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Picking a Premier League Best XI Team of the Season so Far

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Alex Livesey/Getty Images

It’s January, which means, besides the opening of the winter transfer window, the halfway point in the 2013/14 Premier League season is here. This is where we can look back and evaluate how the campaign has gone thus far.

With 20 games played by each team, we’ve witnessed a scintillating title race and an intriguing battle for the European places, while the permutations towards the bottom of the table mean that the relegation fight will only intensify in the months to come.

Given the quality that has been on show in England’s top flight this season, it’s one of the toughest mid-season tasks in recent years to pick a team of the season 20 games in—but we’ll do it all the same.

Here’s our Premier League team of the 2013/14 season so far, in a 4-3-1-2 formation and complete with a seven-man bench. Enjoy and let us know your picks in the comments below.

 

All statistics have come from Premierleague.com unless otherwise stated.

 

Goalkeeper: Wojciech Szczesny

With 39 goals scored and 18 conceded, Arsenal are the third-highest scoring team in the Premier League and boast the meanest defensive record in the top flight. It’s no wonder that Arsenal will approach round 21 in top spot, with 45 points on board.

A key part of their season has been Wojciech Szczesny, who has rediscovered his precocious form with a series of outstanding performances in the Arsenal goal.

A total of 61 saves this season has been augmented by nine clean sheets—the league’s highest tally—as Szczesny picked himself up from an inconsistent season last year to establish himself as one of the Premier League’s very finest goalkeepers.

 

Right-Back: Seamus Coleman

Such has been the success and aesthetic pleasure of Roberto Martinez’s Everton side this season that we’ve opted for no fewer than three of his players in our team of the season thus far.

Starting with Seamus Coleman, who, lest we forget, was signed from Irish club Sligo Rovers in 2009 for just £60,000.

He’s been a key part of Martinez’s system at Goodison Park, bombing down the right flank with total joy and in the process becoming the best right-back in the league.

He’s already scored five league goals this season. Don’t be surprised if he’s entered double figures by the time May rolls around.

 

Left-Back: Leighton Baines

On the opposite flank at Everton is Leighton Baines, who has continued his impressive form from last season with an excellent six months so far and just shades Southampton’s Luke Shaw to this position.

Baines’ runs from the back and world-class deliveries from both his crosses and set pieces make him a threat to any opponent, and he has even usurped long-time fixture Ashley Cole in the England national setup.

He’s scored three goals so far, making it eight in total for both full-backs in just 20 league games. No wonder Everton are flying high.

 

Center-Back: Per Mertesacker

If there’s ever a picture of composure, leadership, technique and anticipation at the Emirates Stadium, it’ll be of Per Mertesacker, who has been a rock in central defence for Arsene Wenger this season.

After an initial settling-in period, Mertesacker has grown into one of the finest defenders in the Premier League, striking up an impressive partnership with Laurent Koscielny and assuming the Gunners captaincy in the absence of Thomas Vermaelen and Mikel Arteta.

A key component in Arsenal’s league-leading defence, Mertesacker has also scored two goals in the league this year and makes up for his lack of pace by an outstanding reading of the game and impeccable positioning.

 

Center-Back: Dejan Lovren

Before Southampton’s season started unraveling, Mauricio Pochettino’s side were considered strong contenders for Europe and, at one point, even the top four.

Their brand of pressing, attacking football has attracted many a neutral observer and won plaudits for their impressive play, but equally noteworthy was their watertight backline, which until the end of November had conceded the fewest goals out of all 20 Premier League teams.

A towering young defender signed from Olympique Lyonnais in the summer, Lovren has been an ever-present in the Saints defence and has provided a classy blend of physicality, tackling, composure and technique.

 

Central Midfielder: Aaron Ramsey

There are few stories this Premier League season as heartwarming as Aaron Ramsey’s resurgence in the Arsenal midfield.

After a horrific leg injury in 2010, there were fears that Ramsey’s career would never reach the heights that his precocious talents had promised, but this season he has answered his critics in style.

With a barnstorming eight goals and six assists in just 18 league games, Ramsey has risen to the fold and become Arsenal’s midfield engine. His much improved passing, movement and finishing has been a joy to behold in a bewitching Gunners team capable of scintillating football.

 

Central Midfielder: Yaya Toure

Alongside the rejuvenated Ramsey, we’ll have perennial performer Yaya Toure, who surely now belongs in a class of his own as the complete midfielder.

We must also recognize the excellent work of Toure’s midfield colleague Fernandinho and credit his role in Toure’s consistently impressive form this season, but 10 goals in just 19 games speaks for itself: Toure, erstwhile known as a defensive midfielder, is now one of the league’s most devastating attacking forces from the middle.

An enviable concoction of power, pace, technique and finishing, Toure leads Manchester City from defence into attack in the blink of an eye, and has also added a deadly direct free kick to his dizzying arsenal of tricks. He already has four goals just from free kicks this season.

 

Central Midfielder: Ross Barkley

Our third and final Evertonian is Ross Barkley, who at just 20 years of age may just be England’s finest talent of his generation and has enjoyed a meteoric rise to the top this season.

His precocious talents have been given center stage by Roberto Martinez, who has made him a key cog in a purring Blues machine. Barkley has responded in kind and has taken the opportunity to establish himself as a genuinely exciting prospect who has almost everything in his locker.

Barkley is power, pace, explosiveness, creativity and finishing rolled into one young package, and has the swagger on the pitch to become a possible Everton and England captain in the future.

 

Attacking Midfielder: Wayne Rooney

Ahead of Barkley is his predecessor both in terms of club and stature, Wayne Rooney.

With strong rumors of a falling out with Sir Alex Ferguson and of a request to leave Manchester United towards the end of last season, Rooney was also strongly linked with a move to Chelsea over the summer.

Despite all the controversies and negative publicity before ultimately staying put at Old Trafford, Rooney has reinvented himself in an attacking midfield role this season supporting United’s main strikers.

As a result, his goals tally has dipped—albeit not by much, as he’s still scored nine goals in 17 games—but his influence in the team has greatly increased. His nine assists tell just part of the story: Rooney is now the indispensable player that makes Manchester United tick.

 

Striker: Sergio Aguero

Who’s the best player in the Premier League, Sergio Aguero or Luis Suarez?

The best part of picking a team of the (half-) season is that we can pick both and pair them up with each other, so our team will have the league’s two best players.

So let’s start with Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero, who has recaptured his form from their 2011/12 Premier League-winning campaign with 13 league goals and four assists in just 15 games thus far.

He’s been a constant in Manuel Pellegrini’s team as the Chilean manager has rotated to find the right partner for him. In Alvaro Negredo, Aguero has the perfect foil. Small wonder that they are now known as one of the league’s best strike partnerships.

A fit and firing Sergio Aguero at the tip of a peerless City machine makes for a wonderful spectacle. If Aguero and his colleagues continue their fine work this season, they might just go all the way.

 

Striker: Luis Suarez

Notice that we mentioned Aguero and Negredo as one of the Premier League’s best strike partnerships. The other? None other than Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge.

Sturridge misses out on our lineup (and bench) entirely due an injury that ruled him out in December, and so we’ll round out our starting XI with the surely undisputed player of the half-season thus far, Luis Suarez.

And Suarez deserves all the plaudits. Anyone with 20 goals after 20 league games would be regarded as a striker on top of his game, but Suarez has scored that same amount despite missing the first five games of the season due to his suspension for biting Branislav Ivanovic last season.

His four-goal salvo against Norwich City in December showed us all just what this mercurial Uruguayan is all about: technique, finesse, unpredictability, finishing and a fondness for the outrageous.

Now that Suarez has seemed to buckle down and sort out his on-field attitude, he has matured into one of the very best in the world. We Premier League fans are lucky to witness a master of his craft in his prime.

 

The Bench

Simon Mignolet: With 65 saves made all season and having won his team valuable points courtesy of his brilliant shot-stopping, Mignolet has been an inspired capture for Liverpool.

Laurent Koscielny: If Mertesacker makes it into our starting XI, surely his regular partner can’t be too far away. Koscielny has been outstanding in an impressive overall season for Arsenal.

Curtis Davies: Our only pick outside of the Premier League top nine (yes, that’s a thing now). Davies’ form and leadership of the Hull City defence will see him go down as one of the best signings of the 2013/14 campaign.

Fernandinho: The other half of Manchester City’s central midfield, Fernandinho has been an unsung hero setting the platform for Yaya Toure to shine. But with his recent flurry of goals, he’s slowly becoming quite the big deal himself.

Eden Hazard: Is this the season Eden Hazard finally realizes his massive potential and becomes a major player on the European stage? If he can keep up his recent fine form, Chelsea could have a world star on their hands.

Oscar: This man has single-handedly kept Juan Mata out of the Chelsea first team. Week in, week out, he continues to show why he has Jose Mourinho’s complete faith. That should suffice.

Olivier Giroud: His goal-scoring run might have dried up, but Giroud beats off competition from Loic Remy and Romelu Lukaku due to his status as an integral part, both as creator and finisher, of Arsenal’s brilliant attacking football. A complete forward.

 

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

A Comprehensive Half-Term Report on Liverpool’s 2013/14 Premier League Season

After their 2-0 home win over Hull City to start the New Year off with three points, Liverpool are now fourth in the Premier League table with 39 points from 20 games, and just over halfway into their quest for a return back to the Champions League.

All told, it’s been an encouraging season for Brendan Rodgers’ men so far, and with the prolific Luis Suarez in their ranks, the Anfield side currently boast the second highest goal difference in England’s top flight with +23 (46 scored, 23 conceded).

Most Reds fans—indeed, probably including the Liverpool management and players—would have taken fourth in the league at the start of 2014 if it could’ve been offered to them at the start of the season, yet how do they stand for the rest of the season?

In the following 10 slides you’ll find a comprehensive half-term report on Liverpool’s season halfway into the 2013/14 Premier League campaign, where we’ll assess different aspects of the club’s performance thus far, before arriving at a prediction on how far the Reds can go this season.

Enjoy, and give us your take in the comments below.

 

Formation and Playing Style

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Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesBrendan Rodgers came to Liverpool in the summer of 2012 with a well-known fondness for a 4-3-3 formation favoring quick, short passes and constant movement of the ball. His Liverpool team showed unfamiliarity with his new methods and thus got the 2012/13 season off to a slow start.

A year on, his team roared to a perfect start to their Premier League campaign in a more familiar 4-2-3-1 formation, with Daniel Sturridge leading the line as lone striker in Luis Suarez’s continued absence due to suspension. Sturridge was to score his side’s first three goals of the season in three consecutive 1-0 wins.

Those three victories over Stoke City, Aston Villa and Manchester United were achieved in stark contrast to Rodgers’ slick possession-dominant style, as they reverted to defence first in the second halves and ground out the wins. A case of warming up to the new season, perhaps, but the Reds have only achieved three clean sheets in the league since then.

As Suarez returned in brilliant form, Rodgers encountered a selection dilemma, and eventually opted for a 3-5-2 to accommodate his free-scoring strikers and also take advantage of his strength in numbers in central defence.

Right when this surprise 3-5-2 formation was suggested as the Liverpool way of the future, Daniel Sturridge got injured, leading Rodgers to switch back to his favored 4-3-3, with Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling flanking Suarez as the central striker. This was the start of a scintillating personal campaign for Suarez that has seen the No. 7 score 20 goals in just 15 league games thus far, in the process becoming the fastest player to hit the 20-goal mark.

All this was achieved with a new withdrawn regista role for Steven Gerrard, who played alongside Lucas and provided a newly revitalized Jordan Henderson with the platform to charge forward. New signings Iago Aspas and Victor Moses both tried and failed the No. 10 role, while Coutinho has taken up a place on the left cutting in to support Suarez.

Gerrard’s relatively pedestrian contribution in the side could have been considered an antithesis to Rodgers’ all-action style, but his long balls and set-piece delivery in turn led to goals in every manner possible: Liverpool, having picked up a reputation for being weak defending set pieces, also became known for their goal-scoring prowess from free kicks and corners. (Luis Suarez’s deadly finishing from free kicks outside the box also contributed.)

When Gerrard himself was injured in the beginning of December and Joe Allen was fit enough to return to the starting XI, Liverpool began to transform into something more akin to a Rodgers staple. A midfield trio of Lucas, Henderson and Allen, while remaining in the 4-3-3 formation, pressed and harried opponents into losing possession, thereby sticking to Rodgers’ “death by football” mantra, and looks to be Liverpool’s image in the medium to long term, especially when Gerrard eventually calls time on his career.

In just six months at Anfield, we witnessed transformations and progress in Liverpool’s tactical setup and playing style while the points continued to be picked up. We’ll have more on each area of the field and Liverpool’s progress from last season in the coming slides.

 

Transfers

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Jan Kruger/Getty ImagesFor players who joined the club in the summer, find our grades and analyses on how they’ve done in their first six months at Anfield in our guide here, where we assess them on value for money, impact and potential.

We’ll cover most of the first-team players in the following few slides focusing on the Liverpool defence, midfield and attack.

 

Defence

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Clive Rose/Getty ImagesOne of the stories of Liverpool’s season thus far is the return to prominence of Martin Skrtel—if prominence can be measured by first-team starts.

Since his return against Manchester United early in the season, Skrtel has been a fixture in Brendan Rodgers’ starting XI, having made 18 appearances this season already with two goals to his name.

While he enjoyed a resurgence in form for a few months, in recent weeks he has committed a number of defensive errors—not least in the buildup to Samuel Eto’o’s winning goal against Chelsea on December 29—that have largely been glossed over. Questions will continue to arise of his blatant shirt-pulling in the box, as well as of the relative lack in vocal leadership and on-field organization when Skrtel is playing.

Alongside Skrtel, Daniel Agger and Mamadou Sakho have taken turns as Rodgers’ starting left-sided centre-back with mixed results, as Agger—despite having been awarded the vice-captaincy in the summer after Jamie Carragher’s retirement—hasn’t been able to find the consistency and form that previously made him an Anfield icon.

Sakho, on the other hand, established himself as first choice over Agger prior to his hamstring injury sustained at Stamford Bridge. In Sakho’s absence over the coming few weeks, however, Agger will have a chance to reestablish his place in the starting line-up. If he manages to sustain his performance against Hull City on New Year’s Day, Rodgers may well have more to think about when Sakho returns.

On the right flank, Glen Johnson has been ever-present, but sadly out of sorts at the moment, having put in a series of lethargic and uninspiring performances in recent weeks. A lack of genuine competition in the right-back slot hasn’t helped, but Rodgers will surely continue to look at Martin Kelly’s fitness and form to see when would be a good time to reintroduce him for some much needed competition to Johnson.

Jose Enrique had started to enjoy an improvement in his form at left-back before he was ruled out with a lengthy injury layoff in November. Jon Flanagan, a right-back by trade, came into the side after on-loan Aly Cissokho failed to assert himself, and the academy graduate grabbed the headlines with a standout performance in the Merseyside derby and an exciting first-ever senior goal in the 5-0 rout of Tottenham Hotspur. Cissokho’s decent display against Hull after Flanagan himself was injured will have been encouraging—and a relief.

Overall, Liverpool’s defensive record this season speaks for itself: A total of 23 goals conceded, just over a goal a game—with just six clean sheets—is not good enough, though an all-conquering strikeforce has rendered it a lesser concern for the time being.

Their proneness to concede from set pieces, as well as questioning positioning on counter-attacks—not helped by a gaping central midfield hole—will be two key defensive issues for Rodgers and his backroom team to iron out for the second half of the season.

 

Midfield

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Paul Thomas/Getty ImagesAh, the midfield—so important to the Rodgers philosophy and Liverpool’s style of play.

Before we elaborate further, we must first recognize the work and rise of Jordan Henderson at Liverpool Football Club. Just a year ago, Henderson had the choice of continuing his career at Fulham or fighting for his career at Anfield. He picked the latter, and Rodgers has been impressed enough to give him almost a permanent starting spot in his first XI.

Put simply, Henderson has blossomed. There is a newfound confidence, a refreshing swagger in his play, while he has been able to put his incredible work rate to good use in pressuring and harrying his opponents.

His passing has been positive, and his running in the advanced midfield position has been direct and threatening. If he adds the finish and the final ball to his game, Liverpool fans may finally forgive his £16 million price tag.

Alongside Henderson, another midfielder to flourish recently is Joe Allen, who is enjoying a new lease of life in his “second stint” at Anfield, if we can call it that after a lengthy injury layoff following a mixed half-season last year.

Having returned to the line-up after Gerrard’s own injury, Allen has upped his game considerably following a painful miss at Goodison Park and has become an integral part of the dynamic, interchanging midfield now delighting fans week in, week out.

And like Henderson, Allen needs to work on his composure in front of goal. As the midfield unit progressively moves forward on each attack, every midfielder has a chance to break through and arrive in the box. They need to take their goal-scoring chances.

Further back, Steven Gerrard and Lucas have had mixed seasons thus far. A common criticism leveled at the Reds this season is that their midfield has the tendency to implode against quick and powerful opponents, as was evidenced against Southampton, Arsenal and Chelsea. Both Gerrard and Lucas do not have the legs or the positional awareness to hold the midfield, and thus the central areas are badly exposed, especially against counterattacks.

Gerrard has contributed three goals and six assists in his 16 Premier League appearances this season, which suggests that he still has a big part to play at his club, but may not be a good fit in the Liverpool blueprint going forward. Lucas, meanwhile, may find his importance diminished and first-team status affected if Rodgers does sign a defensive midfielder in January.

In the first half of the 2013/14 season, we’ve seen a few different identities, as we laid out in the first slide on formation and playing style. The changes and variances are all anchored in and affected by the midfield: Gerrard’s presence allows for a more varied approach but with more potential to be overwhelmed, while the recent Lucas-Allen-Henderson combination gives Liverpool a more relentless image.

It will be interesting to see when Rodgers decides to use which option when all of his charges are back to full fitness.

 

Attack

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Alex Livesey/Getty ImagesIt would be fairer to start this section with Daniel Sturridge, who got Liverpool through the first couple of months of the season, but 2013/14 at Anfield has been all about one man: Luis Suarez.

Suarez, having publicly flirted with an exit from the club in the summer, was forced to buckle down, and buckle down he has. Not only that: He’s improved on almost every aspect of his play and seemingly on his attitude as well. A devastating improvement on his finishing has seen him rocket towards the summit of the Premier League scoring charts, setting records along the way.

In addition to becoming one of the most feared strikers in the world, Suarez has also kept his hardworking style, which makes him Liverpool’s defender from the front and an important component of a relentless, pressing unit. It’s just as well that they managed to sign him on a new and improved contract extension in December.

But before Suarez came back with aplomb, Sturridge was the one carrying the Liverpool team. With nine goals and two assists in just 12 league games, Sturridge has enjoyed a fruitful season as well, carrying on his form from last season—just not as stellar and exhilarating as Suarez.

A rapidly maturing striker in his own right, Sturridge will likely return to first-team action in January, giving Rodgers a tactical dilemma and opponents all the more reason to fear the Reds.

But Liverpool fans had been looking forward to Sturridge’s return since the confirmation of his injury layoff, so why would it give Rodgers a dilemma? The answer lies in Raheem Sterling, who has come back into the first team and showed signs of continued development and growth with a series of exciting displays on the right of the frontline.

Sterling’s pace, trickery and direct running have caused opponents all sorts of problems since his own return to the first team, and his three goals in 15 appearances show that he is starting to add the final touch to his impressively all-rounded game, something that fellow attacker Philippe Coutinho also needs to work on.

It was always going to be hard for Coutinho to reprise his excellent first half-season at Anfield after signing for Liverpool last January, as opponents would have had six months to figure him out. With that said, while he has shown the vision, creativity and pace that were so threatening last season, he has yet to hit the same heights. A paltry sum of two goals and two assists this season sums up his difficulties, though he has largely been played on the left instead of in his favored No. 10 position.

With the league’s second most prolific scoring record, Liverpool have other areas than their forward line to worry about for the rest of the season. Their existing attacking setup will continue to deliver.

 

Strengths

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Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesSo with the lengthy summaries of each on-field department now covered, let’s move towards Liverpool’s strengths in their first six months of the season.

Without a doubt, Liverpool’s set piece mastery needs to be mentioned. For a team that struggles so regularly in defending set pieces, their prowess attacking form is surprising and quite extraordinary. Nonetheless, all three of their regular starting central defenders—and, of course, Suarez and Sturridge—have scored from set pieces, largely due to the world-class deliveries of Steven Gerrard.

The evolution in Liverpool’s approach play also deserves a mention here, as they have started to dominate games completely and blow away their opponents: Their “goals scored” column is so emphatic because they have really honed their craft going forward this season. They have now scored 87 goals in their past 38 league games, 10 more than their highest-scoring full season in the Premier League era.

A product—or perhaps the foundation—of such fearsome attacking play is their excellent home record this season. Anfield has well and truly regained its “Fortress” moniker, as the Reds have stormed to nine wins out of 10 at home this season, scoring 27 goals and conceding just six in the process. Their 27 points from a possible 30 at home this season is just behind Manchester City (30/30) and Chelsea (28/30).

Finally, we must devote some column space to the youngsters at Rodgers’ disposal: A young goalkeeper in Simon Mignolet and a future star in Mamadou Sakho; the pace, industry and massive improvement of Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling; and the undoubted quality in Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge. This is a squad whose full potential lies ahead of them and whose young age needs to be regarded as a strong asset.

 

Weaknesses

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Alex Livesey/Getty ImagesThere have been a few weaknesses of note evident in their season thus far, however.

Just as we started our coverage on Liverpool’s strengths with their set piece prowess, so we must highlight their vulnerability at defending set pieces and crosses into the box. The unconvincing defending and unsure positioning in such situations have caused panic to spread among supporters and manager alike in those situations—Rodgers had already outlined his concerns back in October, according to the Liverpool Echo.

We’ve touched on this in our slide on the midfield as well, but it bears repeating here: The gaps that open in the midfield area due to positional errors, pedestrian pace and a lack of specialist defensive midfielders can hurt Liverpool badly, especially on the counterattack.

Steven Gerrard’s return from injury may be a double-edged sword and must be managed carefully by Rodgers, who has seen a revolution in his midfield performances during the captain’s absence.

For a side that possesses such a fearsome scoring record and frontline, Liverpool could do with further improvement in their finishing across the squad. While this obviously doesn’t apply to Suarez and Sturridge, the rest of the team needs major work in this area.

Allen, Henderson, Coutinho and Sterling have all missed absolute sitters this season. It’s tempting to think where Liverpool would be at now, especially in terms of goal difference, had they scored at least some of them.

 

Results

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Jamie McDonald/Getty ImagesOn to results, an area that has seen a massive improvement over last season, largely because of the improvement in Liverpool’s attack.

A prolific stretch that started in October and lasted all the way through December saw the Reds score 23 goals in just six home games, while a five-goal hammering of Tottenham on December 4 will go down as one of their best Premier League performances of all time.

It’s not for no reason that Liverpool finish round 20 in fourth place: They’ve simply outplayed opposition they’ve needed to beat and regained that useful habit of picking up points in winnable games on paper. An overall record of 12 wins, three draws and five losses in 20 games—including a few major refereeing controversies—is more than admirable.

So it is on those five losses that we will focus, but the surprising thing—and the silver lining—is that they can easily be remedied.

We’ve mentioned the Southampton and Arsenal losses in previous sections; hopefully further reinforcement to Liverpool’s midfield down the line will improve their record against teams strong in the middle of the park.

Lee Mason and Howard Webb’s officiating against Manchester City and Chelsea respectively drew widespread criticism from both Rodgers himself and the media at large. While Liverpool’s performance at Stamford Bridge wasn’t quite up to scratch—again, the midfield was at issue—their excellent display at the Etihad Stadium should have yielded at least a point, but for the referee’s whistle.

Which leaves the defeat to Steve Bruce’s Hull City, at the KC Stadium on December 1, as perhaps the lone outlier. The simple explanation is that Bruce’s side enjoyed a fine result and Rodgers’ men had an off day, and it wouldn’t be too far off as Liverpool just didn’t turn up for the match. A disappointing day out for the Reds, which fortunately hasn’t been replicated for the remaining matches until this point.

Liverpool quite clearly need further strengthening to their ranks, starting from this January, but their results thus far have highlighted areas they need to reinforce. Targeting those improvement needs should be able to bring about improved results for the remaining 18 games.

 

Progress from Last Season

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Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesTo gauge Liverpool’s position at the halfway point of the 2013/14 season, besides evaluating it against their immediate rivals and in the context of just the past six months, a useful barometer would be where they stood this time last season.

On New Year’s Day 2013, with 20 league games played, Liverpool found themselves in 10th place on just 28 points, with a goal difference of +5. A quick comparison to their current picture (fourth, 39 points, GD +23) shows just how far they’ve come in the past year.

Brendan Rodgers deserves massive credit for this turnaround in results, as does the transfer committee for securing two of Liverpool’s most exciting transfer signings in recent history last January in Coutinho and Sturridge, who have been instrumental in the Reds’ growth this calendar year.

Keeping Suarez in the summer was perhaps more important than any signing they would’ve been able to make, as he’s almost singlehandedly fired Liverpool to their lofty position this season, but even besides the impressive increase in goals scored, the maturity in their overall play—particularly in recent weeks with Rodgers’ blueprint midfield—has been evident.

No wonder they’re mulling a new contract extension for Rodgers himself (c/o Mirror).

 

Potential and Prediction for the Season

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Alex Livesey/Getty ImagesWith a side capable of switching formations at will and changing attacking approaches when required, Brendan Rodgers has at his disposal a flexible, versatile and well-drilled unit that has the world at their feet and their best years ahead of it.

The key is to unlock his squad’s potential at the earliest opportunity possible, as this unpredictable and topsy-turvy 2013/14 Premier League season represents perhaps Liverpool’s best chance yet of getting back into the top four—perhaps their best chance in the coming years.

An impressive and encouraging first half of the season will need to be at least replicated for the next five months for them to have a shot at the Champions League places, but judging from the way they clicked after January last year, we can’t possibly put a limit on what they can achieve.

The key, then, is to have a productive January transfer window that will bring important new reinforcements to the squad capable of instantly upgrading the quality of the starting XI, which will be no easy task in itself.

20 games in, they’re just six points behind league leaders Arsenal, and just three games ago they entered Christmas Day on top of the tree. If they can build on their first-half successes and iron out their weaknesses, who knows how far Liverpool can go?

 

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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Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

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.

How Much Is Liverpool’s Luis Suarez Worth in the Current Transfer Market?

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The breaking news this Friday is that on the back of some truly incredible performances in the Premier League this season, Luis Suarez has put pen to paper on a new long-term deal at Liverpool, the club announced today.

There’s no disputing that Luis Suarez is one of the most feared and in-form players in all of world football. Having scored 17 goals and assisted four for the Anfield club in just 11 Premier League games, he has put himself firmly into the bracket of the world’s very best players.

Following the furore over Gareth Bale’s transfer to Real Madrid—which some outlets, like BBC Sport, have reported as the world record transfer fee, and others, like NESN, have claimed to still be No. 2 to Cristiano Ronaldo’s—football fans are naturally up in arms regarding player valuations.

Just a few months ago in the summer of 2013, Arsenal had a high-profile bid for Suarez rejected. Their £40 million plus £1 bid, based on a rumored clause in his contract, attracted nothing but scorn from the Liverpool hierarchy, who claimed that he wouldn’t be available even for £55 million, the going rate of Uruguayan strike partner Edinson Cavani, according to The Guardian.

So how does one go about valuating players’ transfer value? Are values arbitrarily assigned, or do they have some factual basis underlying all the public proclamations from managers and chairmen?

Without insider access to the boardroom and to the private financial accounts of most Premier League football clubs, here is a guide to working out how much Luis Suarez is actually worth in the current transfer market.

Paul Gilham/Getty Images

Transfer Fee

Let’s start first with the most visible element: the transfer fee.
In what will surely be known as one of the landmark bargains of this decade, Luis Suarez signed for Liverpool from Ajax Amsterdam on January 31, 2011, the last day of the 2011 winter transfer window. His transfer fee, according to BBC Sport, was around £22.7 million.

From a financial perspective, regardless of what percentage of the transfer fee was paid up front to Ajax, Suarez’s transfer fee will be amortized over the course of his contract, which was initially five and a half years. (It has since been extended in the summer of 2012.)

Simple arithmetic gives us an approximate annual cost for Suarez, excluding his wages (which we’ll get to below), of £4.13 million.

To date, he has been at Anfield for around two years and 10 months, but for the purposes of simpler calculation, let’s consider Suarez as having been at the club for three years.

By January 31, 2014, he will have completed three years of his initial contract with two and a half years left, which would mean that the as yet “unpaid” total amortization cost would come to around £4.13 million multiplied by 2.5, or £10.3 million.

Previous Wages

With a base reference cost of around £10.3 million, let’s consider the second aspect: wages.

While Suarez’s starting wages in his first contract at Liverpool were about £40,000 a week, according to the Mirror, the new and improved contract he signed in the summer of 2012 tripled his weekly compensation to about £120,000.

Assuming the standard of 52 weeks in a year, this comes to a yearly total of around £6.24 million a year, just in wages.

Having signed his most recent contract at the beginning of August 2012, Suarez would be approximately a year and a half into his improved deal by the end of January 2014, keeping with the same benchmark time frame we suggested above.

By then, there would still be two and a half years into his contract left to run, which would come to a total of £15.6 million.

At this point in our calculations, Suarez’s base value thus far is £10.3 million plus £15.6 million, which comes to about a total of £29 million.

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

New Wages

Now it’s time to consider the rumored new package that Liverpool have supposedly offered him. And this is where the less concrete part of our analysis starts.

While Liverpool’s official announcement yet again cites ”long-term” contract, this BBC Sport article claims that Suarez will be earning £160,000 a week until the end of this season (another half year), and then £200,000 a week for the next four years, in a deal that runs until 2018 and makes him the highest-paid player in the club’s history.

Based on these numbers, his entire new contract is worth a total of £42.6 million, which brings his whole valuation into a new light and onto a new level.

Let’s return to the base reference cost of £10.3 million. If we add this new £42.6 million wage value onto the reference cost, then a new total of about £52.9 million emerges.

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Club Performance 

Of course, we also have to take into account Liverpool’s performances and financial rewards as a result of their on-pitch displays.

Notice that the underlying assumption behind Luis Suarez staying at Anfield would be that Brendan Rodgers is able to lead his team to the Champions League next season: After all, a player of Suarez’s caliber deserves to be plying his trade at the top level of club football.

With this in mind, let’s venture into the world of Premier League finances and attempt to very roughly estimate how Suarez could potentially have his value further enhanced by his club’s performances.

According to the official Premier League website, the end-of-season payout based on league performance for Liverpool in the 2012/13 season came to a total of around £54.8 million.

However, given that the Reds finished in seventh place and considering our top-four assumptions to keep Suarez, let’s take Arsenal as a reference: The Gunners, who finished fourth under Arsene Wenger last season, raked in a total of £57.1 million, which we will use as a rough guide for a minimum league payout.

With Champions League qualification and assuming that Liverpool progress into the group stages of next year’s competition, we can refer to UEFA’s minimum group stage payout according to their official website: UEFA states that “each of the 32 teams involved in the group stage will collect a base fee of €8.6m,” which translates to about £7.2 million.

As a result, a minimum total of £64.3 million will probably arrive in Liverpool’s coffers just for playing in the Champions League group stages.

The Deloitte Money League, published every year, is a fascinating insight into the finances of the top European football clubs. Its 2013 installment reveals that Liverpool’s total revenues for the 2011/12 season were £188.7 million, comprising of £45.2 million from matchday revenue, £63.3 million from broadcasting and £80.2 million from general commercial activity, including sponsorships and partnerships.

As with any corporation, Premier League clubs will have bonus schemes in place, and Liverpool will be no exception. For the purposes of this basic calculation, we will purely take into account the revenue that comes with Champions League qualification, and not Liverpool’s overall income.

A wholly generous assumption is that the 20 players registered as Premier League players for Liverpool will divide the £64.3 million that comes with a group stage venture, and Suarez will get five percent of that, netting £3.2 million in addition to the previous base.

(This estimate, when considering his contributions to Liverpool’s 2013/14 season—he has been involved in 21 goals, 54 percent of Liverpool’s total haul of 39 thus far this campaign—and a logical bell-curve bonus distribution according to performance, may in reality not be too far.)

Paul Gilham/Getty Images

Conclusion: £56.1 million

So what do we end up with?

Take the £52.9 million we estimated based on amortization of Suarez’s transfer fee and a projection of his future bumper contract and add the estimated performance-based bonuses of £3.2 million, and we arrive at the princely sum of £56.1 million, which, coincidentally (or not), was the almost the same rate the aforementioned Cavani left Napoli for.

If we go back to the Express article, we find that Suarez’s previous deal was reported to also include image rights in his weekly wages, so all inclusive, the figure of £56.1 million may be an accurate reflection.

Turns out this benchmark might have been chosen on purpose by the Liverpool hierarchy back in the summer.

But that’s only if we were to stick with a purely financial valuation of Luis Suarez, who, if he stays on at Liverpool, will surely go down as one of the club’s greatest-ever players in time.

Taking that into consideration, and the message that Liverpool would be selling its talisman and most important player of the current period, Brendan Rodgers may well consider Luis Suarez to be worth much more than £56.1 million.

Add that to Suarez’s current form at the club and his apparent turnaround in his commitment to Liverpool, and he might just be priceless in the eyes of all Liverpool fans.

Football is an emotional game, after all.

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 Cardiff City

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The last time Liverpool played Cardiff City, it was in the Capital One Cup final in 2012, when Kenny Dalglish’s side ran out winners in a thrilling penalty shootout after a 2-2 draw in extra time. This Saturday will mark the Reds’ first Premier League encounter with the Bluebirds.

From Cardiff’s point of view, there couldn’t be a worse time to face Liverpool, who have been in rampant form at Anfield this season—Brendan Rodgers’ side have scored 20 goals in their past five home games. Malky Mackay’s recent tension with his board, as reported by BBC Sport, can’t be a good distraction from their on-pitch duties.

As for Liverpool, Cardiff marks, on paper, a breather amid a tough December of fixtures. An away trip to White Hart Lane turned out surprisingly smooth for the Reds as they trounced Tottenham Hotspur 5-0, but trips to both Manchester City and Chelsea are on the horizon. A win against Cardiff would send them top of the Premier League, even if for only 48 hours.

But first, they must make sure they get all three points against Malky Mackay’s side, who are currently 15th in the table. Here is how Liverpool’s starting XI on Saturday might look like.

 

Goalkeeper: Simon Mignolet

Aside from Luis Suarez, Simon Mignolet is probably one of only two truly untouchable fixtures in Brendan Rodgers’ starting XI.

On to the defenders then.

 

Right-Back: Martin Kelly

Having made his return to competitive action for Liverpool as a substitute in their 4-1 home win over West Ham United two weekends ago, Martin Kelly has been working his way back to full fitness from a knee injury.

A first league start since a home defeat against Manchester United last September would do wonders for Kelly’s confidence and match fitness, and would allow Glen Johnson a break from his regular right-back duties ahead of the crucial matches at the Etihad Stadium and Stamford Bridge.

With injuries having hampered his development and undoubted potential at Anfield, Kelly will be looking to impress for about an hour or so—hopefully with the game safe and secure by the time he is substituted as Brendan Rodgers eases him back into the setup.

 

Left-Back: Jon Flanagan

With Jose Enrique out with injury and on-loan Aly Cissokho putting in woeful performances as a stand-in, Academy graduate Jon Flanagan has made the left-back slot his own in recent weeks.

His work rate and tenacity have impressed his manager and teammates alike, and he even ventured forward to score his first ever goal for Liverpool—a sweetly struck half-volley into the top corner—last Sunday against Tottenham.

He deserves another run-out against Cardiff as rich reward for his journey back into the Reds’ starting line-up.

 

Centre-Back: Martin Skrtel

Martin Kelly is a change on the right, but we advocate a regular centre-back partnership to continue building on its impressive recent form, and for that reason, we’ve continued with Martin Skrtel on the right side.

Per Liverpool’s official club website, Brendan Rodgers has said publicly that he has been impressed with Skrtel’s recent form and that he should be considered as one of the best centre-halves in the Premier League.

More of the same then, Martin.

 

Centre-Back: Mamadou Sakho

Rodgers continues to rotate his centre-back partnership, presumably to keep his players fit and happy, and as a result vice-captain Daniel Agger and Mamadou Sakho have both enjoyed starting berths in recent weeks.

Sakho’s impressive display at White Hart Lane last Saturday, however, showed why Liverpool decided to shell out around £18 million on the ex-Paris Saint-Germain youngster in the summer. His physicality, positional awareness and technique all shone in a convincing and dominant display at the back.

For that reason, Agger should continue on the bench for another week as Sakho continues his rise as one of the Premier League’s best young defenders.

 

Defensive Midfielder: Joe Allen

Since his costly (and frankly quite unbelievable) horror miss against Everton a few weeks ago, Joe Allen has fully rebounded in form and has won over many a critic with a series of assured and assertive displays at the center of the Liverpool midfield.

His tidy passing, constant harrying of opponents and intelligent movement have caught the eye of manager and fans alike, and should continue to be a fixture in the starting XI, especially in the injury absence of captain Steven Gerrard.

Against Cardiff City, Lucas should be rested in preparation for the major clashes to come, and as a result Allen should move slightly back into the defensive midfield position.

 

Central Midfielder: Luis Alberto

And in Allen’s place in central midfield comes Luis Alberto, who would be making his first ever league start for Liverpool after impressing in brief cameos this season following a summer move from Sevilla.

Alberto has played in both a more withdrawn role and as an attacking midfielder in his previous appearances for the Reds, both in the league and during preseason, but he would be a perfect fit for the regista-type role Gerrard has adopted this season, and as such should fit into the central midfield alongside Allen.

Rodgers will hope that Alberto takes advantage of a rare league start and displays more of the intelligence that he showed against Tottenham, where he created Suarez’s second goal of the game.

 

Attacking Midfielder: Jordan Henderson

A swashbuckling performance from Jordan Henderson on Sunday has seen the youngster grab the headlines—including this by the Telegraph’s Alan Smith—for all the right reasons.

Intelligent with his movement, aggressive in his pressuring and forceful in his running, Henderson was rightly named the Barclays Man of the Match in Liverpool’s demolition job over Spurs, where he also notched his first league goal of the season.

With movement, interchangeability and constant pressure a hallmark of Rodgers’ ideal midfield, Henderson has established himself as a vital cog in the Reds machine and will look to sustain his impressive form against Cardiff.

 

Left Forward: Philippe Coutinho

Our front three remains unchanged, simply because it has worked well in the absence of Daniel Sturridge.

On the left is regular No. 10 Philippe Coutinho, who normally operates best in the hole, but caused the Spurs defence all kinds of trouble with his close control, deft flicks and tidy passing from the left flank.

Coutinho, along with his colleagues across the frontline, will be a handful for the Cardiff defence.

 

Right Forward: Raheem Sterling

With two goals in his last three league outings, Raheem Sterling seems to finally have recaptured his impressive form at the start of his debut campaign last year, where he burst onto the scene at Anfield and catapulted himself into the England senior team.

He has emerged as a genuine outlet on the right flank, capable of both cutting in and bombing down the sideline, while his work rate and defensive contributions are both mature and underrated. And he has added goals to his game.

With Liverpool also developing a deadly streak on the counterattack, Sterling’s intelligent and quick runs past the last defender will make him a nuisance against Cardiff.

 

Striker: Luis Suarez

Is there any player more important to the Reds cause at the moment than Luis Suarez?

With 17 goals in just 11 Premier League appearances this season, not only is Suarez probably the most in-form striker in Europe, but he is on course to smash the all-time league scoring record, which would cap a brilliant season that—lest we forget—started with a five-match suspension.

With Gerrard out injured, Agger on the bench and other skipper options in Lucas and Glen Johnson rested for this game, Suarez may take to the pitch wearing the captain’s armband for the second time in his Liverpool career.

 

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

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Liverpool Preview: 6 Key Battles to Watch on Sunday

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This Sunday, Liverpool travel to White Hart Lane to take on Tottenham Hotspur in a clash that could see the Reds go just two points behind Premier League leaders Arsenal if results go Liverpool’s way. However, if the home side are victorious at White Hart Lane, Spurs will draw level with Liverpool on 30 points.

Not so long ago, a crisis was being touted at Spurs, and Andre Villas-Boas’ job was rumored to have been in danger, according to ESPN. Two wins on the bounce see them climb back up to sixth in the league, just two points off fourth-placed Manchester City, but first they must welcome the visit of Anzhi Makhachkala in the Europa League on Thursday night.

Tottenham’s recently creaking defence will be coming up against a Liverpool attack firing on all cylinders: Brendan Rodgers’ side have scored 34 goals in 15 games—the second-highest tally in the league—and boast an in-form Luis Suarez spearheading their strikeforce.

As Arsenal travel to the Etihad Stadium, Chelsea take on Crystal Palace and Everton play Fulham this weekend, Tottenham-Liverpool may yet have wider ramifications on the top-four race—and the European credentials of either side.

As we look forward to an exciting match on Sunday, let’s preview six key battles that will be taking place on the White Hart Lane pitch that may just hold the key to all three points for either side.

 

Hugo Lloris vs. Simon Mignolet

If it weren’t for Tottenham’s six-goal thrashing at the hands of Manchester City a few weeks ago, they’d still have one of the meanest defensive records in the Premier League. As it stands, with 16 goals conceded, they have the fifth-best defence this season, two places ahead of Liverpool with 18 let in.

A large part of Spurs’ defensive record has been down to their impressive French No. 1, Hugo Lloris, while Liverpool are indebted to Belgian goalkeeper Simon Mignolet for pulling off the third most saves thus far this season (55 in comparison to Lloris’ 39) and helping them to second in the league.

So White Hart Lane will feature two of the Premier League’s best goalkeepers. Given Luis Suarez’s form and confidence, and Tottenham’s fondness for long-range shots—according to InfoStrada Sports, 55 percent of their shots are from outside the penalty area this season (via TheScore.com)—they’d do well to be on their best form on Sunday.

Lloris will be wary of repeating his blunder against Sunderland on Wednesday for sure.

 

Michael Dawson vs. Luis Suarez

From Tottenham’s point of view, Liverpool’s danger man will undoubtedly be Luis Suarez. Hardly a surprise, of course—he’s leading the Premier League goalscoring charts with 14 this season, despite missing the first five games of the campaign.

He’s improved on his conversion rate to an impressive 25 percent (via BassTunedToRed.com). He’s added the free-kick to his arsenal of tricks. He’s cleaned up his act and cut out the petty moaning and unsavory simulation from his game.

In short: He’ll be a handful for Michael Dawson, to say the least.

Spurs skipper Dawson has put in some steady performances this season, but the Tottenham back line have already capitulated once against quality opposition (Sergio Aguero of Manchester City) and will be on their toes to prevent the same thing from happening at the hands (or feet) of Suarez.

A lot will thus depend on the midfield.

 

Kyle Naughton vs. Raheem Sterling

Before we get to the midfield, though, we have a Liverpool wing to address, and on their right flank, Raheem Sterling will come up against Kyle Naughton in a clash between two hot young English prospects.

Villas-Boas’ stand-in left-back Naughton will likely start in place of the injured Jan Vertonghen, while Sterling should reprise his starting—and starring—role for Rodgers for his fourth game in a row.

In particular scrutiny will be AVB’s fondness for a high defensive line, especially at home: As Liverpool showed against West Ham United on Wednesday, they’re capable of building quick counterattacks that tear through opposition midfields. Sterling himself burst through the middle and went clear on goal on several occasions, only for his finish to let him down.

Just like Philippe Coutinho on the opposite flank, Sterling’s cutting infield will mean that Naughton will likely be dragged inside with him on multiple occasions, leaving Glen Johnson to storm down the Reds’ right flank as a dangerous attacking outlet.

 

Paulinho vs. Lucas

The midfield battle won’t just be Paulinho vs. Lucas, of course, but this particular matchup—where both protagonists are not your stereotypical Brazilian flair players—is very much symbolic of the respective midfields on show this Sunday.

Paulinho’s brand of physicality has been a hallmark of the Spurs midfield play this season. Whether he’s been supported by Mousa Dembele, Sandro or Etienne Capoue, his barnstorming style lacks the intricacies and deft touches of Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela, yet Tottenham’s midfield domination over Swansea City at the beginning of the season provided a glimpse of the new Spurs.

By contrast, a Lucas-Steven Gerrard axis has more often than not been pedestrian and offered far less of a physical control in the middle of the park. Against sides with more robust midfields, such as Southampton, Liverpool have had their weaknesses exposed.

The injury absence of Gerrard—and Jordan Henderson’s fitness permitting—should see Joe Allen retain his spot alongside Henderson and Lucas slotting back in. The hope is that they will be able to offer the dynamism and relentless movement while Gerrard is out.

Villas-Boas has constantly rotated his midfield three this season, but whichever combination he puts out on Sunday, it will surely be a huge challenge for Lucas and Co.

 

Aaron Lennon vs. Jon Flanagan

Just as Sterling will prove a test for Naughton on Liverpool’s right flank, so Aaron Lennon will be a fearsome opponent for Jon Flanagan over on Tottenham’s right.

Martin Kelly’s return to fitness is a welcome boost for Brendan Rodgers, but he will likely keep his faith in young Flanagan, a right-back by trade, and reward him for a series of solid performances in an unfamiliar position with another start on Sunday.

That will suit Lennon down to the ground. In recent weeks, the Spurs No. 7 has regained his starting slot on the right wing at the expense of Andros Townsend, and his propensity to bomb down the touchline will take advantage of Flanagan’s weaker side. And there’s also his pace.

A Liverpool left flank of Flanagan and Coutinho may offer far too little in terms of physicality and defensive presence—the injured Jose Enrique will be fondly remembered—to rein in the likes of Lennon and right-back Kyle Walker.

Without a doubt, this will be a problem position for Liverpool.

 

Jermain Defoe vs. Mamadou Sakho

Prior to Tottenham’s last three matches, where they scored a total of four goals, they had scored just a solitary goal—from the penalty spot—in four games.

It would be unfair to heap the blame on four-goal, £26 million striker Roberto Soldado, but his replacement, Jermain Defoe, has seemingly won back his manager’s faith in recent fixtures.

It’s been well documented that an isolated lone striker has been at the root of Tottenham’s scoring problems this season. The lack of a Gareth Bale-like attacking midfielder capable of transitioning smoothly into the forward lines has been made clearer by the lack of mobility, and involvement in overall play, of both their strikers, who belong in the same “predator” category.

So while the Spurs midfield may well overwhelm Liverpool’s, the hosts’ strikeforce (if we can call it that) may not pose enough of a danger to a defence expected to be marshaled by the imposing and improving Mamadou Sakho.

Better for Sakho and Co. to focus on stopping the tidal wave coming in from the Tottenham midfield, then.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liverpool Hurt by Kevin Mirallas, Phil Dowd and Joe Allen

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Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time for a Change to the Reds’ Central Defence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Tale of Set Pieces

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Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Young Blues Full of Pace, Power and Promise

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daniel Sturridge Has Much to Learn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Arsenal vs. Liverpool Preview: 6 Key Battles to Watch This Saturday

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Before the Capital One Cup rolled around this midweek, Arsenal and Liverpool were heading toward Week 10 of the English Premier League in good spirits and fine form, having dispatched confident wins last Saturday.

But Tuesday night saw Jose Mourinho continue his impressive record over Arsene Wenger, with Chelsea knocking Arsenal out of the Capital One Cup with a 2-0 away win at the Emirates Stadium.

Not that the first-team’s momentum should be dented in any way, given that it was a trademark Wenger B team selection on Tuesday, but suddenly the mood among Arsenal fans has turned just a little tenser, a little testier, while the Liverpool camp are starting to feel optimistic again.

Saturday will see the league-leading Gunners welcome the visit of the third-placed Reds in a surefire spectacle. Let’s look ahead at six key battles that will have a huge say in where the points go at the end of the 90 minutes.

 

Per Mertesacker vs. Luis Suarez

Here’s the current situation: Per Mertesacker on form is one of the best defenders in the Premier League. Luis Suarez on form is one of the best forwards in the Premier League. Both are on form playing in teams that are riding high.

But how will this duel turn out?

Mertesacker excels in his positioning, aerial dominance and composure. Suarez has all three in abundance—his two headed goals in the recent victory over West Bromwich Albion, especially his first one, were of such superlative quality that they’ve surely added “heading” to his skill set—but it will be his unpredictability and propensity to pop up almost everywhere on the pitch that will make things tough for Mertesacker.

Add the other half of the SAS strikeforce, and the Arsenal defence may have a huge in-form headache on their hands.

 

Laurent Koscielny vs. Daniel Sturridge

So this brings us to the other half of the equation.

Laurent Koscielny has been a standout at the back for Arsene Wenger in recent seasons, and his pace and tackling have been rightly praised as he’s established himself as one of the most consistent defenders in the league.

But he’s up against a Daniel Sturridge surging with confidence and self-belief, well on his way to becoming a top international-class striker, and with a new-and-improved Luis Suarez alongside him to help.

The constant movement and interchanging of Sturridge and Suarez will present a nightmare to all four of Arsenal’s defenders on the day, and their barnstorming form—Sturridge has a league-topping eight league goals with Suarez having scored six in four games—means that keeping a clean sheet at home will be no mean feat.

 

Aaron Ramsey vs. Steven Gerrard

Thankfully for them, Arsenal have got a brilliant midfield to take the spotlight and pressure off their defenders, and despite Mesut Ozil’s high-profile arrival (more on him later), no one has hogged more of the headlines surrounding the Emirates than Aaron Ramsey.

With five goals (from just 21 shots) and four assists in just nine league games, Ramsey has stepped up his game several notches, in the process becoming one of the Premier League’s most in-form and all-round box-to-box midfielders.

Which, curiously, is the kind of form and description that used to be attributed to his opposite number on Saturday.

Steven Gerrard delivered an impressive midfield performance as one half of an advanced pressing pair against West Brom, but he may find himself looking on at Ramsey and reminiscing the years (and legs) gone by if his colleagues don’t afford him enough support.

 

Jack Wilshere vs. Jordan Henderson

Ramsey has been in such peerless form that Jack Wilshere, erstwhile Arsenal’s “Golden Boy,” has had his mantle taken off him by the Welsh international.

But while Wilshere’s displays this season have yet to reach the lofty heights that his early performances suggested he would consistently, he has still been a useful outlet in the Arsenal midfield, and his movement, passing and now goalscoring will represent a threat against Liverpool.

He will find himself up against the Reds’ unsung hero this season in Jordan Henderson, who has run his socks off delivering relentless pressure toward opposing midfields.

Henderson’s energy will be essential to nullify the talented Wilshere—and with Philippe Coutinho likely to start on the bench after his injury layoff, he will have to provide a creative spark too.

 

Mesut Ozil vs. Lucas

But if there were one key battle to triumph over all key battles, it would be Mesut Ozil’s against Lucas in Arsenal’s attacking midfield.

A fluid and dynamic Gunners midfield has Ozil as its tip, and he has shown in his two months in the Premier League that he can influence any game and wreak havoc with his movement, vision and passing.

So it’s just as well that Lucas has seemingly returned to form at the right time. His anchoring of the flipped midfield against West Brom was his finest performance in many a month and will need to be repeated on Saturday.

Brendan Rodgers will have it drilled into his team that the Arsenal midfield isn’t just about Ozil: His masterful manipulation of space brings his midfield colleagues into play and into threatening positions, and Lucas will need the three center backs behind him to provide as much support as he can get.

 

Olivier Giroud vs. Martin Skrtel

Speaking of space and movement, there’s no finer No. 9 around at the moment than Olivier Giroud, currently on five goals and four assists in the league (just like Aaron Ramsey).

After a decent first season at the Emirates, Giroud has blossomed this term and has struck up a productive understanding with his supporting acts, and Ozil’s arrival and Santi Cazorla’s return has only augmented the attacking setup.

On paper, it’s just the one out-and-out striker that Liverpool’s three-man defence has to deal with, but in reality, when Arsenal move forward as a unit, Kolo Toure, Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho will need to be at their best to keep the hosts at bay.

Especially Skrtel, the man who has kept vice-captain and recognized cultured center back Daniel Agger at bay in recent weeks. Brendan Rodgers has hailed Skrtel’s resurgence in form, according to the Liverpool Echo, but Giroud will have something to say about that.

 

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

Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool Legacy Depends on Luis Suarez’s Future at Anfield

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(Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

 

Just a few months ago, Liverpool fans were hurling vitriol Luis Suarez’s way for publicly expressing his desire to leave Liverpool, and Brendan Rodgers was taking plaudits for the way he handled Suarez’s ultimate stay at Liverpool.

So for most Liverpool fans—and Rodgers himself, who has been full of praise about the quality, inventiveness and importance of the No. 7—Suarez’s fine current form is a welcome scenario and probably something that not many envisioned would still be taking place every week at Anfield.

Indeed, Suarez’s latest magician’s act on Saturday, with a thrilling hat trick against West Bromwich Albion, reaffirmed his fast rise as Liverpool hero again, and with six goals in just four league games, he’s quickly propelling himself up the league scorers’ chart, despite having had a delayed start due to his suspension.

Brendan Rodgers said after the match that he substituted his star striker—for that is what Suarez is, despite the continued protestations of top scorer Daniel Sturridge—so he could get an ovation from the supporters, according to ESPN, and continued his recent claims that Suarez is “better off” at Liverpool, after the public flirtations with Arsenal this summer.

And the way things are shaping up, Brendan Rodgers’ reign at Anfield—he’s almost halfway into his initial three-year contract—will be dependent on Suarez’s future at the club.

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The present form of the team has a lot to do with Rodgers’ current status in the eyes of Liverpool fans, and the present formation has a lot to do with that.

After several rounds of chopping and changing, and a few performances that delivered three points despite not playing in the fluid way we know his team could, Rodgers has, for now, settled on a variation of a 3-5-2 formation. (B/R’s Karl Matchett has more on the newly flipped midfield triangle and its importance in Liverpool’s most convincing display of the season.)

As Jamie Carragher pointed out in an absorbing analysis on Sky Sports, this 3-5-2 system allows Liverpool to play two of the league’s most devastating and in-form strikers up front and lets Sturridge and Suarez (now termed “SAS”) get right in the throats of opposing defenders.

And as soon as Suarez returned to the team, his form was too unstoppable to make him droppable, which was the reason Rodgers arrived at this formation in the first place. That Glen Johnson and Philippe Coutinho, on paper perfect fits for such a formation, were injured at the time were of no concern to Rodgers: SAS was simply too mouthwatering a prospect to not implement ahead of a fully fit squad.

We’ll leave the discussion of Coutinho’s role in a 1-2 midfield to a later time (and to get things started, check out Matchett’s article linked earlier in this piece), but SAS are so crucial to Liverpool’s successes this season that it’s nearly impossible to envision a starting XI at Anfield without the pair up front (except, of course, if injury strikes).

All’s well and good—and Liverpool are only third in the league table because of goal difference—but suddenly, just a few months after the possibility of weaning themselves off Suarez’s consistently distracting PR disasters, the club find themselves ever more dependent on the maverick Uruguayan forward.

Because, as has been made so apparent across all channels, it’s Suarez’s movement and unpredictability that allow Sturridge to go at defenders and do his own damage (and vice versa). It’s Suarez’s sheer presence that compels opponents to direct their attentions toward him and allows Sturridge to flourish. It’s Suarez’s partnership and telepathic understanding with Sturridge that allows the latter to continue his meteoric development and maturation into a world-class striker.

And it’s only just the beginning.

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The key, however, is that the early stages of such a promising partnership coincide with a defining season in Rodgers’ reign and in Liverpool’s short-term and medium-term future as a Premier League club.

It’s been well-documented that Liverpool need to return to the Champions League, and that this season is almost the perfect opportunity for them to achieve it, with the unpredictability of rival teams around them.

It’s also been well-documented that Liverpool needed Suarez all along to actually achieve their long-standing goal of getting back into the Premier League top four. And it’s becoming increasingly clear that they need Suarez to lead the line as one half of SAS to take them to the Promised Land.

But they also need Champions League football to secure Suarez’s long-term future at Liverpool Football Club. A player of his stature and ability could easily make a bigger and more instant impact at, say, Real Madrid than a certain world-record signing from north London.

Suffice it to say that Brendan Rodgers knows this. So while he adopted his hard-line stance in accordance with his bosses at Fenway Sports Group in the summer on Luis Suarez’s rumored departure, he’s turned his attentions to praising Suarez to the hilt since his return to first-team action.

Of course, Suarez’s excellent form and seemingly improved behavior on the pitch have helped things massively, but Rodgers’ Anfield legacy rests largely on Suarez’s future at the club. He finds himself in that curious dichotomy that he and Liverpool need Suarez more than he needs them, and keeping him in the summer only intensified such a one-way relationship.

Fail to qualify for the Champions League, and Luis Suarez may well leave for pastures new. And Rodgers would have to rebuild his side with just one half of SAS, starting nearly from scratch and competing against a formidable set of opponents in the Premier League for signings of Suarez’s influence and caliber.

By then, Rodgers would only have one year left on his contract. And Liverpool’s plans to return to the best club competition in the world will have been delayed yet again.

If he succeeds in bringing Champions League football back to Anfield, however, a Luis Suarez hungry to prove himself at that level with Liverpool could be just the start of a very beautiful symbiotic synergy with Rodgers in the position to fully harness it. If.

 

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

English Football Weekly: Week 9 Recap; Fergie’s Book; Grassroots Football

EPL Week 9 Recap: Suarez’s Hattrick, Torres’ Revival, Hart’s Blunder

Player of the weekend? Luis Suarez, without a doubt. Liverpool faced a West Brom team in good form and who had won their last three fixtures against the Reds, expecting a rough ride, but their “flipped midfield triangle” (in Rodgers jargon) worked a treat against the visitors. And with a trademark nutmeg and finish, a header Andy Carroll would’ve been proud of, and a predatory finish from a precise Steven Gerrard free kick, Suarez delivered a striker’s masterclass at Anfield on Saturday to blow the Baggies away. Daniel Sturridge’s fourth wasn’t too shabby either.

The original Liverpool striking hero is doing pretty well too. Fernando Torres has upped his game at Chelsea this season under strong competition from Samuel Eto’o (but not Demba Ba) and continued his resurgence with an all-action display against Manchester City. Sure, he delivered a now-trademark close-range miss, but he made up for it with an excellent turn of pace and strength to dispose of Gael Clichy to set up Andre Schurrle’s goal, and capitalized on City’s defensive mix-up to continue Jose Mourinho’s excellent record at Stamford Bridge.

But we also need to talk about Joe Hart. Wasn’t it just a couple of years ago that he was earmarked as the next best keeper in the world? It’s been an alarming drop in form in the past year or so, but never with as big an implication as now. Because last year City coasted to a runners-up place, and now Hart has continually dropped precious points this season, making him one of City’s biggest liabilities on the pitch. Which won’t help Manuel Pellegrini in what’s been a challenging first season in a club with the highest of expectations. January needs to come sharpish.

There was also Sunderland’s thrilling Tyne-Wear derby win over Newcastle on Sunday, in which Fabio Borini, on loan from Liverpool, scored an outstanding long-range strike to seal the points in Gus Poyet’s first home game with the Black Cats, who have quadrupled their points total for the season with the win. Southampton and Everton continued their excellent starts to the season with a pair of 2-0 wins, taking them to fifth and sixth in the table, in the process establishing themselves as strong challengers for the European places. A thrilling few months to come.

 

Fergie reminisces about a time gone by

A few months after Sir Alex Ferguson departed Old Trafford with the fondest adulations and fresh memories of all the right things he’s done in his 26 years as Manchester United boss, he comes out with a book that has it all—but will only be remembered for the wounds he’s opened up again, the fights he’s decided to pick even after retirement, and the dressing room secrets he wasn’t supposed to spill.

As a man management and motivator, Ferguson rarely got things wrong. He kept the spotlight firmly on himself and manipulated the media (and his rivals) to an extent that he enjoyed near totalitarian domination (and admiration) from everyone in football. To be sure, there’s plenty of the managerial insights in his autobiography that will be interesting add-ons to the interviews he’s done as a subject for publications focusing on management and success.

The cynical, petty and no-holds-barred side also shines through. We’d always looked forward to the relevations behind David Beckham and Roy Keane’s departure from Old Trafford, but never did we expect so much dirt to be aired. We’d always expected barbs at old rivals Liverpool and Rafa Benitez, but never did we think he’d call Steven Gerrard “not a top, top player.”

But in describing his managerial philosophy—that no one should be bigger than the manager at a football club, and once any player violated that rule, he was moved on—Ferguson also writes about an era that is fast slipping away. With the exception of Arsene Wenger, who enjoys near-total control at Arsenal, English football is moving into the 21st century of corporatism, with brands, reputations, marketing, profits and spectacle in mind.

The Manchester United after him was always going to be markedly different, whether David Moyes became the next manager or not. In time, Ferguson’s book may be seen as a time capsule of an obsolete style of football management.

 

England’s grassroots football needs more than just facilities

Last week, it was announced that the Premier League, UK government and Football Association committed £102m to improving grassroots football facilities, which, in light of the recent opening of St. George’s Park and the increased emphasis on youth development and organized football, was encouraging news to all involved in English football.

Whether this means the end of pick-up football in a neighboring park with shirts as goalposts is still up in the air—though I’d surely lament the loss of organic football centered on just having fun—but with the advent of organized football coaching for kids up and down the country, and all across the world, this is the next wave of grassroots football finally arriving on English shores.

But what England really needs is more than just facilities. They already have arguably the best in the world on that front, but it’s not translating into on-field successes. We’ll leave the debate on whether a strong Premier League and a strong English national team are mutually exclusive for later, but to really inspire a generation of outstanding young footballers, there needs to be a revamp in coaching, club academies and footballing culture across all levels.

It means youth coaches—the most important in a young footballer’s journey to the top—need to focus less on winning games and more on team play, passing, movement and flair. It means that kids need to be encouraged to take risks and try new moves. It means that kids need to have the right platforms and competitions to play in during their rise through the ranks. This could lead to a remodeling of the reserve system to inject, say, an Arsenal B in League One (though the U21 Premier League has been a major upgrade over the defunct reserve system), but should definitely lead to a cultural reformation that prizes improvisation, technique and creativity over the clichéd “heart and guts” that the English are now stereotyped for.

The coaching and the culture are at the center of grassroots football, not facilities. Brazil grew generation after generation of World Cup winners on the streets, not fancy million-pound youth academies.

 

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.