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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A challenging test for Steve McClaren

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

EPL Week 2 Recap: Routines, Blanks and Upsets

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

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

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

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

Oh, Modern Football…

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

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

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

Loans at Anfield and Blockbusters at the Emirates

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

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

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

 

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

English Football Weekly: Style, Efficiency and Early Observations from Week One

City, United and Chelsea Turn on the Style

Manchester City might have been the latest to start their Premier League season, but by Monday night they were topping the table. Newcastle United have always been willing prey for City, but the manner of the 4-0 dismantling showed plenty of promise for season to come at the Etihad Stadium. Edin Dzeko, who didn’t end up on the scoresheet, was central to their attacks throughout, while Fernandinho and Jesus Navas made big impressions on their debuts. Manuel Pellegrini’s appointment raised expectations of adding a style element to City’s play, and if Monday’s result was anything to go by, City fans have a lot to look forward to this season.

Not that Manchester United were too far behind. David Moyes has had two competitive matches in charge, and both of them have been convincing wins. This latest result at the Liberty Stadium not only confirmed the sheer class of Robin van Persie, but also went about disappointing some critics who had been writing off Moyes’ chances at the reigning league champions (myself included). There are long ways to go yet, but Danny Welbeck doubled his league tally last season in one match on Saturday. In his cameo, however, new Swan Wilfried Bony showed enough to suggest that he, too, will be a force to reckoned with this season.

Save the biggest celebrations—certainly the biggest at a stadium on opening day—for Jose Mourinho’s return to Stamford Bridge. The Happy One was welcomed back in heroic fashion, and duly delivered a sublime display of attacking football in the first half, before Chelsea calmed down in the second. The trio of Eden Hazard, Oscar and Kevin de Bruyne were all over the pitch, interchanging play nicely with Fernando Torres, while Frank Lampard provided a timely reminder of his undeniable goal-scoring prowess. The football that Chelsea played in the first half was out of this world. Who would’ve thought that possible under Mourinho?

 

Three Points and Early Conclusions

Plenty of domination, possession, exciting attacking play and shots on goal, but Liverpool once again had a solitary goal to show for it. The difference: the winner was scored by a still-not-fully-fit Daniel Sturridge; a heroic double save was required at the death by their first first-choice keeper in eight seasons; and it was their first opening-day home win in 12 years. Results and points have always teetered on a fine edge for Liverpool, and a win to kick off the season bodes well for the future. Kolo Toure, Jordan Henderson and Iago Aspas impressed, and if Willian really does arrive at Anfield, this could be a forward line that oozes quality—and goals.

Tottenham Hotspur also endured a nervy afternoon at sprightly Crystal Palace. For Spurs fans, this was possibly a sign of things to come, if indeed Gareth Bale does depart White Hart Lane for pastures new, but there were signs of comfort as Paulinho, Nacer Chadli, Roberto Soldado and later Etienne Capoue all debuted to great effect. Unfortunately for the Eagles, their lack of Premier League-quality players was all too evident: Here, endeavor just wasn’t enough. As for Tottenham, this new forward line could do with a sprinkle of Bale’s quality, but they showed enough to suggest that life after Bale might not be too bad after all.

Even given Arsenal’s lack of transfer activity, the ease with which Aston Villa came away with all three points will have been alarming. Indeed, most forums exploded with the anti-board (and anti-Wenger) anger usually reserved for the likes of Rafa Benitez at Stamford Bridge, and the atmosphere at the Emirates Stadium has gotten all the more venomous. You get the feeling that this is a make-or-break season for the Gunners, and it might be too late even for that. As for Paul Lambert’s side though, they look young and irresistible, especially if Christian Benteke continues his imperious form. His penalty-taking, though, needs some work.

There were also wins for West Ham United, where Stewart Downing finally did something resembling decent wing work, Southampton, where Rickie Lambert followed up a debut England goal with a peerless penalty winner, and Fulham, who left the Stadium of Light with a good three points. Sunderland failed to capitalize on their dominance, while Cardiff City and West Bromwich Albion just didn’t have enough in the tank. As for the most entertaining encounter? A 2-2 draw between Everton and Norwich. Ricky van Wolfswinkel’s excellent debut was only one out of multiple encouraging signs of things to come at Carrow Road.

 

Latest Signings and Verdicts

As we enter the final two weeks of the transfer window, the rumors are really heating up. It’s well-known that Arsenal need to strengthen—badly—and in delaying their transfer activity to after their first loss, Arsene Wenger may well have to repeat his panic buy period of 2011. But there are other teams who still need to add. There’s Newcastle United, who haven’t really strengthened at all this summer, and Crystal Palace, who still lack the quality to compete in the Premier League, and Manchester United’s joint bid for Marouane Fellaini and Leighton Baines reflects the need to improve the overall squad still.

But there have also been some excellent business done in the past week. Hull City added two Tottenham midfielders in Tom Huddlestone and Jake Livermore, who should add class, composure and PL pedigree to the Tigers squad. Etienne Capoue to Spurs was a shrewd piece of business, while Pablo Osvaldo to Southampton has been a real statement of intent. But Darren Bent and Scott Parker to Fulham represent exactly the type of low-risk, high-possible-return transfers that the Premier League needs more of. These are two new arrivals who could slot in immediately at Craven Cottage—and become instant hits.

 

This piece was my second instalment of English Football Weekly for the 2013/14 season for SWOL.co.

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.

ManUtd 10/15/2011: Forced to Settle

In the end, the points had to be shared.

Let’s be honest. After around 20 minutes of first-half action, most of us watching wanted the halftime whistle to go.

With Sir Alex Ferguson opting for an experienced midfield quintuplet, the middle of the Anfield park was congested. And with neither side starting with an urgency and flowing movement that have been evident on several occasions already this season, it was no lone fault of ours that the first 45 minutes were entirely forgettable.

The pedestrian and boring start to the game featured a plethora of misplaced passes straight to the opposition. And even when the passes did find another player in a Red shirt, they often ended up going horizontal or backwards. With an already congested midfield and Steven Gerrard yet to approach peak fitness, there were no barnstorming runs from the center of the park, and no razor-sharp vision to find the diagonal balls to the wings.

But if there’s one thing this Liverpool team doesn’t lack in, it’s team spirit and a desire to keep going until the end, and that much was evident in the second half, especially after Hernandez’s equalizer.

United’s switch to a 4-4-2 saw Liverpool fashion plenty of chances, and Jordan Henderson turned in an impressive performance having come on as a substitute for Lucas. His movement in the midfield and in the attacking third opened up plenty of space for Liverpool to attack, and he alone had two great chances to kill off the game, first via a sumptuous volley that David de Gea brilliantly turned over, and second in the form of a header that met Stewart Downing’s cross.

A quick word on Fergie’s team selection.

United reverted to a 4-5-1 formation, with such big-game players as Ryan Giggs, Park Ji-sung and Darren Fletcher starting at Anfield. Their substitutes bench was littered with world-class names and they were able to bring on Wayne Rooney, Nani and Javier Hernandez, who might as well be the best substitute trio in the League this season. but the question is: why weren’t they starting?

As much as some onlookers may want to pin it on Rooney’s mental state and the travel weariness following the international break, Ferguson’s personnel choices reflected a cautious respect for Liverpool.

It could have been a yearn to break our three-game winning streak in this fixture. It could have been a formation to deny us the space we crave to pass and move. But it was definitely a nod to Ferguon’s pre-match claims that this was the biggest game in English football. And that we’re starting to rise again to be a major competitor for United.

The men in Red showed that his concerns were not misplaced on the day.

Liverpool attacked well in the second half on Saturday. We defended well for the entire game, the defensive lapse leading to Hernandez’s goal aside. (And that wasn’t a corner anyway.)

On the pitch was some United attack. And opposite them was some Liverpool defence. Martin Kelly and Jose Enrique particularly caught the eye with assured performances and solid attacking support. It’s not everyday that Manchester United are limited to two shots on target in 90 minutes. It’s not everyday that Ashley Young is subdued for 70 minutes (or that he only lasts 70 minutes). And it’s not everyday that Nani is kept quiet on the pitch.

So, the good news is: with Kelly and Enrique on the flanks, Liverpool possess a very complete partnership on both our wings. (This is very, very bad news for Glen Johnson.)

Here’s another piece of good news: Steven Gerrard is back. Let’s first take a moment of silence in response to those who dared suggest that he wouldn’t be able to get back into the team.

Anyway, Steven Gerrard is back. And him being deemed fit enough to start and fit enough to last the entire 90 minutes can only be a good thing for Liverpool.

For all of Kuyt’s and Henderson’s industrious work-rates, Gerrard’s energy and ability to make incisive attacking runs will make a huge difference, and he will add an extra dimension to the Reds attack if he stays fit. His dead-ball and crossing prowess mean that chances will be created for our strikers to pounce on, and we will hopefully no longer be restricted to the left-foot specialties of Charlie Adam. His passion for the Reds cause will see him track back and make crucial tackles in his own half. His on-field, lead-by-example leadership will inspire confidence and instill calm in the Liverpool side.

Oh, and he’s capable of scoring important goals.

Unfortunately, this brings us back to the age-old question: Are Liverpool (still) a two-man team?

And unfortunately, the answer to that question is (still) a resounding yes.

Mention the other components of the Liverpool spine (Pepe Reina, Jamie Carragher, Dirk Kuyt) all you want, but Liverpool remain a two-man team. Just like Fernando Torres during his time at Anfield, Luis Suarez finds the majority of Liverpool’s attacking chances at his feet. But, for all his unpredictability, invention and hunger, he is far from a world-class goalscorer. When Suarez found himself with only David de Gea to beat in the first half, he shot straight at the keeper.

During Fernando Torres’ days at Atletico Madrid, before his move to Anfield, he was labeled more as a scorer of spectacular goals than a spectacular scorer of goals. This seems to be an accurate description of Liverpool’s #7 right now, and while he is seen to be more versatile and creative than Torres, he needs to get his finishing up to the old Torres’ level, simply because the bulk of Liverpool’s goalscoring chances are now his.

Which brings me to my next point: Where were Andy Carroll and Craig Bellamy?

Given the number of inviting crosses sent into the United box, especially towards the end of the game, and given the physically culpable duo of Rio Ferdinand and Johnny Evans, this was a perfect game for Carroll to make his mark. Instead, he found himself on the bench for the entire 90 minutes, which must have been as disappointing for him as it was for us Reds fans.

With all the chances being created, Liverpool need to step up a gear and actually finish them off, or risk losing points when they really should be taking them on board. This is where Andy Carroll, with his aerial and finishing ability, and Craig Bellamy, with his pace and experience, come in. Or should be coming in anyway…

But instead, in the end, the points had to be shared.