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Fulham 2-3 Liverpool: 6 Things We Learned from the Reds’ Last-Gasp Win

Fulham 2-3 Liverpool: 6 Things We Learned from the Reds' Last-Gasp Win
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Steven Gerrard scored an stoppage-time penalty to earn Liverpool a hard-fought Premier League victory at Craven Cottage on Wednesday, as Fulham led twice before being pegged back by the Reds three times.

A comical error from Kolo Toure gave Fulham the lead via an own goal, before Gerrard launched a sumptuous through-ball for Daniel Sturridge to equalize before half-time.

Kieran Richardson seized on a defensive mishap to hand the Cottagers the lead just after the hour mark, before Philippe Coutinho again leveled matters with the aid of a deflection.

Sturridge’s speed on the turn saw Sascha Riether foul him inside the box in stoppage time, and Gerrard stepped up and finished with aplomb to hand the visitors all three points.

Here are six things we learned from Liverpool’s last-gasp win over Fulham. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

 

Problems Persist at the Back

Problems Persist at the Back
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Before we mention the positives from Liverpool’s win, we will first give credit to Fulham’s approach and attitude, as well as acknowledge the Reds’ weaknesses.

Rene Meulensteen’s side started the match not looking like a team currently bottom of the Premier League, and their constant pressing and runs at a nervy Liverpool defence meant that Kolo Toure’s own goal, while a dreadful error, was everything the home side deserved.

Lewis Holtby has proven to be an inspired signing in the January window by Fulham, as he was at the center of everything good about the Cottagers’ first-half play. Darren Bent, so often criticized for his work rate and for being merely a good finisher, looked a transformed player as he led the line up front.

Even as Liverpool started the second half on the front foot, picking up from how they had finished the first, their defence was still susceptible and looked a liability every time Fulham crossed the ball.

Martin Skrtel, coming off the back of a heroic two-goal salvo against Arsenal on Saturday, was nervous and hesitant in his positioning and clearances, and was at fault for Kieran Richardson’s equalizer.

The Reds continue to rack up the goals up front, but until Brendan Rodgers sorts out his defence, Liverpool fans may have plenty of nail-biters to come yet.

 

Steven Gerrard Is Still the Man for Liverpool

Steven Gerrard Is Still the Man for Liverpool
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Now onto the positives.

After all these years, Steven Gerrard is still the main man for Liverpool.

Having been written off as “past it” many times in the past couple of seasons, Gerrard has also been criticized in recent weeks for adapting slowly to a new role as the Reds’ holding midfielder.

But just because the captain has been pushed into a deeper position doesn’t mean his influence on Liverpool’s proceedings has waned a bit.

His through ball to set up Daniel Sturridge was a moment of brilliance fit to change any game, and the sort of split-second flash of inspiration only Gerrard seems to be capable of.

And what of his late, late penalty?

On Wednesday, as ever in the past decade, when Liverpool were in need of a winner in the 90th minute, up stepped Steven Gerrard to hand his side all three points.

It’s now seven goals and nine assists for the England skipper this season. Not too shabby at all.

 

Daniel Sturridge, Game-Changer

Daniel Sturridge, Game-Changer
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

There was a time when a whole match of anonymity and frustration would precede a breathtaking, all-important finish, and in the forms of Michael Owen and Fernando Torres, that would sit just fine with the Liverpool fans.

Daniel Sturridge has taken up that mantle.

Not as hard-working off the ball or mercurial on it as Luis Suarez, Sturridge has his own approach to being Liverpool’s main striker, one that requires him to be alert to every opportunity and ready to take every chance off the shoulders of the last defender.

Another game, another cool finish from Sturridge. Gerrard’s pass was a moment to savor, but Sturridge’s control and composure were what made the goal happen.

It’s now seven goals in seven consecutive league games for the No. 15 (a first for Liverpool), and 16 goals in 18 matches this season.

Have we mentioned his speed on the turn to win a penalty at the death?

 

A New Member Joins the Liverpool Makeover

A New Member Joins the Liverpool Makeover
Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

When the fourth official’s board lit up on 82 minutes and Raheem Sterling was to come off, it wasn’t for a wing replacement in Victor Moses or an additional striker in Iago Aspas.

It was for No. 53, a little-known Portuguese prospect named Joao Carlos Teixeira, making his debut.

With 10 minutes left to play, Liverpool were level with Fulham, knowing that Tottenham Hotspur had just thumped Newcastle 4-0, and both Arsenal and Manchester United had dropped points in a 0-0 draw.

And it was Teixeira that Brendan Rodgers turned to.

Yet in those 10 minutes, it was clear to see why. The 21-year-old showed a calmness and composure on the ball to eclipse perhaps even that of Coutinho, while his passing and shooting on goal both showed signs of a young player confident in his own ability to influence a match.

Perhaps he didn’t play a direct part in Liverpool’s late clincher, but running out last-gasp winners in his senior debut will have done all the good in the world for Teixeira.

This is a young, young Liverpool side with an old head in Steven Gerrard leading the dressing room. Exciting times for Reds fans, even without looking at the league table.

 

Character and Mentality Now a Reds Hallmark

Character and Mentality Now a Reds Hallmark
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

It is perhaps because of the youth and raw exuberance of this Liverpool team that Brendan Rodgers brought in the leadership of Kolo Toure last summer and pulled all stops to keep Steven Gerrard in the first team.

And it’s fair to say that they are reaping the benefits now, even despite Toure’s two high-profile errors in the space of 10 days.

The togetherness shown by the squad in recent weeks as Liverpool have stepped up their chase for the top four—and, whisper it quietly, in the title race—has been nothing short of impressive, and Rodgers deserves all the credit he can get for the mentality he has instilled in the Anfield dressing room.

With youngsters getting a chance on the pitch even in important games—see Brad Smith’s debut at Stamford Bridge in December, regardless of his performance, and Jordon Ibe’s cameo against Arsenal on Saturday—and a healthy mix of experience and energy, Rodgers is at the helm of a purring machine with all its parts humming in harmony.

What better to exhibit this togetherness than to see Iago Aspas, who would’ve been forgiven for sulking on the sidelines, leaping from the bench and yelling at the referee for a Coutinho foul at the death?

 

Liverpool Must Keep Their Feet on the Ground

Liverpool Must Keep Their Feet on the Ground
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

All the same, Liverpool have to keep a balanced sense of perspective and their feet firmly on the ground.

The last time they thrashed a rival in the 4-0 Merseyside derby demolition, they followed it up with a limp 1-1 draw at West Bromwich Albion. And for 90 minutes at Craven Cottage, it looked like they would follow up a 5-1 hammering of Arsenal with yet another two points dropped.

So in the context of the whole season, it may prove to have been to Liverpool’s benefit that they had to grind out this victory at Fulham.

As the old cliche goes, there are no easy games in the Premier League, and a hard-fought win at the league’s basement club has shown just that.

Next up are Swansea City at home and Southampton away, both sides who have posed real challenges to the Reds in recent seasons with their styles of play.

There will be plenty more opportunities to test Liverpool’s mettle, and every win from this point forward will be their biggest win of the season.

 

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

Predicting Liverpool’s 14 Remaining Premier League Matches of the Season

After Liverpool’s frustrating draw against West Bromwich Albion last Sunday, the Reds now find themselves fourth in the Premier League table, with 47 points and a goal difference of +29 from 24 games.

An underwhelming January transfer window ultimately saw no new arrivals at Anfield, which means that Brendan Rodgers will be taking on his last 14 games of the season with the same squad he started it with, and with a few injuries currently on list.

But push on he and his charges must, starting with an important clash with Arsenal at home this Saturday.

And what lies ahead of the Reds for the rest of the season? Here’s a complete set of previews and predictions of all of Liverpool’s remaining 14 Premier League games of the 2013/14 season. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

Liverpool’s remaining 14 Premier League fixtures are as follows:

Arsenal (H), Fulham (A), Swansea City (H), Southampton (A), Sunderland (H), Manchester United (A), Cardiff City (A), Tottenham Hotspur (H), West Ham United (A), Manchester City (H), Norwich City (A), Chelsea (H), Crystal Palace (A), Newcastle United (H)

February 8: Arsenal (Home)

February 8: Arsenal (Home)
Laurence Griffiths/Getty ImagesLiverpool’s last league win against Arsenal came in August 2012, and we’d have to go way back to March 2007 for the victory before that.

Suffice to say, then, that the Gunners have been a bit of a bogey team for the Reds in recent seasons.

The reverse fixture at the Emirates Stadium this season ended in a 2-0 win to Arsene Wenger’s men, as the visitors were quite comprehensively outplayed by a masterful midfield performance, with Aaron Ramsey at the heart of almost everything positive the home side had to offer.

Ramsey might not be able to make Saturday’s game in time due to injury, but in his place Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has blossomed in a central midfield role, while Jack Wilshere might also return.

Joe Allen’s anticipated return to Liverpool’s starting XI, however, will add some much-needed stability and balance to the Reds midfield. With Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez in ominous form and Liverpool’s fearsome home record this season, this looks likely to end in a home draw at Anfield on Saturday.

Prediction: 1-1 Draw

February 12: Fulham (Away)

Liverpool’s next midweek fixture comes a week from this Wednesday, when they travel to Craven Cottage to take on bottom-placed and relegation-threatened Fulham.

Rene Meulensteen deserves credit for addressing his side’s shortages and weaknesses in January, and in Lewis Holtby and Kostas Mitroglou he might just have found two players with the right quality to turn their season around.

But the Cottagers defence and midfield will be facing a Liverpool attack in buoyant mood and looking to consolidate their position in the league table.

Expect Liverpool to roll over Fulham for a clean and easy three points.

Prediction: 4-1 to Liverpool

February 23: Swansea City (Home)

February 23: Swansea City (Home)
Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesBefore Swansea City got promoted to the Premier League for the first time for the 2011/12 season, Liverpool’s last encounter with the Swans was in 1990, when they dished out an 8-0 hammering in the FA Cup.

Since then, however, barring a 5-0 home win at the end of last season, things have been a lot closer between the two sides: In fact, that 5-0 win was Liverpool’s only victory in their last six meetings.

But this season, Swansea have dipped just ever so slightly. With just 24 points on board from 24 games so far and just two over third-from-bottom West Ham United, they lie perilously close to the relegation zone and look short of confidence.

If Michael Laudrup doesn’t turn it around soon, the result on February 23 will be closer to last year’s five-goal hammering than to last September’s 2-2 draw at the Liberty Stadium.

Prediction: 4-0 to Liverpool

March 1: Southampton (Away)

Since Mauricio Pochettino took the reins at Southampton, he’s played and beaten Liverpool twice in the league in the space of just over six months.

With the Saints’ brand of relentless, physical and energetic football, complete with a quick, strong and young midfield core, Pochettino’s side is one of the few teams in the Premier League equipped to exploit Liverpool’s relatively weak central spine.

March 1 looks to be just a few weeks too early for Lucas to make his return from injury, and while Daniel Agger and Mamadou Sakho will likely be available by then, Liverpool don’t look like ending their barren run against Southampton here.

Prediction: 2-1 to Southampton

March 10: Sunderland (Home)

March 10: Sunderland (Home)
Gareth Copley/Getty ImagesAt the time of writing, Sunderland’s 3-0 thrashing of Newcastle United in the recent Tyne-Wear derby is still vivid and fresh in the memory, an indication of how Gus Poyet has managed to improve the Black Cats.

Just a few months ago, Sunderland were languishing at the bottom of the Premier League in a mini-abyss, but now they’ve clawed and climbed their way back up the table to be level with Swansea on 24 points.

And Sunderland, with an in-form Adam Johnson looking to gatecrash the World Cup and a composed distributor of the ball in Ki Sung-Yueng, look very much like a potential banana-skin fixture for Liverpool on March 10.

Fabio Borini may be ineligible to play against his parent club as part of the loan regulations, but the home side may well be surprised by a sprightly Sunderland side.

Prediction: 2-2 Draw

March 16: Manchester United (Away)

A loss and a draw! Gasp—another mini-crisis developing at Anfield?

Bring on Old Trafford, a ground that Liverpool have historically struggled on, save for that famous 4-1 victory in March 2009.

But this season it’s a different Liverpool, and it’s an ever-so-slightly-different Manchester United side, who have drawn and lost as many matches at home as they have won (six).

As David Moyes struggles to string together a few decent results in succession for United and his defence continues to rotate due to injuries, this is a fixture that Liverpool could well come on top in—provided that they deal with the considerably talented attacking trio that is Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Juan Mata.

Prediction: 2-1 to Liverpool

March 22: Cardiff City (Away)

March 22: Cardiff City (Away)
Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesIt’s not been an easy season for Cardiff City, and we foresee that, despite the best efforts of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the Bluebirds will still be mired in a tough relegation battle by the time March 22 rolls around.

Sure, they’ve added some notable names in January—Kenwyne Jones one of them—but as long as Liverpool keep quiet the counterattacking force that is Craig Noone, they should be relatively safe.

The famous Cardiff City Stadium atmosphere has intimidated many a Premier League team this season, but a Reds side looking to enforce their top-four credentials will turn in a display that keeps the critics at bay for another week.

Prediction: 3-1 to Liverpool

March 30: Tottenham Hotspur (Home)

Mention Tottenham Hotspur to any Liverpool fan, and he’ll fondly recall the 5-0 December thrashing at White Hart Lane.

That was one of those rare occasions where everything that could’ve gone wrong for a team did for Spurs, and everything that could’ve gone right for a team did for Liverpool.

Of course, then-Spurs boss Andre Villas-Boas has since been relieved of his duties, and Tim Sherwood has lifted his Tottenham side to just three points behind the Reds at the time of writing.

But the adventurous style of play Sherwood has instilled in his team has led to such results as a 5-1 hammering at the hands of Manchester City.

Liverpool, with the league’s second-most potent strikeforce, could take advantage once again to send out a statement of intent, just as they did in the 4-0 Merseyside derby win over Everton in January.

Prediction: 4-1 to Liverpool

April 5: West Ham United (Away)

April 5: West Ham United (Away)
Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesFast forward to April 5, though, and it could be an entirely different story.

Liverpool, so susceptible on set pieces this season, will be facing a menacing and aerially dominant duo in Andy Carroll and Kevin Nolan at Upton Park, and may well succumb to an incessant aerial bombarding.

Mamadou Sakho and Martin Skrtel will put up a good fight against Carroll and Co., but will it be enough against a famously stubborn Sam Allardyce team fighting against relegation?

Prediction: 2-1 to West Ham

April 12: Manchester City (Home)

Just as Southampton and Arsenal have appeared to be Liverpool’s bogey teams recently, so Liverpool have seemed to hold their own against Manchester City.

While City have rolled over many a Premier League side in recent years, before last December’s controversial 2-1 loss at the Etihad Stadium, City’s previous win came in January 2012, with three consecutive 2-2 draws sandwiched in between.

And playing at Anfield is very much a different prospect than the fortress that is the Etihad, despite City’s recent (at the time of writing) loss against Chelsea.

Liverpool’s attack will have plenty to ask of City’s defence, though it’ll also be a big ask of the Reds back line to deal with Sergio Aguero, Alvaro Negredo and Co.

Don’t be surprised if it’s yet another 2-2 draw here.

Prediction: 2-2 Draw

April 19: Norwich City (Away)

April 19: Norwich City (Away)
Jan Kruger/Getty ImagesA week after the City clash comes a trip to Carrow Road to take on Norwich City, who have once again flattered to deceive this season.

With just four wins out of 12 and an equal amount of goals scored and conceded (11) at home at the time of writing, the Canaries have had a tough time trying to get going this season, and they look to be fighting relegation right down to the wire.

By contrast, Liverpool will be looking for their first win in April to finish the season off strongly, and as they have done so often in recent seasons, will be in rampant mood against Norwich.

Don’t be surprised if Luis Suarez enjoys another one of his now-trademark hat tricks against his favorite opponents.

Prediction: 4-0 to Liverpool

April 26: Chelsea (Home)

Rounding off a relatively tough month of fixtures will be a home match against Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, who will be challenging near the top by the end of April.

Mourinho has traditionally enjoyed a stellar record against Liverpool in the Premier League, and the comprehensive manner of their 2-1 win at Stamford Bridge in December means that Chelsea will travel to Anfield as firm favorites.

Brendan Rodgers has yet to show that his tactical mastery is as accomplished as that of his mentor, though by April 26, unless he encounters any new injuries, he should finally have a fully fit squad at his disposal.

Factor in the Anfield atmosphere and Liverpool’s appetite for the game, and we could have a cracker on our hands.

Plus, surely it’s time for Fernando Torres to open his account against his old club?

Prediction: 1-1 Draw

May 3: Crystal Palace (Away)

May 3: Crystal Palace (Away)
Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesLiverpool’s penultimate fixture for the 2013/14 Premier League campaign is a trip to Crystal Palace, where Tony Pulis has done a considerable job lifting the Eagles out of the relegation zone at the time of writing.

While he may yet lead Palace to Premier League safety this season, Liverpool represent a different prospect altogether.

Thomas Ince, on loan at Selhurst Park from Blackpool until the end of the season, will be eager to impress against his former club, but the Reds attack will surely have too much in their locker, even for a Pulis defence.

Prediction: 2-1 to Liverpool

May 11: Newcastle United (Home)

We’d need to travel as far back as 1994—more than 10 years ago by the time May 11 rolls around—for the last time Liverpool lost at home to Newcastle United in the league.

This matchup has thrown up plenty of no-holds-barred attacking football and goals galore down the years, and Liverpool’s last home game of the year looks to be no different.

The difference for Alan Pardew’s men? They don’t have Yohan Cabaye anymore: The French midfielder, who left for Paris Saint-Germain in January, has scored a few good goals against the Reds in recent seasons.

Does that give the license to Liverpool to end their season on a high at Anfield?

You bet.

Prediction: 5-1 to Liverpool

 

Conclusion: 75 Points, Just Enough for Fourth

Conclusion: 75 Points, Just Enough for Fourth
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

All the predictions above culminate in 28 additional points for Liverpool on top of their current haul of 47 at the time of writing, giving the Reds a season total of 75 points.

Would that be good enough to take Liverpool into the Champions League next season?

Well, as a reference, in the last five seasons, when the Reds have failed to finish in the top four, the points total for the fourth-placed team has fallen between 68 and 73.

Perhaps even in an extremely tight Premier League season, 75 points would do the business.

 

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

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: Arsenal Slip, Liverpool Close-In; A New Managerial Generation; BT Sport’s Champions League Megadeal

EPL Week 11 recap: Reds dominate; Spurs slip; United roar

There were no lingering memories of Liverpool’s forgettable loss at the Emirates last week, as the Reds took Fulham to task and practically ripped them apart. Four goals were scored at Anfield on Saturday, but it really should’ve been more like seven or eight, such was the Reds’ domination. Fulham’s form will have been the bigger talking point, however. This was a side that indulged the laxness of Dimitar Berbatov and kept a pedestrian midfield unmoved for 90 minutes. Surely Martin Jol is on the brink of the sack; he has to be, or Fulham will spiral into a relegation battle.

After a promising start to the campaign, suddenly it doesn’t look so rosy anymore for Andre Villas-Boas and Tottenham, which on the surface should just be ludicrous—20 points and joint fifth in the table doesn’t spell crisis in any way. But after the three Premier League clubs at the bottom, Spurs are the fourth lowest-scoring team in the top division, and it’s starting to hurt them big time. Sunday’s loss against Newcastle, albeit against an inspired Tim Krul, represented their second loss in three home games. For all of the money AVB spent on the midfield in the summer, he has yet to find someone to link the middle with the front.

On the flipside, Manchester United are rising again—and fast. David Moyes crowned an encouraging run of performances with a statement of a display against Arsenal on Sunday. Given the tightness of the league this season, it won’t have caused the seismic wave that’s been mentioned in too many quarters in the immediate aftermath, but it does give United’s rivals plenty to think about—and Arsene Wenger will have plenty to think about as well. It’s not the end of the world for the Gunners, not still leading the table going into the international break and almost a third into the season. The January window will be key for both clubs.

That Southampton won yet again shouldn’t be a surprise anymore: They’ve won more often than not this season and find themselves just three points behind the league leaders. Title challengers? We can’t be sure yet, but they’re definitely European contenders right now. West Brom also delivered a very credible draw at Chelsea, who will be very relieved that their controversial penalty gave them even a point. Norwich’s 3-1 win over West Ham will also offer some much-needed breathing space for Chris Hughton and co.—about time his summer acquisitions started hitting the net. Let the international break be over sharpish. This league is too much fun.

 

A new generation of managers is emerging

In the Premier League top four currently are two managerial stalwarts who have practically won it all in European football—Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho. But it’s the two other occupants that intrigue, for they are relative novices at the top level.

But Brendan Rodgers and Mauricio Pochettino, and the style of football they preach, are a breath of fresh air in the fast-changing Premier League landscape—and a very welcome change of scenery at the top as well. Look just a bit further down and we see the likes of Roberto Martinez and Andre Villas-Boas, who also champion the merits of possession, energy and pressing. And this can only be a good thing for English football.

It’s always seemed that English football has been slower to catch onto emerging footballing trends. After all, it’s taken until now for possession-based technical football based on an energetic, high-pressure playing style to take root in the Premier League. But it’s taking it by storm, and we as fans are reaping the benefits.

As managers bring with them a philosophy—not just a winning mentality—this inspires clubs to revamp their structures, academies and internal setups to catch up to the rest of the continent (clubs that trust their managers enough, mind). As the coaching setup is increasingly tailored to cater to youngsters from around Europe (due to the globalizing nature of football), coaches and methodologies need to be updated to reflect the relentless growth and development.

Could the Premier League and the English national team end up not as adversaries, but as mutually beneficial endeavors? Food for thought as we consider another side to football below.

 

BT Sport, the latest game-changer in football

The buildup to Week 11’s Premier League action was dominated by the earth-shattering revelation that BT Sport secured the exclusive broadcasting rights of the Champions League and Europa League starting from 2015—for a massive £897 million.

How will this affect English fans? Well, this allows them to tune into one broadcaster only for their European fix, which is much easier to manage for cable subscribers. It also frees up the Champions League final and at least one match featuring each participating British team to be shown free-of-charge every season, which is a boost to everyday viewers as well.

Those already sounding the death knell of affordable football for the everyday fan need not panic just yet; the goal behind this money-spinning deal is to get even more interest to ramp up the bids the next time around, so there will be mechanisms to make European football coverage at least as affordable as it is now (inflation permitting).

What it also means is that starting from 2015, European football will be even more of a cash cow for top clubs than ever before. (Yes, “European football,” given that the Europa League will be given much more of a boost as well.) While this news has gotten the Daily Mail to proclaim an imminent rise in significance and importance of the FA Cup and League Cup, it also means that the much-mocked Arsene Wenger Fourth-Place Trophy will edge ever closer to reality.

Those clubs that are fighting to get back into Europe—and especially the Champions League—by the start of the 2015/16 season might be tempted to shell out even more on prospective signings in the coming few transfer windows to stock up enough ammunition to launch a real fight for the top four, which will have UEFA scrambling to impose its controversial Financial Fair Play rules—but also raise the quality of the Premier League even further, perhaps at the cost of creating a “Big Eight” in the English top flight.

We’re only beginning to scratch the surface here, but BT’s deal has already changed the landscape. Now they should consider shelling out just a little bit more to bring Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher over from Sky. Then it’ll make a tad more 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.

EPL Transfers: 10 Best Value-for-Money Signings This Summer

Just like that, an entire summer of transfer sagas (Gareth Bale, Luis Suarez, Wayne Rooney), big-money bids (Manchester City) and outrage over the lack of signings (Newcastle United, Manchester United)—culminating in a wonderfully exciting transfer deadline day on September 2—has ended.

In case we forgot, English Premier League football actually started in August, but now that the transfer window drama is all over it’s onto the football for real.

In the past few days, huge transfer sums have dominated the headlines, with Bale’s record-breaking move from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid and the sensational deadline-day signing of Mesut Ozil at Arsenal.

But this is the Premier League, which has been awash with cash for most of recent history. Just look at Chelsea’s stacking of their midfield this summer and Manchester City’s spree following Manuel Pellegrini’s appointment—not to mention Tottenham’s stockpiling of attacking players in the wake of Bale’s big-money departure.

In a market with premium price tags and bloated wages, there is actually value for money out there. So at the end of all this, let’s take a moment to recognize the less heralded work being done around the Premier League.

Here are the 10 best value-for-money signings in the EPL this summer. Enjoy and let us know your picks in the comments below.

 

Honorable Mentions

 

As with any top 10 list, there are bound to be close calls that ultimately don’t make it in the final selection. The following three players were great pickups for their clubs and deserve an honorable mention.

 

Tom Huddlestone (Hull City, £5m)

When Hull City were promoted at the end of last season, critics and fans could’ve been forgiven for taking a look at their squad and expecting of an immediate relegation dogfight.

10 summer signings later, they don’t look so bad. In fact, even though their opening three games have just yielded three league points, their performances have belied the results, and at the heart of those performances is the new midfield duo from Tottenham Hotspur, Tom Huddlestone and Jake Livermore.

Steve Bruce has strengthened well this summer, and in Huddlestone he has added a midfield schemer with class, quality and plenty of top-level experience for just £5m, as reported by BBC Sport.

 

Marko Arnautovic (Stoke City, £2m)

For a reported £2m, according to the Daily Mail, Stoke City and Mark Hughes have landed an Austrian international with experience all across the continent at Werder Bremen and Internazionale.

On the surface, Marko Arnautovic seems like the perfect bargain buy for Stoke—not to mention, his considerable physique and height suit the Potters to the hilt—but underneath the low transfer fee is a history of controversy and trouble.

If Hughes manages to get his new forward to get rid of his attitude problems, he may well have pulled off one of the signings of the summer.

 

Maarten Stekelenburg (Fulham, £3m)

Ajax, Italy, Fulham. Dutch. Goalkeeper. Sound familiar?

No, not Manchester United great, Edwin van der Sar, but if all goes well, you wouldn’t bet against Maarten Stekelenburg taking the same path (though David de Gea will have something to say about that).

For now, Stekelenburg will be focused on doing his job for Martin Jol, who brought him to Craven Cottage for just £3m this summer, according to the Daily Mail. If his performances at his previous teams and for the Netherlands international squad are anything to go by, Fulham have pulled off a brilliant signing.

 

10. Loic Remy (Newcastle United, Loan)

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Paul Thomas/Getty Images

In January, Loic Remy joined Queens Park Rangers, then in a relegation battle but flush with Tony Fernandes’ cash, in a reported £8m, £70,000 a week deal, beating out competition from Newcastle United, according to BBC Sport.

Fast forward seven months, and QPR are mired in the Championship after a dismal Premier League campaign and need to reduce their wage bill, so they have offloaded a number of players on eye-bulging wage packages, including Remy.

Remy has now taken up the No. 14 shirt at the club he turned down in January, having arrived at St. James’ Park on loan for the season, as reported by BBC Sport. Alan Pardew obtained a player who scored six Premier League goals in just four months, who has been rated as Marseille’s star forward in the past, and who has international experience for France.

Given Newcastle’s underwhelming transfer window this summer, Remy is the sole shining light among the club’s summer arrivals, and will become a key member of a team desperately short in attacking quality.

For a loan deal, however, and with the prospect of the World Cup looming next summer, Remy could be the striker to save Newcastle from relegation.

 

9. Victor Moses (Liverpool, Loan)

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Clive Rose/Getty Images

Victor Moses completed a triple haul for Liverpool in a deadline day that also saw defenders Mamadou Sakho and Tiago Ilori arrive at Anfield, but the on-loan Chelsea man will surely represent one of the best deals of the summer.

Scoring for the Blues in all competitions last season—the Capital One Cup, FA Cup, Europa League, Champions League and Premier League—Moses played an integral role in Rafael Benitez’s squad, but with the influx of attacking midfielders under Jose Mourinho, has now been deemed surplus.

In stepped Liverpool, who, in Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge, have an outstanding recent record in rehabilitating hot young prospects whose stars have fallen slightly.

Prior to Moses’ move to Chelsea, he made waves across the Championship with his dazzling displays on the wing for Crystal Palace, and was considered one of the finest young players in all of England.

Will he find his form again in a red shirt? If so, his reputation will be restored, and even if there isn’t an option to buy at the end of his season-long loan deal, he could provide just that spark to take Liverpool to an elusive Champions League spot.

 

8. Darren Bent (Fulham, Loan)

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Paul Thomas/Getty Images

Darren Bent’s place at Aston Villa might have been taken by rising force Christian Benteke, but he still possesses the prized asset that Premier League clubs value and need: the art of goal-scoring.

And Bent knows how to score goals. To quote Martin Laurence’s ESPNFC column, “despite starting just 29 of a possible 76 league games in the last two campaigns, Bent remains one of only six Premier League players to have netted more than 50 goals in the last four seasons (53).”

So when mid-table clubs were looking for a proven striker this summer, Bent stood out as a player to take a chance on, even though his lack of involvement in build-up play impeded his career at Villa Park.

Martin Jol took a chance. Bringing Bent on loan and pairing him with the mercurial Dimitar Berbatov may well turn out to be a masterstroke. He’s already scored on his debut as a substitute against Arsenal. More of the same then.

 

7. Kolo Toure (Liverpool, Free)

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Michael Steele/Getty Images

Title-winning experience, pace, heading, physical ability and dressing room presence.

That’s what Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool got for free when they brought in the out-of-contract Kolo Toure from Manchester City, as reported by BBC Sport.

Taking over the No. 4 shirt (whose previous bearers include a certain Sami Hyypia), Toure instantly imposed himself on the dressing room and on the pitch. Brought in to replace the experience of the retired Jamie Carragher, Toure featured prominently in the Reds’ preseason matches and started their first two league games.

His pace allowed Rodgers to maintain a high defensive line when Liverpool were on the attack, and his power and heading kept the Reds at bay while defending against a pacy and strong Aston Villa forward line.

His all-action display and enthusiastic interviews have already seen him elevated to cult hero status at Anfield. Those same fans who wrote off his signing will have been the ones cursing the injury he sustained in the Capital One Cup tie against Notts County.

 

6. Peter Odemwingie (Cardiff City, £2.25m)

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Michael Regan/Getty Images

Hands up if you still remember Peter Odemwingie’s shenanigans on deadline day last January (Independent).

Any wonder, then, that the Nigerian international has finally left West Bromwich Albion?

Cardiff City have added the likes of Gary Medel and Steven Caulker to their squad this summer, but for a paltry £2.25m, as reported by BBC Sport, their deadline day signing may prove to be Malky Mackay’s most important.

After all, Odemwingie was once West Brom’s top single-season goalscorer ever in the Premier League, and held the Premier League Player of the Month three times in his career at the Hawthorns. So his ability to put the ball in the back of the net will not be questioned.

Now he takes his talents to Wales, where he will be an important member of the first-team squad. Spearheading the Cardiff attack alongside Frazier Campbell or Andreas Cornelius, Odemwingie has every chance to resurrect his Premier League career at age 32.

 

5. Ki Sung-Yueng (Sunderland, Loan)

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When South Korea international Ki Sung-Yueng signed for Swansea City, for what was a then club-record fee of £5.5m (per The Guardian), it was widely believed that Michael Laudrup had pulled off a coup, given Ki’s reputation as a hot midfield prospect.

He had, after all, become one of Europe’s top young midfielders during his time at Celtic, where he scored nine league goals in 66 appearances and impressed with his vision and creativity.

At the Liberty Stadium, Ki displayed time and again his excellent passing skills and composure on the ball, and even filled in in a central defensive role in the Capital One Cup final in February in a show of versatility. But he was made available by the Swans this summer.

Now on loan at Sunderland, under the tutelage of Paolo Di Canio and in a side that desperately needs composure and passing quality in the midfield, Ki has the perfect platform to restore his reputation.

His undoubted ability will be needed in what looks to be a tough campaign ahead for the Black Cats.

 

4. Allan McGregor (Hull City,  £1.5m)

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After 205 appearances for Scottish club Rangers where he established himself as a Scotland regular, Allan McGregor has arrived, via a year in the Turkish Super League with Besiktas, in the Premier League with Hull City for £1.5m, as confirmed by BBC Sport.

Judging by his opening-day clanger against Chelsea, where he conceded a penalty five minutes into his Premier League debut, and subsequent conceding of a long-range Frank Lampard free kick, McGregor looked as if he might face a challenging first year in England’s top flight.

Not quite.

His stop from Lampard’s penalty was every bit as exciting as his double save towards the end of the first half, and from then on he has gone from strength to strength.

In subsequent league games against Norwich City and Manchester City, McGregor has been a reliable goalkeeper for Steve Bruce, manning the sticks with confidence and pulling off spectacular stops.

For just £1.5m, Bruce has acquired an established goalkeeper who will be instrumental to his sides’ hopes of Premier League survival at the first time of asking.

 

3. Leroy Fer (Norwich City, £4.5m)

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Out of all Premier League clubs, and certainly out of all mid-table clubs, Norwich City’s transfer business stands out in terms of both quality and value for money.

Chris Hughton has brought in a plethora of players who will slot right into his starting XI—including international-class players like Ricky van Wolfswinkel and Johan Elmander, as well as promising stars like Gary Hooper and Nathan Redmond, all of whom could arguably feature on this list.

Most impressive of all, however, is the £4.5m capture of Netherlands international Leroy Fer, whose arrival at Carrow Road was confirmed in mid-July, according to the Telegraph.

A central midfielder with imposing physical strength and pace, tidy passing skills and an eye for goal—he scored 12 Eredivisie goals in just 47 appearances at previous club FC Twente—Fer adds energy, dynamism and goals to the Norwich midfield, as well as a “Dutch connection” that may be crucial in his partnership with van Wolfswinkel.

Fer has had no trouble settling into the Premier League and threatened to open his account on Saturday against Southampton, playing in the center of the park alongside Bradley Johnson. If he keeps it up, he could lead Norwich to a top-half finish this campaign.

 

2. Stewart Downing (West Ham United, £5m)

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Sam Allardyce caught Liverpool and Brendan Rodgers at the perfect time: For the price of a Liverpool-era Stewart Downing (a very much eye-opening £20m), West Ham United have signed both Downing and Andy Carroll.

Andy Carroll was the vastly more expensive one at £15m, and while he will look to repeat his barnstorming performances for the Hammers last season, Downing—who, according to BBC Sport, cost just £5m—may prove to be not just West Ham’s most astute signing, but one of the best of them all.

Here is an England international who has impressed at Middlesbrough and Aston Villa, with both assists and goals from either flank, and who has shown his versatility at Liverpool by playing on both wings and even at left-back.

A player who buckled down amidst reports that he would be let go by Rodgers last season and earned his place back in the starting XI with a series of hardworking and impressive performances.

A winger whose crossing will be a perfect fit for Allardyce’s wing-heavy play, a perfect complement to Matt Jarvis on the opposite flank, and a constant source of chances for Andy Carroll.

Sure, he cost way too much when Kenny Dalglish signed him—but for £5m, West Ham have acquired one of the signings of the summer.

 

1. Romelu Lukaku (Everton, Loan)

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When the new season started with Jose Mourinho back at Stamford Bridge, the main striking position at Chelsea was up for grabs. Lukaku, Fernando Torres and Demba Ba were all candidates, until that infamous 4-6-0 formation against Manchester United—and until Samuel Eto’o signed on a free transfer (BBC Sport).

And so on deadline day, Everton swooped in for Lukaku, and now the Belgian international will spend the campaign on loan at Goodison Park.

The move was an astute one by new manager Roberto Martinez, who has already noticeably stamped his authority on Everton’s playing style and is in need of a striker who can deliver the goods.

New signing Arouna Kone hasn’t settled at his new club yet, while Gerard Deulofeu will provide more of a creative thrust rather than out-and-out goal-scoring—Nikica Jelavic has yet to rediscover his barnstorming form of a season and a half ago—which means that Lukaku has a chance to establish himself as the main striker at Everton.

17 league goals in 35 appearances for West Bromwich Albion last season. Thus stands Romelu Lukaku’s Premier League record and pedigree.

Lukaku turned out to be one of the signings of the 2012/13 campaign for Steve Clarke. He could be the one to lead another challenge for the European places for the Toffees.

On, and by the way, both Lukaku and Downing featured on our list of the Premier League’s 10 worst signings of the 2011/12 season.

Football, bloody hell.

 

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

English Football Weekly: Week 2 Recap; Fulham’s BT Outrage; Final Week of Transfers

EPL Week 2 Recap: Routines, Blanks and Upsets

Simply because the bore draw between Manchester United and Chelsea doesn’t really deserve center stage in any weekend roundup do we give it just that. But we should’ve known, for this was David Moyes’ first big game as United boss, and Jose Mourinho’s first in his second reign at Stamford Bridge. Mourinho’s team selection—a curious 4-6-0 with no Juan Mata or Fernando Torres—overshadowed the match itself, while Wayne Rooney’s performance overshadowed the teamsheets in turn. All the same, it will be seen as a point gained for Chelsea, and for United, an uncertain buildup to Liverpool this weekend.

Speaking of Liverpool, they’re one of two teams who still hold a 100% record this season. And we’re only two games in. This is a big deal at Anfield though: It’s been five seasons since they’ve won their first two league matches. Daniel Sturridge, just as he was against Stoke City last weekend, was the match-winner this time around at Villa Park, as Liverpool transitioned from a dominant possession-heavy side to a deep defensive shape against the young counterattacking pace and power of Aston Villa. Whisper it quietly—but could Kolo Toure and Simon Mignolet actually be upgrades on Jamie Carragher and Pepe Reina?

The other team is, of course, Tottenham Hotspur, and that’s not the only similarity: They’ve also only scored two goals in two matches, both from the same striker. Different from Sturridge’s two excellent match-winners, however, is that both of Spurs’ goals have come from the spot. Roberto Soldado has proven a reliable option from 12 yards, and the Mousa Dembele-Etienne Capoue-Paulinho midfield triumvirate looks formidable and indomitable. What Andre Villas-Boas has to solve now, given that Gareth Bale looks even closer to the exit, is finding that player to link the midfield play with Soldado. Erik Lamela will do just fine.

Swansea City got outplayed on the ball by a confident and powerful Spurs, but that wasn’t the only upset of the weekend. By now, you’ll have heard about newly-promoted Cardiff City’s famous 3-2 home win over big-spending Manchester City. Cue the headlines about money not being important and that football will still triumph at times. Of course, such headlines ignore the fact that Cardiff may still face a hard season ahead, and City will in all probability finish in the top two. Anyway. Manuel Pellegrini and Joe Hart have a lot of work to do—and who better to have scored the winner than ex-United man Frazier Campbell? Karma, eh?

Oh, Modern Football…

This season, followers and viewers of the Premier League in England will have another broadcaster to choose from: BT Sport have joined Sky in carrying PL coverage, and have already been competing to gain viewers with a variety of different features and attractions. (Brian Barwick has more on the Daily Mail.) Unfortunately, there are inevitable downsides to those fans who still decide to attend matches live—and as Fulham fans found out at Craven Cottage on Saturday against Arsenal, it might prove to be a long season in the stands. The reason? BT’s new cameras are quite blatantly blocking the view of season ticket holders.

Now, it’s all well and good to be advancing with the times when it comes to studio technology, and BT (and Sky) have done excellent work improving their coverage. But surely the core of football is the fans at the stadiums, and no amount of media rights or television deals should obscure this fact. It gets a bit tricky when older stadiums like Craven Cottage are involved, as they’ll likely require more intricate planning and reconstruction to allow for this type of equipment to be installed. But BT’s statement in response didn’t just lack class; it was a slap in the face to the match-going Fulham faithful.

“BT doesn’t decide where cameras are placed at Premier League football grounds, but we always try to minimize the impact of them for fans at the match. We’re sorry if any fans at Craven Cottage are upset by the camera position, but hope that thousands of Fulham and Arsenal supporters, who couldn’t make it to the match, enjoyed the game on BT Sport.” (Daily Mail) Given the choice, I suspect those supporters to plump for the insight and analyses of Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville—who are fast proving to be a star draw—than the monotonic commentary of Michael Owen. Just sayin’.

Loans at Anfield and Blockbusters at the Emirates

Rejoice, for it’s the last week of the summer transfer window! What’s been an interesting start to the season—with a new era of unpredictability across Premier League results, and with the enhanced coverage that has been introduced to TV audiences—has been obscured by the long-running sagas that have dominated the summer. When is Gareth Bale moving to Real Madrid? Wayne Rooney to Chelsea? Willian to Liverpool—sorry, Spurs—sorry, Chelsea? What’s Joe Kinnear doing to stop players arriving at Newcastle United? Is Arsene Wenger ever going to sign someone?

Quietly doing their work behind all the smoke and (lack of) fire are Liverpool, who are still doing this work now because their previous work to land Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Diego Costa and Willian failed. So it’s time to knuckle down and actually aim for realistic targets, which is why the rumors of Juan Mata making a move to Anfield have died down and those linking Victor Moses with the Reds have ramped up. Linked to Liverpool back in the Rafa Benitez days, Moses has fallen off his star at Chelsea, but still has loads of potential. Not a marquee signing for sure, but look at Toure and Mignolet for more reasons to believe in the “transfer committee.”

Over at the Emirates Stadium—where they’re reportedly smoking something—there finally seems to be some activity. Yes, that’s right, a “chief negotiator” has arrived at Arsenal’s London Headquarters to work on transfers, according to the Daily Mail, which makes you think why he didn’t do that a couple of months earlier, when he’d still have time to get signings in, you know, before the season actually started. Two seasons ago, that infamous loss to United prompted some frantic last-gasp transfer activity. The Gunners are being linked with Karim Benzema and Angel Di Maria this week—but last time around, it was Andre Santos. Watch this space.

 

This piece was part of my English Football Weekly column for SWOL.co.