Tag Archives: Kolo Toure

West Bromwich Albion 1-1 Liverpool: 6 Things We Learned from Hawthorns Draw

West Bromwich Albion 1-1 Liverpool: 6 Things We Learned from Hawthorns Draw
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Luis Suarez set up Daniel Sturridge for the opener, while Victor Anichebe capitalized on a Kolo Toure blunder for an equalizer, as relegation-threatened West Bromwich Albion held Champions League-chasing Liverpool 1-1 at the Hawthorns in the Premier League on Sunday.

The Baggies had started the game brightly, but the Reds took a well-deserved lead on 24 minutes and finished the first half strongly.

Pepe Mel’s half-time team talk evidently worked a treat, as the home side came back from the break looking to attack Liverpool on every occasion. Bringing on Anichebe, a former Everton striker, turned out to be a masterstroke.

So a minor setback for Liverpool in their quest for a top-four spot, while West Brom move a point away from the relegation zone.

Here are six things we learned from the pulsating draw between West Brom and Liverpool on Saturday. Let us know your views and thoughts in the comments below.

 

Defence Is Just as Important as Attack

Raheem Sterling. Luis Suarez. Daniel Sturridge. Goal. 1-0.

Is it a surprise anymore that the famed SAS partnership (and Sterling, who we’ll talk more about later) combined yet again to take Liverpool into the lead?

Sturridge’s goal brings him to 14 for the season, inching him close to Sergio Aguero’s second place (15) in the Premier League scoring charts for 2013/14. Liverpool’s lethal frontmen are currently far and away the most prolific strike partnership this season. (Suarez, of course, has 23 goals).

But while Liverpool fans have undoubtedly enjoyed watching their free-scoring attack at work this season, they’ll also be massively frustrated at yet another costly defensive blunder, this time from Kolo Toure.

Sure, it wasn’t just Toure’s mistake, as Simon Mignolet’s decision to roll the ball out to him, despite being surrounded by opponents, was questionable itself. But surely passing the ball across the face of goal when you’re enjoying a spell of pressure is not a good idea.

There will be times when Liverpool’s forwards can’t bail them out every single match. When that happens, they’ll need their defenders and midfielders to do what they can to ensure that, first and foremost, they don’t concede.

How many more reminders do they need?

 

Liverpool’s January Targets Weren’t What They Needed

Liverpool’s January Targets Weren’t What They Needed
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Much of Liverpool’s January was spent agonizing over the failed bid for Mohamed Salah, and in the final days, diverted towards the desperate push for Dnipro’s Yevhen Konoplyanka.

With the Suarez-Sturridge-Sterling trio working in tandem so smoothly and effortlessly, perhaps the non-arrival of the aforementioned wingers will prove to be blessings in disguise; the Reds’ current front three need time to develop together.

But it does raise a few serious questions.

The first of which is: Why was Brendan Rodgers targeting a forward to begin with?

More specifically, why, when Liverpool have such glaring weaknesses in the defence and midfield, was Brendan Rodgers still looking to strengthen up front instead of at the back?

And if the underlying reason is that Rodgers didn’t see a need to bring in defensive reinforcements, that would be the biggest question of all.

Perhaps January was just a case of bringing in extra firepower up front while all major defensive targets wouldn’t have been on the market.

Regardless, if Liverpool are to push on next season, they’ll surely have to look at doing more serious business this summer across the squad.

 

Steven Gerrard Can Do a Holding Job, but Needs a More Reliable Partner

Even before Lucas’ injury, it was apparent that the midfield needed shoring up (we even wrote an article about it in November).

But with Lucas out for a considerable period of time and no signings brought in over January, Brendan Rodgers has now tasked Steven Gerrard with the holding midfielder role and responsibilities.

A shaky introduction to life at the base of the Reds midfield against Aston Villa was followed by a masterclass in the 4-0 demolition of Everton in the Merseyside derby last week.

In the first half against West Brom, Gerrard was comfortably one of the best players on the pitch, as he showed much improved positioning and timing to anchor the midfield and protect the back four.

As the Baggies stepped up a gear in the second half and went at Gerrard, however, his need for a partnering midfield runner became all too apparent. And Jordan Henderson, as he has tended to alongside Gerrard, once again left his assertiveness and confidence on the sidelines.

The return of Joe Allen can’t have come any sooner. Arsenal possess midfielders capable of playing at a far higher level than West Brom’s, and Gerrard will need all the help he can get next week.

 

Raheem Sterling Is Quickly Becoming One of Liverpool’s Most Important Players

Raheem Sterling Is Quickly Becoming One of Liverpool’s Most Important Players
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As Gerrard shone in the first half and toiled in the second, there was only one player of note that impressed over the entire 90 minutes: Raheem Sterling.

That Sterling’s shown encouraging and exciting improvement since returning to the first team in December is well known. That he seems to have rediscovered his confidence from the start of last season has been widely acknowledged.

But not only has he come back with a vengeance; he’s made it extremely difficult for Brendan Rodgers to leave him out of the starting XI.

Time and again on Sunday, Sterling tormented Liam Ridgewell on the West Brom left, while also putting in an admirable defensive shift to support Jon Flanagan.

His involvement in Sturridge’s goal was timely and important, while his strength on the ball and burst of acceleration means that he is a genuine all-rounded player.

At just 19 years of age, Raheem Sterling is fast becoming one of Liverpool’s most important players.

It wasn’t that long ago that he was linked with a loan move to Swansea City for more playing time; now, if he keeps this form up, it might not be long before his name is added to the Suarez-Sturridge mix—for an “SSS.”

 

Liverpool’s Away Record May Haunt Them

In 12 away games, Liverpool have now only amassed 16 points from an available 36 with four victories and four draws, and a goal difference of just +4.

Contrast this with their impeccable home form, which has seen them earn 31 points from a possible 36, and a goal difference of +29.

Fair to say, then, that it’s the Reds’ away record that has the potential to be their undoing this season.

Of course, Liverpool have already gotten most of their tough away games out of the way in the first half of the campaign, but if they are to reach the Champions League next season, they’ll need to start making their away form count.

With injuries slowly on their way back to the first-team squad, Liverpool need all the numbers they can get as they look to solidify their position in fourth, and maybe even close the gap on third-placed Chelsea.

Brendan Rodgers and his backroom staff will be working tirelessly to ensure that all their good work—especially in the immediate aftermath of the Everton thrashing—doesn’t go to waste on the road.

 

Two Points Dropped, and It’s Only Going to Get Tougher

Two Points Dropped, and It’s Only Going to Get Tougher
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The corresponding fixture last season was Steve Clarke’s first at West Brom, and Rodgers’ first at Liverpool. It ended 3-0 to the Baggies.

So compared with the 2012/13 campaign, in which Liverpool didn’t manage to get any points off West Brom across both fixtures, this season has already represented a massive improvement (four points from a 4-1 win and this draw).

But for Liverpool fans, players and coaches, this will have felt like a major two points dropped, especially in the context that fellow top-four rivals Tottenham Hotspur drew at Hull City and Manchester United lost to Stoke City at the Britannica Stadium.

As the competition for a Champions League place heats up in the remaining 14 games of the season, the pressure and stress won’t be forgiving on the players.

Next week’s clash against Arsenal at Anfield will prove pivotal—as will every other league fixture until the end of the season.

Without any new signings made in January, it’s now Rodgers’ job to cultivate in his squad the “cup final” mentality so famously necessary for the business ends of Premier League seasons.

 

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

Grading Liverpool’s Summer Transfer Signings of the 2013/14 Season

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Welcome to January 1st, 2014, where a new year begins, the second half of the 2013/14 Premier League campaign starts—and the winter transfer window opens.

Back in September, right as the summer transfer window was still shaking from the emphatic way it slammed shut as it always does, speculation already emerged, as rumors started spreading regarding potential transfers four months on.

For Liverpool, especially given their recent injury crises, fans have been eager to discuss the names being linked with the club every week, as the Reds no doubt have to bring in new players to strengthen both their starting XI and their squad if they are to sustain their challenge for the top four and the title.

But just in case we forgot, Liverpool did actually bring in eight players in the summer. And with half a season gone and the prospect of new signings to arrive at Anfield this month, what better time than now to look back on how their summer signings have fared?

Here are our grades and analyses for all eight of Liverpool’s summer signings for the 2013/14 season. We’ve broken it down into four categories: value for money, impact, potential and overall grade. Share your thoughts in the comments below.

 

Victor Moses: D

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Paul Thomas/Getty Images

When Victor Moses arrived on deadline day as a loan signing from Chelsea, he was on paper an interesting and exciting signing for Liverpool: He was always known as one of the brightest prospects in English football, and had just finished the season as an integral part of Rafael Benitez’s short tenure at Stamford Bridge.

When he came off the bench to score a brilliant solo goal against Swansea City on his debut, the hope was that he would go on and establish his place in Brendan Rodgers’ starting XI as a pacy, tricky winger capable of scoring goals and in need of a sustained run in a first team at the top level—much like Daniel Sturridge.

Fast forward a few months, and he finds himself permanently rooted to the bench, and his substitute appearances are often met with groans and moans as Liverpool fans wonder why Rodgers doesn’t decide to send on a more productive player. Moses has failed to score since his debut and has generally appeared lethargic, uninterested and off the pace.

From an encouraging start to a dismal current state, Moses has lots in common with last season’s failed loan signing, Nuri Sahin. He’s even been played out of position, as Sahin was. Unfortunately for Moses, Sahin had his loan deal terminated halfway through the season and was sent from Real Madrid back to Borussia Dortmund to finish his season.

Now that Raheem Sterling has reestablished himself in the starting XI and rumors abound of other wing signings—including Mohamed Salah, according to the Mirror—Moses could find himself following in Sahin’s footsteps. What a disappointment he’s been.

Value for money: B. As a loan signing, Liverpool only had to pay Chelsea a loan fee of £1 million, according to BBC Sport. For a short-term signing, however disappointing he’s been, that’s not steep.

Impact: D. His debut goal hinted at a bright loan spell, but it’s all gone downhill from there. Restricted to sub appearances these days, and continues to underwhelm.

Potential: E. The discussion among fans initially was whether or not Liverpool had a deal in place to sign him on a permanent contract at the end of his one-year loan spell. Now there are far better options who are actually contracted permanently to Liverpool for Rodgers to play.

Overall: D. Moses may return to Chelsea this winter, and no one at Anfield will be missing him. Surely that says enough.

 

Iago Apas: C-

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Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Iago Aspas has suffered from arguably the same predicament as Victor Moses: that of initial expectation and subsequent disappointment.

Aspas had enjoyed an impressive season with Celta Vigo last term, with 12 goals in 34 games as their talisman and having helped them avoid relegation on the final day of the campaign.

When he arrived at Anfield in June for a fee of £7.6 million (according to the Guardian), the common feeling was that Brendan Rodgers had secured one of La Liga’s top players and that Aspas would be one of the Premier League’s surprise bargains of the season a la Swansea City’s Michu a year earlier, albeit for a steeper price.

Aspas scored his first Liverpool goal in a preseason friendly against Preston North End, and even started the season in the starting XI, but showed signs that he would take time to adapt to the Premier League’s physicality. He has also been rusty in his finishing when provided the opportunities: His preseason goal remains his only in a Red shirt to date.

A thigh injury, sustained in October, brought Aspas’ first-team involvement to a halt but offered him a chance to take a breather and regain his confidence. In his absence, however, his colleagues have taken their chance to impress.

He is now being linked with a loan move away from Anfield—and in a twist of irony, Michu has said, according to ESPNFC, that he would welcome Aspas at Swansea.

Value for money: C-. For £7.6 million, Aspas won’t go down as one of Liverpool’s biggest ever flops, but none of it has been paid back on the pitch yet.

Impact: C. His early-season performances offered a glimpse of his ability and quality, but sadly his physique and finishing were not up to speed. His path to the first team now looks rockier than ever.

Potential: D. At 26 years of age, Aspas is considerably more experienced than some of his colleagues who have now taken his place in the first team. Only if he impresses majorly out on loan will he even be considered for the long term at Anfield.

Overall: C-. Not much better than Moses. Perhaps a move back to Spain, as has been suggested in the Daily Star, might resurrect his previously promising career.

 

Aly Cissokho: C

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Julian Finney/Getty Images

After a summer of pursuing a new left-back to provide competition for Jose Enrique, Brendan Rodgers finally brought in Aly Cissokho on loan from Valencia in August for an initial loan fee of around £850,000, according to the Metro.

Cissokho’s debut came on the left wing, as he bumbled awkwardly through the Villa Park right flank as a substitute for fellow new signing Iago Aspas against Aston Villa. A subsequent ankle injury ruled him out for six weeks, and he has never looked too comfortable at the back since his return.

For a left-back boasting FC Porto, Olympique Lyonnais and Valencia in his top-flight resume, Cissokho has looked distinctly average in his six league appearances for Liverpool, though he did provide the assist to Luis Suarez’s brilliant 18-yard header against West Bromwich Albion.

He has since claimed that he would like to make his loan move permanent, according to the Mirror, but on current evidence, Cissokho would have to do a lot more before Rodgers even considers the possibility: That he lost his place as stand-in to Jose Enrique to youngster Jon Flanagan, a specialist right-back, says plenty about his Liverpool career thus far.

Value for money: B. Another loan signing, Cissokho doesn’t look dire enough to be shipped back to his parent club mid-season, especially considering the lack of left-back rumors despite the pressing need for reinforcement. A rumored fee of £4 million to make his move permanent, as reported by the Mirror, isn’t the steepest either.

Impact: C. Negligible at best, though given Flanagan’s recent injury he may enjoy a run in the first team in the short term. Needs to take this imminent opportunity with both hands.

Potential: D. On loan and at 26 years of age, Cissokho doesn’t look a Liverpool left-back for the long term. He needs to improve drastically to even be considered for the medium term, and even then, will face plenty of competition in his position.

Overall: C. Not Liverpool’s worst loan signing of all time, but not an inspiring acquisition either. At least he’ll probably have another six months at Anfield to prove himself.

 

Tiago Ilori: C

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Chris Brunskill/Getty Images

September 2, 2013 was a busy transfer deadline day for Liverpool, who secured three signings before the closing hours of the summer window in Tiago Ilori, Mamadou Sakho and Victor Moses.

As reported by BBC Sport, Ilori cost £7 million from Sporting Lisbon, an indication of how highly rated he was at the Portuguese capital club, despite having only made 12 first-team appearances for them.

Known for his speed—he holds one of the sprint records at Sporting Lisbon amid famously quick graduates like Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani, according to the Liverpool Echo—Ilori has taken his time to settle at Anfield and has put in a few assured displays at the back for the Reds’ under-21 team.

As Brendan Rodgers’ side continue to fight for a top-four place, first-team chances have been hard to come by for Ilori, and he’s been linked with a loan move, most recently back to his old club, according to the Independent.

Value for money: C.£7m for a young defender without experience in English football—and not much in senior football either—is undoubtedly a steep price. He may yet justify his price tag if he fulfills his potential, but he won’t be winning any awards for bargain transfers anytime soon.

Impact: D. A lack of first-team chances has limited Ilori to Liverpool’s under-21 side, where he has impressed. Liverpool’s early exit from the Capital One Cup also deprived him of potential first-team opportunities in one of just two domestic cups they will be competing in this season.

Potential: B. The jury is very much still out on Ilori, and we can’t accurately judge his potential until he plays a few games for the Reds’ senior team. But whispers in Sporting Lisbon and Liverpool suggest that he’s one to keep an eye on.

Overall: C. Ilori may well go out on loan in January and try to establish his place in the senior squad next season. Watch this space.

 

Luis Alberto: C+

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Vince Caligiuri/Getty Images

Luis Alberto became Liverpool’s first midfield signing of the 2013/14 season when he arrived at Anfield from Sevilla for a fee of around £6.8 million, as reported by BBC Sport.

Alberto arrived with a reputation as one of the hottest up-and-coming midfield talents in European football, as he scored 11 goals in 38 games last season on loan at Barcelona B.

With a host of midfield options ahead of him, Alberto was expected to take his time to bed into the squad, and his first-team appearances have been restricted to second-half cameos as he continues his acclimatization into English football.

A few encouraging appearances over pre-season in a variety of positions—second striker, central midfielder and deep-lying playmaker—showcased his versatility, while he showed his creativity and awareness with an excellent assist for Luis Suarez’s second goal in the 5-0 rout of Tottenham Hotspur in December.

Recent injuries to Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson may mean more first-team chances for Alberto. He’ll be looking to push on and secure a place in Rodgers’ squad.

Value for money: C. As with Ilori, Alberto came with an exciting reputation but also a quite considerable price tag. At this stage, he is still ways away from repaying his £6.8m fee.

Impact: C. Alberto has already made eight Premier League appearances for Liverpool this season, though mostly at the final stages of games. His assist against Spurs was encouraging; Rodgers will be looking for more of the same.

Potential: B. From what we’ve seen so far from him this season, Alberto has the technique, composure and passing ability to be a natural fit for this Liverpool side. He’ll have to fight off heavy competition from fellow midfield starlet Suso, impressing on loan at Almeria this season, and other potential midfield signings, if he is to establish himself as a first-team fixture.

Overall: C+. A depleted Liverpool squad means that Alberto will likely get more chances in the starting XI. There should be ample opportunity for him to improve on his current C+ rating.

 

Kolo Toure: B+

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Alex Livesey/Getty Images

How will we replace Jamie Carragher’s experience in the Liverpool defence?

Thus went the common question and worry among Liverpool fans in the wake of Carragher’s announcement of his impending retirement last season, but they didn’t have to wait long for the answer.

In late May, the club announced an agreement in principle with Kolo Toure, then of Manchester City, to sign on July 1. Fears were allayed, and hopes were raised again.

Because Toure, an experienced defender with Premier League titles from his time at Arsenal and Manchester City, would bring not just the know-how of fighting at the top end of the table, but also a strong presence in the dressing room and vocal leadership on the field.

In his 11 appearances for Liverpool this season, Toure has marshaled his defence superbly and hasn’t shown many signs of age catching up to his speed, physicality and aerial ability.

Rodgers’ starting centre-back partnership may be Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho at the moment, but he knows that in Kolo Toure, he has a reliable stand-in when required. He will be an important part of the Liverpool squad for at least a couple of seasons.

Value for money: A. You can’t do much better than to bring someone of Toure’s caliber and experience on a free transfer. Top marks to the Liverpool management for securing his signature early on in the summer window.

Impact: B. Toure arrived at Anfield and instantly went into the starting XI, forming an integral part of the early-season mean defence that kept three clean sheets in a row. He has returned to the bench of late, but his versatility makes him a valuable option in the event of injury or rotation.

Potential: B. At 32 years of age, Toure is most definitely on the wrong side of 30, so won’t have too many years left at the top level for Liverpool. However, his experience and presence in the dressing room will be important in grooming an exciting crop of youngsters at Anfield.

Overall: B+. An injury to Mamadou Sakho and the loss of form of Martin Skrtel may lead to Kolo Toure regaining his place in Liverpool’s first team. They could do a lot worse.

 

Mamadou Sakho: B+

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Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

All summer long, amid rumors linking the likes of Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Diego Costa to the club, Liverpool fans were hoping for a “marquee signing” that would show their intent at returning back to the elite of English football.

Mamadou Sakho, according to Managing Director Ian Ayre, was that “marquee signing,” as reported in NESN, and while he’s not an all-conquering forward, there is every sign that Sakho will become a fixture in the Liverpool defence for years to come.

The youngest first-team captain in Paris Saint-Germain history, Sakho was a proud graduate of the PSG youth academy and quickly established himself as one of the brightest defensive prospects in all of Europe. That he was allowed to leave the French capital club at all was a mystery to many.

But PSG’s loss was Liverpool’s gain, albeit at a steep price of £18 million, according to BBC Sport, as the French international has slotted seamlessly into the Liverpool defensive line with a series of composed displays.

A unique and impressive combination of brute force, physicality, technique and elegance, Sakho has also scored once for the Reds and came close to his second with a headed effort against the bar at Stamford Bridge last week.

His relatively immaturity and hot-headed brand of defending was on full display in a Chelsea counterattack that saw Simon Mignolet save from Samuel Eto’o, and he will have to work on his composure game by game.

Value for money: B-. Sakho’s arrival was not just about his ability on the pitch; it came with a statement that Liverpool were intent on bringing in the most promising players from all over Europe. £18m remains steep but may look a bargain if he stays at Anfield for the next decade.

Impact: B+. In 12 Premier League appearances for Liverpool, Sakho has shown his quick acclimatization to English football and has put in several excellent displays for Liverpool. He just needs to cut out a few tackling tendencies that may leave himself and his defensive colleagues exposed.

Potential: A+. It seems as if Sakho has been around for a while, but in actuality he is just 23 years of age. If he continues to improve and fulfills his potential, he could go down as one of the great Liverpool defenders by the time his career comes to a close.

Overall: B+. A hamstring injury sustained against Chelsea will rule him out for at least the short term, which may allow him to take a breather and reflect on his season so far. He has already ousted Daniel Agger from Rodgers’ starting XI: The future is bright for Mamadou Sakho.

 

Simon Mignolet: A-

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Julian Finney/Getty Images

When Liverpool confirmed the £9m signing of Simon Mignolet from Sunderland in June, as reported by BBC Sport, eyebrows were raised: They had signed one of the brightest young goalkeepers in Europe, but he would now have to compete with Pepe Reina, a Liverpool favorite and one of the best in Europe in his own right.

But any debate was quickly settled as Rodgers shipped Reina out on loan to Napoli and gave his confidence to Mignolet to be the Reds’ No. 1.

And he’s repaid his manager’s faith, starting with a dramatic penalty save at the death in his first match at Anfield to win all three points for the home side.

Having established himself as an integral part of the Liverpool defence, Mignolet has saved his team precious points so far this season with his exemplary shot-stopping, while he has already shown signs of improvement in his distribution.

Recent errors against Manchester City and Chelsea have highlighted the high level of performance and consistency that the Belgian No. 2 must display in between the Liverpool posts, but he has done enough to show that he might just be Anfield’s first-choice keeper for years to come.

 

Value for money: A-. It wasn’t long ago—six years ago in fact—that Craig Gordon’s £9m move to Sunderland made him the most expensive goalkeeper in Britain, but Mignolet has easily been on at least a par with Manchester United’s £18m David de Gea. An outstanding piece of business for Liverpool.

Impact: A-. His recent errors against City and Chelsea potentially cost his side two points in total and has brought any impeccable rating down a notch, but Mignolet has been an excellent addition to the Liverpool defence. That Reina has not been missed is a testament to how well his successor has performed.

Potential: A. At just 25 years of age, Mignolet could well hold the Anfield No. 1 gloves for the next decade if he continues his improvement and fulfills his undoubted potential.

Overall: A-. Easily Liverpool’s best signing of the summer, Mignolet made an all-important double save on his league debut and hasn’t looked back. He is just one of the many exciting young players at Anfield, and will end the season as one of the Premier League’s best signings of the current campaign.

 

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

Premier League Preview: How Liverpool Will Line Up Against Hull City

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The last time Liverpool played Hull City, Steve Bruce’s side ran out 3-1 winners at the KC Stadium in an off-day for Brendan Rodgers’ team. New Year’s Day this Wednesday will be a chance for the Reds to put their recent losses behind them and get their 2014 off to a good start at Anfield.

A busy December had presented a good opportunity for the home side to confirm their credentials as top-four—even title—challengers. Despite enjoying three impressive home wins between their disappointment against Hull and their scintillating destruction of Tottenham Hotspur, they succumbed to two controversial losses to Manchester City and Chelsea in quick succession.

From top spot on Christmas Day to fifth place on New Year’s Eve, Liverpool’s recent fortunes have shown just how tight the Premier League is this season.

Regarded as early-season favorites for the drop, Hull are now in a healthy position of 10th place with 23 points on the board. A run of three draws preceded a narrow defeat to Manchester United, and the Tigers produced their best performance of the current campaign with a six-goal rout of Fulham on Saturday.

Liverpool, ravaged recently by injuries, will look to sustain their strong home form and get their title race back on track with a win over Hull this Wednesday. Here is what their starting XI might look like.

 

Goalkeeper: Simon Mignolet

Simon Mignolet has made costly mistakes in the past two matches against City and Chelsea, but barring any significant injury he will continue to man the Anfield posts, for lack of a serious challenger to the No. 1 spot at Liverpool.

 

Right-Back: Martin Kelly

Glen Johnson has been a mainstay in the Liverpool side this season, but his form has dipped significantly in recent weeks: He’s seemed to have lost his previously silky first touch and ball control, while his defensive positioning and lack of concentration has made him a liability in the Liverpool defence.

So it’s to the bench Johnson goes, as Rodgers may well be looking at giving the right-back a rest to regain his form and confidence.

In his place will be Martin Kelly, who came off the bench to replace the injured Jon Flanagan in the 3-1 win over Cardiff City.

It’s been a tough few seasons for Kelly, who has had to spend lots of time in the treatment room and on the bench in his fight back to full fitness. Judging from his recent appearances, Kelly is still some way short of full match fitness, but Hull will give him a good opportunity to regain his place in Rodgers’ starting XI.

 

Left-Back: Aly Cissokho

In Jose Enrique’s absence, Jon Flanagan had taken advantage of Aly Cissokho’s poor form to make the left-back spot his own, but unfortunately he had to limp off injured in the Cardiff game.

On-loan Cissokho stepped in for the trip to the Etihad Stadium, and while Daniel Agger deputized on the flank in the loss at Stamford Bridge, we expect Cissokho to return to the starting XI out on the left against Hull.

Liverpool have been imperious at home this season and will look to pin Hull back with their brand of relentless passing play. However, the visitors may decide to sit back and limit space for the home side to attack, so flexibility and interchangeability will be crucial for Brendan Rodgers’ side.

Cissokho, while unsteady defensively, offers an outlet on the flank going forward and will provide extra width for the Reds’ left flank, especially given Philippe Coutinho’s tendency to cut inside.

 

Centre-Back: Kolo Toure

Martin Skrtel has come in for some public praise from his manager in recent months—as evidenced from this article from the Liverpool Echo—but a hesitant recent few matches in the heart of the defence leads us to suggest a complete change in the Reds’ back four, injury or not.

Skrtel’s shirt-pulling in the box has become a target for ire among Reds supporters and will surely present a headache for Rodgers as well as a potential target for referees in the coming matches if his antics don’t stop soon.

An early goal from a free-kick against Chelsea was a sign of his improvement in front of goal from set pieces, but recent defensive mistakes have contributed to just two clean sheets in Liverpool’s last 16 games.

Perhaps it’s time for a return to the starting XI for Kolo Toure, who provided experience, strength and leadership in the opening weeks of the season—when Liverpool kept three successive clean sheets.

 

Centre-Back: Daniel Agger

Mamadou Sakho limping out with a hamstring injury late into the Chelsea loss will have been a concern for Rodgers and Co., as it will be for Liverpool fans, who have seen the young Frenchman develop into an impressive centre-back in Daniel Agger’s place.

But while Agger deputized on the left against the Blues, he will likely be drafted back in the middle—his favored position—in the injury absence of Sakho, where he will reprise Liverpool’s successful defensive partnership with Kolo Toure at the start of the current campaign.

He will be looking to impress in his favored role as he tries to regain his form, and the Dane will also likely take to the field with the captain’s armband in Steven Gerrard’s absence.

 

Defensive Midfielder: Lucas

Along with Sakho, another player to limp off injured against Chelsea was Joe Allen, and as such Lucas will remain the only realistic candidate to start as Liverpool’s defensive midfielder at Anfield on New Year’s Day.

Involved in a late fracas with Oscar, Lucas will need to regain his composure against Hull: He’s already served a one-match suspension for having been booked five times this season, and he is well on his way to the 10-yellow milestone.

 

Central Midfielder: Luis Alberto

Despite recent suggestions that Steven Gerrard could make an early return from injury and might even be fit to take on Hull, as reported by the Guardian, given the recent personnel shortage, Brendan Rodgers may well prefer to keep his captain under wraps and at best only bring him on as a substitute.

So if Liverpool are, as expected, without Joe Allen for Wednesday’s match, Rodgers may hand a first Premier League start to Luis Alberto, who arrived at Anfield in the summer and has shown glimpses of his quality off the bench.

Having played in both the attacking midfield and “regista” roles in his appearances over preseason and during the current campaign, Alberto may look to take Gerrard’s deep-lying playmaking role in the Liverpool midfield.

He will be tasked with prompting from deep, dictating the tempo and slowing down the overall play as necessary—something the Reds, for all their youthful exuberance and relentless energy, have lacked in recent matches.

 

Attacking Midfielder: Jordan Henderson

“Jordan Henderson is fine. He’s still sore, but he’s a real soldier and should be fine.” So said Brendan Rodgers on the day after he sustained a knock against Chelsea, according to the official Liverpool website.

As Joe Allen misses out, Henderson will likely reprise his attacking midfield role against Hull, a position he’s relished and impressed in in recent weeks, despite a quiet showing at Stamford Bridge.

His pressing from the front has become integral to the Reds’ approach play from the midfield, and hopefully Rodgers will be able to get a good 70 minutes or so of energy and pace before withdrawing him—perhaps for Steven Gerrard—with the result in the bag.

 

Right Forward: Raheem Sterling

It’s been a whirlwind year for Raheem Sterling, with several controversies off the field and, possibly as a consequence, a dip in form for most of the calendar year, which has been a disappointment considering how well he started his debut season last year.

But in recent weeks, Sterling has stormed back into form with a couple of goals and a few excellent performances on the right flank for Liverpool. A scintillating display against Tottenham continued against Cardiff and Manchester City, and it shows that Sterling has found a new level of maturity and end product to his game.

There’s still much to come from the young winger, who only turned 19 this December, not least in terms of decision making and the final ball, but with Daniel Sturridge still on his way back from injury, Sterling will get another chance to continue his remarkable improvement.

Maynor Figueroa, watch out.

 

Left Forward: Philippe Coutinho

It’s fair to say that Philippe Coutinho this season hasn’t hit the heights of his initial six months in a Liverpool shirt, when he hit the ground running after arriving at Anfield in late January.

As he approaches a full year in English football, Coutinho will look to regain his all-conquering form but will likely continue out on the left in Daniel Sturridge’s continued absence from the first team.

He hasn’t quite been able to quite impose himself and his brand of exciting, inventive football as regularly this season, but a goal to round off a brilliant team move against Manchester City will have been massive encouragement for the No. 10 to start the New Year off the right way.

Better, surely, than starting the hapless Victor Moses anyway.

 

Striker: Luis Suarez

A breathtaking start to December saw Luis Suarez break the Premier League record of most goals scored in a single calendar month with 10, but the goals have dried up since his double against Cardiff.

Hence the statistic that he’s only scored three of his 19 league goals this campaign against the top 13 teams in the league and the sudden accusation that Suarez is merely a flat-track bully and not a big-game player.

Here’s another statistic: Out of his 57 Premier League goals for Liverpool, only 11 of them have come against Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Everton and Tottenham.

Unfortunately for Steve Bruce and Co., Hull City do not belong in this category.

 

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

Lucas Suspended: What a Lucas-Less Liverpool Lineup Could Look Like

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Michael Regan/Getty Images
 
 
In his sixth league game of the 2013-14 Premier League campaign, Lucas earned himself a one-match suspension after sustaining his fifth yellow card of the season against Sunderland on Sunday.

This means the Reds No. 21, who has won a recall back to Luis Felipe Scolari’s Brazil side ahead of their upcoming friendlies, will sit out Liverpool’s hosting of Crystal Palace on Saturday October 5.

A chance, then, for Brendan Rodgers to continue tinkering with his new 3-4-1-2 formation with the absence of his trusted midfield enforcer, who has been rather underwhelming this season with his performances alongside Steven Gerrard.

Let’s look at what a Lucas-less Liverpool lineup could look like in its current context—but also how the Reds’ strongest starting XI would be if Lucas weren’t a fixture.

Let us know your thoughts and picks in the comments below.

 

GK: Simon Mignolet

With his impressive shot-stopping performances since joining Liverpool from Sunderland this summer, Simon Mignolet picks himself as the firm No. 1 in the lineup.

There have been moments of uncertainty for the big Belgian keeper, but if he improves his aerial command of the box and his distribution, he could turn out to be one of the Reds’ best ever.

 

RCB: Kolo Toure

Arguably Liverpool’s stand-out performer so far this season, Kolo Toure has proven to be an inspired signing for Brendan Rodgers this summer—and on a free transfer from Manchester City, will turn out as one of the bargains of the season.

On current form, Toure is an integral part of Rodgers’ starting XI, and as the season progresses, his experience and leadership will prove just as important as his pace, stamina and physicality.

Martin Kelly is a fantastic prospect waiting on the sidelines to return after his injury hell, but he’ll have to wait before he can hope to dislodge Toure from the lineup.

 

LCB: Mamadou Sakho / Daniel Agger

B/R’s Karl Matchett has more on why a three-man defence could be the way to go at Anfield, but a key reason is that the Reds now have a plethora of options in central defence to choose from, and summer signing Mamadou Sakho is one of them.

A nervous debut at Swansea City has been followed up by two solid performances in the league, and with each passing game Sakho is starting to justify both the hype he had as a prospect at Paris Saint-Germain and his £15 million price tag.

With him continuing his imperious form with an impressive set of defensive attributes, vice-captain Daniel Agger will have to bide his time before returning to the starting XI.

 

CD / SW: Martin Skrtel / Daniel Agger

It could well be that Agger could make his return to the starting XI in a central sweeper role, but Martin Skrtel’s impressive form in the heart of the three-man defence right now means that may take a while to happen.

Martin Skrtel’s performance against Manchester United in the second league game of the season turned out to be the start of a very encouraging upturn in form, and his no-nonsense brand of defending will continue to be important to the Reds’ fortunes.

 

RWB: Glen Johnson / Raheem Sterling / Jordan Henderson

With Glen Johnson injured for at least another few weeks, Brendan Rodgers has been using Jordan Henderson as a right wing-back in his 3-4-1-2 formation.

Lucas’ suspension, however, may change the first-team setup a bit, and perhaps for the better.

We’ll touch on what we think could be a useful role for Henderson in a few slides.

But we posit that young winger Raheem Sterling could be an interesting experiment in a slightly more defensive starting position, given his pace, work rate, surprising upper body strength, and well-known penchant for bombing down the flanks.

Given a few more weeks for the rest of the team to settle into this formation, however, when Johnson—a player tailor-made for a wing-back role—makes his first-team return, that’s when things could well and truly become exciting.

 

LWB: Jose Enrique / Glen Johnson

Jose Enrique is a player capable of two extremes: the brilliant and the downright frustrating, such are his attributes as a left full/wing-back.

His defensive qualities, barring a very apt use of his size and strength, are at times suspect (especially his positioning), while his crossing, shooting and decision-making leave much to be desired. But it’s no doubt that he offers a useful outlet on the overlap and a valuable contributor tracking back.

This is why a three-man defence, with Mamadou Sakho being another man supporting him from behind, could be the key to unlocking Enrique’s finest form.

Johnson, on the other hand, showed himself to be a more than competent left-back—in some quarters one of the league’s best—when standing in last term, but will only be moved over if other options on the right flank don’t work out.

 

CM: Steven Gerrard

Whisper it quietly, but though he delivered the corner that Daniel Sturridge turned in for Liverpool’s first goal against Sunderland on Saturday and the breathtaking diagonal pass to send Sturridge on his way for his side’s second, Steven Gerrard has been far from his best form this season.

How much this has to do with Lucas’ underwhelming form beside him, or with his own ageing years, we’ll leave for another debate.

But for the purposes of this article, we’ll assume that in the context of Liverpool’s young team and Brendan Rodgers’ inexperienced side, the club captain remains indispensable at the moment.

With a more energetic and positionally smart central/defensive midfielder beside him, Gerrard could rediscover his playmaking form of old, dictating matches week in, week out.

If anything, his set-piece prowess still sets him out as one of the Premier League’s finest in that regard.

 

CM: Jordan Henderson / Joe Allen

Enter Jordan Henderson, who has continued to justify his selection every week with steady, consistent performances in an attacking midfield role.

Given Lucas’ suspension, however, this could be a good time to try the No. 14 back in his favored central midfield position. Here, the Reds could use some good positional and tactical sense, excellent work rate and tracking back and, most importantly, the stamina and pace to track midfield runners and close down shooting opportunities from opposing teams.

Henderson’s tidy passing and ability to deliver a neat first-time through-ball also adds to the reasons we suggest him as a potential partner for Steven Gerrard, while Joe Allen’s form in this position early last year also means he could be an interesting contender for the role as well.

 

CAM: Philippe Coutinho / Victor Moses / Joe Allen

There’s no doubt that when fit, Philippe Coutinho will start in his favored—and strongest—No. 10 position supporting the striker(s).

Given his injury problems at the moment, Victor Moses has been used in this position, but has been relatively underwhelming due to his natural tendency to stay wide and influence proceedings from the flanks.

It’s fair to say that while Moses has an array of tricks that make him a dangerous winger, he doesn’t quite have that ability to unlock a defence with a composed pass or a delicate piece of skill that a Liverpool No. 10 should.

While Henderson has been used in that position with some success as a pressing No. 10, we suggest that Joe Allen, who was deployed in this role to good effect over the course of preseason, be given a run-out, especially if Coutinho is still injured when he returns.

 

ST: Daniel Sturridge

When fit, the front two in this 3-4-1-2 system picks itself.

Daniel Sturridge, currently top scorer both for Liverpool and in the English Premier League, has shown even while not fully fit that he is maturing into a top well-rounded marksman.

He is likely to remain a key player for Brendan Rodgers for a few more months to come.

 

ST: Luis Suarez

Luis Suarez has come straight back into the Liverpool XI after his 10-match suspension even given his public protestations this summer, but it was always too big a temptation to resist.

Following up a lively performance against Manchester United in the Capital One Cup with a two-goal display at Sunderland, Suarez has played his way back into the hearts of the Liverpool fans again, and will play an important role for the rest of the season, at least.

 

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

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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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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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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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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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.

Aston Villa 0-1 Liverpool: 6 Positives and Negatives

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An exquisite goal from Daniel Sturridge sealed the points for Liverpool in what was a hard-fought afternoon at Villa Park, where the Reds managed to brave a second-half Aston Villa onslaught to take home a 1-0 win.

After their impressive opening weekend win against Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium, Villa put in an impressive performance against Chelsea, only to end the match empty-handed.

But Paul Lambert’s young side had already shown that their energy and pace would have the potential to cause opponents problems this season.

Liverpool traveled to Villa Park on the back of a 1-0 home win over Stoke City on opening day, an arena where the home side had secured just one victory in their last 15 meetings.

With the maximum six points after two matches, Liverpool have secured their best league start in five years, with Sturridge getting match-winners on both occasions.

What else did we learn from Liverpool’s victory on Saturday? Read on for our take on the positives and negatives from the match, and let us know your opinions in the comments below.

Daniel Sturridge with Yet Another Match-Winning Performance…

It’s tempting to say that it was all Philippe Coutinho, who allowed the goal to happen with his expert dummy on Jose Enrique’s pass, but in reality it was all Daniel Sturridge.

One shimmy, two shimmies, another rounding of the keeper, and—just as the ball looked like it was forced a little too wide—a quick swish of the outside of the left boot. 1-0.

More than a few shades of Luis Suarez to the goal, but for Liverpool fans, this shouldn’t be news anymore.

Daniel Sturridge has produced the goods time and again since his January move to Anfield from Chelsea, and after his blistering match-winning strike against Stoke last week, it was yet another Sturridge beauty that won it this time around.

However, it wasn’t just the goal that set Sturridge apart.

It was his hunger, his attitude, his work rate and his overall movement across the pitch, chasing down balls in the second half when Aston Villa had the majority of the possession.

But it will be his expertly taken goal that sticks with everyone until the visit of Manchester United, and rightly so.

Brendan Rodgers has since claimed, via the Telegraph, that Sturridge has all the tools in his locker to become the best English striker in the Premier League.

And why not?

On this form, Sturridge should be wearing the No. 9 shirt leading the line for England at the World Cup next summer, if passage to Brazil is secured.

…But Philippe Coutinho Must Learn to Deal with Extra Attention

If Sturridge stole the limelight and Philippe Coutinho seemed to take more of a backseat on Saturday, that’s because, in many aspects, that was indeed what happened.

The Reds came flying out of the blocks, and for the opening 40 minutes they took the game to Villa, playing an enjoyable possession-based style of football, but Coutinho was noticeably subdued.

Full credit to Paul Lambert and his charges, who already showed their admirable work rate and intense midfield pressure on Arsenal talisman Jack Wilshere at the Emirates last weekend. At the weekend, they appeared to replicate this tactic on that most influential and unpredictable of playmakers, Coutinho.

That his touch seemed to be slightly off didn’t help his cause, and that he helped create an exquisite goal by not touching the ball in the build-up further reflected an altogether quiet showing from the Brazilian starlet.

In a high-tempo match against a high-energy Villa team, Coutinho put in an admirable shift doing the defensive work, especially after Liverpool ceded possession of the ball to the hosts.

His tracking back was important, and his work off the ball will have impressed Rodgers.

It’s not just about the flashy stuff all the time, but Coutinho must surely be wising up to the fact that he’ll be attracting much more attention in his first full campaign in English football than he did in his first half season.

But that just shows the impact he’s made since arriving from Internazionale—and even good players are allowed a quieter game once in a while.

Kolo Toure and Simon Mignolet Impress Again…

Since the turn of the year, Liverpool have enjoyed an impressive league record—losing just three out of 20 matches in the 2013 calendar year—and January signings Sturridge and Coutinho have captured most of the headlines.

But their new signings this summer will claim a bigger say in what happens for the second half of the year, and in these first two showings, Kolo Toure and Simon Mignolet have already established themselves as fan favorites.

Let’s start with Kolo Toure, who followed up a strong performance against Stoke with another commanding display on Saturday.

Against the considerable pace, energy and power of Christian Benteke, who has carried last season’s form into this, Toure was impeccable. He also kept Benteke’s forward partners Gabby Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann quiet.

His pace, positioning and experience were on full display as he was at the center of a resolute Reds defence, especially in the second half when Liverpool sat back and defended more deeply.

His use of the ball and his passing game also caught the eye in the aesthetically pleasing opening 40 minutes.

Having earned Liverpool two points with his double save at the death last weekend—one of which was a penalty save against Jonathan Walters—Mignolet displayed his considerable shot-stopping abilities with impressive stops on Saturday, including a thrilling near-post parry of a powerful Benteke low drive.

So much for the negative impact that Jamie Carragher’s retirement and Pepe Reina’s loan departure to Napoli was supposed to bring.

In fact—whisper it quietly—maybe their replacements have even been an upgrade.

…But Lucas Exposes Himself as the Weak Link in the Team

Yet another Liverpool upgrade on show at Villa Park was defensive midfielder Lucas Leiva: He has seemingly recovered from his injury nightmare, and his performance levels have stepped up a notch from the unconvincing displays in the second half of 2012/13.

The problem is, even an improved Lucas has his faults, and more often than not, it was Lucas who threatened to shoot his team in the foot with a series of mistimed challenges and poor positioning in the midfield.

It is commonly said that Liverpool are another attacking player away from assembling a much more accomplished side capable of challenging for the top four—Brendan Rodgers has claimed, through the Guardian, that he is still on the lookout for a left winger—but reality dictates otherwise.

With Luis Suarez still to return, and Kolo Toure and Aly Cissokho providing experienced additions to the backline, Liverpool are balanced across the team, with the notable exception of the central midfield line.

The easiest reference was on show at White Hart Lane on Sunday. Tottenham Hotspur’s midfield trio of Mousa Dembele, Paulinho and Etienne Capoue provided pace, energy, tackling, positional nous and attacking threat in a dynamic Spurs performance, even if life after Gareth Bale wasn’t the most inspiring in terms of chances created.

With Lucas marshaling the defence against Villa, it was his mistakes that led to a succession of set pieces that troubled the Liverpool box, while Benteke and co. were put through because of his lack of positioning.

If Liverpool are to build a competitive side capable of sustaining a challenge near the top of the tree, they must acquire an upgrade in the defensive midfield area. A decent squad player Lucas might be, but a top-four starter he is not. Etienne Capoue only cost Spurs £9 million.

Brendan Rodgers the Realist…

For the first 40 minutes or so at Villa Park, Liverpool were the embodiment of a Brendan Rodgers ideal:

Positive attacking movement, dynamic interchanging across the midfield and forward lines, patient distribution at the back, impressive maintaining of a high line of defence, constant pressing to win back lost possession and composed clearing of the lines across the floor.

Given the way that they sat back and absorbed the incessant pressure with a defensive line after the 40-minute mark, one could be forgiven for thinking that the players let complacency set in, never seized the initiative back, and had to ride out the storm as a result.

That would’ve been cause for an internal inquisition from Rodgers and his backroom team after the final whistle had gone.

Not so.

As it turned out, sitting back and defending more deeply was part of Rodgers’ game plan against a threatening and pacy Villa side, according to this BBC Sport report. Liverpool’s aim was “to just to keep our lines tight together and deny them many chances”—and they did just that.

Which is yet another encouraging step in the evolution taking place at Anfield since Rodgers’ appointment last summer.

From a team setting out to play a possession-based game perhaps a bit too stubbornly, Liverpool developed into a fearsome counterattacking unit with the help of January arrivals Sturridge and Coutinho.

And now they’ve even added a mean streak to their game that sees victory as the most important aim of all.

Brendan Rodgers, the philosopher, the ideologue…the realist? Who would’ve thought it?

…But Winning Ugly is Better Than Not Winning at All

As Liverpool prepare to take on Notts County in the second round of the League Cup on Tuesday, a sobering reality sets in: They are in this position because they didn’t manage to qualify for any European competition this season.

Or in other words, last season’s seventh-place finish was simply not good enough.

As club owner John Henry jetted in to deal with the Luis Suarez situation a few weeks ago, he will have reminded Rodgers of his objectives this season.

Indeed, in this Telegraph report, just as telling as his stance on keeping Suarez was his public pronouncement that he had high expectations and intended to “surprise people this year.”

Small wonder, then, that Rodgers has developed and integrated a more pragmatic side that sees victory just as important as the football.

To date, the 2013/14 Premier League campaign has yet to see the scintillating football that resulted in high-scoring margins like the 6-0 win at Newcastle United’s St. James’ Park, and Daniel Sturridge is the only player to have scored in a Red shirt this season.

But a win is a win is a win. And three points is three points is three points.

As they look to progress through to the third round of the League Cup and then onwards to prepare for the visit of Manchester United this weekend, they’ll be aiming not to appear in the second round again anytime soon.

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

Liverpool 1-0 Stoke: 6 Things We Learned

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Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

 

Kicking off the 2013/14 English Premier League season, Liverpool secured their first win of the new campaign. The victory came in their first game against Stoke City on Saturday, courtesy of both Daniel Sturridge’s sublime 25-yard strike and Simon Mignolet’s thrilling double save right at the death.

In the process, the Reds finally ended their opening-day hoodoo: This was Liverpool’s first opening-day home win in 12 years, and while it was done in style, it wasn’t without its fair share of drama.

But Brendan Rodgers will have been delighted to see his new signings come through the game in fine form, and he’ll have been happy to end the first week of league action with three points and a clean sheet.

Here are six things we learned from Liverpool’s 1-0 win over Stoke. Enjoy and let us know your views in the comments below.

Kolo Toure: One of the Best Signings of the Summer

Let’s start with the individuals, and one of the standout performers on Saturday was Liverpool’s new No. 4, Kolo Touré.

Slotting seamlessly into the heart of the Reds defence, Touré was at his imperious best, closing down attacks, moving the ball purposefully and committing whole-hearted tackles. More importantly, he ensured that the retired Jamie Carragher wasn’t a big miss.

His presence alongside Daniel Agger ensured that the high defensive line was a success, and allowed full-backs Glen Johnson and José Enrique to bomb down their respective flanks at will.

On the attacking side, there was also his scintillating charge up-field on an attack that he instigated; he ended up inside the box as an unorthodox forward option as Daniel Sturridge opted to shoot.

And if it weren’t for the crossbar at the Anfield Road end, Touré would’ve opened his Reds account on his debut from a first-half Steven Gerrard corner.

Add his wealth of experience and the fact that he’s clearly already gained the trust of his manager and teammates, and Touré represents a fine addition to Brendan Rodgers’ squad.

At a total transfer cost of zero, Kolo Touré, who joined Liverpool on a free from Manchester City, might turn out to be one of the best signings in the whole of the summer transfer window.

Jordan Henderson Fully Deserves Brendan Rodgers’ Faith

Throughout preseason, Joe Allen earned rave reviews from his manager, colleagues and fans alike for his hard work and improved showings compared to last season, and was widely expected to have forced his way into first-team contention in one of the advanced midfield positions.

So it came as something of a surprise that Jordan Henderson was the one chosen to start alongside Philippe Coutinho and Iago Aspas behind lone striker Daniel Sturridge on Saturday.

Perhaps this was a decision taken with the opposition in consideration: After all, Joe Allen’s form went downhill after he nearly suffered humiliation against the towering Marouane Fellaini in the Merseyside derby against Everton last year.

But Henderson’s performance proved that it was much more than that. In a performance showing plenty of energy, hard work, useful movement and goal threat, the No. 14 was one of the most impressive Liverpool players on the pitch.

And if he had shown a bit more composure in a one-on-one against AsmirBegović, or curled his shot just an inch closer to bounce in off the woodwork instead of back out, Henderson would have notched the goal that his performance deserved.

A far cry from his status last year as a makeweight in a player-plus-cash deal to Fulham for Clint Dempsey, and from his reputation as yet another big-money flop from the Damien Comolli-Kenny Dalglish era.

It seems that even Brendan Rodgers has been won over by the enthusiastic and professional Henderson. If he keeps up his form and confidence, any new attacking signing—and Luis Suarez—might face a fight to take his place from Henderson.

Await Lucas and Daniel Sturridge’s Return to Full Fitness

There was a period last season when Liverpool looked just a bit too lightweight in the center of midfield: Following Lucas’ enforced absence due to injury, Joe Allen, who was carrying a shoulder injury, had to deputize in a defensive midfield role that ultimately became the undoing of his early promising reputation.

And even when Lucas returned to the first-team fold, he was nowhere near the Lucas that Anfield had come to know and love.

Too many times he was found wanting in the midfield, seemingly having lost his pace, acceleration and tackling nous due to lack of match practice. And his absence of mind and body was to blame for one of the most embarrassing goals Liverpool conceded last season—a simple stroll through the middle of the park by Southampton’s Jay Rodriguez.

Fast forward a few months, and Lucas has seemingly returned. His tackling and positioning were much improved against Stoke, and even if he still had the tendency to commit a needless foul or to be just slightly too reactive, the defensive midfield area became much less of a liability.

Leading the line was another player stepping up his return to full fitness.

Daniel Sturridge, who had only made his first-team comeback in a preseason friendly a week prior against Celtic, scored two goals in a behind-closed-doors midweek friendly against Newcastle United. He also fired in the winner on Saturday with a rather sumptuous strike from 25 yards out.

There was still room for improvement: Sturridge’s movement, pace and strength still seemed a bit rusty, but a Sturridge on his way back to full fitness still proved the difference on the day.

A few weeks down the line, Brendan Rodgers could well have a fully fit Lucas and Sturridge in his side. That would be a massive boost to the team, judging from Saturday’s display.

Simon Mignolet Passes His First Test

It’s never easy for a goalkeeper making his home debut at Anfield, especially a new first-choice keeper.

For the best part of eight seasons there has been one main man between the sticks. That man was Pepe Reina, who signed for the Reds in the summer of 2005. He has since departed on loan to Napoli.

Simon Mignolet certainly had the hearts of most Liverpool fans in their mouths as his early flap at a deep cross allowed Robert Huth to hit the bar with a fierce volley.

A solid flying save from Jonathan Walters later, and Mignolet soon rediscovered his confidence, and never looked back.

And he passed his Anfield test with flying colors as he became Liverpool’s first-ever goalkeeper to save a penalty on his debut. His stop from Walters’ last-gasp spot-kick was as thrilling as it was important, and his instinctive save from the follow-up ensured that the Reds would end the day with three points instead of one.

A special mention to Mignolet’s opposite number, Asmir Begović, who, barring a fine match-winning strike from Daniel Sturridge, kept Liverpool at bay time and again with a series of excellent stops.

That Liverpool were linked with both Mignolet and Begovićc this summer will have been encouraging in hindsight to Liverpool fans: Both showed their undoubted quality on Saturday and either would have represented fine signings by Brendan Rodgers.

A Nervy Win That Should Become Routine

As usual, Liverpool’s opening goal was met with a series of attacks from the opposition in response.

Last season, the period immediately following the Reds taking the lead was the period that Liverpool were the most vulnerable to conceding a goal.

Against a physical Stoke City side, Liverpool fans could have been forgiven for worrying that the equalizer would come immediately—or indeed would arrive inevitably as Begović represented a one-man wall preventing the home team from extending their lead.

Sure enough, Daniel Agger obliged with a handball inside his own penalty area, and Brendan Rodgers had Simon Mignolet to thank for saving the day: The fevered celebrations from his outfield colleagues in the immediate aftermath were a sight to behold.

But as the game wore on and became increasingly nervy, it looked more and more like the type of game that Liverpool would have thrown away last season.

Instead, they held on to preserve the narrow one-goal lead, and in the process ensured that this season’s start—unlike last year’s 0-3 capitulation against West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns—would ultimately be an encouraging one.

With the first potential banana skin out of the way, Rodgers needs to ensure that this mentality persists in his young side. Their attention must now turn to transforming those narrow leads into routine wins.

A Result That Bodes Well for the Future

It is precisely the end result that may shift the expectation from an inevitable dropping of points to a routine three points on the board.

A young and technical Liverpool side, especially one playing a higher defensive line, had always been susceptible to a physically dominant team: Stoke’s 3-1 win over the Reds just over half a year ago was testament to this.

If the relentless and eye-pleasing attacking can be turned into three points, and if the dominance in possession and shots on goal can be translated into match-winning goals, then Brendan Rodgers will have added the all-important end result onto his formula.

With the arrival of Coutinho and Sturridge, Liverpool have had to rely less on the talismanic Luis Suarez, and if Iago Aspas and company provide further upgrades to Rodgers’ squad options, this could be a Reds side that has access to further victories.

Perhaps it is too early to draw definitive conclusions for the season to come from their opening game, but it’s clear that the signs at Anfield were encouraging.

Now for the hard part—ensuring that they can sustain this for 38 games over the course of a season, starting with a visit to Villa Park this coming Saturday.

As Rodgers will remember well, a certain Christian Benteke tormented them at Anfield last December.

 

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