Tag Archives: Top Four

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.

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

Top Four Watch: A Reality Check for Manchester United

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

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

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

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

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

Relegation Watch: Underachievers and Disappointments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Players to Watch: AKA Fantasy Picks

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

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

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

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

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

 

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