Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Chelsea 1 Liverpool 0 - Review of the League Cup Semi Final

Yesterday, Liverpool faced off against Chelsea in the deciding leg of the semi final of the League Cup. The tie was held at Stamford Bridge with the aggregate score at 1-1 from the first leg at Anfield. It was a feisty encounter with an early Eden Hazard penalty cancelled by a good finish by Raheem Sterling. While the Reds played really well, it was a mixture of brilliance from Thibaut Courtois and wasteful finishing that prevented them from holding the advantage. So, how did the Reds fare at the Bridge?

It was a very serpentine encounter with lots of twist and turns. There was a cornucopia of controversy as is the case when Jose Mourinho and Diego Costa are involved. Costa could have been easily sent off for what looked like two stamps on Liverpool players. On the other hand, Martin Skrtel could easily have conceded a penalty and players like Jordan Henderson and Lucas Leiva could easily have been sent off. There was an onslaught of attacks from both teams with numerous saves made by goalkeepers Courtois and Simon Mignolet. In the end, the tie could not be settled in the full 90 minutes but was made peremptory by Branislav Ivanovic’s thundering header.

The game heated up with Diego Costa involved a lot
Credit -

There were a lot of positives to take from this game as has been the case with most of Liverpool’s recent games. Most of those seem to be the same. Yet again, the defence held resolute to most of Chelsea’s threat. The Blues are known for their home dominance and the fact that the Reds were the first team to stop Chelsea from scoring in 90 minutes is a testament to the newfound resolve of the defence.

Of course, none of this would be done without the protection of Lucas Leiva who was imperious yet again, making game saving challenges. 

Also, Martin Skrtel deserves plaudits for his resilient performance. While Can and Sakho were also good, they were unmatched to Skrtel on the night and kept Diego Costa relatively quiet the entire game. Skrtel seems to get this sudden burst of invigoration when playing Costa and it was on show.  The other positives were the relentless pressing of the team in whole and the brilliance of Phillipe Coutinho. These points have been noted on in the past and hopefully will be continued in the future.
Simon Mignolet had a solid game
Credit -

But, while the positives were abundant in this game, it is the flaws that need to be highlighted if the Reds are to move forward. The Reds were yet again profligate in their finishing. The Reds had 4 clear-cut chances on the night that any top team would have finished. Raheem Sterling, for all his brilliance, is not yet an efficient striker and cannot be counted on regularly. Sterling has a problem with composure, as was apparent when instead of squaring to an open Steven Gerrard, Sterling decided to take on two defenders and failed. Sterling is not as reliable as he is touted out to be and needs time to work on his finishing.

Phillipe Coutinho, singled out before as being a positive, is in the same boat as Sterling in terms of finishing. One moment in the game perfectly epitomized Coutinho. He evaded four Chelsea defenders with a wonderful piece of skill only to waste the following shot by shooting straight at Courtois. Jordan Henderson was also guilty of this on numerous times. The three players took a total of 7 shots with only 1 on target. This kind of output is not good enough for top team players.

Phillipe Coutinho was a constant menace
the entire game.

 The biggest problem the Reds have now is that they have no one to rely on always. Goals are what win games and no one player can get them consistently. There is not point in intricate and deft build up play if there is no one to finish it. The perfect analogy would be a Ferrari without an engine. It has an amazing façade but is in the end useless. Liverpool have to dip into a transfer market soon or hope that Daniel Sturridge remains fit and fires on the same rates as last year. Even then a striker is arguably a must. This all points to Brendan Rodgers’ incompetence in the transfer market but that is another article.

Another huge problem is the Reds defending of set pieces. While the defence has been really solid in open play, it still leaves much to be desired on set pieces. Brendan Rodgers has been here for two and a half seasons and yet the Reds are still susceptible to the set piece. It is a frankly worrying fact that despite having so much time, Rodgers has not been able to fix this problem. The goal from the Chelsea game came from a set piece. We never see Chelsea concede from set pieces and that in part is what makes them so strong.  That is something Rodgers and his team has to work on if they are to achieve success.

On a final note, Glen Johnson appears to have entered the fray again and with Mamadou Sakho’s injury, it remains to be seen how the defence will be structured in future games. I. for one, hope that Johnson is nowhere near the first team as he does not deserve to be. There was a visible dip in the Reds’ performance after Johnson came on and all he does is cause imbalance in the team. The defence is starting to maintain a good level of consistency and Johnson will ruin that. The same thing should be said for Joe Allen who left many gaping holes against Bolton in the FA Cup. Now is not the time for underperformers to come in.

In the end, it was a promising performance and one light years away from the drivel that was served up earlier in the season. Jose Mourinho has built Stamford Bridge as a fortress so the fact that the Reds shut Chelsea out for most of the game is really encouraging. Not many teams go there and stifle Chelsea as much as the Reds did. The important thing is to consolidate on this and push on in the league and other competitions. Chances will come in the FA Cup and Europa League so this must not dishearten the Reds. Instead, they should be invigorated and fight till the end. 

Monday, 26 January 2015

Is there a problem with the way Liverpool handles its youth?

Liverpool, for a long time, never had a great academy. Prospects were sparse and of the few that were there, none of them were ever good enough. From Nabil El Zhar to Damian Plessis, players have come and gone with so much hope and yet nothing to show for it. There have been numerous players touted as the ‘New Gerrard’: Connor Coady, Craig Roddan and Jay Spearing to name but a few. However, when they did come into the fray, it was painfully obvious that they never had the quality to even lace the boots of the great captain.

In fact for many years, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher were the only players to actually make into the Liverpool team from the academy. I found this fact very worrying. The academy of a club is its soul. It is the part of the club that is fully ingrained to the club’s tradition. Academy culture has declined in the past years with big name and big money superstars more in vogue.

Clubs just do not want to spend the time maintaining the part of the club that matters to the fans. At clubs like Man City and Chelsea, youth players are often shunted out on loan with no chance of breaking in. Josh McEachran, once regarded as the next Paul Gascoigne, is now just a forgotten name. Gael Kakuta, once the subject of vociferous debate, is now in anonymity. At one point, Chelsea had more than 30 players out on loan. There is a problem.

Kakuta was once sought after but not anymore

For a while in time, it seemed as if Liverpool was stepping out of academy dormancy. After coming in, Rafa Benitez completely revamped the youth system and inculcated his European roots. Suddenly, there were people at the academy who knew what they were doing. While La Masia was still far away, Kirkby was gaining prominence. This was epitomized when the Reds beat stalwarts like Real Madrid and Barcelona for the signing of then youngster Suso. It showed a huge signal of intent and that times were changing.  Benitez’s tenure also brought players like Raheem Sterling, Jonjo Shelvey, Martin Kelly and numerous others.  All the foundations were set up and with Rodolfo Borrell at the helm, there was finally some stability in the academy.

McEachran was once the hope of all Chelsea fans.
Not anymore.. 

But, despite all the positivity, youth players have still not been able to make a firm entry into the first team. After Brendan Rodgers arrived, numerous players were given debuts and runs into the team but these runs have never been sustained. Players like Jonjo Shelvey and Suso, players who initially looked so promising have now departed the club. With the exception of Raheem Sterling and maybe Jon Flannagan, no other academy graduate has yet been a mainstay in the first team squad. Why is that despite so much of investment in academies and the talent coming out, no one is given a chance or always mismanaged?

In theory, there should be no logical reason for this happening. Liverpool plays more than 40 games each season so there should be plenty of time to integrate young players. The clichés like ‘You do not win anything with kids’ have all been debunked in the past. Why is there a certain hesitancy to play younger players? Liverpool have been very profligate in their transfer dealings making superfluous signings hindering the development of younger players.

Many a time, these players signed have been no better than the ones already at hand. The prime example of this is the signing of Luis Alberto. This was a completely needless signing as the Reds already had Suso, a similar type of player. In the end, Suso was sold and the same fate is about to meet Alberto. These dealings are not those representative of Liverpool Football Club. We do not buy and sell players like on a stock exchange. Alberto served no purpose after he was signed and there was no reason why Suso could not have played. The fundamental part of the club that is the academy is being neglected without much thought and that is wrong.

If a club like Southampton can integrate their youth and still achieve success, why can Liverpool not. In their last game against Newcastle, the Saints had 5 of their 7 bench players from the youth academy. By slowly integrating youth players into the first team, the Reds can build for the future. Also, this can save a lot of money in transfer fees and wages. For example, the signing of Adam Lallana could easily have been avoided by playing Teixeira or Suso. That is not to say that he has been a bad buy but limited funds could have been used less spendthrift. The same could have been done with Jordan Ibe instead of Lazar Markovic. While they have not been bad players, they were bought in areas of lesser requirement. Consequently, the Reds missed out on the required positions: striker, goalkeeper and defensive midfielder.

Many a time, young players are loaned out in hope of ‘gaining experience’. But, as is usually the case, players are often in loan limbo and are never seen again. While anomalies might be there like Joe Hart with Birmingham or Kyle Walker with Aston Villa, those are exceptions to the rule. Players like Conor Coady, Suso and Stephen Darby have all been loaned out, never to be seen again. Unless players are given meaningful opportunities instead of random loans, nothing is ever going to be achieved.

Stephen Darby was the victim of numerous useless loans

Liverpool now has one of the most promising academies in the world. Players like Cameron Brannagan have been touted by Barcelona while players like Sergi Canos were actually got from the Cataln giants. There is a lot of potential in all positions. Tricky wingers like Harry Wilson do not come around too often and neither do attackers like Sheyi Ojo or Ryan Kent. Liverpool’s academy has been the best in years but without the support of club and fans, these players will meet the same fate as their numerous predecessors. So, how can we solve this?

My solution would be to have at least 3 academy players on the bench for every game and increase the number of possible bench slots like in the Serie A and International Football. Also, a mandatory rule must be made that two academy players feature in a game. That way, young players are given live match day experiences and can get game time. Otherwise, the youth of tomorrow will be ostracized leaving all clubs to conform to the Real Madrid policy of buying the trendiest options when others get old. If that is to happen, prospects are grim for the future of football.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Aston Villa 0 Liverpool 2 - Resurgent Reds March On

After a good win against Sunderland at the Stadium of Light, Liverpool was on the road again. They faced off against Aston Villa at the historic Villa Park ground. It was a pleasing 2-0 win against a team that has troubled the Reds in the past, no matter how toothless they have been. Since Brendan Rodgers took over, Liverpool has never beaten the Villains at Anfield and has only struggled to wins at Villa Park. But, goals from strikers Fabio Borini and Rickie Lambert ensured a relatively comfortable outing.

Reds players celebrate with the travelling Kopites( Credit -

There were a few mishaps along the way though with Christian Benteke causing problems. The Reds lack of ruthlessness was also on show with Raheem Sterling and Fabio Borini wasting presentable chances. On another day, the reds could have paid dearly but luckily, goalkeeper Simon Mignolet stood strong and Villa were spendthrift with their chances. On the brighter side, another clean sheet for the much-maligned Reds defence and a few confidence boosting goals for the strikers.

Fabio Borini has had a tough few months for Liverpool. From nearly being shunted to relegation dwellers like QPR and Sunderland to being repeatedly left out from the squad by Rodgers, Borini has endured a difficult spell. But, he was a constant menace on Saturday with some really smart runs and a well-taken goal. While Borini might not be the best or the most complete option, there is no doubting his desire to the cause. I find Borini to be a very smart player who knows where to be in the box. But, I feel that he panics when he gets an opening and ends up throwing it away. He can be a useful squad player for the Reds in the future but is not consistent enough to be the main man.

Fabio Borini nods in his first goal in 2 years for Liverpool
Credit -

As said before, the defence went through a tough spell in the second half but came through it. Martin Skrtel had a really good outing and though Christian Benteke got a few chances, it was not because of the Slovakian’s indiscretions. In fact, Skrtel repeatedly beat the usually adept aerial threat Benteke in the air. While Skrtel might not have been the best performer in the past few games and is prone to lapses in judgement, he was resolute on the day. Mamadou Sakho was good but not his glorious best. The powerful Frenchman had a tough time dealing with Benteke and the marauding runs of Alan Hutton, winning only 20% of his aerial duels and allowing Hutton to make 10 crosses. His passing was also not as fluid as before but still at a high 87% rate. With that being said, Sakho stopped some very dangerous Villa counters and it was by no means a bad performance.

Phillipe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling, so often the stars of an often-disastrous season, had tough games today. While Coutinho showed flashes of his usual brilliance in the first half, he went missing in the second. This has been a common trend with Coutinho, especially in away games. But, this did show signs of abating in previous games so I would put it down to fatigue. Sterling, back from a winter break in Jamaica, looked lot at times and the maturity that has been so accustomed to the 20- year old was not there. I would put it down as an anomaly and am sure that he will be back to his best in no time. Both players struggled against the physicality of Columbian midfielder Carlos Sanchez who managed to stifle the two players many times, registering 6 successful tackles.

But, without a doubt, the two shining lights of the game were Lazar Markovic and Jordan Henderson. While Markovic shined last game with his attacking verve, his defensive grit was on show today. Playing in an unfamiliar right back position, Markovic kept the dangerous Gabriel Agbonlahor quiet throughout the game. Markovic is showing a diversity and dexterity to his game which has not been seen before. As for Henderson, the stand in captain produced a very solid performance. He ahs started to combine his tenacity with proficiency and is developing an end product to his game. He got another assist on Saturday and now has a total of 11 goals/assists. In the absence of talisman Gerrard, Henderson has started to step up and provide the goods for the Reds.

Last but not least,  Simon Mignolet also had a good game with one breathtaking save to put out Benteke. The Belgian still has some issues with crosses but had more assurance and authority against the Villains. Jordan Ibe, also, had a lively cameo and showed flashes of his blistering pace and he can be a useful weapon in tight games. Meanwhile, Rickie Lambert got a really good goal to his name. While the Liverpudlian might be severely criticized by many, he has shown that he can provide. He is doing what he was brought for: an impact sub to finish off dead games. It is good to see players performing their roles and the celebration with the fans was something to behold.

Rickie Lambert fires in ( Credit -

All in all, another good win and clean sheet for the Reds. Even though there was a slight struggle, I put it down to adaptation to the pressing game. Many of the new signing are not used to such physicality and it is only natural that they drop off. But, I am sure that the players will eventually adapt. Now, the Reds approach a crucial stage of fixtures, which could make or break their season. In the next five games, they play teams all above them in the table and the small matter of a Merseyside Derby. This is wedged in between a League Cup semi final against Chelsea, an FA Cup tie and a nostalgic return back to Istanbul in the Europa League. Brendan Rodgers has belabored on the point that the Reds have found their “identity” and have “turned a corner”. Now, we will really find what the Reds are made off.

How do you think the Reds will manage in this crucial stage of fixtures? Do you think Brendan Rodgers can walk the walk after talking the talk? Write down in the comments section below. 

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Sunderland 0 Liverpool 1 - Good Win For the Reds

After a frantic and hectic festive period, Liverpool faced off against Sunderland at the Stadium of Light. This was the first Premier League game since Steven Gerrard called time on his glorious Liverpool career. Gerrard will go down in history as one of the greatest, if not the greatest Liverpool player. While it will be painful to see him go, it might be the best decision for all parties. Gerrard’s form has naturally declined because of age and Brendan Rodgers has criminally wasted him in a defensive midfield position. Gerrard would have been best utilized as an impact sub as fellow legend Frank Lampard is currently reveling in but because of because of abrasion between different parties, it does not look like happening. In the end, it will suit everyone as Gerrard can have the peaceful retirement he deserves and the team can move on. So, in the midst of all this, the Reds visited the Stadium of Light. Liverpool had already faced off against Sunderland before in a dour goalless draw. But, this time, the result and performance was much better.

The Reds won 1-0 in a tense but dominant encounter through a solitary Lazar Markovic goal. While the scoreline may indicate a tight win, the performance indicates that the converse is true. The Reds were denied a blatant penalty and hit the woodwork twice in addition to squandering a plethora of chances. On another day, it could easily have been a thrashing for the Black Cats. The fluency in the Liverpool play was back and the relentless pressing of last season witnessed a resurrection. The Reds created 14 chances and had 21 shots on the Sunderland goal (all stats per Squawka). While Costel Pantilimon had an uneventful outing in the reverse Anfield fixture, he was definitely worth his efforts today. There are a lot of positives to take from this game and things are finally looking bright for the Reds again.

The highlight was most definitely the performances of Phillipe Coutinho and Lazar Markovic. These two players were all over the pitch today pitching in with defensive work as well as pressing the opposition. Together, they had 11 tackles in mostly attacking areas of the pitch. Because of their effort and commitment, Sunderland was barely able to get out of their own half. These are the small things that influence games and today, these two were able to perfectly fathom the nuances of the match. It was particularly refreshing to see Markovic giving back to the fans after enduring a very turbid and turbulent opening months on Merseyside. While many have criticized the signing of Markovic due to price and experience, his talent cannot be denied as shown in this game. Despite being very influential in past games, Phillipe Coutinho is still very wasteful in front of goal. Coutinho had 4 shots on goal but only 1 on target, which is a 25% efficiency. If he can add those goals to his repertoire, he can be a star for years to come on a club as well as international stage.

On the defensive side of things, it was a fairly comfortable evening for the back culminating in a rare clean sheet for Simon Mignolet. The defense was largely untroubled except for one 5-minute spell after the Liam Bridcutt red card but great pressing and solid defending quelled that. This has not been said very often this season so this should give huge encouragement to the team. In the past few games, the rise of Mamadou Sakho has been nice to see. While detractors call him awkward and ponderous, he has shown his class with crisp passing and efficient defending. He had a 95% passing rate, which is even more commendable considering the very windy conditions. Against Sunderland, Sakho made 7 clearances, the highest in the game showing his tendency to bail his team out of trouble. Sakho was bought to be a stalwart in the defence for years to come and he is starting to show why.

In addition, Emre Can and Lucas Leiva had really good games. Can, deployed as a centre back in the first half and a central midfielder in the second, was solid in passing and tackling. He also brought the ball forward with assurance. His authority with the ball was apparent for all to see, especially when one serpentine run caused Liam Bridcutt to make a late tackle and get sent off. Like Sakho, Can also had a high passing rate with 92% finding a player in a Liverpool shirt. Can is touted as a future star but he has been unjustly ostracized to an extent this season. But, now he is getting a good run of games and is proving his mettle. The highlight of his performance was an exquisite pass to Fabio Borini in the first half. This shows that Can has vision as well which will bode well for the future.

Lucas Leiva provided yet another resilient performance seated in front of the defense. Lucas has impeccable reading of play and is quick with the tackle. This was fully on display in this game as Lucas recorded a tally of 4 successful tackles and 2 interceptions. There have been rumours of Lucas being replaced with Aston Villa midfielder Fabian Delph. If this move is to go through, it would be incompetence on the part of Brendan Rodgers as Delph is neither as a good a defensive midfielder as Lucas nor as good an attacker as Coutinho or Adam Lallana. Here is to hoping that this move does not happen.

All in all, it was a satisfying performance for all associated with Liverpool. Three points and a clean sheet is a good return from an away game and the performance was there as well. But, there have been frailties in the second half of games and this will be something Rodgers will have to watch out for. But, things are definitely on the up. All the new signings are seeming to settle and with valuable players to come back, things are turning up at the right point. But, it is important not to get complacent. Next, the Reds visit tormentors Aston Villa at Villa Park. It will by no means be an easy game. The Villains have given Liverpool quite a few problems in the past and it is imperative to not get self-satisfied. Also, it is crucial for Rodgers to get a few signings this window to bolster the squad. Otherwise, whatever slims hopes the Reds have of reaching the top four will vanish.