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Liverpool 4-3 Swansea: 6 Things We Learned from Reds’ Thrilling Win at Anfield

Liverpool 4-3 Swansea: 6 Things We Learned from Reds' Thrilling Win at Anfield
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

A seven-goal thriller at Anfield on Sunday saw Liverpool race into a 2-0 lead with goals from Daniel Sturridge and Jordan Henderson, only for Swansea City to peg them back. A second from Sturridge took the Reds up at half-time, only for a Wilfried Bony penalty to level things up after the break, before Henderson scored the winner.

This was both an exhibition of a swashbuckling attack and a display of dreadful defending from the home side, while Swansea’s enterprising efforts and relentless energy troubled Brendan Rodgers’ side throughout the 90 minutes.

But a brace each from Sturridge and Henderson were just enough to see the visitors off as the Reds secured an important three points after results elsewhere this weekend had gone the way of the Premier League top three.

Here are six things we learned about Liverpool’s thrilling win over Swansea. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

 

A Defensive Shambles

A Defensive Shambles
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

For the first time this season, Liverpool conceded three goals at home: Once again, it was their potent attack that bailed them out from an abysmal defensive performance.

It seems that the Reds defence struggle badly against big centre-forwards: They’ve been troubled by the likes of Christian Benteke in the past couple of seasons, and on Sunday it was Swansea’s Wilfried Bony who asked plenty of questions of Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger.

From Brendan Rodgers’ 63rd-minute substitution of Agger for the recently hapless Kolo Toure, it was fair to say that the vice-captain had failed to impress and that Bony had won the battle.

Not that Skrtel fared much better though. After a few months’ worth of shirt-pulling and tugging inside the penalty box had gone unnoticed, referee Mike Jones gave a decision that had been coming for a long time: a penalty on Skrtel.

In front of the defence, Steven Gerrard had one of his off days in the holding midfield role, as his tendency to roam forward to push the team on left gaping holes in the Reds’ final third. Jonjo Shelvey’s goal came as a result of the space afforded to him.

While Glen Johnson had a decent game upon his return from injury, only Jon Flanagan should emerge from the game with any credit. He grew in stature as the game wore on, and his work rate and commitment to the cause were crucial as Liverpool held on for the victory.

 

Contrasting Fortunes for Liverpool’s Strikers

Contrasting Fortunes for Liverpool’s Strikers
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Two goals and an assist for Daniel Sturridge made it 10 goals in his last eight league games, setting a record for Liverpool and opening a gap over Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero in the Premier League scoring charts.

Sturridge played the majority of the match on the right-hand side of the Liverpool front three, but his awareness and positioning to race clear in the 2nd minute and to head the home side back into the lead in the 36th minute had all the markings of a top Premier League striker.

Contrast that with Luis Suarez, who, despite putting in an exquisite cross for Sturridge’s second goal, failed to score once again. He’s only scored one goal in his last six league games, a far cry from his sizzling form in December.

As long as the SAS partnership remains productive and Liverpool continue to rack up the goals—and more importantly, the points—Suarez’s barren run will go relatively unnoticed, but this is not an ideal time for the No. 7’s shooting boots to go missing.

Liverpool fans and Suarez himself will look to Manchester United’s Robin van Persie as a study in “bouncebackability”: The United striker went through a mini-drought in the middle of last season as well, before storming back to take them to the league title.

 

Jordan Henderson Steps Up

Jordan Henderson Steps Up
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Almost three years since he signed for Liverpool, Jordan Henderson finally looked like he was worth the £16 million Kenny Dalglish had splashed out to sign him from Sunderland.

Having stepped up to the fore over the Christmas period when Steven Gerrard was injured, Henderson had quietened down just a bit and retreated into more of a comfort zone when his captain returned.

But when the situation at Anfield on Sunday called for a leader to rise to the cause, it was Henderson who responded with a stirring performance.

Two goals, a constant box-to-box presence, frequent marauding runs into Swansea’s penalty area and a match-winning goal: This was a performance fitting of Steven Gerrard at his finest.

It is just as well that Henderson has rediscovered his form, confidence and assertiveness on the pitch as Liverpool look to finish their Premier League season strongly.

With Gerrard taking more of a backseat role these days, it is up to Henderson to carry on his good work and affect his inspirational leadership on this Liverpool side.

Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool fans will be looking for more of the same in the weeks to come.

 

An Impressive Cameo from Joe Allen

An Impressive Cameo from Joe Allen
Jon Super/Associated Press

In hindsight, Rodgers made an inspired change just before the hour mark when he sent Joe Allen on for Raheem Sterling.

Swansea had equalized through a Wilfried Bony penalty, and Liverpool were looking just a bit jaded and nervous in the midfield, where Raheem Sterling’s influence had waned with the visitors’ rise in confidence.

Allen brought both composure and energetic pressing to the Reds midfield, both of which were integral to the home side keeping and recycling the ball, as well as giving Swansea a tougher time with their own possession play.

Allen took turns with Henderson going forward to the support the attack with his touches of the ball in advanced areas crucial to Liverpool’s attacking build-up.

As Liverpool enter the final 11 games of the season with less-than-desirable strength in depth, Allen provided a timely reminder of his qualities and potential worth to the side as a different option in the midfield.

However, his fellow substitute, Victor Moses, made the opposite impression with a lethargic display of poor invention and even poorer work rate.

If Allen made himself a real contender for the first team in the months to come, Moses surely moved himself further away from it with a disappointing 15 minutes off the bench.

 

An Encouraging Display from Swansea City

An Encouraging Display from Swansea City
Stu Forster/Getty Images

Garry Monk will have left Anfield ruing his side’s own defensive mistakes, as Swansea City had the chance to take a point or even all three home to south Wales.

But as the first side to score three goals at Anfield this season, Swansea will have been encouraged by their display: A show of energetic pressing and tidy passing put plenty of pressure on Brendan Rodgers’ side.

Michu’s loss for the majority of the season has been a huge setback for the Swans, but in his stead Wilfried Bony has started to look like the Premier League force he threatened to be in his first couple of months at the Liberty Stadium.

Strong, quick and clinical, Bony’s hold-up play caused plenty of problems for the Reds defence and opened up space for his midfield colleagues to roam forward and shoot on goal.

As Swansea find themselves much closer to bottom-placed Fulham than to ninth-placed Southampton, their first priority is to remain in the Premier League for the foreseeable future.

But as long as Monk continues in this mould, they should be looking at far more than staying in the league; they should be aiming at least to finish 10th.

 

Liverpool March on in Not-So-Impressive Fashion

Liverpool March on in Not-so-Impressive Fashion
Jon Super/Associated Press

When a Premier League side ships three goals to an opponent, “marching on” isn’t exactly the right term to use in the post-match reports, even if they’ve scored four themselves.

Yet “march on” is what Liverpool continue to do, and their nervy win highlighted attributes that they perhaps didn’t have previously: mental strength and a collective desire to finish in the top four.

Sunday was their ninth time scoring four or more goals in a Premier League game this season, and all three points in the bag, they have already equaled the number of wins they achieved last season—with 11 games to go.

Liverpool’s four-goal haul also makes them the highest-scoring side in the Premier League this season, overtaking Manchester City. No mean feat for a team that is still supposedly in a transitional season.

Their unconvincing defence will continue to leak goals, but as long as their attack continues to fire and they have big-game players coming up trumps, Liverpool may yet have further statements to make.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 8: Arsenal (Home)

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction: 1-1 Draw

February 12: Fulham (Away)

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

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

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

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

Prediction: 4-1 to Liverpool

February 23: Swansea City (Home)

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

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

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

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

Prediction: 4-0 to Liverpool

March 1: Southampton (Away)

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

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

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

Prediction: 2-1 to Southampton

March 10: Sunderland (Home)

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

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

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

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

Prediction: 2-2 Draw

March 16: Manchester United (Away)

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

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

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

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

Prediction: 2-1 to Liverpool

March 22: Cardiff City (Away)

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

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

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

Prediction: 3-1 to Liverpool

March 30: Tottenham Hotspur (Home)

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction: 4-1 to Liverpool

April 5: West Ham United (Away)

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

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

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

Prediction: 2-1 to West Ham

April 12: Manchester City (Home)

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction: 2-2 Draw

April 19: Norwich City (Away)

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

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

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

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

Prediction: 4-0 to Liverpool

April 26: Chelsea (Home)

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction: 1-1 Draw

May 3: Crystal Palace (Away)

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

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

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

Prediction: 2-1 to Liverpool

May 11: Newcastle United (Home)

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

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

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

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

You bet.

Prediction: 5-1 to Liverpool

 

Conclusion: 75 Points, Just Enough for Fourth

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

English Football Weekly: Week 10 Recap; Joe Hart’s Fall from Grace; Lloris’ Head Injury

EPL Week 10 Recap: Arsenal Impress; City Run Riot; Cardiff Win Welsh Derby

It was supposed to be a fascinating battle between Liverpool’s SAS and Arsenal’s central defenders, but Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge were nowhere to be found, and Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny didn’t need to be present, as the Gunners’ midfield took center stage in a clash that had “Arsenal: Potential title winners” written all over it. This was Arsenal at their best, and Liverpool’s midfield had no answer for the movement and dynamism of Olivier Giroud, Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla, Tomas Rosicky and Aaron Ramsey. And they still have the likes of Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to return. Manchester United, beware.

United won in impressive fashion too, but even that was overshadowed by their noisy neighbors, who turned in a masterful performance in their demolition of Norwich City (not sure if it was City who were brilliant or Norwich who were absolutely abysmal—probably a bit of both). Joe Hart was a spectator, and Costel Pantilimon was virtually another (more on them later), but Sergio Aguero and David Silva showed once again that they have the ability to dominate the Premier League week in, week out. Oh, and how about that free kick from Yaya Toure? Sensational stuff once again.

On Sunday, for the first time ever, a Premier League fixture was played between two non-English teams. So did the much-fancied and much-lauded Swansea beat lowly Cardiff? Steven Caulker headed in the winner in what would’ve been considered a major upset, in a result that gives Malky Mackay extra leverage in his allegedly troubled relationship with club owner Vincent Tan. On the other hand, after a great start to his Swansea career, Wilfried Bony seems to have dropped down the pecking order in a thus-far underwhelming campaign for Michael Laudrup. There’s work to be done in Wales.

Another upset was Newcastle’s win over Chelsea, which represented a dent in Jose Mourinho’s quest to catch Arsenal at the top of the league. A clean 2-0 home win was the perfect way for Alan Pardew’s men to bounce back from a last-gasp Tyne-Wear defeat last week. The much-anticipated clash between Everton and Tottenham ended up a drab draw with no goals scored. Spurs dominated the possession statistics, but Andre Villas-Boas should surely be concerned at the lack of support for Roberto Soldado and the striker’s own difficulties in integrating with his midfield. The upside is that, despite not really getting going yet, they finish Week 10 in fourth.

 

We need to talk about Joe Hart

They weren’t the most troubling of oppositions, to be fair, but Newcastle in the Capital One Cup last week and Norwich in the Premier League this weekend had something in common: They didn’t score against Costel Pantilimon.

It’s been well-documented that Joe Hart has suffered a drop in form for the best part of a year, and when given the chance, Pantilimon has always impressed—though his chances have been hard to come by. So from his perspective, it’s a well overdue chance to show his worth in a first-team, competitive setting—and he’s gotten it, after Manuel Pellegrini’s recent announcement that Pantilimon will start this week’s Champions League tie against CSKA Moscow.

But what about Hart himself? It won’t be easy for him to accept a place on the bench—as much as Pellegrini has said he’s “reacted well”—and what follows now is a massive test of character, not least because City have the financial power to strengthen in the January transfer window. They’ve already been linked with the likes of Iker Casillas.

And what about England? City won’t be too big a problem long-term: Goalkeepers are but one position on the field, and they’ve shown that they’re willing to do what it takes to build a top-class side, but England is a totally different situation. The only realistic option as a replacement is Celtic’s Fraser Forster, but his lack of experience doesn’t bode too well looking ahead at next summer’s World Cup. There aren’t too many others.

It wasn’t so long ago that Hart was rated as the next best goalkeeper in the world. If this spells the beginning of the end of Joe Hart, that would be the latest in a series of high-profile tragedies involving unfulfilled potential.

 

Football needs to deal with the head injury problem

The only incident of note in the otherwise dour 0-0 between Everton and Tottenham was Hugo Lloris being knocked out by Romelu Lukaku’s foot. He was visibly dazed in the immediate aftermath, but refused to leave the field and demanded to stay on. Spurs fans and Andre Villas-Boas will have been thankful for his save from Gerard Deulofeu, but his decision to not take his goalkeeper off has met widespread criticism.

Let’s make one thing absolutely clear: Lloris should be cleared of any blame. As a professional athlete, it’s completely understandable that he would want to stay on the field for as long as possible. Brad Friedel has been rightly usurped as the Tottenham No. 1, but that Lloris might have had one eye on keeping his place in the first team would come as no surprise.

What’s more controversial is the role of the physios and the manager. Spurs have issued a statement noting that Lloris’ post-match CT scan was positive and the on-pitch assessments by their medical team allowed him to play on. Which is all well and good—and fortunate—but what if the CT scan didn’t end with an all-clear? What then?

In that regard, the criticism that has come Spurs’ way is totally justified: Safety first should be the protocol observed when it comes to serious injuries, especially to the head, and the fact that Lukaku’s knee was bandaged and he had to come off after the challenge indicates that it wasn’t a light collision by any means.

But until there are rules put in place to govern such situations, there won’t be any standardized procedure on how clubs and managers should handle concussions and head injuries. It took Fabrice Muamba’s life-threatening collapse to spark the FA into action—and English football fans would surely not prefer to require another such serious case before drastic action is taken—but should physios be relied on for decisions like this, especially when their clubs have an important result at stake?

One suggestion would be to have independent medical staff employed by the Premier League present on standby at every football ground to offer expert consultative advice in cases like this. That’s probably the least that will happen now.

 

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

English Football Weekly: Week 4 Recap; Arsenal’s Resurgence; The Loan Market

EPL Week 4 Recap: Opposing Fortunes on Tyne-Wear, Villa Stumble, Shelvey Show

As the top six confirmed their status as the Premier League’s elite group with another series of predictable results this weekend (barring Chelsea’s 0-1 reverse at Goodison Park), let’s look at the so-called “mid-table” clubs, where the action is really getting interesting.

Starting with Tyneside and Wearside. Newcastle United were tipped for a chaotic season, especially after their controversial appointment of Joe Kinnear as their Director of Football, but barring an opening-day drubbing at the hands of Manchester City, they’ve actually been on the rise. Loic Remy looks like he’ll be a fine addition, while Yohan Cabaye’s return to the first team will be significant in the Magpies’ return to form. Hatem Ben Arfa stands out in what actually is a very decent squad on paper. And with seven points thus far, Newcastle stand proud.

Not so much over at the Stadium of Light though, which has surely seen many a fiery outburst from Paolo Di Canio in the Sunderland dressing room. Can you blame him? A solitary point in four games has condemned the Black Cats to the bottom of the table, but it is the manner of their defeats that should really be concerning. Di Canio’s latest public criticism of midfielder Cabral won’t help much, and their next five fixtures? West Brom, Liverpool, Manchester United, Swansea City, and the Tyne-Wear derby. It’ll be a long month and a half.

Not that Aston Villa have been faring too much better. After an impressive opening-day win at the Emirates Stadium, Paul Lambert’s side have lost their last three fixtures, albeit against tough opposition. Apart from a penalty scored by Antonio Luna on his debut against Arsenal, Christian Benteke has been their only scorer thus far, which means that for the team to climb up the table, the likes of Andreas Weimann and Gabby Agbonlahor need to start delivering the goods sharpish. A few challenging weeks ahead for Villa will test their mettle.

This wouldn’t be a very good weekly Premier League wrap if we didn’t mention Jonjo Shelvey and his impact on the Monday clash between Swansea City and Liverpool. If Man of the Match awards were really given to players who have an overall impact on a game, there wouldn’t be a finer candidate all weekend—or perhaps even all season—than Shelvey. After all, with a good goal and an exquisite assist, and two horrific passes, Shelvey was solely responsible for all four goals at the Liberty Stadium in an “excellent advert for the Premier League.”

Might Arsene Actually Know?

Four games, nine points, second place in the league. If it weren’t for Liverpool holding out for a point in south Wales on Monday, Arsenal would go into Week 5 as the league leaders, in what has been a quite remarkable turnaround of form and atmosphere at the Emirates Stadium.

We all remember the foul mood at the Emirates after their opening-day capitulation to Aston Villa and Christian Benteke, and Arsene Wenger will have found out that, for all of the technology and investment in a world-class stadium, it can be quite a nasty place to be. But three wins since, all accomplished in a quite comfortable manner—yes, even that one-goal win in the north London derby—and Arsenal are looking pretty good now.

Sure, Mesut Ozil will have been a key factor in turning around the Gunners’ attitudes, but even though he’ll no doubt inspire and win many points for his new club this term, he’s only been around for one of those wins. There are other reasons for Arsenal’s resurgence: the return to form of Aaron Ramsey, the maturing performances of Olivier Giroud, and an overall sense of immaculate teamwork and camaraderie in the dressing room.

Amidst all the hype and frenzy around Ozil—understandably and deservedly so, for he is one of the world’s best players—a quiet achievement by Wenger and his team is that they go to Marseille in the Champions League looking for a tenth straight win, which would be a club record. Confidence is brewing at the Emirates, and as ever, Arsenal just can’t be ruled out as a top-four team, even though they continue to be every season. And who knows? With further strengthening in January, they could become title contenders.

The Proliferation of the Domestic Loan Market

Cameron Jerome, Jason Puncheon, Kevin Phillips, Romelu Lukaku, Gareth Barry, Jake Livermore, Victor Moses, Aly Cissokho, Loic Remy, Johan Elmander, Stephen Ireland, Oussamma Assaidi, Fabio Borini, Ki Sung-Yueng, Morgan Amalfitano, Scott Sinclair, Matej Vydra.

Thus goes the list of first-team loan signings arriving in the Premier League this summer. That’s almost an average of one player on loan in each first-team squad in the top flight, where we know the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea haven’t participated in such a system except in the “loan out” category, and that’s not counting those loanees who might not walk straight into the starting XI.

That the loan system is attractive, as a means for top clubs to farm out talent who need top-level experience and consistent playing time and for lower-ranking clubs to improve their results on the cheap, is well-known. The likes of Daniel Sturridge and Jack Wilshere, now established Premier League stars, honed their talent on loan at Bolton Wanderers. Out of the 19 names in the above list, only four are from foreign clubs, and even then, two of them (Elmander and Vydra) have had experience in English football (with Bolton and Watford respectively).

But even bigger clubs are playing these days. Liverpool and Everton both have two names each, in the most high-profile representation of the benefits of the loan market to the Premier League as a whole. There have been suggestions that the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City are so far ahead from the pack that they can now afford to loan players to the Merseysiders (Moses, Lukaku and Barry), but equally it shows that in an age of relative financial austerity, the loan market can reap its benefits.

We’ll take the coming months to gauge the impact of the loan signings this summer—and as they perform well, more details of their loan arrangements (e.g. whether there is an option to buy, etc.) will come to light—and that could make for an interesting analysis in itself, but as the transfer window slammed shut, the proliferation of the loan market manifested. Watch this space.

 

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

Swansea City 2-2 Liverpool: 8 Positives and Negatives

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Stu Forster/Getty Images
Jonjo Shelvey stole the headlines in the aftermath of thrilling 2-2 draw between Swansea City and Liverpool at the Liberty Stadium on Monday, such was his contribution to the game itself.

And rightly so, given that he scored one and assisted one for the hosts—giving away two costly errors for the visitors to capitalize and score from.

If the Man of the Match awards were really given based on impact on the overall game, there wouldn’t be a better candidate than the Swans No. 8.

But besides Shelvey opening the scoring after a fine run and shot, there was Daniel Sturridge being opportunistic and seizing on an errant back pass. And Victor Moses making an impression and scoring a goal on his debut. And Michu finishing expertly from Shelvey’s exquisite lay-off header.

All in all, it made for a fine end-to-end game of football for two sides who like to play quickly and expansively—as the commentators will no doubt say, “a great advert for the English Premier League.”

Here are eight positives and negatives for Liverpool from the 2-2 draw, which ends the Reds’ winning start to the season but extends their unbeaten run. Let us know your take in the comments below.

 

This Is What an Unfit Daniel Sturridge Can Do…

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Stu Forster/Getty Images
In his post-match interview with Sky Sports, Daniel Sturridge said that he didn’t feel fit for the Swansea game, according to ESPNFC.

Small wonder, then, that he had to fight to make the trip to south Wales after having to miss out on England’s World Cup qualifiers last week, and exhibited a general lack of movement and mobility towards the end of the 90 minutes at the Liberty Stadium.

Lacking match fitness, Sturridge scored all the same, to continue his four-game scoring run in the Premier League, with a 12th goal in his last 10 games.

His piece of opportunism to score Liverpool’s opening goal—and to peg the Swans back almost immediately—will be understated given Jonjo Shelvey’s part in it and the latter’s history as a Liverpool player.

Sturridge had the presence of mind to anticipate Shelvey’s back-pass, and the timing of his run—including a slight adjustment of the run-up to meet the errant pass—was as impressive as his confident finish past the stranded Michel Vorm.

The Reds No. 15 hasn’t been 100 percent match-fit for most of the season yet, but he’s already scored in all five of Liverpool’s games this season. Imagine him firing on all cylinders.

 

…But Glen Johnson’s Absence Will Be Huge for the Reds

When Glen Johnson was forced off with an ankle injury against Manchester United, he was first mooted for a 10-week absence from the team, and was rightly considered a major blow for Brendan Rodgers.

The good news is that, according to Goal.com, Rodgers has said that Johnson may end up missing only four Premier League games, which will be a significant boost to the defence.

In Johnson’s absence, young Andre Wisdom, who first came into the team at the beginning of last season, has deputized at right-back, but unfortunately the No. 47 hasn’t been able to replicate his composed, confident form as yet.

His unsteady showing on Monday against Wayne Routledge and Ben Davies meant that the majority of the Swansea attacks came from the hosts’ left-hand side, where Wisdom was obviously uncomfortable dealing with the pace and acceleration on his flank.

It seemed inevitable that he would be replaced in the second half, and sure enough, Kolo Toure was sent on to offer his experience in a bid to shore up the defence, who by then was on the back foot against an increasingly confident home side.

But in the continued absence of Martin Kelly, while Liverpool have a host of options available to play in the right-back slot, none of them will offer the assurance and the complete package that Glen Johnson offers.

The sooner the Liverpool and England No. 2 returns, the better.

 

Victor Moses Will Be a Key Addition to the Attack…

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Stu Forster/Getty Images
Out of the three deadline day signings by Brendan Rodgers—despite Mamadou Sakho’s precocious reputation at Paris Saint-Germain and considerable international experience with France—it was Victor Moses who would have been the most familiar to Reds fans.

Moses was the former Crystal Palace prodigy who joined Wigan Athletic in 2010, and when he was up for grabs last summer from the Latics, Liverpool were linked with him, as reported by the Daily Mail.

After a season at Chelsea where he gained prominence and a regular first-team place under former Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez, Moses endured a difficult start to the season with Jose Mourinho at the helm, and was snapped up by Mourinho protégé Brendan Rodgers on loan for the season.

Initially, it was a signing met with mixed reactions from Liverpool supporters. They ranged from laments about Liverpool’s status compared to Chelsea’s (having to resort to loaning a player from their rivals) to the quality of Moses himself and whether he would bring anything to Anfield.

And the new No. 12 quickly allayed any fears and doubts of the Reds faithful with an exciting debut on Monday, where he troubled defenders with his pace and dribbling, and knocked in a nonchalant goal from outside the box following a fine run.

He departed on 80 minutes with Raheem Sterling coming on as his replacement, having shown on his first appearance exactly why Rodgers chose to give him this opportunity.

 

…But Iago Aspas Continues to Underwhelm

While Andre Wisdom came into the team due to Glen Johnson’s injury, and Mamadou Sakho due to Daniel Agger’s, there was one other change to the Liverpool starting lineup that spoke volumes about two summer arrivals at Anfield.

Iago Aspas had put in tidy shifts on his first three league appearances for Liverpool—and indeed was Liverpool’s top scorer over preseason—but straight into the starting lineup came new signing Victor Moses and his power, pace, physicality and goal threat.

When Aspas did come on in the second half for the injured Philippe Coutinho, he showed exactly why Moses was favored for the occasion over the new No. 9.

Simply put, Aspas didn’t show enough of the “terrier-like” mentality and aggressive technical forward play he was known for at previous club Celta Vigo.

So what now for the £7.7 million summer signing?

It’s way too early to write off the Spanish forward, especially taking into account the varying time spans in which foreign players settle into the Premier League. But with Moses making an eye-catching debut, Jordan Henderson continuing to impress and Luis Suarez waiting to return to the fold, it looks a tall order for Aspas to reclaim his position in the starting XI.

Time to get his head down and work on his physique to impose himself in the league.

For a player mooted as this season’s version of Swansea bargain find Michu, Aspas has too much talent not to come back with a vengeance.

 

First-Half Dominance Is Now Customary for Liverpool…

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Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
It is a curious reversal that Liverpool have now dominated possession and the passages of play in all their first halves in the league this season, while it was a regular case of second-half resurgences in the 2012/13 campaign.

And there are positives and negatives to this.

Looking positively, there was the much-derided lack of composure and mental strength that saw the team particularly vulnerable after scoring a goal themselves. In itself, this was a curious phenomenon last season.

Failing to start a game well and get a firm hold on the tie cost Liverpool many a point and many a result especially in the first half of last season, and it meant that the Reds often had to step up their game in the second 45 minutes.

Incredibly, they’ve now turned it around.

The impressive starts to their first few games deserve to be lauded, during which the exquisite short passing and exciting movement all over the pitch have caused untold problems for opposing midfields and defences.

It is especially telling that, barring the extra-time goals in the Capital One Cup tie against Notts County, all seven goals Liverpool have scored this season have come in the first half.

So, Rodgers has thus far successfully gotten his team to step up their performances and maintain a stranglehold on possession and the game as a whole in the first 45 minutes.

And, in truth, the results are encouraging.

 

…Now It’s a Matter of Finishing the Game Strongly

But there are always areas for improvement, and in Liverpool’s case, it’s now about finishing the game just as strongly as they start it.

Or, in other words, it’s about maintaining that consistency in performance levels, stamina and composure over the course of the 90 minutes.

What they’ve proved in their opening fixtures is that the mental resilience and collective mindset now exist in abundance across the team; you don’t hold onto one-goal leads and turn them into three points having to defend in the second half unless you have this kind of toughness.

As is always mentioned, real top teams have it in them to churn out results and points even when they’re not playing particularly well, and this has certainly been the case for Liverpool’s second-half performances thus far this 2013/14 campaign.

It is unrealistic and probably even unfair to expect the players to dominate an entire game.

The likes of Barcelona and FC Bayern Munich are regarded as special clubs precisely because it is that difficult to do so. The drop in performance levels after the break have been a common feature in all four league games this season and will surely be a point to note for Rodgers and his backroom team.

They have rightly commended their on-field charges for their ability to hold it together and preserve a lead—something that they might not have been able to do just 12 months ago—but now it is time to up their game to a whole different level.

 

Another Week at the Top of the Premier League at Anfield…

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Heading into the Monday fixture against Swansea City, Liverpool fans could have been forgiven for having to blink their eyes twice at the league table.

Three games in, a game in hand due to their late kickoff in this fourth round of Premier League fixtures, and they have the same number of points as table-topping Arsenal?

Drawing the game would send them top again, and losing it would still place them on level footing with the league leaders?

Sure enough, while all hopes were on Liverpool continuing their winning start to the season and going three points clear at the top of the table, this was a new feeling at Anfield, a first in many seasons: They were actually worried about dropping points because they didn’t want to lose their top spot in the league.

A point was duly secured, in the process extending their unbeaten run and continuing their fine form since the turn of the year.

And Liverpool host the visit of Southampton this Saturday as league leaders.

Match Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur’s results this weekend, and Liverpool will go into another round of fixtures in first place.

Not bad at all.

 

…And Liverpool Fans Should Enjoy This While It Lasts

The beauty of the current league table right now is that this was not even supposed to be part of Liverpool’s season.

Yes, last season was a disappointing one, which ultimately ended without having secured European football for the season and culminated in the Reds finishing below their Merseyside rivals, Everton, in seventh place.

But even with their encouraging transfer business this summer, considering the strengthening done at rival clubs, it was always going to be a long shot even just to make the Champions League places, especially given the prevailing new expectations of steady progress at Anfield.

If, prior to the start of the season, Liverpool fans would be offered a point away to Swansea and 10 after their first four fixtures, the majority of them would have gladly taken it—as would, surely, the players and the manager.

In the context of the game itself, Liverpool should be disappointed that they didn’t make their first-half dominance count more by finishing with the win and extending their lead at the top of the table, but the bigger picture shows that they find themselves where they were never expected or supposed to be in the first place.

It is all well and good to expect, and even demand, a consistent run of good results to keep this league position as long and lofty as possible, but when the dropping of points inevitably come, Liverpool fans would do well to remember their underlying context, that a Champions League finish would already be a huge achievement for the season.

Holding that perspective would help them make all the right noises while supporting their team in their quest of glory.

 

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