On Luis Suarez’s Racism Row

Let me cut straight to the chase.

I will assume that most readers of this piece will have been aware of the events that transpired between Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra during the Liverpool-Manchester United game last month. I will assume that you are also aware of the English FA’s subsequent decision to charge Suarez.

In the weeks that have passed after Evra first came out with his claims, and in the days that have crept by since the FA confirmed their charge, Liverpool fans have shown incredible support behind their No. 7, and indelible condemnation towards Evra.

And I’m here to denounce their blinkered support.

Before I give my reasons, let me first clarify my position. I’m not here to denounce Liverpool Football Club’s support. As with any case involving such sensitive matters, full evidence has to be gathered, and Kenny Dalglish and the Club have come out expressing their support for Suarez.

Stepping away from a feverish football-club “gladiatorial” mentality, an employer or a family member should always step up and provide full support to a person going through such trials and tribulations. Innocent until proven guilty. And I am confident that they will be strong with their public condemnation of racist behavior if Suarez is indeed found to be guilty in this case.

The same mentality applies to the fans. Liverpool have traditionally been famous for their family-oriented fanbase. Players, coaches and fans alike have all praised the welcoming community at Liverpool, and you don’t call the Merseyside Derby the “friendly derby” without any justification.

No, I’m not here to condemn the Club and the fans in getting behind Luis Suarez.

I’m here to denounce their blinkered support.

This blinkered support has seen Liverpool “fans” call Evra a “crybaby” and a “boy who cried wolf,” among others, just because he has raised a claim that he considers serious.

This blinkered support has seen Liverpool “fans” hang on to Suarez’s responses that Evra’s Manchester United teammates were even surprised with his reactions.

This blinkered support has seen Liverpool “fans” blindingly agree with Suarez’s claims that, in Uruguay, the alleged word spoken (“negrito”) has no racial allegations or discriminatory undertones.

But this is the same group of narrow-minded people who pointed fingers and made gestures towards Nani after his embarrassing “look at me!” episode against the referee in March and cried that Jamie Carragher wouldn’t have deserved a red card for his high tackle.

This is the same group of narrow-minded people who have been quick to condemn Chelsea’s John Terry after allegations of his racial abuse towards QPR’s Anton Ferdinand, even when Terry’s case is still under investigation. Terry will surely be the subject of boos from the Liverpool crowd during this Sunday’s matchup.

It’s double standards at its best. (Or should it be worst?)

As a Liverpool fan belonging to a minority race, I hope that Liverpool will cooperate fully with the investigations and continue to show the support that Suarez has received.

But only if he turns out to be innocent.

Now, I understand the high-stakes on-field pressure, and I also understand that, to get under the opponents’ skin, some players turn (in my opinion, stupidly) to derogatory name-calling. Given the social backgrounds of many players, an outright ban on stronger language and a huge tightening up of the rules and regulations would be an overreaction and unnecessary.

But if Suarez does turn out to be guilty of racially offensive language, I would support a reasonable match ban and hefty club fine. Even if the FA decide to use this as an “example,” it would send a much stronger message than the pathetic several-thousand-pound fines FIFA has leveraged on racist chants during international games.

And I sincerely hope that Liverpool fans, who have been known for their generous support, would be sensible enough to not afford him a heroic reception when he takes to the field after his ban.

Because a welcoming, family-oriented football club, a club that Liverpool pride themselves for being, would not tolerate this sort of behavior. Not even from a No. 7.

Original article from the Bleacher Report.

West Brom 10/29/2011: More of the Same

This is fast becoming a Liverpool staple.

Lots of chance created. Dominating possession. Points in the bag. Economical.

But for the clean sheet, which is fast losing its Liverpool staple status, and the three League points, this was a typical performances from Kenny Dalglish’s charges. So I’ll keep it short this time.

Two individual things stand out.

First, Stewart Downing is possibly the most directly nonconstructive player on the Liverpool team right now. 10 league appearances, no goals, no assists. How many times has he beat his man on the flanks? How many times has he delivered a successful ball into the box for Andy Carroll to attack? (More on Carroll later.) The #19 looks less and less the missing piece to our jigsaw, as proclaimed by Damien Comolli following Downing’s signing in the summer. His runs and crossing look less and less effective by the game, and Jose Enrique is currently taking on everything down the left flank. Kenny Dalglish’s best summer signing without a shadow of doubt.

A word for Glen Johnson on the opposite flank. Aside from Manchester City’s Galacticos-style rotation policy, the battle for Liverpool’s starting right-back slot has become one of the most fascinating positional battles in the League this season. Glen Johnson showed signs of life, his dribbling and pace causing problems in the West Brom half. Against smaller teams, the more defensively-sound Martin Kelly will have to bide his time, because there’s no denying that Johnson, just like Enrique, can act like an extra winger. But this competition can only prove beneficial to England in the longer run. And don’t forget young Jon Flanagan waiting in the wings.

Second, Luis Suarez began the game with 17 shots off target so far this season, the most in the League. He finished the game with 22, the most in the League. Somewhat unsurprisingly, all his 5 shots taken against West Brom were off target. He is rightly taking the plaudits for making Liverpool tick and for generally causing havoc in every opposition area he comes across, but there’s got to be a certain level of balanced perspective. And Kenny must make sure this doesn’t get to Suarez’s head.

Selfishness is fine, but not unproductive selfishness. The right-sided freekick in the first half, which he insisted on taking at the expense of the left-footed and more prolific Charlie Adam, was a typical example of his competitiveness and willingness to make everything work. It was also a typical example of his off-target shooting.

Now if only Suarez could use his unpredictability to drag away defenders and then create chances for his strike partners, just like his deftly chipped pass to Carroll, whose first-time left-foot volley was smothered by a good block, and exactly like his sublime through-ball for Carroll’s goal.

To be sure, Carroll’s was a sketchy first touch en route to his goal. But it was an underrated outside-of-the-foot finish. In general, this was a game that started to show signs of life in the Andy Carroll-Luis Suarez partnership.

Besides scoring a goal, Carroll impressed with his improved positioning and desire. While Downing put in his non-existent crossing into the box, Carroll’s off-the-ball movement into key attacking positions was noteworthy, and his run into space to receive Suarez’s through-ball also showed signs of increased understanding. It’s time to take advantage of an increasingly confident Andy Carroll.

Perhaps with Carroll firing on all cylinders, Liverpool will finally turn their attacking dominance into goal gluts.

For now, 18 shots still only yielded 2 goals. And currently, out of the Top Six, Liverpool trail by some distance in terms of goals scored.

The finishing is still profligate. More of the same, really.

Three points on the back of an attack that has yet to hit top form. More of the same, please.

Norwich 10/22/2011: Wasteful

Here’s how the post-match reaction will pan out.

Liverpool created lots of chances. Liverpool were unlucky not to get the three points. Norwich put in a brave shift and earned their point. Andy Carroll performed poorly as a substitute and missed an easy header at the end. Luis Suarez was once again the center of all Liverpool attacks and was the man of the match.

Here’s how the post-match reaction should pan out.

Liverpool had 29 shots on goal, only 9 of which were on target, only 1 of which was a goal.

I thought it was just a case of not being on form in the finishing department, but that’s a 31% on-target ratio and a 3.44% chance conversion rate. That is woeful and unacceptable. If someone were to come along and do a league table based on chance conversion ratios, I’m pretty sure Liverpool would be damn near the bottom.

Based purely on these numbers, Liverpool were absolutely not unlucky not to get the three points. The fact that we created 29 chances and should still be worrying about three points is absurd in the first place. And the fact that given all these chances gone begging and Norwich putting together some neat passing play should send Kenny Dalglish and his coaching team back to the drawing room.

Because, let’s be honest here: who wasn’t thinking that Norwich would sneak a result at Anfield given how wasteful we were?

It’s a results business. For all of Damien Comolli’s revolutionary statistic-driven measurements, the single most important statistic in the end is the final result, which depends on number of goals scored. On current evidence, the chances are being created, which is a good thing, but no one is putting them away. The January transfer window must be used to rectify this, or it’ll be a long rest of the season.

Yes, Andy Carroll should have headed that Gerrard cross in. And he will be criticized for that. But spare the boy a thought: it’s his first chance in almost 180 minutes of football. His positioning has improved, and his chance conversion ratio is definitely superior to that of his strike partner.

Yes, we went back to route-one football after Carroll came on. But that’s because Kenny took out Stewart Downing, who is consistently disappointing in every aspect of the game other than crossing. And because Steven Gerrard, who’s capable of the teasing crosses that yielded that last-gasp chance for Carroll when he’s playing on the right, can’t deliver balls in from the wide areas if he plays in the center. When Craig Bellamy, Downing and Gerrard were peppering John Ruddy’s goal with crosses in the first half, where was Carroll? On the bench.

And yes, Luis Suarez is mesmeric. He is mercurial. He is also frustrating and wasteful. There are no two ways about it. For eight games I’ve been complaining about his lack of finishing ability. Today he has shown everyone why he’s not world-class. Yes, he creates chances all by himself. Yes, he makes things happen out of nothing. But what good does that do when nothing comes of those chances? What good is carving space for yourself from a neat turn or a good show of upper strength when you don’t have a finish at the end of it to show for your efforts?

The great Bob Paisley once said, “If you’re in the penalty area and don’t know what to do with the ball, put it in the net and we’ll discuss the options later.”

Every single player in this Liverpool team would do well to listen.

ManUtd 10/15/2011: Forced to Settle

In the end, the points had to be shared.

Let’s be honest. After around 20 minutes of first-half action, most of us watching wanted the halftime whistle to go.

With Sir Alex Ferguson opting for an experienced midfield quintuplet, the middle of the Anfield park was congested. And with neither side starting with an urgency and flowing movement that have been evident on several occasions already this season, it was no lone fault of ours that the first 45 minutes were entirely forgettable.

The pedestrian and boring start to the game featured a plethora of misplaced passes straight to the opposition. And even when the passes did find another player in a Red shirt, they often ended up going horizontal or backwards. With an already congested midfield and Steven Gerrard yet to approach peak fitness, there were no barnstorming runs from the center of the park, and no razor-sharp vision to find the diagonal balls to the wings.

But if there’s one thing this Liverpool team doesn’t lack in, it’s team spirit and a desire to keep going until the end, and that much was evident in the second half, especially after Hernandez’s equalizer.

United’s switch to a 4-4-2 saw Liverpool fashion plenty of chances, and Jordan Henderson turned in an impressive performance having come on as a substitute for Lucas. His movement in the midfield and in the attacking third opened up plenty of space for Liverpool to attack, and he alone had two great chances to kill off the game, first via a sumptuous volley that David de Gea brilliantly turned over, and second in the form of a header that met Stewart Downing’s cross.

A quick word on Fergie’s team selection.

United reverted to a 4-5-1 formation, with such big-game players as Ryan Giggs, Park Ji-sung and Darren Fletcher starting at Anfield. Their substitutes bench was littered with world-class names and they were able to bring on Wayne Rooney, Nani and Javier Hernandez, who might as well be the best substitute trio in the League this season. but the question is: why weren’t they starting?

As much as some onlookers may want to pin it on Rooney’s mental state and the travel weariness following the international break, Ferguson’s personnel choices reflected a cautious respect for Liverpool.

It could have been a yearn to break our three-game winning streak in this fixture. It could have been a formation to deny us the space we crave to pass and move. But it was definitely a nod to Ferguon’s pre-match claims that this was the biggest game in English football. And that we’re starting to rise again to be a major competitor for United.

The men in Red showed that his concerns were not misplaced on the day.

Liverpool attacked well in the second half on Saturday. We defended well for the entire game, the defensive lapse leading to Hernandez’s goal aside. (And that wasn’t a corner anyway.)

On the pitch was some United attack. And opposite them was some Liverpool defence. Martin Kelly and Jose Enrique particularly caught the eye with assured performances and solid attacking support. It’s not everyday that Manchester United are limited to two shots on target in 90 minutes. It’s not everyday that Ashley Young is subdued for 70 minutes (or that he only lasts 70 minutes). And it’s not everyday that Nani is kept quiet on the pitch.

So, the good news is: with Kelly and Enrique on the flanks, Liverpool possess a very complete partnership on both our wings. (This is very, very bad news for Glen Johnson.)

Here’s another piece of good news: Steven Gerrard is back. Let’s first take a moment of silence in response to those who dared suggest that he wouldn’t be able to get back into the team.

Anyway, Steven Gerrard is back. And him being deemed fit enough to start and fit enough to last the entire 90 minutes can only be a good thing for Liverpool.

For all of Kuyt’s and Henderson’s industrious work-rates, Gerrard’s energy and ability to make incisive attacking runs will make a huge difference, and he will add an extra dimension to the Reds attack if he stays fit. His dead-ball and crossing prowess mean that chances will be created for our strikers to pounce on, and we will hopefully no longer be restricted to the left-foot specialties of Charlie Adam. His passion for the Reds cause will see him track back and make crucial tackles in his own half. His on-field, lead-by-example leadership will inspire confidence and instill calm in the Liverpool side.

Oh, and he’s capable of scoring important goals.

Unfortunately, this brings us back to the age-old question: Are Liverpool (still) a two-man team?

And unfortunately, the answer to that question is (still) a resounding yes.

Mention the other components of the Liverpool spine (Pepe Reina, Jamie Carragher, Dirk Kuyt) all you want, but Liverpool remain a two-man team. Just like Fernando Torres during his time at Anfield, Luis Suarez finds the majority of Liverpool’s attacking chances at his feet. But, for all his unpredictability, invention and hunger, he is far from a world-class goalscorer. When Suarez found himself with only David de Gea to beat in the first half, he shot straight at the keeper.

During Fernando Torres’ days at Atletico Madrid, before his move to Anfield, he was labeled more as a scorer of spectacular goals than a spectacular scorer of goals. This seems to be an accurate description of Liverpool’s #7 right now, and while he is seen to be more versatile and creative than Torres, he needs to get his finishing up to the old Torres’ level, simply because the bulk of Liverpool’s goalscoring chances are now his.

Which brings me to my next point: Where were Andy Carroll and Craig Bellamy?

Given the number of inviting crosses sent into the United box, especially towards the end of the game, and given the physically culpable duo of Rio Ferdinand and Johnny Evans, this was a perfect game for Carroll to make his mark. Instead, he found himself on the bench for the entire 90 minutes, which must have been as disappointing for him as it was for us Reds fans.

With all the chances being created, Liverpool need to step up a gear and actually finish them off, or risk losing points when they really should be taking them on board. This is where Andy Carroll, with his aerial and finishing ability, and Craig Bellamy, with his pace and experience, come in. Or should be coming in anyway…

But instead, in the end, the points had to be shared.

Everton 10/01/2011: Professionally Pedestrian

Professional.

That’s what Kenny called our derby win at Goodison Park. That’s what the players will say in the interviews leading up to the next game. That’s what the journalists will write in their post-match reports. That’s what the fans will claim after the labored win.

But the fact of the matter is that Jack Rodwell’s sending off, so undeserved even from a Red perspective, was the turning point in a match-up that’s seen the most number of red cards issued in Premier League history. And Everton’s reduction to ten men didn’t result in an immediate advantage for us either.

As much credit as David Moyes and his men in Blue deserve for grinding out a solid, hardworking performance the ultimately couldn’t resist Liverpool’s finishing, Kenny Dalglish and his charges will shoulder an equal amount of responsibility for a tepid affair.

With Dirk Kuyt restored to the starting lineup, the big-game player, the clutch finisher, the erstwhile derby hero, we fans rested assured that Leighton Baines would have to endure a troublesome 90 minutes. And so this proved, with the left-back rarely enjoying a yard of breathing space. It is a testament to Kuyt’s evolution (or devolution) from an out-and-out striker into a defensive winger, and to the importance of his dogged workrate in this position, that his contribution to this game will be judged based on his closing down of Baines’ left side and how unlike Jordan Henderson he was, rather than his penalty miss.

Of course, he would be remembered for his first penalty miss in a Red shirt had the game ended in anything but a Liverpool victory.

On the back of a solid game all afternoon, Everton’s defence will have been disappointed with their lax marking of Andy Carroll, allowing him to finish clinically into the far corner following Kuyt’s classy dummy from Jose Enrique’s cross, and infinitely more so with Sylvain Distin’s careless clearance straight to Luis Suarez’s chest. That’s how you take your chances when presented them, and let’s hope both strikers, especially the former, will take great confidence from their goals.

The more worrying aspect of the performance was the lack of mobility and movement across the front third, and in Rafa’s jargon, between the lines. On one side of the coin, it’s pleasing to know that we possess the strength in depth to bring on two experienced attackers, Steven Gerrard and Craig Bellamy, with pace, energy and creativity, and it shouldn’t be a surprise to know that both of Liverpool’s goals were scored after their substitute appearances. On the other, it’ll be a cause for concern that we needed the injection of said attributes before we were able to break the deadlock.

We often accuse our midfielders and strikers of passing the ball sideways and backwards when in possession of the football, but it’s also down to a collective lack of penetrating and incisive movement in and around the box. With the ball out wide, the only movement we see is the full-backs providing support but no movement whatsoever in the middle of the park. The ball once again stays forced out wide, and the crosses that do come in aren’t being attacked by our header-in-chief, Mr. Carroll. Where was the constant switching positions so evident early on in the season? Kenny and his coaching staff need to ensure that the bright footballing start to the season doesn’t fizzle out, because if this pedestrian showing persists, we could be in for a long season.

The bright sparks were the substitutes. With Gerrard and Bellamy’s desire and energy so evident in their 20-minute cameos, they should be considered as strong contenders for a first-team spot. Gerrard’s encouraging return from injury has in particular been the highlight in our recent underwhelming performances. Let’s hope he will add some much-needed pace and leadership from the center of the park.

With this potential banana skin out of the way, our upcoming clash against Manchester United has been billed as a key encounter, a test of our credentials. Following their unrelenting start to the season, United have arguably dropped down a notch in their recent performance levels. We’re capable of catching them off-guard to get the optimism back at Anfield in full force.

But my interpretation is slightly different. As much as our matches with United are always important, I see our subsequent fixtures as even more pivotal to our season. Next up in the League are Norwich, West Brom and Swansea, and we know how important it is to be able to kill off these so-called lower-table teams. I’ll hope for stylish, but I’ll be more than satisfied with professional.

Wolves 09/24/2011: Cracks Beneath the Paper

There were many reasons to be positive after yesterday’s win over Wolves.

Our first points since Bolton. Luis Suarez’s irrepressible form and inventive genius. Andy Carroll’s encouraging appearance in which he did everything but score. Lucas’s impressive defensive performance in the middle of the park. Steven Gerrard’s return to the Anfield pitch and a very sharp, energetic 10-minute cameo.

Hell, the fact that we managed to grind out the win after Wolves’ great start to the second half should be a justified source of celebration.

In fairness, credit must be given to the boys for sticking it out and digging deep in repelling the golden-clad attacks launched towards Pepe Reina’s goal. The post-match interviews have focused (and will continue to focus) on this ultimately winning performance.

But, unfortunately, the 3 points do not obscure what lies underneath: the fact that we remain a work in progress.

Not that we expected this to be the case at the start of the game, or indeed in the first half. The sumptuous football in display against Bolton a few weeks ago was back, at least for the first 45 minutes. This was the direct, incisive passing that we’ve seen work to such impressive effect against Bolton and in the first half against Sunderland. The Red dominance was such that a 2-0 half-time was no more than we deserved (and we probably deserved more).

But the mirroring of Sunderland’s second half in our own latter 45 minutes brought an unwelcome sense of deja vu. As the game wore on, the fans, the players and Kenny Dalglish knew this. Anfield was rightly subjected to taunts from the visitors for its subdued atmosphere, purely because everyone was so nervous that we would once again capitulate under pressure. And the pressure was there for all to feel after Steven Fletcher’s excellent finish in a criminally under-marked penalty box.

Mick McCarthy sent this troops out well fired from the tunnel, and his double substitution managed to unsettle Liverpool, even if it ultimately didn’t prove to be as game-changingly inspiring as he would dreamed. Liverpool committed that cardinal sin that Kenny condemned so strongly after our trip to White Hart Lane last week: starting slowly and on the back foot.

I’ve said time and again that our mental strength (or lack thereof) is our weakest link, and our second-half showing did nothing to dispel my beliefs as our new signings didn’t give us any evidence that they were big-game players, that they would impose themselves when things weren’t going well.

Charlie Adam rightly deserves credit for the way he went about his passing (and his shooting) in the first half, but he was too often found shirking from his defensive duties in midfield in the second half. His lack of defensive nous and urgency had Lucas scrambling everywhere to take up the work of two men, and the former will have to thank his partner for saving his skin on numerous occasions. Stewart Downing, an England international, should have given Wolves’ new teenage right-back a debut to remember for the wrong reasons. He still has to strike up a telepathic understanding with Jose Enrique down the left, with the latter’s overlapping runs often not found and instead sacrificed for unproductive forays into the middle.

At least Kenny appeared to realize Henderson’s ineffectiveness on the left, since there was no flank switching on display yesterday. But Kenny still has yet to realize Henderson’s ineffective on the pitch. Yes, this is a direct criticism of Jordan Henderson. While 7 games is not a lot for someone to truly establish himself in a Red shirt, anonymity game after game is not acceptable, especially when the reputed workrate only results in headless-chicken-like running to spaces that will not see a pass. Dirk Kuyt’s energetic and important 20-minute appearance off the bench, in which he immediately channeled his physicality and stamina into a nightmare for defenders, should really have shown Kenny that he made a mistake in not starting him. Aside from Kenny’s curious preference against Kuyt in Premier League games, Maxi Rodriguez would’ve proved to be more of a threat with his direct running, close control and short passing, but he was overlooked as well. So, too, Craig Bellamy, who I believe will play a big part in our season this year.

But no talk of substitutions in this match can go without mentioning Steven Gerrard’s impact on his Anfield return after a 6-month absence. The captain showed plenty of attacking verve, clever positioning and forward drive, linked up well with Dirk Kuyt, and reminded the league what he was capable of with a few great crosses and threatening runs. For those who had ludicrously started to write him off before his return, this was an encouraging display from the captain, who will once again be our key man when fully fit.

A word must be reserved for our strike partnership. Suarez’s inventive runs were once again the bane of the Wolves defence, and his performance fully deserved the goal he so thrillingly conjured at such a tight angle. But he remains, in chief, a creator and not a finisher. For him to fully take on the latter mantle, he has to work on his finishing. With the amount of chances put into the attacking third, yesterday’s chance creation was a cause for optimism, but the fact that they only resulted into two goals was a cause for worry. (What about Downing’s one-on-one against Wayne Hennessey? If he was taking a leaf out of Henderson’s book against Stoke, he needs to be reminded that he has chosen the wrong person to emulate.)

As for Andy Carroll, the simple fact is that he played well. He linked up well with Suarez, and was able to make his aerial presence count. Also unlucky not to score following a few good attacking headers, he needs to continue his improvement, but his movement and passing is there to show us that this is a partnership that might just work out.

His refusal to finish when presented with the game’s final chance has been put down as either an indecision due to lack of confidence, or a desire to toy with defenders to score a spectacular goal. Given the confidence shown in his display for the 90 minutes, I tend to go for the latter.

But his was a clear example of Liverpool needing to finish our chances.

Better, more clinical teams will be able to restrict our passing play and chance creation, and we will need plenty of mental strength and finishing ability to get results.

Tottenham 09/18/2011: Time for Introspection

I don’t get it.

I don’t get how we were beaten so comprehensively by a team that just a few weeks ago were labeled as also-rans and no longer realistic competitors for the Top Four. (For that matter, I don’t get how I bought into that hype.)

I don’t get why, with the threat posed by Gareth Bale’s raw pace, we opted to stick with Martin Skrtel as a makeshift right-back. John Flanagan deservedly his share of criticism following his positional mishap against Sunderland on opening day, but when you’re up against a left winger who on his day can terrorize even the finest of right-backs, you’re going to need a specialist on the right – and I don’t think he did too badly against opponents of a similar stature towards the end of last season.

Okay, perhaps Flanagan was not entirely match-fit, or even slightly injured, as has been suggested. That doesn’t excuse the positional naivety on show from said makeshift right-back, who was left utterly and depressingly exposed time and time again by Bale’s runs down the left. If the issue at hand is purely a lack of pace – understandable. But failing completely to keep even an eye on Bale’s positions required desperate attempts from Jamie Carragher and Daniel Agger to fill in for ignored space and make up for lost time.

I don’t get why, on evidence of his painful rightfootedness, Stewart Downing is still considered on the right. Surely him cutting in on his left foot is one of our most predictable moves, and surely there are far more threatening options, especially when Henderson, with his painful leftfootness, is wasted on the left. Against a team who can take their chances so effectively, the least we have to do is create chances effectively. On current evidence, not only does this switching of flanks bring instability and imbalance to our formation, it blunts our creativity and width, which was supposed to be the attribute that we were most lacking.

For that matter, I don’t get why, after a summer of splashing the cash and supposedly strengthening the Liverpool team with players who “want to be here,” we remain as one-man a team as ever. We have been led to believe that Stewart Downing possesses that X-factor, that pace, that crossing ability, to threaten a defence and set up goals. We have been led to believe that Jordan Henderson is ready-made for a Kenny Dalglish team, with a keen eye for a pass and all the workrate required from a top-class midfielder. We have been led to believe that Charlie Adam is the key ingredient we’ve been missing in midfield, with that creative vision we’ve been lacking since Xabi Alonso’s departure to unlock our opponents’ midfield and defence.

I don’t mean this as a criticism of their individual ability, but rather as an alarmed notice of their mental attributes, as was on show at the Britannica. When the going is smooth, as against Bolton and to a lesser extent as at Arsenal, we are capable of producing some sumptuous passing play, true to our much-vaunted pass-and-move philosophies. But when the going gets tough, we haven’t seen the most important attribute of a top-class footballer: that he can stand up and be counted.

That’s why I personally can’t wait for Steven Gerrard’s return. Ahead of his much-anticipated return to our first team, much has been made of his age and his supposedly-declining bursts of energy. But where he’s at his unstoppable best for Liverpool is his competitiveness and leadership. When the chips are down, he comes up with the goods. And he’s capable of driving his team on to come up with the goods if he can’t do it just as often anymore.

And that’s why I also don’t get why Dirk Kuyt didn’t even get a look-in for this game. There aren’t many games bigger and higher-profile than Spurs at White Hart Lane, and Kenny still opted to leave out our most consistent fighter.

Hindsight is twenty-twenty: on another day, perhaps Skrtel could’ve had a blinder against Bale, and perhaps Charlie Adam would not have been sent off. On another day, perhaps Andy Carroll could’ve shown the same mobility and awareness displayed by Tottenham’s own targetman, Emmanuel Adebayor, and perhaps Scott Parker would not have proved to be such a bargain signing for Harry Redknapp’s midfield.

But hindsight is useful in evaluating our own options and how we move forward from here. And thanks to hindsight, I now get that all of our failings in this match were of our own (un)doing. Today, we weren’t outdone by controversial refereeing decisions. We were completely outclassed in every department by our fellow contenders for a Top Four spot.

Liverpool, and Kenny Dalglish, will have to take a good long, hard look in the mirror and see how we can pick ourselves up from here. Things are suddenly not so rosy anymore.

The Road to Munich: A Look at the 2011-2012 Champions League

This year, we’re looking from the sidelines.

A pity, really, since this Champions League campaign promises to be one of the most exciting in recent years. First, a recap of this year’s group stage draw:

Group A: Bayern Munich; Villarreal; Manchester City; Napoli
Group B: Inter Milan; CSKA Moscow; Lille; Trabzonspor
Group C: Manchester United; Benfica; Basel; Otelul Galati
Group D: Real Madrid; Lyon; Ajax; Dinamo Zagreb
Group E: Chelsea;Valencia; Bayer Leverkusen; Genk
Group F: Arsenal; Marseille; Olympiakos; Borussia Dortmund
Group G: FC Porto; Shakhtar Donetsk; Zenit St Petersburg; APOEL
Group H: Barcelona; AC Milan; BATE Borisov; Viktoria Plzen

I’m not going to go in depth on each group, as there are definitely teams and leagues that I don’t follow enough and, as such, I don’t feel like I’d be able to contribute anything substantial in those regards. But what football fan doesn’t have an opinion about Champions League favorites? Without further ado, I present to you my picks on this year’s quarterfinalists, and a few honorable mentions.

Let’s start with Bayern. Without many major additions in the summer, aside from Germany’s first-choice keeper in Manuel Neuer, Bayern still possess a strong squad. On their day, Bayern have one of the strongest attacking forces in Europe and are able to choice from an in-form Mario Gomez, and the strikingly efficient duo of Ivica Olic and Thomas Muller. That is of course discounting the now-sulk-free Franck Ribery and the effervescent Arjen Robben, who I believe is one of the world’s best players when fit. And don’t forget Takashi Usami in reserve: you don’t join Germany’s most famous club on loan, as a 19-year-old, without having been capped for the Japanese national team, if you’re not something special. Bayern’s success is heavily dependent on Juup Heynckes’ ability to instill defensive organization in a newly-assembled backline, but their attacking options should ensure that they make considerable strides this year.

It’s City’s first appearance in the Champions League this season, but I’m tipping them to make a splash. Followers of the English Premier League won’t need any updates on how they’ve been doing this year, and the fact that this year’s title race is already shaping up to be the Battle of Manchester speaks volumes on the progress that City have made. Roberto Mancini is a seasoned Champions League campaigner, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some astute tactical deployments against the big boys. But against the highest caliber of European teams, City’s relatively weak defence will ensure that Mancini won’t be able to play a stereotypically Italian defensive game. With a starting backline of Ricards, Kompany, Lescott and Clichy, City will need to rely heavily on their men up front for points. But what a strikeforce they have: Carlos Tevez is currently their backup striker, and I think that’s all that needs to be said on this topic. This is a team whose attacking options will blow away many a team this year, and I’d say they’re a strong bet for a run to the quarterfinals at least, but I’d give City another year for further defensive reinforcements before tipping them as title contenders.

I don’t know what to make of Inter this year. They have a new coach and a new strikeforce, and I’m not convinced that they’re well equipped enough to go all the way this year. Diego Forlan was an inspired signing, but his European appearance for Atletico was enough to render him ineligible for further CL action this year, at least on the pitch, since Inter hilariously included him in their squad submission. Is Mauro Zarate good enough at the highest level? I’m not too sure, but Eto’o’s departure will absolutely be a blow to their chances. In Wesley Sneijder and Esteban Cambiasso, they have one of Europe’s finest midfield partnerships, and they will have too much top-level experience and quality for many teams, but Gianpiero Gasperini will have his work cut out if they are to make it further than the quarterfinals.

As for United, credit must be given to their gaffer for continuing to build world-class teams year in, year out. Sir Alex may only have brought in a few major signings this summer, but their returning loan stars seem to have stepped up to United’s level. Ashley Young has been turning in eye-catching performances, as has young defender Phil Jones, and Sir Alex has added a noticeable pass-and-move style that’s had the media and fans purring. Their success in Europe this season will be strongly dependent on whether or not these young stars have what it takes to carry their outstanding Premier League form into the Champions League. Are Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck capable of delivering at the highest level? Fabio Capello seems to think so. Will David de Gea get over his shaky start and cement himself as Spain’s best goalkeeping prospect? SAF seems to think so. And don’t bet against him for once again being able to instill a winning mentality in his squad: the current squad looks very promising, and a run to at least the semi-finals look on the cards.

There doesn’t exist a single discussion on managers in the football world that doesn’t involve Jose Mourinho, whose Inter team put on exhibitions on the art of defending en route to their Champions League success in 2010. His antics and so-called “anti-football” have alienated many a La Liga fan, but there’s no denying that the man is a master tactician. And he’s built a strong squad in Madrid in his own right, with star performers all over the pitch. Their key question: will Mourinho adopt an all-out defensive approach designed to breaking teams down? If that’s the route Real will be taking this season, I don’t see them lifting the Cup, as their squad isn’t as defensive-minded or -structured as Mourinho’s Inter.  But with Cristiano Ronaldo continuing to defy belief and break records, not many teams will be able to handle this Madrid attack. If Mourinho makes use of the attacking options at his disposal and his squad duly respond and turn on the style, then they are absolutely capable of going all the way. And don’t be surprised to see a trick or two up his tactical sleeve.

To continue with the manager talk, new dugout star Andre Villas-Boas has the unenviable task of bringing the European Cup back to Stamford Bridge for the first time in their history. Bigger-name and more established names have failed and seen the sack, but AVB made a huge splash on the European scene with Porto last season. The difference: Porto won the UEFA Cup, not the Champions League. The latter is a major step up, and AVB might face a baptism of fire in the toughest competition in the world. As a curious distinction from many of the sides I’ve mentioned above, Chelsea’s main weakness is their attack. Defensively solid with a world-class goalkeeper and plenty of experienced midfielders, they go into this year’s CL with an aging Didier Drogba and an out-of-sorts Fernando Torres. New signings Juan Mata and Raul Meireles will carry the bulk of Chelsea’s creativity on their shoulders, and for the time being it looks as though Daniel Sturridge is their only worthwhile outlet. A solid domestic start doesn’t take the focus away from their misfiring strikeforce, and it looks as if Chelsea will have to wait another year before shooting for top-dog honors again.

The European all-star team that is Barcelona have continued to recruit star names and to live up to their reputation as the planet’s finest football (and footballing) team. Who would’ve thought that Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez could make such instant impacts on the Barca first team already? Defensively sound with the best midfield/attack combination in the competition and an underappreciated work ethic, there’s not much else to say about Pep Guardiola’s team except that they’re once again the team to beat this season. Just how do you stop the Xavi-Iniesta-Messi axis and also deal with David Villa, Cesc and Sanchez? I’m looking forward to seeing the masterplans that other coaches will come up with against Barcelona though, and I have a feeling that this might just be the year that the mighty Catalans finally meet their match.

AC Milan completes my quarterfinal eight. Convincing winners of Serie A last season, they’ve strengthened wisely: Phillipe Mexes, Taye Taiwo and Alberto Aquilani all came in for little to nothing each. The latter injects some much-needed creativity in an aging midfield consisting of Mark van Bommel, Clarence Seedorf and Gennaro Gattuso, which marks Milan’s midfield as their weakest link. As with many of my tips, Milan’s attacking options are once again their strongest suit, with a mouthwatering selection headache between Ibrahimovic, Robinho, Pato and Cassano. They have plenty of European experience, but will age prove to be Milan’s downfall? Perhaps not in a more pedestrian league like the Serie A, but I struggle to see how they’ll be able to hold off the relentless energy of La Liga’s twin giants and both Manchester teams. Experience only gets you so far.

One honorable mention: luck is against Napoli for falling into this year’s Group of Death. In any other group, they could’ve had the chance to make a real impression and a run towards the knockout stages, but Group A’s Bayern and City seem to be a step too far for them right now, and don’t underestimate Villarreal for a second. They’ve made some astute signings this summer, and this group stage campaign will be a good chance for Napoli to assess their squad’s capability of playing at the highest level. A third-place finish would see them fall into the Europa League, and if that happens, I’d instantly consider them strong contenders.

And no, I don’t see Arsenal progressing very far this year. Wenger’s experience will help them progress from a tricky Group F, but they lack the world-class talent to carry them as far as the quarterfinals. Perhaps next year, if Wenger continues his spending ways.

But he’ll face a fight in getting there. As it stands, I’m tipping for Fortress Anfield to once again experience our famous European nights once again starting in the fall of 2012. It’s been a while since the spine-shivering YNWA anthem has reverberated around Anfield on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

Stoke 09/10/2011: Early Days

Let’s get the formalities out of the way.

A 0-1 loss at Stoke is by no means a devastating result. The Britannia is a formidable place to visit these days.

It’s hard to imagine that Stoke City were plying their trade in the Football League as recently as four years ago. To turn them into a very solid Premier League outfit is an often-underappreciated achievement, and plenty of credit should be going Tony Pulis’ way every season. As it stands though, Stoke are apparently a “rugby” side that play route-one football, bullying their opponents out of their way.

Just a few words on their playing style – I myself don’t see any problem with it. Football is ultimately a results business, and Jose Mourinho never seemed to get as much flak from Messieurs Wenger et al for playing a stifling and physical game. But that takes some of the limelight away from their actual style, which any seasoned observer would describe as multi-faceted. They have very decent wingers and are capable of playing some well-worked football on the ground. (I also feel the need to include a shout-out to Jonathan Walters – he’s been playing out of his skin, and generally very un-Jonathan Walters-like, since joining Stoke; I’ve been very impressed with him every time I’ve seen him in Stoke colors.) And they’re very much an ambitious club on the up: just look at their deadline day signings. My predictions for their season: top ten for sure, and possibly even darkhorses for a European place.

But, yet again, I digress.

Without being nearly as clinical as our performance against Bolton at Anfield, we took the game to Stoke last night. No question. We flew out of the traps and played some scintillating stuff, but I choose today not to focus so much on the positives, as I’ve already mentioned them in abundance in previous posts, but rather on areas in which we can improve.

Again, we were excellent until the penalty decision that’s been dubbed controversial by some. Now, there are plenty of grey areas with regards to penalty decisions, and we have to consider the pace of the game, which makes the referee’s job as tough as anyone’s. That is not the main point here. When the referee confirmed the penalty, Jamie Carragher, who is usually the first to protest any decision in his half, held his head in his hands. That body language, to me, showed plenty: penalty or not, he was the culprit. A seasoned European competitor allowed Walters, a Football League regular, to hold him off so easily and wreak havoc in his area. Like many of us Liverpool fans are beginning to think, Carra knew right away that it was his fault.

Forgive me here, but I’ve never been Carra’s biggest fan. It’s not a case of jumping on the bandwagon now; those of you that know me will be able to testify to that. For all the heart-on-sleeve commitment and the no-nonsense tackling that he contributes, he doesn’t play the ball out of defence, he doesn’t present any sort of threat from corners, and he will be continuously exposed this season due to his declining pace. I appreciate him for being our one-club man, but at the same time, I hope that as much as he turns up to save the day with an incredible last-ditch tackle, he will be mentoring the development of our new defensive partnership of Coates and Agger. And, please, stop hitting the ball over the top. It gets quite infuriating.

But the loss was always a matter of mental strength, which Carra does not lack at all. To be fair, I thought we coped with the “Fortress Britannia” quite well, but the decibels from the home section were not the defining factor. I maintain that ours is a season of transition, because ours is a squad that is relatively new to big game environments. In front of our own supporters with a lead splendidly earned, we rode on the confidence to finish Bolton off.  In adverse circumstances, where a great start is tempered by an against-the-tide penalty, our mental resolve is not quite the finished article yet. Charlie Adam and Jordan Henderson, who on their game (as against Bolton) can spot and pick out an inch-perfect pass, succumbed to an urgency that led to them only seeking out Hollywood passes while misplacing simple passes directly to the opposition on numerous occasions. The latter, of course, elected to finish straight at Mignolet’s legs not once but twice in a frantic 20-second exchange.

After his sublime left-footed effort two weeks ago, I thought Henderson had finally shaken free of the shackles that came with his pricetag and increased expectations. Perhaps this was purely a matter of inconsistent finishing ability, but in hindsight I would’ve preferred to see Lucas in that one-on-one situation, as I believe his mental strength would’ve brought us a goal. Sometimes it’s not just a matter of technical ability, as we’ve seen on multiple occasions through Dirk Kuyt.

More on finishing. As unpredictable and threatening as Suarez is, he is not yet a top-class finisher. A Liverpool-era Fernando Torres on top form, or for that matter a fit Steven Gerrard, would have not have chipped Bolton’s Jaaskelainen over the bar, and he’d certainly have been a surer bet to finish Mignolet’s parry straight to his feet last night. This is why I’m excited for Craig Bellamy’s return, and why I’ve clamored for a stop-gap, experienced finisher like Ruud van Nistelrooy or Diego Forlan. This is not to say that I was dissatisfied with Suarez’s performance last night, of course, not in the least. Quite the contrary, actually, and he really should’ve gotten a penalty against Upson.

A final word on mental toughness. We saw plenty of desire, albeit in a rushed frenzy, on the field last night, and I look forward to finally seeing Steven Gerrard back on the pitch to bring in some composure, and God forbid some save-our-skin strikes. But I was quite disappointed to see some of our on-pitch decisions last night. Given the threat that Charlie Adam poses on corners, I fail to see why he’s not in charge of corner duties, especially when Andy Carroll is on the field. We failed to keep a cool head towards the end of the game, electing instead to take short corners with non-crossers sending in the final ball, which of course led to clearance upon clearance from a resolute Stoke defence – this after Skrtel finished with aplomb at Adam’s inswinger against Bolton.

And where was Carroll? I have no problems with him not scoring, as we all know how hard it really is to change a game upon coming on as a substitute. But he was outside the box trying to get the ball and play simple passes instead of attacking crosses in it, and he was nowhere near any of the decent balls that came in off the feet of Enrique, Downing and Bellamy. I acknowledge that he is not currently on form, and that’s understandable, but the lack of desire and positional sense is not. Step your game up, Andy.

But to end this (apologetically long) post, I’d agree with Kenny in saying that we definitely deserved something, and with our players that if we play like this week in week out, we’d be in pretty decent shape come next May. And I’d also like to give credit to the way Kenny dealt with post-match questions on the referee’s performance: the epitome of class.

Alas, this was a result that wasn’t meant to be, and as such we continue our away woes – Tottenham at the Lane next week will be a severe test of our Top Four credentials. We’ve got more pressing matters to attend to closer to home, though: we all saw the importance of having a fearsome home reputation last night. Let’s get Fortress stenciled back in front of Anfield, boys.

Liverpool the Business: A Beginner’s Guide

Ever since Kenny’s return to L4 at the beginning of the year, ever since Luis Suarez walked through the Shankly Gates in place of El Nino, ever since we turned around our league form to come within an inch of finishing the season among the European places, most of what we’ve heard about Liverpool Football Club has been on the pitch. Rightly so, given the traditional “Liverpool Way” of focusing only on the next game and leaving everything else to the side.

A year ago, we were struggling with the Hicks and Gillett regime. “Finance” (or, more accurately, “refinance”) was probably the word that we Liverpool fans dreaded the most. Liverpool the business was hampering Liverpool the football club. We didn’t like Liverpool the business; we just wanted our football club back. Business and football were the last two words we wanted to see together ever again.

Oh, how a year has turned things around. Now, we can’t go a week without hearing an ex-player or someone in the Liverpool hierarchy sing the praises of the way FSG has revolutionized Liverpool as a business. Behind the scenes, the reality is that the business side, the “everything else” of our football club has undergone as radical a change, if not more so.

Let’s go all the way back to the Standard Chartered sponsorship deal. Now, before we fans got any wind of this partnership, we were cruising along perfectly content with the Carlsberg logo splashed across the front of our shirts. Sure, we saw O2 on the shirts at Highbury, and we saw vodafone, and subsequently AIG, at Old Trafford, and then we saw Ashburton Grove renamed as the Emirates Stadium. Those corporate sell-outs. Carlsberg: the best beer in the world. Liverpool: the best football club in the world. End of story.

But then, one fine (or cloudy, or rainy, I forgot which) day in 2009, the news came through that we struck the largest shirt sponsorship deal in football history. I very clearly remember that day. That was the day that made me sit up and take notice of what we were capable of achieving as a company. That day, on the back of a successful Premier League season, as I saw Rafa Benitez, Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres swapping shirts and posing for pictures with the Standard Chartered management, I realized that our club still had an amazing appeal to it.

This, remember, was a financially unstable club with rumors about our long-term financial stability. Amidst ownership struggles behind the scenes, we managed to pull off a deal like that. I almost immediately started idolizing Christian Purslow (and latterly Ian Ayre, when I read that he was the Commercial Director then). When it was first established that we had genuine financial concerns going forward, I didn’t panic. We even appointed Martin Broughton from the British Airways. Despite his outspoken Chelsea links, here was the chairman of one of Britain’s most famous corporations, brought in to “save” our club.

We would’ve been forgiven for thinking that ousting Hicks and Gillett was the final piece to the financial jigsaw.

But there are bits and pieces to the journey that cannot, and should not, be ignored. We saw Rafa overhaul the Academy. Yes, the headline news was that we want to go back to our famed traditions of graduating top players to our first team. But we didn’t just see Rafa take full control of our youth development. He restructured the Academy and brought staff in to take up managerial positions. He brought Kenny back to spearhead our youth recruitment drive and latterly as a Club Ambassador. These were all new roles. What Rafa noticed was not just that we were falling behind as football club; we were also falling behind as a company, a business, a corporation. And these were his first steps to establishing a structure at Liverpool, to the greatest extent he possibly could.

And when FSG recruited Damien Comolli and gave him the position of Director of Football (later renamed as the fancy Director of Football Strategy), it was not just a signal of our intent to bring in the world’s top footballing talent; it was our owners’ way of further instilling business organization and structure to Liverpool the corporation.

Outside the club, FSG helped us establish links with LeBron James, one of the biggest stars in modern basketball (and indeed in modern sports), in the process linking us with the Boston Red Sox. FSG and Standard Chartered put together our Asia tour this past summer with great aplomb, complete with a tour-specific website, extensive media coverage of all the players’ football and sponsorship activities, and a chance for our Chinese Reds to win a meet-and-greet with LeBron James. The express plan for our summer activities next year is a money-spinning trip to the US: imagine the fervor that would greet Gerrard, Suarez and co. as they run out onto the Fenway Park pitch.

But it’s not just the dollar signs and star brandnames that show our transformation as a corporation. Look at the way we have been catered to (in business terminology: customer experience) – comments in almost every LFC.tv article, expansion in the LFC.tv forums, the Bootroom Sports Cafe, our first ever official Supporter’s Committee, The Kop fan blogs and social network…

Oh, and don’t forget that key business buzzword: corporate social responsibility. For all the corporations that might have skeptical motives behind such activities (for example, a tobacco company sponsoring a health clinic), our family- and community-oriented traditions makes CSR a perfect fit for our promotions. Here’s an observation: have you noticed a significant increase on LFC.tv in the promotion of free football clinics in the Liverpool area? Coaching sessions in Korea? Summer camps for disabled children both in Asia (while others were promoting our business interests) and in the UK? We’re beginning to hear a lot more of these campaigns that are a win-win-win combination: they sustain our image and reputation within the footballing community; they help our players and staff understand the community better and thus form a stronger bond with Liverpool Football Club; and they bring us commercial opportunities in previously untapped areas. We are already in talks to establish Liverpool-themed cafes and lounges in India after setting up our academy there.

And on I ramble.

During my short working career, I’ve been exposed to the way businesses and corporations are run on a strategic and institutional level, and I hope I was able to give you some basic insight on the good work being done by FSG, and to help you make some sense of the commercial operations and developments that might sometimes slip under our radars.

I will wrap things up with a quote from Ian Ayre: “The absolute reality – in the case of Liverpool, not everyone – is that this is a global brand, one of only a handful of clubs that are truly globally recognized and supported.”

Liverpool as a business: I personally have been very excited about the way our management team has driven commercial growth and organizational change. Keep up the good work, gentlemen.

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If you’re interested in further reading, here’s a list of articles that I’ve referred to in this post:

http://www.managementtoday.co.uk/news/1068601/Ian-Ayre-transformed-Liverpool-FCs-commercial-fortunes/

http://businesstoday.intoday.in/story/liverpool-fc-cafes/1/18199.html

http://www.bizjournals.com/boston/news/2011/08/04/lucchino-liverpool-football-club.html

http://www.bitc.org.uk/community/communitymark/communitymark_companies/liverpool_football.html

http://www.liverpoolfc.tv/corporate/charter

http://www.liverpoolfc.tv/corporate/lfc-is-listening

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703280904576246640754493456.html

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/sport/football/premier_league/liverpool/article6831489.ece

Liverpool, English Premier League, Football Business