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

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

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

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

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

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

 

GK: Simon Mignolet

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

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

 

RCB: Kolo Toure

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

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

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

 

LCB: Mamadou Sakho / Daniel Agger

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

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

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

 

CD / SW: Martin Skrtel / Daniel Agger

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

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

 

RWB: Glen Johnson / Raheem Sterling / Jordan Henderson

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

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

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

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

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

 

LWB: Jose Enrique / Glen Johnson

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

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

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

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

 

CM: Steven Gerrard

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

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

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

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

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

 

CM: Jordan Henderson / Joe Allen

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

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

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

 

CAM: Philippe Coutinho / Victor Moses / Joe Allen

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

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

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

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

 

ST: Daniel Sturridge

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

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

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

 

ST: Luis Suarez

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

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

 

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

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Why Philippe Coutinho is Liverpool’s Most Important Player This Season

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Amidst all the posturing from Luis Suarez and the public relations moves by Steven Gerrard during Liverpool’s preseason tour of Asia, the convincing wins and the classy performances of their new star Philippe Coutinho have perhaps gone under the radar.

In the media, the Liverpool headlines are on Suarez’s future at Anfield, or on further speculation of the next signings to arrive at the club. And abroad, it was all about Gerrard and manager Brendan Rodgers, and how the club conducted themselves during the whirlwind tour of Jakarta, Melbourne and Bangkok.

Whisper it quietly, but Liverpool have got themselves going in professional fashion this summer. The early signings in June might have petered out into an unsteady July, ending with a slightly controversial loan move for Pepe Reina to Napoli, but Liverpool have nonetheless strengthened their squad.

Four clean sheets in four preseason friendlies, all won with respectable margins, shows a new-found efficiency about the Reds, with the players focused on doing the job with minimal fuss and keeping an eye on their defensive responsibilities.

A quick comparison with Manchester United’s nine goals conceded in five preseason fixtures under David Moyes shows not only the stability that a year brings for a new manager, but also the importance of a settled squad enjoying their responsibilities and their football.

And spearheading the Reds into an exciting new era is their young Brazilian wearing No. 10, signed only in January from Internazionale, aged still 21.

Simply put, Coutinho has got it all: dribbling ability, pace, acceleration, work rate, composure, creativity, flair, an eye for a telling pass, innate understanding of his position, match-winning unpredictability.

Even the usual worries for a South American player arriving in the Premier League were allayed instantly: he started his Liverpool career with a bang, and finished the second half of the 2012-13 season with that same bang, notching three goals and five assists in just 12 starts. There were no signs of him struggling with the long-infamous physical side of the English game, and in the process he made himself known as a master of the through-ball.

Worries about “second-season syndrome”? So far unfounded, after a thrilling series of performances in Liverpool’s preseason, with three goals in just four matches. Since Luis Suarez’s competitive ban towards the end of last season,Coutinho has assumed the central attacking playmaker role—the No. 10 role—effortlessly.

Which means, even if Suarez stays at Liverpool, he will face a fight on his hands to retake his favored role behind Daniel Sturridge (or another option like IagoAspas, depending on Sturridge’s injury status) from Coutinho.

Rodgers has claimed, via the Mirror, that he structured his team around Suarez last season in a bid to keep his No. 7 at Anfield. On current evidence, Coutinhohas already shouldered much of that burden, and the way Liverpool’s attacks have been channeled through him this preseason suggests the Brazilian prodigy is now the focal point of the Reds’ attack.

So what’s next for the youngster who was let go by Inter for just £8 million? The easy answer is that the only way is up and the world is at his feet.

While Suarez still recorded an impressive season last year and was Liverpool’s undisputed player of the season, it was their January signings Sturridge andCoutinho that settled the squad’s nerves in front of goal, and pushed them towards a pacy, technical and dynamic attacking style.

Suarez’s public flirtations with Arsenal and Real Madrid this offseason have harmed relations with his fans and manager. While Gerrard has scored two goals this preseason and looks to be storming back to full fitness, he is alas 33 and will be orchestrating and influencing play from his new deep-lying position.

Which leaves Coutinho as the new talisman, the new provider of match-winning brilliance, the new fan favorite—already reflected through this season’s shirt sales, according to the Daily Mail. (Edit: Steven Gerrard has since resumed his usual No. 1 place on the list, but the point still stands.)

And Liverpool’s most important player coming into the 2013-14 season?

If he manages to sustain his form over 38 Premier League games and moves Liverpool back into the top four, don’t be surprised to see Coutinho in the running for both the Player of the Year and the Young Player of the Year awards come next May.

 

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

ManUtd 02/11/2012: The Disaster

Well, it just had to be, didn’t it?

Before Liverpool’s trip to Old Trafford, a first in more than a year, there was so much to look forward to. Would Liverpool take their recent good form against Manchester United to them? Would we see a much-awaited front four of Andy Carroll, Luis Suarez, Steven Gerrard and Craig Bellamy? And of course, would we finally see the end to the seemingly ubiquitous and never-ending Suarez-Evra quarrel?

With Liverpool taking nothing back to Anfield, there is so much to write about. Kenny Dalglish’s preference for Jordan Henderson over Charlie Adam, and his curious insistence on using Stewart Downing (my take on both cases: absolutely inexplicable, indefensible and ridiculous). Jay Spearing’s inability to cope at the highest level. The depressing and infuriating lack of fight shown from Dalglish’s charges after going two-nil down so soon in the second half.

But it just had to be Luis Suarez who came away with all the unwanted headlines, didn’t it?

With his petulant snub of a pre-match handshake with Patrice Evra, Luis Suarez has made his position at Liverpool Football Club untenable.

Maybe he had a point to make, to show the English media, to show Evra that he really felt wrongly accused by the outcome of the case.

But he chose the entirely wrong way to do it.

Of course, we all recognize that Evra is not a saint himself. The transcript of the case proved this already. And his enthusiastic celebrations after the final whistle in front of Suarez and all around the stadium, trying to take home the plaudits in an emotional game, did not sit well even with his manager. Of course, we also all know that Sir Alex Ferguson is naturally inclined to bias towards United players, that he often is the issuer of hypocritical comments.

But does that mean Liverpool have to take this road in addressing this issue? Can Liverpool not detach themselves from unsavory comparisons and look at how they have reacted from an ideological and moral standpoint?

What happened to being the better man? A professional? Did Suarez have to be so short-sighted in failing to see the big picture? In case he still doesn’t know what the big picture is: it’s the issue of racism in (English) football. No, Luis, the case is not whether or not you feel personally aggrieved about it. It’s also no longer about the language issue. It’s about stamping out racism in English football. Liverpool went their painstaking ways to show their support for him throughout the case, and have come under intense scrutiny and criticism for doing so, and this was the occasion to finally put everything to bed, to settle everything once and for all.

Except Suarez didn’t realize this.

Nobody is saying that a pre-match handshake takes away all the underlying hard feelings, but this was different from the suggestion that got Sepp Blatter into such hot water. In this case, as much as Suarez and Liverpool have attempted to portray themselves as the victim of unfair judgment and a biased punishment, circumstances dictate that Patrice Evra was the victim of racial abuse. At face value, if anything, Evra should have been the one entitled to refusing the handshake, not Suarez.

In what has already been a contentious and emotional affair, continuing to play victim is not going to help Liverpool in the short or the long run.

But most importantly, while Liverpool have had their reasons to support Suarez so wholeheartedly throughout this debacle, Suarez has let even them down.

Perhaps, as a matter of principle, Suarez didn’t want to and was never going to shake Evra’s hand in the first place.

But to override Dalglish’s pre-match comments that Suarez had moved on, that he would shake Evra’s hand, was immature, irresponsible and embarrassing, not to mention a PR disaster. What is Dalglish going to do now that his star player has undermined his authority and his confident claims that this episode is over? Does he make his authority known to Suarez, that this type of public aggravation and this openly undermining of Dalglish is unacceptable? Or does he continue to play the “I didn’t see it” game and act like nothing happened?

Football, at the end of the day, is a game, a show of entertainment for fans who pay to enjoy an event. Is it worth it to make yourself such a polarizing figure just to prove your point? Suarez’s years of experience in world and European football should have been more than enough to teach him that football is as much political as it is tribal, but sadly, he seems to have missed the memo.

Meanwhile, Suarez himself is quickly becoming one of the most unpopular figures in English football. He might bafflingly still maintain his status as a Kop hero after Saturday’s match, but at what cost?

 

EDIT: Suarez has apparently apologized for his handshake snub on Saturday, and the Liverpool hierarchy have expressed their disappointment towards his actions. But while this represents a good start, the underlying issues will still linger for a while yet.

On Luis Suarez’s Racism Row

Let me cut straight to the chase.

I will assume that most readers of this piece will have been aware of the events that transpired between Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra during the Liverpool-Manchester United game last month. I will assume that you are also aware of the English FA’s subsequent decision to charge Suarez.

In the weeks that have passed after Evra first came out with his claims, and in the days that have crept by since the FA confirmed their charge, Liverpool fans have shown incredible support behind their No. 7, and indelible condemnation towards Evra.

And I’m here to denounce their blinkered support.

Before I give my reasons, let me first clarify my position. I’m not here to denounce Liverpool Football Club’s support. As with any case involving such sensitive matters, full evidence has to be gathered, and Kenny Dalglish and the Club have come out expressing their support for Suarez.

Stepping away from a feverish football-club “gladiatorial” mentality, an employer or a family member should always step up and provide full support to a person going through such trials and tribulations. Innocent until proven guilty. And I am confident that they will be strong with their public condemnation of racist behavior if Suarez is indeed found to be guilty in this case.

The same mentality applies to the fans. Liverpool have traditionally been famous for their family-oriented fanbase. Players, coaches and fans alike have all praised the welcoming community at Liverpool, and you don’t call the Merseyside Derby the “friendly derby” without any justification.

No, I’m not here to condemn the Club and the fans in getting behind Luis Suarez.

I’m here to denounce their blinkered support.

This blinkered support has seen Liverpool “fans” call Evra a “crybaby” and a “boy who cried wolf,” among others, just because he has raised a claim that he considers serious.

This blinkered support has seen Liverpool “fans” hang on to Suarez’s responses that Evra’s Manchester United teammates were even surprised with his reactions.

This blinkered support has seen Liverpool “fans” blindingly agree with Suarez’s claims that, in Uruguay, the alleged word spoken (“negrito”) has no racial allegations or discriminatory undertones.

But this is the same group of narrow-minded people who pointed fingers and made gestures towards Nani after his embarrassing “look at me!” episode against the referee in March and cried that Jamie Carragher wouldn’t have deserved a red card for his high tackle.

This is the same group of narrow-minded people who have been quick to condemn Chelsea’s John Terry after allegations of his racial abuse towards QPR’s Anton Ferdinand, even when Terry’s case is still under investigation. Terry will surely be the subject of boos from the Liverpool crowd during this Sunday’s matchup.

It’s double standards at its best. (Or should it be worst?)

As a Liverpool fan belonging to a minority race, I hope that Liverpool will cooperate fully with the investigations and continue to show the support that Suarez has received.

But only if he turns out to be innocent.

Now, I understand the high-stakes on-field pressure, and I also understand that, to get under the opponents’ skin, some players turn (in my opinion, stupidly) to derogatory name-calling. Given the social backgrounds of many players, an outright ban on stronger language and a huge tightening up of the rules and regulations would be an overreaction and unnecessary.

But if Suarez does turn out to be guilty of racially offensive language, I would support a reasonable match ban and hefty club fine. Even if the FA decide to use this as an “example,” it would send a much stronger message than the pathetic several-thousand-pound fines FIFA has leveraged on racist chants during international games.

And I sincerely hope that Liverpool fans, who have been known for their generous support, would be sensible enough to not afford him a heroic reception when he takes to the field after his ban.

Because a welcoming, family-oriented football club, a club that Liverpool pride themselves for being, would not tolerate this sort of behavior. Not even from a No. 7.

Original article from the Bleacher Report.