Sunday, 24 November 2013

Reds and Blues remind us why we love football

That’s why we love football.

This blog aims to give “rational and passionate opinions on Liverpool Football Club.” Sometimes, however, rationality and passion come into conflict. Yesterday’s Merseyside derby provides the perfect example. Rationality dictates that, as a Red, I’d prefer an instantly forgettable and dreadfully dull 1-0 victory for Liverpool over their arch rivals Everton rather than a thrilling 3-3 draw that yields two fewer points. The former appeals to my mind, the latter to my heart. At the end of the day, though, football is all about passion and emotion and my heart wins over my head.

From the moment the 221st Merseyside derby became the first in the Premier League era to see both sides score in the opening ten minutes, those inside Goodison Park knew they were in for a treat. The pulsating start proved what many on both sides of the red-blue divide had suspected; this was the start of a new era of Merseyside derbies. Under Roberto Martinez and Brendan Rodgers, two young managers with remarkably similar footballing philosophies advocating expansive styles of play, the days of cagey, tactical affairs are over and, in their place, is high octane, edge-of-your-seat entertainment as two teams vying to reclaim their previous glories battle it out.

Forget defending, it was all about attacking football from the first to the final whistle yesterday lunchtime. First, Coutinho was left free at the back post to prod home Gerrard’s deep left wing corner. Then, the Blues immediately went up the other end of the pitch and drew level in a similar fashion, as the unmarked Mirallas evaded the attention of Steven Gerrard to turn home a loose ball in the box from Leighton Baines’ free kick.

The respective defences may have been having an off-day, but both goalkeepers were in sensational form throughout the 90 minutes and made spectacular saves that prevented a cricket score being run up. Mignolet made one of those saves to thwart his fellow Belgian Lukaku when he was sent through on goal on twelve minutes. Thankfully, the bizarrely-bearded Howard failed to replicate his opposite number’s heroics seven minutes later, as Luis Suarez somehow squeezed a sublime low free kick around the wall and into the bottom right hand corner, beyond the grasp of the American stopper.

To spice things up even more, Phil Dowd ridiculously decided against showing a red card to Kevin Mirallas just after the half hour mark. The Toffees’ number eleven left stud marks on Luis Suarez’s knee following a dangerously high challenge on the Uruguayan, which Dowd inexplicably deemed only worthy of a booking.

Coutinho celebrates...
...Suarez scores...
...and Mirallas kung fu kicks
One can only speculate how both the referee and the media might have reacted had the roles been reversed and Suarez’s stud marks been left on Mirallas’ knee, although I suspect a public flogging wouldn't be beyond the bounds of possibility. I’m sure a booking for Suarez diving might just have received a little more attention than the yellow shown to Barkley for simulation as well.

After the break, a fine stop from Mignolet was required to keep the visitors’ lead intact, as he blocked Deulofeu’s low effort when the Barcelona loanee was sent one-on-one with the keeper by Mirallas. Joe Allen then squandered a fantastic opportunity to put the Reds’ two ahead at the opposite end on the hour mark, as he somehow shot wide from close range with the goal at his mercy. The Welshman went on to receive a booking and was promptly replaced by Victor Moses. At this rate, Lucas and Henderson need not be worried about losing their place in the team to the £15 million man.

Liverpool’s nemesis Lukaku remained a constant threat for the home side, and Mignolet had to be on top form to deny him twice. There was little he could do on 72 minutes, however, as the Chelsea loanee side-footed home after the Reds’ defence disappointingly failed to deal with a free kick into the area. Lukaku went on to deliver what seemed to be a sucker punch ten minutes from time, as he exploited yet more poor defending to power a header home from a corner kick and put Everton in front for the first time in the contest.

Lukaku strikes again...
...but Sturridge has the last laugh
Impressively and encouragingly, though, Liverpool didn’t give up and stole a point with a minute of normal time left on the clock, as Sturridge glanced home a header from Gerrard’s pinpoint set piece delivery. They could have even nicked all three points, but Howard produced a great save to repel Suarez’s immense volleyed effort two minutes into injury time, before Phil Dowd called time on what had been undoubtedly the best Merseyside derby in recent times.

In hindsight, a point is slightly disappointing because we were in the lead twice and really should have held on to all three points. As it transpired, though, a point wasn’t too bad an outcome considering we were eight minutes away from losing to the insufferable Toffees.

In the end, the reminder of why we love football that this dramatic derby provided proved priceless.


Sunday, 10 November 2013

Reds run riot in Fulham rout

Liverpool couldn’t have responded to defeat at Arsenal in a better way.

Dominant from start to finish, the Reds fired four past the Gunners’ London neighbours Fulham to provide the perfect preparation for their trip to Goodison Park after the international break and leave Cottagers’ manager Martin Jol expecting to receive his P45 imminently.

After Amorebieta’s own goal opened the floodgates, Skrtel and Suarez scored soon after to put Liverpool 3-0 up at the interval. With three points in the bag, it was simply a case of how many the Reds could score in the second period. Suarez bagged his second and the Reds’ fourth ten minutes after the restart, with the only disappointment being his failure to net a second consecutive hat-trick at Anfield.

Reverting to 4-3-3 after Arsenal picked holes in the Merseysiders’ 3-4-1-2 formation in the first half last weekend, Rodgers handed a return to the side to vice-captain Daniel Agger. In midfield, Coutinho operated on the left flank, with Henderson on the opposite side and Lucas and Gerrard occupying the centre of the pitch.

When the game kicked off following a minute’s silence the day before Remembrance Sunday, the hosts began on the front foot and never surrendered their position in the ascendancy. Agger volleyed over, Coutinho shot wide and Suarez saw his strike saved by Stekelenburg before the visitors created anything of note. Their one sight of goal came on the quarter of an hour mark, when an admittedly brilliant cross-field ball from former Manchester United forward Dimitar Berbatov sparked a counter attack that culminated in Kasami’s shot being deflected behind.

Following a few below-par performances, which had prompted some to call for the skipper to sit out this match, Steven Gerrard was back on form yesterday afternoon and, excluding Luis Suarez from the reckoning, was clearly man of the match. Pinging pinpoint passes across the pitch to open up Fulham’s defence, Gerrard’s deliveries played a crucial role in all four goals.

First, it was his menacing inswinging free kick that Fernando Amorebieta headed into his own net under pressure from Luis Suarez. Then, tall Slovak Martin Skrtel reached the number eight’s accurate right wing corner to power a header home and double the Reds’ lead.
Suarez tries to claim the opening goal
Skrtel scores the second
Coutinho then tested Dutch keeper Stekelenburg twice and Sturridge fired wide, as Liverpool piled on the pressure, before Gerrard was instrumental in setting up the third goal that removed any doubt about the contest’s outcome. After expertly nutmegging the dumbfounded Berbatov, Gerrard magnificently switched play to Henderson. His perfect pass put Suarez through on goal and the Uruguayan, who had to receive special permission to play in this fixture from his national team ahead of their World Cup play-off versus Jordan, made no mistake from close range.

Unlike earlier on in the season, Liverpool didn’t take their foot off the accelerator in the second half. In fact, only two minutes into the second period the Reds should have added a fourth, as Stekelenburg stopped Suarez, made an amazing save from Sturridge’s rebound and then saw the number seven fire over the bar when the ball fell to him in a good position, all in the space of thirty seconds.

It didn’t take long for that fourth to be bagged, though, as Suarez sent a clinical finish into the net after receiving the ball from, you guessed it, Steven Gerrard.

Unfortunately Suarez's prediction of a hat-trick proved inaccurate this time
The final half hour proved to be a mere formality, consisting of Coutinho’s pursuit of a goal and Suarez’s search for a third. Unfortunately, neither achieved their goals despite their best efforts, but overall there was nothing Kopites could complain about after a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon of exceptional football from the home side, who returned to second place in the table.

Enjoying over two-thirds of possession and having 32 shots, ten of which were on target, Liverpool’s utter dominance was evidenced by the statistics, although it was also as clear as day to even the most casual of observers. The task facing the Reds now is replicating this display in every home match so that Anfield once again becomes the bastion of invincibility the great Bill Shankly envisaged it as.


Progress report: 10 games in

“Ignore the table until 10 games have been played” is a mantra repeated ad nauseam at the start of every new season. Now that we are ten games into the 2013/2014 campaign and are officially allowed to look at the Premier League table, it’s time to take a step back and look at the bigger picture of the season so far. It will be a pleasant experience for Kopites, as things are undoubtedly looking rosy for Rodgers’ Reds.

What a difference a year makes.

This time last season things were much different and Liverpool fans had good reason to be worried. Languishing in thirteenth place, level on points with Norwich City and the eventually relegated Wigan Athletic, the Merseysiders had managed to secure only two wins and a mere eleven points, and Brendan Rodgers was enduring  a difficult start to life at Anfield.

Admittedly, the fixture list had been unforgiving, throwing up home matches against both Manchester clubs and Arsenal, as well as a trip to Goodison Park for the first Merseyside derby of the 2012/2013 season. However, that could not excuse a points return from the first ten games of the season one point lower than that achieved by Roy Hodgson, who didn’t sit in the Anfield dugout for much longer as results and performances remained disappointing, to say the least.

How times change.

In comparison, Liverpool have started this season at breakneck pace, filling Kopites with confidence, Rodgers with joy and opponents with fear. With six wins and 20 points under their belts, the Reds sit third in the table, level on points with Chelsea and Tottenham and ahead of both Manchester City and United. Instead of competing with relegation candidates, Liverpool are fighting it out with the big boys, returning to where they belong in the upper echelons of the table.

The transformation in Liverpool’s fortunes can be explained by two main factors; firstly, the form of Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez. Dubbed the SAS due to their military-like ruthlessness in front of goal, the pair have scored 14 of the Reds’ 17 League goals this campaign.

Suarez's partnership with Sturridge has given him something to smile about
There were doubts about Suarez’s commitment to the club after he was forced to stay in the summer and Sturridge could have taken a while to regain top form after missing most of pre-season through injury. Those fears have proven unfounded, though, as the pair have both been brilliant individually and have struck up one of, if not the most lethal strike partnership in the Premier League. Should they continue to fire on all cylinders, there’s no reason why Liverpool can’t retain their lofty position in the table.

Secondly, Brendan Rodgers has devised a well-thought through and effective formation, which provides not only defensive solidity, but also attacking fluidity. Designed on the principle of employing five attacking players and an equal number of defensive players, the Reds’ 3-4-1-2 formation is remarkably innovative. Three centre backs and two holding midfielders provide security, while Coutinho or Moses is given licence to wreak havoc in the number ten role behind the SAS and the wing backs have freedom to join in the fun as well.

It may need moderating depending on the opposition, as evidenced on Saturday, when Arsenal’s creative midfielders  took advantage of the space afforded them due to our centre backs’ pre-occupation with Giroud,  but in general the unique formation Rodgers employs has been beneficial. Not only has it helped gain positive results and win points, it has also stamped the Northern Irishman’s mark on the club and resulted in his footballing philosophy being reflected out on the pitch. It reminds me of the 4-2-3-1 formation that Benitez made his own with so much success during his time at the club. In a similar fashion, Rodgers has come up with a formation that meets the demands of both defence and attack and facilitates a balanced but effective style of play.

Thumbs up: Rodgers has won the approval of Reds supporters
Another positive that has contributed to the improvement this season is the extra depth and competition within the squad. This is most evident in defence, where Rodgers brought in a raft of reinforcements during the summer. The competition for places in the starting line-up has been so fierce that even vice-captain Daniel Agger has been left on the bench in recent weeks due to the form of Skrtel, Sakho and Toure. Combined with the principle of keeping in form players in the team, which has seen Skrtel come back in from the cold, this extra competition can only keep the players on their toes and increase the probability of good performances.

With so many positives to take from the opening ten games, pointing out negatives may seem like pointless nit-picking. There are, however, some areas in which Liverpool need to make more progress. Most obviously, there has been a tendency for performance levels to tail away during the second half of matches. In fact, it took the Merseysiders until the end of September to score their first goal in the second half. This is probably a short-term anomaly, though, and nothing to be overly concerned with.

A perhaps more serious long term issue is Liverpool’s defending from set-pieces, which so often seems to be ineffective. Time and time again the Reds have been caught out from corners and free kicks, while comparatively little has been created at the other end from dead-ball scenarios. However, it’s in all likelihood simply a case of sorting this out on the training ground with much practice and then we should start to see a difference on match day.

Talk of a title challenge has always been premature, as it would take an unbelievable transformation to go from seventh to first in one season. The Reds’ start to the 2013/2014 campaign has shown us that they are certainly capable of competing for Champions League qualification, however.

Ten games in, Liverpool’s goals for the season appear clearly in sight. Kopites have every reason to believe that their beloved team will achieve them.


(This article originally appeared on This is Anfield)

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Gunners too good for Liverpool

Liverpool fell to a 2-0 defeat at the Emirates as Arsenal emerged victorious from the weekend’s top of the table clash.

The Reds entered the game with high hopes following their emphatic victory over West Bromwich Albion last weekend, where Sturridge and Suarez showed the type of class and skill that promised to terrify Wenger’s backline. The Gunners’ recent defeats to Borussia Dortmund and Chelsea also suggested that their seemingly imperious form may be less apparent against more capable opposition.

Unfortunately, though, Arsenal were back to their brilliant best and, although Liverpool’s display was far from poor, it evidenced tactical naivety, particularly in the first half. The 3-4-1-2 formation that has served Rodgers’ men so ably against other sides proved inappropriate against Arsenal, as it left holding midfielders Gerrard and Lucas to deal with Rosicky, Ramsey, Ozil and Cazorla all by themselves, while Toure, Skrtel and Sakho marked lone striker Giroud.

The predictable result was that the home side’s creative talent was given the space to show off their skills between the lines and, consequently, Arsenal dominated the first 45 minutes. Reverting to 4-4-2 at half time, Liverpool improved after the break, having more possession, completing more passes and creating more chances, but it wasn’t enough to stop the Londoners, who sealed victory thanks to a world class goal from arguably the player of the season so far, namely Aaron Ramsey.

The major team news for Liverpool was that Jon Flanagan, a player marginalised and seemingly on his way out of Anfield, started at right wing back in the place of the ill Glen Johnson. Who knows whether he has a long term future at the club, but most can agree that he performed better than left wing back Aly Cissokho against Arsenal yesterday teatime. Meanwhile, Philippe Coutinho began on the bench following his return from injury.

Only nine minutes in Jordan Henderson had a great chance to open the scoring for Liverpool, but he was like a deer caught in the headlights when presented with a clear path through to goal after a superb tackle in the middle of the park. As a result, his shot was disappointingly weak and failed to test Szczesny and, to make things worse, a mere ten minutes later Arsenal took the lead.

Bacary Sagna beat Cissokho down the right wing and whipped a cross into the box, where Cazorla met his delivery and powered a header against the post. The Spaniard retained his concentration and reacted fastest to reach the rebound and blast beyond both Skrtel and Mignolet.

Cazorla fires the Gunners in front
As difficult as it was facing a resurgent Arsenal side, the Reds’ weren't helped by some sub-par refereeing from Martin Atkinson. Soon after the Gunners’ opener, Sagna fouled Suarez and the number seven intelligently played a quick free kick, which started off a move that ended with Henderson tapping home. Infuriatingly and inexplicably the goal was chalked off because Atkinson ludicrously decided booking Sagna immediately was more important than allowing the away side to press their advantage and take a quick free kick.

At the other end, Mignolet was busy throughout the game, and he had to be on hand to make another good save after an Arsenal one-two released Ramsey on the half hour mark. Cazorla then struck wide as the Reds entered the break with a lot of work to do. Thankfully, after swapping Cissokho for Coutinho and changing to 4-4-2, there was a noticeable improvement, Henderson volleying narrowly over the bar soon after the break.

Silly mistakes in defence persisted, however, and almost cost the visitors dear. Ten minutes after the restart, Toure passed straight to Giroud, who dinked an effort wide of the post when he really should have doubled his team’s lead.

When the Gunners’ second goal did arrive, Liverpool couldn’t be blamed. It was simply a great goal that nobody could do anything about. An unbelievably good long range volley from the rejuvenated Ramsey sailed past the helpless Mignolet and hit the back of the net.

Ramsey is a man re-born this season
It was the Welshman’s eleventh goal in his last 18 games. He had previously managed to net just ten times in 148 matches.

If anybody was going to forge a way back into the match for Liverpool in the final half hour, it was going to be either Luis Suarez or Daniel Sturridge. The former proved particularly threatening against the team he wanted to move to in the summer, agonisingly clipping the far post with a clever outside-of-the-boot effort.

With minutes remaining, the latter was almost presented with a golden opportunity as Szczesny dropped the ball perilously close to the England striker’s feet, but the Pole recovered to spare his blushes. The last chance of the match saw Suarez side-foot wide when clean through on goal. Sturridge screamed at him for not squaring the ball, but he would have attempted to score if he’d been in Suarez’s shoes.

The disappointment from this defeat is augmented by the optimism many Reds had heading into the contest. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to beat this season’s pacesetters, but, as it turned out, Liverpool were humbled, underlining the fact that they are probably still at least a season away from truly competing for top spot.

This campaign is all about getting into that top four. It’s vitally important the Reds get back to winning ways at home to the woeful Fulham next weekend in order to continue their quest for Champions League qualification.