Category Archives: Premier League match reports

I’ll mostly be writing my thoughts on our Premier League performances.

Everton 3-3 Liverpool: 6 Talking Points from Thrilling Merseyside Derby Draw

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Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Goals, drama and controversy. High tempo, high energy and intense atmosphere. Liverpool lead, Everton comeback and Liverpool equalize. Simply put, the 221st Merseyside derby had it all.

Philippe Coutinho got things rolling from a set-piece situation in a frantic opening 20 minutes, which saw Kevin Mirallas equalize before Luis Suarez’s exquisite free-kick saw the Reds enter the break 2-1 up.

Romelu Lukaku notched up two devastating goals for the hosts to seemingly complete a gutsy turnaround, only for Daniel Sturridge to come off the bench to tie things up right at the death.

Saturday’s Premier League opening game was a spectacle for Liverpudlians and neutrals alike, and displayed to a full extent the attacking philosophies of the respective managers on the Goodison Park touchline.

Here are six talking points from a thrilling Merseyside derby draw between Everton and Liverpool. Enjoy and let us know what you made of it all in the comments below.

The Spotlight Shines on Luis Suarez, Simon Mignolet and Romelu Lukaku

After Luis Suarez’s goal, diving celebration and non-goal in this corresponding fixture last year, we knew there wasn’t a chance he’d let this one pass him by either.

If his free-kick in the 19th minute—an expert low curler from outside the box—was impressive, equally eye-catching and perhaps even more important was his fanatical work rate, desire and commitment to the Reds cause.

Sergio Aguero would have had something to say about this after his barnstorming performance in Manchester City’s demolition of Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday, but there’s a very strong argument that Luis Suarez is currently the best player in the Premier League.

If Suarez is the best outfield player in the top flight, surely Simon Mignolet has an equal shout as the best shot-stopper currently in England.

Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool fans will, in the aftermath of the draw, look at the positive side of Mignolet’s nine saves and conclude that he has indeed been an upgrade on Pepe Reina, and ignore all the insinuations that come with conceding so many shots on goal in the first place.

Mignolet has won the Reds many a point and kept them in many a game this season, but Everton’s loan star Romelu Lukaku made sure that the Belgian goalkeeper would have to concede three times before making the return journey across Stanley Park.

The cream of the crop among some fine transfer window business by Roberto Martinez, Lukaku simply had too much for Liverpool as they looked to recover from Joe Allen’s horrendous miss.

With two goals in 10 minutes, Lukaku enhanced his burgeoning reputation as the premier target-man striker in the Premier League and he’s only 20 years old.

Liverpool Hurt by Kevin Mirallas, Phil Dowd and Joe Allen

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Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

It wouldn’t be a Merseyside derby without its fair share of controversy and drama, and a single dose of Kevin Mirallas provided all the poison this traditionally fiery clash warranted—not that it needed it.

Currently doing the rounds on the Internet are comparisons between Mirallas’ knee-high challenge on Luis Suarez and the other noteworthy referee blunders of the weekend—starring Wes Brown’s sending-off and Wayne Rooney’s petulant lash—but he wasn’t finished there.

A further stamp on Suarez and a bloodying elbow to Jordan Henderson’s face ensured that Mirallas ended the game as the villain. So it was all too fitting that he’d opened the scoring for Everton before any of the above happened.

If Phil Dowd had stuck to the referees’ guidelines of sending players off for dangerous tackles to protect the recipients, perhaps this game would have turned out differently.

As it were, just as we predicted before the match, the referee’s decision and the Fat Lady came to the fore, like it did in both the derby fixtures last season. Mark Halsey was demoted to the Championship after his blunder against West Bromwich Albion a few weeks ago; Dowd might just be fearing the same.

Of course, Liverpool could’ve rendered any outside forces and chance to a mere afterthought if they had taken charge of their own destiny and made their own luck.

We’re talking, of course, about Joe Allen, who found himself clear with just the goalkeeper to beat from a mere 10 yards, and proceeded to fail to test Tim Howard so comprehensively that Everton—as though footballing karma actually exists—completed their comeback almost immediately.

Another “coulda-woulda-shoulda” for Liverpool, who, thanks to other results in the Premier League, keep their spot behind league leaders Arsenal for another week.

Time for a Change to the Reds’ Central Defence

After Mamadou Sakho’s heroics for France during their World Cup play-offs against Ukraine last week, one could’ve reasonably expected him to start in the derby with his confidence sky-high, especially against the sheer force that is Romelu Lukaku.

But marshalling the defence instead were Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger, Liverpool’s tried and trusted central defensive pairing back in those days when they didn’t have any quality backup.

The problem, of course, is that the visitors do have alternative options these days, and in not playing Kolo Toure and Sakho, Brendan Rodgers opted—wrongly—for more of the same, and a continuation of old tradition.

Against a busy Lukaku and an energetic Everton midfield, and with a lacklustre and tired central midfield ahead of them, Toure and Sakho would have offered steel, composure, experience, physicality and pace as a defensive partnership.

Alas, the lack of strong defensive options meant that Saturday’s Liverpool had a soft core, and Everton’s approach play almost fully exploited it, like Southampton had done before them.

Without a strong right-sided central defender anchoring in beside him, Glen Johnson struggled as well, perhaps predictably, against the dynamic duo of Steven Pienaar and Leighton Baines, in a generally testy and nervy performance by the Liverpool defence.

We will reserve our compliments for Jon Flanagan, who, despite the pre-match doubts of almost all Liverpool fans, put in a shift that Jose Enrique would’ve been proud of. Aly Cissokho went on record stating his hopes of making his loan move from Valencia permanent (h/t Sky Sports)—on current evidence, he’ll need to work a whole lot more.

A Tale of Set Pieces

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Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

It is curious that one of Liverpool’s likeliest ways to get a goal these days is also one of their most vulnerable areas, and that the main protagonist in the former is also one of the main culprits for the latter.

Let’s mention attacking set pieces first, and salute the deliveries of Steven Gerrard time and again, for it was his corner kick that led to Philippe Coutinho’s opening goal, and it was his free-kick in the 89th minute that made Daniel Sturridge’s dramatic headed equalizer possible.

A week ago, of course, two Gerrard set pieces got the ball rolling at Anfield against Fulham. It’s no surprise that with the captain in such inspired form from these situations, he currently leads the Premier League in assists, with five.

On the flip side, as inventive and effective as Gerrard has been from set piece situations, he has unfortunately been equally lethargic and lacking in mobility as a central midfielder, which would be less obvious if a dominant defensive midfielder were supporting him.

As it is, the combined energy, pace and positioning of Lucas and Gerrard have created holes in the midfield this season that have let opposing midfielders run past them all too easily, especially those with the physicality and power to do so.

This leads to the unfortunate propensity of conceding free-kicks in the Red half. Not an ideal situation, especially given the set-piece frailties that still plague Brendan Rodgers’ side.

Liverpool fans will be fervently hoping that Yann M’Vila, spotted in the stands on Saturday, was doing more than just paying his friend Mamadou Sakho a visit, as was rumoured by the Liverpool Echo.

Young Blues Full of Pace, Power and Promise

According to the main events in the match, it seemed like Kevin Mirallas and Romelu Lukaku stole the spotlight for Everton and will be the Blues’ main men this season.

After all, both profited from defensive mishaps to score the goals to almost win all three points for the hosts, and with five assists and seven goals respectively, they are high in both charts thus far this season. Mirallas leads the assists table with Gerrard, while Lukaku is joint fifth in goals scored with Robin van Persie and Olivier Giroud.

But many of the excellent performances that Everton have put on this season have been down to their young midfield duo, Ross Barkley and James McCarthy, both of whom put in mature displays on Saturday in one of the biggest matches in the Premier League season.

Barkley’s driving runs from midfield were relentless as they were tormenting, while McCarthy’s composure alongside the experienced Gareth Barry set the platform for the hosts’ impressive second-half comeback.

Just as Lukaku has been a brilliant loan signing, so too has Barry been a real bargain for the Blues. Looking long term, the trouble is whether or not Martinez will be able to replace them in his starting XI. But that’s a problem for another day—for January, or for next summer, perhaps.

For now, this Everton side have added pace, dynamism and an aesthetically pleasing brand of attacking football to their play. Martinez’s philosophies—and his excellent summer signings—seem to have found their place at Goodison Park already.

Daniel Sturridge Has Much to Learn

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Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
With his match-winning goal-scoring prowess, affable confidence and crowd-pleasing dance celebrations, what’s not to like about Daniel Sturridge?

From Brendan Rodgers’ post-match press conference, however, it seems that this exact attitude may have found its way into Sturridge’s own head, with the Liverpool manager citing “different personalities, different types” while comparing Suarez’s competitiveness to Sturridge’s lack of fitness, according to the Telegraph.

It is indicative of Rodgers’ man-management approach that he has embraced the qualities of Sturridge—qualities that were evident as he scored a dramatic equalizer after coming off the bench—but also that he has seen fit to criticize Sturridge’s fitness in times like this.

When your strike partner is Luis Suarez, though, it means you almost have to improve in every facet of your game.

Suspended for the first five games of the season, Suarez has roared back into first-team action and is already currently tied with Sturridge on nine league goals (just one behind league leader Sergio Aguero). But Suarez also brings with him a tremendous work rate and an eagerness to compete, even in training, which Rodgers has brought to attention.

“A lot of players, especially the top ones, are never 100 percent fit. Suarez will never have been 100 percent in his time here.”

For all the right noises that have been coming out of Daniel Sturridge, there is still plenty for him to learn. Fortunately for him, he’s got the perfect role model alongside him—at least for this season.

 

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

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Swansea City 2-2 Liverpool: 8 Positives and Negatives

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Stu Forster/Getty Images
Jonjo Shelvey stole the headlines in the aftermath of thrilling 2-2 draw between Swansea City and Liverpool at the Liberty Stadium on Monday, such was his contribution to the game itself.

And rightly so, given that he scored one and assisted one for the hosts—giving away two costly errors for the visitors to capitalize and score from.

If the Man of the Match awards were really given based on impact on the overall game, there wouldn’t be a better candidate than the Swans No. 8.

But besides Shelvey opening the scoring after a fine run and shot, there was Daniel Sturridge being opportunistic and seizing on an errant back pass. And Victor Moses making an impression and scoring a goal on his debut. And Michu finishing expertly from Shelvey’s exquisite lay-off header.

All in all, it made for a fine end-to-end game of football for two sides who like to play quickly and expansively—as the commentators will no doubt say, “a great advert for the English Premier League.”

Here are eight positives and negatives for Liverpool from the 2-2 draw, which ends the Reds’ winning start to the season but extends their unbeaten run. Let us know your take in the comments below.

 

This Is What an Unfit Daniel Sturridge Can Do…

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In his post-match interview with Sky Sports, Daniel Sturridge said that he didn’t feel fit for the Swansea game, according to ESPNFC.

Small wonder, then, that he had to fight to make the trip to south Wales after having to miss out on England’s World Cup qualifiers last week, and exhibited a general lack of movement and mobility towards the end of the 90 minutes at the Liberty Stadium.

Lacking match fitness, Sturridge scored all the same, to continue his four-game scoring run in the Premier League, with a 12th goal in his last 10 games.

His piece of opportunism to score Liverpool’s opening goal—and to peg the Swans back almost immediately—will be understated given Jonjo Shelvey’s part in it and the latter’s history as a Liverpool player.

Sturridge had the presence of mind to anticipate Shelvey’s back-pass, and the timing of his run—including a slight adjustment of the run-up to meet the errant pass—was as impressive as his confident finish past the stranded Michel Vorm.

The Reds No. 15 hasn’t been 100 percent match-fit for most of the season yet, but he’s already scored in all five of Liverpool’s games this season. Imagine him firing on all cylinders.

 

…But Glen Johnson’s Absence Will Be Huge for the Reds

When Glen Johnson was forced off with an ankle injury against Manchester United, he was first mooted for a 10-week absence from the team, and was rightly considered a major blow for Brendan Rodgers.

The good news is that, according to Goal.com, Rodgers has said that Johnson may end up missing only four Premier League games, which will be a significant boost to the defence.

In Johnson’s absence, young Andre Wisdom, who first came into the team at the beginning of last season, has deputized at right-back, but unfortunately the No. 47 hasn’t been able to replicate his composed, confident form as yet.

His unsteady showing on Monday against Wayne Routledge and Ben Davies meant that the majority of the Swansea attacks came from the hosts’ left-hand side, where Wisdom was obviously uncomfortable dealing with the pace and acceleration on his flank.

It seemed inevitable that he would be replaced in the second half, and sure enough, Kolo Toure was sent on to offer his experience in a bid to shore up the defence, who by then was on the back foot against an increasingly confident home side.

But in the continued absence of Martin Kelly, while Liverpool have a host of options available to play in the right-back slot, none of them will offer the assurance and the complete package that Glen Johnson offers.

The sooner the Liverpool and England No. 2 returns, the better.

 

Victor Moses Will Be a Key Addition to the Attack…

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Out of the three deadline day signings by Brendan Rodgers—despite Mamadou Sakho’s precocious reputation at Paris Saint-Germain and considerable international experience with France—it was Victor Moses who would have been the most familiar to Reds fans.

Moses was the former Crystal Palace prodigy who joined Wigan Athletic in 2010, and when he was up for grabs last summer from the Latics, Liverpool were linked with him, as reported by the Daily Mail.

After a season at Chelsea where he gained prominence and a regular first-team place under former Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez, Moses endured a difficult start to the season with Jose Mourinho at the helm, and was snapped up by Mourinho protégé Brendan Rodgers on loan for the season.

Initially, it was a signing met with mixed reactions from Liverpool supporters. They ranged from laments about Liverpool’s status compared to Chelsea’s (having to resort to loaning a player from their rivals) to the quality of Moses himself and whether he would bring anything to Anfield.

And the new No. 12 quickly allayed any fears and doubts of the Reds faithful with an exciting debut on Monday, where he troubled defenders with his pace and dribbling, and knocked in a nonchalant goal from outside the box following a fine run.

He departed on 80 minutes with Raheem Sterling coming on as his replacement, having shown on his first appearance exactly why Rodgers chose to give him this opportunity.

 

…But Iago Aspas Continues to Underwhelm

While Andre Wisdom came into the team due to Glen Johnson’s injury, and Mamadou Sakho due to Daniel Agger’s, there was one other change to the Liverpool starting lineup that spoke volumes about two summer arrivals at Anfield.

Iago Aspas had put in tidy shifts on his first three league appearances for Liverpool—and indeed was Liverpool’s top scorer over preseason—but straight into the starting lineup came new signing Victor Moses and his power, pace, physicality and goal threat.

When Aspas did come on in the second half for the injured Philippe Coutinho, he showed exactly why Moses was favored for the occasion over the new No. 9.

Simply put, Aspas didn’t show enough of the “terrier-like” mentality and aggressive technical forward play he was known for at previous club Celta Vigo.

So what now for the £7.7 million summer signing?

It’s way too early to write off the Spanish forward, especially taking into account the varying time spans in which foreign players settle into the Premier League. But with Moses making an eye-catching debut, Jordan Henderson continuing to impress and Luis Suarez waiting to return to the fold, it looks a tall order for Aspas to reclaim his position in the starting XI.

Time to get his head down and work on his physique to impose himself in the league.

For a player mooted as this season’s version of Swansea bargain find Michu, Aspas has too much talent not to come back with a vengeance.

 

First-Half Dominance Is Now Customary for Liverpool…

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It is a curious reversal that Liverpool have now dominated possession and the passages of play in all their first halves in the league this season, while it was a regular case of second-half resurgences in the 2012/13 campaign.

And there are positives and negatives to this.

Looking positively, there was the much-derided lack of composure and mental strength that saw the team particularly vulnerable after scoring a goal themselves. In itself, this was a curious phenomenon last season.

Failing to start a game well and get a firm hold on the tie cost Liverpool many a point and many a result especially in the first half of last season, and it meant that the Reds often had to step up their game in the second 45 minutes.

Incredibly, they’ve now turned it around.

The impressive starts to their first few games deserve to be lauded, during which the exquisite short passing and exciting movement all over the pitch have caused untold problems for opposing midfields and defences.

It is especially telling that, barring the extra-time goals in the Capital One Cup tie against Notts County, all seven goals Liverpool have scored this season have come in the first half.

So, Rodgers has thus far successfully gotten his team to step up their performances and maintain a stranglehold on possession and the game as a whole in the first 45 minutes.

And, in truth, the results are encouraging.

 

…Now It’s a Matter of Finishing the Game Strongly

But there are always areas for improvement, and in Liverpool’s case, it’s now about finishing the game just as strongly as they start it.

Or, in other words, it’s about maintaining that consistency in performance levels, stamina and composure over the course of the 90 minutes.

What they’ve proved in their opening fixtures is that the mental resilience and collective mindset now exist in abundance across the team; you don’t hold onto one-goal leads and turn them into three points having to defend in the second half unless you have this kind of toughness.

As is always mentioned, real top teams have it in them to churn out results and points even when they’re not playing particularly well, and this has certainly been the case for Liverpool’s second-half performances thus far this 2013/14 campaign.

It is unrealistic and probably even unfair to expect the players to dominate an entire game.

The likes of Barcelona and FC Bayern Munich are regarded as special clubs precisely because it is that difficult to do so. The drop in performance levels after the break have been a common feature in all four league games this season and will surely be a point to note for Rodgers and his backroom team.

They have rightly commended their on-field charges for their ability to hold it together and preserve a lead—something that they might not have been able to do just 12 months ago—but now it is time to up their game to a whole different level.

 

Another Week at the Top of the Premier League at Anfield…

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Heading into the Monday fixture against Swansea City, Liverpool fans could have been forgiven for having to blink their eyes twice at the league table.

Three games in, a game in hand due to their late kickoff in this fourth round of Premier League fixtures, and they have the same number of points as table-topping Arsenal?

Drawing the game would send them top again, and losing it would still place them on level footing with the league leaders?

Sure enough, while all hopes were on Liverpool continuing their winning start to the season and going three points clear at the top of the table, this was a new feeling at Anfield, a first in many seasons: They were actually worried about dropping points because they didn’t want to lose their top spot in the league.

A point was duly secured, in the process extending their unbeaten run and continuing their fine form since the turn of the year.

And Liverpool host the visit of Southampton this Saturday as league leaders.

Match Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur’s results this weekend, and Liverpool will go into another round of fixtures in first place.

Not bad at all.

 

…And Liverpool Fans Should Enjoy This While It Lasts

The beauty of the current league table right now is that this was not even supposed to be part of Liverpool’s season.

Yes, last season was a disappointing one, which ultimately ended without having secured European football for the season and culminated in the Reds finishing below their Merseyside rivals, Everton, in seventh place.

But even with their encouraging transfer business this summer, considering the strengthening done at rival clubs, it was always going to be a long shot even just to make the Champions League places, especially given the prevailing new expectations of steady progress at Anfield.

If, prior to the start of the season, Liverpool fans would be offered a point away to Swansea and 10 after their first four fixtures, the majority of them would have gladly taken it—as would, surely, the players and the manager.

In the context of the game itself, Liverpool should be disappointed that they didn’t make their first-half dominance count more by finishing with the win and extending their lead at the top of the table, but the bigger picture shows that they find themselves where they were never expected or supposed to be in the first place.

It is all well and good to expect, and even demand, a consistent run of good results to keep this league position as long and lofty as possible, but when the dropping of points inevitably come, Liverpool fans would do well to remember their underlying context, that a Champions League finish would already be a huge achievement for the season.

Holding that perspective would help them make all the right noises while supporting their team in their quest of glory.

 

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

Aston Villa 0-1 Liverpool: 6 Positives and Negatives

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daniel Sturridge with Yet Another Match-Winning Performance…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And why not?

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

…But Philippe Coutinho Must Learn to Deal with Extra Attention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kolo Toure and Simon Mignolet Impress Again…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brendan Rodgers the Realist…

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

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

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

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

Not so.

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

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

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

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

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

…But Winning Ugly is Better Than Not Winning at All

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liverpool 1-0 Stoke: 6 Things We Learned

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Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

 

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

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

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

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

Kolo Toure: One of the Best Signings of the Summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jordan Henderson Fully Deserves Brendan Rodgers’ Faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Await Lucas and Daniel Sturridge’s Return to Full Fitness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simon Mignolet Passes His First Test

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Nervy Win That Should Become Routine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Result That Bodes Well for the Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Manchester City 08/26/2012: The Glass is Half Full

Martin Skrtel and Luis Suarez got the goals for Liverpool—and what brilliant goals they were—but Brendan Rodgers’ side were culpable for the two goals they conceded to Manchester City in a pulsating 2-2 draw at Anfield on Sunday.

This was far removed from last Saturday’s calamitous showing at West Brom, with Liverpool exhibiting some impressive build-up play throughout the encounter with the Premier League champions.

But the old problem resurfaced again—that of Liverpool being the better team but failing to get all three points.

And now: the positives and negatives from Sunday’s matchup from Liverpool’s point of view:

Just the One Point to Show for It…

Once again, as so often was the case under Kenny Dalglish last season, Liverpool spent most of the 90 minutes as the better team.

But once again, we didn’t come away with the three points to show for their performance.

This time it wasn’t for a lack of Liverpool goals, but rather two uncharacteristic gaffes at the back.

Either way, Brendan Rodgers will have to work on setting a balance between an efficient attack and an efficient defence.

Otherwise, for a sloppy defensive error to once again take away almost all the good work Liverpool did in the midfield and up front would be a massive shame.

And it would contribute to them falling further behind in the league table.

…But the Passing Play and Closing Down Were Very Encouraging

But no way was this draw as hard to take as the opening-weekend defeat at West Brom, because the silver linings were that obvious.

If Rodgers and his squad wanted to prove that last Saturday was just a “one-off,” they put in a collective display that went lengths in doing just that.

Minus the Hawthorns collapse, Liverpool have seemed to take to Rodgers’ system very quickly.

Overall, the crisp passing play and tenacious closing down exhibited all over the pitch should bode very well for the future, even if they have only yielded the one point in two games.

Even when Carlos Tevez pounced on Martin Skrtel’s back-pass to equalize for City, Liverpool never looked settled for a point.

It’s this desire—if not the profligacy—that Rodgers and we hope will bode well for the future.

Defensive Lapses Cost Liverpool Two Points…

Back to the defence, because it deserves a portion of the limelight in the post-match wake.

There has been a vicious cycle at work at Anfield for the best part of a year now.

The lack of goals is being compounded by some glaring defensive lapses that are costing Liverpool points simply because of a relative lack of concentration from the back.

Given the eye-gorging scoreline at West Brom, this was exacerbated and seared in recent memory by the tireless running and pressing of Shane Long, but this goes back to last-gasp goals like that conceded to Manchester United’s Javier Hernandez last season.

Rodgers declared after the City game that Skrtel had the right idea in passing back to Pepe Reina for the Tevez goal, and that punting it forward would have been the simple option.

Except that the right idea was not accompanied by the requisite awareness, and that the simple option could have brought him two more points.

…But We Now Have a Real Third-Choice Central Defender

Martin Skrtel enjoyed an otherwise productive day against City, not least because of his frankly brilliant header to open the scoring.

But enough of him for now—some credit should be paid to his central defensive partner for the day, Sebastian Coates.

For all of his lack of match fitness, and for all of Daniel Agger’s classy defensive play, Coates showed on Sunday why he should absolutely have climbed over Jamie Carragher in the pecking order of center-backs.

To be sure, Coates did show moments of hesitation, including one in the first half that allowed Mario Balotelli to nip in and steal the ball, forcing Martin Kelly to concede a free kick.

But Coates put in enough well-timed tackles and good linkups with Kelly, Skrtel and Reina to show that all the hype surrounding his arrival at Anfield might not be unjustified after all.

No Goals from Open Play Yet…

The other side to the 2-2 draw, the other side to the two goals scored by Liverpool, is that we still haven’t notched from open play yet.

Perhaps this had to do with Fabio Borini’s narrow miss after Raheem Sterling’s brilliant cross from the left wing.

Or maybe to do with Luis Suarez’s still-profligate finishing in open play.

Or maybe, still, to do with Suarez’s poor decision making from the flanks, often leading to mishit crosses or mistimed passes.

The fact remains that, with Andy Carroll seemingly out of favor under Rodgers, Liverpool’s strikers just aren’t clinical enough at this stage.

…But Finally Some Set-Piece Threats

There’s a new-found set-piece prowess, though, that finally brings some variety to Liverpool’s goals.

Against Manchester City, Steven Gerrard delivered a picture-perfect corner that was met with a picture-perfect bullet header from Skrtel to open the scoring.

And, just minutes after conceding to Yaya Toure, Luis Suarez delivered a picture-perfect free kick that Joe Hart couldn’t do anything about.

This on the back of an inventive piece of set-piece play that Liverpool showed in a preseason friendly against Bayer Leverkusen, which was supposed to set Suarez up for a goal, but ended up leading to the rarity that is a goal from Lucas.

All without the £10 million left foot of Charlie Adam.

Lucas Got Injured…

Speaking of Lucas, Rodgers will be hoping that his injury troubles don’t resurface.

Having worked so hard back to full fitness—and indeed making it back to first-team football a couple of months before he was scheduled to fully recover from an anterior cruciate ligament injury—Lucas pulled a muscle just minutes into Sunday’s game.

The loss of Lucas back in November last year and its impact on the rest of Liverpool’s 2011-2012 season has been retold countless times.

While this muscle pull might not and should not be on the same scale as his injury last season, Lucas has become such an integral part of the Liverpool midfield that his loss would be felt all the same.

…But Joe Allen and Jonjo Shelvey Fit Right In

Of course, all this might sound a tad melodramatic, especially given the way Joe Allen performed having been moved into Lucas’ sitting role and Jonjo Shelvey’s encouraging shift in center midfield as Lucas’ substitute.

To say they equipped themselves well would be an understatement.

Allen, with his pinpoint passing, classy distribution, decision making and closing down, showed all of Anfield why Rodgers went all out for his signature this summer. He looks to be Liverpool’s best passer of the ball since Xabi Alonso.

Shelvey shelved his enthusiastic attacking instincts and the rawer side of his physical game to fit in perfectly with short, crisp passes, as well as good positional awareness.

With new loan signing Nuri Sahin looking on from the stands, Charlie Adam and Jordan Henderson will have every reason to fear for their first-team places this season.

Early Nerves from a Young, Young Liverpool Side…

For all of Liverpool’s excellent display against the reigning champions, we started off nervously, and the stray passes in the midfield showed their nerves.

It might have been a sign of the players still taking to Rodgers’ ideas, but it probably had more to do with the fact that Liverpool played their youngest starting XI since 2003.

The average age of the Liverpool players that took to the Anfield pitch on Sunday was 24 years and 364 days.

This could have backfired spectacularly against an experienced, world-class City team.

But in the end, it almost brought Rodgers three points, and indeed heralded the beginning of a new Liverpool era.

…But for Once, Some Young Talents to Really Get Excited About

A new Liverpool era that will be spearheaded by the likes of Allen, Coates, Shelvey and Borini.

And Raheem Sterling. (You were wondering when his name would be mentioned, weren’t you?)

For all those who weren’t aware of Sterling’s burgeoning reputation, this was a warm welcome to this exciting young talent.

Chosen rightly (or should that be leftly?) in place of the continually hapless Stewart Downing, Sterling stayed on for the full 90 minutes on his first league start for Liverpool; a sign of his stamina and energy, yes, but also a sign of his maturity.

And it was a maturity that saw some exquisite first touches, good linkup plays with Glen Johnson down the left and, perhaps most importantly, a continual drive to stay on his man and close down on the opposition.

He won’t be starting for Liverpool every week, but he will be one to watch this season and for years to come.

Conclusion

All in all, a good performance from Rodgers’ charges, but still plenty of work to do to turn performances into points.

The glass has suddenly become half full.

 

Original article from Bleacher Report

West Brom 08/18/2012: What Went Wrong?

After the opening weekend of the English Premier League season, Liverpool find themselves third from bottom in the league table, courtesy of a 3-0 loss against West Brom at the Hawthorns.

Perhaps equally memorable for Zoltan Gera’s long-range strike as it will be for Liverpool’s double-penalty farce, the game marked Liverpool’s worst-ever start to a Premier League season.

The saving grace is that Brendan Rodgers has time to turn it around, but in an increasingly cutthroat Premier League, the Reds must rebound quickly.

Hindsight is 20-20, but let’s now consider five things that Rodgers got wildly wrong in an embarrassing result for his new club.

1. Failing to Set Up His Defence Against Shane Long

The first error was made painfully obvious even from the opening whistle.

Shane Long has been known for his industrious work rate leading the West Brom line, and the partnership of Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger just didn’t do enough to contain his threat up front.

Taking their time on the ball and not being mindful of Long’s presence, Skrtel and Agger were at fault for the goal that secured West Brom’s eventual victory and for Agger’s sending off.

Whether the red card and the two penalties would not have been given in an alternate universe remains up for debate, but if Skrtel and Agger had so much trouble against a harrying Shane Long, how can they be expected to contain the likes of Carlos Tevez, Edin Dzeko and Mario Balotelli for Manchester City this coming Sunday?

2. Throwing Lucas Back into the Deep End

Last Saturday marked Lucas’ return to the starting lineup in a Premier League game for the best part of nine months.

Which in itself is commendable on Lucas’ part—but in hindsight perhaps Rodgers could have done more to ease him back into the team.

That Rodgers had no qualms about slotting him straight back into his starting XI was perhaps a testament to his faith in Lucas and Lucas’ own ability. While his partnership in central midfield with Joe Allen had plenty of encouraging signs, they were ultimately overrun by a physical duo of Youssuf Mulumbu and Claudio Yacob.

The argument for Lucas’ extensive gametime is perhaps that he has featured all throughout Liverpool’s preseason, but the EPL is a whole different beast.

3. Playing and Sticking with Stewart Downing

Stewart Downing was rewarded for his fine preseason displays with a starting berth on the right wing in a front three; only for Downing to reward Rodgers’ faith with a typically anonymous performance with no end product.

If there is one thing that Rodgers should take away from his opening-day loss, it should be that Downing only delivers in games against lower-league opposition (see his dazzling cup performances last term) and those with little to no implication (see his preseason displays and that in Belarus against FC Gomel, with whom a second leg at Anfield beckoned).

Time and again the ball fell at Downing’s feet, only for him to waste crossing chance after crossing chance, or to halt the play completely while he switched back onto his favored left foot (also known as his only operable foot).

Perhaps his replacement after Agger’s sending off—Jamie Carragher—could’ve done a better job.

4. Switching Luis Suarez and Fabio Borini’s Positions

After an eye-catching display against FC Gomel, Fabio Borini emerged as a decent goalscoring option for Liverpool, and his dovetailing with Luis Suarez seemed to be an encouraging prospect.

The Suarez-Borini partnership was going swimmingly until Rodgers decided to tinker with it by switching their positions.

Previously granted the freedom of the left wing, Suarez was utilized in a central striking role against West Brom, which allowed the opposing defenders to focus their attentions on him.

While his trickery and unpredictability still ensured that they had to endure an uncomfortable night, he failed to display the finishing composure that should be expected from a central striker.

By contrast, Borini, who previously excelled at finding the space that a predatory striker thrives on, was shunted out to the wing, where he, with lesser dribbling and outright pace, failed to trouble the West Brom defence.

Together with Downing, Borini formed an anonymous wing partnership and a toothless alliance with Suarez.

5. Delaying Andy Carroll’s Introduction

The nature of a Plan B is that it should be used if Plan A doesn’t work out.

But in the case of Andy Carroll, he might not even have taken to the Hawthorns pitch if it weren’t for Joe Cole’s hamstring injury just minutes after Liverpool’s No. 10 came on as a substitute himself.

In delaying Andy Carroll’s introduction, Rodgers seemed to tread in Kenny Dalglish’s footsteps, and that hesitancy and reluctance in making key substitutions will not augur well for both the Liverpool fans and for Carroll himself.

There is perhaps a case against sending on a striker—and a big targetman at that—when you are 3-0 down, but had he been introduced early, he would have given the West Brom defence something else to worry about against a 10-man Liverpool—and an extra outlet for the Reds attack.

The Silver Lining…?

The silver lining in Saturday’s cloud, of course, is that it was Brendan Rodgers’ first league game in charge of Liverpool.

The Rodgers revolution was always going to take time, and if anything, the West Brom result perhaps served to bring expectations down to earth, albeit in an extremely sobering manner.

Perhaps it will have taken such a result for Rodgers to realize some of the points made above.

Hindsight is 20-20, but retrospect is only useful when you act on your mistakes to tackle problems in the future.

The 3-0 loss against Steve Clarke’s side will have been for nothing if Rodgers doesn’t make changes accordingly in the games to come.

 

Original article from Bleacher Report

Wigan 3/24/2012: That’s It For Now

Liverpool used to embody everything I aspired to be.

When I first watched Michael Owen in my early years, I wanted to be like him. Young, talented, successful, and with never-ending potential. I wanted to make things happen.

When I then recognized Steven Gerrard’s importance in the Liverpool team, I found the idea of being a creator even more appealing. The energetic, creative, hardworking team player who thrives on giving others opportunities. With an unparalleled ability to handle pressure and stress. That was true leadership. Not by words, but by example. As I grew into Liverpool during my high school years and became a fully-fledged diehard in college, Steven Gerrard was the very embodiment of the kind of person I wanted to become.

When I saw Rafa Benitez, I saw an intelligent and versatile manager who could work around problems and come up with ways to get over obstacles. Someone who could make do with having less talent at his disposal, but able to make up for lost ground simply through strategy.

When I watched Xabi Alonso play, I saw someone so classy he was able to make some of the hardest tasks look routine and effortless. Someone so humble and down to earth about his abilities, and so keen to give others credit. Someone whose contribution and talent he never needed to acknowledge, because everyone would realize even more during his absence.

When I fell in love with Fernando Torres, I wanted to be effective, composed, and so in tune with a collective cause that I’d be willing to sacrifice short-term gain for a long-term vision. In Pepe Reina I saw someone who championed the value of the team so highly that he would be the first to celebrate David Ngog’s clincher against Manchester United, that he would be so selflessly professional in giving Iker Casillas penalty tips.

And finally, when I watched Liverpool, I realized and connected to the importance of never giving up. Sure, Liverpool loved to do things the hard way – extra-time goals, last-minute goals, penalty shootouts. There would be frustrations along the way, but finding everything I connected to in the team and on the pitch every week, despite some trials and tribulations, was worth rooting for to the very ends of the earth.

If you know me personally, you’ll know that I’m not one to wear my heart on my sleeve. But it was the fact that I felt so in tune with Liverpool Football Club that I’d proudly wear my Liverpool shirt to class and around campus on the day of a Liverpool game, leave lectures early and run back to my dorm for a live Champions League broadcast, and wake up at 7 in the morning every weekend for Premier League action.

It was a love affair that I never thought could end.

But now, I see my erstwhile beloved team wilt away in the face of adversity.

I see them give up when the going gets tough.

I see them continue to come up with excuses to mask over problems.

I see them stay stubborn and not address areas that need substantial improvement.

I see them freeze when there are so many options to take, when they should be ecstatic at the sheer possibilities of what they can do.

I see them lie down and be unsportsmanlike.

I see a Liverpool Football Club that, contrary to what the coaches and the players claim, is heading further and further into the foggy realms of mediocrity.

And as I watch a Liverpool Football Club that used to promise so much and mean so much in my life, I’m getting more and more disillusioned and apathetic.

Because how can you muster the commitment and passion to follow a team when they don’t reciprocate that commitment and passion?

How are you supposed to buy into a club anthem that tells us to walk on with hope and to walk on through the wind and the rain, when those associated with the club don’t have that hope, and aren’t willing to battle the elements?

The Liverpool Football Club that I knew and loved is no longer.

And until that fire within me is rekindled and my support is once again deserving of its “unconditional” status, this will be it from me for now.

Everton 03/13/2012: That’s More Like It

Finally, three points to show for a dominant performance.

And what a performance.

Liverpool barnstormed to a Steven Gerrard-sized destruction of Everton in the Merseyside derby last night. The skipper’s hattrick marked an emphatic return to winning ways, and in some style.

Every single player on the pitch – even Stewart Downing, who played much more central than normal and was much less effective than he’s threatened to be in the past few weeks, and Jordan Henderson, who went through the motions of an insipid and uninspired first half – was excellent.

So where would we start?

Perhaps with Martin Kelly. Given the quality that we’ve always known to exist within Kelly, perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise that Glen Johnson is still out injured. With pace, power and positional awareness, Kelly put in a top-class performance as a marauding full-back. He might not have the close dribbling and guile that Johnson has, but he’s a handful all right. Would have made the England squad by now if it weren’t for Johnson’s form this season.

Or Jose Enrique. More evidence of his pure physical strength was on show last night as he bulldozed Everton’s right side to submission time and again. But this is what we’ve been accustomed to for most of the season. Shouldn’t be a surprise.

How about Jamie Carragher and Martin Skrtel? The much-maligned vice-captain came in and looked like he’d never left. He even cut out the long ball over the top to Carroll – I would’ve offered to eat my hat if anyone predicted that before the game. Skrtel was shifted to Daniel Agger’s usual left side, but he didn’t care. It was just business as usual as he proceeded to dominate all the one-on-ones and aerial battles that came his way. The considerably bulky Victor Anichebe and Denis Stracqualursi were reduced to nothingness and substituted having made zero meaningful contributions to the Everton attack.

And Jay Spearing? The Liverpool lad always saves something extra for the derbies, and what he lacks in pure technique and finesse, he makes up for in passion. A ubiquitous showing from the covering defensive midfielder – though, of course, we have to recognize that he can’t be the long-term back-up for Lucas.

Luis Suarez was back to his mesmerizing best, and he ripped Everton’s defence open with two assists for Gerrard. He was played largely in a supporting role behind Carroll, and that’s where he should be in the long run. Cut down on the theatrics, and we’d really have a gem on our hands.

Andy Carroll wasn’t half bad either. In fact, he was pretty darn good. Who would’ve thought he’d dominate almost all his headers against the man mountain that is Sylvain Distin? Or that he’s actually capable of Peter Crouch-esque great-touch-for-a-big-man flicks and turns? Or – I can’t believe I’m about to say this – that he can pick out a pass from the midfield like Xabi Alonso once did?

Okay, maybe I’m getting a bit over-excited, but this is some sort of minor vindication for all the support I’ve given Carroll (and all the flak I’ve taken for doing so). But seriously, it was so pleasing to see that he is actually capable of playing in a pass-and-move team. There’s plenty of hope in him yet.

And then we arrive at Stevie G.

What words can I use to describe this man that I haven’t used before?

Of course, this is the same man who’s powered me through an entire workday on the back of less than four hours of sleep – I certainly don’t regret that sleep lost its battle against a 4am match.

This was Gerrard at his midfield general, talismanic best. Putting his body on the line with some great tackles and blocks, and driving through the midfield like the Gerrard of old, he delivered a true captain’s performance. It’s not one we should be getting used to, given his advancing years, but one up there with his best, and one we should treasure. Truly first-class, and his link-up play with Carroll and Suarez was a joy to behold as well.

In case this wasn’t clear enough already – it’s been a while since I’ve felt so good about a Liverpool display.

Sure, the Carling Cup win was great, and to see some silverware was definitely satisfying – but the shootout win over Cardiff was more a relief than anything. As with so many other wins this season, because it’s been a year of such fine margins that goals have more often been greeted with relief rather than pure joy.

Not last night.

Finally, the performance we’ve almost trademarked at times this season has yielded the three points that we’ve always threatened to come away with, but have never actually succeeded in doing.

It might be too late to salvage a Top Four finish, but it’s never too late to salvage pride.

Arsenal 3/3/2012: Over and Out

Same old Anfield, just without a point.

Once again, Liverpool won in all the statistical battles but came out inferior in the most important one of all.

Perhaps, with two posts hit, a penalty missed and a few fine stops from Arsenal’s Wojciech Szczesny, Liverpool were unlucky to win. But with a total goal tally of 30 (Robin van Persie has 25 himself), Liverpool are just not doing the business in front of goal.

Which means our unimpressive home record this season is a deserved result from such a profligate attack. No two ways around it.

It certainly didn’t help that Craig Bellamy, arguably Liverpool’s most effective player this season, and Andy Carroll, who would have enjoyed a field day against Arsenal’s porous and ponderous backline, weren’t thrown on until it was too late for them to have any sort of significant impact.

Not that the defence are to be absolved any blame. Far from it.

To say that the two goals conceded were not a result of a defence falling asleep would just be a false statement.

Liverpool proved that Daniel Agger will be a massive loss over the next few weeks. Without his cultured style, Liverpool resorted to Jamie Carragher’s long-ball-first strategy that was as unfruitful as it was unpretty. As far as Carragher is concerned, his performance was one that fully justified why he’s been left out of the starting eleven this season. It was his poor positional play that led to van Persie’s first goal, and he didn’t look convincing at all in the Liverpool defence.

And it’s not that Liverpool didn’t want the result, either.

The players played their heart out today. Jay Spearing and Dirk Kuyt summed up Liverpool’s desire to get something out of the game with a typically wholehearted and never-say-die performance. When game-changing genius like van Persie’s is in short supply, it is at least comforting to see that the players want it as much as we fans do, but only somewhat.

Because alas, work ethic is just not enough at the top level.

But at least it’s better than whining and exaggerating, the kind of play that Luis Suarez has come to perfect in recent months.

By making himself the center of negative attention in every play he’s involved with, he’s making the same mistake that Fernando Torres used to make during his time at Anfield: spending an inordinate amount of time each game trying to win fouls, protest decisions and generally not being constructive. What happened to getting up and getting on with it? Where are his priorities?

Suarez is definitely not in a purple patch right now. Unfortunately, it just seems that there will be no period this season when Liverpool as a team will be on form.

Just ask Charlie Adam.

His £10-million corner kicks once again came to nothing against Arsenal. And not only did he fail to create any set piece threat, he didn’t manage to trouble the Arsenal defence at all. He showed a lack of inexperience at the top level and a serious deficiency in decision-making as he broke down Liverpool’s attacks time and again, choosing the wrong pass option and going for a Hollywood pass instead of a more constructive one.

If he’s to be the crux of our midfield play and creativity, he’s got a damn long way to go yet to fill the humongous shoes of Xabi Alonso.

At this point, I’m getting so tired and so used to the fact that our attack almost seems unwilling to score and put away chances that I’d be surprised if we got out of Anfield with anything more than a point. I’d even guessed that it’d be another bore draw for both teams, which would’ve been bad enough for both teams.

I just never thought we’d come away with nothing.

 

Modified from a Bleacher Report article