Saturday, 20 December 2014

Liverpool Vs Arsenal - A Preview to the Crucial Festive Tie

It has been a seesaw two weeks for Liverpool Football Club with fluctuating results ranging from a poor loss to Manchester United to a promising win against Bournemouth in the League Cup. There was also a heartbreaking draw to FC Basel in the Champions League subsequently knocking the Reds out. As has been the trend in Liverpool's season, the Basel game offered the same frustration with no incision or cutting edge and players running down cul-de-sacs. Despite a typical Steven Gerrard free-kick, the Swiss team was able to hold out. Against perennial foes Manchester United, Brendan Rodgers experimented with something different by playing three defenders at the back. Even though the Reds played with more guile, the end result was not much different. The Red Devils were ruthless in finishing their few chances whereas the Reds were toothless when presented with their myriad chances. While credit will definitely go to opposing goalkeeper David De Gea, the bottomline is that Reds' players did not make him work much by shooting straight at him. Raheem Sterling, playing as a false nine, was particularly guilty of spurning glorious chances. This two week period culminated in a Capital One Cup quarterfinal tie against high flying Championship leaders Bournemouth at the Goldstands Stadium. What was touted as a potential bananaskin game for the Reds turned out to be contradictory to the reality with the Reds easing to a 3-1 victory. Raheem Sterling broke his 17 game goal drought whereas Lazar Markovic got his maiden Liverpool goal. All in all, this was a positive performance albeit against a Championship Team.

Despite the varying degrees of results, there were some underlying flaws in all three games. The first and most major problem was that of the midfield. Players like Joe Allen and Jordan Hendrson were easily outmuscled and bypassed by the opposition teams. What was telling was the appalling lack of skill exhibited by the midfielders. When put under pressure, they easily capitulated leading to a wide open middle third. This was particularly exhibited by Wayne Rooney's first goal where the lack of midfield cover was shocking. Players like Marouane Fellaini and Fabian Frei of FC Basel had a very easy run and constantly attacked the Reds' penalty box. When there is no midfield cover, the job of the defense becomes  infinitely harder and with the Reds' already error-prone and suspect defense, it is a recipe for disaster. Even in the Bournemouth game, the Cherries' players took multiple shots from outside the box because of the lack of protection. For this, the blame solely lies with Brendan Rodgers. While Lucas Leiva was shielding the back four, the Reds defense looked the most solid it had in two years. But in the past two weeks, Rodgers inexplicably tweaked this lineup by either putting Joe Allen or Steven Gerrard along with Lucas. This was a recipe for disaster as the players had no idea of their roles and were vulnerable due to their palpable lack of pace.

The problem as has been with the Liverpool season is the team selection. Brendan Rodgers has mobile and strong players on the bench like Emre Can but he always persists with Joe Allen who has no skill on the ball. Steven Gerrard is not a Defensive Midfielder but even after this was obvious, Brendan Rodgers persisted with it. Against United, the captain was just a passenger. He simply does not have the awareness or the pace to shield the defense effectively. When put under pressure, he just falters. If Rodgers does not realise this, he should not be at the club. Gerrard showed his obvious class when he was deployed in the attacking position and even scored some goals but Rodgers just reverted back to what was not working.

Another is that of the goalkeeping position. Simon Mignolet was indefinitely dropped for the game against United and the ironic part was that this was when Mignolet was starting to look better. Needless to say, this choice did not work out with Jones at some fault for the first and third goals. He was even more suspect in the Bournemouth game where he fluffed a simple shot into the net. This is simply not good enough. Goalkeepers have the ability to win you games as David De Gea has shown repeatedly this season. In the January Transfer window, the Reds have to go for a proven goalkeeper like Petr Cech or Hugo Lloris. Nothing short of the best is acceptable if Liverpool is to compete with the top teams in the world. If Jones or Mignolet do not cut the bill, there is a plethora of good goalkeepers available in various European clubs.

This leads to the game against Arsenal. As most Reds fans will pleasantly remember, the Reds thrashed the Gunners 5-1 last season in one of the most thrilling displays Anfield has ever seen. On that day, Arsenal were just second best in every department and could not cope with the energy and enthusiasm of the Reds. Needless to say, a result resembling that would be amazing. But, even the most ardent Liverpool fans will admit that is not likely. However, this is an Arsenal team that has proven vulnerable to physicality and aggression. Their only shining light has been former Liverpool target Alexis Sanchez. If the Reds can preclude Sanchez from his normal game and continue with the endless pressing from last season, they can cause Arsenal numerous problems. Arsenal are in the same boat as Liverpool as they have endured a very mediocre season. A win for either team can lift the spirits and morale. If Liverpool can win this, it can lead to a resurgence but that is another discussion. For now, Liverpool have to focus on the task at hand. Arsenal will not be as easy as their form has suggested. If memories go back, Arsenal dominated Liverpool last season even with Suarez and Sturridge at the helm in a 2-0 win at the Emirates Stadium. They have mobile and strong midfielders in Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere and physical strikers in Sanchez, Olivier Giroud and Danny Welbeck. It promises to be an enthralling encounter. However, the teams selection has to be right and there are no excuses for picking the wrong team. Assuming that Rodgers goes with three at the back

                                                                           Brad Jones

                                 Kolo Toure------------Martin Skrtel-----------Mamadou Sakho

Javier Manquillo -------------------------Lucas Leiva -----------------------Alberto Moreno  

                                     Emre Can-----------------------------Adam Lallana 

Raheem Sterling-------------------Lazar Markovic 

This team has the most composed defenders in Mamadou Sakho, Kolo Toure and Martin Skrel. Toure will help organize the defence better and this will lead to more stability. The two Spanish full back Moreno and Manquillo have been woefully out of favour and it is time for them to come back and prove their worth. Emre Can has also been out of favour but he is the most complete out of all the midfielders and he deserves to get a chance. Raheem Sterling and Lazar Markovic provide the required pace up top and they will provide the most incision. Adam Lallana was really accurate with his passing and decisions and he deserves to keep his place. 

Prediction - 2-1 to Liverpool - The Reds seemed to be more incisive in their play against Man Utd and Bournemouth and I think they have enough to threaten and expose the Arsenal defence. But, as usual, the Reds defense will inevitably concede a goal and will not be able to keep a clean sheet. But, I do think the Reds have enough. 

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Liverpool 0 Sunderland 0 - Dour Goalless Draw as Reds Frustrated Again

After a good, solid 3-1 win against Leicester City, it had seemed like the Reds had turned a new page. With 2 wins in as many games after no win in 7, the team morale appeared to have risen. With this, Liverpool were fully expected to go on and get the job done against Sunderland at Anfield. Despite performing admirably against leaders Chelsea, this was a Black Cats team with only one win in 5 games. Captain and leader Steven Gerrard, fresh from a goal against Leicester was left on the bench in anticipation of the crucial Champions League tie against FC Basel. Phillipe Coutinho came in his place. This was one of two changes, with the other being young Right Back Javier Manquillo replaced by his compatriot Alberto Moreno. There was a visible change in formation with Lucas Leiva and Jordan Henderson playing together behind the trio of Lallana, Coutinho and Sterling with Rickie Lambert at the top. With all the changes, the expectation was still to win.

The game itself was a bit anticlimactic to the buildup, resulting in a mundane goalless draw with few chances. There was no creativity or incision, which has been the bane of Liverpool's season with the Anfield crowd always restless in the background. This was summed up when Henderson and Lucas exchanged at least 15 passes between them before kicking the ball out. There was no belief that Brendan Rodgers' men would go on and get the vital goal. Opposing goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon was barely tested having only two saves to make. While it was a spirited defensive display from the Mackems, their workload was mitigated by Liverpool's lack of a cutting edge. These dire games are in stark contrast to last season's relentless entertainment and excitement. While last season opposite teams did not know what to expect, this season the play is predictable and pedestrian. Teams know exactly how to deal with the Reds attack and this has been shown numerous times over the last few games. The irony is that Sunderland could have even won the game with a strong case for a Connor Wickham penalty and numerous awkward situations from corners. But, while everything does seem doom and gloom, this is a relatively stable position compared to Liverpool's state before. There were also some positives despite the palpable negatives.

Raheem Sterling trying to win a penalty when challenge by Wes Brown
The obvious one is that Liverpool kept a clean sheet, which has not been a regular occurrence. While Sunderland did have chances, the defence was solid and relatively untroubled. Kolo Toure has revitalised the defence with his commanding presence and knowhow of what to do with the ball. He should continue with his place because even the error prone Martin Skrtel seems more composed. Simon Mignolet had a quiet game with only a single save to make. But, what was good to see was that the perennial dily-dallying in Mignolet's game was not visible today. Everytime the ball came to him, Mignolet did the right thing and punted it up the field. So often, back passing has caused unnecessary problems for the defence. If this continues, Mignolet's confidence will build because of less pressure on his goal. Even the much maligned Glen Johnson has experienced a resurgence with some marauding runs and an unexpected composure in possession. The defence does look to be improving and that can only be a good thing in the future. If you do not concede, you cannot lose. Another positive was the return to form of Raheem Sterling who displayed his blistering pace and trickery on a number of occassions and after a few insipid displays, he looks to be back to his best. This is vital because Sterling is pivotal to Liverpool's future endeavours. But, without doubt, the biggest shining light was that of Lucas Leiva. The almost ostracized defensive midfielder showed that he still has much to offer with a very solid performance and not the first. His constant pressing and harrying of the Sunderland players lead to many openings and he was never beaten or passed by. He has shown that he is more effective than Steven Gerrard in that position so it would be a travesty to drop him now.

Rickie Lambert trying to encourage his teammates on a frustrating afternoon

A majority of Liverpool's problems lie in the attack. While Rickie Lambert has shown himself to be a dependable asset and one to play for the team, he cannot be expected to play games at such a high frequency and intensity, given that he is already 33. His performances have waned and the fatigue is clearly showing. Even in his Southampton days, Lambert was often rotated and kept on the bench during the busy Christmas period so it would be unrealistic to think that he can handle it now. Mario Balotelli has not shown much and even then he is injured and expecting a prospective ban from the FA. Fabio Borini is nowhere in the scene at the moment. He was not even on the bench in today's game. So, if Liverpool is expected to prosper during this period, Rodgers will have to pull the archetypal 'rabbit out of the hat'. Another problem is the inexperience of the team and the lack of awareness in the final third. Quite often, the players do the hard work and get the ball into the 18 yard box but look mystified when deciding what to do. So many times we have seen the players take the wrong option like passing when a shot was appropriate and vice versa. While this has been adversely affected by the losses of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, the blame has to lie with Brendan Rodgers in his waste of funds. He had the resources to bring in quality and he did not. Even a player like Loic Remy, who is warming the bench at Chelsea could have been an effective option with Lambert and Sturridge. The upcoming January window is vital and nothing less than a quality striker is acceptable. But, the main problem for me is the reliance on Steven Gerrard. This is a player who is past his prime years and his body has started to wane. He cannot cope up with the pace of the game as he could. But, still, when he came on, everybody tended to look to him for inspiration. This is a big problem because this shows a glaring lack of belief in the team that they still have to look to Steven Gerrard for help. Liverpool are in stern requirement for leaders like Gerrard and Jamie Carragher and then only can they reach the road to glory. There is no player who can take a game by the scruff of the neck and win it single handedly. That is a big problem. Manchester City and Chelsea have many players like that and if Liverpool is to compete with them, they need these players.

Steven Gerrard trying to make an impact after coming on as a substitute

Next up for Liverpool is a crucial do or die tie against FC Basel before the big game against Manchester United at Old Trafford. Liverpool do not look to be in good shape at the moment but all is not bad. If they can find inspiration from somewhere, I think Liverpool can compete. The Anfield crowd will be loud on Tuesday night and this might charge the players up or has been the case before, an unexpected hero might rise. The games are coming thick and fast and only time will tell if Liverpool will make it through the period unscathed and in contention for a top four berth. It will not be easy and will take a lot of effort and determination but despite being a herculean task, it is not impossible. We just have to wait and see...

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Leicester City Vs Liverpool - A Preview to the Midweek Premier League TIe

Relief was the mood around Anfield when Liverpool finally ended their 7 game winless run and as is typical with the topsy-turvy nature of the club at the moment, Glen Johnson was the one to provide the winning touch. Bravely, he charged on to a loose ball after the ball had rebounded off the cross bar after a Rickie Lambert header. Johnson has received quite a lot of criticism in the past months and it has been justified. However, credit must be given to the 30 year old England international. Not many would have taken the risk he did with two Stoke defenders and the goalkeeper attacking the ball as well. The celebration was not one of jubilation but one that was calm and mundane. While the win was good and the clean sheet even better, it does nothing but paper over the very large cracks in the club's structure. The first half epitomized the current state of the team with no incision and no creativity. There was just no life in the play. There was a drastic improvement in the second half with more pressing and incision resulting in a catalogue of chances before Glen Johnson broke the deadlock. Before we get ahead of ourselves, we have to understand that this was a Stoke team content with a draw. If another team had pursued us with more vigour than things might have been different. But, in the end that is just hypothetical. Brendan Rodgers and his men have to consolidate on this and know that the vintage Liverpool from last season may never be resurrected but that results can still be achieved.

Now, Liverpool travel to struggling Leicester City who are rooted to the bottom of the table with no win since the dramatic 5-3 win over Manchester United. Nigel Pearson is under a lot of pressure from fans and board and this is a game that should not be taken lightly. While Leicester have not won a game in long, they still remain strong at their King Power Stadium. It will be a cold and tense night and Liverpool will have their work cut out for them. First and foremost, Liverpool have to deal with Leicester's main goal poacher in Leandro Ulloa who is lethal in the box. Leicester rely on fast breaks and width from players like Jeffrey Shclupp, Riyad Mahrez and Anthony Knockaert. The defence will have to be wary of the threat possessed by veteran Esteban Cambiasso as well who has shown that he can take control of a game on a good day. There will be a strong defence to handle for the Liverpool attack with captain Wes Morgan and aspiring defender Liam Moore in the heart and ex-red Paul Konchesky also present. It promises to be difficult. Liverpool have not had the best away record this year with only two wins at Tottenham and QPR. When faced with teams fighting for their lives, Liverpool tend to struggle so it imperative that they get off to a good start to calm the nerves and tension. So, on this note who should be in the team and who should not?

I think that Liverpool should make two changes to the lineup that defeated Stoke on Saturday. Emre Can and Alberto Moreno should come in for Joe Allen and Jose Enrique respectively.

  • Kolo Toure performed well on Sunday and was able to cope with the strength and trickery of the Stoke attack comfortably. He is a good leader and his passion and desire shows on the field. While he may be prone to calamitous errors, he still has shown more in his limited game time than Dejan Loren or Martin Skrtel have. Unfortunately, Mamadou Sakho is not yet fit so I would stick with Skrtel and Toure as they would have high confidence from keeping a clean sheet. 
  • While I may be one of Glen Johnson's harshest critics, he deserves to stay in the team on the back of the previous performance because of his commitment to get the goal. The rule of thumb is to never drop a player after scoring a goal and this should continue with Johnson keeping his berth. If he does not perform against Leicester, he should be dropped the next game. Jose Enrique was reliable in attack and defence but Alberto Moreno has the edge over him in speed and passing and this might be required on the counter attack in an away game. 
  • The big question is whether leader Steven Gerrard should return to the team and the answer to that is a resounding NO. Lucas Leiva showed his solidarity and reliability in the Defensive Midfield position and he should continue there. The midfield looks more compact and structured with him in the team. 
  • Rickie Lambert has done well over the past few games with 2 goals and an assist and is proving to be a valuable asset. His experience in rough conditions like the ones at Leicester may be important. 
  • Sterling and Coutinho should stay as they are because there confidence has been dented over the past weeks and on Saturday, we saw glimpses of the Sterling and Coutinho of old and both need a run of games to get back up to their previous levels. 
  • Since it is an away game, Liverpool requires a strong presence in midfield and that is provided by Emre Can who provides required steel and can bring the ball out of trouble. Joe Allen has been good in past games but he does not provide enough attacking impetus to function on the break in games like these. 

Prediction - 3-2 to Liverpool - I expect Leicester to come hard at Liverpool but leaving vulnerabilities in the process. I do not think the Liverpool defence will be able to keep Leicester out but at the same time I expect Liverpool to have too much in the tank for this struggling Leicester team.