Category Archives: Premier League

Strengthening Defence More Important for Liverpool Than Replacing Luis Suarez

So after a good few weeks of speculation, it’s finally official: Luis Suarez has left Liverpool to sign for Barcelona, as confirmed by BBC Sport, for a fee of about £75 million.

As Liverpool fans across the world start to come to terms with the news that one of their greatest-ever players has left after leading the Reds to within a whisker of the Premier League title last season, they might be feeling just a little apprehensive about the coming 2014/15 campaign.

And who could blame them? After all, it’s not just any ordinary forward who has left Anfield: Suarez left at the peak of his powers, having matured from a profligate finisher to a world-class forward, setting scoring records in the Premier League last season despite missing his first five league games of the season.

Yet—unbelievable as it may be—it’s not all doom and gloom for the Reds. Sure, it will be a tough ask replacing the 30-plus goals Suarez now guarantees a season, but there should be other priorities in Brendan Rodgers’ mind even now.

He must focus on strengthening his defence.

 

Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

 

 

Defence a Red Achilles’ Heel

By the end of the 2013/14 Premier League season, when Manchester City had finally usurped Liverpool as champions-elect, it was too little, too late to realize where Liverpool had lost the title.

Perhaps Steven Gerrard will forever shoulder much of the blame for his fatal slip against Chelsea, when he mistakenly put Demba Ba through on goal. And perhaps it was the throwing away of a three-goal lead at Selhurst Park that confirmed their fate.

But throughout the whole campaign, it was Liverpool’s defence that let them down. A total of 50 goals conceded—the second highest among the top eight, just a solitary goal behind sixth-placed Tottenham Hotspur—said it all about a shaky defensive unit that frequently had to rely on an admittedly all-star attack to bail them out.

Suarez’s departure will add more pressure to his ex-strike partners to come close to the astonishing 101-goal haul last season, but it will also place the spotlight on a leaky defence that has to get better.

There are always two sides to the same coin and two contrasting ways to look at a trend: Namely, that Liverpool showed both strength in character and mentality to secure comebacks and outscore their opponents by one goal to get the three points—but equally, Rodgers’ back four weren’t exactly a reassuring presence when they needed to be.

Of course, it didn’t help that due to injury, Rodgers was deprived of his first-choice back four for most of the season—though that was the opportunity that Jon Flanagan took with both hands to resurrect his career at Anfield—but the time has come now to address these problems.

 

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

 

 

Upgrades Are Needed

It seems strange to see Liverpool building bright young midfield and forward lines, especially with the signing of Emre Can and the blossoming of Raheem Sterling, on a foundation provided by an increasingly erratic Glen Johnson, an inconsistent Martin Skrtel, a hesitant Daniel Agger and a perpetually injured Jose Enrique.

Though Johnson seemed to have rediscovered his form at times toward the end of the season, it is telling that he has yet to sign a contract extension. As things stand, he will be a free agent next summer.

As prolific as Skrtel was last season, scoring seven league goals in 36 games, he was also responsible for four own goals, and his concentration and leadership have yet to truly convince.

Vice-captain Agger is a curious case. As one of the Reds’ most loyal servants in the group, he seems to have lost the faith of Rodgers, with Mamadou Sakho often preferred as the starting left-sided center back, and he is even linked with a summer exit from Liverpool, according to Spanish newspaper Mundo Deportivo (h/t Vaishali Bhardwaj of Metro).

Finally, Enrique’s brand of physical and brazen football doesn’t fit in well with Rodgers’ preference for intelligent tactical play; even Flanagan’s displays seemed to have worked better in his system.

Given the high-profile links with Southampton’s Dejan Lovren, per Gary Jones of the Daily Star, it seems evident that Liverpool have identified center back as a priority position, but the reality is that upgrades are needed all across the back four.

And we haven’t yet touched on the hotly debated position that is goalkeeper.

 

Clive Rose/Getty Images

 

 

An Unlikely Smokescreen Would Be Nice

Yet for all of the strengthening that Liverpool’s defence need, the rumor market is still in a frenzy linking the Reds with a forward to replace the goals of Suarez.

Now that Alexis Sanchez, previously a candidate either to play with Suarez at Anfield or to replace him as part of the deal taking the Uruguayan to Camp Nou, has joined Arsenal, the seemingly most adequate successor has slipped out of Rodgers’ grasp.

Cue the rumors linking the Reds with a move for Swansea City’s Wilfried Bony, via Sam Cunningham of the Daily Mail, and the apparently imminent double deal for Divock Origi and Lazar Markovic, via BBC Sport‘s Ben Smith.

All well and good, except they seem to hint that the club are preoccupied with filling the Suarez-shaped void up front and neglecting the obvious issues at the back.

Besides Lovren, Liverpool have not been seriously linked with any central defender, while an on-again, off-again approach for Sevilla’s Alberto Moreno seems to be their only lead in the full-back areas.

Which leaves arguably more than half of all the defensive positions in need of upgrading, if we include Simon Mignolet’s position between the Anfield posts.

Shave away Suarez’s 31 league goals from Liverpool’s total tally, and they would have scored just one fewer than Chelsea. Contrast Liverpool’s 50 goals conceded with Manchester City’s 37 and Chelsea’s 27—even Arsenal’s 41—and we arrive at the root of the Reds’ failure to win the league.

There are big issues to address at the back for Brendan Rodgers. Liverpool fans should be hoping that the incessant and never-ending striker rumors are but a smokescreen for the real revolution that needs to take place in defence.

Otherwise—Suarez’s goals or not—they’ll be in for a rough ride.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

Top Summer Transfer Need for Every Premier League Club

As we eagerly await the start of the Brazil World Cup in a few weeks, the transfer rumour mill has gone into frenzy after the Premier League season ended earlier this month.

Every day we see new links between players and clubs, new tantrums thrown by agents and new bullish proclamations by managers and owners. But which of those rumors carelessly thrown about actually have some legs to them?

Here’s a guide on the top summer transfer need for every Premier league club. Let us know your picks in the comments below.

 

Arsenal: Defensive Midfielder

A thrilling FA Cup win over Hull City finally gave Arsenal a piece of silverware to cheer about and overshadow another fourth-place finish in the Premier League.

It wasn’t for a lack of leadership in defence: Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny formed an excellent partnership. Nor for a lack of creativity and productivity in attack, either; with an attack comprising Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Olivier Giroud, how could any team be found wanting up front?

With Aaron Ramsey storming back to form after his injury layoff and Theo Walcott still to return—their absences made a major impact on the Gunners’ season—it is the core of the midfield that needs strengthening.

Without steel and leadership at the base of a young and attack-minded midfield, Arsenal at times looked soft last season and were cruelly exposed by teams pushing through the middle. The lack of a world-class enforcer and a leader by example—Mikel Arteta, sadly, isn’t either—has cost Arsene Wenger’s side in the league.

Arsenal will probably look to add to their defence and attack this summer, but if they finish the transfer window without having brought in a defensive midfielder, they could be contemplating another season without lasting the title race.

 

Aston Villa: Striker

It wasn’t quite an example of “second-season syndrome” by Christian Benteke—he still hit 10 league goals. But perhaps it was a case of all immediate competitors strengthening well, making Aston Villa look poor in comparison.

When Benteke sustained his long injury layoff and would miss the end of the season, we saw how hard Villa had to graft in order to secure results.

Sure, Andreas Weimann and Gabby Agbonlahor (who was also sidelined through injury) provided pace and width, while Fabian Delph supplied drive and power through the middle, but in an otherwise well-balanced team, Villa have lacked options up front.

With owner Randy Lerner putting the club up for sale and manager Paul Lambert’s future up in the air, turbulent times lie ahead. They can’t start the season with just Benteke as their only senior striker, and Darren Bent’s return from a dismal loan spell at Fulham won’t add much to the equation.

 

Burnley: Central Midfielder

On paper, Burnley probably go into the summer with the worst squad in the Premier League. Yet this is a team that scored 72 goals in the Championship last season—the fourth most in the league—and conceded just 37—the league’s best defensive record.

So perhaps, even with well-known Premier League names few and far between in defence and up front, Burnley can be spared premature criticism—but that doesn’t mean that their midfield is close to ready for the top flight.

An already lightweight midfield has been further weakened after the end of Michael Kightly’s loan from Stoke City. As Sean Dyche’s side will find out, the Premier League is a whole different environment than the Championship.

If they don’t strengthen their midfield core, they won’t enjoy their battles in the centre of the pitch next season.

 

Chelsea: Striker

When it comes to Chelsea, the answer is easy: striker.

Jose Mourinho has a world-class team at his disposal, from their dual option of Petr Cech and the returning Thibaut Courtois in goal right up to the brilliant attacking midfield line of Eden Hazard, Oscar and Willian et al. What he lacked all of last season was a world-class striker to lead the line.

Hence the rumors of Diego Costa and Mario Mandzukic moving to Stamford Bridge this summer. The Blues will be prepared to spend on a big-name striker to deliver the goals when they need to grind out a result next season.

Oh, and Didier Drogba is available on a free.

 

Crystal Palace: Striker

It wasn’t as if he lit Selhurst Park on fire last season, but when Crystal Palace confirmed that Marouane Chamakh may leave when his one-year contract at the club expires at the end of next month, it became patently clear that Tony Pulis has lots to do to strengthen his attack.

Dwight Gayle showed in his last couple of games that he might just have the ability to be a Premier League player—despite costing a hefty amount when he signed last summer—but he alone won’t be able to lead Palace to two consecutive seasons in the top flight.

Pulis’ teams are known for their rugged defence, while Mile Jedinak has led a disciplined midfield this season. Both areas will need improvements, but the Eagles only have two recognized senior strikers in their first-team squad—Gayle and Glenn Murray—if they do not reach an agreement with Chamakh, or a deal with loanee Cameron Jerome.

They might not be relegation favourites next season, such is the influence of Pulis, but Palace will have to bring in reinforcements if they are to compete.

 

Everton: Striker

In Roberto Martinez’s hands, Everton appear to have a bright future. Their young and energetic team turned heads with their exciting style last season, while Martinez’s eagerness to promote youth can only be a good thing for the Premier League.

Yet it would be foolish to disagree completely with those jibes that they wouldn’t have achieved their fifth-place finish without their loan players—Gareth Barry and Romelu Lukaku played huge parts in Everton’s season.

While Barry might end up returning to Goodison Park on a permanent transfer—the Blues have also been linked with fellow Manchester City reject (and former old boy) Jack Rodwell—the issue of striking options remains a tricky one.

Lukaku may set his sights on becoming a first-team player for Chelsea or become involved in a deal for a big-name striker. Steven Naismith, while a useful and hardworking option, doesn’t have the required quality for a top-four push, and Arouna Kone, injured or not, is getting on.

Get in a genuinely exciting striker, and Everton can really look to push on next season.

 

Hull City: Central Midfielder

At the start of last season, quite a few of us had Hull City as relegation favorites. Their squad just didn’t seem up to the task for a long and challenging Premier League campaign.

But Steve Bruce has proved to be a reliable Premier League manager over the years, and so it proved again. Hull surprised many onlookers with their defensive strength, led by the impressive Curtis Davies, and the KC Stadium became a tricky place for teams to visit.

A previously toothless attack, especially after Robbie Brady’s injury, was augmented with the additions of Nikica Jelavic and Shane Long in January—a Premier League-level strikeforce, at last.

What’s left now is to add in the centre. Jake Livermore’s impact after signing on a season-long loan from Tottenhm Hotspur will likely lead to Bruce going all out to secure his permanent transfer this summer, and reunite him with Tom Huddlestone.

Hull would do well to strengthen their central core. They might need more than Livermore.

 

Leicester City: Striker

The runaway champions in England’s second tier, Leicester City, will bring a decent squad to the Premier League next season, with an experienced defence strengthened by the free transfer signing of Matthew Upson.

A midfield lacking Premier League experience has just been significantly improved by the arrival of Marc Albrighton, who had been released by Aston Villa (per BBC Sport).

While David Nugent is a 20-goal Championship striker, he has shown to be out of depth at the Premier League level, while 16-goal Jamie Vardy isn’t likely to strike fear into his opponents’ hearts next season.

Nigel Pearson will be acutely aware of his team’s deficiencies up front as Leicester approach their summer transfer activity.

 

Liverpool: Central Defender

By now, it’s well-known that Liverpool’s title challenge last season fell short because of their leaky defence. A goals-conceded tally of 50 proved too much to make up for, even with a forward line as prolific as theirs.

As the season went on, it appeared that Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho cemented themselves as Brendan Rodgers’ first-choice central defensive partnership. Summer addition Kolo Toure proved to be a shaky option, while Daniel Agger appeared to have failed to convince the Liverpool manager.

Yet Skrtel and Sakho themselves proved defensive liabilities as well, not least with their errant positioning and erratic concentration. The lack of leadership at the back was evident all season, but made especially clear in their capitulation against Crystal Palace in the penultimate game of the season.

For a side that finished two points behind the eventual winners, Liverpool still have plenty to do on the transfer front; their current squad will take lots of strengthening if they are to sustain their level of performances through till next season, given their Champions League commitments.

But central defence trumps all other positions in terms of transfer need. Urgent transfer need.

 

Manchester City: Central Defender

In the end, the best team always wins the league. Manchester City might have spent the fewest days at the top of the tree out of the top four over the course of the season, but their squad proved most able to last the title charge and deservedly lifted the Premier League trophy.

You’d be hard pressed to find a weakness in Manuel Pellegrini’s side, such is the quality throughout the entire team and across all positions.

If there’s one area that needs strengthening, it’d be at the centre of their defence. Despite Vincent Kompany’s nomination into the Team of the Year, his performances didn’t match the consistency and excellence of previous campaigns, while Martin Demichelis only came into his own in the last couple of months.

To handle the attacking threat of the strongest teams in Europe, an upgrade is needed, especially on the left side of the central defence. Matija Nastasic was unable to sustain his debut-season form due to injury and City may need to look elsewhere to strengthen.

 

Manchester United: Central Defender

How the mood at a club can change because of a new manager. It seems like it’s been an age since David Moyes was managing Manchester United, and now that Louis van Gaal is on board, United might have a manager whose clout they badly needed in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era.

Not that this changes anything in terms of the United squad though; besides an all-star selection of attacking players, they have plenty to do in the midfield and defence.

Though Van Gaal needs to upgrade on Michael Carrick, Tom Cleverley and Marouane Fellaini, with Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand leaving, his most urgent need is to strengthen his central defence. Phil Jones and Chris Smalling have yet to develop into the centre-back partnership that Ferguson thought they would.

Rafael da Silva and Patrice Evra remain a defensive liability, but without a reliable and solid centre-back, United are left easily exposed by better forward lines—we only have to look at Moyes’ defensive record at Old Trafford this season as a harrowing example.

 

Newcastle United: Striker

Out of the 43 goals Newcastle United scored this season, Loic Remy, on loan from Queens Park Rangers, scored 14 and Yohan Cabaye, now at Paris Saint-Germain, scored 7. That’s almost half the total tally.

Besides that? Yoan Gouffran netted six and Moussa Sissoko and Hatem Ben Arfa netted three apiece Most alarmingly, Shola Ameobi, whose contract has now expired, and Papiss Cisse, he who enjoyed that single half-season of scoring form, both registered a paltry total of two.

Forget their needs in defence and midfield, this summer is all about finding a striker for Newcastle. If they don’t manage to bring in a quality option to replace Remy up front by the start of September, they could be looking at a long, hard few months before January comes around.

And that wouldn’t be fun for anyone.

 

Queens Park Rangers: Central Defender

Considering that Queens Park Rangers’ wage bill was higher than Champions League finalists Atletico Madrid last season (per the Guardian), it’s perhaps no surprise that QPR ultimately won promotion back to the Premier League.

In their ranks are a whole host of players with extensive Premier League experience, as well as international stars, some of them remnants of their failed battle against relegation in the 2012/13 season.

Having completed the Championship campaign with Richard Dunne and Clint Hill as their defensive mainstays—as well as a group of underwhelming Premier League players—QPR are most in need of reinforcements in the center of their defence.

The creaking legs of Dunne and Hill won’t be pretty to watch against the top flight’s young and sprightly forward lines.

 

Southampton: Striker

After a successful season and a half at the Saints helm, Mauricio Pochettino and his young charges are reportedly the subject of intense interest from elsewhere in the Premier League, and Southampton may end up selling some of their most important players this summer.

From Adam Lallana to Luke Shaw, from Jay Rodriguez to Dejan Lovren—not to mention Pochettino himself—the stars of the Saints’ campaign may be moving on. Make no mistake, this will be a defining few months for Southampton’s short- to medium-term future.

It’s a good thing that they have a stellar youth academy to fall back on. Callum Chambers and James Ward-Prowse are but two of the hot prospects ready to step up in case of departures, though the potential exits of Lallana, Morgan Schneiderlin and Rodriguez could have big ramifications on Southampton’s upcoming campaign.

Even if they start next season with their full squad intact, it looks as if central striker may be their most pressing transfer need. With Rickie Lambert not getting any younger, Rodriguez’s absence towards the end of the season severely dented the Saints’ firepower.

Daniel Osvaldo didn’t work out and they need another striking option to deliver the goals and to take over Lambert’s mantle when the time comes—and hope that the majority of the current crop are still around to ease that transition.

 

Stoke City: Striker

Mark Hughes’ Stoke City proved to be a well-rounded team in terms of goals scored—their goals last season were shared among a sizeable number of their squad, which explains their ninth-place finish.

Leading the way was Peter Crouch with eight, and their second striker on the list was Peter Odemwingie with five, followed by Marko Arnautovic, who played more on the flanks, with four. With Hannover striker Mame Biram Diouf apparently nearing a move to the Britannia Stadium, according to ESPNFC, it might come as a surprise that our tip for their biggest transfer need is up front.

But with a decent Premier League-level midfield capable of scoring goals and a notoriously rugged defence, it’s their attack that most needs a shot in the arm in terms of goal return.

Diouf will add to the squad but does not provide the instant upgrade up front. Crouch isn’t getting any younger and Arnautovic needs to turn his quality and creativity into goal-getting productivity. We’d be surprised if Diouf was the Potters’ only striking addition this summer.

 

Sunderland: Central Midfielder

Yes, we are suggesting that Sunderland—having lost Fabio Borini back to Liverpool and who go into the summer with just Connor Wickham and Jozy Altidore as their established strikers—should place their transfer priorities in central midfield and not up front.

Because we’ve seen the style of play that Gus Poyet wants to impose in his Black Cats: an aesthetically pleasing, passing-heavy, attacking side. That means that the midfield is arguably their most important position on the pitch.

It doesn’t help that both Jack Colback and Sebastian Larsson are out of contract this summer. While Liam Bridcutt was an interesting signing who provided plenty of glimpses of his composure and quality on the ball, the loan return of Ki Sung-yueng back to Swansea City does not bode well for Sunderland.

Ki’s passing and vision—not to mention the odd goal or two from midfield—were crucial to the Black Cats’ survival last season and will undoubtedly be missed. His role at the base of the midfield, playing simple passes to spread play and alleviate pressure off his midfield colleagues, will need to be reprised next year, and Poyet doesn’t have anyone of Ki’s ilk in his current squad.

 

Swansea City: Central Defender

With 54 goals scored and 54 goals conceded, Swansea City were the only side to finish the season with a goal difference of zero. A testament to their attacking ability—they were joint-eighth in terms of goals scored—but an indication of their defensive vulnerability as well.

Jonjo Shelvey proved to be an inspired signing last summer, while Wilfried Bony—who, after his exploits last season, will surely be on the shopping list of many a club looking for a powerful line-leading striker—will resume his telepathic partnership with Michu if both stay fit and remain at the club.

So that’s the attack sorted, and given Garry Monk’s fondness for attacking football, he will no doubt be on the lookout for attacking reinforcements as well.

But the position they most urgently need an upgrade in is at centre-back, where Chico Flores regressed considerably and became a defensive liability with his lapses in concentration and penchant for the bizarre.

For much of the season, Swansea spent their campaign worrying about a possible drop back into the Championship. They need a more reliable defensive partnership to ensure that doesn’t happen next term—goals or no goals.

 

Tottenham Hotspur: Full-Back

With the squad that they have, and the money that they spent building it, perhaps Tottenham Hotspur were the real underachievers of last season.

There is quality all across the team. Even if Roberto Soldado proved to be a flop in his first season, perhaps there could be a way to make a partnership with Emmanuel Adebayor work. Then there’s the small matter of a quality midfield.

Despite a relative weakness at the back, their most pressing need is on both flanks in defence. Kyle Walker and Danny Rose showed glimpses of their promise but failed to deliver regularly, while Kyle Naughton is simply not up to Premier League standard.

Instead of starting Naughton (or Ezekiel Freyers) as a back-up or shunting Jan Vertonghen out as a makeshift left-back, what Spurs should do is invest in an upgrade in their full-back positions.

 

West Bromwich Albion: Striker

It is a curiosity that West Bromwich Albion, given the squad they possess, had to wait until the penultimate game of the season (let’s face it—Norwich City were as good as relegated by then) to secure their Premier League status.

On paper, they have a good goalkeeper, a decent defence, and a strong midfield core. What’s left is a forward line capable of scoring goals and adding points on the board.

Stephane Sessegnon and Saido Berahino were tied as top scorers for the Baggies last season with just five, while their second most prolific scorer was midfielder Morgan Amalfitano, who is now back at Marseille after his loan spell at the Hawthorns.

Regardless of the burgeoning interest in Berahino, West Brom badly need a more threatening presence alongside him up front: Victor Anichebe might bring the hulk and power, but he is far from an established Premier League-level marksman.

 

West Ham United: Full-Back

Despite reports that West Ham United will bring in a new attacking coach next season to save Hammers fans from the dour, predictable style of football of Sam Allardyce (per BBC Sport), their attacking style will still centre heavily around target man Andy Carroll and the onrushing Kevin Nolan.

We saw last season that when both players are fit and on form—presumably, Carroll will be next season with a summer off and a full pre-season schedule under his belt after returning from injury—their understanding and partnership can actually be quite fruitful.

West Ham are well set up to service these two key men, with delivery from wide from Stewart Downing, Matt Jarvis and Matthew Taylor, while Mohamed Diame and Ravel Morrison—if they can hold onto him—provide pace, power and drive through the middle. Add the trademark rugged central defence, and it’s actually a quite decent Hammers squad.

But they need to upgrade their full-backs. Guy Demel is clumsy and doesn’t offer much going forward, while Allardyce is short of a starting full-back after Pablo Armero’s loan from Napoli finished and George McCartney’s release.

Imagine what two full-backs capable of bombing down the flanks, putting in good crosses and dovetailing with the wingers in front of them could do to West Ham’s attack. Is that too much to ask for?

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

10 Things Liverpool Learned from the 2013/14 Premier League Season

Perhaps it was just a touch too far for Liverpool in the end. Their fans harbored the hope and the romanticism, but Manchester City’s ruthless efficiency meant that as soon as Liverpool handed first place in the Premier League back into City’s hands, it was always going to be a tall order for the Reds.

On Liverpool’s part, it could’ve been a poetic end to the season on the final day. Steven Gerrard providing two set-piece assists to go clear in the Premier League assist charts, a goal from Daniel Agger on possibly his last-ever appearance for the Reds, and a goal for the understated Daniel Sturridge—all after Newcastle United took the lead through some dodgy Liverpool defending.

West Ham United—Andy Carroll, Stewart Downing and Joe Cole et al—just couldn’t play their supposed part against City on Sunday.

But while the conciliatory and congratulatory messages will be sent from the red half of Merseyside to the blue half of Manchester amid disappointment—“devastation,” Gerrard told Sky Sports (h/t Fox Sports)—at a lost chance to win a title, the overriding mood at Anfield after the final whistle on Sunday was a celebratory one.

For while City’s two goals in a clean sheet sealed their second title in three years, the Liverpool fans preferred to bask in the knowledge that their team had stormed their way back into the top four ahead of Brendan Rodgers’ schedule and preferred to acknowledge the brave but valiant efforts of their heroes.

And why not? It’s been an exciting campaign for Liverpool, and here are 10 things we learned from their 2013/14 Premier League season. Enjoy and let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

 

Attack Wins Games…

Attack Wins Games…Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Having scored 101 goals in 38 league games this season—just one short of Manchester City’s haul—Liverpool have been one of English football’s great entertainers over the past 10 months.

Without taking any penalties and having missed his first five games of the season, Luis Suarez equaled the 38-game-season Premier League goal-scoring tally of 31, while Daniel Sturridge added 21 goals and Steven Gerrard 13.

The blitzing of Tottenham Hotspur (both home and away), Everton and Arsenal—all considered rivals at the start of the season—will be remembered for years to come, as the Reds hit three or more goals in a remarkable 21 out of their 38 games. The thrilling 11-game winning streak that rocketed Brendan Rodgers’ men to the top of the table with a few games to go was especially memorable.

Rodgers has instilled flexibility, directness and dynamism into his team, who are now capable of changing tactical formations from game to game and during matches. They can score goals from a variety of approaches—counterattacks, direct free kicks and other set pieces. The interchanging of his electric forward line has added to their aesthetic appeal, which has won them fans up and down the country and around the world.

From 71 goals last season to 101 this term—a 30-goal swing over a 38-game span—it has been a remarkable improvement in attacking form from by and large the same group of players, and Rodgers deserves as much credit as his charges.

Liverpool fan or not, this has been a season to savor.

 

…But Defence Wins Championships

…But Defence Wins ChampionshipsMichael Regan/Getty Images

Yet a simple comparison of goal difference between City and Liverpool shows everything about how the season has panned out: City, who scored just one more goal in total, finished with a goal difference of plus-65, compared with Liverpool’s plus-51.

Somehow it seemed fitting that Martin Skrtel’s own goal was Newcastle’s opener on Sunday—he is the highest-scoring defender in the Premier League with seven goals this season, yet his four own goals this season set a Premier League record.

Defence has proved to be Liverpool’s Achilles’ heel, and the main reason behind their failure to win the title.

Inevitable off days notwithstanding, there were fixtures and results that hinted at their defence being susceptible and potentially damaging to their cause. Hard-fought wins over Stoke City (5-3), Fulham (3-2), Swansea City (4-3) and Norwich City (3-2) always featured three goals or more scored, but required resolute defending to hold onto their slender lead.

So as much as it was anticlimactic from Liverpool’s point of view, the draw at Crystal Palace in the penultimate match of the season was actually arguably a long time coming, considering their weaknesses in defence and tendency to commit costly mistakes.

Liverpool finished the season just two points behind Manchester City. If they had been able to turn one loss into one win or two draws into two wins, they would’ve ended on top. Their attack is near-complete; it’s now the defence that needs major work.

 

A Mental Collapse Toward the End…

A Mental Collapse Toward the End…Clive Rose/Getty Images

In this season’s title race, we saw it all from Steven Gerrard: the “crazy eyes” after his opener in the 4-0 rout over Everton, a shirt-flinging celebration after a last-gasp penalty winner over Fulham, a kiss for the camera after his second penalty at Manchester United and even emotional tears after the thrilling win over Manchester City.

And if those celebrations weren’t enough to confirm just how desperate Gerrard was to win his first-ever Premier League title, surely the team talk that he gave on the pitch after the City match did.

So it was a cruel twist of fate—and to some an inevitable turn of events—that Gerrard was the one who committed the fatal error to let Demba Ba through, allowing Chelsea an opening goal deep into first-half stoppage time and hand the impetus back to City.

From then on, we rarely saw the Reds’ nerves settle.

Instead of playing it patiently and build attacks through Suarez, Liverpool opted to cross aimlessly into the box against Chelsea’s bus-parked box while notching their highest tally of crosses in a single game over the course of the season. A draw would’ve done just fine.

Instead of holding a three-goal lead and maximizing the points return at Palace, Rodgers opted to take off Raheem Sterling, one of his best defensive players this season, and decided to leave his experienced defenders on the bench in a bid to rack up the goals. A simple three points, which they were on the way to achieving, would’ve done just fine.

An 11-match winning run was what started making the Kop dream—but conversely it was the belief and dreams that led them to a calamitous collapse in the crucial moment of the season. The five dropped points made the difference in the end.

 

…But a Clear Sign of Increasing Maturity

…But a Clear Sign of Increasing MaturityAlex Livesey/Getty Images

Eleven wins on the bounce is no mean feat, and in the context of the entire season—and considering the lack of squad depth and strength at Rodgers’ disposal—the Reds, by and large, carried and managed themselves well.

There were the nervy wins brought about by the hesitant defence and the prolific attack, and there were moments that showed Liverpool’s increasing maturity.

Holding onto a one-goal lead when the tide had turned and the momentum had shifted to their opponents was a sure sign of mental progress on the part of Rodgers’ men. In April when they held their nerve against relegation-fighting Norwich City after Philippe Coutinho’s second-half winner over Manchester City, Liverpool fans started to believe.

No two players can exhibit finer physical and mental development this season than the excellent Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson, who got their chances to impress and took them in their own hands beyond any reasonable belief.

As we consider the close-season anticlimax, a good context to keep in mind is that one of the league’s youngest squads repeatedly held their nerve to secure a second-placed finish.

It will be of some comfort that reported targets Adam Lallana and Steven Caulker are currently the club captains of their respective clubs (Southampton and Cardiff City). Leadership is being targeted.

 

“They Have Been the Most Wonderful Underdogs”…

“They Have Been the Most Wonderful Underdogs”…

Paul Gilham/Getty Images

Players and fans alike have lauded the fervent atmosphere of Anfield this season, especially during the final few weeks of the season when the Kop roared on in full voice every match and Liverpool fans lined the streets of the city to inspire the players.

The atmosphere has frequently been compared with that of Champions League nights at Anfield, and now the Reds finally have that to savor next season.

This title race even evoked memories of the miraculous Champions League final turnaround in Istanbul almost nine years ago—and Martin Tyler’s remark that the Reds had been the “most wonderful underdogs” over the course of the tournament that season surely applied to their Premier League title challenge this time around.

A young squad playing scintillating attacking football with the charismatic Rodgers and the elder statesman that is Gerrard helming the side—Liverpool’s title challenge was inconceivable but widely welcomed and supported.

For most of the season, they played with no fear and without shackles. Chelsea and Manchester City were the big spenders with big-name players and managers, while Arsenal’s fall from top of the league to fourth place, Everton’s top-four challenge, Tottenham Hotspur’s wild inconsistencies under Tim Sherwood and Manchester United’s spectacular demise captured all the headlines.

As they have proved over the years, especially in Europe under Rafael Benitez, Liverpool are at their most dangerous when the underdog tag is applied.

 

…But What Happens When the Pressure Is On?

…But What Happens When the Pressure Is On?

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

The question now is whether or not the Reds can live with a “favorites” tag.

To expect a thin squad and a poor bench to sustain a top performance level over the course of a season and outcompete world-class teams proved too much this season. While their lack of European football has been claimed by many to provide them with a sense of regularity, the fact that Liverpool didn’t even qualify for Europe last season says it all about their status as underdogs.

When the pressure was well and truly on and they were expected to see out the season in first place, they buckled.

Whether it was because of Gerrard’s unfortunate slip, Rodgers’ decision to go for the jugular against Chelsea when a draw would’ve done or the naivety that they could make up for the gigantic goal difference by continuing to pile forward with a three-goal lead against Crystal Palace, Liverpool seemed to make the wrong decisions at the wrong time.

And after providing a surprise element and a breath of fresh air this season, Liverpool will be considered favorites for the top four again next year, and another title challenge—especially in anticipation of their transfer activity this summer—has already been mooted.

It’s not just about managing expectations anymore; it’s about managing themselves so they can unlock their potential, but also get results over the line when they most need them.

 

Success Built on Experience and Quality…

Success Built on Experience and Quality…

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Where would Liverpool be this May without Luis Suarez and Steven Gerrard?

Together, the No. 7 and No. 8 contributed 44 goals and 25 assists, over 68 per cent of Liverpool’s whopping total of 101 goals over the campaign—and that’s including Suarez’s five-game suspension at the start of the season and Gerrard’s midseason injury layoff.

When Liverpool fans look back in years to come, their likely conclusion will be that keeping Suarez away from the clutches of Arsenal in the summer of 2013 might just have proved their most pivotal decision in recent years.

And Rodgers moving Gerrard into a withdrawn playmaking role has unlocked the best out of the captain, possibly even extending his playing career.

Suarez has added even more to his arsenal (ha): Not only has he evolved into a fearsome finisher, but he has also become prolific at direct free kicks and also ranks second in the Premier League assist charts.

Likewise Gerrard, who has taken to his new position smoothly and has been able to unlock defences through his unerring through balls and long passes. His dead-ball deliveries have been a big component of Liverpool’s league-leading set-piece goal tally.

 

…But Exciting Glimpses Toward the Future

…But Exciting Glimpses Toward the Future

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

But despite Suarez and Gerrard taking first and second place in the Football Writers’ Player of the Year awards, their supporting cast have been equally important and threatened to steal the show.

There is no need to elaborate on the maturation of Jordan Henderson, nor the meteoric rise of Raheem Sterling—likewise with the resurgence of Jon Flanagan, the consistency of Daniel Sturridge and the mercurial talent of Philippe Coutinho.

What has been made abundantly clear is that Rodgers, himself a young coach, has prized talent development and made youth a centerpiece of his Liverpool side. In taking such a young team to within a whisker of the Premier League title takes vision and guts and deserves credit.

That Henderson, Sterling and Sturridge have risen from pure potential to potentially starting alongside their club captain in Roy Hodgson’s England lineup in the World Cup this summer is a testament to their own hard work and Rodgers’ tutelage.

Add a few more quality players with at least a few top years ahead of them this summer, and Anfield could witness not just a new generation of blossoming talent, but a golden era in itself.

The possibilities are tantalizing.

 

Liverpool Face Their Most Pivotal Summer Transfer Window…

Liverpool Face Their Most Pivotal Summer Transfer Window…

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

To realize their potential, however, Liverpool must continue their encouraging momentum and take full advantage of a first genuinely exciting summer transfer window ahead of them.

For the first time in a few years, the Reds have the Champions League and a title challenge to offer—with the money that comes on the back of such developments—and can use them to attract the players that will keep them there.

Too many transfer windows have come and gone without real progress. Even last summer, after almost six months of tantalizing attacking football following the excellent additions of Sturridge and Coutinho, the Anfield club wasted a good opportunity.

Eight players were signed, but only Simon Mignolet has managed to make himself a mainstay in Rodgers’ team. Pepe Reina left on loan to Napoli, leaving the Belgian as the only realistic choice as No. 1.

The excuse that has often been offered is that squad strengthening was the priority last summer, but a quick look at the Liverpool bench shows that even that objective was not realized.

They must not repeat the same mistakes again, not in the least because their rivals will no doubt be spending big to boost their own squads this summer.

 

…But the Belief Is Back

…But the Belief Is Back

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

At the core of it all, though, this season has been about the triumphant return of belief, of lofty ideals and of giddy daydreaming for Liverpool Football Club—whether it be in the stands, on the Kop, on the Anfield pitch or in newspaper headlines around England and the world.

As we close out the season and look ahead to the World Cup—less so the inevitable circus that is the summer transfer window—we prefer not to focus on the possibility that this was perhaps Liverpool’s best shot at the title for many years to come.

We prefer not to focus on the calamitous slip that lost them their sure footing en route to winning a first-ever Premier League title.

Why focus on the negatives, when Liverpool have just finished ahead of schedule, not only in the Champions League places, but just two points short of the title outright?

While they have done so while breaking the three-digit mark in terms of goals scored, just one short from one of the most expensive squads in world sport? And with one of the youngest top-ranked teams in all of European football?

The anxiety and apprehension at how next season will pan out should come right as the Premier League resumes again in August—not now.

The anxiety and apprehension will only come about because Liverpool have made it possible to dream again anyway.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

Film Focus: Previewing Liverpool vs. Newcastle United Ahead of Anfield Clash

Liverpool host Newcastle United at Anfield on the final day of the 2013/14 Premier League season, with the Reds needing a win to have any chance of clinching a first league title in 24 years.

This fixture has been one of the most entertaining and exciting in Premier League history, with goals almost always guaranteed and both teams fond of playing attacking football. The reverse fixture at St James’ Park back in October ended in a 2-2 stalemate, while Liverpool fans will remember clearly their 6-0 drubbing of Newcastle towards the end of last season.

Since then, both teams have experienced contrasting fortunes: Brendan Rodgers has led his team from a seventh-place finish to being within reach of the title, while Alan Pardew has seen his future publicly questioned by the Geordie faithful.

And while the Liverpool fans at Anfield will be looking to give their heroes a much-deserved ovation during the post-match lap of honor, they will also be keeping a keen eye on developments at the Etihad Stadium, where a West Ham United win over Manchester City could mean that Liverpool wrest the title back if they do the business at Anfield.

As we continue our preview series in the buildup to this pivotal final-day clash—click here for our Liverpool lineup for the match—let’s take a closer look at a few scenarios that may decide how Sunday’s game will pan out.

 

A Tale of Set Pieces

Since the departure of Yohan Cabaye over the January transfer window, Newcastle United have desperately lacked a talisman and game-changer from set pieces.

And this has been a big enough issue to catch the attention of The Chronicle’s Neil Cameron, who highlighted that only Hull City, Norwich City and Cardiff City have scored fewer times from a set piece than Newcastle have this season.

By contrast, Liverpool have been the most prolific from dead-ball situations. Steven Gerrard, due to his unerring corners and free-kicks, has racked up a joint league-high assist count (12, alongside fellow teammate Luis Suarez), while Martin Skrtel has scored seven goals this season.

In their ultimately calamitous collapse against Crystal Palace last Monday (more on that later), the Reds took the lead from an 18th-minute corner from an unlikely source: Joe Allen.

 

Sky SportsGranted, this goal was as much down to Liverpool’s movement on set pieces as it was to Crystal Palace’s lackluster marking—not a Tony Pulis hallmark—but Allen’s shuffle from the front post to the back post (white circle and white arrow) could have taken his marker Joe Ledley (blue circle and blue arrow) by surprise.

It was that simple front-to-back-post run that caused trouble in the Eagles’ penalty area, especially because Palace captain Mile Jedinak’s tussle with Luis Suarez in front of Julian Speroni (yellow circle) actually became an obstacle to Ledley’s belated defensive adjustment, leaving an entire area unmarked for Allen to place his header (red box).

Gerrard’s deliveries have caused Liverpool’s opponents endless trouble this season. Newcastle have been warned.

 

The Suarez-Sturridge Connection

For our second film analysis, let’s revisit October’s 2-2 draw at St James’ Park and look at the last goal of the contest, a Daniel Sturridge equalizer that showcased the best of the electrifying SAS partnership (Raheem Sterling hadn’t returned to the Liverpool first team yet, which shows just how impressive his turnaround has been this season).

This graphic looks a bit more complicated, given that it comes two moves before the actual goal, but bear with us here.

 

BBC Match of the DayVictor Moses was on the ball on the Liverpool left flank, with Suarez bursting through the center of the pitch (white circle and white arrow) to get into an entire 20-yard area vacated for him (red box). The dotted red line indicates the first pass that set off this move, as Moses found an inch-perfect ball into Suarez’s stride.

Occupying the Newcastle defence’s attention, however, was more than Suarez’s run. Sturridge embarked on an almost parallel run to Suarez’s, charging into the box at the same time as his partner in crime (blue circle and blue arrow).

As Suarez found space and controlled the ball after evading the home defenders, he put in a lofted ball into Sturridge‘s path for an easy header into the back of Tim Krul’s net. It was a move that displayed not only the creative and attacking force that SAS have represented this season but also how devastating their individual movement can be to the opposing defence.

 

Newcastle’s High Defensive Line

Chelsea and Jose Mourinho received plenty of criticism for the way the Blues sat back and defended during their 2-0 away win at Anfield a couple of weeks ago, but in hindsight, sitting deep and absorbing pressure from Liverpool was perhaps one of the only ways to deal with the Reds’ electrifying attack.

As we show in our third scenario, perhaps Newcastle and AlanPardew could’ve done with some useful tips from Mourinho when they hosted Liverpool in October.

We now look back to Liverpool’s first equalizer at St James’ Park, after Yohan Cabaye‘s blistering strike from range had opened the account for Newcastle. To be exact, we look at the passage of play that led to the penalty that Luis Suarez won, which was subsequently scored by Steven Gerrard for his 100th league goal for Liverpool.

 

BBC Match of the DayOne of the defining characteristics of the SAS partnership is that both are not conventional center-forwards, but rather dovetail creatively and unpredictably, with one dropping deep and one bursting forward.

On this occasion, Daniel Sturridge was the one who dropped back to receive the ball in the midfield. He turned to look for Suarez making a run into the Newcastle area (white circle and white arrow).

Sturridge‘s ball (dotted red line) found Suarez impeccably, and the No. 7’s run into the Newcastle area (red box) was essentially unchallenged until Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa caught up with him (blue circle and blue arrow)—albeit too late, as the Frenchman pulled Suarez down, leading to a penalty and a red card.

But the defining aspect of this shot was the curved yellow arc, which indicates the defensive line that Newcastle held in the buildup to this goal. With a turn and run, Suarez left the entire Newcastle defence for dead. Essentially, Alan Pardew was taking a major risk operating so far forward when his opponents had two of the best forwards in the Premier League against him.

 

Liverpool’s Own Defensive Woes

We said we would touch on Liverpool’s collapse against Crystal Palace, so Liverpool fans may want to look away now at this last point.

Hard as it might be, Brendan Rodgers and his team must look back on the match and rue how easily they gave up their three-goal advantage. Of course, Tony Pulis must be afforded a lot of the credit with his attacking substitutions while 0-3 down, but the ease with which the Eagles brushed the Reds aside will have been concerning for Liverpool.

 

Sky Sports
The picture above is a freeze frame of the immediate buildup to Dwight Gayle’s equalizer in the 88th minute. Joel Ward delivered a simple long ball over the top (dotted red line) to Glenn Murray, who chested the ball into Gayle’s path before a cool finish past Simon Mignolet.

The problem came in the marking and defensive positioning displayed by Liverpool’s defenders, as Martin Skrtel (yellow circle) is at fault.

Skrtel, who was supposed to occupy himself with an out-and-out striker (in this case Gayle), found himself with two immediate opponents for him to consider marking. Would he stick with Gayle, who was darting into the box, or would he move to Murray and try to clear the ball by winning a header?

Meanwhile, Glen Johnson (yellow circle), who had turned in an impressive attacking performance in the first half of the contest but found his defensive game severely questioned in the second, found himself in no man’s land as he tried to belatedly match Gayle’s run into the box.

Skrtel’s attempt at winning the header clearly failed, as he didn’t even come close to Murray. The result of this shambolic positioning and decision-making was an equalizer that led to Suarez’s tears at the final whistle.

Fix this kind of defensive shakiness, and Suarez and Co. may be weeping tears of joy in seasons to come.

Liverpool Transfer Rumors: Why Reds Should Go All-Out for Everton’s Ross Barkley

With Liverpool having all but secured a place in next year’s Champions League, the Reds have been linked with potential summer signings right, left and center. Everton’s wonderkid midfielder, Ross Barkley, has been rumored as a shock £38 million target, according to Chris McKenna of the Daily Star.

Having made a splash in his debut season in the Premier League, Barkley has already been tipped as one of the finest talents of his generation—even a dark-horse option to make Roy Hodgson’s England squad for the World Cup this summer.

Which means that, even though Blues boss Roberto Martinez has already vehemently denied, via Paul Collins of the Daily Mailthe possibility of a first player move across Stanley Park since Abel Xavier in 2002, Liverpool fans will be dreaming at the prospect of Barkley turning out for them every week next season.

And for good reason. While not an ever-present in Martinez’s starting XI—not surprising given the amount of options at his disposal—Barkley has shown enough promise to suggest that he will be a Premier League force for many years to come. He might just have the potential to go down as one of its all-time greats.

Which is why, remote as the possibility may be, Brendan Rodgers should go all-out for Barkley.

 

Playing Attributes

At just 20 years of age, Barkley appears to already have the full set of attributes to succeed in the Premier League.

Blessed with pace and quick feet, Barkley is more than capable of taking on and dribbling past his man, while his physical power means that he is hard to shrug off, difficult to defend against and a forceful presence in the midfield.

A powerful left foot and a love for the spectacular mean that the Everton No. 20 is no stranger to long-range screamers; indeed, his goal this season against Norwich City was a prime example of him pulling the trigger and scoring with power, while given just a tight space to work with.

He has also exhibited composure in his finishing. A wonderful solo goal against Newcastle United a couple of weeks ago, in which he took the ball in his own half and proceeded to run past a few defenders before unleashing a shot into the top corner, will go down as one of the season’s finest efforts.

In the next few years, Barkley will no doubt be looking to improve his defensive and all-round contributions, while also developing the maturity that sees him make use of his technical and physical attributes to the best effect.

On raw potential alone, however, Barkley has all the tools to succeed Steven Gerrard as the pre-eminent attacking midfielder in the English game.

 

 

Alex Livesey/Getty ImagesBig-Game Mentality

While we’re on the topic of Gerrard, a lot has been written this season about his status in the Liverpool dressing room and his importance in the Reds’ impressive title run, both as a player and as a talismanic leader.

Without going as far as to say that Barkley will be England’s next captain and go down as one of the country’s greatest-ever players so early on in his career, all the signs so far suggest that he has the same big-game mentality as the current Liverpool and England captain.

Barkley has claimed, via McKenna, that big games bring out his best and that he likes “getting the chance to step up and show what [he is] capable of.”

His attacking play exudes confidence in abundance, while his unabashed attitude on the pitch perfectly complements his direct style and penchant for a long-range stunner.

As Liverpool can increasingly look forward to participating in Europe’s pre-eminent club competition next year, they could do with a few more match-winners and on-pitch leaders to add to their current swagger.

Rodgers would be hard-pressed to find a better option on the block than Barkley.

 

 

Michael Steele/Getty ImagesRodgers’ Young British Revolution

Not only would Barkley bring a rare and complete set of playing attributes and a commendable mentality, but he would also fit right into Rodgers’ young British revolution at Anfield.

His table-topping Liverpool side is one of the youngest in the Premier League, with Daniel SturridgeRaheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson—and increasingly, Joe Allen and Jon Flanagan—all playing prominent roles in their exciting charge toward the top of the league this season.

Two common characteristics of these all-star youngsters are technical proficiency and mental application, both of which Barkley has in his locker. His brand of physical and direct attacking midfield play would be an interesting alternative to Philippe Coutinho’s silky dribbling and outrageous through balls, though the all-round midfield play of the Brazilian, himself only 21 years old, has matured spectacularly in recent months.

Add in the fact that the likes of Luis Suarez, Mamadou Sakho and Simon Mignolet will be entering their prime years in the short to medium term, and Barkley would be walking into an accomplished Liverpool team still with much potential to fulfill.

Rodgers’ accomplished man management has worked wonders on his young charges in his two seasons at Anfield, and he would no doubt be able to unlock even more from Barkley’s game if he does cross Stanley Park.

The key is for Liverpool to follow up on their interest with a substantial bid to tempt Champions League-chasing Everton into letting their prized asset go, which won’t be easy. Then, there’s the whole stumbling block of Barkley being a boyhood Evertonian.

But just imagine a Liverpool attack next season featuring Suarez, Sturridge, Sterling, Barkley and Henderson on the break at pace.

Simply irresistible.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

Crystal Palace vs. Liverpool: 6 Things We Learned from Reds’ Capitulation

A calamitous 12 second-half minutes saw Liverpool concede a three-goal lead at Crystal Palace on Monday, after two Dwight Gayle goals completed an impressive Premier League comeback from Tony Pulis‘ men.

It started so well for the Reds, who stormed into a commanding lead courtesy of Joe Allen, Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez. Their basic requirement, to get the three points needed to keep the pressure on Manchester City, turned into a call for more goals in an attempt to reduce the goal-difference deficit.

But as they piled their numbers forward, suddenly their defence started to look shaky, and all it took was a deflected Damien Delaney strike on 79 minutes to kick-start a remarkable comeback for Palace.

As it stands, Liverpool have returned to the summit of the Premier League with 81 points, a point ahead of City, whose game in hand will be played at home against Aston Villa on Wednesday.

Here are six things we learned from Liverpool’s capitulation on Monday.

 

Naivety Cost Liverpool the Title…and Probably the Title

Naivety Cost Liverpool the Game...and Probably the TitleJamie McDonald/Getty Images

It was a bullish Brendan Rodgers who suggested before the match that the title race wasn’t over, and that Liverpool had goals in them to chase City on goal difference, per The Guardian.

True to his word, his team exhibited the attacking flair and strength they’ve shown all season—but when they went 3-0 up, they decided to go for broke to challenge City’s goal-difference domination, which ended up handing Palace the impetus in the game.

Only Rodgers will know why he decided to replace Raheem Sterling (and not Lucas Leiva) with Philippe Coutinho right before Delaney’s goal, and only he will know why it was Victor Moses who was sent on for Sturridge, and not Daniel Agger.

Only Martin Skrtel will know how he was dragged so far out for Gayle’s equalizer, and only Glen Johnson will know why he failed to close down on both Delaney and Yannick Bolasie in the build-up to Palace’s goals.

Far from pinpointing any individual scapegoat, Liverpool need to address some serious “game management” issues this summer. Youth, energy and passion will take you a long way, but experience and cool heads need to prevail.

 

Squad Depth Issues Highlighted

Squad Depth Issues Highlighted

Clive Rose/Getty Images 

 

We mentioned in the previous slide the abject performances of Lucas and Moses, but they don’t touch on the root of the problem: Liverpool simply don’t have a strong enough squad to win a Premier League title.

A look at Manchester City and Chelsea‘s substitutes benches, along with a quick comparison with Liverpool’s, shows just how far the Reds are in terms of squad depth and strength, and their misery was compounded by Moses’ miss at the death.

We suggested a few weeks ago in the aftermath of the hard-fought win over Norwich City that Jordan Henderson’s last-gasp red card against City could prove to be costly in the title run-in. A couple of weeks on, we can’t help but think whether his presence on the Selhurst Park pitch on Monday could’ve helped stem Palace’s midfield momentum and plugged Liverpool’s gaps in the middle.

All the same, just as Rodgers was forced to bring on Iago Aspas against Chelsea, he didn’t have a single match-winner on the bench save for Coutinho.

The reality is that for a squad as shallow as Liverpool’s, they have done extremely well to find themselves top of the league on the second-to-last matchday of the season.

 

Transfer Failures Will Need to Be Rectified This Summer

Transfer Failures Will Need to Be Rectified This SummerClive Rose/Getty Images

Was a failed January transfer window, during which Liverpool failed to strengthen at all, the reason behind this late-season loss of momentum? Or were the seeds already sown last September?

With the obvious benefit of hindsight, we’ve seen that Liverpool’s shallow squad has been a big reason behind their failure to close down games or to put themselves out of sight when they’ve needed to.

Compared to the winter of 2013, when they signed Coutinho and Sturridge, this January was a major disappointment, but the warning signs were there after what has proved to be a weak summer of 2013.

Out of eight summer arrivals last year, which included the hapless Aspas, Moses and Aly Cissokho (to name but three), only Simon Mignolet and Mamadou Sakho have managed to make themselves regular first-team options.

While the likes of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Diego Costa and Willian didn’t end up arriving at Anfield last summer due to the lack of Champions League football, Liverpool now have that on offer for next season.

With their competitors likely to splash the cash to bring in reinforcements of their own, the Reds face a pivotal summer ahead if they want to continue challenging at the top of the table for the foreseeable future.

 

Was This Liverpool’s Best Chance at a League Title?

Was This Liverpool's Best Chance at a League Title?

Clive Rose/Getty Images

It is perhaps because of the strange nature of this season, where seemingly most big teams faced a transitional year, that the Premier League has played out to be such an open and exciting competition.

But it is also that same reason that might result in major strengthening by all of Liverpool’s rivals ahead of next season, and they may well face keener competition by the time the new season starts in August, especially with the financial might of Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal.

In hindsight, will this have been Liverpool’s best chance at a league title for many years to come? There are those who argue that Rodgers has already done an excellent job with the limited resources he has and that the only way for the Reds is up, but the nature of this season will also surely have been a factor in their lofty position.

Mathematically speaking, it’s still possible for Steven Gerrard to lift the Premier League trophy this Sunday, but that would require major favors from Aston Villa and West Ham United, both of whom are to visit the Etihad Stadium.

The tears and general despondence shown by Suarez and Co. when Mark Clattenburg blew his whistle on Monday showed that the players themselves might be thinking the same.

 

Tony Pulis Will Surely Now Win Manager of the Year

Tony Pulis Will Surely Now Win Manager of the Year

 Clive Rose/Getty Images

One of the side narratives leading up to the match was the battle between Rodgers and Pulis for the Manager of the Year award.

After Suarez scooped both the Players’ Player of the Year and the Football Writers’ Player of the Year accolades, all the attention on individual prizes turned to Selhurst Park.

For 78 minutes, it looked as if Rodgers would win on the day, putting the pressure back on Manchester City and reigniting Liverpool’s hopes for the title. Then in 12 minutes, Pulis wrestled the match back in his grasp, in the process changing the title race and the destiny of the Manager of the Year award.

For so long branded as a negative manager, Pulis deserves credit for bringing on Gayle, Glenn Murray and Thomas Ince in a bid to turn the match around when he would’ve been forgiven for throwing on defensive additions.

Pulis‘ transformation of Palace’s fortunes and securing of their Premier League status have rightly attracted many plaudits—but Rodgers’ taking of Liverpool from seventh to title challengers needs to be recognized as well.

 

It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over

It Ain't Over Till It's Over

 Alex Livesey/Getty Images

If Liverpool fans are despondent about losing the league title already, however, a quick glance at the Premier League table suggests that there is still some hope.

They will be requiring help from Aston Villa or West Ham United if they are to salvage the title, but the reality is that Manchester City still have two matches to play to confirm a title win.

If the Reds beat Newcastle United at Anfield next week, who knows what could happen…

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

10 Reasons Brendan Rodgers Could Become Liverpool’s Very Own Sir Alex Ferguson

With three Premier League matches to go, Liverpool are well-placed to win their first league title in 24 years.

Brendan Rodgers has rightly received many plaudits for his work with the Reds this season, having succeeded Anfield legend Kenny Dalglish almost two years ago.

Contrast that with the fortunes of Manchester United, who this week dispensed with David Moyes after a disastrous 10 months at the helm of the Old Trafford club. Moyes’ troubles were not helped by the constant presence of Sir Alex Ferguson, the legendary manager he replaced at the Red Devils.

The pendulum has seemingly swung back to Liverpool after Ferguson established a Manchester United dynasty, with a 51-point swing between England’s two most historically successful football clubs a damning indictment of Moyes’ disastrous reign.

Meanwhile, at Anfield, Rodgers is quietly going about his task with aplomb and could very well become Liverpool’s very own Sir Alex. Here are 10 reasons why.

 

Roots and Origins

Roots and Origins
Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty ImagesIn terms of playing career, Brendan Rodgers and Sir Alex Ferguson experienced contrasting fortunes: The former had his career curtailed by a genetic knee condition, while the latter made over 300 appearances in Scottish football as a forward.

Rodgers started his management career in youth football before graduating to senior-level football with Reading and Watford, then found true success with Swansea City. Ferguson, on the other hand, started at East Stirlingshire and St. Mirren before landing an ultimately successful gig at Aberdeen.

It was at Swansea and Aberdeen, respectively, where the two managers found their first tremendous successes: Rodgers brought a Welsh club into the Premier League for the first time ever, while Ferguson gatecrashed the Old Firm duopoly by winning the Scottish league.

Those jobs proved to be stepping stones toward two of the world’s most storied football clubs.

 

Status of Club

Status of Club
Alex Livesey/Getty ImagesWhich brings us to our next comparison: the respective sizes, statures and reputations of their clubs.

That Liverpool and Manchester United are far and away the most successful clubs in English football is evident, though both clubs have had their fair share of ups and downs over the years.

Ferguson was the man to famously “knock Liverpool off their perch,” per Graeme Yorke of The Daily Mail, while Rodgers could be the manager to take advantage of David Moyes’ troubles at United to bring the Reds back to the top of the English game once again.

 

Home Record

Home Record
Alex Livesey/Getty ImagesThat Moyes has been criticized so roundly for his poor home record this season is a testament to the stunning successes of Sir Alex, who was responsible for turning Old Trafford into a fortress and “Theatre of Dreams” most seasons.

Rodgers has based his success this season on his record at Anfield, where Liverpool have only drawn once and lost once in 17 league games. They’ve scored 51 goals, an average of more than three per victory.

No wonder they’re calling it “Fortress Anfield” once again.

 

Man Management

Man Management
Sang TanPerhaps one of the most admirable traits Sir Alex showed during his time at the Old Trafford helm was his man-management technique. He was a no-nonsense manager who didn’t tolerate bad behavior but was also able to contain the personalities and egos of world-class stars.

He dealt with his players with consummate ease, with the underlying principle being that none of his charges could ever be bigger than himself or Manchester United, an approach that Rodgers perhaps referenced when he navigated the Luis Suarez transfer saga last summer.

Rodgers has also made a name for himself as an excellent man-manager and motivator: He has been able to coax improved performances out of Stewart Downing and Jon Flanagan, while Jordan Henderson has become a shining example of how Rodgers can help players develop.

 

Youth Development

Youth Development
Michael Regan/Getty ImagesIn the same vein, Rodgers has proven to be equally adept and eager to blood promising youngsters from the Liverpool academy. Raheem Sterling, Suso and Andre Wisdom broke onto the scene last season, while his current league-topping team is one of the Premier League’s youngest.

Sterling in particular has blossomed into one of England’s most exciting wingers, while Rodgers has unlocked Suarez’s potential and turned him into a 30-goal-a-season striker this year.

Ferguson was, of course, famous for his youth development as well, with his famous Class of ’92 one of the most well-known stories in the modern game. His coaching of Cristiano Ronaldo was a highlight of his reign.

 

Footballing Identity

Footballing Identity
Alex Livesey/Getty ImagesWhile the tactical approaches of Rodgers and Ferguson are quite different, the footballing identities that their clubs have adopted during their reigns have been equally notable.

Ferguson’s iconic successes in the 1990s came from a classic wing-heavy 4-4-2 formation, while his triumphs in the 2000s featured more flexible approaches, but devastating wing play and exciting counterattacks have become synonymous with Manchester United.

His ability to move with the times on the pitch was reflected by his evolving tactical approaches while staying true to an underlying footballing philosophy.

In the same vein, Rodgers has returned Liverpool to their famous pass-and-move roots and instituted a destructive attacking game as well. Not only are the Reds threatening on the counter, but they also keep possession intelligently and can build play patiently.

Rodgers has also shown tactical flexibility in shaping his team according to the strengths of his players, who are now comfortable in a variety of tactical formations as necessary.

 

Influence over the Media

Influence over the Media
Thananuwat Srirasant/Getty ImagesA glaring difference noticed at Old Trafford this season is the way David Moyes carried out his press conferences—his defeatist and pessimistic attitude were a marked contrast to the bullishness of Sir Alex Ferguson.

Ferguson was a master manipulator of the media; his success and longevity in the English game demanded respect and attention. He spoke with authority and arguably even held considerable sway over the Premier League officials.

Rodgers’ approach during his time at Liverpool hasn’t been nearly as controversial or confrontational as Ferguson’s was at United, but his authoritative stance and constant calmness in interviews and press conferences has been a refreshing departure from the at-times outlandish outbursts of Kenny Dalglish.

If Liverpool remain successful, Rodgers will be well on his way to becoming one of Europe’s most esteemed and respected managers as he develops his career at Anfield.

 

Dealing with Pressure

Dealing with Pressure
Matthew Lewis/Getty ImagesGreat responsibility and power come with the managerial positions of England’s most successful football clubs, and the pressure that finds its way to their managers can be overwhelming.

Sir Alex dealt with the pressure most of the time in the best way possible: by winning trophies and continuing his impressive record. But he also knew how to manage his players and the media to cast the spotlight on whichever party he thought deserved it at the time. Hindsight tells us that he was by and large very successful.

Rodgers hasn’t even completed two full seasons at Anfield yet, but the trials and tribulations he’s had to go through, especially in his first half-year, showed his calmness and composure in dealing with pressure.

Of course, in an unexpected but exhilarating title run this season, the Liverpool boss has managed to keep the pressure off his players by insisting that they have already overachieved this season—in the process making it Manchester City and Chelsea’s title to lose.

 

Synonymy with Club

Synonymy with Club
Christopher Furlong/Getty ImagesOver the years, due to his longevity and success at Manchester United, Ferguson made himself synonymous with the club, in the process making the club’s identity his and vice versa.

He was the one who implemented the attacking football for which United have become famous, as well as all other values, such as the importance the club treat their youth academy.

Rodgers has grown into his role in the Liverpool hot seat to the extent that Reds fans consider him as an embodiment of the “Liverpool way.” His championing of the Hillsborough Justice cause has made him a perfect ambassador for the club, while his well-spoken ways have made him an ideal spokesperson.

 

Start of a New Era?

Start of a New Era?
Julian Finney/Getty ImagesWhen Sir Alex Ferguson took charge at Old Trafford in 1986, Liverpool were the dominant force in English football. It took him four years to win his first piece of silverware at United.

What followed was a legendary period of success in which he defined Manchester United and left behind a lasting legacy both at the club and in the league.

Sir Alex won his last title at United in his last season, which happened to be Brendan Rodgers’ first at Liverpool.

And now, with United having dropped dramatically this season and the Reds poised to win the title in May, what an interesting coincidence it would be if Rodgers put in place the start of a new era at Anfield…

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

How Manchester United’s Global Brand Is Affected by Missing the Champions League

An underwhelming season for Manchester United has been capped by the news this week that the Old Trafford club had dismissed beleaguered manager David Moyes, who succeeded Sir Alex Ferguson last July.

As rumors have surfaced aplenty across various media outlets speculating the causes of Moyes’ downfall and what exactly went wrong in his tenure at United, the club have appointed Ryan Giggs as their interim manager as they strive to look forward to the future.

Their underwhelming performances this campaign have led to a disappointing failure to qualify for the Champions League next season, as they are now well and truly mathematically out of reach of the Premier League top four, for the first time in 19 years, which has led to some concern about the direction of the 20-time title winners.

For a club of United’s size and stature, how costly would missing out on the Champions League be for their future and their brand image? How will they pick themselves up from the wake of their recent managerial departures—first Ferguson and now Moyes?

Let’s explore how Manchester United’s brand will be affected by missing the Champions League across three rough timescales: The short, medium and long terms.

 

 

CHRISTOF STACHEShort Term: A Harsh Economic Hit

The immediate future of Manchester United as a preeminent footballing superpower is murky at least: The notion that they are not a “sacking club” has been dispelled after Moyes’ dismissal, even though his results perhaps made his position untenable.
To fall from the lofty achievement of winning the Premier League title last May to a current seventh place with no hope of making the top four this season will rightly be considered a disaster from the club’s point of view, given Sir Alex Ferguson’s longevity and record of success, which helped built an image of the club as a perennial contender and a winning institution over the years of his legendary reign.

So to fall from conquering England less than 12 months ago—and conquering Europe six years ago—to the prospect of regular Europa League football, or even no European action at all, will be a massive reputational dent: How can United keep up their global reputation if they’re not even continental?

In the wake of David Moyes’ sacking, Manchester United will miss out on a reported £50 million due to a failure to qualify for Europe’s elite club competition alone, according to Simon Goodley of the Guardian, who suggests that the same riches that are available to competing clubs will serve as a double whammy on top of United’s losses, considering their debts.

Goodley’s comparisons of United’s current situation with Bayern Munich’s in 2007—that they would need to spend massively to improve their squad without European football in a bid to catch up with their competitors—led him to estimate a potential £100 million summer outlay in transfer fees alone.

Which doesn’t include the wage expenditures for their high-earning star players and the considerable compensation that Moyes and his staff will no doubt fight for.

Make no mistake: As United count the costs of missing out on the Champions League, it’s not just to their reputation in the short term as a global sporting brand, but also a blow to their already shaky financial situation.

 

 

Jon SuperMedium Term: The Rebuilding Must Be Done Right

Considering the massive financial commitment that the club will need to make to steady the ship and turn it around, the short-term hit will only be compensated by an ambitious and focused rebuilding job done at all levels of Manchester United.
This involves many aspects across the front and back of the club, not least including a revisiting of the overall backroom structure in place at Old Trafford, which Gabriele Marcotti of ESPNFC suggests should include a Director of Football to alleviate the workload of the modern football manager, and a thorough review system to ensure that players are not signed for inflated fees (see Marouane Fellaini) or rewarded with bumper contracts despite being clearly surplus to requirements (see Nani).

That United have splashed £64.6 million on just two signings will not be lost on any observers: If anything, it will serve as an “eyes light up” moment to the agents of United targets and a major obstacle for the club to overcome. A quick glance at Liverpool’s eye-watering spending in the summer of 2011 will make for a horrifying prospect for many a Red Devil fan.

But besides the playing staff that have been the public face of United, both on and off the field for better or worse over the years, the figurehead that leads them to silverware and sustained success will need to be appointed as well.

The bullish nature and at-times extraordinary proclamations of Sir Alex Ferguson all added to the Manchester United aura and myth, which were almost instantly shattered by the defeatist and pessimistic utterances of David Moyes, who also oversaw the transformation of Old Trafford from a home fortress into a cauldron of fear.

They messed up a managerial appointment once; they can’t afford to do it again.

 

 

Handout/Getty ImagesLong Term: The Structure Is in Place for a Resurgence

As a football club, Manchester United have led the way in England and in Europe for many years, both on the football pitch and off it in the commercial realm. United were perhaps the first club to have built any global brand of note and formulated a wining commercial strategy that was based around silverware won on the pitch and the superstars that brought United that distinct success.
News that the club’s share price on the New York Stock Exchange has rebounded to a pre-Moyes, according to the Mirror, is both cruel on the newly deposed manager and reflective of the club’s standing in the global financial game, while Alex Duff’s commentary on Bloomberg.com considers the club’s power in terms of attracting lucrative commercial sponsorships and strategic partnerships.

Any new manager arriving at Old Trafford would be walking in a dressing room, while needing the injection of some much-needed fresh blood, still featuring some world-class stars, and operating within a commercial giant that is peerless in world football with a brand name that still resonates around the globe. Any comparisons with Liverpool’s dramatic downfall are as a result premature and naive, as the Anfield club have only recently caught up on the commercial side of things, whereas United were pioneers at building a commercial enterprise.

But while United fans shouldn’t panic at the current state of their club, even if the Champions League anthem won’t be playing at Old Trafford next year, they will realize that the club will only be able to bounce back—and the club officials will realize its brand power will only be fully realized—if they overcome a potentially significant short-term hit and approach their rebuilding job correctly.

Because if they don’t do it right, the Manchester United brand, which has been built so strongly over the years because they have become synonymous with success, will wither as a result of their on-field disappointments.

It’s imperative that they get it right this time, before it becomes a vicious, self-defeating cycle.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

Is a European Super League an Inevitable Next Step in World Football?

The past couple of weeks in European football have thrown up some interesting scenarios, perhaps unthinkable just a few years ago, which have thrown into question the competitiveness and balance even in the leading domestic leagues around Europe.

When Chelsea loaned Thibaut Courtois, then one of the hottest goalkeeping talents in the world, almost three years ago to Atletico Madrid, surely they didn’t expect to have to waive a contract clause at the prospect of facing their loanee in the Champions League semifinal.

When Borussia Dortmund won the Bundesliga and upset the status quo just a few years ago, surely they didn’t expect that a comprehensive 3-0 win over Bayern Munich in the league would mean as little as it just did, given that Pep Guardiola’s side had just become the quickest team ever to win the German championship.

These are but two incidents that have reflected the reality of European football these days (and there are many more—think Bayern’s ruthless snapping up of Mario Gotze and Robert Lewandowski from Dortmund, supposedly their closest rivals).

And the reality is that, while the top-tier leagues, especially in England with the Premier League, have started to break away from their lesser domestic competitions, those cream-of-the-crop clubs at the top of the European game have begun to form a mini exclusive club of their own.

Perhaps it’s time to consider not whether a European Super League would be a fun and interesting side project for club owners to think about, but whether it is actually an inevitable next step in world football.

 

Kerstin Joensson

 

Booming broadcast and television revenues

It’s hard to point a finger at a definitive starting point for this spiraling breakaway of the European elite, but BT Sport’s staggering £897 million three-year exclusive deal to broadcast live Champions League and Europa League games starting from 2015, announced last November via BBC Sport, is a good start.

Given the amount of money involved in the European game, it’s no surprise that the likes of Arsenal and Liverpool have made qualifying for the Champions League essentially a barometer of their season-to-season success in the Premier League.

Of course, it’s a cyclical game—perhaps even a snowball effect—in which money drives commercialization and encourages clubs and league administrators to package the sport as a “consumer product,” which focuses on entertainment value in the form of stadiums, overall team play and individual superstars, which boosts widespread interest and thus potential income, and so on.

But it’s not as if those involved in the beautiful game at the top level are trying their level best to keep the game devoid of any adverse effects from the money involved. Far from it.

Just this January, the Telegraph reported that the Premier League wanted to bring forth the next “auction” of football broadcasting rights by six months, which sources allegedly claimed was a show of “opportunism” from the league in “attempting to exploit the fierce competition between BSkyB and BT, and the resulting increase in the value of sports rights.”

As the game of football evolves at the top level and clubs become ever more like global corporations, even the ordinary football fan has evolved into being a consumer from their clubs’ point of view.

And how do businesses engage with their consumers? By providing high-quality goods (in this case, high-quality performances with a dose of superstardom, delivered at every broadcast opportunity across every possible channel).

A further case illustrating the financial explosion of the modern game once again focuses on the aggressive increase of Premier League prize money: A Telegraph report in May 2013 mentioned that Manchester United’s £60.8 million in TV money, a record sum for a Premier League champion, would be eclipsed the following season by the club that finishes bottom of the league because of new broadcasting deals.

 

Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

 

Exponential inflation of player valuations

The sheer amount of money involved in top-level football highlights the indispensability of the sport to TV networks and channels, which in turn drives up their bids to carry these matches.

But from both the clubs’ and the fans’ points of view, this is merely a reflection of an ever-increasing and ever-vociferous demand for the sport—especially as clubs and leagues are becoming more business-savvy and expanding into markets never previously thought lucrative or even possible.

Which means that top-level footballers and top-level coaches, who turn top-level footballers into top-level teams on the pitch, gradually become a premium commodity to be traded to those willing to shell out a fortune in anticipation of the potential upsides.

And so we have eye-watering deals like Gareth Bale’s world record transfer from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid, who themselves set the previous record by signing Cristiano Ronaldo from Manchester United. And vastly inflated contracts like Wayne Rooney’s new extension at Old Trafford, which reportedly will land him a mammoth £300,000 a week, per BBC Sport.

Suddenly, the prevalence of money in the modern game has made it an essential part of both player decisions and transfer strategies. Players appoint ruthless agents to extract the best deal for themselves and their clients, while clubs head towards the murky waters of outbidding each other for star names.

The supply line has just shot up in value.

And those organizations who can afford to shell out the big bucks to procure such mercurial and overpriced talent—some through the generosity of a well-off benefactor—become the most important players in the financial game of football.

It’s no surprise, then, that Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski put forth in Soccernomics that football clubs in capital cities are best positioned to dominate the European game in the future: Take the financial “capital” in the cities and you instantly have the most powerful hybrids of money, geography and power across football clubs in Europe.

 

Marc Mueller

 

A whole new, exclusive playing field

Where does this bring us?

On the one hand, the growing demand of top-level football means that there will only ever be greater sums of money spent by fans and reflected in megadeals between leagues, clubs and broadcasters.

On the other hand, the explosion of player valuations means that agents will continue to grow in prominence and importance, while player power will entrench itself as an institutional concept in modern football—and only a handful of football clubs are even equipped to handle such major deals.

Which essentially means that the footballing world is their oyster.

As players vie to get into those clubs as a sign of their ability and ambition and as clubs strive to either maintain their place in that elite group or try their utmost to break into the oligarchy, a whole new, exclusive playing field has taken form for the big boys up top.

La Liga has traditionally been the easiest and most glaring example of a “top two” league, with Barcelona and Real Madrid maintaining a hegemony on proceedings in Spain until Atletico burst onto the scene this season, while recently Bayern Munich has become a textbook example of just how far a first-placed team can pull away from its closest challenger.

Sooner or later, as egos, ambitions and competitiveness are wont to trump all in sport, these big players will yearn for a platform where they can pit their wits against each other on a regular basis, to claim a title that will truly prove their dynasties.

The concept of a European Super League suddenly doesn’t sound so far-fetched after all. In fact, it almost sounds as if it’s going to be the next big evolution in world football.

And just as TV networks have continued to scramble for big broadcasting deals just to get a slice of the ever-growing pie, football clubs not yet in the “Super League” category will fight tooth and nail, and spend an arm and a leg to try to get there.

There will be plenty of new entertainment for football fans—and plenty of inadvertent and unfortunate financial casualties as well.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

The Business of Football Kits: Sponsorships, Technology, Branding and Beyond

As we enter the final few months leading up to this summer’s World Cup in Brazil, the national teams taking part in the tournament have been unveiling their new kits to ride on the wave of growing interest in international football.

Brazil, England, Germany, Spain, Argentina and France have all released new kit designs for the summer, with various big-name sportswear companies and top international stars at the helm of high-profile launch events and flashy marketing campaigns. (The Mirror has a collection of some newly released kits here.)

As with most commercial activity in football, however, not all the recent kit launches have been met with universal acclaim: Ben Curtis’ article on the Mirror is a cynical rant at the hype machines that these events have become, while Lizzie Parry’s on the Daily Mail highlights just how expensive replica kits, launched over increasingly short time periods, have become.

In February, we explored the importance of stadiums in the overall commercial strategies of football clubs. As top-level football increasingly becomes big business and a huge revenue generator, let’s take a look at another money-spinning side to the sport: football kits.

 

Vincent Yu

 

Sponsorships

One of the first things that comes to mind when football kits are mentioned these days is the staggering amount of money they can generate for football clubs, both from the merchandising side and from the corporate sponsorship side.

While club merchandise is generally dependent on the popularity and on-pitch success of the clubs themselves—and the annual Deloitte Money League results generally attest to that—the larger context is the money that sportswear companies actually pay to be the official kit providers of football clubs.

In recent years, just in the Premier League, we’ve seen many instances of eye-watering commercial deals involving kit suppliers. Liverpool’s 2012 deal with Warrior Sports, the latter’s first foray into football, would, according to Andy Hunter of the Guardian, net the club at least £25 million a year.

Just this January, Arsenal announced they would be changing their kit maker from Nike to Puma, in a five-year deal reportedly worth more than £30 million a year, per the BBC. And, as ever when it comes to business deals, Manchester United shocked the world this March with their world-record 10-year deal with Nike, which, according to Simon Mullock of the Mirror, will see the Old Trafford club earn more than £60 million a year.

Besides contracts with sportswear makers, the other big player in the football kit boom is the corporate sponsorship deals that have taken center stage in recent years. This 2013 J.J. Colao article in Forbes listed Manchester United, Barcelona, FC Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Real Madrid as the biggest shirt sponsorship deals in the world.

Another interesting marketing tactic has been employed by Tottenham Hotspur this season, as they featured different sponsors on their shirts in different competitions, with Hewlett Packard their Premier League front and AIA their cup shirt partner. According to Kevin Palmer of ESPNFC, however, even Tottenham will revert to the traditional “principal partner” model at other big clubs, having agreed a lucrative £20 million-a-year deal with AIA for the next five years.

 

Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

 

Technology

But with all the money that goes into the kits, and their burgeoning price tags, do those who get to wear them actually benefit?

Specifically, do the footballers themselves get anything out of the constant kit changes, or are they just excuses to step in front of a camera for yet another photo shoot?

Just ask the Italian national team stars. According to the BBC, the high-tech football shirts they will be wearing at the World Cup this summer will be able to deliver massages during the game. The shirts contain a special tape that provides “micro-massages” for their wearers and “maximise muscle power” by allowing the body to recover from exertion more quickly.

Away from the luxury options provided to footballers these days, far more important is the shirts’ ability to keep their wearers warm in extreme cold temperatures. This article from PRNewswire.com lists a few examples of temperature-regulating technologies that are present in football shirts on the market.

Different sportswear manufacturers—the same who enter into the lucrative long-term contracts with football clubs and will rely on such technology to win such bids—integrate different functions into their shirts, but the underlying principles are the same: adding layers onto shirts that keep players comfortable, dry, warm or cool depending on the surrounding weather conditions.

With the digital space increasingly at the center of the football fan experience, besides featuring on shirts themselves, technology has also crept into the marketing side of football shirts and kit launches, so much so that organizing such events can be considered an industry in itself.

See, for example, this analysis on Liverpool’s new kit launch in 2012 on Dan McLaren’s TheUKSportsNetwork.com. Liverpool’s multichannel marketing and promotion strategy, across different social media platforms, was all about putting out a united front for the kit launch, which also had to match the club’s corporate branding.

But, as they’ve tended to do so in social media in general, Manchester City will take home the technology and marketing hybrid approach for football kits as well.

They’ve since switched to Nike as their main shirt sponsor, but City’s launch of their Umbro kits for the 2012/13 season, as covered here by SoccerBible.com, took fan engagement to a new level when they invited fans to decide how the new kit would be officially launched.

 

Ray Stubblebine

 

Branding

Using a new innovative campaign to bridge the marketing and technology worlds with branding in football was yet another Manchester City-affiliated project, New York City FC.

Since their official announcement in 2013, New York City FC have caught the attention with their cutting-edge digital-marketing campaigns despite the MLS outfit not yet officially competing in the U.S.’s highest-tier domestic football league.

NYCFC put their fans truly at the center of their business and branding strategy by inviting them to submit ideas for an official club crest, which was met with widespread acclaim and culminated in a win-win scenario where the club also got their hands on an excellent winner, shown here on the MLS official website.

An example of how the football kit itself has become more than just one of the components of a football club’s identity; it’s evolved into an integral part of the football club’s business strategy on the whole.

So eager have clubs and affiliated sponsors wanted to tap into their fanbase for merchandising dollars that they have begun creating hype cycles out of kit launches to boost profits and increase circulation among their followers—at the risk of straying into grey areas and stirring controversies.

In tandem with the ongoing, controversial narrative that football is becoming more and more middle- and upper-class and moving away from the traditional working-class fanbase that gave the sport its following and popularity, clubs and corporations have rushed into a branding frenzy and become eager to associate themselves as “premium” titles.

A major recent example was that of Adidas, who, according to Anna White of the Telegraph, may refuse to supply Sports Direct, one of the biggest sports retailers in the UK, with a variety of World Cup football kits due to concerns over its stores and customer service.

Said Adidas, “Like all manufacturers, we regularly review, season by season, where our products are distributed. We determine distribution channels for all products based on criteria such as in-store environment and customer service levels.”

In other words, sportswear manufacturers are eager for their football kits to be treated as premium consumer goods—indeed, the mooted £140 price tag for the new England kits by Nike almost automatically price themselves into that category—and they’re not afraid to incur the wrath of fans and middlemen retailers to achieve their commercial goals.

Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images

 

Prior to the World Cup row, Adidas also landed themselves in hot water with Sports Direct over their treatment of Chelsea’s official club kit. In light of the public spat, Matt Scott of InsideWorldFootball.com put together an excellent and in-depth analysis of the changing role of the football kit itself.

Linking the state and rationale of Chelsea’s commercial and branding activities with the area’s wealthy and exclusive reputation, Scott consolidates a list of the London club’s highest-profile official sponsors, who all pride themselves on their elite stature within their respective industries.

The ever-changing face of the football kit, then, is not just an evolution of modern shirt design and an extension of clothing technology into sport, but is a reflection of a shift in the status of merchandise and football itself in the eyes of football clubs, manufacturers and sponsors.

And with seemingly unstoppable momentum behind money-spinning sponsorship deals, it seems that football kits will continue to be at the center of football’s paradigm shift. One only hopes that it doesn’t one day become only limited-edition items due to their exclusivity.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.