Swaps, Options and Futures

When the Hicks and Gillett regime was ushered out last year, I wondered if we were taking a massive risk in bringing in American owners yet again. When Luis Suarez was signed in January, I wondered if we were taking a massive risk in bringing in a top scorer from the Dutch league. When Fernando Torres was allowed to leave on deadline day, I wondered if we were taking a massive risk in breaking transfer records for an unproven replacement.

I wondered many times out loud, as we made our signings this summer, if we were taking massive risks. I questioned the wisdom of paying inflated fees for Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing. I doubted if Charlie Adam would be fit to lace Xabi Alonso’s boots. I hadn’t watched Jose Enrique much during his time at Newcastle. I hesitated about the signing of Alexander Doni, our umpteenth backup goalkeeper since Pepe took up his gloves between the goalposts.

These were average players, I thought, who were way too expensive as stop-gap measures while we would grind our way back to European football this term. We would probably have to let them go in search for better and more pedigreed replacements if we ever made it back to the Champions League, and even then we would lose out to the Cities and Chelseas in the race to pay big wages.

Yet, in they came, and out some others went. I wanted Charles N’Zogbia for 9.5m. I wanted Phillippe Mexes, Taye Taiwo and Nuri Sahin on free transfers. I read about Tottenham’s interest in Lassana Diarra on the cheap. I wanted Adam Johnson on loan. I wanted Aquilani to stay after some fine preseason performances. I didn’t want Insua, who I rate highly as a young defender, to leave. A few thousand miles away from the transfer action, I wanted a say. And after witnessing the second half meltdown against Sunderland, I unhappily thought I was vindicated, and all the delirium and euphoria from the exhilarating first-half showing came crashing down. Here we go again, I thought.

Then we went to the Emirates. And then we destroyed Bolton at Anfield.

I found myself suddenly opening my eyes to a Liverpool team that, for the first time in a long while, could play around with our personnel selection. Never mind Kenny’s 3-5-2 ploy against Stoke and Chelsea last year: we could now play all the formations in the world with our strength in depth. (Oh, the wonders of victory.) My eyes glittered as I thought of Suarez, no, Carroll, no, Suarez and Carroll, no, Suarez and Kuyt with Carroll coming off the bench, in attack. My heart fluttered when I saw a front three of Downing, Kuyt and Gerrard behind Suarez – or was it Suarez, Gerrard and Henderson behind Carroll? I got slightly disappointed when I realized I forgot about Maxi Rodriguez and Glen Johnson. I was even more baffled when I realized that we were launching outrageous attacking moves without Steven Gerrard. How on earth would we fit him back in the side?

As we passed and moved all over the pristine Anfield grass against Bolton, I saw Henderson’s defence-splitting chances, Downing’s touchline crosses, and Adam’s Hollywood passes. The glowing, glistening and glittering post-match reports only confirmed to me Kenny and Comolli’s transfer policy this summer: not only were we now loaded with alternatives in abundance, but we were now full of first-teamers who can create a damn good goal-scoring chance.

Upon the close of the Summer 2011 transfer window, Damien Comolli immediately lavished praise on our new owners. John Henry took a massive gamble and showed incredible patience, he said, because he was willing to buy before he sold.

I thought we were taking a huge risk when we let go of Aquilani again, despite some stellar performances in preseason. I thought we were taking a huge risk when we said goodbye and thank you to Insua. (Not so much Konchesky, Jovanovic, Cole, and Poulsen, among others, mind you.)

But when I woke up after the 11pm BST transfer deadline to see that Raul Meireles had left for Chelsea, I felt strangely un-disappointed. Because, like his news item on Liverpoolfc.tv, his importance had already been taken over by more exciting headlines. Craig Bellamy, a seasoned campaigner, was back, presumably as an impact substitute, and a high quality one at that.

And we signed Sebastian Coates, who I first saw playing an absolute blinder at the Copa America final against Paraguay before looking him up on Wikipedia, finding out he was 20 (unbelievably) and still playing in Uruguay, and subsequently making him my top defensive preference in the summer window.

Sometimes I get a bit too excited a bit too easily for my own good. Eh, it’s a risk I’m now willing to take. Hello, optimism.

Bolton 08/27/2011: Oh When The Reds Go Marching In

Bear with me here: there are so many things to digest from this weekend that I will be struggling to keep this one short, because this was the weekend that set so many milestones in this young and budding Premier League season.

This was the weekend that saw Tottenham capitulate against City after initially appearing to be capable of holding them back; that saw Dzeko produce a center-forward’s masterclass with a majestic four-goal haul (Andy Carroll take note: this is what a target man should aspire to); that saw City turn on the style and deal a ruthless punishment on a slowing Tottenham defence (the match commentators mentioned the attacking similarities with Arsenal and how City, on this form, might already be superior to Arsenal and should be comparing themselves with Barcelona); that saw Tottenham lose so much yardage in the race between the erstwhile Big Four pretenders (what would Modric think, seeing Spurs’ much-vaunted “ambition” devored by City’s billions?).

This was the weekend that saw Arsenal get humiliated and absolutely torn apart by a relentlessly breathtaking Manchester United side; that saw Arsene’s young pretenders get completely upstaged by the new generation of Fergie’s Fledglings (I should mention that I initially strove to offer some perspective to my United-fan friends in that the injured and suspended Gunners were weaker than an Arsenal Carling Cup team, but towards the end the gulf in class was just too huge for this to uphold); that saw the pressure pile in droves on Arsene Wenger, and for the first time quite rightly so, as Sir Alex showed him exactly how to run a successful youth policy; that, finally, saw Arsenal in unprecedentedly bad need of short-term fixes if they are to avoid a depressing slide down the table this year.

But, (unbelievably,) these are merely sideshows. Back to the main topic. This was the weekend that, in my eyes, saw Liverpool establish themselves as strong, strong contenders to finish back in the Top Four.

I feel the need to embark on a mini-digression here, as the above statement is one that many of those who know me should be surprised at seeing. I am of the cautious optimism school (low expectations, low disappointments). I have been trained in these past few years to focus on effective counter-attacking football, obtaining points in unfavorable situations, and causing upsets in Europe, largely due to the influence of Senor Benitez and the successes of Mr. Mourinho, whom I publicly despise but secretly admire (perhaps envy would be a better word choice here). So I am somewhat breaking one of my own rules here.

I say that we are strong Top Four candidates, because Tottenham and Arsenal are on alarming form as addressed above, yes, but also because we were very, very good against a Bolton side that pushed City all the way just a week ago. Yes, City played at the Reebok Stadium last week and we were at Anfield this week, and yes, Samir Nasri was still playing for Arsenal last weekend, but to some extent the comparisons still hold. But enough (finally) about what our competitors and opponents can or cannot do.

We played Bolton off the park, simple as. This was possession play, pass-and-move, never-ending attacking philosophy, constant closing down, all at their highest levels: in other words, Sunderland first half, extended to a full 90 minutes.

Never had I heard so much applause in a Liverpool match. And not only applause and cheering for goals (because the 8-0 trouncing of Besiktas will take some beating), but also for general movement and play. The players enjoyed themselves on the pitch; that much was apparent. Kenny enjoyed himself on the sidelines. These translated to us fans enjoying ourselves on the terraces (and for those of us on the other side of the world, in front of the TV). The last time I saw an unrelenting Liverpool side as attractive and exciting as this, we finished second as we blitzed past our unfortunate opponents towards the end of the 08-09 season.

Back then, we had our Gerrard-Torres axis in top, exhilarating form. Neither of them played on Saturday, for contrasting reasons, but we didn’t need them. Adam, Downing, Henderson, Kuyt, Suarez: they interchanged positions a la the famous Revolving Doors tactic, and Bolton had no answer to this unpredictable movement. The aforementioned former three played their best games for the club so far. Adam with some exquisite Alonso-esque long balls, picture-perfect set piece delivery (how unstoppable was that corner to Skrtel?), and a first goal to round it all off (on his right, too!). Downing in his best position down the left, hugging the touchline, getting into the box with great timing (how unlucky not to have scored off Suarez’s jaw-dropping outside-of-the-boot cross), and fizzing in crosses that Carroll needs to learn how to put away. Henderson playing his heart out, producing defence-splitting passes time and time again, producing great crosses and a great finish, thereby forcing me to temporarily take back my criticisms of his anonymity during our first two games.

And what about Lucas’s constant haggling and perfectly timed tackles? Enrique’s fantastic wing play and solid defence? Skrtel shining in an unfamiliar right back role? And do I need to mention El Sua’s constant threat everywhere on the pitch? The only downsides in the game: the referee (honestly, I could spot that back pass from 8,000 miles away), Suarez’s zero-goal haul, Kelly’s hamstring, and Carra’s late travesty.

But there were far more positives than negatives. With North London’s surrender against Manchester this weekend, this now puts a “favorites” tag on Liverpool in the race to finish in the Champions League places. Having set such a high benchmark this weekend, we now have it all to do to maintain this form over the course of a season. I daresay we have the strength in depth and the correct philosophy to give it a damn good go.

Stoke will be a good test of our credentials. But now we have to wait almost two weeks for more of the same (hopefully). Excruciating.

Arsenal 08/20/11: Efficiency

You don’t go from a top side to an average one overnight.

Much has been said about Arsenal’s depleted squad, but just think for a moment about RVP’s capability to produce random moments of genius, Arshavin’s 4-goal haul, Walcott’s terrifying run to set up Adebayor. Thomas Vermaelen had a cracking game matching up to the underwhelming Andy Carroll and Wojciech Szczesny will clearly be a top-class goalkeeper (and there will come a time when I won’t need to look him up on Wikipedia every time I write about him). The Emirates is not an easy stadium to go to by any stretch of the imagination. Oh, and I almost forgot about Samir Nasri (no, I’m not a closet Gunner).

This was no swashbuckling performance in the class of our 4-0 demolition of Madrid, 4-1 of United and many other breathtakingly ruthless dispatches towards the tail-end of the 08-09 season (yes, here I am again, reliving my Rafa memories). Nor was it a depressing show a la our 0-3 reverse against City last year (we all have our fair share of Woy’s woes). This was somewhere in between. Yet, the result was as ruthless as United’s dismantling of Arsenal’s Invincibles at Old Trafford and as rock-solid and impenetrable as Mourinho’s Chelsea: you also have to add in the Fat Lady’s blessings to complete the whole picture.

Of course, hindsight is always twenty-twenty. I would be singing a different tune had Suarez and Meireles not had enough time to freshen things up from the bench, had Frimpong not been walking a fine line all match, had Miquel’s clearance not ricocheted off Aaron Ramsey. But besides our luck lining up nicely, this was a believably efficient performance.

Without Suarez, there wasn’t much of the pass-and-move football on show in the first half against Sunderland last week, but rather plenty of long balls hauled up to our man mountain (who should start learning how to be less of a mountain and more of a mobile striker). But with Dirk Kuyt running his rainboots off (his immense run to take the ball off…Nasri, was it? was phenomenal) and Lucas destroying plays as destroyers are wont to do, and with Martin Kelly fully justifying Fabio Cappello’s post-match praise, JC and Dagger gobbling up most Arsenal attacks (and the latter making some fine runs of his own), and new-kid-on-the-block Enrique dominating Theo Walcott – we controlled the midfield and were beyond comfortable at the back. Make no mistake: Arsenal didn’t get played off the park at all, but we were good enough, efficient enough.

Even after we managed to get an Emirates-sized monkey off our back, we’re still taking flak from all sides and quarters on how we didn’t tear apart a depleted Arsenal as full-strength United and Chelsea sides oh-so-definitely would. Well, we’re formulating a new side and integrating new signings into our lineups. And without our captain and our erstwhile first-choice right back, we’re not at our full strength yet, either. We won’t go from an average side (over the last couple of seasons, we Liverpool fans have to admit we’ve been average) to a top one overnight. But we’re adding a certain efficiency to our game.

I experienced a new and strange feeling when Martin Atkinson blew the final whistle on Saturday. A strange, anti-climactic feeling at a frankly average attacking display, but a new, refreshing feeling that only comes from winning on the back of a not-so-good performance. At last, it seems we’ve gotten that winning mentality in our systems. Took us long enough.

Sunderland 08/13/11: The Proverbial Game of Two Halves

So. This marks my first official foray into football journalism, if I am qualified to call it that. The alternative name would just be rambling about the team that I follow like a madman week in, week out. Either way, it’s the start of my new project, one that I’ll be keeping up with every week this football season. Very ambitious.

Just like the project that’s going on at the magnificently-sponsored Etihad Stadium, whose bloated coffers are bringing in a terrifyingly effective Sergio Aguero. Or our own Kenny Dalglish’s project here at Anfield. Oh, didn’t you see that coming.

Speaking of which, you know what Luis Suarez didn’t see coming? Kieran Richardson’s tug from behind on 5 minutes. And what Kieran Richardson didn’t see coming? A yellow card instead of a red for a professional foul. And what I didn’t see coming? All the above, plus El Sua’s talent for emulating Steven Gerrard at shooting down clay pigeons from the pitch. Pssst, Luis, that ad was not entirely real.

Let me go off on a tangent here and posit this thoughtful question: why was Charlie Adam not in charge of that penalty kick? I presume he was brought here for his dead ball skills, and a penalty kick is a dead ball situation. The (variable) pecking order for PKs should be Gerrard, Kuyt, Adam. I still hold fond memories of the tail-end of the 08-09 season, where we seemed to score within the opening 10 minutes in every single match. When we got that PK in the 5th minute, I had a brief, pleasant sense of déjà vu. Alas.

Well, I suppose notching the first goal on 11” kind of makes up for that. Mr. Deadball doing what he does best, being in charge of dead balls, and Mr. Suarez picking up those great little pockets of space. A great combination. Of course, we would go on to see plenty of good combination plays and confident, flowing football in the first half, which was a pleasant surprise, given the minimal amount of time that these players have had together. We saw Stewart Downing slalom his way from the halfway line and hit the bar. A couple of decent long-range hits from Charlie Adam. Good link-up play between Downing and Jose Enrique. Quick, assured passing from the midfield.

And then half-time happened. Somewhere in that dressing room, some memories, collective and individual, were lost. We forgot that we were playing at Anfield, not the Stadium of Light. John Flanagan forgot that he has a far more accomplished predecessor (Martin Kelly) and an England international (Glen Johnson) in front of him at right-back. Jordan Henderson forgot that he is a ways away from being the big-game, consistent workhorse that is Dirk Kuyt. Stewart Downing forgot that his main job as a winger, be it left or right, is not to disappear from the match entirely. Andy Carroll forgot that he was capable of producing such great finishes as the one that got chalked off in the first half. Or, God forbid, Kenny Dalglish forgot all of the above.

Now, I recognize that Kenny is widely regarded as our best ever player, and that our last league title came under him. I think it’s an appropriate time to announce that I only truly started following us when Rafa Benitez came in. I am a huge Rafa fan. To me, just like Roy Hodgson, Kenny Dalglish will need to prove himself as manager. He’s had us produce some scintillating stuff at times, but if we are ever going to get back in the top four, we need to reproduce that on a weekly basis. There will come a time when I comment on his transfer policy, not in the least because the new guys have only had so much time together.

But our season opener, while offering plenty of good moments in the first half, showed our Mr. Hyde in the second. Without European football this season, there will be no escaping the spotlight. We will need, and we are looking forward to, more of the same, Kenny. Just please make it the pass-and-move from the first half, not the non-existent second.

My Red Debut

Welcome to the Red Armchair.

After every Liverpool game, I move my euphoric or depressed behind from the couch and onto the proverbial Red Armchair to do some serious pondering about Jordan Henderson’s hair products, Charlie Adam’s teeth and Steven Gerrard’s groin.

And now, I move my proverbial Red Armchair to the wonderful plane of existence known as the blogosphere.

I intend to update this blog with my mundane musings and rambling rants after every Premier League game (unfortunately, my cable coverage only allows so much, but I will get my hands on 3am Cup coverage if we make it far enough). My posts will cover mostly Red topics, but I like to think about other EPL news, as well as other goings-on in other leagues around the world.

Please – join me for a lazy and relaxed discussion on all things Red. Yours for a great low price, unlike Fernando Torres.

Liverpool, English Premier League, Football Business