In the middle of rehab following knee replacement surgery. As my normal activities have been curtailed for a while I've decide to become a soccer commentator to pass the time! So ..... what of Liverpool, the once Mighty Reds? Only 4 years ago they were arguably the best in team in England and as a matter of fact the top team in the Champions League over the previous 5 seasons. Under the guidance of Rafael Benitez Liverpool had been built into a powerful unit with the likes of Gerrard, Alonso, Mascherano & Torres leading the way. Then came the nosedive as the limitations of American ownership caught up and the club made the huge mistake, in my opinion, of letting Benitez go prematurely. So here we are in 2013 under new American ownership (Boston based too) wondering whether there will be a return to the glories of the Benitez era? Is there a plan? Is there hope? Ultimately, how will we do this year? I have watched all the pre-season games on TV bar one and whilst there are some good signs I would have to say that I really do not know what to expect this year. There are a number of areas to examine when speculating the performance of the team over 2013/14 ... the personnel on the squad, the ownership, the manager and the aforementioned "plan". I can't wait to bore you all!!
THE CURRENT TEAM
So here's the projected LFC starting team for the coming season:
DEF: Johnson, Toure or Skrtel, Agger, Enrique
C.MID: Lucas, Gerrard, Henderson or Allen
FWDS: Sturridge, Suarez or Aspas, Coutinho
Its a solid looking team. Balanced with solid players throughout. Obviously a key consideration is what happens to Suarez. I think we are all expecting him to leave (preferably to Spain!) If/when he goes much will fall on the shoulders of Aspas. He looks like a clever player who can score goals. At the end of the day its going to come down to how will he cope with the Premiership? Hopefully he's another Michu though physically he's nowhere near as imposing. As the thread throughout the many LFC websites goes … Brendan likes them small!!
So how will we fare this season? Contrast with the starters of 2008-2009:
DEF: Arbeloa, Carragher, Agger or Skrtel, Aurelio
C.MID: Mascherano or Lucas, Alonso, Gerrard
FWDS: Kuyt, Torres, Benayoun or Riera
This team was also well balanced and their formation was more 4-5-1. The wide players were hard working & pushed up to support the striker whenever they could. Overall this was much more dynamic lineup. It was also capable of challenging domestically & in Europe. The 2013 edition clearly isn't in the same class but I do see some possibilities:
1). Mignolet is a class, young goalkeeper. Time will tell how good.
2). In defense if a good central pairing can be found - Skrtel & Agger looked a good paring under Dalglish - that will go a long way to improving the reds defensively. A stronger, more consistent left back should be on the shopping list however.
3). If a player like Christian Ericksen can be added in central midfield then I would say that 2013 LFC suddenly has the potential to compare to the 2009 midfield which was amongst the best in the World at that time.
4). There are goals up front! Countinho is clearly a talent who can both score and create. If/when Suarez leaves Liverpool will have to buy and it needs to be someone who can contribute immediately not another player for the future!
VERDICT. Overall, Liverpool might be able to improve on last season but not by much (6th or 5th perhaps). Hope I'm wrong. I think its very important that Liverpool get some good cup runs and qualifying for Europe one way or another is very important to the psychology of the club moving towards the future.
The manager unquestionably is a key ingredient in the success or failure of any team. Every club has strengths and weaknesses. History, tradition, location and fan base can all be factors when evaluating and projecting the level of success of a particular club. The players and personnel and, most especially in the Premiership era, the finances and ownership of the club, are perhaps the key factors in the modern game. The role of the manager, simply put, is to bring everything together on the field so that the team can achieve the desired results.
And so to Brendan Rogers. I know that my feelings were shared by many fellow LFC fans on his appointment … a young manager of promise but with little experience or track record to be managing a club like Liverpool. It was especially frustrating that the owners neglected to even talk to Rafa Benitez who everybody knew had been a victim of the mess made by American owners #1 and had left before his time. Whilst at Anfield Benitez had built the squad bit by bit tapping into some of the traditional strengths of the Football Club but also being very resourceful along the way. Everyone remembers Istanbul but check out the earlier rounds of the Cup that year. Rafa used a number of less heralded reserve and young players and demonstrated a number of different tactical plans to get past teams who were usually more heavily favoured.
When Benitez left a number of players left or fell by the wayside. Hodgson & Dalglish had their time at the driver's seat so by the time FSG dismissed the latter LFC had quite clearly lost the momentum of the Benitez years. There remained good players on the squad but overall there seemed to be a lack of focus & direction in the team. That may well have been a reason that the owners looked to a manager like Brendan Rogers who preached the Barca philosophy of tika-taka football which was then at the peak of being a fashionable way to play. However, Rogers was in a difficult position from the get-go as the team need serious re-building in an era of professional soccer when there is little, if any, time to do so.
A year ago LFC were here in Boston with a group of youngsters and reserves with many of the senior players absent following the Euros and with several players still participating in the Olympics. In a sense this set a tone for the first half of the season especially after the Andy Carroll-Clint Dempsey debacle. Brendan Rogers is known to be an advocate of young talent and indeed he blooded a number of young LFC Academy products. The truth is that under the circumstances he found himself in he had little choice. Not an easy situation for any manager! In hindsight Liverpool's first half of the season could have been so much worse were it not for everyone's favourite pain in the backside Luis Suarez! Suarez was very much the one man forward line and without his goals Liverpool would have entered the second half of the season at the bottom of the table looking forward to a relegation dogfight for the rest of the season.
Things improved considerably in 2013 and Liverpool eventually rose to 7th place. Whilst this is not great compared to the past history of the club it was very creditable after the poor first half of the season. Results-wise some clear patterns were evident in Rogers first season:
1). Liverpool only had one win against the 6 teams that finished above them in the league. In many of these games LFC played extremely well. However, the fact that all too often they failed to get the win was not due to bad luck but rather that Liverpool have consistent weaknesses that need to be addressed & overcome if the results against the top teams are to improve.
2). Physical teams often did well against Liverpool. Stoke fairly trampled the Reds underfoot and Oldham in the FA Cup also fell clearly into this category.
3). Liverpool had a clear possession stye of football - as historically they have tended to have anyway - and over the course of the season the system improved offensively with the arrival of Sturridge & Coutinho. Defensively problems remained. Srktel & Agger were a formidable pairing in 2011-12 yet the two of them petered out weakly last season.
4). The lack of a Plan B. Whilst I think its tremendously admirable (and idealistic) to try to play tika-taka better when the team is struggling I don't think its a recipe for success in a results based industry. ManU are the masters of scrapping out a win when they are not playing well. LFC need to rediscover this art as once upon a time it was also a hallmark of their best teams.
5). Liverpool were very capable of overpowering teams below them in the league quite convincingly when these teams came to play in an open style of play. It will be interesting to see how we will fare when these lesser teams sit in and try to make things difficult for Liverpool to play. Beware the parked bus!
VERDICT. In summary, there were distinct signs of promise for the future. However, the issues listed above will have to be overcome if Liverpool are to return to the level of 2005-2010. In hindsight it was unfortunate that the start of Brendan Rogers reign was blighted with "Being Liverpool". There are many times in our illustrious history when a fly on the wall documentary on "The Liverpool Way" would have been very welcome. This was not one of them! Rogers coming across as a David Brent persona also did him few favours. Ultimately, while I still feel the Rogers appointment to Liverpool to be premature he's here and there are some hints of future possibilities. Its up to him! At the end of the day Brendan Rogers has a fantastic opportunity. He clearly has some ability now its up to him to translate it into a good LFC season. I think we all know that if Liverpool don't rise sufficiently this year to at least qualify for Europe then he too will likely be on his way.
Before Roman Abramovich I'm not sure how significant that the owners of a football club were in England. In a near instant Chel-ski went from a very good Premiership club to champions of England and a permanent fixture in the Champions League. Top players were signed and a revolving door of big name managers were appointed to ensure that they kept challenging for the Premiership & Champions League year-in, year-out. Money appeared to be no object.
With Man United's millions also growing season after season David Moores made the decision to sell LFC with the thought they might be able to keep pace with Chelsea & United and remain competitive. I was in Dallas for the National Championships with my state team the week American owners #1 opened an LFC office in downtown Dallas. To be in town & read about this in the Dallas newspapers was very exciting. Liverpool had reached the Champions League Final 2 of the previous 3 seasons and Benetiz was clearly putting together a squad that was one to be reckoned with. The plans for the new stadium were scrapped and replaced by something more ambitious, more eye popping. There seemed to be no limit to what Liverpool would be able to achieve under American ownership. Of course we all know how that turned out and out of the rubble came American owners #2 … John Henry and his Fenway Sports Group. This was also exciting for me initially as Henry was Boston based and Boston is now my home.
At the start under FSG leadership substantial amounts of money were paid for players many of who were clearly overpriced. Good money was generated by many of the players of the Benetiz era and this appeared to finance the bulk of these buys. In reality, Torres, Alonso & Mascherano were swapped for Carroll, Henderson & Downing. Dalglish was reluctantly brought back by FSG and for the first 6 months of 2011 he brought the team and the fans together with a good run of form. Subsequently, 2011-2012 was a mixed bag. LFC won the League Cup and returned the club to Europe again. However, the second half of the season was distinctly mediocre as the Reds slipped to 8th, their lowest position since the return to the top division in 1962. It was at this point that FSG perhaps showed their colours. After losing in the Cup Final to Chelsea John Henry famously ignored King Kenny as he climbed the steps at Wembley. A couple of weeks later Dalglish was gone.
I've lived in Boston since 1990. In all honesty I can't say I follow or understand American sports. The local Red Sox baseball team I would liken to Newcastle United rather than Liverpool. Massive, fanatical support but with a historical tendency to fall short. When John Henry took the reigns the Red Sox in quick succession broke their shackles and won 2 World Series. I cannot analyze the whys & wherefores of American baseball. These are the impressions I have from the local press and from what I have heard from Red Sox fans over time …
1). Henry & NESV (as FSG were then) inherited a good situation on the field. What they did well was bring the club together and give the organization some focus overall.
2). The longer they were there the more they began to tinker with the setup and this resulted in 2 disastrous seasons … 2011 & 2012.
3). This season has been much better as they have returned to some of the methods and structure that yielded results formerly.
4). Off the field they ignored the plans to build a new stadium and refurbished historic Fenway Park. They earned a reputation for generating revenue every which way they can. Ticket prices rose and Fenway was milked successfully from a financial perspective.
Keeping this in mind how then are FSG going to contribute to help bring LFC back to the top of the soccer tree? First, with Dalglish gone they sought a young ambitious manager who could build a project in their image. The cynical would say a they wanted a "yes" man and if not that then a cheaper option to a "name" manager. Secondly, even though very little of the transfer money squandered was theirs a tighter transfer budget was implemented in which the age of the prospective player and so-called "Moneyball" approach became a key consideration. Their preference was to buy young so that there would be a good sell on price down the road. Thirdly, a number of moves were made to reduce the wage bill. Pepe Reina's recent loan move was reputedly motivated by this goal. Prior to this they had bought in Damian Comoli, a sort of Director of Recruitment who apparently was well-versed with the "Moneyball" which has had some limited success in American baseball. The Comoli appointment didn't last very long and to these eyes FSG has fiddled with several ideas at Anfield without the real conviction to truly see any of them through.
Bigger picture. FSG does appear to have stabilized the finances from the Gillett/Hicks period. However, are they really moving Liverpool onto a path towards renewed success? Sometimes I think there is a plan whilst other times I scratch my head and I wonder if LFC is almost like a play thing for them?
If Liverpool are to mount a serious threat one again the following ingredients need to be present …
1). Whilst revenue needs to be generated - there does appear to be activity in this department - in the short-term especially it has to be ploughed back into the team so LFC has several top players playing for the team on competitive wages with the other top teams.
2). The aforementioned top players need to be amongst the best in their respective positions. In 2009, for example, there was Reina in goal, midfielders Mascherano, Alonso, Gerrard & striker Torres. Each of these players were amongst the very best in the world in their playing positions. This gave the team a backbone that it has since lacked. In 2013 perhaps the only comparable level players are Suarez & Gerrard. Gerrard is still a top player but he is very much in his twilight years. One factor in Suarez's current discontent may be the calibre of players LFC are bringing in right now. Top players want to play with other top players. I have no doubt it is the same in baseball!
3). If the message isn't clear yet money has to be spent. It can't just be about Moneyball! ie. getting productive players on the cheap relatively speaking. Chelsea and now Manchester City have spent considerable amounts of money to ensure their clubs are perennial challengers. Success and playing Champions League every year generates even more money for a club on and off the field. If Liverpool continue to fall short of Champions League qualification because of a cheaper sub-standard squad they will certainly be missing out financially on one of the main financial avenues to remain competitive.
Without a shadow of a doubt Liverpool does possess tremendous potential on & off the field. Its history and massive worldwide fan base - on the recent Far East tour LFC played in front of a quarter of a million fans - are well chronicled. For LFC to take advantage of these factors they have to do considerably better on the field. To many observers the current setup is more akin to a middle of the table setup. I see no reason why the Reds can't have 4 or 5 marquee players again. The Moneyball approach might be more effective in evaluating the support players that every good team needs. Why not a mix and match approach? Some star players supported by some shrewd deals brought on board via a Moneyball scouting approach.
A manager, however knowledgable & talented, is only as good as the players he has. If Man Utd followed FSG's transfer policy they would not have signed RVP last season. Without Van Persie they wouldn't have won the Premiership. To solidify the Red Sox challenge for the pennant this season FSG has just picked up a highly experienced pitcher. As part of the trade a young player, who had had some impact this season, went the other way. Imagine if Liverpool were to sign Leighton Baines to help solve their LB problems but Raheem Sterling went the other way. Experienced players should not be evaluated and discarded merely by their low sell on price! Experience has tremendous value!! FSG need to follow the policy here that they use with the Red Sox.
VERDICT. As with Brendan Rogers 2013-14 will show one way or another whether or not FSG are in the game to truly help Liverpool restore themselves to former glories. However, the team does on the field, good, bad or indifferent, the level of support to Rogers and the team will be quite clear and unambiguous. It was on the Boston news stations the other week that FSG might be looking to sell Liverpool. A rumour it may be but the Boston TV stations have paid little attention to Liverpool since FSG acquired them. It appears a long term strategy may have been employed to bring LFC back to the top. While America may be the the king of professional team sports I remain unconvinced on whether the principles of American professional sports can be applied to professional soccer worldwide. Looking at soccer longer term the pro game is on a path where a European Super League is inevitable. Lets hope that FSG keep Liverpool on a path where they don't miss out. Once upon a time teams like Preston, Huddersfield & Wolves were the dominant clubs in English football. Now they languish in lower divisions. Liverpool's history is not a guarantee that they will keep their status in the English & European game. Now is the time for FSG to stand up and be counted! Do they really want to see the Reds as a real power again or is LFC just a business move to generate revenue but without the risk-taking that is often necessary to have success?
Note: As I was finishing up this piece I had one eye on a Capital Cup tie on TV. After it finished there was a short, unadvertised program about Liverpool's French Supporters Club. It was quite an eye-opener. We all feel our teams are special but LFC are fortunate to enjoy a passionate & committed support both internationally and on Merseyside. YNWA!
After a run of convincing wins Liverpool's preseason ended with a 1-0 defeat to Glasgow Celtic. In truth it was Celtic's shadow team as they had played in the Champions League just last week. Whilst pre-season games are notoriously unreliable indicators of what is to come looking at all the games as a whole these are some of my observations & conclusions …
1. In the early part of the game Liverpool had significant possession but it was all in their own half. This recalled the first half of last season. The reason for this quite simply was Celtic were the first team to press LFC high up the field this preseason.
2. After Celtic scored Liverpool were able to play higher up the field. Their style was attractive and skillful. Liverpool looked threatening continuously but rarely dangerous. Subtle difference! The success Liverpool hah had in the earlier games against lesser opponents was not so easily achieved against the Scots.
3. The longer the game went on the harder LFC found it to breakdown a well-organized, dogged defense. The situation remained the same even as the Celts threw on their youngsters. This was a problem last season and looks like it may be this year too. Liverpool does best against teams who play in an open style game against them.
4. No Luis Suarez = considerably less goals!! It does not appear that we have a striker who can conjure something out of nothing. I rate Sturridge and he looked dangerous at times today however one worrying aspect against Celtic was the amount of time he spent in midfield instead of leading the line as Suarez does so well. Aspas is a clever player who is certainly very orientated towards the goal. The question mark concerns the physical aspects of his play.
While all of Liverpool's buys this summer look decent however there are still a number of question marks on the team …
i. Central Defence. Toure is looking like he will start when in truth he was bought as a fill-in player. Wisdom showed quite clearly that when he is put under pressure he is not quite ready yet. It appears that Rogers rates him above Martin Kelly who many have always thought his a future England stalwart. Skrtel & Coates, although they have international pedigree, are clearly not favoured.
ii. Jose Enrique. Holds the ball too long, gets in to good attacking positions but all too often fails to deliver and overall is just not consistent. Enrique needs serious competition for his position or he should be moved on.
iii. Central Midfield. When Jordan Henderson was signed my thought was why sign him when we have Jonjo Shelvey!! Then Joe Allen came on board … we already have Henderson & Shelvey!!! For my money Shelvey was the best of this threesome and with the most potential yet he has been moved on. I realize that in terms of style each midfielder is slightly different but Henderson & Allen are not "points productive" i.e. they don't score or assist too often. They are better at keeping possession than Shelvey although most of their passing rarely involves taking risks. Athletically, I also think Allen has some limitations. Countinho looks like he would be the best option in the middle with Gerrard & Lucas. He is a tremendous passer of the ball plus he can score! Another midfielder who can play the Lucas role well is needed.
iv. Stuart Downing is not up to the required level (he has just been moved on!) and I would put question marks against Borini & Assaidi.
v. Forwards. LFC needs to discover the best alignment of its attacking resources. If Suarez leaves there has to be a ready made replacement.
As we are all prone to do in this game of opinions here is my team based on what we have at our disposal & the positions we need to purchase reinforcements:
DEF: Kelly, Skrtel, Agger, Johnson [backups: Wisdom & Toure]
C.MID: Lucas, Gerrard, Coutinho [backup: Henderson]
FWDS: Sturridge, Suarez, Aspas [backup: Sterling or Ibe, Borini or Alberto]
LFC need to purchase 1st team ready players in Central Defence, Left Back, Defensive Midfield & replacement for Luis Suarez. Four players is a significant number and leads me to the ultimate conclusion that it will be difficult to improve significantly on last season. There are plenty of good signs but there just isn't sufficient strength in the squad to make a significant leap. Please prove me wrong Brendan!! The opening game against Stoke will likely reveal much!