Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Where should Liverpool strengthen this summer?

It is clear that, after a below par season containing more downs than ups, Liverpool need to strengthen in the summer transfer window if they are to compete successfully for Champions League qualification, which surely must be the aim again next season.

But, where should Liverpool strengthen this summer? In this article I assess the areas of the Reds’ squad requiring the most work from Rodgers and his infamous transfer committee.

Attack: Complete re-haul required

I think every member of Liverpool’s striking department should be sold this summer except for Daniel Sturridge.

Mario Balotelli’s time on Merseyside has been an unqualified disaster from start to finish; he should be shipped out, probably back to his native Italy, as soon as possible regardless of the fee the Reds fetch for him. Fabio Borini has been lingering around like a bad smell for far too long and clearly doesn’t have a future at the club as much as he might like one. He too should be sold posthaste.

I feel sorry for Rickie Lambert, who hasn’t been given a fair crack following his £4 million arrival from Southampton last summer. He has been unfairly treated, but, at 33, he isn’t a long term solution and the club should be willing to listen to offers for him, even if I suspect rumours that Jose Mourinho is interested in him are slightly wide of the mark!

I also think that Raheem Sterling doesn’t have a future at the club, although that’s more due to his attitude and conduct off-field, particularly in contract negotiations, rather than due to issues on-field. The youngster has plenty of ability and potential, but clearly thinks that he’s far better than he actually is.

Sterling's attitude stinks
Liverpool offering him £100k a week was extremely generous considering his poor ability in front of goal, and for him to turn that down and then for his agent to say that Sterling would turn down even £900k per week simply serves to show that his future lies away from Anfield.

He should be sold for as much as possible and the cash generated reinvested in refurbishing an attack desperately requiring additions. Even when Liverpool were scoring over 100 goals in 2013/2014, their attack required investment as Iago Aspas was the only back-up to the dynamic Suarez-Sturridge duo. Now, Liverpool’s attack is even weaker and many changes need to be made.

Of course, Divock Origi will join the Reds this summer after immediately re-joining Lille on loan following his transfer to Liverpool last summer. The Belgian striker struggled last season and will take time to settle on Merseyside; we shouldn’t expect him to hit the floor running and instead he should be used as third choice striker.

The priority should be signing another world class striker to accompany Sturridge up front most weeks (the number 15 works best in a partnership) and replace the England international when he suffers one of his all too frequent injury setbacks. Christian Benteke has been suggested as a possible signing, but paying Aston Villa’s asking price of over £30 million would be a ludicrous repeat of the ill-fated Andy Carroll transfer which should be avoided. If we can get him for roughly £20 million, then maybe he’s worth a punt, but certainly not at any higher price.

I also think we need another striker of a similar sort of standard and quality as Origi in order to give options to Rodgers up front and replace Raheem Sterling potentially. If we can strengthen in these ways and end up with two world class strikers and two decent back-ups then we should score far more goals next season, bolstering our Champions League hopes significantly.

Defence: (Near) complete re-haul required

The form of Liverpool’s defence tracked the form of the rest of the team (or, perhaps more accurately, the form of the rest of the team tracked the form of Liverpool’s defence) last season. They started awfully, improved exponentially, and then collapsed dramatically.

There has been improvement, but more work needs to be done. First, Rodgers needs to figure out whether he wants to play with three or four at the back. Then, he needs to find reinforcements on both wings urgently.

On the right hand side, Glen Johnson has finally left the club after his contract ran out, leaving the out of favour Javier Manquillo, who has a year left on his loan from Athletic Madrid, the only option assuming that Rodgers doesn’t view playing Can out of position in defence as a long term solution. Of course, Jon Flanagan could potentially come back into contention, but we cannot rely on him remaining injury free.

That’s why the club have bid £10 million for Southampton’s Nathaniel Clyne, who appears a really promising young British prospect with bags of potential. The Reds just must make sure that they don’t overpay for a Southampton defender for a second season running. £15 million seems a sensible upper limit in terms of what they should offer for the 24-year old.

Hopefully Clyne will not be the next Lovren
On the left, meanwhile, Alberto Moreno did enough last season to remain first choice, although he struggles defensively and the injury plagued Jose Enrique is his only back up. Therefore, another left back should be second on Rodgers’ defensive shopping list.

Some will also argue, with some justification, that changes need to be made at centre back. After all, Dejan Lovren was awful last season and Mamadou Sakho spent a lot of time on the treatment table. The only problem is, Liverpool have gone out and spent £20 million on a new centre back in the previous two summer transfer windows, and that’s something that the club just cannot afford to do every summer.

Either we make a shrewd signing or two for low transfer fees to improve Rodgers’ options at centre back, or we persevere with the two players that we have invested so much in.  I think Skrtel and Sakho should be first choice next season because Skrtel is our best defender and Sakho looked half decent during the Reds’ run of good form last season and has sufficient potential to make it worthwhile being patient with him rather than rashly spending loads of money on yet another centre back, money which could be more wisely invested elsewhere.

Midfield: Tinkering required if transfer budget allows

Despite the departure of Steven Gerrard, Liverpool’s midfield looks fairly strong. At the very least, it requires less attention than the defence and attack this summer. In the middle of the park, Henderson, Allen, Lucas, Lallana and Coutinho can all be called upon to fulfil various roles and functions in the side, while Jordon Ibe and Lazar Markovic offer options out wide, as does Moreno and Sterling if he, against the odds, stays at Anfield.

Lucas is still a great sitting midfielder, while Allen did enough at times last season to deserve another season, if only as a back-up, and Henderson has the capability to step into Steven Gerrard’s role in the side, although I’m reticent to call him, or anyone else for that matter, Steven Gerrard’s replacement, because there will never be anyone like Steven Gerrard, who is a Liverpool legend unique in his footballing genius.

Milner is an experienced England international
If there is surplus cash, which seems very unlikely, maybe Rodgers could bring in another option for the wings, but tinkering at most is all that is required in the Reds’ midfield. If we can bring in James Milner, who is a useful hardworking utility player with a surprisingly impressive number of assists, from Man City on a free transfer than that would be a great bit of business and possibly all that we need to do to enhance the midfield.

Goalkeeper: Back-up stopper required

During the first half of last season, many, including myself, thought that Liverpool needed to sell Simon Mignolet and sign a new first choice goalkeeper, perhaps Petr Cech or Asir Begovic. However, after the Belgian proved his critics wrong by keeping 13 clean sheets and sharing the golden glove with Courtois and Hart, few are suggesting anymore that he needs to be sold.

Brad Jones is on his way out of Anfield, though, so another goalkeeper who is good enough to cover for a couple of matches if Mignolet gets injured is required on the cheap this summer.

Conclusion: Big summer ahead for Brendan Rodgers

In sum, Brendan Rodgers has a big summer ahead of him and should be very busy. He probably has a maximum of one season left to re-build the squad and achieve Champions League qualification. If he fails, he will be sacked; it’s that simple. It’s therefore vital that he completely re-hauls the Reds’ attack and makes important additions in defence, as well as tinkering with his midfield to improve it further.


Monday, 1 June 2015

Season 2014/2015 Awards

I look back at the highlights of a mixed season that included some title winning form at points but was ultimately bookended by disappointment by handing out awards for player of the season, young player of the season, most improved player of the season and signing of the season. I also pick my goal and game of the season.

Player of the season: Philippe Coutinho

The little Brazilian magician Philippe Coutinho has seen his star rise even higher this season, as he has been by far and away the Reds’ best and most consistent performer. Stunning long range efforts against Southampton, Manchester City and Bolton Wanderers immediately spring to mind amongst his impressive tally of eight goals.

Philippe Coutinho: worthy winner of our Player of the season award
Those breathtaking moments of individual brilliance that capture the headlines are only the tip of the iceberg, though, as Coutinho is always at the Reds’ creative heart. When Coutinho doesn’t perform well, Liverpool don’t perform well either, almost without exception. That’s how important he has become to the Reds this season, and why it is such great news that he signed a new contract with no hesitations in February.

If he can build on this season then there’s no reason why Coutinho cannot rival Luis Suarez in terms of ability and impact, although with considerably less controversy in all likelihood. I, for one, cannot wait to see Coutinho playing again next season.

Young player of the season: Emre Can

21-year old Emre Can has emerged as a particularly promising young player this season. Signed from Bayer Leverkusen for just under £10 million last summer, Can initially struggled to get game time, only becoming a regular fixture in the starting line-up after he came on at half time against Burnley on Boxing Day and performed brilliantly as part of a back three.

Ever since, Can has largely featured at right centre back, showing his flexibility and versatility, as well as his maturity and tactical awareness to be able to adapt to a relatively new position so quickly at such a young age.

Can celebrates scoring versus Chelsea
Admittedly, Can hasn’t faced fierce completion for the young player of the season award. Sterling’s form has taken a nosedive since his contract fiasco, Markovic has been hit and miss and, despite impressing when given opportunities, Jordon Ibe hasn’t played enough to be given serious consideration.

Going forward, it would be good to see Can to move into midfield, not only because it would be beneficial for his development as a player, but also because Brendan Rodgers needs to sign a specialist right back to fulfil the role that Can has been filling in for in the long term.

Most improved player of the season: Simon Mignolet

The improvement in Simon Mignolet has been scarcely believable. The Belgian was worse than useless at points during the first half of the season, but almost unbeatable during the second half. Previously meek and unassertive, Mignolet was seen as a liability at set pieces and poor with the ball at his feet. Now, he is far more confident in his penalty area and, although he still needs to work on his footwork, he has improved.

Most importantly, his old shot-stopping ability has re-emerged, resulting in him keeping an impressive 13 clean sheets in the league, the same amount as Courtois and Hart, who have both had far stronger defences protecting them.

Mignolet is now such a better keeper
Hopefully next season he can build on the second half of this season and be on top form right from the word go so that he can help Liverpool have a better season and also enjoy personal glory by claiming the golden glove outright.

Worst player of the season: Mario Balotelli

Unfortunately, there are far too many contenders for this award. Glen Johnson was awful, not putting up a fight for a new contract during another dire season. Dejan Lovren was extremely disappointing; many had high hopes for him following his big money move from Southampton, but he has failed to live up to expectations and many Kopites are now wishing Brendan Rodgers hadn’t tried so hard to sign him. Raheem Sterling has been rubbish for large parts of the second half of the season, primarily during his protracted contract negotiations, and many would now be pleased to see the back of him after controversial comments from his agent.

Balotelli has been a really bad signing
This award has to go to stupid Mario, however, because he has been consistently abysmal, rarely showing any signs of promise and, worst of all, having an attitude completely contrary to the ethos of the club. 4 goals in 28 appearances is a measly return on Liverpool’s £16 million investment in the Italian and, when the Reds really needed someone to step up to the plate and fill in for the injured Sturridge, Balotelli was found wanting again and again. The sooner the Merseysiders get rid of him, the better.

Signing of the season: Emre Can

This award is tough to decide as well, mainly because Brendan Rodgers invested the £70 million from the sale of Luis Suarez in a way that, with the benefit of hindsight, was far from optimal. £20 million on Lovren and Markovic? £16 million on Balotelli? £26 million on Lallana? £4 million on Lambert?

Can's been the best of a bad bunch of signings
A lot of money was wasted on average players; some of them, such as Markovic and Lallana, may have potential to develop and prove their worth in the future, like Jordan Henderson has, but nobody can deny inflated transfer fees were paid to secure their services, primarily because sellers knew that Liverpool’s coffers were swelled by the sale of Suarez to Barcelona at the start of the transfer window.

Nonetheless, Can was the pick of a bad bunch. For £10 million, his signing represented value and he has also consistently put in pretty decent and promising performances. Lallana has also been encouragingly good at times, particularly when linking up with Coutinho, but has been blighted by injuries and is yet to hit top form. Therefore, the signing of the season award goes to German Emre Can.

Best game of the season: Tottenham Hotspur 0-3 Liverpool

The fact that Liverpool’s best game of the season came only three games in demonstrates how disappointing the rest of the campaign was in comparison. Nonetheless, the 3-0 win at White Hart Lane was probably one of few highlights from a poor season, as Liverpool celebrated Brendan Rodgers’ 100th match in charge in style.

Balotelli put in his best performance in a Liverpool shirt, while Sterling was also impressive, scoring the opener earlier on and spurning an unbelievably easy opportunity when the game was already won, prompting Rodgers to amusingly say, “Raheem ran into the box like Ricky Villa and finished it like Ricky Gervais!”

Gerrard added a second from the spot soon after the break, while Moreno scored a great goal after marauding down the left wing in a manner reminiscent of former Spurs star Gareth Bale. It was a game that gave us hope that the Reds’ poor early season form was just a temporary blip that would soon be overcome. It also made us believe that our summer signings would be better than they turned out to be.

Not quite the terrific trio we'd hoped for
For giving us that false hope, Tottenham 0-3 Liverpool is our best game of the season.

Worst game of the season: Stoke City 6-1 Liverpool

The less said about this shambles, the better. Suffice to say, Liverpool were abysmal defensively and performed in a shameful way on Stevie Gerrard’s last ever match for the club. We can only hope that it doesn’t set the tone for next season.

Goal of the season: Coutinho vs Southampton

This was a stunning strike. Made all the better as it was literally the first bit of the game that I saw as I sat down on my mate’s sofa after arriving a little late to watch the match, Coutinho’s wonder goal was out of this world and set the Reds on their way to a vital 2-0 win against a competitor for Champions League qualification.

Receiving a simple square pass from Markovic, Coutinho cut in and curled a cracking right footed effort into the back of the net off the underside of the bar. It was a world class goal to add to his burgeoning collection of superb strikes.


Two steps back: 2014/2015 Season Review

It feels like Liverpool took two steps back this season. The club took one giant leap forward in 2013/2014, beating everyone’s expectations as they finished second and still had a mathematical chance of winning the title on the final day of the campaign after managing only a lowly seventh place finish the season before.

Hopes were high heading into 2014/2015. With Champions League football back at Anfield, the Reds were back where they belong and ready to take another tilt at the title too. That was the theory, at least. In reality, Liverpool’s 2014/2015 season, bar a brilliant but unfortunately comparatively brief resurgence post-Christmas, was one characterised by frustration and disappointment.

In the league, the campaign started slowly. An unconvincing home victory over Southampton on the opening weekend was followed by a comprehensive defeat at Man City’s Etihad Stadium and, although a 3-0 win at White Hart Lane, which included a superb individual effort from new signing Alberto Moreno, raised Reds’ fans hopes that Rodgers’ team would soon re-discover last season’s form, the month of September soon doused any residual optimism; the Reds failed to register a Premier League win, requiring a late Mario Balotelli winner to beat Ludogorets at home in the Champions League and only reaching the fourth round of the League Cup after a marathon penalty shootout against Middlesbrough.

This was a great goal from Moreno early on in the season
Things were seriously not looking good for Liverpool. They badly missed the firepower of the departed Luis Suarez and the injured Daniel Sturridge, and Rodgers quickly realised that his £16 million gamble on Italian maverick Mario Balotelli wasn’t going to pay off. At the back, meanwhile, Liverpool’s defence was leaking far too many goals, as Dejan Lovren, a £20 million summer signing from Southampton, failed to justify his hugely inflated transfer fee.

Real Madrid showed up in Merseyside in the middle of October and gave Liverpool a footballing lesson as they beat the Reds 3-0, with all three goals coming in 20 devastating first half minutes. It was hoped that the return leg in Spain a fortnight later would be a watershed moment when Liverpool’s season would finally turn a corner. With Chelsea visiting Anfield on the weekend, Rodgers picked a reserve side in the Bernabeu and, against the odds; they put in a fantastic and resilient performance, only losing 1-0 in the end.

It was highly credible considering Liverpool’s starting line-up and form up to that point. It turned out to be one of far too many false downs, though, as things only got worse for the Reds, who crashed out of the Champions League after only managing draws in games that they needed to win against Ludogorets and Basel.

Surprisingly, Liverpool’s turning point came in a manner perhaps nobody expected; a 3-0 defeat at Manchester United. Obviously, it was horrible to lose so comprehensively at Old Trafford, but the result didn’t reflect the balance of play, as Liverpool, perhaps given a much needed kick up the back side by a few unexpected team changes (Brendan Rodgers dropped Simon Mignolet and played Raheem Sterling as a lone striker for the first time), put in an encouraging performance, which included 19 shots, eight more than their hosts. The difference proved to be the goalkeepers, as David de Gea put in a match winning performance, while Brad Jones was below par, if still better than Simon Mignolet had been up to that point.

De Gea denied Liverpool victory, but things were looking up
From that point on, Liverpool slowly but surely improved, showing character to pick up a late point at home to Arsenal and then securing wins over Burnley, Swansea, Sunderland and Aston Villa. In fact, the Reds were producing title winning form; between the defeat at Old Trafford which started Liverpool’s resurgence and the crushing loss at home to Louis Van Gaal’s men, which unceremoniously ended their run of good form at the end of March, Liverpool won 15 out of 23 matches in all competitions, losing only twice.

Those two defeats came in Cup matches against Chelsea and Besiktas, as Liverpool’s focus narrowed to earning Champions League qualification and securing FA Cup success for Steven Gerrard after the news that all Kopites dreaded hearing, namely that the much loved skipper was finally leaving Liverpool, was released in January. With the FA Cup final falling on Gerrard’s birthday, there would have been no better way for Stevie to sign off.

To that end, Philippe Coutinho, a consistent performer whose star was quickly rising to prominence, scored stunning goal after stunning goal to secure Cup progress, firing in against Bolton and Blackburn, as well as against Man City and Southampton in the league. The little Brazilian magician scored eight goals in total, becoming the focal point of Liverpool’s attack and easily taking the Player of the Season award. He also crucially penned a new long-term contract at Liverpool, meaning that Kopites will be able to enjoy his mercurial talent for years to come.

Hopefully there's more of these Coutinho worldies to come
Another key performer was Simon Mignolet, who improved markedly, perhaps even miraculously, during the second half of the season after a woeful first half of the campaign which culminated in his demotion to the bench at Old Trafford and me opining that the end of his time at Anfield was inevitably nigh and that a new keeper had to be brought in promptly. My predictions of his demise clearly turned out to be greatly exaggerated, as he kept 13 clean sheets in all, the same number as Thibaut Courtois and Joe Hart.

Frustratingly, however, Coutinho’s mercurial talent and Mignolet’s suddenly enhanced goalkeeping ability weren’t enough to revive the Reds after two crushing defeats in must win matches against Manchester United and Arsenal. Heading into the United match the Reds were in fifth, two points off their fourth placed rivals from down the M62 and six behind the Gunners, who had played an extra game. After 2-1 and 4-1 reversals, Liverpool were seven points behind fourth placed City, who also had a game in hand on the Reds; fourth was now a pipe dream, and the success of the campaign now came down to whether or not Liverpool could lift the FA Cup on the final weekend of the season.

That didn’t happen, as Liverpool were so shell-shocked by the abrupt halting of their magnificent run of title winning form that they never recovered, putting in a pathetic performance at Wembley against Aston Villa and deservedly losing. The way in which Arsenal dispatched Villa with such consummate ease in what was an entertaining FA Cup final on Saturday serves to show the worrying gulf in class between the Reds and the Gunners.

Perhaps just as discouragingly, the players couldn’t even get up for Steven Gerrard’s final Anfield appearance and last ever Liverpool match, as they lost abysmally at home to Crystal Palace and away to Stoke City in their final two matches.

Gerrard deserved better from his last Liverpool appearances
It was a really depressing way to end a yoyo season that had far more downs than ups and only confirmed that the club has indeed taken two sizeable steps back after appearing to have enjoyed such progress in the previous season.


A brief polemic about Stoke shambles

I know that it’s been over a week since the last game of the season, and I am aware that most Kopites wanted to instantly forget about it, but unfortunately the good people at EE have messed about with my broadband package recently, rendering me unable to share my thoughts about that Stoke shambles.

It was nice in a way, being away from the inevitable internet inquest in the immediate aftermath; more heat than light is normally generated in those circumstances, but, if only for the sake of completeness, I’d like to comment on the 6-1 defeat at the Britannia Stadium.

With that said, here’s my brief polemic about that Stoke shambles:

Selection shambles

Kicking off right at the start, what on earth was Brendan Rodgers doing picking six central midfielders and no recognised strikers or wingers?! Surely Lazar Markovic, Jordon Ibe, Jordan Sinclair, or even Mario Balotelli or Rickie Lambert, deserved a start.

They may not have performed much better than their teammates, but they might have provided more creativity and width and imagination. When you play four central midfielders across the middle and two attacking midfielders in the form of Lallana and Coutinho up front, you’re setting yourself up for a dire game going forward.

Dire defence

Things were far worse at the back, however, and, ironically, a central midfielder played out of position was largely to blame. Culpable for all three of the opening goals, Emre Can had his worst game for the Reds by far.

Arnautovic beat him far too easily down the wing for Diouf’s two goals, the second of which was admittedly a good strike from the edge of the box, but the first was purely a gift from Simon Mignolet, who, I think, could have dealt better with Diouf’s second as well. Then, inexplicably, Can headed a cross down perfectly for Walters to score the third. It really was woeful stuff from the promising young player, but he shouldn’t have been playing in defence in the first place.

Can clearly can't defend
It was the last game of the season and his future next season is clearly in his natural midfield position, so he should have been given a starting berth there and the frozen out Manquillo given a second chance at left back.

Sakho was rubbish for the fourth goal as well, giving away possession far too easily, while Crouch had a free header for the sixth in the 86th minute. Stoke were good, and credit to them for a great game and a fantastic season, but the only goal that they scored primarily due to their skill was Nzonzi’s fifth from the edge of the box on the stroke of half time.

Letting down Stevie

For Steven Gerrard to leave Liverpool on this shambolic note is shameful. Liverpool’s best ever player enduring the club’s most emphatic Premier League defeat in his final appearance is just awful. He scored a well taken goal in the 70th minute in the only bright point to take, but it wouldn’t have provided the skipper any consolation. He deserved so much better from his teammates, and it is disgraceful that neither Stevie’s final Anfield appearance nor his last ever match could motivate them to actually put a shift in.

Gerrard was let down by his teammates
They just looked like they were on the beach already and wanted the season over and done with, which is not acceptable. They’re paid over £50k a week most of them, the least they can do is turn up and put a shift in, for the fans who parted with their hard earned cash to come and support them once again and for Stevie’s final match.  

All in all, it was absolute and utter rubbish and the players and the manager need to take a long hard look at themselves over the summer.