened by a new batch of promising youngsters, so we should pay attention to the latest developments and prospects coming from Ajax and PSV.

Here are the five best talents to watch out for. Enjoy, and give us your picks in the comments below.

 

Davy Klaassen

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Let’s start first with Davy Klaassen of Ajax, who has been making waves in the Eredivisie this season.

Aged just 20, he has scored seven league goals and notched one assist in just seven starts this term, while also impressing in his three Champions League appearances.

Known as the new Dennis Bergkamp, Klaassen is now fittingly being coached by the Dutch striking legend and managed by Frank de Boer at Ajax.

Inevitably, Klaassen has already been linked, via Simon Jones of the Daily Mail, with Arsenal—Bergkamp’s home for almost 10 years—and possesses impressive technique, vision and a handy eye for goal.

 

Ricardo van Rhijn

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Staying with Ajax, we turn to Ricardo van Rhijn, who came into the first team in 2012 after the departure of fellow highly rated right-back Gregory van der Wiel to Paris Saint-Germain.

Known for his pace and power, van Rhijn has also since forced his way into the Netherlands national team with a series of impressive performances for his club, making his international debut for the Oranje against Belgium in August 2012.

Back in September, he was linked by Ben Jefferson of the Express with a move to Chelsea or Serie A. Expect to hear more about him in the foreseeable future.

 

Jetro Willems

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Let’s switch our attention to PSV Eindhoven, where our first nominee isn’t actually a youth academy product, but rather one signed aged 17 from Sparta Rotterdam.

Just a few months after his move to PSV, left-back Jetro Willems already began to nail down a permanent first-team slot, and hasn’t looked back since becoming the youngest-ever Dutchman to play in a UEFA competition when he started against Hapoel Tel Aviv in November 2011.

Quick, strong and technically gifted, Willems was linked with a move to Manchester United as early as June 2012, according to Jamie Sanderson of the Metro.

 

Jurgen Locadia

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Also impressing for PSV is young striker Jurgen Locadia, who has scored five goals in 10 starts so far this 2013/14 campaign.

At 20 years of age, Locadia has scored 11 career goals for the PSV senior team during his time at the Philips Stadion.

A physical striker standing at 6’3″, Locadia has been compared with Aston Villa’s Belgian striker Christian Benteke, and has duly been linked by Alan Nixon of the Mirror with a move to Villa Park as a potential replacement for Benteke himself.

 

Zakaria Bakkali

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Finally, we turn to 17-year-old Belgian winger Zakaria Bakkali, who has already scored three goals in just seven league starts this season.

All three goals were scored in one single game, of course, against NEC Nijmegen, making him the youngest-ever player to score a hat-trick in the Eredivisie.

Blessed with impressive dribbling and passing skills, Bakkali has already been labeled as the next Eden Hazard by Belgian national coach Marc Wilmots, according to Ben Jefferson of the Express, and indeed has already been linked with a high-profile move to Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United, as reported by Richard Arrowsmith of the Daily Mail.

A sign of his obvious talent is his meteoric rise to the Belgian national team, for whom he has already made one appearance, despite the strength of the current Belgian golden generation.

 

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

Scouting Report on Reported Liverpool Target Yann M’Vila

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Ian Walton/Getty ImagesA week and a half into the January transfer window, Liverpool are still on the lookout for a potential new signing. The latest player to be linked with a move to Anfield is Rubin Kazan midfielder Yann M’Vila, according to the Liverpool Echo.

This news comes on the back of M’Vila’s agent announcing, via the Metro, that the French midfielder “dreams” of playing in the Premier League.

Perhaps it comes as no surprise either, given that he showed up at the Merseyside derby at Goodison Park in November to support his friend, Reds defender Mamadou Sakho, as reported by the Daily Mail.

A precocious midfield talent during his days at Rennes, M’Vila was embroiled in a series of controversial antics off the pitch, and in the beginning of 2013, he moved to Russia to continue his career.

Just as we’ve done with Konstantinos Mitroglou and Martin Montoya earlier, let’s take a look at the pros and cons to Yann M’Vila’s potential signing, assess his potential role at Anfield and evaluate whether he’d be a good pickup for Brendan Rodgers.

Mike Hewitt/Getty ImagesPros

Those familiar with Ligue 1 a few seasons back will know of Yann M’Vila as one of the most highly rated midfield talents in French football in his generation during his three-and-a-half seasons at Rennes.

As this Squawka report suggests, M’Vila might not have lost much of his ability despite a fall in reputation with his move to Russia: His passing statistics as of November 2013 were stellar (88 percent accuracy and a total of 770 passes in 14 league games), and his comfort playing in a passing-dominant midfield would suit Liverpool to the ground.

Curiously, given his ball-playing technique and composure, M’Vila is most known as a strong defensive anchorman thanks to his physical strength, athleticism and incredible stamina. His distribution and positioning also makes him a perfect shield in front of the back four.

With his talent, it’s no surprise that former French international Marcel Desailly claimed that he had the potential to become better than Arsenal legend Patrick Vieira, according to the Daily Mail. His coach at Rennes, Frederic Antonetti, has afforded him further praise: “He reads the game like Claude Makelele, has the presence of Patrick Vieira and can pass the ball like Yaya Toure.” (c/o FIFA.com)

 

Cons

Given his abilities and reputation as a hot midfield prospect for France—he made 22 appearances for the national team, scoring one goal, in the space of just two years—it seems strange to see Yann M’Vila plying his trade in the Russian Premier League with Rubin Kazan.

But his career has been derailed by the aforementioned off-field troubles, the most noteworthy of which was an unauthorized night out while on international duty with the French under-21 team, as reported by BBC Sport, which saw him banned from the France national team in November 2012.

He had previously been given a warning following his snub of then-national team coach Laurent Blanc after his substitution in the quarterfinal against Spain in June 2012, according to BBC Sport.

And before his incidents with the French national setup, he also landed himself in hot water with the authorities in May 2012 after an altercation with a 17-year-old boy near his home, as reported by the Metro.

On the field, M’Vila isn’t the most prolific midfielder either: He has only scored two career league goals, both when he plied his trade for Rennes, for whom he played 126 times in Ligue 1.

Laurence Griffiths/Getty ImagesPotential Role at Liverpool

Judging from his playing attributes, Yann M’Vila would bring a complete midfield package to Anfield and should walk straight into Brendan Rodgers’ starting XI.

Comfortable both in central midfield and in a deeper defensive midfield role, M’Vila would be an instant upgrade over the likes of Lucas Leiva at Anfield, and he would form a complete midfield triumvirate with the equally energetic Jordan Henderson and one of Joe Allen and Steven Gerrard.

M’Vila’s pace, strength and positional awareness would help the Reds greatly, given that their midfield has been exposed by dynamic and explosive oppositions, such as Chelsea, Arsenal and Southampton.

Rodgers’ ideal midfield system for Liverpool has all three midfielders relentlessly moving and applying pressure to their opponents, moving the ball at pace and comfortably with short passing to open up the opposition. M’Vila would slot in seamlessly to this blueprint.

At just 23 years of age, M’Vila has his best years ahead of him. If Rodgers’ track record with Daniel Sturridge and fellow January signing Philippe Coutinho reflects anything, it’s that the current Reds boss has the ability to motivate players whose careers have perhaps stagnated and unlock their full potential.

As such, not only would M’Vila be a quality signing for Liverpool, but they’d also represent the ideal destination for him to resurrect his career and establish himself as one of the best midfielders in his generation.

 

Conclusion

From our analysis of his strengths and potential role at Liverpool, it’s clear to see that we strongly recommend Yann M’Vila as a Liverpool signing.

In fact, given his attributes and potential ability, as well as what the Reds midfield currently lacks, we’d even go as far as to say that M’Vila should be a priority in the eyes of the Liverpool management.

That his development has been curtailed due to a series of off-field troubles is well-known, but that Rodgers has the man management techniques to bring the best out of a troubled young player is also highly regarded at Anfield. We only have to see Raheem Sterling’s recent improvement after almost a year of off-field distractions to recognize the work Rodgers is doing behind the scenes.

As such, we have every reason to believe that he would be able to do the same with M’Vila, who may well go on to realize his immense potential.

It’s a tantalizing possibility and a mouthwatering prospect: Liverpool should go all-out for Yann M’Vila, who might still have the world at his feet.

 

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

The World Cup: Evolution from Celebration of Football to Money-Making Exercise

“No decision will be taken before the upcoming 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil, as agreed by the FIFA executive committee.”

Source? An official FIFA statement, via the Guardian. Topic? Whether the 2022 World Cup in Qatar will be held in the summer or winter, of course; it’s only been the topic that’s consumed most international football fans and FIFA observers in the past few months.

The timing though? Immediately after Jerome Valcke, the FIFA secretary general, suggested to a French radio station that the World Cup might be moved to November 2022 after all.

Confused? You’re not the only one. But what’s been made apparent from the Qatar World Cup 2022 debacle, is that besides all the confusion and suspicions, the focus has firmly been taken away from what the World Cup is supposed to celebrate: football, the game itself.

Sure, the talk has revolved around Qatar’s temperatures in the summer, which would make for harsh conditions for players and fans alike, but surely that would’ve been a factor in the decision-making process leading up to awarding Qatar the host rights, instead of a topic to be discussed afterwards.

That Sepp Blatter and FIFA want to bring the World Cup to the Middle East is not a secret: Back in November, he even entertained the idea of hosting the tournament across several countries in the Gulf region, according to the Telegraph. So the globalization of football and the expansion of FIFA are two key items on the agenda, and both politics and money are equally prominent at the heart of all this, as we studied in an earlier article on the World Cup controversies.

But how exactly did the World Cup get to this current state? To answer that question, let’s go back and trace the evolution of the world’s most prestigious tournament from celebration of football to money-making exercise.

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The Olympics: Eternal Rival and…Founding Father?

To understand the World Cup’s evolution and growth, we must first consider the history of the Olympic Games, eternally seen as the World Cup’s rival tournament in terms of global reach and prestige.

The distinction is always made that the Olympics celebrate not just one sport, but sport as man’s pastime, while the World Cup is only the gathering of footballing nations in the world—and before the United States’ entry and strong showing, not even encompassing the entire world. The World Cup’s proponents point to the final as the premier spectacle in world sport, with no single sporting match able to match its global appeal.

In reality, while they might be rivals now and trying to outdo each other every two years, it didn’t start out that way. In fact, the World Cup has the Olympics to thank for its current iteration and success, because it was the Olympics that gave birth to the World Cup as we know it.

When FIFA was founded in 1904, international football—indeed, professional football—was a phenomenon only affordable for a few countries, and when football was inducted into the Olympic Games in the summer of 1908, only amateurs were represented. Any attempt at organizing a truly international football tournament was undermined by the lack of professional setups in most countries around the world.

But when Uruguay won both the Olympic football tournaments in 1924 and 1928, FIFA, with then president Jules Rimet as a visionary driving force, stood up, took notice, and most importantly, set about realizing his dream. The first FIFA World Cup was to be staged in 1930 in Uruguay, with politics—what else?—at the heart of the host location decision: It was to be the 100th anniversary of Uruguay’s independence, and it was to be made not a great celebration of the game itself, but a spectacular political statement.

How else to explain it, given that the Uruguay national football association was willing to cover all travel and accommodation costs incurred by participating teams? As even FIFA.com concedes, that possible profits would be shared with participants and deficits taken on by the host country won Uruguay the first ever World Cup hosting rights.

The 1934 competition was held in fascist Italy under the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini, and Rimet, according to this excellent Independent feature on his life, was already criticized for politicizing football.

Before the advent of television and the phenomenon of globalization, the World Cup had surrounded itself with politics and money.

(A footnote to add, though, is that Jules Rimet’s vision and dream of uniting the world through sport and creation of the World Cup earned him a Nobel Peace Prize nomination in 1956. Perhaps, hopefully, the World Cup at its heart was actually more than a celebration of the beautiful game, but a triumph of humanity.)

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The Context: Globalization and Technology

But just as we can’t give the Olympics all the credit for introducing the concept of a FIFA World Cup, so Rimet and FIFA can’t claim all the glory for growing the tournament from a small competition featuring just a few countries in Montevideo, Uruguay, to the global spectacle that was the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

As ever, context is key, and the explosion of global business and trade, just as it’s played a huge role in the history of the 1900s, is an integral part of the World Cup’s continued evolution. Before the business side of things took over, though, first came the phenomenon of television.

According to this TIME feature, the impact of television on the World Cup’s boom cannot be understated: From 1954 to 1986, the number of TV sets worldwide “increased more than twentyfold, from a little more than 30 million to more than 650 million.” This laid the foundations for a truly groundbreaking moment in football history.

The first live World Cup games were broadcast in Europe in the 1954 tournament, which reached only a handful of audiences due to the low volume of matches shown, but the potential of television and TV advertising was already apparent. (Not that the Olympics were to be beaten, of course: The 1936 Summer Olympics were the first to be broadcast on TV to local audiences. International broadcasts came in 1956.)

Fast forward a decade and a half. Spying an opportunity to conquer the world of football and reap the ensuing economic benefits in 1974, was new FIFA president Joao Havelange, who upon taking office turned his organization into a modern international NGO, putting in place the infrastructure, people and income-centered mindset of a corporation.

The only thing left to do for the World Cup, which previously featured 16 national teams, was to expand. And expand Havelange did, opening the doors to developing countries with eight additional slots (which have since been further increased to a total of 32 participants since France 1998), as discussed by Tim Vickery for The World Game. The Havelange era also saw the introduction of the FIFA U-17 World Cup, FIFA U-20 World Cup, FIFA Confederations Cup and FIFA Women’s World Cup.

The costs of hosting such an immense global tournament in one country were too much to bear for one host country and FIFA, and thus came the idea of corporate sponsorship of the World Cup. Havelange struck deals with Horst Dassler, heir to the Adidas fortune, for the German sportswear company and other big-name corporations like Coca-Cola to fund the tournament, paving the way for the commercialization of international football.

So while the advent of television advertising led to increased premiums for marketers to get their spots onto World Cup TV screens, behind the scenes within FIFA itself was a concerted movement to pump money into the World Cup—with political and economic influence once again the main motivation behind all these changes.

(The name Joao Havelange may be familiar. He was the same FIFA ex-president that resigned in April 2013 after a FIFA ethics report ruled that he had taken bribes, as reported by BBC Sport. The culprit in question? International Sport and Leisure [ISL], founded by Horst Dassler. Politics and money, indeed.)

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The 1990s and Onwards: Spiraling Out of Control

If ever there was a curious decision in the history of world sport, the idea to host the 1994 World Cup in the US was clearly one, at the time. In hindsight, however, it was just another calculated plan from Havelange to bring the game to North American shores, which had yet to be consumed by football fever.

The legacy was stunning: To this date, USA 1994 still holds the total attendance record (over 3.5 million) and the average attendance record (68,991), according to USSoccer.com. The US’s advancement to the round of 16 for the first time since 1930 contributed to soaring TV ratings.

(Leading up to its hosting of the World Cup, the US also put in place their first ever professional soccer league. It’s no surprise that Major League Soccer was founded in 1993, a year before the 1994 World Cup. We explore the growth of soccer in the US in another article.)

The introduction of the World Cup in practically uncharted territory in 1994 was met with enormous financial successes, and since its foray into the world leader of commercialized sport and corporate sponsorship, FIFA have never looked back. The World Cup has since traveled to Asia (2002) and Africa (2010), goes to Russia in 2018, and brings us to the Middle East in 2022.

According to this Economist article, the World Cup broadcasting rights for France ’98 were sold by FIFA in 1987, before the stunning 1994 American success, for $344 million. An indication of how far the World Cup and FIFA have gone: In 1998, at the time of the article, ISL—which would later collapse, of course—had agreed to pay $2.2 billion to show the games outside America.

The groundwork for corporate sponsorship was laid by Havelange, but was taken to new levels under the leadership of current president Sepp Blatter. Let’s consider the 2010 World Cup, for example: According to a UPenn study, FIFA’s revenues related to the South Africa tournament amounted to a staggering $1.022 billion, of which $650 million belonged to broadcasting rights.

Participating national teams are in on the act too: FIFA was to provide $420 million to all participants and the football league teams providing players to the national teams, $30 million of which would go to the World Cup-winning team (Spain). First-round teams qualified automatically for $8 million each, while $1 million in preparation costs were provided to each participating football association.

This was brought about by the stellar line-up of corporate FIFA sponsors, known as “partners,” which included Adidas, Coca-Cola, Emirates Airlines, Hyundai-Kia Motors, Sony and Visa, who were “guaranteed exposure in the tournament stadium” and would receive “direct advertising and promotional opportunities and preferential access to TV advertising.”

The cost? A minimum of between 100 and million euros through to 2014. By which time, of course, the next World Cup cash cow will be held this summer, this time in Brazil.

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Conclusion: It’ll Only Get More Expensive From Here

Is it damning or merely inevitable that corporate sponsorship and incessant marketing efforts are now part and parcel of any World Cup?

In the build-up to this summer’s tournament, the allegations of corruption have been brushed aside after Havelange’s resignation in 2013, while all the talk of political and commercial interests have been directed towards the distant 2022 World Cup in Qatar, still eight years away.

It’s no longer news—rather, it’s an accepted fact—that the World Cup is now considered an extremely lucrative opportunity for brands and nations alike; this Fox article on Nike and Adidas’ brand battle pre-World Cup is now just part of the fabric. In fact, any sports company—or indeed any business entity at all—would be condemned for not taking advantage of a World Cup year to promote its business.

And so it’s only going to get more expensive from here. The spending and rights associated with the premier world football tournament have skyrocketed in the past decade or so, with the help and under the influence of a few key players, but the brand-new stadiums that are to be constructed in host countries are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to World Cup spending.

But it’s the World Cup. Just as FIFA continue to rake in the cash, we football fans will continue to ignore the commercial influences and political battles and focus on the spectacle that will unfold before our eyes when the first whistle is blown on June 12 at the Arena de Sao Paulo.

An event of this magnitude only comes once every four years, after all. When the winning team hoists the Jules Rimet trophy on July 13, for once the celebrations will be directed entirely towards the football that they have played, not the money they will make.

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League, and at times on the business of football.

Why Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling Should Go to the World Cup

In light of the unfortunate news of Theo Walcott’s long-term injury, sustained in Arsenal’s 2-0 defeat of Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup and effectively ruling him out of the World Cup, as reported by BBC Sport, Roy Hodgson could be forgiven for feeling just a bit worried.

With Walcott out of contention and Jermain Defoe supposedly nearing a move to MLS’ Toronto FC, according to Sky Sports, the most experienced English forward Hodgson has at his disposal after Wayne Rooney is fellow Manchester United striker Danny Welbeck, on 20 caps.

Other options available for selection include Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge (nine caps) and Southampton’s Rickie Lambert (four): not the most experienced or deepest forward line in England history by any stretch of the imagination.

The good news, however, is that England can make up for their shortage up front by strengthening their midfield and wings. A healthy mix of experience and youth in the midfield would now be grateful for an injection of quality ahead of the World Cup.

Step forward Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling, who would provide just that. Here are five reasons they should make it into Roy Hodgson’s squad that will be heading to Brazil this summer.

 

Deserved Reward for Improvement

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Paul Gilham/Getty ImagesAsk any Liverpool fan about their best player this season, and second to Luis Suarez, who will deservedly take the plaudits from his scintillating record thus far, will be Jordan Henderson, who has been ever-present in Brendan Rodgers’ first team.

It wasn’t too long ago that Henderson was being written off as a £16 million flop, following a couple of indifferent seasons after his switch from Sunderland. That Rodgers was about to send him off to Fulham in the summer of 2012 is well-known; that Henderson has bounced back from all these setbacks is just as impressive.

Not only has Henderson finally found the confidence and form of his Sunderland days, but he’s seemingly added to his arsenal as well. Besides his legendary work rate and positional discipline, he’s added a touch of flair to his game as well: His back-heels, crosses and incisive passing have been a crucial element to the Reds’ final third; a record of five assists in 20 games thus far already betters his tally (four) last term.

The same applies to Raheem Sterling, who, besides storming back to the form he showed in the first few months of his debut season, has added a maturing awareness and clinicality to his game. Three goals and two assists in just nine starts this season is an impressive record for the young winger, still only 19.

In an England team short of full quality, what better than to reward these two up-and-coming talents with a place on the World Cup squad? Their development this season is evident; if they continue their rise in form and improve on their shortcomings—finishing is definitely on the agenda—then there’s no reason they wouldn’t be able to make an impact in Brazil.

 

Youth, Energy and a Different Dimension

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Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesHere are a few of England’s regular midfielders and wingers: Steven Gerrard (captain), Frank Lampard, Michael Carrick, James Milner, Ashley Young. Others, like Tom Cleverley, Jack Wilshere and especially Adam Lallana and Andros Townsend are relative novices to the international scene.

The problem with the first-choice midfield, as we saw at Euro 2012, is that it’s not bursting at the seams with pace and stamina. Sure, Gerrard, Lampard and Carrick are all capable of dictating play from deep, and the former two are of course known for their ability to go forward and get themselves a goal, but it’s a midfield that can be caught out of position and brushed aside quite easily.

As evidenced by England’s recent international games, Roy Hodgson also recognizes the need to move away from the traditional two banks of four in a 4-4-2 system, which can easily be exploited by teams with powerful and quick midfields: Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica will pose an interesting challenge.

Even out on the wing, though he can also operate centrally, James Milner is not the fastest of players, and as such, he doesn’t offer as much of a cutting edge as Hodgson would like—even though his all-round contributions are important.

With the introduction of Henderson and Sterling, England would get two players with the pace and stamina to both pressure and hurt teams. While in Gerrard and Lampard, England possess two world-class set-piece specialists, adding youth, energy and pace that would allow the Three Lions to develop other areas of their game.

On a potential counterattack, which England should surely take full advantage of given their pacy forwards in Rooney and Sturridge, having a midfield runner like Henderson carry the ball on the floor, and having another winger like Sterling to break open the defence, would be valuable assets in Hodgson’s disposal.

 

Contributions to Overall Play

 

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Paul Gilham/Getty ImagesWhen it comes to the midfield area, an especially useful description these days is “complete.”

Predominantly defensive midfielders should be capable of nicking a goal here and there, and attack-minded ones should also be able to track back and do some of the dog work to alleviate pressure off his team.

While Young and Townsend are known for their relative speed, they also don’t do quite as much work for the team defensively and thus may be prone to leaving gaps out wide, leaving defensive burdens for England’s full-backs. Gerrard and Lampard have shown signs of their age catching up to them this season, and their forays forward may leave holes in the central area that opponents can exploit on the break.

It is here that Henderson and Sterling step in and offer their impressive blend of athleticism, technique and defensive work. Often played as the furthest forward midfielder in Brendan Rodgers’ setup, Henderson has been a fine second line of defence (after the excellent Suarez and his harrying up front), while Sterling has exhibited on many occasions this season his willingness to track back and an underrated tackling ability.

Add their potential contributions in attack (especially Sterling, with his well-timed runs in behind opposing defences), and they represent two fine all-round attacking players that would make for a well-balanced team. Milner and Wilshere also fit the mold and would be perfect partners in an interchangeable, dynamic midfield unit.

 

The Liverpool Connection

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Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesIn the summer of 2012, Roy Hodgson was widely ridiculed for his supposed preference for Liverpool players. After all, in his squad of 23, he included six Reds, and the likes of Stewart Downing, Andy Carroll and Jordan Henderson hadn’t enjoyed the best of seasons at Anfield.

This time around, though, it’s completely different. While Glen Johnson hasn’t enjoyed the best of seasons down Liverpool’s right, he should make the plane to Brazil barring any extraordinary circumstance. Otherwise, Steven Gerrard is the England captain and Daniel Sturridge one of their newest striking hopes.

So the Liverpool contingent in the England squad will likely be used heavily in Brazil, which makes Henderson and Sterling potentially important additions to the team.

Henderson’s partnership with Gerrard this season has caught the eye: The way Henderson has assumed Gerrard’s famed lung-busting and swashbuckling attacking midfield play, and the ease with which the Liverpool captain has assumed his registaduties, harks back to the famous Gerrard-Xabi Alonso partnership during Rafael Benitez’s halcyon days.

Sterling’s combination play with Johnson down the Reds’ right flank will also come in handy, while Henderson and Gerrard will have been used to Sterling’s runs off the shoulders of the last defender. It remains to be seen how Brendan Rodgers will juggle his attacking line once Sturridge returns to full fitness, but Sterling should also have plenty of chances to dovetail with Sturridge in the coming months.

 

Ushering in a New Golden Generation

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Michael Steele/Getty ImagesWhen the tag “Golden Generation” is mentioned in the context of the English national team, most reactions are of disappointment and frustration, such is the extent to which the current crop underwhelmed in major tournaments.

But it’s not that the term itself has any negative connotations—far from it. In fact, when the right infrastructure is put in place to groom a generation, it may well provide the platform from which to grow said “golden” era. The likes of Spain and Germany, not to mention many European club teams now, are living examples of such long-term thinking.

As Hodgson and England prepare for the swansongs of Gerrard and Lampard and usher out the old guard, so the new generation comes in and looks for ways to grow as a collective unit. And what better than to start with the World Cup?

Alongside the likes of Jack Wilshere, Adam Lallana, Daniel Sturridge, Danny Welbeck and Ross Barkley (among others), Henderson and Sterling are in prime position to cement themselves as England regulars in the coming years as they continue to mature in international tournaments to come.

While England must look immediately at doing as best as they can in the World Cup, Hodgson would do well to start immersing some of his young, precocious talent in preparation for future competitions. If there’s anything we’ve learned from Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling this season, it’s that they certainly won’t let their manager down.

 

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

Picking a Premier League Best XI Team of the Season so Far

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It’s January, which means, besides the opening of the winter transfer window, the halfway point in the 2013/14 Premier League season is here. This is where we can look back and evaluate how the campaign has gone thus far.

With 20 games played by each team, we’ve witnessed a scintillating title race and an intriguing battle for the European places, while the permutations towards the bottom of the table mean that the relegation fight will only intensify in the months to come.

Given the quality that has been on show in England’s top flight this season, it’s one of the toughest mid-season tasks in recent years to pick a team of the season 20 games in—but we’ll do it all the same.

Here’s our Premier League team of the 2013/14 season so far, in a 4-3-1-2 formation and complete with a seven-man bench. Enjoy and let us know your picks in the comments below.

 

All statistics have come from Premierleague.com unless otherwise stated.

 

Goalkeeper: Wojciech Szczesny

With 39 goals scored and 18 conceded, Arsenal are the third-highest scoring team in the Premier League and boast the meanest defensive record in the top flight. It’s no wonder that Arsenal will approach round 21 in top spot, with 45 points on board.

A key part of their season has been Wojciech Szczesny, who has rediscovered his precocious form with a series of outstanding performances in the Arsenal goal.

A total of 61 saves this season has been augmented by nine clean sheets—the league’s highest tally—as Szczesny picked himself up from an inconsistent season last year to establish himself as one of the Premier League’s very finest goalkeepers.

 

Right-Back: Seamus Coleman

Such has been the success and aesthetic pleasure of Roberto Martinez’s Everton side this season that we’ve opted for no fewer than three of his players in our team of the season thus far.

Starting with Seamus Coleman, who, lest we forget, was signed from Irish club Sligo Rovers in 2009 for just £60,000.

He’s been a key part of Martinez’s system at Goodison Park, bombing down the right flank with total joy and in the process becoming the best right-back in the league.

He’s already scored five league goals this season. Don’t be surprised if he’s entered double figures by the time May rolls around.

 

Left-Back: Leighton Baines

On the opposite flank at Everton is Leighton Baines, who has continued his impressive form from last season with an excellent six months so far and just shades Southampton’s Luke Shaw to this position.

Baines’ runs from the back and world-class deliveries from both his crosses and set pieces make him a threat to any opponent, and he has even usurped long-time fixture Ashley Cole in the England national setup.

He’s scored three goals so far, making it eight in total for both full-backs in just 20 league games. No wonder Everton are flying high.

 

Center-Back: Per Mertesacker

If there’s ever a picture of composure, leadership, technique and anticipation at the Emirates Stadium, it’ll be of Per Mertesacker, who has been a rock in central defence for Arsene Wenger this season.

After an initial settling-in period, Mertesacker has grown into one of the finest defenders in the Premier League, striking up an impressive partnership with Laurent Koscielny and assuming the Gunners captaincy in the absence of Thomas Vermaelen and Mikel Arteta.

A key component in Arsenal’s league-leading defence, Mertesacker has also scored two goals in the league this year and makes up for his lack of pace by an outstanding reading of the game and impeccable positioning.

 

Center-Back: Dejan Lovren

Before Southampton’s season started unraveling, Mauricio Pochettino’s side were considered strong contenders for Europe and, at one point, even the top four.

Their brand of pressing, attacking football has attracted many a neutral observer and won plaudits for their impressive play, but equally noteworthy was their watertight backline, which until the end of November had conceded the fewest goals out of all 20 Premier League teams.

A towering young defender signed from Olympique Lyonnais in the summer, Lovren has been an ever-present in the Saints defence and has provided a classy blend of physicality, tackling, composure and technique.

 

Central Midfielder: Aaron Ramsey

There are few stories this Premier League season as heartwarming as Aaron Ramsey’s resurgence in the Arsenal midfield.

After a horrific leg injury in 2010, there were fears that Ramsey’s career would never reach the heights that his precocious talents had promised, but this season he has answered his critics in style.

With a barnstorming eight goals and six assists in just 18 league games, Ramsey has risen to the fold and become Arsenal’s midfield engine. His much improved passing, movement and finishing has been a joy to behold in a bewitching Gunners team capable of scintillating football.

 

Central Midfielder: Yaya Toure

Alongside the rejuvenated Ramsey, we’ll have perennial performer Yaya Toure, who surely now belongs in a class of his own as the complete midfielder.

We must also recognize the excellent work of Toure’s midfield colleague Fernandinho and credit his role in Toure’s consistently impressive form this season, but 10 goals in just 19 games speaks for itself: Toure, erstwhile known as a defensive midfielder, is now one of the league’s most devastating attacking forces from the middle.

An enviable concoction of power, pace, technique and finishing, Toure leads Manchester City from defence into attack in the blink of an eye, and has also added a deadly direct free kick to his dizzying arsenal of tricks. He already has four goals just from free kicks this season.

 

Central Midfielder: Ross Barkley

Our third and final Evertonian is Ross Barkley, who at just 20 years of age may just be England’s finest talent of his generation and has enjoyed a meteoric rise to the top this season.

His precocious talents have been given center stage by Roberto Martinez, who has made him a key cog in a purring Blues machine. Barkley has responded in kind and has taken the opportunity to establish himself as a genuinely exciting prospect who has almost everything in his locker.

Barkley is power, pace, explosiveness, creativity and finishing rolled into one young package, and has the swagger on the pitch to become a possible Everton and England captain in the future.

 

Attacking Midfielder: Wayne Rooney

Ahead of Barkley is his predecessor both in terms of club and stature, Wayne Rooney.

With strong rumors of a falling out with Sir Alex Ferguson and of a request to leave Manchester United towards the end of last season, Rooney was also strongly linked with a move to Chelsea over the summer.

Despite all the controversies and negative publicity before ultimately staying put at Old Trafford, Rooney has reinvented himself in an attacking midfield role this season supporting United’s main strikers.

As a result, his goals tally has dipped—albeit not by much, as he’s still scored nine goals in 17 games—but his influence in the team has greatly increased. His nine assists tell just part of the story: Rooney is now the indispensable player that makes Manchester United tick.

 

Striker: Sergio Aguero

Who’s the best player in the Premier League, Sergio Aguero or Luis Suarez?

The best part of picking a team of the (half-) season is that we can pick both and pair them up with each other, so our team will have the league’s two best players.

So let’s start with Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero, who has recaptured his form from their 2011/12 Premier League-winning campaign with 13 league goals and four assists in just 15 games thus far.

He’s been a constant in Manuel Pellegrini’s team as the Chilean manager has rotated to find the right partner for him. In Alvaro Negredo, Aguero has the perfect foil. Small wonder that they are now known as one of the league’s best strike partnerships.

A fit and firing Sergio Aguero at the tip of a peerless City machine makes for a wonderful spectacle. If Aguero and his colleagues continue their fine work this season, they might just go all the way.

 

Striker: Luis Suarez

Notice that we mentioned Aguero and Negredo as one of the Premier League’s best strike partnerships. The other? None other than Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge.

Sturridge misses out on our lineup (and bench) entirely due an injury that ruled him out in December, and so we’ll round out our starting XI with the surely undisputed player of the half-season thus far, Luis Suarez.

And Suarez deserves all the plaudits. Anyone with 20 goals after 20 league games would be regarded as a striker on top of his game, but Suarez has scored that same amount despite missing the first five games of the season due to his suspension for biting Branislav Ivanovic last season.

His four-goal salvo against Norwich City in December showed us all just what this mercurial Uruguayan is all about: technique, finesse, unpredictability, finishing and a fondness for the outrageous.

Now that Suarez has seemed to buckle down and sort out his on-field attitude, he has matured into one of the very best in the world. We Premier League fans are lucky to witness a master of his craft in his prime.

 

The Bench

Simon Mignolet: With 65 saves made all season and having won his team valuable points courtesy of his brilliant shot-stopping, Mignolet has been an inspired capture for Liverpool.

Laurent Koscielny: If Mertesacker makes it into our starting XI, surely his regular partner can’t be too far away. Koscielny has been outstanding in an impressive overall season for Arsenal.

Curtis Davies: Our only pick outside of the Premier League top nine (yes, that’s a thing now). Davies’ form and leadership of the Hull City defence will see him go down as one of the best signings of the 2013/14 campaign.

Fernandinho: The other half of Manchester City’s central midfield, Fernandinho has been an unsung hero setting the platform for Yaya Toure to shine. But with his recent flurry of goals, he’s slowly becoming quite the big deal himself.

Eden Hazard: Is this the season Eden Hazard finally realizes his massive potential and becomes a major player on the European stage? If he can keep up his recent fine form, Chelsea could have a world star on their hands.

Oscar: This man has single-handedly kept Juan Mata out of the Chelsea first team. Week in, week out, he continues to show why he has Jose Mourinho’s complete faith. That should suffice.

Olivier Giroud: His goal-scoring run might have dried up, but Giroud beats off competition from Loic Remy and Romelu Lukaku due to his status as an integral part, both as creator and finisher, of Arsenal’s brilliant attacking football. A complete forward.

 

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

5 Keys to a Successful January Transfer Window for Liverpool

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Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Last January, Liverpool got their winter transfer window off to a strong start, having finalized the signing of Daniel Sturridge from Chelsea on the second day of the window.

This time last year, their new signing had already made his debut against Mansfield Town in the FA Cup and had already scored his first goal in Liverpool colors. The following weekend, Sturridge came on as a half-time substitute and scored against Manchester United.

It’s not just Liverpool; it seems that the Premier League in general has been slow to take action this January. The Telegraph’s list, via John Ley, of ins and outs in England’s top flight shows just how slow business has been for Premier League clubs so far.

But there is still plenty of time left for Liverpool to enjoy a successful January transfer window. Here are five guiding principles that will allow them to do just that.

 

Don’t Disrupt the Current Momentum

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The impressive evolution of this Reds side in the past year shows that Brendan Rodgers has been molding the team as a unit with a shared philosophy in mind, and this has been particularly obvious in the last couple of months, which has seen a plethora of goals scored at Anfield.

As such, while hunting for players and potential signings, Rodgers and his management team would do well to keep in mind Liverpool’s fine form of late and take care not to introduce too many distractions or disruptions to the first team.

The goalscoring streak of Luis Suarez and pre-injury form of Daniel Sturridge mean that the forward line doesn’t have any pressing need for reinforcements, and given Raheem Sterling’s recent excellence, Rodgers has no need for a big revolution up front.

A strong squad option who could improve the starting XI would be great; any target would probably fare better than Victor Moses, who has been nothing short of abject in recent months.

The midfield and the defence obviously have problems to address, but given the lack of available options in the market in January anyway, Rodgers should only go for established players who would be able to settle into Liverpool’s game relatively quickly and easily, for stability’s sake.

 

Target Potential Cut-Price Options and Loans

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As such, cut-price options—especially those whose contracts are expiring at the end of this season—and loans should be particularly attractive to Rodgers and Co., who presumably will have cost in mind when they look for signings this January.

When it comes to players who will be out of contract in six months, Rodgers could either go in strong with a pre-contract offer that factors any potential transfer fee into the wage packages to secure a signing for next season, or he could tempt their current clubs into selling for a fee.

For players who remain important to their team and would likely command a high asking price despite the risk of leaving on a free in six months, such as Paris Saint-Germain’s Blaise Matuidi, the former option seems more desirable.

While any pre-contract agreement wouldn’t—and shouldn’t—be leaked publicly soon, the January window, with the benefit of hindsight, will be looked upon as a very productive one if such players have been pre-signed.

For players whose contract situations don’t look like they might be resolved soon, like Barcelona’s Martin Montoya, via Alex Richards of Mirror Football, the latter option above may be enough to secure a move.

There is also the possibility of loan deals, which would take advantage of the uncertain first-team statuses of many established players at big clubs around Europe. A loan deal would allow them to get valuable playing time at Anfield, and if an option to buy can be agreed, a promise of a permanent move at the end of the short-term arrangement is possible.

Our dream January transfer scenario for Liverpool is thus a combination of both.

 

Quality, Not Quantity

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By now, it’s probably a tired cliche, especially when associated with transfer windows, but still, it bears repeating: Instead of strengthening in numbers, Liverpool should look for real quality that can improve their first team.

We only need to look at Sunderland’s group of disastrous new summer signings and Tottenham Hotspur’s underwhelming replacements for Gareth Bale to learn of the potential problems that buying too many players can cause.

Liverpool’s squad is currently hit severely by injuries. Daniel Agger is the latest casualty after his calf problem in the FA Cup tie against Oldham Athletic, according to James Carroll of the official Liverpool website, but Rodgers currently cannot afford a stockpiling of useful players, especially given that he’s only involved in two competitions.

Last January, Liverpool signed just two players in Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge. Their immediate impacts on the fortunes of the first team are now almost legendary. By contrast, in the summer of 2012, Rodgers brought Fabio Borini, Joe Allen and Oussama Assaidi to the senior squad. Only one of them is still at Anfield.

 

Allow Exits and Loans as Necessary

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But it’s not just about bringing players into Liverpool; the January window also gives them a valuable opportunity to let players go if needed.

Last January saw the Reds terminate Nuri Sahin’s loan deal, allowing him a chance to resurrect his career back at Borussia Dortmund, again on loan from Real Madrid, and this time around we might yet see the same with Victor Moses, on loan from Chelsea and whose sole contribution was a goal on his debut against Swansea City.

Allowing Moses to return to his parent club would not only free up room for another loan from a Premier League club if available but also a chance for him to continue his career at a club that would grant him a starting spot week in and week out.

While assistant manager Colin Pascoe has dampened talk of Raheem Sterling going out on loan this month, according to Ben Burrows of Mirror Football, other players who have found first-team chances hard to come by may be granted an opportunity for first-team football in the lower leagues.

The likes of Andre Wisdom and Suso have already spent most of the campaign out on loan, while Martin Kelly and Tiago Ilori, who have found it hard to break into the first team despite the recent injury spike, may yet be on their way with the club’s blessings.

 

Take Time If Needed

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All of which culminates in the final key to a successful January window: Take your time.

That this January is markedly different from just 12 months ago—last year, Liverpool were in desperate need of new players to bolster a shallow squad—is encouraging and a testament to the good work that the backroom team have done to groom an exciting young crop of players.

The Reds struck gold with Sturridge and Coutinho last time, and any similar signings this year would provide a significant boost to their top-four challenge.

But as the Coutinho transfer showed—it was only confirmed Jan. 30, a day before the window shut. Sometimes you have to bide your time when it comes to scouting and negotiating.

There’s no need to rush into anything. After all, Liverpool already have a top-four squad as of Week 20. For premium quality here on out, patience is the key.

 

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

Premier League Transfers: A Dream January Transfer Window Scenario for Liverpool

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Alex Livesey/Getty Images

The January transfer window is upon us again and, just like any other Premier League club, Liverpool will be considering all possibilities and potential targets to strengthen their squad and sustain their top-four challenge.

Unlike most clubs in the English top flight, however, Liverpool will be going into the market this January buoyed by their perfect transfer record 12 months ago.

Brendan Rodgers acted decisively last winter, bringing in two quality players in Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho for £12 million and £8.5 million respectively.

Both have been unqualified successes at Anfield thus far and have established themselves both as integral parts of Brendan Rodgers’ starting XI when fit and as two of the Premier League’s most exciting attacking talents outright.

With last January’s transfers being few in numbers but so fruitful in terms of instant impact, Liverpool will be hoping for the same this year around. A strong start to the 2013/14 campaign has seen them finish week 20 in the top four and Rodgers’ squad boasts young and exciting talent in abundance.

So, with a few quality additions this month, Rodgers would be able to add to his starting XI and push for a strong second half of the season.

Here is how an ideal but realistic January transfer window would turn out for Liverpool. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

 

Defence: Martin Montoya

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After a productive summer that saw three additions to central defence in Kolo Toure, Mamadou Sakho and Tiago Ilori, Liverpool are now in need of further strengthening in their full-back department.

With Glen Johnson’s poor form and injuries to Jose Enrique and Jon Flanagan, Brendan Rodgers is now left with a severe shortage on the flanks at the back, and this is where our first ideal reinforcement comes in.

Martin Montoya, currently on Barcelona’s books, would be an excellent addition to the first team, not least because of his versatility, which makes him equally comfortable on both flanks.

Earlier in the season, when Liverpool were linked strongly with Montoya—who, according to the Mirror, has pulled out of contract talks with Barcelona and whose current contract expires in the summer—we wrote a scouting report on the full-back.

Besides versatility, Montoya would bring technique and composure to the back four, and he is as comfortable in his passing as he is going forward and supporting the attack.

If Montoya’s contract situation isn’t resolved, Liverpool could well take advantage with a bid in January. He would be too good a prospect to miss out on—and one who would instantly provide quality competition and improve the first team.

 

Midfield: Fernando Reges

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While the perfect transfer window might consist of “marquee” signings in the eyes of Reds’ fans, we instead opt for a cost-efficient, budget-friendly but productive January that sees quality added to the first team without having to shell out the big bucks.

In our midfield transfer wishlist for Liverpool’s January window, compiled back in November, we identified Olympique Lyonnais’ Maxime Gonalons as the “essential” addition for the Reds in the middle of the park.

However, according to reports in the French media (via Football-Italia.net), Serie A club Napoli seem closest to Gonalons for €12 million, which would rule him out as a viable option for Brendan Rodgers.

With that in mind, our midfielder of choice is FC Porto’s Fernando Reges who, like Martin Montoya, will be out of contract this summer, according to Transfermarkt; as such, he may command a lower transfer fee than he otherwise would.

While Liverpool’s current midfield set-up of Lucas, Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson have impressed in recent weeks against Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City with their relentless pressing and quick passing, they have been found out on occasion against powerful midfield opposition in Southampton and Arsenal.

What the Reds’ midfield needs is a strong ball-winner who is capable of dominating the midfield, passing the ball with purpose and positioning himself in the right areas to shut out gaps that opponents can take advantage of. From this Squawka analysis, it seems that Reges would be the right man for the job.

Which, all in all, makes Fernando Reges an excellent, cut-price option who would go straight into the first team.

 

Attack: Xherdan Shaqiri

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In attack, keeping in mind our prerogative to remain realistic, we opt for BayernMunich’s Xherdan Shaqiri, whether on loan or on a permanent basis.

The Swiss winger was linked with a move to Anfield back in the summer, according to the Daily Star, and with his inability to force himself into Pep Guardiola’s regular starting XI, Shaqiri could be available for at least a short-term switch this time around.

Our recent list of potential loan targets for the Reds also includes Shaqiri as a player who would instantly improve the squad; his mesmerising wing play, allied with a strong physical build and an eye for goal, would be a great option to rotate with PhilippeCoutinho and the in-form Raheem Sterling.

While Egyptian winger Mohamed Salah is a name strongly linked with Liverpool and may also mean the exit of Sterling on loan, according to the Mirror, Shaqiri would be a better, more all-rounded option with more experience at the highest level.

A Liverpool forward line of Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge, Coutinho, Sterling andShaqiri would be one of the most exciting young attacks in all of Europe and would certainly provide the ammunition needed to fire Liverpool back to the Champions League.

 

Conclusion

After a not-so-busy but superbly productive transfer window last January, Liverpool could do the same a year on with three quality, non-expensive signings, one in each area on the field.

There’s no need to dream of big-name marquee transfers at Anfield yet; Martin Montoya, Fernando Reges and XherdanShaqiri would be enough to provide a more-than-solid starting XI for the rest of the season.

Let the real action take place in the summer.

 

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