All posts by Vince Siu

Born and later educated in the US, Vince is now based in Hong Kong as a project manager for a local bank. At night, his interests in Liverpool and the English Premier League take over as he writes opinions, features and analyses for a variety of websites. He covers business and marketing strategy, globalization and technology for Business of Soccer. His other work can be found at http://vincetalksfooty.com, and follow his updates on Twitter @vincetalksfooty.

Onwards and Upwards…?

The Brendan Rodgers era is finally over.

Those who have chatted football with me or have kept in touch on or off over the past year or so will know that this is something that I’ve looked forward to for a long time. And it’s true – I was never completely convinced by his appointment, and even the thrilling 13/14 season never fully swayed me.

But though I welcome his departure and am wholly relieved that we can finally look forward with excitement instead of apprehension – this is still a sad day for Liverpool Football Club.

Not because we have lost a manager who has preached on about character, loyalty and humility despite not embodying any of those values – his public calling out of young players whenever faced with extreme pressure, his undermining of players he didn’t want and owners he couldn’t satisfy in the press, his mess of a life off the pitch – they showed as much.

Not because we have lost a manager who would be much better as a politician or a used car salesman – his public smear campaigns of players he wanted out despite public praise upon their arrivals, his extreme bias towards his own favorites while always reverting to transfer committee acquisitions when push comes to shove, his continual proclamations of philosophy and vision without having any such execution – they all showed as much.

And not because we have a lost a manager who has put himself and his ego over the good for club – starting a reserve team without our club captain and talisman against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu, trying to be the pupil who beat his master in a potentially title-clinching game when a draw would’ve done, calling out Tottenham for spending £100 million and not challenging despite delivering much less for much more – they all showed just as much.

This is a sad day because what we wanted in the aftermath of Hodgson/Dalglish mess was someone to steady the ship and get us back to greatness. Luis Suarez provided a wonderful respite and an exciting illusion. But alas, the Brendan Rodgers era proved not just to be a failed experiment, but far more disastrous than the Roy Hodgson era. And the final nail in the coffin was his claim that we were facing another rebuilding job. Our fourth in four years.

it’s not just whether a Liverpool manager delivers results befitting a club of our stature; it’s how he does it and how he carries himself. If you talk a good game, you’re expected to deliver – or at least not make a fool of yourself and your club. Unfortunately, the shine and sheen ultimately gave way to expose an underbelly of frivolity, pettiness and fluff.

I look forward to an appointment that will rouse and unite the fanbase once again, and allow us to get excited about Liverpool again. I want to relish every match and block off my weekly calendar to sit down and cheer for my team again. I still think that’s really not too much ask – after all, isn’t that ultimately the point of being a football fan?

Time for Liverpool to Rethink How to Manage Steven Gerrard’s Later Years

Two of the defining components of England’s bygone Golden Generation experienced contrasting fortunes in the Premier League last weekend: While Frank Lampard scored a dramatic late equalizer after coming off the bench against old club Chelsea, Steven Gerrard was given the runaround by former Liverpool flop Stewart Downing against West Ham United.

After what has transpired over the last few months—Lampard being released from his contract at Stamford Bridge after 13 glorious seasons and becoming Chelsea’s all-time record goalscorer, and Gerrard being nominated for the Football Writers’ Player of the Year award after his pivotal role in Liverpool’s outstanding season—the contrast couldn’t have been bigger.

While England’s dismal display at the Brazil World Cup ultimately led to two of their greatest-ever midfielders announcing their international retirement later in the summer, it seems that two modern legends of the Premier League era have since embarked on drastically different career paths.

With Frank Lampard adopting a role as a key squad player at Manchester City and making an instant impact in the penalty box on Sunday, and Gerrard finding himself targeted week after week as the deepest-lying playmaker in the Liverpool midfield, perhaps it’s time for the Reds to rethink how they are and should be managing the final years of Steven Gerrard’s career.

 

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

 

 

Steven Gerrard, the Impact Sub?

We’ve seen this with Ryan Giggs in the previous few years and, increasingly over the past few seasons, with Frank Lampard at Chelsea and now at Manchester City: As players enter the final years of their careers, their game time needs to be managed so they can stay at peak fitness and still remain productive when they do take to the field.

This is especially true for players relying on explosive pace and power to conjure up split-second moments of game-changing magic. While Gerrard has never been the pacy wing wizard Giggs used to be in his prime, the Liverpool skipper made his name with his lung-bursting runs from midfield, barnstorming drives into the penalty area and blockbuster shots from long range.

There’s nothing wrong with Brendan Rodgers pushing Gerrard deeper in the midfield to take up his current deep-lying playmaker position per se; the problem is that at 34 years of age, Gerrard is still completing 90-minute games week in, week out.

And with the Champions League now back in Liverpool’s schedule, that is simply unsustainable.

After a tough win at home against unfancied Bulgarian champions Ludogorets Razgrad in the Champions League, Gerrard’s 90 minutes at Upton Park was unsavory at best, depressing at worst. Compared to leaving his midfield area glaringly vacant for opponents to storm into time and again, getting overrun by Stewart Downing is already a less concerning headline.

Rodgers’ toughest mandate during his time as Liverpool manager arguably isn’t to have gotten the Reds back into the European big time; it was to phase Gerrard out in the right way and to manage the latter stages of his career.

Recent injuries to Joe Allen and Emre Can have forced his hand, but Liverpool fans should reasonably expect to see Gerrard feature more as an impact substitute as the rest of the season unfolds.

Only as an impact substitute, or at least a lessened status as a squad player, will Gerrard’s career really be prolonged, and not hastened towards becoming the main liability in the middle of the park for Liverpool.

 

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

 

 

Making Use of Gerrard’s Versatility

One factor that should influence Rodgers’ planning and thinking over the next couple of seasons is the fact that he is one of the most complete midfielders to ever have come out of England. In that regard, the likes of Ryan Giggs and Frank Lampard don’t even come close.

It’s one thing to have a skill set comparable to Andrea Pirlo’s (even if his positional discipline and tactical understanding are inferior); it’s quite another to have won the PFA Player of the Year award playing as an unorthodox right-winger, to have struck up a world-class partnership with Fernando Torres as a second striker and to have influenced the biggest stage of all—the Champions League final—as a makeshift right-wing-back.

Now, there is no need for Gerrard to fill in at right-back—Liverpool are comfortably sorted at the moment with Javi Manquillo proving to be an astute acquisition and a number of players capable of assuming the role—and indeed the Reds’ optimal 4-4-2 diamond formation doesn’t allow for a right-winger.

Yet as Rodgers clearly still seems to regard Gerrard as the one “undroppable” player in his team—often substituting his midfield partners when Liverpool are in need of a change in formation or approach, before he takes that drastic step to drop his captain from the starting XI and turn him into an impact substitute—there is another blueprint that he can reference.

There’s no finer example than Roberto Mancini’s favorite tactical switch during his reign at the Etihad Stadium: Sending on a defensive midfielder (often Nigel de Jong), releasing Yaya Toure’s defensive shackles and pushing him forward into a free attacking-midfield role.

That Rodgers doesn’t have a world-class defensive midfielder at his disposal is perhaps down to the fact that he regards Gerrard as his optimal regista sitting at the base of his midfield, with Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen providing protection and help around him. Emre Can’s arrival, however, is interesting and could potentially pose an alternative for the Liverpool manager.

While not a specialist defensive midfielder, Can—who ironically has a skill set most comparable to Yaya Toure’s out of Liverpool’s midfield contingent—has more than enough to offer in terms of steel, physicality, pace and defensive nous. All Rodgers needs to do, when Can returns from injury and if he starts on the bench, is send him on and let Gerrard rekindle his magic with a free-scoring forward.

Only this time it’s Daniel Sturridge.

 

Phil Cole/Getty Images

 

 

A Case for Gerrard the Forward

It’s interesting that Rafael Benitez, the manager credited with realizing Gerrard’s potential as a devastating attacker rather than a controlled midfielder, stated during Gerrard’s peak years that he saw him becoming a striker later in his career, according to The Sun (via Emily Benammar in the Telegraph). Rodgers, on the other hand, has suggested he could become a right-sided center back, per BBC Sport.

Both suggestions reflect Gerrard’s universality as the complete modern footballer, to the extent that two managers who have reinvented his game can’t even agree on whether it’s his attacking game or defensive abilities that make him stand out.

But while he has always been known as much for his match-winning piledrivers as he is for his last-ditch tackles and thunderous challenges, Gerrard has always been afforded the freedom to do essentially whatever he wanted, wherever he wanted, whenever he wanted. It’s for this reason he so frequently drove into the box in his heyday to score important goals.

That Gerrard reserves his best performances when a select duo is played as his midfield colleagues—now usually and preferably Henderson and Allen—means that Rodgers needs to tailor the entirety of Liverpool’s approach play to Gerrard by shaping the midfield, and thus forward line, around his strengths and deficiencies.

Without his famous acceleration, pace and power, Gerrard is required, perhaps more so than ever, to sit in front of his defence, command his midfield, control his area and remain positionally disciplined, which is a huge ask of a player who has always turned up to save the day when his team has needed him to.

That sounds all right until he ventures forward at his own will, leaving his area and the defence exposed—while without having the pace or stamina to track back to atone for a positional error.

Slotting Gerrard into a more advanced position akin to his prime might not see him replicate his majestic runs, but it would allow Rodgers to address a badly imbalanced midfield with more steel and defensive presence at the base, while retaining his captain’s famous vision, passing and game-changing shooting ability closer to the opponent’s goal.

After all, Gerrard is arguably the second most natural finisher currently in the first team—behind Daniel Sturridge—while the timing of his arrivals into the box have seen many a late winner, and his heading has long been an underrated facet to his attacking game.

In short, he is one of Liverpool’s few complete attacking weapons.

Moving him forward, playing him selectively and using him wisely in the wider context of the whole Liverpool team would reverse his rapid decline—and who knows, maybe Liverpool fans will be able to start cheering yet another superhuman winner from Steven Gerrard again. It’s been a while since we’ve seen one of those.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

Why Fabio Borini Should Be Ahead of Rickie Lambert in Liverpool Pecking Order

For their last two fixtures, Liverpool have turned to another Italian striker for further support up front in the second half. Not Mario Balotelli, but ex-Anfield outcast Fabio Borini.

It’s a considerable turnaround in fortunes for Borini, given that he found himself in limbo after rejecting a last-minute summer move to Queens Park Rangers, according to Chris Bascombe of theTelegraph. Liverpool’s earlier pursuit of Loic Remy and subsequent signing of Balotelli suggested that Brendan Rodgers had other options in mind ahead of Borini, who looked to be on his way out of Anfield.

Yet circumstances have fallen into place for Borini to perhaps salvage a career for himself at Liverpool. Daniel Sturridge’s injury, sustained while on international duty with Roy Hodgson’s England, has forced Rodgers to rely on his bench options.

Liverpool’s first signing of the summer may have been Rickie Lambert, but the current Reds setup almost demands that Borini should move ahead of the local Liverpudlian in the pecking order—and crucially, Rodgers seems to think so as well.

 

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

 

 

Rickie Lambert, a Poor Man’s Mario Balotelli

When Lambert was recruited from Southampton, where he enjoyed a stellar career and became an England international in the process, it was clear that Rodgers was looking for something different to the Luis Suarez-Daniel Sturridge pairing that was so successful last season.

Lambert brought an interesting combination of strength, aerial prowess, composure and technique to the forward line that the Reds perhaps didn’t have last season, and he would’ve provided a useful outlet who could turn out to be one of the bargains of the offseason.

Rodgers’ highly public pursuit of Loic Remy after Suarez’s departure for Barcelona suggested that he was on the lookout for a striker with pace and direct running who would be useful on the break and alongside Sturridge, and who would further strengthen Lambert’s status in the squad as the go-to bench option up front.

Yet his subsequent chasing of Wilfried Bony—similar in style and mould to Lambert—and the eventual signing of Mario Balotelli has since moved him down the pecking order, as Rodgers now has a better and more established version of Lambert at his disposal.

Sure, Lambert made a difference when he came off the bench in the late win against Southampton on the opening day of the season, but with Balotelli firmly instilled as first-choice at Anfield, things don’t look too good for Lambert.

 

Michael Regan/Getty Images

 

 

Fabio Borini’s Strengths as a Sub

And what Fabio Borini brings to the table makes him an ideal option to change things up—not just from Liverpool’s perspective, but against tired legs in the opposition when he comes off the bench in the second half.

Borini’s effervescent running—not many people can realistically argue against his work rate—and excellent attacking positioning makes him a nuisance to deal with from a defensive point of view. In this sense, his effect may be compared to Southampton’s Shane Long, who also doesn’t boast a prolific scoring record but is prized for his contributions to the team up front.

Indeed, what Liverpool have been missing this season is Suarez’s immense work rate from a deeper-lying forward position, as Rodgers looks to continue instilling a similar work ethic into new recruit Balotelli, now tasked with that same role, according to David Maddock of the Mirror.

Borini’s good grasp of positioning and ability to get into the game with his running, regardless of his personal form, means that he gets into good positions to threaten the opposition goal—see his header against Ludogorets that forced goalkeeper Milan Borjan into a fine save not long after he came off the bench—and has the legs to stretch the play and occupy defenders.

Contrast this with Lambert’s more languid style of play: Speed has never been a hallmark of his game, while he relies more on a strong understanding of space to create and finish, rather than being a nuisance to defenders, which is now essential to Rodgers’ blueprint at Anfield.

This makes it hard for Lambert to influence the game just by being on the pitch, especially after coming on as a substitute and requiring time to settle into the rhythm of the game.

 

Jon Super/Associated Press

 

 

Two up Top Is Now Indisputably Liverpool’s Best System

A summer of attacking midfield signings in Adam Lallana and Lazar Markovic to add to an already strong collection including Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling hinted at Rodgers’ interest in potentially exploring a 4-2-3-1 system at Anfield, which he has done in the first few weeks of the season.

Yet this was perhaps also an enforced switch, with Sturridge’s injury rendering Balotelli as their only fit senior striker.

Unfortunately, Balotelli still has quite a way to go before he can match Suarez’s effect on the team from a work ethic standpoint, while the lack of penetration ahead of the midfield area has unsurprisingly seen a downturn in Coutinho’s form.

Perhaps Coutinho as the No. 10 works best when there is a Sturridge alongside Balotelli to stretch defences for the Brazilian playmaker to find space to launch his game-changing passes—and perhaps Sterling isn’t quite as cut out to play that off-the-shoulder striker furthest forward as he is as behind a front two.

Lambert’s similarity—or rather lack of a real differentiation in playing style—to Balotelli means that he is much less ideal as a partner for Balotelli rather than a direct replacement. What Balotelli and his team-mates are now crying out for is movement and running up front.

Step up Fabio Borini, who has it in his locker to make a difference. He did enough on loan at Sunderland last season for them to want to take him on a permanent basis this year but has decided to fight for his place at Liverpool.

Now is his chance to prove that he deserves to not only move ahead of Rickie Lambert in the pecking order at Anfield, but to push Rodgers’ first-choice front two for a starting place.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

Why Mario Balotelli Will Be Better at Liverpool Than Manchester City

Mario Balotelli is back in England with Liverpool, and he’s still attracting headlines everywhere he goes.

Wolverhampton Wanderers manager Kenny Jackett had to take to the media to reject widespread suggestions on social media that Balotelli was involved in a clash during a behind-closed-doors friendly last week, via the Mirror.

Balotelli himself will be expecting more of the same rumor creation and spreading during his time at Anfield, as the media and fans continue to operate under the mythical persona that they have all combined to create.

But as he prepares to make his home debut in Red against Aston Villa this weekend, there are reasons to believe that while he will still be subject to constant scrutiny. Mario Balotelli will be a better player at Anfield than during his time with Manchester City.

Here are five reasons why.

 

He’s Four Years Older

It seems as if Mario Balotelli has been around forever. After all, we’ve heard all about his temper tantrums dating back to his days at Internazionale, his racism controversies during his time in Italy, then his folk legends at Manchester City.

That he has been in the spotlight since 2007 when he made his debut for Inter is a testament to his talent and potential, which led to Roberto Mancini giving him his debut at the Giuseppe Meazza.

When he arrived at City for £22.5 million, he brought a considerable reputation with him—yet he was only just 20 years old.

Four years on, Balotelli has become Italy’s starting striker, with a stint as AC Milan‘s starting striker sandwiched in between.

At just 24 years of age, Balotelli should finally come of age as a professional footballer, and he will be maturing and growing into his prime years at Liverpool.

 

A Young and Driven Dressing Room at Anfield

A Young and Driven Dressing Room at Anfield

Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

 

 

In the teams he has previously played for, Balotelli was one of the most well-known, probably attracting the most controversy. Yet he was undisputedly one of the youngest stars on the team.

At Anfield, he will be playing with a group that will be hitting their peak roughly at the same time as he will—the likes of Raheem Sterling, Philippe Coutinho, Lazar Markovic, Emre Can, Alberto Moreno and Javi Manquillo, all starting options in Brendan Rodgers’ team, are all younger than Balotelli, while Daniel Sturridge, Jordan Henderson and Mamadou Sakho are all in the same age bracket.

Last season was evidence that Rodgers has cultivated a driven and confident dressing room culture at Anfield, and Balotelli will be taking to the training field every day with colleagues all eager to prove themselves as professional footballers.

With an Anfield crowd as adoring and patient towards new and young stars as they are famous for, he will know that time is on his side at Liverpool even when the world of Mario Balotelli seems to always be spinning much faster outside football.

 

He Can Concentrate on His Own Game

Upon Balotelli’s signing in late August, his agent Mino Raiola stated that his client wasn’t born to be a leader, and that he had “searched for a team where he can be an important player without being asked to lead,” according to the Daily Mail.

Often treated as the main man of AC Milan’s attack, coinciding with an alarming slide in the Serie A powerhouse’s fortunes and performances, Balotelli is also at an “all or nothing” stage at his age and period in his career, according to Raiola.

That Rodgers has actively looked to recruit leaders and club captains in his transfer business will not have been lost on Raiola or Balotelli himself, and the Italian striker will be surrounded by other vocal presences and leadership figures in the Anfield dressing room.

Raiola also stated that Steven Gerrard will protect him and allow him the freedom to concentrate on his own game, providing him a platform to excel at what he does best.

 

A Tactical Setup Allowing Him to Excel

A Tactical Setup Allowing Him to Excel

Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

 

 

And what Balotelli does best is excel as an all-round forward with strengths in almost all areas of the attacking game.

With Rodgers appearing to settle on a 4-4-2 diamond formation as his preferred setup for most weeks, Balotelli will be a regular starter alongside Sturridge with the excitingly talented Raheem Sterling supporting the attack behind them.

A Reds side coursing with pace, energy, composure and off-the-ball pressing sets a platform for a relentless attack to excel, and Sturridge has on many occasions shown that he is much more dangerous in a strike partnership than as a lone striker.

With Sturridge, Sterling and Co. providing the pace and ever-improving tactical intelligence to occupy opposition defences, Balotelli will be given the space and freedom to create and score goals.

 

Brendan Rodgers’ Tutelage

Despite records that Balotelli has enjoyed a decent strike rate so far in his professional career, critics are coming around to the fact that he is not all that potent in open play, with his composure from the penalty spot contributing to his goal tally.

Yet this is where Brendan Rodgers comes in, a manager who worked on Luis Suarez’s finishing and goal-scoring output, transforming him into one of the deadliest strikers in world football just a couple of seasons since he was derided for wasting Liverpool’s chances in Kenny Dalglish’s team.

Add to that Rodgers’ increasingly famous knack for providing the man management, motivation, technical and tactical coaching to resurrect players’ careers, turning them into potential superstars. This suddenly becomes a mouthwatering prospect for Liverpool fans.

At £16 million, an off-the-shelf Balotelli should already prove to be good value; if he thrives in the environment that Rodgers has created at Melwood and the feel-good optimism at Anfield, he might even be able to one-up his time at Manchester City.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

Watch and Learn: A Day out at the Hong Kong Homeless World Cup Fundraiser

In the era of the Premier League, the Champions League, the World Cup and live television broadcasts, it’s easy to forget what football really means to those of us in Hong Kong.

There’s no shame in that. No one here really roots for China in international football—politics aside, China is as far from a footballing powerhouse as it can be, and its national football team is more likely to be an almighty embarrassment than any source of pride—and Hong Kong football just can’t compete on an international level.

That the Hong Kong Football Association is constantly trying to find ways to drum up interest in the Hong Kong Premier League despite such fanatical following of European football week in, week out, is a damning reflection of the dominance of imported football content over “real” football.

So to spend a couple of hours at the fundraising tournament for Hong Kong to send a team to the 2014 Homeless World Cup in Chile, hosted at the MacPherson Stadium in Mong Kok, was a welcome break and a reminder of the place football can, and does, have in our lives.

The ubiquity of European football—the Premier League is the king of all leagues, due to the massive influence that Britain had over Hong Kong culture and daily life during its occupation until 1997—and footballing superstars have over football fans here is always interesting and mildly amusing.

There aren’t many structured youth football programs here, probably because the fierce academic competition and rigorous education system here lends parents to send their kids off to after-school tutoring and other resume-strengthening activities rather than ferrying them to football training. So instead of any dribbling drills or passing practice, kids are out practicing free kicks and long shots in their own attempts to replicate what they see on their TV screens.

So instead of any natural interest in pickup football on the streets leading to a fanatical following of TV football, it’s actually the other way round: It’s what we see on TV that compels us to play.

Small wonder, then, that any game on the public concrete and asphalt fields usually features frequent breaks in play and generally peters out in intensity after 30 minutes: There’s no stamina or physical strength underneath the flashy tricks and occasional golazo attempts.

I myself am guilty—a frequently-used, self-deprecating yet depressingly true description is that I’m a Steven Gerrard who plays with the intensity of Dimitar Berbatov. That in itself—the yearn to score blockbusters and take set pieces but not willing to do the dog work on the pitch (or, more accurately, not willing to put in the effort to gain the stamina to do so)—is more or less indicative of the general “attachment” to football here.

Hong Kong commits itself to watching imported football rather than actually playing it.

It was both slightly amusing and mildly vindicating to find out that one of Hong Kong’s most well-known and well-regarded Cantonese football commentators, Mr. Lee Tak-nang, was not only present at the event as an emcee of sorts, but that he was the vice-chairman of the Homeless World Cup Hong Kong organizing committee. (He decided to turn up in a Brazil jersey.)

But it was the presence of another famous football name in town, and a revelation from a photographer that really hit home.

Detinho, one of the best players to play in Hong Kong in recent years—he signed for famous local club South China aged 33, proceeded to score 52 goals in 56 league games over three years, and is still going strong for Citizen—was a spectator. According to the photographer, who was also one of the organizers, “even Detinho needs to start looking for a job.”

Detinho, a household name in Hong Kong football
Detinho, a household name in Hong Kong football

 

Unlike the stars we see on TV, who boast flashy lifestyles and command weekly wages that are enough to make most people’s eyes water—even the wages of an average Premier League footballer, if managed right, mean that he can retire with financial comfort—here was Detinho, a local star by all accounts, needing to “start looking for a job.”

What about the others?

“Well, the goalkeeper is a compulsive gambler who just likes playing football.” The goalkeeper in question, of course, is the starting goalkeeper of the Hong Kong representative team that will travel to Chile for the Homeless World Cup. He’s a gambling addict, a “problematic” member of society.

Founded by Mel Young from Scotland and Harald Schmied from Austria, the Homeless World Cup had its inaugural tournament in Graz, Austria in 2003, after the idea came about at a Cape Town conference on homelessness. Hong Kong first sent its own team two years later, courtesy of the fundraising and coordination efforts of the Society of Community Organization and Wofoo Social Enterprises of Hong Kong.

The 2005 tournament saw Hong Kong send its first ever representative team to Edinburgh, after they managed to raise about HKD240,000 in funding, according to the official Homeless World Cup website. They finished 21st out of 27—just about in line with their professional counterparts.

It was evident that both the organization and the cause have come a long way: A total of 24 teams, including those from such companies as A.S. Watson Group, Konica Minolta and Bubble Yum, paid HKD15,000 each to enter the fundraising tournament on Saturday.

Many of the post-match write-ups about the fundraising event focused on Sunday instead—the event took place over the weekend at the same venue. Sunday was the more newsworthy date: Members of the Legislative Council, as well as a few celebrities, took part in an exhibition match, with controversial politician “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung featuring as one of the players. Carrie Lam, the Chief Secretary for Administration of the Hong Kong Government, gave a keynote speech highlighting the impact of homelessness in society.

But that very occurrence belied the fact that homelessness was the issue at the crux of the event, for the media and the celebrities—barring Detinho and Mr. Lee—didn’t show up on Saturday, which was when the real action took place.

Saturday was when the teams that actually paid a large sum of money took to the concrete fields and played 4-a-side. Saturday was when those 24 teams each had their own supporters—coworkers, friends et al—cheering them on the pitch, occasionally complaining and cursing (as football fans are wont to do).

It was only on Sunday when, after the qualifying rounds on Saturday, the Hong Kong representative team actually won the fundraising tournament, the first time in the fundraiser’s 10-year history.

(Edit: My original piece had Sunday down as only a “celebrity” exhibition match. I’ve since had it clarified that Sunday was the final that saw the Hong Kong team win.)

 

The Hong Kong representative team warms up on the side of the mini pitches.
The Hong Kong representative team warms up on the side of the mini pitches.

Turns out you don’t actually have to be homeless to play on a Homeless World Cup team.

I was told at the event by a few members of the organizing team, as well as a new friend who had introduced me to the event and to members of the team, that “they can’t really pick actual homeless people, just to ensure that the team does decently at the tournament.”

This was where the subsequent coverage of the fundraiser in Hong Kong and the official Homeless World Cup website seem to differ slightly: A Wall Street Journal report said that participants qualified by having been homeless at some point in the last five years, while the official tournament website seems to emphasize the “homelessness” of participating players.

 

(Edit: I’ve since had it clarified with the Homeless World Cup organizers that participating players must meet one of the following criteria:
– Have been homeless at some point after September 1, 2009, in accordance with the national definition of homelessness;
– Make their main living income as a street paper vendor;
– Asylum seekers currently without positive asylum status or who were previously asylum seekers but obtained residency status after September 1, 2009 (only two members of a team may have non-national passports; all other players must have a national passport of the nation they represent);
– Currently in drug or alcohol rehabilitation and also have been homeless at some point in the past two years

So while teams might not pick players who are currently homeless, all players on the Hong Kong team meet at least one of the above criteria. This expansion in the eligibility requirements is down to the interpretation that homelessness is the result of other vices like alcohol and drug abuse, and not the cause.)

 

In hindsight, choosing to go on the Saturday turned out to be the right decision. I didn’t return for the higher-profile Sunday, but in a strange way the lesser attention and commotion on site on Saturday meant that the focus was solely on the football and on the cause that the entire tournament supported.

For a fundraising event for a charity tournament abroad, you’d think fashion and design would be one of the lowest priorities on the day. Yet taking center stage, sandwiched right between the two mini pitches, was a row of mannequins dressed in the Hong Kong team jerseys of years past—perhaps to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Hong Kong representative team.

 

Mannequins modeling Hong Kong team jerseys for previous tournaments
Mannequins modeling Hong Kong team jerseys for previous tournaments

 

After an hour or two onsite, I started to make my way back to the bustling streets of Mong Kok and head off to my next destination via the subway. Next door to MacPherson Stadium is a favorite hangout of local youths, where street dancers, band performances and middle-aged ladies dressed in bizarre costumes singing karaoke on the sidewalk share a pedestrian-only walkway.

Right at the end of the street, there were two teenagers just beginning a football freestyle routine, complete with catchy electronic background music. I saw people come and go without much interest. It was the least-noticed and least-observed performance of the entire street.

After 15 minutes, I had to get going. The skills on the street were all well and good, but the first game of the new Premier League was kicking off in a couple of hours. I had to eat first before I could sit down and watch my football.

5 Keys to Success for Liverpool in 2014/15

The hard-fought nature of Liverpool’s 2-1 win over Southampton last Sunday—with Simon Mignolet featuring prominently again—recalled memories of last season’s opening-day victory over Stoke City, which set the foundation for a scintillating Premier League campaign.

This time around, though, the pressure on the Reds is just slightly stronger, the expectations just slightly higher. Manager Brendan Rodgers will be looking to kick his side into gear and rediscover the momentum, form and confidence that saw them win so many plaudits last season.

News that Mario Balotelli may be on his way to Anfield from AC Milan, according to Ben Smith of BBC Sport, would be the icing on the cake for Reds fans, who have seen their team break the £100 million spending mark on eight players this summer transfer window.

If they are to take that next step and win silverware this season, here are five keys to success that Liverpool should keep in mind throughout the campaign.

 

Daniel Sturridge’s Fitness

Daniel Sturridge's Fitness

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There’s no doubt that any move for a striker to strengthen Rodgers’ squad in the closing days of the summer window—whether it is Balotelli or not—would alleviate the massive burden Luis Suarez’s exit placed on Daniel Sturridge’s shoulders.

Yet there’s no escaping the fact that Sturridge will remain pivotal to Liverpool’s fortunes this season, and his fitness is key to him enjoying a successful season.

Sturridge has had his fair share of injury troubles—his early exit from Liverpool’s preseason tour of the United States may well have prompted the Reds hierarchy to look for another first-team striker—and having two top-quality forwards would be a massive boon to the Reds’ fortunes.

One of the Premier League’s best goal scorers when available, Sturridge’s style of play is a perfect fit in Liverpool’s attack, and even as Rodgers looks to make full use of a much larger squad this season, the fitness of his leading man up front may well dictate how their season turns out.

 

A Consistent Back Five

A Consistent Back Five

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For the time being, it seems as though Rodgers has settled on a central defensive duo of Martin Skrtel and Dejan Lovren; however, the as-yet untried prospect of Lovren on the right and Mamadou Sakho on the left is tantalizing, if it works as it promises to on paper.

With the signings of Javi Manquillo and Alberto Moreno, Rodgers will likely start with them as his first-team full-backs, but now he has a variety of backup options on the flanks as well who will look to compete for a place in the starting XI.

After a season that saw them concede 50 goals—in the end, a defining blemish on an otherwise outstanding campaign—it should be Rodgers’ priority to sort out a leaky defence if they are to sustain their performances from last season, particularly as their rivals have strengthened considerably as well.

That Liverpool have upgraded their defence is unquestionable; the key now is to ensure that there is a consistency in starting places across the back to ensure that they can form a tight, cohesive unit through playing together week in, week out.

 

Making Full Use of Substitutes

Making Full Use of Substitutes

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What’s a bigger squad good for if not for the manager to fully utilize it? Last year’s limited available options had Rodgers often starting with the same XI every week and left him with a dearth of genuine alternatives on the bench when he needed a spark or a game-changer late during a match.

This year, it’s totally different: Every position has competition, and good players will miss out on the 18-man match-day squad entirely from time to time, leaving first-team players with much more motivation to sustain their level of performance.

No longer will Rodgers need to throw debutants into the deep end, like he did with Brad Smith at Stamford Bridge in December, because of a shortage of squad options. He will now be able to call on good impact players from the bench when he needs to.

The Premier League allows each team to make three substitutions each match. For arguably the first time during his tenure at Anfield, Rodgers finally has the tools to take full advantage of this quota.

 

Managing Squad Rotation

Managing Squad Rotation

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Beyond making the right in-game substitutions, Rodgers will need to do something with his squad this season that he hasn’t had to do too much in his previous seasons at Liverpool: choose different starters depending on opposition.

Now blessed with a myriad of options to choose from, he will need to manage his squad rotation policy right so it doesn’t hurt the momentum of players in form, but he can still use them to their full potential and ability when the fixtures start coming thick and fast.

Then there’s the crop of players whose place in the team may be severely threatened by new arrivals: Rodgers will need to be on top of his man-management game to keep the likes of Daniel Agger and Lucas Leiva happy over the course of a hectic season.

Managing squad rotation is something every top-level manager in every top-level team has to get right. This season is a good opportunity to show whether Rodgers is up to that task to bring success to Anfield.

 

Stick to a Set Vision

Stick to a Set Vision

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When it comes to a vision and a blueprint for the game, it’s safe to say that Liverpool fans and players alike can rely on Brendan Rodgers to have an underlying approach to the game that he insists on instilling into his charges.

Still arguably a side in transition and maturation, Liverpool showed signs of pure aesthetic perfection at times last season, yet there were also occasions when their tactical naivety let them down, as they struggled to find a few results when it mattered.

With another year gone by, however, Liverpool should be far more equipped when it comes to adopting and implementing Rodgers’ vision and approach—and it will help that he now has more tactically mature players at his disposal to do just that.

To align themselves with Rodgers’ ideologies, the Liverpool players must stick to the vision that got them to this position in the first place and not abandon it at will when time and results are at stake.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

Assessing the Battle for the Full-Back Slots at Liverpool

With the signing of Javier Manquillo and the impending arrival of Alberto Moreno, per The Guardian‘s Andy Hunter, suddenly Liverpool look quite a bit more stacked in the full-back department than they did just a couple of weeks ago.

Manquillo and Moreno’s additions to Brendan Rodgers’ squad have been offset by the departure of Andre Wisdom on a season-long loan to West Bromwich Albion earlier this summer, as well as the likely exit of Martin Kelly on a permanent transfer to Crystal Palace, according to Garry Doolan of the Daily Mail.

But with some much-needed strength and depth added to the full-back positions this summer, Rodgers finally has genuine options to choose this season for different contexts, systems and formations.

Let’s assess the battle for the full-back slots at Anfield ahead of the new campaign.

 

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Manquillo and Moreno, Regular Starters

With Manquillo going straight into Rodgers’ starting lineup for Liverpool’s final preseason friendly against Borussia Dortmund, and Moreno apparently a big-money first-choice target for the left-back position, they will likely begin the season as starters at full-back.

While a single game for Liverpool—and just six for Atletico Madrid, his parent club, at the senior level—may not be conclusive of Manquillo‘s true ability and potential, what he did show against Dortmund reflected the qualities that he will bring to the Reds’ first team in the short to medium term.

He might not have Moreno’s searing speed and renowned attacking ability, but Manquillo‘s defensive solidity, as well as a good sense of timing when it comes to venturing forward, makes him a complete full-back capable of putting a shift in at both ends of the field.

Moreno’s attacking nous brings him further forward, promising to be a key part of the Reds attack, while his quickness and positional intelligence will allow him to make up for any ground lost while bombing up and down the flank.

As such, both Manquillo and Moreno offer much more than Jon Flanagan and Glen Johnson, who looked set to start the campaign in the first team before the arrivals of the Spanish full-backs.

 

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Other Options and Formations

Flanagan’s limited technical ability unfortunately hampers his overall appeal—his maturing tactical understanding is offset by a lack of finesse on the ball—while Johnson’s erratic positioning and questionable work rate belies an evident technical accomplishment on the ball.

Behind both Flanagan and Johnson in the pecking order is Jose Enrique, who boasts an impressive physique and is more than a match for pacy forwards with his physicality, but he needs constant guidance on the pitch when it comes to positioning and the timing of his runs.

Together, they offer decent backup to Manquillo and Moreno, as well as tactical flexibility: With fewer defensive duties as a wing-back, Johnson would be an ideal option in a 3-5-2 or 5-3-2 variant, which would free him from a more rigid defensive position and let him attack down the flanks at will.

Flanagan, meanwhile, would be a very good option to come off the bench when in need of some backs-to-the-wall defending or to play alongside a more adventurous central defender on either flank—his versatility, along with Johnson’s, will prove useful over the course of the season.

Moreno’s attacking ability, meanwhile, is an ideal candidate for a left wing-back position, which means that in any such formation that requires two wing-backs to take on Liverpool’s attacking responsibilities down the flanks, Rodgers could turn to him and Johnson as his starters.

 

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Time for the Backups to Prove Their Worth

What this offers is much healthier competition across the squad for the first-team places at Anfield and many more alternatives for Rodgers to choose from. With the Reds looking to challenge on all four fronts this season, having both strength and depth in the full-back department will be valuable and much welcomed.

Yet as Manquillo and Moreno look to establish their places in the first team alongside new signing Dejan Lovren in a new-look and overhauled defence, there is still plenty for Rodgers and his coaching staff to do if they are to get a leaky defence fixed and build a solid platform to support their midfield and attack at the back.

As Rodgers tries out his different options and combinations across the back four, while Manquillo and Moreno will likely feature as the regular first-team starters, the sheer number of games Liverpool will be playing this season allows Flanagan, Johnson and Enrique to show their manager what they’re capable of.

Flanagan’s remarkable resurgence may have been hampered by more esteemed and technically accomplished signings, while Johnson will need a season reminding all around Liverpool what he’s capable of at his peak. Enrique, as well, will need to prove that he’s much more than just brawn on the field.

This has been the hallmark of Liverpool’s summer-acquisition strategy so far: increase the strength and depth across the squad, while providing players ample opportunity to seize a chance to outshine their colleagues for a place in the team.

Rodgers may start the campaign with a few ideas in mind, but the message has been clear already throughout preseason: There are places up for grabs in this Liverpool team.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.