Tag Archives: everton

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.

Liverpool Must Improve on FA Cup Display for Merseyside Derby vs. Everton

Liverpool Must Improve on FA Cup Display for Merseyside Derby vs. Everton
Ian Walton/Getty Images

Goals from Victor Moses and Daniel Sturridge—both assisted by Luis Suarez—took Liverpool into the FA Cup fifth round with a 2-0 win over a spirited Bournemouth side at the Goldsands Stadium on Saturday.

Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe will have been pleased with the manner his side went about the game, as they fearlessly went about attacking their esteemed visitors in impressive fashion, only for the final finish to let them down.

His opposite number, Brendan Rodgers, will be glad to have overcome a potential banana skin fixture with a performance that was more professional than it was impressive, but one that did the job nonetheless.

But it is exactly because of the nature of the Reds’ win that they must improve on Saturday’s performance when they host the visit of high-flying and fellow top-four challenger Everton on Tuesday, in the 222nd Merseyside derby.

 

 

Julian Finney/Getty Images

Concerns at the back: A return to 3-5-2?

That Liverpool are now besieged with a host of injury problems is no longer news, but Rodgers and Liverpool fans alike could be forgiven for fearing the worst after Martin Skrtel received extended treatment off the pitch for a blow to the head.

His subsequent return to the field with a bandage around his head was comforting as it was important, but he will be paying further visits to club doctor Zaf Iqbal in the build-up to the Everton game.

With Glen Johnson out injured, Martin Kelly was granted an opportunity to stake a claim for a first-team place. But yet again he looked labored and still some way short of full match fitness as he faced a quick and dynamic Cherries left flank.

Not that fellow full-back, the perpetually out-of-position Aly Cissokho, fared any better. Not only was he lacking in defensive positioning, but he failed to provide any inspiration going forward.

This compounds the problem that Rodgers already has, with Daniel Agger, Mamadou Sakho, Jose Enrique and Glen Johnson—arguably the Reds’ first-choice back four—out on the sidelines.

In this context, the return of Jon Flanagan, and the man he replaced, was illuminating: Kelly could have been withdrawn to preserve his match fitness, but Rodgers showed Flanagan’s importance by giving him some minutes of his own to prepare for the derby.

With the current holes in the Liverpool squad, and the in-form partnership of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, don’t be surprised if the 3-5-2 formation seen earlier this season returns on Tuesday.

For maximum work rate, positioning and defensive awareness, don’t be surprised if both starting full-backs on Saturday are replaced for Everton: It could yet be the in-form Raheem Sterling and Jon Flanagan who assume the wing-back roles in the derby.

 

 

Ian Walton/Getty Images

Gaps in the middle: Fitness is the key

With his inconsistent performances in the Liverpool midfield this season, club captain Steven Gerrard has had both his importance to and role in the squad questioned this campaign.

With Brendan Rodgers’ decision to move him into a holding midfielder role, Gerrard’s time to adapt to his new position has attracted criticism, while Jordan Henderson, as the only other fit senior midfielder in the squad, has been nigh-on anonymous in recent games as Gerrard’s midfield partner.

Saturday, however, showed just how important Gerrard still is to the Reds cause. Some excellent tracking back and timing in the tackle allowed the skipper to avert danger on a few occasions, while his passing added some much-needed directness and variability to the Reds’ approach play.

And while Henderson once again had a quieter game, his work rate and presence in the midfield remains important, especially when the advanced midfielder in front of him is the physically slight Philippe Coutinho.

But as much as their presence in the middle of the park enabled Liverpool to come away with a win, it was very much a gamble to start both players amid the club’s injury troubles.

The competitiveness of the game, and the dogged spirit of the Bournemouth players, ensured that the visitors had to wait until the hour mark before Liverpool gave themselves more of a cushion in the game.

Running themselves into the not-so-well-groomed ground at Goldsands Stadium won’t have done Gerrard and Henderson any good ahead of Tuesday’s derby, where Everton’s powerful and dynamic midfield will pose far bigger problems than Bournemouth’s.

Whatever spirit and attitude they showed in the FA Cup on Saturday, they’ll have to replicate it and then some if they are to get an important result against Everton in just a few days.

 

 

Julian Finney/Getty Images

Consistency in the attack: A second chance for Victor Moses?

Before we go into more detail on Liverpool’s first goal, let’s devote a few column inches to the Luis Suarez-Daniel Sturridge forward partnership.

The burgeoning strike duo, who were in such exciting form prior to Sturridge’s injury, have shown signs that they are back to their exhilarating best in Liverpool’s past few games. Saturday yet again saw “SAS” work in tandem for an impressive second goal, even though Suarez went a second consecutive game without scoring.

But enough about their collective excellence: More interesting was Victor Moses’ display against Bournemouth.

Critics will dismiss Moses’ performance as it came against a Championship side in the FA Cup, but what was evident for all to see were his much improved attitude and the attributes that have always threatened to show themselves on the pitch.

Time and again, Moses showed great acceleration to get past his man on the left wing, and good awareness in passing, positioning and attacking. His first goal, a combination of an excellent first touch and a clinical finish, was deserved reward for an encouraging first-half performance.

Simply put, this was more like it from Moses, after what has been a thoroughly disappointing six months in a Liverpool shirt.

And it comes at a good time for Brendan Rodgers, who could do with a selection headache and will have been pleased that Moses grasped a chance to impress with both hands.

If Sterling is indeed employed as a safe defensive option but an intriguing counterattacking weapon in the derby, then Moses could yet reprise his starting role against Everton.

Alongside an interchanging strike partnership of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, Victor Moses might just salvage his Reds career yet.

But just like the rest of his teammates, simply replicating their display against Bournemouth won’t be enough: They’ll have to improve on that to get a morale-boosting win over a tough rival on Tuesday.

 

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

English Football Weekly: Manchester and Liverpool Roar; Fletcher’s Return; Managing in the Premier League

EPL Week 16 recap: Manchester and Liverpool roar

It’s been a while since Manchester United have made the headlines for anything positive, so before we get to Darren Fletcher’s return to first-team action, let’s give United their due credit for a professional job on Aston Villa at Villa Park. Sure, it’s a ground where they’ve traditionally enjoyed success, but we also saw Danny Welbeck score two (two!) and Tom Cleverley score (score!). That Wayne Rooney played in a deep, prompting Scholes-esque role (and that Welbeck was finally deployed in his favored centerforward position) was curious—a sign of things to come?

Which result was the bigger statement this weekend—Manchester City scoring six against Arsenal, or Liverpool hitting five at White Hart Lane? We’ll leave the debate to you, but what’s clear is that Manuel Pellegrini and Brendan Rodgers, both known for their “philosophies” and approaches to the game, are apparently also masters in dissecting opponents and exploiting their weaknesses to the full. City’s sheer power through the middle saw Fernandinho and Yaya Toure give a midfield masterclass and completely blow Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere away, while Liverpool’s relentless pressuring, movement and dynamic passing dominated a Tottenham midfield that’s been tipped as one of the league’s finest.The gap between leaders Arsenal and fourth-placed City has now been reduced to just three. Liverpool are sandwiched just in between along with Chelsea.

That hasn’t deterred Everton, however, as they continued their impressive rise—documented in this column last week—with a 4-1 rout over Fulham, who themselves have exhibited signs of springing back into life under Rene Meulensteen. Seamus Coleman, Gareth Barry and Kevin Mirallas all got goals that their excellent campaigns thus far have deserved (so did Leon Osman), but Gerard Deulofeu’s injury will have been concerning for Roberto Martinez. An interesting set of December fixtures (Swansea away, then Sunderland and Southampton at home) may yet see Everton start the New Year in the top four.

 

Welcome back, Darren Fletcher

It was in 2010—over three years ago—that Darren Fletcher first captained Manchester United and then went on to be nominated as their vice-captain. He was named in the PFA Premier League Team of the Year in April 2010 after a successful season, and aged 26, he had already undergone a transformation from “not good enough” to become an important member of Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad.

So it was particularly poignant that Ferguson decided to pay Fletcher a special tribute in his retirement speech at Old Trafford, wishing him a speedy recovery and a quick return to first-team football. Of course, sandwiched in between was an unfortunate case of ulcerative colitis, which ruled him out of most of United’s matches for the seasons to come—and at one point, put his professional career into jeopardy.

And so it was particularly good news when Fletcher—widely seen to be a hardworking, honest model professional—returned once again to the field against Aston Villa on Saturday. The ovations were heard around Villa Park, and they won’t have been confined to Birmingham. But his presence and return will give David Moyes another experienced option in the Manchester United midfield, who have missed Michael Carrick and who haven’t been significantly bolstered or upgraded with the signing of Marouane Fellaini.

Best that Fletcher gets to work and returns to form as soon as possible, then.

 

Still want to be a Premier League manager?

In recent weeks, we’ve read all about how Martin Jol is utterly incompetent, recently that Steve Clarke was ultimately not good enough for West Brom, and now that Andre Villas-Boas has become the latest to lose his job as a Premier League manager. There are rumblings of Sam Allardyce being on borrowed time at West Ham. In the Championship, Owen Coyle and Dave Jones have been sacked in the first two weeks of December.

It’s a peculiarity in modern football that so much emphasis is still being placed on the manager—sometimes styled as “Head Coach,” sometimes “First-Team Manager,” among other iterations of the title. It’s not happened overnight, and it’s largely been done behind the scenes, but the European model of football operations, otherwise known as the corporatization of Premier League football clubs, has almost entirely taken over in the Premier League. With the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, perhaps only Arsenal employ a traditional all-powerful manager, but even he is working within the confines of a very American, very business-like setup.

So how much influence do Premier League managers actually have? Managers can bring a philosophy, a dream, a vision into their clubs, but how much room do they actually get to see it through? When your best players are being sold against your wishes and replacements are being brought in after consultation with “advisors,” “consultants” and “specialists” but not necessarily with you, how would you be able to fit them into your ideal starting XI to play the type of football you want?

Essentially, a Premier League manager has now become akin to a middle manager in the corporate world, who has to work within major constraints but is still expected to bring stellar results. Except corporate executives (generally) don’t have to endure mass protestations of “You’re getting sacked in the morning” from 40,000-plus fans every single week, which in turn put more pressure on chairmen, whose backgrounds are usually in other industries, to take action, all in the name of sporting glory—in a league where there can, alas, only be one winner.

The plus side? You get to do a job you “love” and have always dreamed about—and the payoff, in case things just don’t work out, is pretty attractive.
This piece was part of my weekly column on SWOL.co, where I take a look back at the weekend’s English Premier League and domestic cup action, related talking points and news surrounding English football at large.

English Football Weekly: Week 15 Recap; Everton’s Revolution; Match-Fixing Scandal

EPL Week 15 recap: A weekend of upsets

Not that an impressive 2-0 home win would’ve been at all upsetting for Fulham, but was it Rene Meulensteen at work on Craven Cottage on Sunday, or was it just another case of the “new manager syndrome”? Only time will tell, but the confidence—even arrogance—in the way the Cottagers set up against Aston Villa will bode well for their fight to stay in the Premier League, and marked a huge contrast to the soulless, dithering squad in the final days of Martin Jol. Even Dimitar Berbatov turned up to play. He might not be accustomed to the wrong end of the table, but he’ll be important in Fulham’s resurgence—hopefully.

It’s been a while since the Britannia has been regarded a fortress the way it was when Tony Pulis first took Stoke up to the Premier League. Back then, there were Rory Delap’s long throws and other manners of rugby football play. Now, there’s the maverick flair of Marko Arnautovic, the cultured finishing of Stephen Ireland—and apparently also the magician’s touch from Oussama Assaidi. An example of Stoke’s resolve and fight towards a mid-table place? Or a public appeal from Jose Mourinho to Roman Abramovich to land them a striker in the class of Radamel Falcao? Either way, much work to be done still.

Alan Pardew tried to offer some solace in his interview after Newcastle’s first win at Old Trafford in 41 years, but his smug grin, which has been doing the rounds on Twitter, will say all there is about what’s going on at Manchester United—and to an extent at Newcastle as well. For while United toil in ninth place, some 13 points off leaders Arsenal and seemingly having lost that famous comeback spirit, Newcastle have defied critics, predictions and a barren summer transfer window to storm into seventh place, just three points behind City in fourth and four points ahead of United. What a strange season it’s been.

There to take advantage of the dropping of points by Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City were Liverpool, who overcame a sloppy own goal and a 10-minute resurgence from West Ham to secure a 4-1 win. It’s been a few seasons since the Reds have found themselves still right in the mix in December, but the hard part is coming. Three formidable opponents and competitors, all away from home, will be obstacles to Liverpool finishing in the top four by the end of December. They’ll be hoping that Cardiff at home next weekend will provide some much-needed breathing space. Spurs, City and Chelsea will not be easy.

 

Young Everton are here to stay

There was never a chance Arsenal-Everton would’ve escaped mention on a weekly wrap; it was too exciting and unpredictable (see: “the perfect advert for the Premier League”) to leave out. But while football fans were expecting Arsenal to reaffirm their title credentials at the Emirates, instead we’ve come out of the game with a renewed appreciation of Everton and Roberto Martinez.

The manner in which Everton took their game to Arsenal was as impressive as it was audacious—possibly even ill-advised prior to kickoff. After all, Liverpool, having had quite a decent run of results this season, went defensive at the Emirates and still got battered. Surely Everton would’ve set up to defend a bit more, especially with Gerard Deulofeu on the bench?

Wrong. The difference between the Merseysiders is that the Blues have a far more industrious, dynamic and well-balanced midfield in comparison to the Reds, and it showed. There was Ross Barkley, brash and confident, taking on the likes of Aaron Ramsey and Mikel Arteta and strengthening his claims for a place on the plane to Brazil next summer. There was James McCarthy, working so well with Gareth Barry as the central midfield duo and largely nullifying the hitherto potent and unstoppable Arsenal attacking line. And there was Bryan Oviedo, who had impressed with goals in consecutive matches (including a famous winner against United), bombing down the flanks to such good effect that he might just render Leighton Baines a bit less indispensable.

It was a result, and a performance, to confirm that Everton aren’t now fifth in the league because of a fluke. It’s the start of a youthful revolution shaped by a young manager with a vision. The critics still have their knives out, of course, what with two key players and a secret weapon (Romelu Lukaku, Barry and Deulofeu) on loan, but that’s a concern best left for the summer—if it’ll still exist at all. If Everton qualify for Europe, they’ll be able to bring in a few good ones yet.

 

Match-fixing: The elephant in the room

So it appears match-fixing has finally arrived on English shores. The recent reports linking the Sodje brothers and the likes of DJ Campbell will have presented a huge step back for English football and the FA.

£70,000 for a red card? £30,000 for a yellow? Surely players on such lucrative salaries in the English game won’t even bat an eyelid, and surely the competitiveness of the Premier League and the Championship means that sporting integrity and the chance of glory should by default render match-fixing a useless force in England? Why would a player on £50,000 a week sell out for that?

As easy as it is to criticize someone for holding the above beliefs, it is a true pity—but a real necessity—that match-fixing has been revealed to affect the English game, even at the top level. It’s a pity because all along it’s seemed that English football was too competitive, too pure and too exciting to even consider the existence of corruption and the evil influences of money. And for a long time, this image was sustained.

But now that this news has surfaced, it’s come as a huge smack in the face, and many a pundit, follower and fan will be smacking his head out of sheer frustration at his own ignorance. Because given the amount of money in the global game—an amount which will only rise with time—what could possibly have made England immune to corruption? Where there’s money, there’s corruption: It’s a sad fact of professional sports, and now it’s all coming to light.

What’s important now is not to hide and be embarrassed about match-fixing in England, but for the government, the police and the FA to join forces and crack down on the antagonists. Heavy punishments should be issued for those found guilty, and points should be deducted—with relegation implemented—for teams that have been complicit, if it emerges that any might have been.

It’ll be a long, hard journey and will require active policing—even racism has apparently resurfaced in recent years—but it’s the only course of action that makes sense.

 

This piece was part of my weekly column on SWOL.co, where I take a look back at the weekend’s English Premier League and domestic cup action, related talking points and news surrounding English football at large.

English Football Weekly: Liverpool v Everton; England’s Philosophical Troubles; Questionable Referees

EPL Week 12 recap: Manchester contrasts; Merseyside wonders

What a difference a goal makes. If it weren’t for Kim Bo-Kyung’s injury-time equalizer against Manchester United, they’d be two points ahead of Manchester City by now. A nine-match unbeaten run is now extended, but David Moyes will have been left ruing the defensive chaos and laxness of his side as they shipped a forgettable two goals to gain only a point. Top teams take points even when their performances don’t necessarily justify them, but a point away at Cardiff—acceptable as an off-day though it might have been during the Sir Alex Ferguson era—does no good for the Red Devils.

Especially when their city rivals roared yet again at home, scoring six goals against an admittedly woeful Tottenham side to take their goal difference to +22, a whole eight goals above nearest challengers Arsenal. Much has been made of Sergio Aguero’s star performance and burgeoning status as the Premier League’s premier player, and also of Fernandinho’s pivotal role in making everything tick—and Andre Villas-Boas’ side were every bit as embarrassing and disjointed as Manuel Pellegrini’s was slick and ominous. City need only replicate their form away from home; Spurs need desperate reinforcement in January.

As contrasting as the two Manchester clubs’ fortunes were on Sunday, Merseyside was united on Saturday in its appreciation for a good derby, a first openly attacking and truly end-to-end derby in many a season. Luis Suarez made sure that Aguero wouldn’t take all his spotlight, while Romelu Lukaku also put in a performance that can only be described as Didier Drogba-like. More interesting was Brendan Rodgers’ post-match comments and public criticism of Daniel Sturridge’s fitness, Ross Barkley and James McCarthy’s upper hand in the midfield, and Joe Allen’s miss. Oh, Joe. How can you redeem yourself from that?

At the Emirates, Southampton were actually not as bad as the final scoreline made it seem. But they had Artur Boruc and a soft penalty to thank, and so the Gunners machine rolls on. Newcastle also kept up a decent run of results with a 2-1 win over Norwich that takes them into eighth place above Spurs, with Yohan Cabaye impressing once again. The fall guys of the weekend? Martin Jol, who surely edged closer to the brink at Fulham with another defeat, and Gus Poyet, who, for all the right noises he’s made, is still rooted at the bottom of the league.

 

England dealt a lesson in philosophy and long-term thinking

If international friendlies—especially those that take place knowing that a World Cup place is secure—are meant to be experimental exercises, then Roy Hodgson will have learned much more about the state of English football than he did about his own players, after the deflating back-to-back Wembley defeats last week.

It’s not so much England having a disappointing day out against Chile—any upset, while, erm, upsetting, would be understandable as an off-day—but a case of a philosophical defeat to a young, energetic and vibrant South American side. Of course, the standard post-match talk was on the valuable experience that playing Chile provided, and that the players were looking forward to playing European opposition when they met Germany. One lesson that flew by.

The problem was that Germany, despite winning by a one-goal margin, also turned out to be comprehensive winners. And there, the second glaring lesson was impossible to ignore: England, a short-team team with a short-team outlook, had been beaten by teams that have realized the importance of a top-down philosophy and organized, pervasive infrastructure. In other words, England’s defeats were no fluke.

Granted, it’s a vicious cycle: A lack of long-term thinking means that qualification for the next tournament is what the media expect, and to meet those expectations, England throw out a team (hopefully) capable of winning the next game to secure the next point or three. A textbook example of short-termism. Which, of course, will have been the elephant in the room until Premier League action resumed and took back all the spotlight.

Another week goes by without much change. This inquisition will take place again when England underwhelm in Brazil next summer, again without much change. What an injustice to the new and talented generation of England youngsters.

 

We need to talk about the referees

So it turns out goal-line technology was the one that was the least needed. It was implemented, of course, due to its relative ease (just paying the installation costs and setting up the technology in stadiums would suffice) and the authorities’ unwillingness to discuss the governance of far more important—and far trickier—decisions.

But we knew that all along. So what’s been done to prepare referees for ever-trickier situations that arise in the ever-quickening pace of the English game? From the ample evidence on show this weekend, the answer is a resounding no.

As much as we don’t want to blame referees because of the lack of help that they currently receive in having to make such big calls on the fly, it’s clear that big decisions are having bigger impacts on the outcomes of games—and overturning those decisions post-match, just like the FA may do with Wes Brown’s nonsense red card, might even end up undermining the power and decision-making of officials on the pitch.

And it’s not just situations around the ball—like Wayne Rooney’s petulant kicking out at Jordon Mutch and Kevin Mirallas’ dangerous knee-high challenge on Luis Suarez—there are off-the-ball incidents too, like Gary Medel’s punch on Marouane Fellaini and Mirallas’ elbow on Jordan Henderson. None of which, naturally, received the adequate attention and punishments from the referees on show.

So what do we do? Defer to post-match punishment of both offending players and referees who happened to miss the incidents? Or take a more rational approach to video reviews like tennis, by allowing each team a few challenges per match to appeal to a video replay? The latter makes much more sense in the evolving integration of sports and technology, but given the reluctance in adopting even goal-line technology, we football fans probably have to endure a few more questionable calls yet.

 

This piece was part of my weekly column on SWOL.co, where I take a look back at the weekend’s English Premier League and domestic cup action, related talking points and news surrounding English football at large.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liverpool Hurt by Kevin Mirallas, Phil Dowd and Joe Allen

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Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time for a Change to the Reds’ Central Defence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Tale of Set Pieces

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Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Young Blues Full of Pace, Power and Promise

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daniel Sturridge Has Much to Learn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Everton vs. Liverpool Preview: How and Where the Merseyside Derby Will Be Won

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The Red and Blue halves of Merseyside will meet for the 221st time on Saturday, as Liverpool prepare to travel across Stanley Park to take on Everton at Goodison Park.

After two successive derby draws last season, the rivalry has a different complexion to it this time around: Having finished outside of the European places last May, Liverpool enter this fixture second in the Premier League table, while Everton, with 20 points in hand, are just a solitary point behind fourth-placed Chelsea.

As we look forward to a Merseyside derby with a renewed significance, let’s look at five areas—outside of focus on Liverpool’s Luis Suarez-Daniel Sturridge strike partnership and Everton’s in-form Romelu Lukaku—where the points might just be won on Saturday.

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

Full-Backs and the Flanks

Let’s start first with a position that both Roberto Martinez and Brendan Rodgers consider to be integral to their style of play: the full-backs.

With both managers preferring wingers that cut in and build through the middle, the full-backs figure prominently in the tactical setups of both Everton and Liverpool—Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines have been every bit as impressive and important as the Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique duo over at Anfield.

And with Enrique out with a knee injury (according to BBC Sport, he will likely face surgery), Liverpool’s deputy left-back—whether it’s Aly Cissokho or Mamadou Sakho—will face a battle on his hands against Coleman and the talented Kevin Mirallas.

Johnson and Baines over on Everton’s left flank will be a battle between two of England’s most all-rounded full-backs, and will be equally mesmerizing. We can’t rule out a Baines free-kick or a Johnson stunner as the match-deciding goal either.

Steven Gerrard and His Young Pretender

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The central midfield at Goodison Park will likely feature a matchup that more than fans of the Merseyside derby will be keeping an eye on: Premier League fans, England fans, England manager Roy Hodgson and journalists looking for quick headline fixes will be paying attention as well.

That’s because in Steven Gerrard vs. Ross Barkley, we have the makings of a battle between the present (and soon-to-be past) and the future of the England central midfield.

Everything that Steven Gerrard is and used to be—the influential midfield playmaker, talismanic captain and erstwhile match-winning driving force—Ross Barkley, at 19 years of age, is currently aspiring to emulate.

And everything Barkley has been for Everton this season—a young, energetic talent with a penchant for the spectacular, and a snappy attitude to boot—Gerrard wishes he still had in his locker as a precocious teenager.

A changing of the guard, one that Liverpool fans surely wish was happening at Anfield instead of the derby, could also be pivotal in determining the result on Saturday.

Potential Match-Winners off the Bench

But it’s not just the starting XI that will influence proceedings, especially given the talent present in both squads these days. The match could easily be affected by a managerial masterstroke.

Let’s look at the home bench first, where on-loan Barcelona starlet Gerard Deulofeu is clearly the danger man for the Reds to keep an eye on. His pace, dribbling and eye for goal will be a threat to the Liverpool defence—the No. 10 might even find himself in the starting lineup on Saturday.

Outside of Deulofeu, Everton also have Steven Naismith, who scored the winner against Chelsea back in September, and the admittedly short-of-confidence Nikica Jelavic to call on. Three goalscoring options off the bench, then. Not too shabby.

Quite on the contrary, Liverpool don’t have any strikers to call on, but they do have one of the league’s best strike partnerships in Suarez and Sturridge, of course. Victor Moses and Raheem Sterling are valuable attacking options that will help open up the midfield for SAS and Philippe Coutinho to push through the middle and attack.

Luis Alberto and Joe Allen also help add a sense of calm to the midfield possession play and could be crucial in changing the tempo of the game.

The Swansea Old Boys

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As we look ahead at a new and freshened up Merseyside derby this weekend, it’s also time to pay tribute to Swansea City, for it was at the Liberty Stadium that both Roberto Martinez and Brendan Rodgers made their names as up-and-coming managers.

Indeed, it was Martinez who implemented the aesthetically pleasing and now-famous passing style at Swansea, and Rodgers who continued that legacy and brought the Swans into the Premier League for the first time.

With their similar footballing philosophies of emphasizing technique and passing on the ground, Martinez and Rodgers share one other unique trait: Both were linked with the Anfield hot seat in the summer of 2012.

It was Rodgers who ended up receiving the offer, of course, which potentially makes Saturday a chance for Martinez to settle a personal score with his predecessor at Swansea. It’s already been referenced in the South Wales Evening Post.

The Daily Mail tells us that Martinez has never beaten Rodgers in the league, with the latter winning four and drawing one of their five meetings. Let’s see where the record stands at the end of the 90 minutes.

Referees—and the Fat Lady

Suffice it to say that the men with the whistles have been at the center of the past two Merseyside derbies.

For Liverpool fans, this fixture last year should’ve yielded all three points to the Reds—Luis Suarez’s would-be winner was wrongly chalked off for offside in injury time—while Everton fans will have been incensed at Sylvain Distin’s own ruled-out effort in the reverse fixture in May.

And it’s not only the ruled-out goals: Since the start of the Premier League, the Merseyside derby has seen more red cards than any other matchup, making the referee a central figure in such matchups. According to the Mirror, Phil Dowd will be officiating the 221st derby.

There’s also the small matter of luck. Lady Luck will look to make her presence felt in a pivotal game like this, but that’s the subject of a totally different analysis.

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

English Football Weekly: Week 10 Recap; Joe Hart’s Fall from Grace; Lloris’ Head Injury

EPL Week 10 Recap: Arsenal Impress; City Run Riot; Cardiff Win Welsh Derby

It was supposed to be a fascinating battle between Liverpool’s SAS and Arsenal’s central defenders, but Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge were nowhere to be found, and Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny didn’t need to be present, as the Gunners’ midfield took center stage in a clash that had “Arsenal: Potential title winners” written all over it. This was Arsenal at their best, and Liverpool’s midfield had no answer for the movement and dynamism of Olivier Giroud, Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla, Tomas Rosicky and Aaron Ramsey. And they still have the likes of Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to return. Manchester United, beware.

United won in impressive fashion too, but even that was overshadowed by their noisy neighbors, who turned in a masterful performance in their demolition of Norwich City (not sure if it was City who were brilliant or Norwich who were absolutely abysmal—probably a bit of both). Joe Hart was a spectator, and Costel Pantilimon was virtually another (more on them later), but Sergio Aguero and David Silva showed once again that they have the ability to dominate the Premier League week in, week out. Oh, and how about that free kick from Yaya Toure? Sensational stuff once again.

On Sunday, for the first time ever, a Premier League fixture was played between two non-English teams. So did the much-fancied and much-lauded Swansea beat lowly Cardiff? Steven Caulker headed in the winner in what would’ve been considered a major upset, in a result that gives Malky Mackay extra leverage in his allegedly troubled relationship with club owner Vincent Tan. On the other hand, after a great start to his Swansea career, Wilfried Bony seems to have dropped down the pecking order in a thus-far underwhelming campaign for Michael Laudrup. There’s work to be done in Wales.

Another upset was Newcastle’s win over Chelsea, which represented a dent in Jose Mourinho’s quest to catch Arsenal at the top of the league. A clean 2-0 home win was the perfect way for Alan Pardew’s men to bounce back from a last-gasp Tyne-Wear defeat last week. The much-anticipated clash between Everton and Tottenham ended up a drab draw with no goals scored. Spurs dominated the possession statistics, but Andre Villas-Boas should surely be concerned at the lack of support for Roberto Soldado and the striker’s own difficulties in integrating with his midfield. The upside is that, despite not really getting going yet, they finish Week 10 in fourth.

 

We need to talk about Joe Hart

They weren’t the most troubling of oppositions, to be fair, but Newcastle in the Capital One Cup last week and Norwich in the Premier League this weekend had something in common: They didn’t score against Costel Pantilimon.

It’s been well-documented that Joe Hart has suffered a drop in form for the best part of a year, and when given the chance, Pantilimon has always impressed—though his chances have been hard to come by. So from his perspective, it’s a well overdue chance to show his worth in a first-team, competitive setting—and he’s gotten it, after Manuel Pellegrini’s recent announcement that Pantilimon will start this week’s Champions League tie against CSKA Moscow.

But what about Hart himself? It won’t be easy for him to accept a place on the bench—as much as Pellegrini has said he’s “reacted well”—and what follows now is a massive test of character, not least because City have the financial power to strengthen in the January transfer window. They’ve already been linked with the likes of Iker Casillas.

And what about England? City won’t be too big a problem long-term: Goalkeepers are but one position on the field, and they’ve shown that they’re willing to do what it takes to build a top-class side, but England is a totally different situation. The only realistic option as a replacement is Celtic’s Fraser Forster, but his lack of experience doesn’t bode too well looking ahead at next summer’s World Cup. There aren’t too many others.

It wasn’t so long ago that Hart was rated as the next best goalkeeper in the world. If this spells the beginning of the end of Joe Hart, that would be the latest in a series of high-profile tragedies involving unfulfilled potential.

 

Football needs to deal with the head injury problem

The only incident of note in the otherwise dour 0-0 between Everton and Tottenham was Hugo Lloris being knocked out by Romelu Lukaku’s foot. He was visibly dazed in the immediate aftermath, but refused to leave the field and demanded to stay on. Spurs fans and Andre Villas-Boas will have been thankful for his save from Gerard Deulofeu, but his decision to not take his goalkeeper off has met widespread criticism.

Let’s make one thing absolutely clear: Lloris should be cleared of any blame. As a professional athlete, it’s completely understandable that he would want to stay on the field for as long as possible. Brad Friedel has been rightly usurped as the Tottenham No. 1, but that Lloris might have had one eye on keeping his place in the first team would come as no surprise.

What’s more controversial is the role of the physios and the manager. Spurs have issued a statement noting that Lloris’ post-match CT scan was positive and the on-pitch assessments by their medical team allowed him to play on. Which is all well and good—and fortunate—but what if the CT scan didn’t end with an all-clear? What then?

In that regard, the criticism that has come Spurs’ way is totally justified: Safety first should be the protocol observed when it comes to serious injuries, especially to the head, and the fact that Lukaku’s knee was bandaged and he had to come off after the challenge indicates that it wasn’t a light collision by any means.

But until there are rules put in place to govern such situations, there won’t be any standardized procedure on how clubs and managers should handle concussions and head injuries. It took Fabrice Muamba’s life-threatening collapse to spark the FA into action—and English football fans would surely not prefer to require another such serious case before drastic action is taken—but should physios be relied on for decisions like this, especially when their clubs have an important result at stake?

One suggestion would be to have independent medical staff employed by the Premier League present on standby at every football ground to offer expert consultative advice in cases like this. That’s probably the least that will happen now.

 

This piece was part of my weekly column on SWOL.co, where I take a look back at the weekend’s English Premier League and domestic cup action, related talking points and news surrounding English football at large.

English Football Weekly: Arsenal and Liverpool Shine, Steve McClaren Returns, The New Manager Effect

EPL Week 6 Recap: Manchester? It’s all happening in London and Merseyside!

You’ve probably heard, but it wasn’t a great weekend for Mancunian football, especially with Manchesters United and City both losing games they were expected to win, and indeed should have won.

We’ll have more on the David Moyes effect later in this week’s column, but suffice it to say that without Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney looks the Red Devils’ only hope of finding any match-winning inspiration these days. Rio Ferdinand was to blame for both of West Brom’s goals—and what fine goals they were from Morgan Amalfitano and Saido Berahino—but with Old Trafford’s invincible and indestructible aura at stake, Moyes opted for a League Cup lineup to rest players for their upcoming Champions League commitments. He’ll be hoping a limp 1-2 home loss won’t have affected those preparations.

If there were any consolation to be taken from Manuel Pellegrini, it would be that Manchester City actually played well at Villa Park, only to concede a third to the most hopeful of long punts from a goalkeeper and to come away with exactly zero points. Not an ideal Saturday for City, but they should take solace from the fact that they have kept up their performance levels, which somewhat justifies Pellegrini’s confidence in his side. 10 points from six matches—and seventh place—isn’t too bad, but the results and points must come if they are to re-up their title challenge.

Speaking of title challenge, let’s be honest: It’s been a downright impressive start to the campaign from Arsenal, who actually lost their first game of the season to Christian Benteke and Aston Villa (which wasn’t very impressive), but have won five straight games since. Perhaps Mesut Ozil’s arrival has really lifted the Emirates; perhaps it’s Olivier Giroud’s improved form and excellent movement to create space; perhaps it’s Aaron Ramsey rediscovering the sparkle that saw him labeled as one of the Premier League’s top rising talents before his horrendous injuries. Either way, when Santi Cazorla returns, this is one heck of a squad assembled by Arsene Wenger, and clinching a clean 2-0 victory at the Liberty Stadium provided ample proof.

Arsenal have dominated the headlines, but the other high-profile London clubs aren’t too far behind: In fact, Tottenham and Chelsea occupy third and fifth place in the table currently, and a thrilling encounter at White Hart Lane on Saturday showed just the abundance of talent currently in the English capital. For both teams, though, it seems that a top-quality, consistent striker is sorely needed: After a fine two-goal start, Roberto Soldado has vanished from Spurs’ overall play, and Fernando Torres followed up an encouragingly barnstorming performance with a needless red card. More to do then for the sparring Portuguese managers.

Let’s finish off the recap and top six watch with a tribute to the happenings and developments on Merseyside, where Liverpool bounced back with a fine 3-1 away victory at Sunderland, and Everton continued their unbeaten start with a 3-2 win against Newcastle. The Luis Suarez-Daniel Sturridge tandem is working well for Brendan Rodgers, and when Glen Johnson and Philippe Coutinho return (and SAS get back to full fitness), this new-look 3-4-1-2 Liverpool have potential in abundance. Everton aren’t too shabby either: A fine deadline day at Goodison Park (Romelu Lukaku and Gareth Barry) has added quality and experience to the squad, while Ross Barkley has continued his precocious form with dominating displays in midfield. Good times for Merseyside so far this season.

 

A challenging test for Steve McClaren

On September 30, it was confirmed that Steve McClaren, he of Middlesbrough and FC Twente fame—and England and Nottingham Forest infamy—would be making a return to football management, after his appointment as head coach at Derby County.

A subdued but sensible return for a coach formerly considered to be one of the country’s top talents, especially with his achievements at Middlesbrough in the early 2000s. Yes, that ill-fated spell as England manager ended with the image of “the wally with the brolly” seared into many fans’ minds forever, but even his Dutch-accented English couldn’t mask what was a successful first spell in charge of Eredivisie side FC Twente, whom he led to the league title and into the Champions League.

It’s been just three years since he was awarded the Rinus Michels Award for Dutch manager of the season, so it’s clear that McClaren still possesses the quality to possibly make it back to the Premier League yet. He deserves commendation for being the first Englishman to manage in the Bundesliga, and no doubt his connections with top-flight clubs and around Europe will aid his cause, if his board are prepared to back him. After a few challenging years, Derby will provide a stern test of his credentials, but don’t be surprised either if we see the Rams back in the top flight within the next few years.

 

What good (or bad) can a new manager do at a club?

As Paolo Di Canio proved last week, sometimes a manager can outlive his stay. But this season, there have been marked changes in the management of Premier League clubs, with contrasting fortunes—and most of them not so good. The effect a new manager can have at a club can be the subject of many hour-long debates, podcasts and talk shows, but let’s consider three contrasting cases already evident six games in.

The elephant in the room is of course David Moyes, who took the toughest job in English football in the toughest circumstances this summer. Make no mistake: Replacing Sir Alex Ferguson was always going to be a tall order—just finding that aura and presence in the dressing room and among rival clubs alone was a significant challenge—but this is a squad that, compared to United’s all-powerful team in the Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez and Edwin van der Sar era, was in need of major strengthening anyway. But Moyes’ recent public admissions have harked back to his Everton “everything against us” days and a far cry from the bullish Ferguson reign. If Moyes is still hanging on to a small-club mentality at Old Trafford, this won’t go well.

On the more borderline contentious side, there’s Mark Hughes at Stoke City, who has notably changed the Potters’ style from long-ball, “rugby”-like under Tony Pulis to predominantly possession-based and progressive. Has this worked? A quick glance at the Premier League table shows that Stoke are placed 15th in the league with seven points from six games, which would land them just outside the relegation places come next May. Early days, but this is an evolution that has already drawn criticism: There’s a line of thought that Hughes is trying to do too much with a limited squad. The saving grace is that with his experience and reputation in football, he could easily bring experience and quality to the Britannia in January. Erik Pieters, Marc Muniesa and Marko Arnautovic are but three reminders of the caliber of manager Stoke have.

Finally, we’ll end our case study with Roberto Martinez, who is in charge of a club that’s threatened to break into the European places but never strongly enough for the top six to consider as true rivals. Which is why Everton was granted two excellent Premier League players on loan on deadline day—Romelu Lukaku and Gareth Barry were presumably allowed to move to Goodison Park as they wouldn’t be strengthening a direct rival, but also because they wouldn’t have marched straight into the starting XI’s of any top six team. When Martinez was appointed in the summer, his latest project would either have ended underwhelmingly—like Wigan ultimately did with a team aspiring to play like Barcelona with Championship-level players—or in unexpected joy. So far, with a playing style considerably more aesthetically pleasing than Moyes’ last year, Martinez looks as if he’s confounding expectations: Everton are fourth and still unbeaten.

 

This piece was part of my weekly column on SWOL.co, where I take a look back at the weekend’s English Premier League and domestic cup action, related talking points and news surrounding English football at large.

The Proliferation of Data-Driven Analysis in Football (Part Two: The Coaches)

Big data.

It’s the flavor of the moment, whether it’s used in conjunction with politics, business or sports, and given the growing ease with which organizations and people can collect data, it looks as if big data is here to stay.

And when the BBC Technology section runs an article on how data analytics is influencing football, you know it’s a hot, hot topic.

In part one of this series looking at data-driven analysis in football, we discussed the growing popularity and importance of statistics to football scouts, which extends to how football clubs run themselves as organizations and businesses.

A key player in the stats arena that we looked at was Manchester City, so it’s no surprise that the BBC article just cited starts with City as a club to look at: They, after all, employ 10 full-time data analysts just for the first team (and this was the picture, at the time of writing, almost six months ago), and club captain Vincent Kompany has realized the value of in-depth analysis, such that he’s reportedly started meeting with his fellow defenders and the data analysts to discuss their findings.

We started off our last piece looking at the role that pre-match preparation played in Simon Mignolet’s exciting penalty save from Stoke City’s Jonathan Walters on the goalkeeper’s debut for Liverpool—the importance of data analysis and the simple of collection of statistics did the job there, and will continue to do this job.

We will now discuss the coach’s role and use of statistics in part two of our four-part series on Business of Soccer, in which we’ll look at how big data and related technologies and trends have influenced and augmented the beautiful game. Parts three and four will look at the sports scientists and, finally, the fans.

 

Photo courtesy of The Telegraph.

Photo courtesy of The Telegraph.

Club Information

Let’s start with a fascinating Sports Illustrated article from Jen Chang, who talks about the use of performance analytics by Premier League club Everton and how it influenced ex-manager David Moyes’ preparation work.

And there are major repercussions on the tactics side of the game. Steve Brown, Everton’s First Team Performance Analyst, performs this exact role, where he analyzes information provided by Prozone (more on the data providers later) to develop game plans. Where are opposing full-backs usually positioned? What positional traits do opposing wingers exhibit? How can Everton prepare their team shape to take advantage of any habitual practices of next week’s opponent? As Brown says in the article, American forward Landon Donovan was often eager to solicit more information from Everton’s analysts during his time on loan at Goodison Park.

We can thus see the importance of opposition scouting in terms of tactical approach and how teams can prepare their own players to negate formations and systems, as well as take advantage of any possible habitual holes that are magnified. Add this tactical and positional information provided by data analytics onto detailed observations and reports prepared by specialist opposition scouts (such as this quite brilliant analysis done by former Chelsea scout Andre Villas-Boas via the Telegraph), and it could make for a comprehensive picture and extensive preparation.

The implications of this method quite naturally also extend and have applications beyond opposition scouting. By studying a club’s own players, managers can get a feel for how they can better train and mold them into all-rounded stars with fewer glaring holes in their games—and this not only means they can do tactical and positional work, but also fitness work.

We’ll look more in depth at the science of sports fitness in part three of this series (particularly a high-profile example at Liverpool), but we’ll also refer to one of many interesting applications of GPS technology: to track player movement, position and fitness.

Arsenal, with their aesthetically pleasing attacking movement, self-sufficient financial structure and new world-class stadium, are known for their modern approach to the game, and their use of GPS to monitor their own players won’t come as a surprise, and in the case of midfield starlet Jack Wilshere, according to a Guardian report, it was this technology that persuaded him to miss the 2011 Euro U21 tournament.

 

Independent Information

So all is well and good with regards to data analytics and statistical analysis employed by football clubs, but where does all of this information come from?

Well, there are a number of big players in the sports analytics scene, and Prozone and Opta are the two biggest names around, mostly because their scope and coverage extend far beyond just a single team.

To that end, Prozone has struck up a number of high-profile partnerships with the likes of Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City, Stoke City, Fulham and Wigan Athletic, and this self-styled performance analysis firm provides the information that helps the team preparation process of many other clubs around the world.

In the US, where as we covered last time Major League Soccer have been pioneers in the technological and analytical front, both DC United and Chicago Fire have struck up agreements with Prozone to provide technical and tactical analysis, while the US Soccer Federation itself also employs such data to aid its national team and referees association. Their work also helps the German Football Association, who does a similar thing for the German national football team.

Opta, whose succinct Tweets from a variety of accounts looking at different leagues complement a viewer watching football on TV, are probably as famous among fans for their one-word conclusions as they are among clubs with their information, but it is interesting that they seem to be more of a statistical analysis firm as opposed to “performance” per se.

What do we mean by this? This OptaPro blog will shine more light onto what exactly Opta does with its data. Opta is much more of an independent data provider, in that its information is gathered and supplied in a more third-party role, looking at league-wide trends and analysis, as the blog entry does for Premier League goal-scorers.

Opta is, as well, the official media partner of the Premier League, the Football League and the Scottish Premier and Football Leagues, and its focus is much more on the fan engagement level—official Premier League partners such as Barclays and EA Sports will be able to access use live Opta data, while other popular sites like EPLIndex.com and Squawka are built entirely on data provided by Opta.

But it is another kind of analytics project that Opta has done recently that really captures the imagination and the potential of such analysis.

Opta’s project with adidas on “The Engine,” in which a mathematical equation-based algorithm has searched out specific types of box-to-box, stamina-heavy players and will continue to do so over the course of the season. This collaboration looks on the surface to be an ambitious feature aimed at fans interested in player analysis and comparison, but in reality there could be big implications on the world of football scouting and coaching.

Will there be a day that third-party data analysts—not in-house analysts at clubs—take over all the information analysis functions of football clubs, much like generic call-centers and hardware manufacturers support different companies in the same facility?

Could Prozone come up with a standard set of coaching manuals and training regimes, based on their vast databases of performance-related data, that they could then sell onto clubs, academies and leagues as best practices as a “performance consultancy”?

Could Opta unearth players using specially designed algorithms to recommend to clubs as players they should be looking at?

How would clubs be able to turn down such offerings if both fans and they themselves knew that they are the organizations that have access to the widest range of data and as such should be the most reliable in their recommendations?

 

League-Wide Information

As we ponder the future roles of data providers like Prozone and Opta, we should also keep an eye on the present, where sports firms like adidas are expanding quickly and aggressively into the coaching analytics field.

We discussed above adidas’ “The Engine” project; in 2013, its miCoach Elite system will be implemented across MLS to provide real-time data available to both coaches and fans, who will be able to track performance levels to the minutest detail (if they wish) while the match is going on.

In part two of this four-part series on the proliferation of data-driven analysis in football, we’ve looked at the role data is now playing in the coaching arena. Most of the analysis is done pre- and post-match to prepare and debrief players and managers on what to do next, but when real-time data becomes widely available, everyone comes under heavier attention, and the pressure to perform becomes higher than ever.

As we look ahead to part three on sports scientists, there is already plenty of food for thought related to how all this information—and all the players in this field—can have ramifications for the beautiful game in the future.

Stay tuned.

This piece first appeared on BusinessofSoccer.com, where I cover business and marketing strategy, globalization and technology in football.