Saturday, 18 June 2011

Where do Liverpool need to strengthen this summer?

The hyperbole inevitably surrounding the summer transfer window is irritating at best and nauseating at worst. Any scrap of information is scruntised tirelessly and tediously. An interview for a foreign paper taken out of context, a quote from a greedy agent and the occasional sound bite from a player are analysed strenuously, with little of substance resulting from this painstaking examination of endless rumour and speculation.

This summer will be no different, however, for the first time in years Reds fans can be genuinely excited at the prospect of many new and expensive signings arriving at Anfield, as opposed to the dreadful anxiety experienced under Hicks and Gillett, when Kopites simply hoped that the American duo's asset stripping didn't completely ravage an already depleted squad.

For once, Liverpool can head into what the media will almost certainly dub "the most important summer in the club's history" with a refreshing sense of optimism permeating throughout the club, from the boardroom to the pitch via the stands. This positivity, generated by the results and performances enjoyed after the return of Kenny Dalglish to the Anfield dugout, could prove crucial as the Reds are expected to embark on an ambitious spending spree in order to strengthen and improve a confident yet underachieving squad.

With Fabio Aurelio seemingly destined to spend the rest of his career dogged by persistent injuries and the promising 17-year old Jack Robinson lacking the experience to start every week, it is vital that Liverpool sign a quality first choice left back this summer. Paul Konchesky is simply not good enough to enter into Dalglish's plans for next season and, although Emiliano Insua could return from his unproductive loan spell at Galatasary to re-ignite his career at Anfield, the Argentine's ability is not yet adequate for him to hold down the position as his own.

Arsenal's Gael Clichy has been linked with a move to Merseyside whilst Newcastle's Jose Enrique has been tipped to follow former teammate Andy Carroll to Liverpool, and both could solve our current problem at left back should Dalglish and co. swoop to sign them this summer.

Additionally, another centre back could significantly strengthen the Reds' back four. Martin Skrtel was an ever-present last year and Jamie Carragher will remain a key figure for at least a few more years, however the ageing Sotirios Kyrgiakos proved unreliable when he made a rare appearance and, for all his ability, Daniel Agger continues to be plagued by injury, while Daniel Wilson has been one of the few youngsters to fail to make an impression on the first team this season.

Dalglish was unsuccessful in his attempt to steal highly rated 19-year old Phil Jones from under United's nose with a last minute bid and consequently has turned his attention to other targets, with Birmingham City centre back Scott Dann a potential signing.

Despite suffering relegation this season, in 2009/2010 Dann helped the Blues form a competent defensive unit, which secured an enviable eleven clean sheets and heightened the boyhood Liverpool fan's reputation. Following the Blues' relegation and the controversial resignation of Alex McLeish, Dann may wish to leave a ship that many consider to be sinking. His capture would certainly bolster the Reds' options at centre back and provide cover and competition for those already at the club.

Moreover, another area of the starting eleven that requires investment and instant improvement is on both the left and right wing. For far too long Liverpool have lacked real, natural width, with a tendency to funnel our attacking play down the centre of the pitch cited as a reason for our failure to convert many infuriating home draws into wins during the 2008/2009 season, when the Reds finished as runners up, an agonising four points behind Manchester United.

The £35 million spent on tall striker Andy Carroll will be wasted if his aerial prowess is not fully exploited, and this cannot be done unless a few wingers arrive to ping in crosses for Liverpool's new number nine to head home. For all his hard work, Dirk Kuyt demonstrated towards the end of the season that he performs better up front than on the right, whilst employing utility players like Raul Meireles and Maxi Rodriguez to fill in on the left wing is simply not acceptable because their ability isn't fully utilised when played out of position.

Aston Villa stars Stewart Downing and Ashley Young have been heavily linked with a move to Liverpool. The much-coveted duo provide an exhilarating and interchangeable mix of pace, precision and power, with both beginning to make an impact on Fabio Capello's England team.

Their form helped the Midlanders to claim a respectable ninth place finish following a turbulent start to the season and has attracted interest from many top clubs across Europe, meaning new owners FSG will have to dig deep into their pockets to capture the promising pair.

23-year old Valencia winger Juan Mata may provide a cheaper alternative to Downing and Young, however he will require time to settle into a new country, unlike the aforementioned duo, who have Premier League experience and are approaching the prime of their respective careers.

Perplexing, Liverpool have already spent a reported £20 million on Jordan Henderson and intend to splash the cash on Charlie Adam in order to boost our options in central midfield, the one position other than goalkeeper that arguably does not need significant improvement.

With Raul Meireles, Lucas Leiva and Jay Spearing all impressing last season and the dynamic Steven Gerrard expected to return fully fit and firing following a groin operation, the Reds already possess a potent midfield. However, 21-year old Henderson is likely to remain at Anfield for the foreseeable future and hopefully provide performances to justify the transfer fee paid, while Charlie Adam is available at a cut-price after Blackpool's relegation and could, if the Scot fulfils his potential, emulate the passing ability of the much-loved Liverpool legend Xabi Alonso.

Following three and a half years of dangerous over-reliance on Fernando Torres, the sale of the Spaniard and the capture of Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll to replace him in January heralded a new era at the club. Torres, who had failed to hit top form for 18 months, was ruthlessly replaced by Dalglish, as the legendary Scot refused to accept anything other than 100% commitment from his players.

The move proved to be a masterstroke, with Suarez and Carroll making an instant impact and immediately endearing them to the Anfield faithful. Nevertheless, reinforcements are still needed up front, as the much-maligned David Ngog remains one of very few alternatives and Kuyt, although useful up front, is not the 20-goal a season striker that we need.

The Reds have been linked with several strikers, including Antonio Cassano from AC Milan and free agent Jay Bothroyd, however Ipswich youngster Connor Wickham could prove to be the best option in the long term. The teenage forward is an instrumental figure in the Tractor Boys' side and has attracted interest from many teams in the top flight. His contract is also reported to have a clause that allows him to speak to clubs who offer £15 million for his services.

Although that fee may be a bit steep, it demonstrates the over-inflated fees demanded for young, English talent that Liverpool appear to be targeting this summer, partly in order to have a squad that understands the history and culture of the club but mainly to comply with new rules regarding home-grown players likely to be enforced soon.

Nevertheless, a transfer window in which Liverpool are willing and able to spend significant sums of money on young talent to improve both the starting eleven and the squad is incredibly encouraging and makes a pleasant change. If Dalglish, Comolli and co. can also offload some deadwood (Poulsen, Konchesky and Jovanovic to name but a few) than it should prove to be a crucial summer in changing the Reds' fortunes.

"The most important summer in the club's history" may be taking it a bit far though!


Saturday, 11 June 2011

Season 2010/2011 Awards

As the season has finally reached a conclusion I look back at what has been an unpredictable campaign and hand out awards for player of the season and young player of the season, while determining the best and worst games of the campaign as well as the goal of the season.

Player of the Season- Lucas Leiva

It’s surprising what a season can do in football. Previously seen as a slow, one-dimensional defensive midfielder with insufficient skill to wear the famous Red shirt, Lucas was unfairly made a scapegoat for many of the team’s problems during Rafael Benitez’s unsuccessful final campaign in the Anfield managerial hot seat.

However, the 24-year old has come to the fore this season, proving the doubters wrong and displaying his substantial ability. He has been one of the few players to perform at a consistently high level throughout both Hodgson’s miserable reign as manager and the Reds’ Dalglish-inspired resurgence during the second half of the campaign.

Lucas’ steady, reliable presence at the heart of our midfield has been priceless. His defensive qualities have been developed, with the former Gremio player providing an effective foil for the back four, while his passing ability has been enhanced considerably, as the Reds’ number 21 has become a vital outlet to spring counter attacks at rapid pace.

Raul Meireles has impressed since signing in the summer, Luis Suarez has been a revelation after arriving at Anfield from Ajax and Dirk Kuyt’s tireless performances have been rewarded with 13 League goals, however Lucas clinches our Player of the Season award for the way he has superbly won over the support of the fans in what has been the Brazilian’s best season on Merseyside.

Young player of the season- Jay Spearing

Despite playing in the club's various youth teams since the age of 7, it has taken almost 15 years for Spearing to be given an extended run in the first team, with the 22-year old benefiting from the absence of Gerrard and Aquilani through injury and loan respectively, as well as the faith in youth so clearly expressed by Dalglish during his six months at the Anfield helm.

After impressing when he was unexpectedly selected to start against Everton in the Merseyside derby, Spearing has gradually grown into an important member of the midfield, as his conscientious and committed approach has enabled his more talented teammates to shine and won favour from the Anfield faithful, who are always more than happy to whole-heartedly support a local lad.

Dedication and determination have characterised Spearing's performances, while his ability to calmly release the ball forward when appropriate has kept the engine room of the side ticking over efficiently. His importance to the team is demonstrated by the fact that he started every game since the Reds' 2-0 victory over Sunderland in the middle of March and, although new signing Jordan Henderson has arrived from Wearside to provide added competition in midfield, Spearing will surely continue to play a role in the side if he maintains the level of performance displayed during the closing stages of the campaign.

Goal of the season- Raul Meireles vs Wolves

The agricultural build up to this goal was not befitting of the beauty of Meireles' first time volley that arched over the despairing dive of Wayne Hennessey and into the Wolves goal to double our lead five minutes after the restart. Dirk Kuyt contested for the ball in the air after Fabio Aurelio's long up-field punt had resembled the type of direct football employed by our relegation threatened opponents. The ball fell perfectly for the Portugese midfielder, who sensationally struck a sweet volley that looped over the helpless keeper and into the net.

Although Suarez's strike against Sunderland was another example of an excellent individual effort, and the Uruguayan’s unbelievable run to set up Kuyt's goal against Manchester United was also world class, this goal clinches our goal of the season award for the clinical beauty and the instinctive geometrical accuracy required to expertly dink the ball over Hennessey and into the net.

Best game of the season- Fulham 2-5 Liverpool

This Monday evening encounter arrived on the back of a four match unbeaten run, which included 3-0 victories over Manchester City and Newcastle United, a thoroughly deserved point at the Emirates and a thumping 5-0 win over Birmingham City at Anfield. This incredible run of form culminated in a comprehensive victory at Craven Cottage, as the Reds overwhelmed their hosts after a lightning quick start had seen the Merseysiders claim a three goal lead by the quarter of an hour mark.

Two incisive passes from Lucas led to Maxi grabbing an early double, before Kuyt's seemingly innocuous strike squeezed in at the near post to essentially secure the three points with over 70 minutes remaining. Maxi went on to complete his hat-trick with a brilliant strike from range, while Luis Suarez, who ripped the Cottagers' defence to shreds throughout the night, also found the net to round off an enjoyable evening fittingly.

Although victories over Manchester United and Chelsea will also surely live long in the memory, the way in which Liverpool dominated this away match with such assurance, composure and confidence whilst finding the back of the net on such a regular basis means that it is our game of the season.

Worst game of the season- Liverpool 0-1 Wolves

This disappointing game proved to be the lowest point of Roy Hodgson's miserable yet mercifully brief reign. A performance utterly devoid of imagination, creativity or confidence at home to the side with the worst away record at the time was bad enough, however Hodgson's post-match criticism of the rightly restless and understandably frustrated Kop was the final nail in the Londoner's managerial coffin.

Following a two-week rest due to the wintry weather hitting Merseyside, the Reds should have been fit and raring to go for this match, however we never built up any sort of momentum at any stage and rarely looked like seriously testing Wolves' backline.

To make matters worse, Ward took advantage of some shocking 'defending' from Skrtel and Kyrgiakos to slot the ball beyond Reina on 56 minutes and, although there was plenty of time remaining for Liverpool to summon up a response, they failed to do so and the visitors continued to grow in confidence, looking the more likely to score another.

Unfortunately, there were many contenders for this 'award' thanks to the Reds' abysmal opening to the season. Defeats at home to newly promoted Blackpool and League Two side Northampton Town were painful and embarrassing in equal measure, however the defeat to Wolves receives this dubious accolade because it was the culmination of persistent frustration with Hodgson, and resulted in even his staunchest defenders losing faith in his outdated tactics.


Wednesday, 8 June 2011

The season of two halves

Football is as a game of two halves. This seemingly simple statement of fact has long been used by commentators and supporters alike to succinctly summarise the exhilaratingly unpredictable way in which the momentum in football matches often swings in favour of either side throughout the duration of a game.

Never has this truth been more apparent than in Istanbul, when the Reds rescued a penalty shootout victory from the jaws of devastating defeat to secure their fifth European Cup and a place in history as winners of probably the best European Cup final in history.

However, this season has provided perhaps the starkest demonstration of this principle, with Liverpool supporters experiencing a wide range of emotions, from utter despair to unadulterated joy, uniquely not just during a single match but throughout the entire course of a turbulent yet undeniably fascinating campaign.

From warring owners to boardroom stability, from the brink of financial oblivion to the haven of fiscal security, from the much maligned Roy Hodgson to fans’ favourite Kenny Dalglish and from humiliating defeats to celebrated victories, the Anfield faithful have certainly witnessed one of the most eventful seasons in my living memory, unfortunately regularly for the wrong reasons.

The club has been put through the destructive minefields of the British and, bizarrely, Texan legal systems while suffering the indignity of floundering near the relegation zone following home defeats to the lowly Blackpool, Wolverhampton Wanderers and even League Two side Northampton Town in front of a disbelieving Kop.

After a disappointing 2009/2010 campaign, Roy Hodgson was appointed in the summer to steady the ship and put smiles on the fans' faces following the departure of the much loved yet unsurprisingly sacked Spaniard Rafael Benitez. The former Fulham manager's arrival was greeted with a stifling indifference from many supporters. Most were willing to give him a chance, but few fully believed he was capable of being successful in the Anfield dugout and surviving beyond the end of the Hicks and Gillett era.

Summer signings Paul Konchesky, Christian Poulsen and Brad Jones didn't inspire much confidence in the manager from the Kop, however the captures of Joe Cole and Raul Meireles proved promising, although neither player performed anywhere near their potential until Hodgson had left Merseyside with his reputation tarnished but his wallet bulging.

Hodgson received a reported pay off of just over £7 million after he had overseen the Reds' worst start to a season in 57 years. The football was intolerable, the results were indefensible, his away record was inexcusable and his comments in the media were inexplicable.

Describing our dreary 2-0 defeat at Goodison Park as our best performance during his reign was laughable, but nobody was amused when he criticised the Kop after a 1-0 reversal at home to Mick McCarthy's Wolves. That suicidal move exposed his fatal failure to develop a rapport with the fans and virtually guaranteed his swift departure, with the 63-year old finally shown the door after yet another abysmal away defeat at Ewood Park.

Unfortunately, the chaos on the field was reflected and even exaggerated in the boardroom, as a nasty yet necessary civil war unfolded, with Martin Broughton, Christian Purslow and Ian Ayre taking on Hicks and Gillett, who stubbornly refused to sell the club to Boston Red Sox owners Fenway Sports Group (FSG) and instead hung onto the club, desperate to find a bank willing to re-finance their loans and extend their miserable reign at Anfield.

With the club on the brink of entering administration and consequently incurring a 10-point penalty, the matter went to the High Court. Thankfully, Mr Justice Floyd held that Hicks and Gillett acted contrary to the terms of their agreement with RBS when they attempted to sack Ian Ayre from the board in order to block the completion of the sale of the club, and therefore the board had the right to sell the club to FSG without the approval of the despised American duo.

Despite numerous protestations, appeals across the Atlantic and Tom Hicks ridiculously declaring that he had been the victim of an "epic swindle" the sale of the club was eventually completed and FSG arrived, crucially paying off the vast majority of the debt that the previous pair of Americans had piled on the club. Since purchasing the club FSG's style has been incredibly encouraging, with principal owners John Henry and Tom Werner sensibly promising little yet delivering much.

Unlike Hicks and Gillett, they have taken a keen interest in the footballing side of the club, with both regularly attending Anfield. Moreover, they have made some superb appointments, bringing in the experienced and knowledgeable Damien Comolli as Director of Football, who proved instrumental in signing Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll in January.

Of course, most importantly FSG intelligently replaced Roy Hodgson with Kenny Dalglish, originally on a temporary basis although the Scot has since been rewarded with a permanent contract after the massive improvement his appointment inspired. After cutting short his holiday cruise early to return to the Anfield dugout, the King has sensationally turned the Liverpool ship around, away from the looming iceberg of a relegation dogfight and towards the sunny shores of success.

A return to the tried and tested values of the Liverpool Way has fittingly accompanied Dalglish's return to the club he loves, with an emphasis on unity, collective effort and whole-hearted commitment proving invaluable in reversing our on-field fortunes and quickly pushing the Reds back up the Premier League table.

The passion and expertise of Dalglish and his well-respected assistant Steve Clarke have translated onto the pitch, as the Anfield faithful have enjoyed the entertaining, free flowing brand of football now utilised. This refreshing style of play has proved successful, with wins over both Manchester sides as well as a thrilling victory at Stamford Bridge and hard-fought point at the Emirates leading some to claim that a title challenge is not beyond the Reds next season.

Although caution must be taken before making bold predictions, a top four finish certainly seems eminently possible next season, particularly as Kenny, Comolli and co seek to add further to the squad, following the instant impact Luis Suarez and, to a lesser extent, Andy Carroll have had on the team's performance.

Following the untimely departure of Fernando Torres, Suarez and Carroll have filled his boots fantastically, linking up promisingly and thrilling the Kop with tricky skill, footwork to frighten any defence and a rugged determination characteristic of all Anfield heroes.

With many new arrivals expected at Anfield during the summer, it is undoubtedly an exciting time to be a Liverpool fan. Considering the depression, anxiety and anger surrounding the club amidst on-field embarrassment and off-field turmoil at the start of the season, the new optimistic mood engulfing the red half of Merseyside is extremely welcome.

In fact, this season can be summed up with this line from the club's famous anthem that I will end with:

"At the end of a storm there is a golden sky."

You'll Never Walk Alone