Tuesday, 15 July 2014

World Cup Predictions Revisited

Well, it's all over. After a month of thrills, spills, goals, controversy and an astonishing number of potentially serious head injuries, the World Cup is over for another four years. And it was the best one I have ever watched. Where 1994 was handicapped by extreme heat (and the fact that I was 9 years old and lacked the bedtime privileges to watch most of it), 1998 flattered to deceive and was rigged by the organisers to give France the best possible chance of winning, plus the farce of Golden Goals, 2002 was on at silly o'clock in the morning in intense heat, 2006 started well but turned into a dull, extra-time slogfest, and 2010 lacked both quality and excitement, 2014 has been refreshingly open.

I'll be writing a more general reaction piece to the tournament as a whole, but first I thought I'd go back and look at my pre-tournament predictions and see how well I did. Judging by my distinct lack of having won lots of money from the bets made at the time, I don't like my chances.

Who will win it?

Here I did pretty well, revealing a gut feeling that Germany would "spoil the party" as I put it. They did that and more with their stunning semi-final win against Brazil, and also (in my opinion at least) deservedly defeated Argentina in the final. Minus points however, that I pretty much dismissed Argentina, and initially believed that it would be a Spain-Brazil final. So a mixed bag to start.

Dark horses?

Ah. Here's where it starts to go wrong. I scoffed at Belgium as 5th favourites, but in the end some effective use of substitutes brought them to the brink against Argentina. They did flatter to deceive a little though, never really looking all that convincing. My pick of Switzerland was less successful still. Humbled by France in the group stage, they at least took Argentina to extra time, but in the end were perhaps not quite ready for this sort of level. They've got a young squad though, and I think they could well be a bigger prospect in Russia.

Which of the big boys will struggle?

Another big old wrongy, hanging my hat on the stereotype of the Dutch squad all falling out and Robin Van Persie constantly being injured. Instead they were very impressive, and we'll get to see plenty more of that as Louis van Gaal reunites the entire squad at Man Utd in the new season. I did, however, predict some woes for Uruguay (perhaps not another Suarez horror show, but losing to Costa Rica and getting spanked by James Rodriguez counts I think) and Portugal, who duly took an injured Ronaldo home in the group stage with a whimper.

Top scorer

Gonzalo Higuain summed up this prediction quite nicely for my by shinning a golden chance wide in the final. So, no, I didn't see James Rodriguez coming, but perhaps might have been a bit less surprised by Thomas Muller's continued proficiency.

Golden Ball

I'm giving myself a pass on this one, since none of us knew pre-kickoff that they were just going to give the damn thing to Leo Messi regardless of what happened. I am giving myself half a point for predicting late influence for Andre Schurrle, who scored a couple of important goals as a substitute and also set up Goetze's winner in the final. It is somewhat tainted by the fact that I believed he would be starting games in the place of the injured Marco Reus, but whatever.

How will England do?

I don't think anyone quite saw how bad that was going to go before hand.


It's not even a passing grade really is it? A D- if I'm very kind to myself.

More reaction to the tournament as a whole to follow later in the week!

Friday, 13 June 2014

World Cup Predictions

Hello hello, fancy seeing you here. Turns out trying to complete a PhD was not very conducive to keeping a frivolous football blog going, but the World Cup, one of my two religious observances (the other being National Pie Week) has lead me to rekindle the sputtering, forgotten flame of Feet Like Traction Engines.

So this first post back is going to be a set of World Cup predictions! Because nothing makes you more of an amateur pundit than wildly speculating about things that have about a billion variables attached to them and would typically take more than a month for statistics and probability to take over and bare most of them out. Anyway, here goes...

Starting off with the big one, who will win the thing?

World Cups are generally quite hard to call pre-tournament. I mean who would've picked out Italy in 2006? Spain and Brazil seem to be everyone's favourites for obvious reasons, with mentions for Argentina and Germany too. When I tried out one of the online score predictors I ended up with a Spain-Brazil final and Argentina and Germany going out in the semi finals, but for some reason part of me thinks that Germany will end up spoiling the party. They are a more versatile side than the pure counter-attackers of South Africa, so I think they'll do a bit better against the likes of Spain. I can see Argentina breezing through their group and coming unstuck in the knockouts just as they did last time round.

Who will be the dark horses?

The fashionable answer to this again is Belgium, given their inexplicable golden generation plopping into place just in time for a World Cup. However, I have yet to see Belgium get any kind of significant results from these players, and in fact saw them labour horribly against Wales a year or so ago. I think they're going to make the bookies a lot of money.

Rather more interesting might be Switzerland. Defensively very solid (just 1 goal conceded in their last 2 tournaments) they now have several exciting young attacking players (such as Shakiri of Bayern Munich, but he's one of several). Inler will be a big miss, but I fancy them to 1-0 their way through to the semis. You heard it here first, and probably last.

Which of the big boys will struggle?

It's at this point I'd normally talk about the traditional French and Dutch squad implosion, with the Dutch looking a little bit more likely on that front. Also Robin van Persie's fitness continues to be a problem, especially when he find himself getting run over by kite surfers on the beach when he's supposed to be resting. It's a stretch to call Uruguay big boys (even if they did make the semis last time out) but they aren't the force they were four years ago. Portugal also struggled in qualifying, and Ronaldo's injury worries make them a danger to not get out of their group.

Top Scorer?

Neymar's 2 goal salvo (and 2 fairly big chunks of luck to go along with it) last night would point to him being an early favourite. The ease of Argentina's group though makes me want to go with one of their forwards. Messi's an obvious choice, but I think against the likes of Iran and Nigeria Gonzalo Higuain might net a couple of hat-tricks and throw off the curve.

Golden Ball?

They'll come from the winner, and as I've foolishly said Germany, I think Andre Schurrle will score several important goals and sneak it from nowhere. I must stress that I am, however, an idiot, so if you're a gambling sort, a) get help, and b) don't waste your money on that one.

How will England do?

Tough one this. The draw has not been kind (by any measure you like, it's the strongest group of all), and it will be nip and tuck. Both sides would be happy with an opening draw in the sauna of Manaus, I can see the Uruguay game being tight also, which basically leaves trying to beat Costa Rica by more goals than anyone else, which I think this team is capable of on their day. If Sturridge can keep his concentration I think that'll be enough to see us through to the knockouts. With Colombia and Ivory Coast likely second round opponents, the optimist in me believes we'll scrape through there too. A quarter final exit would be par for the course, encouraging for the young players and not too terrible for the old lags taking their curtain call. I can't see this squad doing much more than that, there are simply too many stronger teams out there.

There you have it then. I'll revisit all this in July to laugh at how stupid I was. Part of the fun though really.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Carling Cup Final Player Rate-O-Tron

I'm back! Did you miss me?

The period of silence on the blog has a fairly simple explanation. I lacked both time and motivation for most of last year. But I'm trying to get back in the saddle now, and what better opportunity than a round up of a fascinating, if painful to watch as a Liverpool fan, Carling Cup Final.

Liverpool's eventual victory on penalties may on the one hand have been deserved by virtue of their domination of possession and territory, but on the other hand not by virtue of a fairly poor performance all round. Cardiff didn't do an awful lot, but they kept themselves in it, and came very close to picking up an unlikely victory at Wembley.

In any case, here's my summation of how each of the players did. No numbers as usual, that kind of thing is arbitrary and meaningless. Much like the rest of the blog, but shh.


Pepe Reina
Looked assured in most things when called upon, although since both Cardiff goals went through his legs might have been expected to do a bit better. Distribution and sweeping excellent as usual. Made a nuisance of himself during the shoot-out to get his goal-shy teammates over an early wobble.

Glen Johnson
As usual he needed no invitation to get forward, and was unlucky to strike the crossbar after 90 seconds. Cardiff's deployment of Don Cowie on the left meant that he was never really challenged defensively, and thus didn't have the opportunity to make any daft mistakes. Looked like he might've been the key to get Liverpool back in the game for long periods, but had to contend with Henderson being in his way, then Downing actually being competent in front of him and his influence faded late on. Took his penalty like a pro.

Martin Skrtl
Liverpool's best player on the park by some distance. Mean in defence, threatening at set pieces, and took his goal very well. It was unfortunate for him that his only error of the day, a second's hesitation following an unconvincing clearing headed, lead directly to Cardiff's opener. A steadying influence through some of the more frantic moments in the game, he's grown out of Jamie Carragher's shadow really well this season, and will be first choice at center back for years to come.

Daniel Agger
Continues to grow and grow with an extended period of fitness, looked calm and assured in defence, keeping Gestede very quiet. Also looked to carry the ball into the opposition half with purpose, and launched several attacking phases with intelligent passing. Should have scored with a glorious headed chance in the first half, but otherwise excellent.

Jose Enrique
The two most recent games I've seen play, this and the F.A. Cup win against Manchester United, Enrique has been infuriating. He's had an excellent season in both defense and attack, but during the final he looked lazy, uninterested and hesitant. He's becoming more prone to buggering about and making bad decisions that result in good opportunities for opponents. He's also really slow to close down when a crossing opportunity emerges. Poor.

Jordan Henderson
Started anonymously, became awful. Henderson has yet to convince in a red shirt, especially when deployed out wide, and this was as bad as he has been since joining in the summer. I hadn't realised quite how bad he'd been until Stewart Downing took over on the right and immediately began to bother Taylor, who until then had been completely untroubled. He's young, and needs to be in the middle, but this was an abject performance that should result in an extended period on the sidelines as punishment.

Steven Gerrard
A bit of an odd performance from the captain. Early on he seemed determined to show he still has the energy to charge up and down the pitch like he did 5 years ago, and was constantly showing and wanting the ball. But he flattered to deceive. His final ball was uncharacteristically poor, and his shooting was awful. His day was summed up when he had a decent penalty saved in spectacular fashion. He'd been OK, but just not good enough.

Charlie Adam
Cardiff's lack of a real playmaker in midfield meant that Dalglish could sacrifice a nominal holding player and instead rely on a deep-lying Adam to do a makeshift job of it. He wandered around and recycled the ball in workmanlike fashion for much of the game, putting his foot in when required, but generally pretty quiet. His set piece delivery, usually one of his strengths, was horrendous, however. After a few corners had found the first defender, he was shuffled out of the way to allow Downing to take over with better results. He managed to take the worst penalty in a bad shoot-out, which is quite something. Must try harder.

Stewart Downing
Another who has yet to truly fulfill his potential in a red shirt, but this was one of his better days. In the first half, he repeatedly beat McNaughton and got in several good balls which Liverpool's two poor strikers failed to make anything of. Remained dangerous when moved to the right in the second half, but on his weaker right foot failed to beat his man, instead winning a series of corners. His delivery from those corners was a big improvement on Charlie Adam, however, and resulted in the equaliser. His penalty, with Liverpool under serious pressure, was excellent.

Luis Suarez
Awful. Absolutely awful. I don't have the stats to hand, but I would not be surprised if he had the worst pass completion rate on the pitch. Spent half his time punting passes five yards either side of a team mate, and the other half complaining at the same team mates for not inexplicably being in the way of said passes. Wasted several decent chances. Wisely didn't take a penalty. Carroll may have been more obvious, but this was Suarez's worst performance for Liverpool that didn't involve a racial epithet.

Andy Carrol
Oh dear. Just when we thought he was turning a corner, he puts in a display like this. Seems unable to get over a header when in the box, and doesn't believe the ball will get to him anyway. Several times Downing or Suarez broke and looked up to see Carrol standing on the edge of the box in stead of going hell for leather into the mixer. Was lucky to stay on as long as he did, and Dirk Kuyt's energy immediately showed him up. Needs to buck his ideas up yet again.

Craig Bellamy (on for Henderson)
Could not be worst than Henderson. Wasn't. He was busy enough, injected some pace and energy into the attack and got himself in several good positions, but never really looked all that threatening. All the attacking seemed to happen through Downing instead.

Jamie Carragher (for Agger)
Had Agger not picked up a rib injury Carra probably wouldn't have been involved. But involved he got. I saw one comment on facebook that simply read "It took Carragher less than 5 minutes to start cheating", referring to his cynical shirt pull and dive onto the ball as Cardiff looked to break shortly after he came on. But cynicism was exactly what was required at the time. Did what he does best. Got in the way, and passed the ball sideways on the halfway line.

Dirk Kuyt (for Carroll)
You know what you'll get from Dirk. He'll run around making a nuisance of himself, and he will, absolutely will, fashion an opportunity for himself, probably by accident. His movement revitalised the attack, and it was no surprise that he was the one to break the deadlock in extra time. you can argue his first shot was terrible, but he wanted the loose ball more than anyone else on the park. And his shot was on target, which no-one else had been managing for the rest of the game. Nearly won the game two more times with one successful and one unsuccessful goal line clearance. Solid in the shoot out. A legend of a guy.


Tom Heaton
Liverpool's shooting was so poor that for the most part he was either watching the ball whistle wide or standing up to find the ball had been hist straight at him. Unlucky for Skrtl's goal that the Slovakian put the ball through his legs. No chance for Kuyt's goal. Magnificent save from Gerrard in the shoot-out. Unlucky to be on the losing side.

Kevin McNaughton
The silver fox failed to adequately deal with either Downing or Bellamy, but as a result of poor forward play inside him didn't get punished for it. Got forward gamefully, but didn't make much of an impact.

Ben Turner
Excellent. Did the rough stuff with Carroll, got in Suarez's face and refused him space to turn. Scrambled in a well deserved goal at the death and generally looked really assured.

Mark Hudson
Very similar to Turner, although lack of football recently told for him in the end. Very impressive.

Andrew Taylor
Looked comfortable against Henderson and didn't allow Johnson space outside him. Decidedly less comfortable against Downing's direct running, but managed to block most of the crosses. Very well done.

Joe Mason
Huffed and puffed without the ball but failed to help out McNaughton against Downing. Was a constant thorn in Enrique's side. Great movement and finish for his goal. Otherwise didn't really notice him much.

Peter Whittingham
Pre-match I fancied him being the key to Cardiff's performance. As it turned out he was quiet. Didn't get much time on the ball, but what little he did was unspectacular. Without the ball he was solid enough but never really disrupted Adam and Gerrard.

Aron Gunnarson
I don't really recall him doing anything apart from taking long throw-ins and hobbling around with cramp.

Don Cowie
Really impressive. Didn't really attack Glen Johnson from his nominal stationing on the left, but instead popped up all over the place to engineer opportunities for his team mates. Was involved in creating three separate shooting opportunities for Kenny Miller that he should have done much better with. Was always positive and made his contributions count.

Kenny Miller
Played in an unfamiliar role of the front man, but ended up being the most involved with Cardiff's limited attacking moves. Great vision and pass for the opening goal, but he left his own shooting boots in the dressing room. Had three very good opportunities and didn't work Reina with any of them. And offered nothing defensively.

Rudy Gestede
Perhaps unsurprisingly given his task as a lone front man for a team on the back foot, he was pretty anonymous. I barely remember him touching the ball.

Filip Kiss (for Mason)
Looked busy for five minutes after he came on, surging through the midfield to scuff a shot and then scything down Bellamy, but then disappeared.

Darcy Blake (for McNaughton)
With McNaughton out on his feet and Bellamy marauding down the left, a no-brainer for Mackay. Solid.

Anthony Gerrard (for Hudson)
Oh dear. That's the thing about penalties. It ends with someone making a mistake. Unfortunately it was his to make.

It's a tough call between Turner and Skrtl, but given Skrtl's solitary error compared to Turner's faultless display the Cardiff man edges it for me.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Some thoughts on Arsenal vs Barcelona

It was billed as the premier match-up of the round as the Champion's League gets up and running again. Two sides of football purists, of similar playing styles, going head to head to simply see who could outplay the other. And on a breathtaking night in Islington Arsenal emerge (just) ahead.

Whilst ITV's commentary team got stupendously carried away, declaring Arsenal having beaten Barca at their own game, in reality I felt it was a very different story. Robin van Persie's near post smash and Andriy Arshavin's completion of a wonderful, sweeping counter attack put a gloss on a performance where they barely matched a Barca side playing well within themselves. Leo Messi in particular looked more like the player who toiled to no great effect at the world cup, even with his superb pass to lay on David Villa's opening goal.

Messi himself could, and probably should given his high standards, have scored twice, and wrongly had a goal ruled out for offside at a point in the game where Arsenal were rattled and looked in danger of being swept away by a turquoise tide. Johan Djourou and Arshavin also got away with the kind of handball incidents that regularly result in penalties in domestic football. And in the midst of all that, even though Arsenal did occasionally get into some threatening forward positions, Barcelona defended resolutely and were always threatening going forward.

Arsenal are not far away from being as good as Barca. The energy and commitment of Alex Song and Jack Wilshere at the base of their midfield has been a major factor in this. A lot of bleating, mainly by idiots, has been happening about Fabio Capello's deployment of Wilshere in a deep lying position for England. But tonight's performance made it easy to see why it's a good idea.

The role of the defensive midfielder is changing. Whilst Claude Makalele made the role his own by being purely destructive, and Andrea Pirlo carved out his niche by being more creative from deep, recently the likes of Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso, Michael Essien and Wilshere are once again re-inventing it. These players are starting to resemble the box-to-box midfielder (like a young Paul Scholes, Roy Keane, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard etc). With the midfield so compacted by pressing and high defensive lines, both Busquets and Wilshere often made telling tackles and interceptions much higher up the pitch than might have been expected. This was key to launching the devastating counter-attacks that so often lead to goals for both these sides.

The gap between Arsenal and Barca, though, remains time. Every Arsenal player wanted another touch, another second or two to make up their mind before passing. When comparing players in similar positions, say Nasri and Iniesta, the Barca man was playing one or two touch passes, or turning and running the ball into space, whilst Nasri often ran himself into a cul-de-sac. Don't get me wrong, I'm a massive fan of Nasri, but the time he gets in the premier league just wasn't there for him tonight.

The tie is poised beautifully for the second leg. I fear for Arsenal, however, that the wounded Catalan animal may return in irresistible fashion.

Monday, 31 January 2011

Japes in the January Transfer Window

Over the last few years the January transfer window has usually been the home of the occasionally inspired move, but for the most part the mundane, ultimately unsuccessful stop-gap measure where Nigel Quashie condemns yet another struggling side to relegation with his large, becursed arse. But today it seems that every football club in England shat their brains out at lunchtime and lost control over spunking away millions of quids.

So where's the beef? Who's won, who's lost, and who's seemingly playing a different game entirely? Here's what I think.


Torres to Liverpool
A massive, massive deal. Not only a British transfer record, but also a real statement of intent by both Chelsea and Liverpool. For Chelsea, it may mark a final fling by Roman Abramovic to re-install Chelsea as top dogs in England, and bring home that elusive Champions League title. For Carlo Ancelotti it represents a signal that he has 5 months to either shit or get off the pot. With Didier Drogba's illness and advancing years, Nicholas Anelka's erratic form, Daniel Sturridge's apparent failure to convince Ancelotti of his worth and Salomon Kalou's obstacle of being shite, it's a much needed shot in the arm for Chelsea's forward line. Torres is perfectly suited to playing as the central prong in their 4-3-3 formation.

For Liverpool, whilst it is obviously a major blow to lose arguably the best striker in the league, a player who has been mercurial but talismanic and brought them to the brink of the league title in his first season. But £50million is a lot of money. And it gives an opportunity to change up and refresh the shape and style of the team. I'll get on to the replacements brought in in a moment, but in any case, whilst it may have been less of an upheaval to do the deal come the summer, this feels like a fairly natural point for Liverpool's relationship with the Spaniard to end. There remains the linger doubt over Torres' fitness, and whether the collected injuries have taken their toll psychologically (in much the same way as Harry Kewell and Eduardo never really recovered from serious injury). Time will tell, but it feels like everybody is winning on this one.

I say everybody, but it could well spell the end of Didier Drogba's Chelsea career, as I can't really see the two of them playing together. As a Liverpool fan, I am sad to see Fernando leave. He's given me a lot of pleasure in his time on merseyside, but with the club in it's current state I don't really blame him for leaving while his stock is still high. I wish him some, but not the best of luck, seeing as how he may well play for Chelsea on Sunday.

David Luiz to Chelsea
With one end of the pitch apparently sorted, the Chelsea's defence has also been looking creaky. Chelsea's defensive chronically lacked strength in depth after the departure of Ricardo Carvalho. David Luiz is a pretty fantastic player. A cultured defender, unafraid to put his foot in but smart enough to use the ball once he's got it. His arrival turns Chelsea from a strong team with squad problems into a properly fearsome prospect. Ooo-eck.

All the other goings on in Liverpool's forward line
Luis Suarez, probably pursued initially as a foil for Torres, is a very good player. He was overshadowed somewhat at the world cup by Diego Forlan's annus mirabilis, but he's quick, direct, strong and has an eye for goal. The only worry is that he's made his name the Dutch league, where frankly it seems they let pretty much anyone score 30+ goals in a season if they ask nicely enough. Several high profile flops have graced our shores, along with a few high profile successes. Time will tell.

Andy Carrol, on the other hand, is a massive gamble. He has real potential. We've seen flashes of brilliance. We've also seen flashes of indifference and a court case. And his car being set on fire. This one could very easily go either way. The fact that Liverpool have seen fit to spend such an enormous sum on a player who has had roughly a quarter of a good season in the top flight and made one cap for England in a shocking team performance, and also injured at the moment, smells a little bit like an act of mad desparation. When you consider that the fee is greater than that paid for the likes of Edin Dzeko, Darren Bent and (depending on what the exchange rate for Euros was at the time) David Villa within the last 12 months, and that the likes of Diego Forlan and Fernando Llorente may well have been cheaper options if they'd been sought out... well it's pretty make or break. Maybe he'll be great. Maybe not. The fact that Fernando Torres is the only truly successful forward Liverpool have signed in ten years doesn't exactly fill me with confidence however.

The crumb of comfort I am taking that I can see Carrol and Suarez complimenting eachother rather well once Carrol is fit. The big question then is, where will Steven Gerrard end up in a 4-4-2? Could he end up playing wide in a 4-3-3? I'll do some tactics stuff another time.


Newcastle are pretty fucked
Regardless of Carrol's potential for success at Liverpool, he was absolutely vital to Newcastle. The failure to find a replacement leaves the rather laughable quartet of Shola Ameobi, Leon Best, Peter Lovenkrands and Niall Ranger as Alan Pardew's forward options. None of those four are good enough to bet premier league survival on. Joey Barton, Kevin Nolan and Hatem Ben Arfa's speedy return from injury will have to really step up in the remainder of the season.

Harry Redknapp may have blown it for Spurs
Firstly, the failure to sign a new striker or a proper midfield anchor in January are big oversights. Instead signing Stephen Pienaar for Everton in one of his strongest squad positions, the pursuit of David Beckham, and most puzzling of all Charlie Adam suggest to me that the pressure may be getting to Harry Redknapp. Or he has the brain worms. The Adam deal in particular, given he already has van der Vaart, Luka Modric and Niko Kranjar on his hands make me wonder if Harry is even watching his side play most of the time. Where on Earth would Adam fit into that over-crowded midfield? Where does Pienaar fit in for that matter? Perhaps someone could explain that one to me.

Manchester United and Arsenal were probably wise to stay out of it
Seriously, everyone seemed to be just spunking away money for the sake of it, and whilst United and Arsenal are far from perfect, over spending on a stopgap would probably do more harm than good in the long run. It makes much more sense for both sides to restructure their teams in the summer when the prices aren't quite so silly and Sky Sports News reporters aren't having heart attacks outside your training ground.

Manchester City still don't make any sense 400 quintillion pounds later
You look at City's squad list, you see plenty of good players, but you can't pick an 11 in a workable shape that is any better than "above average". There's still no midfield creativity, there's still no leader in their defence, and Gareth Barry can still get in the team. Sven-Goran Eriksson, Mark Hughes and now Roberto Mancini are making a proper bollocks of all that money just like CLaudio Ranieri did in the early Abramovic era at Chelsea. They need a Mourinho, someone who first has an idea of how to play and then goes to get the players to fit it regardless of price or marquee value. That's how you buy a title. Not like this.

A few players who've levered themselves into somewhere quite good for them

David Bentley - Needs to be playing again. Wasn't going to at Spurs. Birmingham is about his level. He may well keep them up.

Darren Bent - Sunderland are erratic. Villa have potential. Houllier will now build the team around him. Bent wins.

Robbie Keane - If he keeps West Ham up he's a miracle worker, if they go down he heads back to spurs and probably gets a last pay day in Scotland or the US, and the Hammers were shit anyway. He can't lose.

Daniel Sturridge - He could have fellated Carlo Ancelotti for hours and still not got picked, so he can help Owen Coyle jump start Bolton instead. Needed the game time.

Charlie Adam - Gets to become a Blackpool legend and still take his pick of top-half clubs in the summer. And get REAL paid in the process.

Summing up

Chelsea win. Liverpool draw. Newcastle lose.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Liverpoop - What's going on there then?

With the protracted Jeremy Kyle style takeover now completed, and having had a couple of days to mull over a horrific derby display, I think it's about time to address and diagnose the failings of my favourite red-shirted shower of shite, Liverpool Football Club. Three years ago they were champions league finalists. Now they sit second bottom of the premier league on goal difference, with a solitary win over West Brom to their name. And that was while West Brom were still readjusting to top flight football and Bobby Di Matteo hadn't quite got it all figured out yet. What's going on, and how did we get to this point?

The loss of, and subsequent failure to replace, Xabi Alonso

Rafael Benitez, amongst other things, had very little patience. It's part of what made him a good tactician, willing to make adjustments and change shape on the fly if things weren't working. It's what won Liverpool the 2005 champion's league, 2006 FA Cup, and many games in between. However, it lead to the departure of two players who would instantly improve the first team if they were to magically return.

First to go was John Arne Riise, who's confidence plummeted during his last year at Anfield, culminating in the terrible own-goal which gifted Chelsea passage to the 2008 Champion's League final. Before that, however, Riise had been amongst the best left-backs in the Premier League and probably Europe too. he combined solid defence work and a robust physical presence with a willingness to get forward and a knack of finding the net in crucial games against quality opposition. After his Champions League horror show, though, Benitez snapped and shipped the Norwegian tyro off to Roma at knock-down price without a second thought. Benitez, and now Roy Hodgson, have failed to replace him since. The competent but fragile Fabio Aurelio, inconsistnet Emiliano Insua, and limited Paul Konchesky have all come in without making the best of impressions, weakening both defence and attack in the same breath.

Perhaps more significant though was the protracted loss of one of the few truly world class players to grace Anfield in recent years, Spanish midfielder Xabi Alonso. Alonso was the creative spark that made the Gerrard-Torres axis work. Without him there is an absolute gulf between midfield and attack that has yet to be satisfactorily bridged. The puzzling signing of Alberto Aquilani, a player of great potential but with an injury record that makes Ledley King look like a picture of healh, and subsequent refusal of Benitez to use him even when fit, and then Hodgson's decision to loan him back to Italy rather than use him has had a pretty catastrophic effect on the spine of the team. Raul Meireles may prove to be a good signing, but it cannot be argued that he is in the same class as Alonso. And whilst Lucas Leiva is not nearly as bad as many would have you believe, he has serious limitations in his game.

The result is that Gerrard and Torres have been starved of good service for much of the season, and it doesn't look like that will be remedied any time soon unless Meireles makes a big step up in the near future. As a consequence, Gerrard drops deeper and deeper to get the ball, and the gap to Torres gets ever wider. With his confidence at rock bottom, this is only making Torres even more isolated and unlikely to have much joy against even the poorest defences.

The failure to find adequate support and back-up to Torres

On the evidence of the last 20 years it would not be entirely unfair to paint Liverpool Football Club as a striker's graveyard. A remarkable curse seems to fall on all but a handful of the forwards that have braved a place in the reds' forward line. In the last ten years alone we've seen the likes of Craig Bellamy, Peter Crouch, Milan Baros, El-Hadji Diouf, Djibril Cisse, Fernando Morientes, Jari Litmanen, Robbie Keane and Emile Heskey come and go, all wih big reputations that were never really fulfilled in a red shirt. Dutch forwards Ryan Babel and Dirk Kuyt have both been more often used as wide players. Currently the only out-and-out forwards in the first-team squad are Fernando Torres and David Ngog, one of which is in the worst form of his career and seemingly permanently carrying an injury, and the other yet to convince at the highest level. In the entire division I can't think of any club with a thinner forward line. Even with the generous addition of Dani Pacheco and David Amoo, and the potential use of Kuyt and Babel in an emergency only a very few clubs could claim to be much weaker.

Therefore it must be an absolute priority to sign a premier league class forward in the January window, and simply hope Torres stays fit and regains some form in the mean time.

The lowest form of width

In the five years since the champion's league win Liverpool have not had a single traditional winger make more than a moderate impact on the first team. Harry Kewell had been in decline for years, but potential sources of old fashioned wide play came and went with little fanfare. Mark Gonzales, Jermain Pennant, Albert Riera, failures all. In the current squad, Kuyt, Joe Cole, Babel, Maxi Rodriguez and Milan Jovanovic have all been used wide, but all of them prefer to come inside and play short passes rather than beating a man and getting a cross in. The stark contrast with the direct play of Seamus Coleman for Everton, Nani for Man Utd and so on in opposition has shown Roy Hodgson exactly what he needs to do. The reluctance of the full backs, even Glen Johnson, to get forward to compensate for this has been particularly disappointing. With things going so badly, and Johnson's horrible recent defensive displays, in my opinion it is worth giving youngster Martin Kelly a run at right-back and use Johnson as a winger to provide some much needed width.

The decline of Carragher

It was not so long ago that Carragher was amongst the very finest defenders in the premier league. His lack of pace and relative weakness in the air had always been covered up by fine positional awareness and anticipation of danger. But as forwards have got stronger, faster and cleverer, so Carragher has become more and more of a liability. The signs were there a couple of seasons back when Andy Johnson tore him asunder in a particularly drab derby performance. But now it's happening in almost every game. The ease with which Dimitar Berbatov, not know for his physicality, bossed him the Man Utd game was terrifying. The time is rapidly approaching for the old war horse to be put out to pasture to allow the more robust Martin Skrtel and more cultured Daniel Agger a chance to form the kind of partnership Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic were cultivated at Man Utd before injury broke them up.

The fear

In the latter days under Benitez, and throughout Hodgson's reign thus far, a general outlook of negativity has been cast over the team. The players seem far more frightened by the prospect of losing than excited by that of winning. Playing 4-5-1 at home against bottom half opposition smacks of a team and a coach having a crisis of confidence. Until Hodgson starts to take a more positive approach to matches Liverpool will continue to suffer poor draws and defeats. I haven't seen a single performance this season so far that has deserved three points, even the West Brom game was poor. It's time to get the players onto the front foot, to move the ball around and generally get at teams more.

Hodgson's limitations

I have a lot of time for Roy Hodgson as one of the few nice guys in football, and also for some of the remarkable achievements through his long career around Europe. However, he currently appears to be a little bit caught in the headlights in what amounts to the biggest job of his career so far. He appears unwilling to properly get at the players when they are under performing, and reluctant to make changes until the game has already pretty much passed him by. The only even remotely positive match day performance from him was the brief resurgence seen in the comeback against Manchester United, where he made a choice to change shape and use Steven Gerrard in a different way once the side had gone 2 behind. But even then, that was at a point where the game looked pretty much lost already. Hodgson has yet to get his tactics right, and given that he has been in the job for several months now, that's very troubling.

At the moment it is still early enough in the season for Liverpool to turn things round and regain some respectability. A couple of wins on the bounce would send them rocketing back up the table whilst everything is still close together. A decent run in the FA cup and Europa League would also go a long way to restoring some much needed pride and get the crowd back to full voice. However, if things continue to be this bad, new owner John Henry will have to start thinking about appointing a new manager before the January window to give them a chance to turn things round and avoid an ignominious relegation scrap that at this stage cannot be written off out-of-hand.

So whilst I sit watching on with ever-decreasing fingernails, I suggest that everyone else have a good old laugh at our expense. Until you realise that Manchester City and Chelsea are the only two sides that can win the league by the end of October, and realise the whole season is pretty much ruined.

Still, could be worse. Could be an England supporter. Oh shit.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Knowing your arses from your elbows

I realise I have gone a bit quiet on the blog. This is mainly because I am a Liverpool fan, and a lot of what I've seen so far this season has been beyond description.

I'll pause for a second to allow you to have a good old belly laugh before continuing.

Anyways, the announcement of a new England squad presents an opportunity to talk about something else while I prepare an epic rant about my favourite red-shirted shower of shite.

The headline from the squad announcement was the call-up of Bolton Wanderers striker Kevin Davies. As sad indictments of the state of English football go, this is a pretty big milestone. In my World Cup pre-amble I touched upon the golden era of the mid to late 90s, where England managers could pick from a fairly dazzling array of striking talent of all shapes and sizes. I've heard at least one person compare Davies' call-up with that of Dion Dublin by Glen Hoddle, but that doesn't wash with me. Dublin shared the premier league golden boot whilst playing for Coventry City. Coventry. City. Yes that one. He also had a little more to offer a side than a big arse and the sharpest elbows in all the land.

Watching England over the last five years, a recurring theme of Peter Crouch being penalised repeatedly by referees for the heinous crime of being really tall often made me wonder what on Earth sort of reputation the gangly robot man had amongst officials. Whatever it is, that's exactly what Kevin Davies is actually doing.

Selecting Davies is essentially the same as giving up hope of being able to play football. His entire game revolves around competing for high balls and either fouling or being fouled by defenders. That's it. He's got no pace, isn't a great finisher (surprisingly even in the air), lacks creativity in his link-up play, and doesn't really hold the ball up for very long. If people were mystified by Emile Heskey's role for England they're going to lose their mind if Davies gets on.

He probably won't though. Hopefully. Unless Crouch and Darren Bent pick up an injury. Or Rooney has a relapse of his. Gulp.

Sneaking in under the radar, skillfully buried in the news of the Bolton Elbower's first call-up, are the returns of Shaun Wright-Phillips and Rob Green. Oh and the fact that Glen Johnson is apparently the only English right-back in existence.

My hatred of SWP is well documented, so I only have one thing to add. He's not even playing for Man City. If he starts against Montenegro then I'll be on the phone to Donal McIntyre to get him to find out how SWP is blackmailing Capello, and whether that has anything to do with why we were shit at the world cup.

Green, on the other hand, has started in reasonably good form behind West Ham's excuse for a defence. Scott Carson has also been improving in recent weeks. The confusing thing is why Capello left him out for just a couple of games. Has he been watching Supernanny and put him on the equivalent of the naughty step? Surely he'd be a lot further recovered by now if Capello had shown a little faith in him. Joe Hart was always an obvious starter, but that's no reason not to at least put him the squad is it?

Finally, and most importantly, the right back thing. I don't know how it has happened, given his marked improvement through last season, but Johnson has gone from being a terrific asset as an attacking full-back to a monumental liability. His astonishingly poor defending contributed to both Blackpool goals at the weekend. Whether it's a symptom or a cause of Liverpool's terrible start is up for debate, but the lack of a specialist replacement in the squad is troubling. Presumably Phil Jagielka would be the only alternative, but given he hasn't played that role since his Sheffield United days, and only then out of necessity rather than desire, that seems a little unfair on him

Alternatives are not exactly falling over each other to present themselves, even if Wes Brown hadn't 'retired' (I should probably take this opportunity to announce my retirement from the international game by the way). English right backs are few and far between, certainly in the premier league. Micah Richards has yet to convince Capello, and admittedly plenty of others, Roberto Mancini included, of his ability. And he's injured at the moment anyway. Your eyes drop further and further down the table, and suddenly you're looking at Newcastle's James Perch (who makes Johnson look like Paolo Maldini for fuck's sake) or whatever mindless jackbooted thug Wolves rabidly unleash in that position. Not happy reading.

The under-21s hold no hope of a quick fix, usually preferring Micah Richards, but also calling on the likes of Martin Kelly and Kyle Walker, neither of whom are even close to holding down a regular starting birth for either Liverpool or Tottenham.

And there I was thinking that the international break might cheer me up a bit. I never learn.