Saturday, 28 May 2011

Man United vs Barcelona - Brief Preview

So much has already been said about this cup final, there's not a great deal more that I can add. Jonathan Wilson has written some great pieces (for the Guardian and Sports Illustrated) which discuss the potential benefits of a 3-man United defence - but he naturally concludes that Ferguson won't risk such a dramatic change in strategy, especially not one which requires him to break up his preferred centre-back pairing of Rio and Vidic (United have conceded just four goals in the competition this season! - although, Barcelona have scored 27...).

And Michael Cox has previewed the game excellently, as well as highlighting some important lessons from the previous final of 2009. He points out that one of Ferguson's biggest problems is that, with Darren Fletcher unfit, a midfield pairing of Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick is nowhere near sturdy enough to deal with Barca's Busquets-Xavi-Iniesta(-Messi) central midfield. He also questions whether Chicharito ought to start for Man United - something which is likely to be Ferguson's most significant tactical decision.

And elsewhere, everyone's favourite Champions League-winning manager Rafael Benitez lent his name to a dazzling double-spread preview in The Times.

So I'll just offer my own humble prediction of how each side will line up, and, consequently, where the game might be won or lost.

Everyone knows more or less how Barcelona are likely to set up. With Abidal unfit, Mascherano will probably come into the defence and push Puyol out to left-back. The consensus on United, however, is that they will start in their usual 4-4-1-1 formation, which they have used for most 'big' games in the second half of the season, with Chicharito up front and Rooney just behind. However, I think this line-up makes more sense, and I think Ferguson will be tempted to use it.

It allows Park, the ultimate harrying 'defensive forward,' to close down Busquets, who, as Sid Lowe has pointed out, is absolutely integral to Barcelona's play. During (inevitable) periods of sustained Barca pressure, Park can drop deeper onto Xavi, allowing Giggs to pull wide and track Alves, while Rooney can drop onto Busquets. This allows Nani, one of United's shining stars this season, to stay permanently higher up the pitch, where, if the ball breaks quickly into the left-channel, he can be one-on-one with Mascherano who he can beat, or at least draw fouls and bookings from. It might also encourage Alves to stay deeper, which would severely hinder the fluency of Barcelona's attacking play. As such, Nani would become the only player without a serious pressing remit, but would be regularly afforded space wide, and would be able to isolate one of Barca's weakest links (as strange as that may sound when talking about Javier Mascherano - he is not a natural centre-back).

From a defensive point of view, of course it still relies on United's back-four remaining solid - retaining shape is absolutely vital, because Barca's players will wait and wait for their chance to capitalise on any players being dragged out of position. David Pleat wrote in the Guardian that Rio ought to be brave in stepping out of defence to track Messi, but Messi, playing as a false-nine, tends to drop into the centre-right position, which would mean Vidic would have more responsibility for him. If Vidic is left too exposed, though, and is constantly dragged out of position, he is liable to get in trouble with the referee.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Aston Villa vs Liverpool - Tactical Preview

There are a few points of interest in this game. Gerard Houllier had his 'emotional homecoming' at Anfield in December of course, and although he sadly won't be present on Sunday, another ex-Liverpool favourite Gary McAllister will be in the Villa dugout. Also, it's no secret that Liverpool have been sniffing around Ashley Young and Stewart Downing for some time now, and a move to Anfield for one of both seems to be on the cards this Summer. The travelling fans in red will be hoping that Villa's two creative wingers save their best for next season however, as Liverpool continue their push for fifth place (which now relies on Tottenham failing to beat Birmingham City at White Hart Lane on Sunday).

At this stage of the season, it's always difficult to predict line-ups, but a win for Villa could theoretically take them as high as ninth-place (from their current 13th), so they're likely to put out their strongest possible team. A solid defensive performance and two good Darren Bent finishes won the points for Villa away at Arsenal at the weekend, so I suspect they'll stick with much the same line-up, with the exception, perhaps, of Fabian Delph who was playing only his second game of the season after a return from injury (and also might be a bit worse for wear: he said the Villa boys were planning to have "more than a few pints" to celebrate their Emirates victory). I suspect he'll be replaced by either Gabby Agbonlahor or, more likely, Marc Albrighton in a 4-2-3-1 (which often looks like a 4-4-1-1), but it's possible that Emile Heskey (who tends to feature in most home games) will regain his place  upfront alongside Darren Bent. McAllister might also want to give Michael Bradley (in place of Reo-Coker or Stiliyan Petrov) one last run-out before his loan agreement expires, and Ciaran Clark has been agitating for a return to the first team.

Dalglish, on the other hand, may well name an unchanged team, despite having endured a surprise defeat to Tottenham in the last game. Raul Meireles has returned to training after the injury he suffered at Craven Cottage, but it seems likely that Maxi Rodriguez will retain his place on the left of midfield, and Dalglish will want to persist with his favoured Carroll/Suarez strike-partnership while they are both fit. There is a possibility that Fabio Aurelio will return from injury to take John Flanagan's starting place, and Spearing might be dropped in favour of the more creative Jonjo Shelvey, who has impressed in recent substitute performances. But, in all probability, the teams will line up like this:

The two team shapes are clearly quite similar, and in these situations games can become a little stodgy and stunted, so both sides will be relying on their expensive January signings to make the difference. Darren Bent has been caught offside more regularly than any other player this season, and he spends an awful lot of his time on the shoulder of the last defender. This paid dividends against Arsenal's poorly organised defence, as Bent was able to break their shoddy offside-trap for both of his goals (although the finish for his first goal was genuinely excellent). As such, you can bet that Dalglish and Clarke have been working on Liverpool's defensive line in training this week. Bent also relies on Villa's creative players to provide him with chances, so it seems likely that Lucas and Spearing will have been given instructions on how to deal with Ashley Young's intelligent play, especially if he is given the free role behind the striker, and Downing has been a creative force for Aston Villa too this season, so Liverpool's right-back (most likely Flanagan) will have to do a good job of stopping his crosses from deep.

From Liverpool's point of view, if they do keep the same team, certain aspects of their game will need to improve substantially from the Tottenham game - most significantly in terms of the transition between defence and attack, which was poor at Anfield on Sunday. If Aston Villa do a good job of stifling Suarez, as Dawson and Sandro managed to do with some success, then Liverpool might look stolid and one-dimensional. For this reason, another cameo appearance or even a starting place for Shelvey seems likely, as he is a player who can stretch and bisect otherwise sturdy defences with his smart passing play.

On the whole, a low-scoring draw seems a likely result, but Liverpool have recorded a few surprise thrashings in the last few weeks (away at Fulham, for example) so I wouldn't bet against a victorious end to the season for Dalglish's team.

Addendum: 21/05/2011

Some leaked team news suggests that Johnson, Maxi and Carroll are all left out for Liverpool, with Aurelio and Meireles returning to the starting line-up, and that Jonjo Shelvey has a place in a 5-man midfield behind Luis Suarez. To me, this is excellent news, and should see us employing a shape similar to the one we used against Fulham. We lacked a player with Shelvey's creative abilities against Tottenham (until he came on, that is), and hopefully he'll be able to demonstrate to the Liverpool fans how effectively he can dictate play from the midfield. Here's a revised tactical lineup:

Monday, 16 May 2011

Liverpool 0 - 2 Tottenham Hotspur

Liverpool lined up as expected, with Glen Johnson at left-back and Andy Carroll returning to the starting line up at the expense of the injured Meireles. Ledley King started for Tottenham for the first time since October, and Younes Kaboul came in at right-back.

This was a fairly even if unremarkable game, neither side had many clear chances, but ultimately Tottenham made the most of their breaks, while Liverpool weren't able to raise their game to the level of recent weeks. The home side's build-up play was bitty, and there was very little of the flowing pass-and-move football which had livened up Liverpool's past few games. Some will lay the blame at the feet of Andy Carroll - wrongly, in my opinion, as he performed fairly well, and his build-up play was fine. There is, however, a question to be asked about whether Carroll fits into Liverpool's best (in the sense of being the most effective) eleven.

But that is a question for another time. The main problem for Liverpool on Sunday was their inability to deal with Tottenham's patient pressure and possession football - not that it posed a real threat to Pepe Reina, but it was disheartening to see that Tottenham were able to comfortably dominate for large periods, especially in the first-half. Part of the problem lay with the defensive shape which, although sturdy, didn't easily allow Liverpool to turn defence into attack. This diagram shows what happened when Tottenham held possession in Liverpool's half:

The back four would squeeze very narrow, and the two wide midfielders would track their opposing wingers very deep - Maxi in particular had clearly been instructed to double up on Aaron Lennon. In the main, this neutralised Tottenham's attacking threat (their goals came from a deflected shot from a corner and a dodgy penalty decision, after all), but once Spurs were a goal to the good, a more pro-active approach was needed. Modric's dynamic playmaking dominated the midfield where white shirts outnumbered reds 4-to-2 on occasion, with Pienaar drifting in from the flanks and Van der Vaart dropping deep to receive the ball.

The problem was that Liverpool didn't have the personnel available to them to diffuse the pressure and grab a hold of the game. I am not, generally, overly critical of the current squad, but we missed a ball-playing defender like Daniel Agger (who is injured), and, perhaps more crucially, a real quality midfield playmaker in the mould of Alonso or Aquilani who could hold onto possession in tight spaces and pass the ball out from defence when under pressure. We also didn't have the kind of wingers who could carry the ball up the pitch, so Spearing and Lucas tended to attempt risky direct passes more frequently than they perhaps should have. Sandro did a good job of anchoring the Spurs midfield which limited the opportunities for easy passes to Suarez in particular. And their backline stayed deep even when Tottenham had possession which meant that Liverpool couldn't diffuse pressure by hitting simple balls over the top or into the channels for Suarez or Carroll to chase. There was quite a large gap between the two front-men and the two defensive 'banks of four,' and it is possible that the inclusion of an extra attack-minded central midfielder (like Jonjo Shelvey, who was impressive again in his brief substitute appearance) in place of Andy Carroll might've given Liverpool a better chance of winning the game.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Liverpool vs Tottenham Hotspur - Tactical Preview

Tottenham’s post-Real Madrid meltdown has been so severe that certain Spurs fans have felt compelled to question Harry Redknapp’s future at the club. They have, after all, won just one of their last thirteen games – a run which has included home draws against Blackpool and West Brom, and, most recently, a defeat at Eastlands which ended their hopes of regaining a Champions League qualification spot. Redknapp has, in my opinion, done a decent job at Spurs on the whole, and doesn’t necessarily deserve too much criticism after two seasons which have been Tottenham’s most successful in recent history.

He has spent around £90m (less circa £20m in sales) since he took over from Juande Ramos, combining some astute signings – Gallas, Van der Vaart – with a few expensive mistakes (Robbie Keane being the most irrefutable example). It’s also worth remembering that he inherited a strong squad which included the likes of Gomes, Assou-Ekotto, Dawson, Huddlestone, Jenas, Modric, Bale, Lennon, and Pavlyuchenko. He should be credited with helping to bring on Bale as a top-class winger, and also with intelligently deploying Modric as a central midfield playmaker. Their wage bill is surprisingly low (the seventh highest in the league, according to the Swiss Ramble), so their fourth-place finish last season and subsequent European cup-run can be seen as an impressive overachievement in that sense, which would also imply that their current position of sixth is more-or-less their par for the season.

There is no disguising, however, that Tottenham’s squad is a big one, with plenty of talent (Tony Evans remarked on this week’s Game podcast that Alex Ferguson would’ve won the league with the players available to Harry Redknapp). As such, despite Redknapp’s suggestion that he might not be all that bothered if his side fail to qualify for the humble ol’ Europa League, he is still under a certain amount of pressure to prove that he is the man to take Tottenham forward next season.

Liverpool are in a comparatively optimistic mood, to put it mildly. Kenny Dalglish and Steve Clarke signed three-year contracts yesterday, and although I have nothing to add to what Paul Tomkins and Scott Murray wrote in their articles yesterday, the fact that Liverpool finally seem to have a good management structure, and to have the right people in the right positions at all levels of the team is something to celebrate.

It’s fairly difficult to predict who will start the game on Sunday. From Liverpool’s point of view, Andy Carroll and Raul Meireles have both been carrying knocks which kept them out of all or part of the game against Fulham, but I’d expect Carroll to start if fit, so it’s likely that Meireles will be rested/dropped to allow Maxi to continue his recent run of goalscoring form. Dalglish will probably line his team up in the fluid 4-4-2 which has been so successful for him in recent weeks. 

Various Tottenham players are carrying injuries, but Redknapp still has an abundance of midfield and attacking players to choose from. He seems to like to give each of them a run-out every now and then, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Palacios started over Sandro (especially as Redknapp has looked frustrated with the latter’s lack of positional discipline in recent weeks, and will want someone to do a solid job of restricting the supply to Suarez), and it’s difficult to guess whether he’ll choose Crouch or Pavlyuchenko up front. I think he’s most likely to go for the line-up that faced Man City after Palacios’ 32nd minute injury, minus the injured Gallas, who will be replaced by Younes Kaboul (or Ledley King, who is apparently returning to 'fitness,' whatever that means):

The wing battles are likely to be key on Sunday. Young Danny Rose played fairly well at left-back against Blackpool and Man City, and not just in an attacking sense – he’s fast and technically gifted, but can deliver a well-timed tackle when he needs to. However, it’s possible that Redknapp will use the fit-again Sebastian Bassong at left-back for extra experience and defensive reliability, but it depends on whether he wants to adopt an adventurous or a conservative approach – Rose would be more likely to push Kuyt deeper with his overlapping runs, for example.

And Aaron Lennon caused Paul Konchesky some real problems back in November, but his pace is a test for any full-back, so Dalglish is likely to switch the more experienced Glen Johnson to left-back to deal with his threat. Johnson is naturally right-footed though, and Lennon likes to beat his man on the outside, get to the byline and deliver crosses, so a left-footed starter would be preferable. For that reason, it is possible that young Jack Robinson will get a recall at left-back at the expense of John Flanagan, with Johnson retaining the right-back role in which he has performed so well in recent weeks.

The importance of Luka Modric to Tottenham’s attacking play can hardly be overstated, so Liverpool will have to come up with a plan to deal with him. It’s likely that Spearing will be given the job of closing him down, limiting his supply to the strikers and wingers, but Lucas must sit deep and stay close to Van der Vaart who can become a peripheral figure if unable to find space in his preferred attacking midfield position. And if Liverpool don’t want to leave Tottenham’s third midfielder free, most likely Sandro, then Suarez will have to track back and close him down. 

Spurs are likely to leave space between their midfield and defence for Suarez to exploit, but Liverpool’s recent attacking play has relied on precise direct passing from Lucas and Spearing, as well as constant energy and movement from the attacking players. If Tottenham maintain a narrow midfield, Liverpool might be more tempted to use the option of playing direct balls to Andy Carroll’s head, which can be effective if done well, but should only be a plan B while the resurgence of Liverpool's swift pass-and-move football is bearing excellent results. 

On the whole, most signs (momentum, recent form, etc) point to a home win, but there's no denying that Tottenham have some quality which can cause Liverpool problems. How Dalglish and Clarke decide to deal with Lennon's threat may well be key.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Fulham 2 - 5 Liverpool

Pass and move is very much the Liverpool groove again. The result was beyond doubt within 15 minutes thanks to some frankly abysmal Fulham defending and, more pertinently from a Liverpool fan's point of view, a display of scintillating attacking football by the away side. Fortunately, the whole game was an enjoyable spectacle, as Fulham attempted a spirited come-back after half-time but Liverpool continued to attack with real purpose, and it feels like there are a surprisingly large number of talking points to be drawn from what might have been a fairly inconsequential Monday-night Premier League fixture.

Andy Carroll, still carrying an injury, was not included in the squad, so Maxi retained his starting place.  He took his chance by, unbelievably, scoring another hat-trick - the first two goals were a reward for his anticipation and movement (known in the industry as 'being in the right place at the right time') but his third was a 25-yard scorcher. He now has seven goals in three games, which is remarkable for a player generally regarded as tidy and dilligent but lacking in star quality. 

Zamora was on the bench for Fulham, with Dembele starting up front (although you wouldn't have known, totally anonymous as he was until he was shifted out to the right, to feed off Zamora's knockdowns, in the second half). Otherwise, they lined up as expected, but were generally poor apart from a 20-minute period after half-time. Gudjohnsen stayed too high up the pitch, which allowed Carragher (on his 666th Liverpool appearance) to do a stellar job of marking him out of the game. Fulham's midfield pairing of Murphy and Sidwell was too lightweight to deal with Liverpool's midfield three. Davies stayed wide, and was also a very peripheral figure.

Fulham were punished for adopting an extremely attacking mentality from the off - it's hard to know whether this was their initial game-plan, they might have been forced to readjust after going a goal down within 35 seconds, but they played wide, pushed up and committed midfielders and full-backs to attack. This left a lot of space for Kuyt, Maxi and Meireles to break into, and Suarez exploited Fulham's dodgy back-line superbly, punishing them time and time again. He looks dangerous whenever he gets the ball at his feet. Indeed, opposing defenders will now be having nightmares about getting exposed one-on-one with El Pistolero.

It's amazing to think that the general consensus, both amongst fans and in the media, is that Liverpool should be buying a lot of players in the Summer - but it's hard to imagine who can be dropped/sold if they do. They have scored 17 and conceded just three in the last five games. Even £35million Andy Carroll will struggle to regain a starting place with the team in such a rich vein of form without him, which is a testament to the fast-paced pass-and-move relationship which Suarez and Kuyt in particular have developed. Steven Gerrard, too, should have to prove that his early-season lacklustre form is well behind him if he is to regain one of the midfield starting spots when he returns from injury. It's quite incredible how effective Jay Spearing in particular has been with Lucas in the midfield these past few games. Glen Johnson (two assists and a faultless defensive performance tonight) is now routinely showing the form which has made him England's number 1 right-back, and although a world-class left-back should be sought this Summer, John Flanagan has been reliable when called upon.

When Meireles picked up a second-half injury, Jonjo Shelvey came on in his place and immediately impressed in his cameo appearance, particularly in terms of his ability to pick a pass, and his interplay with Suarez. Hopefully if he stays injury-free next-season he'll be able to make a bigger contribution. He is another who will soon be competing for Gerrard's place in the starting line-up.

I had also planned to write something on Skrtel (who has been widely overlooked for Liverpool's player of the season, even as 2nd or 3rd choice, despite having performed solidly in nearly every game this season), or Reina (who made his 150th consecutive start for the club), or Carragher (who, after tonight, has made more appearances than any other Liverpool player besides Ian Callaghan). They will all have to wait for another time, though, as tonight we should just rejoice in the fact that glorious attacking football has returned to a Liverpool team which, despite being tipped for a relegation battle earlier in the season, is now impressing with every single performance and looks odds-on to claim fifth-place in the Premier League.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Fulham vs Liverpool - Tactical Preview

football formations


Fulham will probably line up in their usual narrow 4-4-2 formation, which can sometimes look like a 4-2-3-1 as Dempsey and Davies look to cut inside to support the striker and Gudjohnsen drops deep to receive the ball from midfield. The experienced Icelandic forward (who, at 32, is not as old as some people think) is a tidy link-man who can make intelligent use of possession, but it's possible that Mark Hughes will prefer the pace of Andy Johnson up front in an attempt to test Liverpool's relatively immobile centre-back pairing of Carragher and Skrtel.

Another option that Hughes might consider is Gael Kakuta who, if Dempsey hasn't regained full fitness, will probably retain his starting place from Fulham's 3-0 win at Sunderland, giving him the chance to use his pace and skill to try and beat Liverpool's young right-back John Flanagan as Jonas Gutierrez did well last weekend. If Kakuta does feature on Fulham's left, Dalglish might consider starting the more experienced Glen Johnson in his preferred right-back position, and either switching Flanagan to left-back or recalling Jack Robinson.

It's also possible that Dickson Etuhu will be recalled to the Fulham starting line-up, most likely in favour of Steve Sidwell, to add some extra steel to the midfield, and especially to drop deep and restrict Suarez's space. Hughes does tend to trust his team shape to restrict opponents' chances though, keeping a deep back-line and a narrow midfield. Ex-Liverpool favourite Danny Murphy is Fulham's influential midfield playmaker, but he is not the only one given licence to pick out a pass - the whole side is instructed to hit the centre forwards whenever they have time to get their head up, partly because Zamora in particular is so adept at playing the target-man role, bringing in others around him.

Fulham also take a good deal of their shots from long-range: against Chelsea, they hit 7 of 13 shots from outside the box, against United it was 10 of 12, and most recently against Bolton 12 of their 18 attempts were from long-range. Liverpool's midfield, with Spearing and Lucas as two tough-tackling holders, should be well placed to deal with this threat.

Fulham are on a good run of form, with two 3-0 wins in their last two games (against Bolton at home and Sunderland away), and they've only lost two (away against Man United and Everton) of their last eight in the league.


The return of Andy Carroll to the starting line-up should see a return to Dalglish's usual fluid 4-4-2. Meireles will probably return to his left-sided midfield role, but it is possible that Maxi will be rewarded for his four goals in the last two games with a starting place.

When Kuyt and Suarez have been paired together in the absence of Andy Carroll, they have formed an interesting partnership. Neither naturally suits the role of a traditional number nine/target man, so they have relied on their unpredictable (yet intelligent) movement and quick passing to terrorise the likes of Man United and, most recently, Newcastle. When Carroll has featured he has, on occasion, looked to be slowing down the attacking build-up play, as well as (through no fault of his own) encouraging lazy long-balls from the defence. He will be keen to prove that he can form a relationship with Kuyt and Suarez, especially one that is more based on "pass and move" than "hit and hope."

If Fulham afford Liverpool any space, it is likely to be between the defensive lines, which suits Suarez perfectly. He has been incredibly impressive since arriving at Anfield in January, and he could well be the most important player for Liverpool on Monday.

Liverpool have also been enjoying a good run of form - they have scored 12 and conceded one in their last four games. However, although their away form has picked up slightly under Dalglish, they have recorded losses at The Hawthorns, Upton Park, Bloomfield Road and Ewood Park since Christmas. They will be desperate not to add Craven Cottage to that list, especially if they want to beat Spurs to the final European qualification spot.

Thanks to Jack de Aguilar of @FulhamWeekly for his help with this preview.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Summer Transfer Strategy - Why Liverpool only need a left-back and a pacey winger

The Current Squad

I'm sure I'm not the only one who actually thinks the current squad of Liverpool players is pretty good. One of the worst, most sickening aspects of Hodgson's reign was his constant endeavour to lower expectations and exaggerate the need for a complete overhaul of the team. Since this Summer, when he took over, the core first-team squad hasn't really changed all that much - Meireles, Suarez and Carroll have replaced Mascherano, Babel and Torres. His other signings (excepting Fabio Aurelio who he re-signed on a free transfer, Jonjo Shelvey who looks promising, and Meireles who has been a genuine success) are entirely expendable. Joe Cole, Milan Jovanovic, Christian Poulsen, Brad Jones and Paul Konchesky don't offer anything to the squad and will hopefully move on in July.

Of course, it has, at times, felt like we've had a handful of new players on our hands - the rise to prominence (made necessary by injuries to key players) of academy-graduates John Flanagan and Jack Robinson has been encouraging for Liverpool fans, and Martin Kelly (21) and Jay Spearing (22) have cemented their places in the first-team squad this season.

But the point is that the current Liverpool side - even one which has had to endure varyingly lengthy injuries to the likes of Steven Gerrard, Glen Johnson, Andy Carroll, Martin Kelly, Daniel Agger and Fabio Aurelio - is prospering under Kenny Dalglish's tutelage. Our occasionally makeshift side has, since January, recorded convincing home victories against Man City and Man United, as well as picking up points at Stamford Bridge and the Emirates. In fact, our form against the best teams has been so good that we are top of the top-six head-to-head mini-league. And, although we have suffered from inconsistent results (defeats to West Brom, West Ham and Blackpool, for example), we are still second in the Premier League form table, and we're second (behind Chelsea) in terms of points gained since Christmas.

I also hope I'm not the only one who thinks we have some genuinely excellent players in our current squad - we're not greatly overperforming at the moment. Reina, Agger, Lucas, Gerrard, and Suarez are top quality, and Johnson, Kelly, Skrtel, Meireles, Kuyt, Carroll and Carragher aren't far behind. Other members of the first-team squad - Maxi, Aurelio, Ngog and Spearing - are undoubtedly useful, and we also have promising young players like Jonjo Shelvey and Danny Wilson who may make more of a contribution next season.

Talking of promising young players, our strength in youth is something to be genuinely optimistic about. In fact, it's one of the reasons that I really hope we qualify for the Europa League next season - fairly inconsequential Thursday night group games will be a great chance to introduce some of them to competitive football, รก la the Carling Cup.

I had the pleasure of watching Liverpool's academy teams play against Sheffield United on Saturday. A few players were off with the England U19s, and it wasn't one of the kids' better days, but there was clearly some promising talent on show. The 18 year old forward Michael Ngoo won and converted a late penalty for the U18s to clinch a draw late on, for example - he looks worth a runout for the first-team next season.

We also have the likes of Conor Coady, Fernandez Suso, Thomas Ince, Andre Wisdom, and Raheem Sterling waiting to break through at senior level, and Daniel Ayala and Dani Pacheco have been impressing on loan in the Championship, at Derby and Norwich respectively. That's not to say we can rely on them taking first-team places next season, but it does give us confidence that we have a great deal of depth in youth, which should mean we won't need to sign dozens of new players to fill the squad after the aforementioned dead-wood has moved on. (We have been linked with a great number of players, and it's hard to tell how many are serious targets, but it would surely be lamentable if average players like Charlie Adam pushed the likes of Jay Spearing further down the pecking order.)

FSG and Damien Comolli have indicated that their policy will be to avoid signing players in positions were there is already a talented youngster at the club (presumably within reason), so as not to hinder their development. Our strength in youth should give us cause for optimism that we'll see some more Spearing/Kelly-style academy successes coming through in the near future, maybe even one or two who could follow in the footsteps of Gerrard and Carragher. (Coady in particular looks to have good leadership skills, and is immensely mature for his age.)

Next Season

As Liverpool fans, we will have high expectations for next season. Maybe a title-challenge can only be a best-case-scenario, if we get a little luck early in the season, but we should be hoping to reclaim a Champions League place. This won't be easy. It's worth noting that, although there are no exceptional teams at the top of the Premier League table this season, all of the top six boast some genuine quality. Tottenham, the side who it now looks increasingly possible we'll finish above, had an impressive Champions League run this year, eventually being knocked out by Europe's second-best team after recording victories over the reigning European Champions Inter and the newly-crowned Serie A winners AC Milan.

In order to finish in the top four, we will certainly have to strengthen, and our owners have indicated a keen willingness to invest where necessary. But where would their money best be spent? Well, let me finally come round to the point. Let's have a look at who should be remaining at the club next season. I am assuming that Konchesky, Poulsen, Cole, Jovanovic and Kyrgiakos will have moved on. If any of the others leave, for whatever reason, then they will probably need to be replaced. And I am also assuming that Aquilani will return from his loan, but if he doesn't, a central midfielder should probably also be sought. The first-choices are listed first, followed by backups - those in brackets feature in more than one position:

Goalkeepers: Reina, Gulacsi.

Right-backs: (Johnson), (Kelly), Flanagan, (Carragher).

Left-backs: Aurelio, (Johnson), Robinson, (Wilson).

Centre-backs: Agger, Skrtel, (Carragher), (Kelly), Wilson, Ayala, Coady, Wisdom.

Defensive (holding) midfielders: Lucas, (Gerrard), (Meireles), Spearing.

Advanced (creative) midfielders: (Gerrard), (Aquilani), (Meireles), (Shelvey).

Versatile attacking players (wingers, deep-lying forwards etc): (Suarez), (Gerrard), (Kuyt), Maxi, (Shelvey), Pacheco, Suso, Sterling.

Advanced forwards (traditional Number Nines): Carroll, (Kuyt), (Suarez), Ngog,

For me, all this adds up to our best team being something like this:

football formations

Assuming the central midfield issue is sorted out satisfactorily (particularly re: Aquilani, who I sincerely hope will return, though I fear he may not), I think it's fair to say this would be more or less our best team with that crop of players. Dalglish may prefer to stick with the fluid 4-4-2 that he has favoured in recent weeks, which would mean that Gerrard or Meireles would take up that ostensibly left-sided midfield role, but the personnel would surely be the same.

The biggest weakness is, in my opinion, glaringly clear. Fabio Aurelio is not a workable option as our first-choice left-back. Although he is technically good, and could be useful as a squad player, he is far too injury prone to be relied upon, and he has rarely if ever shown that he can deliver top-quality performances, week in week out. That's why we must sign an adventurous, world-class (or potentially world-class) left-back. More than any number of squad players, a pacey, attack-minded but defensively sound left-back would sincerely increase the effectiveness of our team.

I think it would be worth spending the majority of our budget on one if necessary, and if the right player was available (remember, when we had a similar problem at right-back, Benitez had supposedly wrapped up a deal for Dani Alves, a title-winning, world-class right-back, only for Hicks and Gillett to deny him the mere £8m he needed to complete the signing). Full-backs are, indeed, one of the most important players in a modern football team, as they are generally afforded more space than any other position. Note how important Alves is for Barcelona, ditto Marcelo for Real Madrid, Evra for Man United, Cole for Chelsea, Maicon for Inter (especially last season).

I also think that, as much as I love Dirk Kuyt - especially as he has been in exceptional form these past few months - he's not always going to be as useful for us in the near future. I would absolutely still keep him on the books, as second-choice for Andy Carroll, and to feature in his old right-wing position in particularly tough games (making the most of his defensive qualities, as Man United use Park Ji-Sung in important Champions League games but generally favour Nani and Valencia for ordinary home league games). But, it cannot be denied, his first-touch is often poor, and his technique has always been his main weakness. He often loses possession, and can sometimes looks a bit frantic and desperate with the ball at his feet. He rarely beats his man, nor does he possess a particularly frightening cross. Essentially, him and Carroll might not be best suited to playing together.

If we can sign a skilful, speedy winger with bags of technical ability we might finally be able to cut out the inconsistency which has blighted us for years (even during Benitez's best season, 2008-09, we lost out on the title not because we couldn't get results against the best teams, but because we failed to beat smaller teams like Wigan, Hull, Fulham and West Ham). Obviously, we are not necessarily building a title-winning side this season, but we do want to have the strongest squad possible. Although Suarez has bags of technical ability, and has wowed Anfield with his ability to dribble into the box, seemingly against the odds, from the wide-spaces, we should be allowing him to take up central attacking positions, rather than forcing him to stick wide and simply deliver crosses for Carroll (a good cross would be another useful attribute for a new left-back, incidentally).

We have been linked with a number of these kinds of wingers - most prominently, Ashley Young. I would have no problem with signing him - he has shown himself to be an excellent creator over recent seasons, and his versatility is a real asset, as this article by 5 Added Minutes points out. However, if Villa demand an exorbitant transfer fee, I would favour looking towards the continent, particularly at Udinese's Alexis Sanchez who dazzled at the world cup, Lille's Eden Hazard who is demanding a lot of attention with his exuberant performances, or, perhaps more realistically, Ezequiel Lavezzi who has been excelling as a wide-forward in Napoli's title-challenging side this season.


There's no point in second guessing exactly who Liverpool will sign this Summer. We have been linked with a great number of players, some of them undeniably top-quality, others showing a great deal of promise, and some - frankly average. My hope is that we don't devote too much money to expanding and filling the squad with "depth" and "competition" which might choke the opportunities of some of our promising youngsters, especially as we're not going to be in the Champions League next season. Rather, I hope our transfer strategy specifically targets our two key problem areas, and makes sure that our first eleven is capable of claiming a top-four finish next May.

This could be our first 11, for home league games etc. (Coentrao and Sanchez used as examples) - in my opinion, it looks pretty unstoppable:

football formations

And we'd still have a back-up team of reasonable enough quality for a team not playing in the Champions League:

football formations

As well as a full team of youngsters who would be desperate for opportunities in easier Carling Cup or Europa League games:

football formations

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Liverpool 3 - 0 Newcastle United

Andy Carroll hadn't regained full fitness so featured only as a substitute late-on. Liverpool stuck with the team that demolished Birmingham last weekend, with the exception of the left-back position, where Glen Johnson returned from injury to replace Jack Robinson. Meanwhile, Newcastle fielded their expected 4-4-2 with Barton on the right-wing:

football formations

This was a comfortable win for Liverpool thanks to a first-half deflected goal from Maxi, a coolly-dispatched Kuyt penalty (after some tenacious harrying from Suarez and, subsequently, a naive challenge from Mike Williamson), and a simple finish from close range from the Uruguayan to wrap things up. Newcastle didn't have much to offer today, and the home team strolled to victory in the end.

It hadn't always looked so assured for Liverpool, though. They were, in fact, pinned back in their own defensive third towards the end of the first half. Newcastle, in search of an equaliser, won a number of freekicks and corners - it was just fortunate for Liverpool that they had nicked Andy Carroll in January, and that Joey Barton's set-piece taking wasn't up to its usual high standard.

Jonas Gutierrez had been enjoying the best of a battle with the young John Flanagan on Newcastle's left-wing, a state of affairs which changed after half-time. Dalglish instructed Flanagan and Johnson to switch sides, and the England international excelled defensively, winning 7 of his 8 second-half tackles and keeping his Argentinian counterpart quiet.

Liverpool stepped up a gear in the second half, with particularly influential performances from Kuyt and Suarez. They look to have formed an excellent relationship already, their intelligent movement and swift interchange of passing routinely dazzling and dizzying opposing defenders. The midfield was strong as ever, restricting Nolan and Tiote to sideways passes almost exclusively, and Reina, Carragher and Skrtel were rarely troubled.

This win leaves Liverpool in 5th place, above Tottenham on goal difference having played a game more. Spurs' visit to Anfield on the 15th of May takes on real significance in the battle for European qualification.