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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 8: Arsenal (Home)

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction: 1-1 Draw

February 12: Fulham (Away)

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

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

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

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

Prediction: 4-1 to Liverpool

February 23: Swansea City (Home)

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

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

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

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

Prediction: 4-0 to Liverpool

March 1: Southampton (Away)

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

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

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

Prediction: 2-1 to Southampton

March 10: Sunderland (Home)

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

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

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

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

Prediction: 2-2 Draw

March 16: Manchester United (Away)

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

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

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

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

Prediction: 2-1 to Liverpool

March 22: Cardiff City (Away)

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

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

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

Prediction: 3-1 to Liverpool

March 30: Tottenham Hotspur (Home)

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction: 4-1 to Liverpool

April 5: West Ham United (Away)

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

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

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

Prediction: 2-1 to West Ham

April 12: Manchester City (Home)

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction: 2-2 Draw

April 19: Norwich City (Away)

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

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

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

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

Prediction: 4-0 to Liverpool

April 26: Chelsea (Home)

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction: 1-1 Draw

May 3: Crystal Palace (Away)

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

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

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

Prediction: 2-1 to Liverpool

May 11: Newcastle United (Home)

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

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

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

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

You bet.

Prediction: 5-1 to Liverpool

 

Conclusion: 75 Points, Just Enough for Fourth

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Hi-res-179184723-liverpool-manager-brendan-rodgers-gestures-during-the_crop_650
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.

English Football Weekly: Hello, New Season! Predictions, Teams and Players to Watch

Top Four Watch: A Reality Check for Manchester United

Manchester United won the Premier League at a canter last season, but 2013/14 won’t be so easy for them, especially with Sir Alex Ferguson having retired in the close season. So it’s a dilemma for David Moyes: Does he want the SAF effect to wear out, or can it keep papering over the cracks? Regardless, this is not a strong United squad—Robin van Persie is arguably the only world-class player in the team, and there should be upgrades to the defence and midfield at the very least. Both of which haven’t happened.

Across town, the noisy neighbors are about to crank the volume and heat up. Manchester City ruthlessly dispensed of Roberto Mancini, and brought in Manuel Pellegrini with eyes on bigger prizes. And they’ve provided the financial backing to ensure it happens. It might not sit well with some, but the splurging done on the likes of Fernandinho, Jesus Navas, Stevan Jovetic and Alvaro Negredo has ensured that City start the season with a formidable squad. They’ll take some beating—and might still bring in more players before September.

But there’s Chelsea to deal with, and Jose Mourinho has been building an encouraging team. Contrast their buying policy this summer with his first year in 2004, and it’s clear that there’s a much stronger emphasis on youth this time around. There’s been plenty of movement in the forward lines, but like United, not as much in the middle and at the back. Can Mourinho reestablish Stamford Bridge as a fortress with a less convincing backline? If he does—and adds Wayne Rooney and/or Samuel Eto’o—Chelsea would take the fight right down to the wire.

Every year, Arsenal get written off as the team to drop out of the top four, but this year, Tottenham Hotspur look the real deal. Regardless of Gareth Bale’s destination, Andre Villas-Boas has already ushered in a new forward line: Roberto Soldado, Paulinho and Nacer Chadli are hugely impressive additions that will ensure goals and excitement up top. This is a squad that could well finish third—and if Bale stays and carries his form from last season, might be dark horses for the title outright.

As it stands, my top four picks (in order from 1st): City, Chelsea, Spurs, United.

Relegation Watch: Underachievers and Disappointments

As in any early-season relegation predictions, let’s look first at the promoted clubs. Cardiff City, backed by an ambitious Malaysian owner, have been the most aggressive, and their big-money signings Andreas Cornelius, Steven Caulker and Gary Medel bode well. Hull City and Crystal Palace don’t look as confident on paper though. Steve Bruce has added a contingent of Premier League players who he’ll be hoping can contribute something more than just experience, but Crystal Palace in particular look in trouble. Their biggest summer signing? Dwight Gayle from Peterborough. For £8.5 million.

Newcastle United have had a worryingly weak summer window, especially when compared to other sides around them. Only Loic Remy has arrived as a first-team player, and with the backroom turmoil involving Joe Kinnear’s appointment as Director of Football, they look more likely to underachieve further than to get back to mid-table mediocrity. Sunderland, despite their busy summer, also look shaky. Their summer activity seems more quantity than quality, although the same was said last year, of course, of Aston Villa (more on them later).

Southampton and Villa move from relegation candidates to top-half contenders in my book, so we’ll finish this list with Stoke City, who managed to finish six points clear of the relegation zone last season. After a few years of stagnant progress and luxurious spending, Stoke have replaced Tony Pulis with Mark Hughes, but while he hasn’t gone on a ridiculous QPR-style splurge, he’s only signed two players. Decent players, Marc Muniesa and Erik Pieters, but the overall squad may not have the quality to sustain their Premier League status for another year.

As it stands, my relegation picks (no particular order): Crystal Palace, Hull, Stoke.

Teams to Watch: It’s All Happening in Wales—and Maybe the Midlands?

We touched on Cardiff a bit in the previous section, so let’s start with that. Here is a team led by an ambitious owner and a young and talented manager, Malky Mackay, and with the exception of three big-name signings, a squad that they’ve taken largely from the Championship up to the Premier League with them. But further additions look likely before the transfer window shuts, and in Kim Bo-Kyung, Cardiff might just possess one of the unsung heroes of the season. And—he’s 34 now—but we can’t afford to forget about Craig Bellamy.

But Cardiff will be no match for the slick and classy unit that will take to the field at the Liberty Stadium this season. In their third year in the Premier League, Swansea City look closer to European qualification via league finish than ever dropping out, such is the success that they’ve enjoyed. Michael Laudrup has strengthened brilliantly this summer, with Wilfried Bony, Jonathan De Guzman and Jonjo Shelvey his most high-profile signings. The challenge for them now is to push on—and balance their Europa League campaign while they’re at it.

Southampton are a curious case. They finished just five points above the relegation zone last season, but the mood at St. Mary’s is optimistic, as well it should be. Mauricio Pochettino has fashioned a young, energetic side specializing in pressing and counterattacking football. That there’s not been much transfer activity this summer suggests that he has confidence in his squad rather than the lack of player availability: After all, their two additions, Dejan Lovren and Victor Wanyama, provide enough pedigree and suggest that they too will be looking at the top half.

Let’s round this off with Aston Villa, who went through a dangerous slump midway through last season. Paul Lambert’s gamble with his young signings paid off in the end—we all know how Christian Benteke turned out, but Ashley Westwood and Matthew Lowton were inspired signings as well. This summer he’s added another contingent of young prospects, but as Villa march on comfortable in this new philosophy and system, the likes of Jores Okore and Antonio Luna could have just as big an impact.

Players to Watch: AKA Fantasy Picks

Now that we’re done with our team to watch, here are some players that are either very interesting signings or ones to pay attention to this season. Fantasy picks? You’ll be sure these aren’t your Robin van Persies or Gareth Bales, so there might just be a bargain or two to be considered here.

First, a trio wearing Liverpool red. You’ve probably heard enough of Philippe Coutinho by now, but the rave reviews are worth the while and do him justice. He’ll be looking to turn that productive and exhilarating half-season partnership with Daniel Sturridge into a prolific one over the course of the season. And helping them do that will be Iago Aspas, signed from Celta in the summer. He’s had an encouraging preseason for Brendan Rodgers, and his brand of football, mixing technique and aggression, reminds of a certain wantaway No. 7.

If you’re new to this column and missed out on last season’s episodes, you’ll come to realize my admiration for Swansea and Michael Laudrup. Michu was the unquestionable bargain buy of last summer, and this year he’ll be back in his support striker role he started in, following the exciting acquisition of Wilfried Bony. Michu enjoyed his most prolific spell in a Swans shirt when he played behind a strike last season, and Bony blew Malmo FF away with a competitive debut double after a thrilling 31-goal season with Vitesse Arnhem. Watch this space.

What about that most maligned, big-money, ex-Liverpool duo now at West Ham United? Well, soon to be at West Ham anyway, given that Stewart Downing’s move hasn’t been officially confirmed yet, but for a combined sum of Downing’s Liverpool transfer (£20 million), Sam Allardyce will be bringing in Downing and Andy Carroll. That’s a crossing and heading partnership that Kenny Dalglish failed spectacularly to harness at Anfield, but could be right up Big Sam’s alley. And they’ll be looking to impress in a World Cup year.

Our final pick belongs to the team that might gatecrash the top three in spectacular fashion: Tottenham Hotspur. Bale’s contribution may be sizeable as always, or the signings that his transfer fee brings in could well take the squad’s overall quality up a notch. Where am I going with this? Well, Villas-Boas has chosen Roberto Soldado to spearhead his attack as a lone striker. With Chadli, Aaron Lennon, Paulinho and Mousa Dembele supporting him already, Soldado looks to enjoy a Premier League goals feast.

 

This piece was my first instalment of English Football Weekly for the season for SoccerWithoutLimits.com.

The Road to Munich: A Look at the 2011-2012 Champions League

This year, we’re looking from the sidelines.

A pity, really, since this Champions League campaign promises to be one of the most exciting in recent years. First, a recap of this year’s group stage draw:

Group A: Bayern Munich; Villarreal; Manchester City; Napoli
Group B: Inter Milan; CSKA Moscow; Lille; Trabzonspor
Group C: Manchester United; Benfica; Basel; Otelul Galati
Group D: Real Madrid; Lyon; Ajax; Dinamo Zagreb
Group E: Chelsea;Valencia; Bayer Leverkusen; Genk
Group F: Arsenal; Marseille; Olympiakos; Borussia Dortmund
Group G: FC Porto; Shakhtar Donetsk; Zenit St Petersburg; APOEL
Group H: Barcelona; AC Milan; BATE Borisov; Viktoria Plzen

I’m not going to go in depth on each group, as there are definitely teams and leagues that I don’t follow enough and, as such, I don’t feel like I’d be able to contribute anything substantial in those regards. But what football fan doesn’t have an opinion about Champions League favorites? Without further ado, I present to you my picks on this year’s quarterfinalists, and a few honorable mentions.

Let’s start with Bayern. Without many major additions in the summer, aside from Germany’s first-choice keeper in Manuel Neuer, Bayern still possess a strong squad. On their day, Bayern have one of the strongest attacking forces in Europe and are able to choice from an in-form Mario Gomez, and the strikingly efficient duo of Ivica Olic and Thomas Muller. That is of course discounting the now-sulk-free Franck Ribery and the effervescent Arjen Robben, who I believe is one of the world’s best players when fit. And don’t forget Takashi Usami in reserve: you don’t join Germany’s most famous club on loan, as a 19-year-old, without having been capped for the Japanese national team, if you’re not something special. Bayern’s success is heavily dependent on Juup Heynckes’ ability to instill defensive organization in a newly-assembled backline, but their attacking options should ensure that they make considerable strides this year.

It’s City’s first appearance in the Champions League this season, but I’m tipping them to make a splash. Followers of the English Premier League won’t need any updates on how they’ve been doing this year, and the fact that this year’s title race is already shaping up to be the Battle of Manchester speaks volumes on the progress that City have made. Roberto Mancini is a seasoned Champions League campaigner, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some astute tactical deployments against the big boys. But against the highest caliber of European teams, City’s relatively weak defence will ensure that Mancini won’t be able to play a stereotypically Italian defensive game. With a starting backline of Ricards, Kompany, Lescott and Clichy, City will need to rely heavily on their men up front for points. But what a strikeforce they have: Carlos Tevez is currently their backup striker, and I think that’s all that needs to be said on this topic. This is a team whose attacking options will blow away many a team this year, and I’d say they’re a strong bet for a run to the quarterfinals at least, but I’d give City another year for further defensive reinforcements before tipping them as title contenders.

I don’t know what to make of Inter this year. They have a new coach and a new strikeforce, and I’m not convinced that they’re well equipped enough to go all the way this year. Diego Forlan was an inspired signing, but his European appearance for Atletico was enough to render him ineligible for further CL action this year, at least on the pitch, since Inter hilariously included him in their squad submission. Is Mauro Zarate good enough at the highest level? I’m not too sure, but Eto’o’s departure will absolutely be a blow to their chances. In Wesley Sneijder and Esteban Cambiasso, they have one of Europe’s finest midfield partnerships, and they will have too much top-level experience and quality for many teams, but Gianpiero Gasperini will have his work cut out if they are to make it further than the quarterfinals.

As for United, credit must be given to their gaffer for continuing to build world-class teams year in, year out. Sir Alex may only have brought in a few major signings this summer, but their returning loan stars seem to have stepped up to United’s level. Ashley Young has been turning in eye-catching performances, as has young defender Phil Jones, and Sir Alex has added a noticeable pass-and-move style that’s had the media and fans purring. Their success in Europe this season will be strongly dependent on whether or not these young stars have what it takes to carry their outstanding Premier League form into the Champions League. Are Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck capable of delivering at the highest level? Fabio Capello seems to think so. Will David de Gea get over his shaky start and cement himself as Spain’s best goalkeeping prospect? SAF seems to think so. And don’t bet against him for once again being able to instill a winning mentality in his squad: the current squad looks very promising, and a run to at least the semi-finals look on the cards.

There doesn’t exist a single discussion on managers in the football world that doesn’t involve Jose Mourinho, whose Inter team put on exhibitions on the art of defending en route to their Champions League success in 2010. His antics and so-called “anti-football” have alienated many a La Liga fan, but there’s no denying that the man is a master tactician. And he’s built a strong squad in Madrid in his own right, with star performers all over the pitch. Their key question: will Mourinho adopt an all-out defensive approach designed to breaking teams down? If that’s the route Real will be taking this season, I don’t see them lifting the Cup, as their squad isn’t as defensive-minded or -structured as Mourinho’s Inter.  But with Cristiano Ronaldo continuing to defy belief and break records, not many teams will be able to handle this Madrid attack. If Mourinho makes use of the attacking options at his disposal and his squad duly respond and turn on the style, then they are absolutely capable of going all the way. And don’t be surprised to see a trick or two up his tactical sleeve.

To continue with the manager talk, new dugout star Andre Villas-Boas has the unenviable task of bringing the European Cup back to Stamford Bridge for the first time in their history. Bigger-name and more established names have failed and seen the sack, but AVB made a huge splash on the European scene with Porto last season. The difference: Porto won the UEFA Cup, not the Champions League. The latter is a major step up, and AVB might face a baptism of fire in the toughest competition in the world. As a curious distinction from many of the sides I’ve mentioned above, Chelsea’s main weakness is their attack. Defensively solid with a world-class goalkeeper and plenty of experienced midfielders, they go into this year’s CL with an aging Didier Drogba and an out-of-sorts Fernando Torres. New signings Juan Mata and Raul Meireles will carry the bulk of Chelsea’s creativity on their shoulders, and for the time being it looks as though Daniel Sturridge is their only worthwhile outlet. A solid domestic start doesn’t take the focus away from their misfiring strikeforce, and it looks as if Chelsea will have to wait another year before shooting for top-dog honors again.

The European all-star team that is Barcelona have continued to recruit star names and to live up to their reputation as the planet’s finest football (and footballing) team. Who would’ve thought that Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez could make such instant impacts on the Barca first team already? Defensively sound with the best midfield/attack combination in the competition and an underappreciated work ethic, there’s not much else to say about Pep Guardiola’s team except that they’re once again the team to beat this season. Just how do you stop the Xavi-Iniesta-Messi axis and also deal with David Villa, Cesc and Sanchez? I’m looking forward to seeing the masterplans that other coaches will come up with against Barcelona though, and I have a feeling that this might just be the year that the mighty Catalans finally meet their match.

AC Milan completes my quarterfinal eight. Convincing winners of Serie A last season, they’ve strengthened wisely: Phillipe Mexes, Taye Taiwo and Alberto Aquilani all came in for little to nothing each. The latter injects some much-needed creativity in an aging midfield consisting of Mark van Bommel, Clarence Seedorf and Gennaro Gattuso, which marks Milan’s midfield as their weakest link. As with many of my tips, Milan’s attacking options are once again their strongest suit, with a mouthwatering selection headache between Ibrahimovic, Robinho, Pato and Cassano. They have plenty of European experience, but will age prove to be Milan’s downfall? Perhaps not in a more pedestrian league like the Serie A, but I struggle to see how they’ll be able to hold off the relentless energy of La Liga’s twin giants and both Manchester teams. Experience only gets you so far.

One honorable mention: luck is against Napoli for falling into this year’s Group of Death. In any other group, they could’ve had the chance to make a real impression and a run towards the knockout stages, but Group A’s Bayern and City seem to be a step too far for them right now, and don’t underestimate Villarreal for a second. They’ve made some astute signings this summer, and this group stage campaign will be a good chance for Napoli to assess their squad’s capability of playing at the highest level. A third-place finish would see them fall into the Europa League, and if that happens, I’d instantly consider them strong contenders.

And no, I don’t see Arsenal progressing very far this year. Wenger’s experience will help them progress from a tricky Group F, but they lack the world-class talent to carry them as far as the quarterfinals. Perhaps next year, if Wenger continues his spending ways.

But he’ll face a fight in getting there. As it stands, I’m tipping for Fortress Anfield to once again experience our famous European nights once again starting in the fall of 2012. It’s been a while since the spine-shivering YNWA anthem has reverberated around Anfield on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.