Tag Archives: Simon Mignolet

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Victor Moses: D

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Iago Apas: C-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Aly Cissokho: C

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tiago Ilori: C

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Luis Alberto: C+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Kolo Toure: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Mamadou Sakho: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Simon Mignolet: A-

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Goalkeeper: Simon Mignolet

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

 

Right-Back: Martin Kelly

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

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

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

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

 

Left-Back: Aly Cissokho

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

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

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

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

 

Centre-Back: Kolo Toure

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

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

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

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

 

Centre-Back: Daniel Agger

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

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

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

 

Defensive Midfielder: Lucas

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

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

 

Central Midfielder: Luis Alberto

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

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

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

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

 

Attacking Midfielder: Jordan Henderson

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

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

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

 

Right Forward: Raheem Sterling

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

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

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

Maynor Figueroa, watch out.

 

Left Forward: Philippe Coutinho

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

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

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

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

 

Striker: Luis Suarez

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Goalkeeper: Simon Mignolet

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

On to the defenders then.

 

Right-Back: Martin Kelly

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

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

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

 

Left-Back: Jon Flanagan

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

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

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

 

Centre-Back: Martin Skrtel

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

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

More of the same then, Martin.

 

Centre-Back: Mamadou Sakho

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

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

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

 

Defensive Midfielder: Joe Allen

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

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

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

 

Central Midfielder: Luis Alberto

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

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

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

 

Attacking Midfielder: Jordan Henderson

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

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

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

 

Left Forward: Philippe Coutinho

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

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

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

 

Right Forward: Raheem Sterling

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

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

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

 

Striker: Luis Suarez

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

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

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

 

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

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

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Michael Regan/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hugo Lloris vs. Simon Mignolet

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

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

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

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

 

Michael Dawson vs. Luis Suarez

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

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

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

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

A lot will thus depend on the midfield.

 

Kyle Naughton vs. Raheem Sterling

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

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

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

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

 

Paulinho vs. Lucas

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

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

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

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

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

 

Aaron Lennon vs. Jon Flanagan

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

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

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

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

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

 

Jermain Defoe vs. Mamadou Sakho

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

5 Ways Liverpool Should Approach a Tough December to Stay in the Top Four

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Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

Second place, 15 matches played, 30 points, and a goal difference of +16. With four games left to go until the mid-season (and the January transfer window), Liverpool so far look in pretty good shape this 2013/14 Premier League season.

Their average of two points per game, if extended over the course a 38-game season, has historically been enough to secure a top-four spot by the end of the season—which, besides launching Liverpool back into the Champions League spotlight, should also be enough to secure Luis Suarez’s future at Anfield.

Before we look ahead to next May, however, let’s first acknowledge the obstacles to the Reds finishing their first half of the season in the top four—and there are many.

Starting with their remaining four fixtures in a busy December period—Tottenham Hotspur (away), Cardiff City (home), Manchester City (away), Chelsea (away), the latter two coming in the space of three days.

With Jose Enrique and Daniel Sturridge both out until at least January and Steven Gerrard sidelined for the Christmas period with a hamstring injury, according to the Telegraph, Liverpool’s problems are as much on the treatment table as they are with the fixture list.

But this is also a crucial period where Brendan Rodgers’ team will be tested on their ability to stay near the top, and where preliminary conclusions may yet be drawn about their quest to return to Europe.

Here are five ways Liverpool should approach a tough December ahead of them and still fly high in the top four come the start of January.

 

Keep Their Second-Half Setup Against West Ham

With the aforementioned Enrique, Sturridge and Gerrard out for the Christmas period, Liverpool’s best XI for the moment will have been their second-half, post-Gerrard substitution setup in Saturday’s game against West Ham United.

Glen Johnson seemed back to his best, and indeed was the provider of a very fine assist to Luis Suarez for Liverpool’s third goal of the night, while Jon Flanagan on the opposite flank stuck to his task and defended confidently.

Martin Skrtel looked more assured and assertive with the dominant Mamadou Sakho beside him, and with stability being the key in a defensive partnership, Brendan Rodgers would be wise to stick with them in the center, though the shambolic defending in conceding their own goal—in the process letting the Hammers back into the game—will have been a cause for concern.

Joe Allen in front of them was a livewire in midfield, seemingly over his catastrophic miss in the Merseyside derby a couple of weeks ago. If he continues his improvement, his probing passing and deceptively quick turn of pace should prove a very useful additional outlet in midfield, alongside the more workmanlike duo of Jordan Henderson and Lucas Leiva.

Philippe Coutinho and Luis Suarez pick themselves in the starting XI, while Raheem Sterling deserves a run in the side for his upturn in form and encouraging showing on Saturday, especially with Victor Moses’ cameo once again not providing any kind of imagination, creativity and game-changing potential.

The only change that should be considered by Rodgers and co.—besides any enforced through injury concerns—would be to shift Johnson over to the left and put Martin Kelly in on the right, especially against pacy right wingers that Flanagan might struggle against.

Otherwise, this is a team that can be decent at the back, strong in the middle and incisive up front.

 

Adopt a Relentless and Interchanging Midfield Three

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Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

It’s hard to imagine a Liverpool midfield without Steven Gerrard in it: He’s been ever-present for the Reds this season, and is both their assists leader (six) and third highest scorer (three).

Whether his world-class set pieces and impressive long passes compensate for his decreasing mobility has been a hot topic for debate (and best left for another discussion), but his more withdrawn, “quarterback”-like regista role has come with a diminishing ability to take games by the scruff of the neck and drag his team to victory.

Which means that in his absence, Liverpool fans may yet catch a glimpse of an ideal Brendan Rodgers midfield. To be precise, a relentless, dynamic and interchanging midfield three capable of supplying incessant pressure on their opponents, recycling the ball among one another, and contributing comfortably to the attack.

After his aforementioned horror miss against Everton in November, Joe Allen has rebounded in terms of his confidence, putting in good performances echoing his encouraging start to life at Anfield back at the start of the 2012/13 Premier League season.

His reverse pass to Martin Kelly in the dying minutes of the West Ham match on Saturday was a particular highlight, but it was his forward-thinking passing, neat touches and ability to move the ball out of pressure that caught the eye.

Add in the dynamism and famous work rate, as well as the at-times scintillating passing (though consistency is necessary) of Jordan Henderson, and Liverpool have got a young, energetic and deceptively quick British midfield core. And while Lucas hasn’t fully reclaimed his excellent pre-injury form, his positioning and tactical awareness have been triumphed by Rodgers (and are debated constantly among Reds fans).

Altogether, the Gerrard-less midfield that will travel to such opponents as Spurs, City and Chelsea will exhibit a stark contrast to the captain’s prompting from deep.

Which can mean that Liverpool are short of a sure-fire set piece specialist. But also that their opponents now have to focus on defending against an interchangeable unit instead of one single playmaker.

 

Continue to Refine Their Counterattacks

Pepe Reina he might not be just yet, but Simon Mignolet has been earning rave reviews for his improvements in distribution: A couple of quick long throws set up dangerous counterattacks for his teammates on Saturday.

(Needless to say, Mignolet’s shot-stopping has already far exceeded Reina’s levels of the past few seasons.)

And Arsenal they might not be just yet, but Liverpool have evidently worked on their counterattacking plays to make use of their pace in attack.

Previously it was in the 3-5-2 system that featured Suarez and Daniel Sturridge up top. But against West Ham, as in his stellar start to his Liverpool career, it was Raheem Sterling who frequently burst through the opposition midfield and rush onto passes down the center. If it weren’t for his lack of a clinical finish, the home side would have scored at least two more from those breaks.

As dominant as Liverpool aspire to be in ball and possession retention, there’s no reason to discourage them from working on breaking, attacking and scoring at speed. Even without Gerrard’s 40-yard passes to feet, they possess accomplished passers like Allen and Coutinho, and with the inventiveness of Suarez and Sterling, the counter should be a Liverpool staple.

Especially in away fixtures against teams who like to overload in the attack and pile up in their final third, exactly Liverpool’s big upcoming tests at White Hart Lane, the Etihad Stadium and Stamford Bridge.

If Liverpool can withstand some inevitably strong attacks from their hosts, they should look to capitalize on their relatively soft underbellies and hope to snatch goals—and points—that way.

 

Improve Decision-Making and the Final Ball

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Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

With 20 goals in their last five matches at home, it wouldn’t seem on the surface that Liverpool need work on their finishing and final ball.

Indeed, Luis Suarez needs to be given lots of credit for his massive improvement in finishing off his chances. In the context that he used to be a profligate striker who often frustrated Reds fans with his poor finishing, this article from BassTunedToRed.com tells us that his conversion rate has jumped from 8.2% in the Kenny Dalglish era to a staggering 25% this season.

But even though they scored four goals against West Ham on Saturday, there was ample evidence, especially in the first half when the visitors shut up shop in front of their penalty area, that Liverpool took one touch too many or played one pass too many.

Coutinho continually decided to attempt to play a colleague into space when shooting from range would’ve been more beneficial, while Sterling’s final ball, even when sent through on goal, seemed to be just lacking in confidence.

And we don’t have to go too far back to see a glaring example of Joe Allen’s composure in front of goal, or Jordan Henderson’s lack of an assured finish at the end of a lung-busting run at Arsenal, to know that this is an area where Liverpool still need to improve on.

Given their proneness to conceding from just one solitary defensive mistake, they should work on taking their chances when they create them. Against smaller teams that they’ve admittedly demolished in recent weeks, chances will come by simply because of their relentless pressure and approach play, but goal-scoring opportunities will be few and far between in the coming few weeks.

Of course, 1-0 is all it takes to take home three points, and Liverpool started their season off with three well won, if not entirely convincing, 1-0 wins, which featured lots of deep defending. But to do that, besides holding firm and keeping a clean sheet, you need to take that one chance when it comes by.

 

Approach Tough Away Matches Fearlessly and Confidently

With 34 goals scored in 15 league games thus far—the second most in the Premier League—it’s clear that when Liverpool feel like it, they can turn on the style and blow opponents away with their attacking play.

A large part of that—nine goals, to be exact—is admittedly down to the now-injured Daniel Sturridge and his impressive all-round contributions up front for the Reds this season, but Luis Suarez’s form and the overall cohesiveness in attack means that they remain an offensive force to be reckoned with.

So why did they go to the Emirates and come away with a comprehensive 0-2 loss when they could’ve started the game on the front foot if they’d been set up to do so?

A look at Roberto Martinez’s impressive setup at Everton shows that a consistent mental, technical and physical approach, once ingrained throughout the squad (which includes the coaching staff and management team), can take their game and impose it on whichever opponents they come up against.

They’ve done it against Manchester United, and they did it just this Sunday night with a fearless, confident and assertive display at the Emirates, when they forced a 1-1 draw against league leaders Arsenal.

Brendan Rodgers will realize that his squad has deficiencies—which squad doesn’t?—but he will also know that keeping the same identity in whatever fixture can reap large benefits and may even spring the odd surprise.

Just look at Liverpool’s trip to Manchester City last season. Granted, City weren’t managed by Manuel Pellegrini then, and Liverpool had a Steven Gerrard blockbuster to thank, but if Pepe Reina hadn’t rushed off his line, the visitors would’ve taken home an impressive 2-1 win.

More of that please.

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

How Has Simon Mignolet Fared as Liverpool’s New First-Choice Goalkeeper?

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Stu Forster/Getty Images
This summer saw a confusing situation develop at Anfield, as Simon Mignolet was brought in from Sunderland for £9 million, and after a move to Barcelona didn’t materialize, Pepe Reina left for Napoli in a whirlwind late loan move.

Since then, Reina has gone on record stating that he is enjoying life at his new club, according to Sky Sports’ Simone Bargellini, and Mignolet has quickly become a familiar fixture between the Anfield posts.

Now let’s take a more in-depth look at Mignolet and the various facets to his game and analyze his start to life as Liverpool’s new first-choice goalkeeper.

Enjoy, and let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

 

Shot-Stopping

When Mignolet signed for Liverpool in July, many pundits may have questioned the signing given that Reina was still at the club, but undisputed across the board were the ex-Sunderland No. 1’s shot-stopping abilities.

At relegation-fighting Sunderland in the 2012/13 Premier League season, Mignolet was almost alone in performing week in, week out for the Black Cats and salvaging precious points for his team with his agility and brilliant reflexes—and so far he has carried this form into his career at Anfield.

If there were any doubts about his shot-stopping credentials—and there might have been a few given his shaky start to the game—he quickly dispelled them with a thrilling double save right at the death in the opening game of the season against Stoke City.

More than just saving two points (for the saves ensured that the Reds hung on to their 1-0 lead), Mignolet’s debut contribution allowed Liverpool to start the season in morale-boosting fashion, a run that has culminated in an encouraging position in the top three after 10 gameweeks.

This season, Mignolet has made the second-highest number of saves in the league outright—first place is newly promoted Cardiff City’s David Marshall—with 38 in 10 games. That means he’s made just under four saves per game on average.

Considering that he has only let in 10 goals so far, we’d say the No. 22 hasn’t done too badly in the shot-stopping department. See the video above for more evidence.

 

Aerial Dominance

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As he got through his last couple of seasons in a Red shirt, Pepe Reina showed a decline in his shot-stopping, so in that regard, Simon Mignolet has certainly proved to be an upgrade. So how do they compare in an area that traditionally has been seen as Reina’s signature?

For all of his tendencies to punch and clear crosses, as seen in the above graphic from WhoScored.com, Reina actually didn’t have the statistics to support his instincts—certainly not in the 2012/13 season, and certainly not when compared to Mignolet.

Sure, the Belgian keeper exhibited signs of nerves when he failed to claim a cross in his debut match against Stoke, which led to Robert Huth hitting the crossbar from a mid-range chance, but since then, Mignolet has admirably stuck to his instincts and performed.

Liverpool have seemingly brought their vulnerability at set pieces on to this season, and Brendan Rodgers and Co. still have a lot of work to do to tighten up the holes in such situations, but in Mignolet, he possesses a keeper that has continued to improve on his aerial attributes.

Aerial ability is thus another area in which Mignolet has offered an upgrade on Reina this season.

 

Distribution

Now onto Reina’s famous attribute: distribution, and there, Mignolet still has a long way to go.

Not because Mignolet’s distribution is below par—it was his long throw that got Luis Suarez on his way to score his second goal in the away win against Sunderland—it’s just that Reina’s qualities in long passes and throws were a staple to Rafael Benitez’s swashbuckling, counterattacking Liverpool side of 2007-2009, and indeed was a key player in making that system tick.

Now that Brendan Rodgers has favored a much more patient buildup—even though this current Reds team have developed a mean capability to counterattack at pace—Mignolet’s comfort on the ball has made him an outlet for passes and helping to recycle the ball at the back.

His kicking hasn’t hit the heights of the Reina era, and as Rodgers’ team continues to become more multidimensional, Mignolet will have to work on improving his distribution.

 

Mental Attributes

When Liverpool lost both Jamie Carragher and Pepe Reina in the summer, questions were asked about the dressing room atmosphere with two of their main men gone in the space of a couple of months.

Carragher had provided the experience, and Reina was famous for being a jester-like presence and a popular member of the dressing room—were the new recruits going to be able to make up for two major losses and survive in a quieter dressing room?

The camaraderie we’ve seen from the Liverpool team this season has suggested that the answer to that question has been an emphatic “no,” with the likes of Kolo Toure contributing his experience and jovial personality to the team. Mignolet has also chipped in with a confident presence in the dressing room—not quite the jester that Reina was, but still a strong presence and personality.

As for other mental aspects that a good goalkeeper needs to have, concentration is high on Mignolet’s list of strengths. Not that he’s had many quiet periods to sit through—West Bromwich Albion aside—given how many saves he’s had to make so far—but in games where Liverpool are expected to dominate possession, having a keeper who can pull off a save to salvage points is essential.

We’ve seen that in matches against Stoke, Aston Villa and Manchester United, and his teammates—especially now that the midfield weaknesses are becoming increasingly exposed—will continue to rely on him, at least until January rolls around and reinforcements can be made to shore up the midfield.

 

Conclusion: Pepe Reina Has Not Been Missed

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Stu Forster/Getty Images
All of this means that Simon Mignolet has unequivocally been an upgrade on Pepe Reina, especially the Reina of the previous two seasons, and that he has enjoyed a quite superb start to life at Anfield as Liverpool’s new first-choice goalkeeper.

Liverpool fans will be glad to know that Reina, a crowd favorite and Reds legend, is enjoying a new lease of life in Naples, but they will also rest assured that in Mignolet, they have a top young goalkeeper ready to make the No. 1 spot his own for the next decade.

If he continues to mature and improve, especially in his distribution, then Liverpool will have one of the best keepers in Europe in their ranks for years to come.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

GK: Simon Mignolet

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

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

 

RCB: Kolo Toure

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

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

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

 

LCB: Mamadou Sakho / Daniel Agger

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

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

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

 

CD / SW: Martin Skrtel / Daniel Agger

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

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

 

RWB: Glen Johnson / Raheem Sterling / Jordan Henderson

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

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

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

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

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

 

LWB: Jose Enrique / Glen Johnson

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

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

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

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

 

CM: Steven Gerrard

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

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

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

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

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

 

CM: Jordan Henderson / Joe Allen

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

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

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

 

CAM: Philippe Coutinho / Victor Moses / Joe Allen

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

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

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

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

 

ST: Daniel Sturridge

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

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

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

 

ST: Luis Suarez

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

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

 

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

Aston Villa 0-1 Liverpool: 6 Positives and Negatives

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daniel Sturridge with Yet Another Match-Winning Performance…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And why not?

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

…But Philippe Coutinho Must Learn to Deal with Extra Attention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kolo Toure and Simon Mignolet Impress Again…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brendan Rodgers the Realist…

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

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

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

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

Not so.

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

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

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

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

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

…But Winning Ugly is Better Than Not Winning at All

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liverpool 1-0 Stoke: 6 Things We Learned

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Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

 

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

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

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

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

Kolo Toure: One of the Best Signings of the Summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jordan Henderson Fully Deserves Brendan Rodgers’ Faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Await Lucas and Daniel Sturridge’s Return to Full Fitness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simon Mignolet Passes His First Test

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Nervy Win That Should Become Routine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Result That Bodes Well for the Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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