Category Archives: Player analysis

5 Things Raheem Sterling Must Do to Take His Liverpool Career Forward

Hi-res-157276417-raheem-sterling-of-liverpool-looks-on-during-the_crop_650x440

Chris Brunskill/Getty Images

 

It was only last year that Raheem Sterling burst onto the scene with the Liverpool first team, and it’s only 11 months since he won an England debut after a scintillating start to his Premier League career.

He had the world at his feet: Born in Jamaica and playing in England as a winger, Sterling was quickly compared to Anfield legend John Barnes, and his impressive and confident performances won fans and attracted admirers alike.

But since the turn of the year, with fresh faces arriving and making instant impacts, Sterling has been taken out of the first team for a break and has recently gotten into trouble with the law, making it an underwhelming and unhappy few months for the No. 31.

Aged just 18—he signed his first professional contract in December 2012—Sterling still has an entire career ahead of him and a wonderful opportunity to blossom and grow under the tutelage of Brendan Rodgers.

To make sure he takes his Liverpool career forward, here are five things Raheem Sterling must do.

 

Put His Focus Back on Football

Just a week ago, Brendan Rodgers issued a public warning to Raheem Sterling over his off-field issues and brushes with the law in 2013, as reported by the Guardian:

He needs to have a clear mind in everything in his life. He needs to stabilize his life, understand the remarkable opportunity he has at one of the biggest clubs in the world and focus everything in on his career. Once he does that and he is clear in his mind, he has no distraction and we can get to the level of performance of the first four or five months of last year.

A big pronouncement, and quite rightly so, given that Rodgers had granted Sterling a break at the turn of year, according to the Telegraph, from fatigue and frequent first-team action so early on in his career.

In late September, a court case against Sterling, where he had been accused of assault by an ex-girlfriend, collapsed due to a weak testimony, according to the Daily Mail. But, having also had assault charges dropped in May earlier this year, he has been in the public eye for all the wrong reasons.

And that needs to change. To get his budding career back on track—and what a track it was—Sterling needs to knuckle down, get his priorities straight and focus back on his football, where he can express himself on the pitch and fulfill his undoubted potential.

 

Stay Hungry

It’s not every day you see a 17-year-old start in a Premier League first team against the likes of Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea and deliver arguably the best displays on the field.

It’s certainly not every day—no matter what they say about England caps being easier to come by these days—that a youngster is awarded an England cap on the back of two months in the first team, never mind in the Premier League.

And, of course, it’s not every day that a hot prospect receives a glowing endorsement of his potential and nothing but pure praise from Gary Neville, ex-archrival and famously critical TV pundit.

So if we look at it from Sterling’s point of view, perhaps we’d forgive him for feeling pretty good about himself and what he’s accomplished in his short career to date.

But he can’t let that get to his head. Yes, he’s played in the Premier League, in Europe and he’s worn the England shirt, but he needs to stay hungry and focus on achieving everything he possibly can in what ultimately is a short stay at the very top of professional football.

He’s said the right things and now needs to make sure he goes into training with those goals in mind every single day.

 

Be More Assertive on the Pitch, Even as an Impact Substitute

And now we come to the on-field stuff.

In a thin squad at the beginning of the 2012/13 season, Sterling was one of an impressive trio, along with Andre Wisdom and Suso, to have established themselves in Brendan Rodgers’ first team for the first half of the season.

Getting opportunities to play at least an hour week in, week out will have done his confidence and development a world of good, while the exposure and competition with the England U-21s will also have helped complement that learning experience at the top level.

Since the arrivals of Daniel Sturridge, Philippe Coutinho and to some extent Iago Aspas, however, Sterling has found first-team minutes harder to come by, and with the exception of the Capital One Cup—a competition from which Liverpool have been eliminated after just their second game—has more often than not been considered as an impact substitute.

Which is a role that allows for less time to impress and less room to work with, but nonetheless is one that Sterling should embrace for the time being: After all, it is to Sterling that Rodgers often looks in the second half, rather than other options off the bench, so the feeling is that the No. 31 still has his manager’s trust in his abilities.

He made a big enough impression last year and continued to do so over this summer’s preseason fixtures, but now with his changed role, he needs to come alive instantly when he arrives on the pitch and deliver that same spark with the same assertiveness and confidence that he personified just 12 months ago.

 

Develop More Areas of His Game in a Changing Tactical System

It won’t come easy, partly because of the increase in options in the first team and on the bench, but also due to Rodgers’ tweaks to his tactical system this season.

From a 4-3-3 to an aesthetically pleasing 4-2-3-1, Liverpool have further evolved—both out of necessity with the injuries they have suffered and out of choice with their strength in depth in defence—to a 3-4-1-2 system in the 2013/14 campaign.

In this new system, which, considering the fine form of Kolo Toure, Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho in the back three, appears to suit the Reds down to the hilt, the width is provided by two wing-backs rather than two attackers, and both positions already have incumbents in Glen Johnson (currently injured) and Jose Enrique.

With two central midfielders supporting a No. 10 behind Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, the opportunities for a genuine winger or attacking midfielder to establish himself in the first team are rapidly diminishing—and even that No. 10 role, which has been filled by Victor Moses in recent weeks, is quite clearly destined for Philippe Coutinho when he returns from injury.

So could he reinvent himself as a wing-back to fit into this system or possibly a credible option in the hole? It all depends on whether he can improve on his already impressive defensive work and physical strength, as well as his creativity, passing and crossing.

Going out on loan in January or next summer is a real option for Sterling to get first-team experience at a top-flight club elsewhere without having to wait on the bench in a team currently right in the mix for a top-four spot—he’s good enough to play in the Premier League every week, especially when he’ll be 19 by then—but to fit into Rodgers’ blueprint for the Reds in the long term, adding more facets to his game will only help.

 

Bide His Time and Be Patient

It’s a cliche, but one that needs repeating: Raheem Sterling needs to be patient.

He will know that this is a Liverpool team that’s vastly different from the setup he so excitingly entered last year, when he was given a chance because of a lack of real depth on the bench. This year, after a fruitful summer, the squad is equipped with talent to fight for a Champions League finish, and certainly their results so far have been encouraging to that end.

So it won’t be easy for Sterling to force his way into the first-team setup, and it won’t be easy for Brendan Rodgers to change a winning team getting results on most weeks.

Rumors of a loan switch in the summer—this one from the Daily Star linked him with a move to West Ham United—may resurface over the next 10 months, and like Suso, Sterling may find himself looking for sustained first-team action at another club.

But since his debut for Rodgers, it’s been nothing but patently clear that his manager has high hopes for him and appreciates the improvement that he’s had in just over a year, so Sterling should take every chance he gets—be it at Anfield or elsewhere for the time being—knowing that he has the right mentor to develop him and help him fulfill his potential.

If he manages to focus on the right things for the sake of his career, we may well see Raheem Sterling develop into the world-class player that his talent suggests he can be.

Lucas Suspended: What a Lucas-Less Liverpool Lineup Could Look Like

Hi-res-150797826-lucas-of-liverpool-walks-off-after-sustaining-an-injury_crop_650x440

Michael Regan/Getty Images
 
 
In his sixth league game of the 2013-14 Premier League campaign, Lucas earned himself a one-match suspension after sustaining his fifth yellow card of the season against Sunderland on Sunday.

This means the Reds No. 21, who has won a recall back to Luis Felipe Scolari’s Brazil side ahead of their upcoming friendlies, will sit out Liverpool’s hosting of Crystal Palace on Saturday October 5.

A chance, then, for Brendan Rodgers to continue tinkering with his new 3-4-1-2 formation with the absence of his trusted midfield enforcer, who has been rather underwhelming this season with his performances alongside Steven Gerrard.

Let’s look at what a Lucas-less Liverpool lineup could look like in its current context—but also how the Reds’ strongest starting XI would be if Lucas weren’t a fixture.

Let us know your thoughts and picks in the comments below.

 

GK: Simon Mignolet

With his impressive shot-stopping performances since joining Liverpool from Sunderland this summer, Simon Mignolet picks himself as the firm No. 1 in the lineup.

There have been moments of uncertainty for the big Belgian keeper, but if he improves his aerial command of the box and his distribution, he could turn out to be one of the Reds’ best ever.

 

RCB: Kolo Toure

Arguably Liverpool’s stand-out performer so far this season, Kolo Toure has proven to be an inspired signing for Brendan Rodgers this summer—and on a free transfer from Manchester City, will turn out as one of the bargains of the season.

On current form, Toure is an integral part of Rodgers’ starting XI, and as the season progresses, his experience and leadership will prove just as important as his pace, stamina and physicality.

Martin Kelly is a fantastic prospect waiting on the sidelines to return after his injury hell, but he’ll have to wait before he can hope to dislodge Toure from the lineup.

 

LCB: Mamadou Sakho / Daniel Agger

B/R’s Karl Matchett has more on why a three-man defence could be the way to go at Anfield, but a key reason is that the Reds now have a plethora of options in central defence to choose from, and summer signing Mamadou Sakho is one of them.

A nervous debut at Swansea City has been followed up by two solid performances in the league, and with each passing game Sakho is starting to justify both the hype he had as a prospect at Paris Saint-Germain and his £15 million price tag.

With him continuing his imperious form with an impressive set of defensive attributes, vice-captain Daniel Agger will have to bide his time before returning to the starting XI.

 

CD / SW: Martin Skrtel / Daniel Agger

It could well be that Agger could make his return to the starting XI in a central sweeper role, but Martin Skrtel’s impressive form in the heart of the three-man defence right now means that may take a while to happen.

Martin Skrtel’s performance against Manchester United in the second league game of the season turned out to be the start of a very encouraging upturn in form, and his no-nonsense brand of defending will continue to be important to the Reds’ fortunes.

 

RWB: Glen Johnson / Raheem Sterling / Jordan Henderson

With Glen Johnson injured for at least another few weeks, Brendan Rodgers has been using Jordan Henderson as a right wing-back in his 3-4-1-2 formation.

Lucas’ suspension, however, may change the first-team setup a bit, and perhaps for the better.

We’ll touch on what we think could be a useful role for Henderson in a few slides.

But we posit that young winger Raheem Sterling could be an interesting experiment in a slightly more defensive starting position, given his pace, work rate, surprising upper body strength, and well-known penchant for bombing down the flanks.

Given a few more weeks for the rest of the team to settle into this formation, however, when Johnson—a player tailor-made for a wing-back role—makes his first-team return, that’s when things could well and truly become exciting.

 

LWB: Jose Enrique / Glen Johnson

Jose Enrique is a player capable of two extremes: the brilliant and the downright frustrating, such are his attributes as a left full/wing-back.

His defensive qualities, barring a very apt use of his size and strength, are at times suspect (especially his positioning), while his crossing, shooting and decision-making leave much to be desired. But it’s no doubt that he offers a useful outlet on the overlap and a valuable contributor tracking back.

This is why a three-man defence, with Mamadou Sakho being another man supporting him from behind, could be the key to unlocking Enrique’s finest form.

Johnson, on the other hand, showed himself to be a more than competent left-back—in some quarters one of the league’s best—when standing in last term, but will only be moved over if other options on the right flank don’t work out.

 

CM: Steven Gerrard

Whisper it quietly, but though he delivered the corner that Daniel Sturridge turned in for Liverpool’s first goal against Sunderland on Saturday and the breathtaking diagonal pass to send Sturridge on his way for his side’s second, Steven Gerrard has been far from his best form this season.

How much this has to do with Lucas’ underwhelming form beside him, or with his own ageing years, we’ll leave for another debate.

But for the purposes of this article, we’ll assume that in the context of Liverpool’s young team and Brendan Rodgers’ inexperienced side, the club captain remains indispensable at the moment.

With a more energetic and positionally smart central/defensive midfielder beside him, Gerrard could rediscover his playmaking form of old, dictating matches week in, week out.

If anything, his set-piece prowess still sets him out as one of the Premier League’s finest in that regard.

 

CM: Jordan Henderson / Joe Allen

Enter Jordan Henderson, who has continued to justify his selection every week with steady, consistent performances in an attacking midfield role.

Given Lucas’ suspension, however, this could be a good time to try the No. 14 back in his favored central midfield position. Here, the Reds could use some good positional and tactical sense, excellent work rate and tracking back and, most importantly, the stamina and pace to track midfield runners and close down shooting opportunities from opposing teams.

Henderson’s tidy passing and ability to deliver a neat first-time through-ball also adds to the reasons we suggest him as a potential partner for Steven Gerrard, while Joe Allen’s form in this position early last year also means he could be an interesting contender for the role as well.

 

CAM: Philippe Coutinho / Victor Moses / Joe Allen

There’s no doubt that when fit, Philippe Coutinho will start in his favored—and strongest—No. 10 position supporting the striker(s).

Given his injury problems at the moment, Victor Moses has been used in this position, but has been relatively underwhelming due to his natural tendency to stay wide and influence proceedings from the flanks.

It’s fair to say that while Moses has an array of tricks that make him a dangerous winger, he doesn’t quite have that ability to unlock a defence with a composed pass or a delicate piece of skill that a Liverpool No. 10 should.

While Henderson has been used in that position with some success as a pressing No. 10, we suggest that Joe Allen, who was deployed in this role to good effect over the course of preseason, be given a run-out, especially if Coutinho is still injured when he returns.

 

ST: Daniel Sturridge

When fit, the front two in this 3-4-1-2 system picks itself.

Daniel Sturridge, currently top scorer both for Liverpool and in the English Premier League, has shown even while not fully fit that he is maturing into a top well-rounded marksman.

He is likely to remain a key player for Brendan Rodgers for a few more months to come.

 

ST: Luis Suarez

Luis Suarez has come straight back into the Liverpool XI after his 10-match suspension even given his public protestations this summer, but it was always too big a temptation to resist.

Following up a lively performance against Manchester United in the Capital One Cup with a two-goal display at Sunderland, Suarez has played his way back into the hearts of the Liverpool fans again, and will play an important role for the rest of the season, at least.

 

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

Glen Johnson Injured for 10 Weeks: Liverpool’s 7 Other Options at Right-Back

During the international break, Liverpool fans could be forgiven for looking out for the interests of their beloved club, and in that sense, Daniel Sturridge’s failure to recover in time for England’s World Cup qualifier against Ukraine on Tuesday, per the Guardian, will have been good news.

Unfortunately, however, Reds fans will also be cursing their luck as Glen Johnson, who limped off in their home win against Manchester United last Saturday, has been ruled out from first team action for up to 10 weeks due to an ankle injury, according to the Liverpool Echo.

Johnson, who was an impressive performer in all three of Liverpool’s opening Premier League games, will be a big miss for Brendan Rodgers, who will be disappointed that he won’t be able to name a consistent starting XI against Swansea City on Monday, even if Sturridge is passed fit by then.

So who else at Anfield can fill in at right-back? Let’s take a look at the seven options that Rodgers has at his disposal to use as a potential replacement for Johnson.

Enjoy, and let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

 

Andre Wisdom

Hi-res-152804540_crop_650
Michael Steele/Getty Images
As Glen Johnson’s replacement off the bench against Manchester United last Saturday, Andre Wisdom is naturally the most obvious choice as Brendan Rodgers’ stand-in for the Liverpool No. 2.

Thrown into first-team action last season with a series of mature and composed performances as right-back, Wisdom has been tipped for big things in football—and his recent nomination to the England U21 captaincy, as confirmed by the Daily Mail, provides ample evidence.

Strong in the tackle, mature in his reading of the game, and composed under pressure, Wisdom will likely get another run of games in light of Johnson’s injury, but he will have to improve on his unsteady showings this preseason if he is to hold off the challenges of several pretenders.

 

Jon Flanagan

It’s been a while since Jon Flanagan burst onto the scene—it was in the tail end of the 2010/11 Premier League season that he impressed in his first-team debut against Manchester City in April 2011, under the tutelage of Kenny Dalglish.

He made several strong performances for the rest of the season, but his form dipped dramatically come August 2011, and he hasn’t featured much for the Reds first team ever since.

Suffice it to say that his development has plateaued for the time being.

As a match-fit option with first-team experience as a right-back, Flanagan will be hoping that his decent displays over preseason will warrant him a chance in the first team, but with Manchester United as Liverpool’s opponents in the third round of the Capital One Cup, it looks unlikely that Flanagan will even be given an opportunity in the cups just yet.

 

Martin Kelly

Hi-res-150214876_crop_650
Clint Hughes/Getty Images
The other senior right-back in the squad, and arguably the most impressive and talented of the trio, is Martin Kelly, who has bulked up considerably over the course of the summer.

Injuries are his death toll for now, however, as he battles his way back to full fitness: The injury he suffered to his cruciate knee ligament in September 2012’s match against Manchester United ruled him out of action until this preseason, when he returned in a friendly against Preston North End.

When fit, however, Kelly is the best option available for Rodgers.

However, according to this ESPN report, it could be at least late September or early October until he becomes a realistic choice to stand in for Glen Johnson.

 

Ryan McLaughlin

Among the halls of Anfield, one name from the Reds Academy rings loud and clear whenever the right-back slot is discussed: Ryan McLaughlin.

His mature performances, particularly against AS Roma legend Francesco Totti, in Liverpool’s preseason tour of North America in the summer of 2012 will only have served to enhance his reputation in the eyes of the Liverpool faithful.

Of course, it is telling that he has yet to make his competitive debut for Brendan Rodgers.

Would Glen Johnson’s injury mean a first chance for McLaughlin to step up and justify his reputation? His commitment to the Liverpool cause—he turned down a call-up to the Northern Ireland squad over the summer, as reported by BBC Sport—is endearing, but it seems likely, with so much at stake, that Rodgers will opt for more experienced options.

 

Martin Skrtel

Moving away from specialist right-backs, a senior player on the Liverpool books with experience at right-back is Martin Skrtel, who put in a dominant display against the Red Devils and Robin van Persie last Saturday.

His nightmare on the right against a rampant Tottenham Hotspur in the calamitous 0-4 capitulation at White Hart Lane in September 2011 stands out as a strong reason to not field Skrtel as a right-back, but experience could be what Rodgers needs on the flanks for now.

If Kolo Toure fails to recover from his groin injury—sustained in Liverpool’s extra-time win over Notts County in the Capital One Cup—and new signing Mamadou Sakho is deemed unready to partner Daniel Agger in the center of defence, then Skrtel will be needed in the middle.

 

Tiago Ilori

Tiago Ilori was one of two defenders, and one of three players, to be confirmed as a deadline-day summer arrival at Anfield, as he signed in a reported £7 million deal, according to BBC Sport.

Like Martin Skrtel, Ilori is a center-back by trade and by practice, but has been known to play on the right side of the defence in the past, during his days at Sporting Lisbon.

His pace will be a tremendous asset to a Brendan Rodgers defence looking to play a high defensive line, but his lack of first-team experience in the Premier League and as a right-back for Liverpool will see him as a long shot in the running here.

 

…Jordan Henderson?

Hi-res-179190835_crop_650
Alex Livesey/Getty Images
And now for our customary left-field candidate.

Why Jordan Henderson, you may ask.

Of course, this question, taken in the context of three outstanding performances for the first team in an advanced midfield role so far this season, is entirely understandable.

Such has Henderson’s professionalism and improvement been, that he has transformed from an unwanted outcast to a near undroppable first-team player in the space of 12 months, and that alone deserves credit.

But the additions of Mamadou Sakho and Kolo Toure hint at a possible change to Brendan Rodgers’ 4-2-3-1 system to a 3-5-2 with two wing-backs, and Henderson’s pace, energy and commitment might make him a suitable choice out there on the right, where he could make use of his incredible stamina.

Add in his previous cameos at right-back…

 

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

Joe Allen: 5 Areas of Improvement Next Season

Hi-res-155103416_crop_650x440

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Fitness

The first order of business is physical fitness.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tackling

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Transitioning in the Counterattack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Final Ball

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

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

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

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

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

(Stats from WhoScored.com.)

 

Shooting and Goalscoring

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Ranking Liverpool’s Central Midfield Options

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

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

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

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

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

 

5. Luis Alberto

Hi-res-174333997_crop_650

 Vince Caligiuri/Getty Images

At a Glance

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

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

Strengths

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

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

Weaknesses

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

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

Importance

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

 

4. Joe Allen

Hi-res-155063493_crop_650

 Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

At a Glance

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

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

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

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

Strengths

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

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

Weaknesses

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

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

Importance

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

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

 

3. Jordan Henderson

Hi-res-165120142_crop_650

 Stu Forster/Getty Images

At a Glance

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

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

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

Strengths

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

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

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

Weaknesses

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

Importance

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

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

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

 

2. Lucas

Hi-res-159717858_crop_650

 Mark Thompson/Getty Images

At a Glance

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

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

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

Strengths

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

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

Weaknesses

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

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

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

Importance

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

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

 

1. Steven Gerrard

Hi-res-176699001_crop_650

 Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

At a Glance

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

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

Strengths

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

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

Weaknesses

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

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

Importance

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

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

 

Further Additions Needed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

167145197_original

Michael Regan/Getty Images

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Jordon Ibe: First-Team Player or Liverpool Loanee?

Hi-res-173391605_crop_north

 Alex Livesey/Getty Images

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ibe the Loanee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ibe the First-Team Player

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

 

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