29 September 2009

Liverpool 0-2 Fiorentina

Johnson Skrtel Carragher Insua
Lucas Aurelio
Kuyt Gerrard Benayoun

Jovetic 28’ 37’

Decisively and deservedly beaten. Out-Europed in Europe. Liverpool never got in gear and Fiorentina were fantastic, besting Liverpool at its own game in the first half and smothering the life out of them in the second.

Playing Aurelio in midfield was a gamble, and it absolutely didn’t pay off. Liverpool were rarely able to create any attacking cohesion or string more than four passes together (may be slight exaggeration), and came under increasing pressure as Fiorentina gained a foothold. Jovetic flashed a warning in the 16th, breaking down the left with Skrtel back to timely block his shot. The reprieve only lasted 12 minutes, when the same player beat the offside trap (two Fiorentina players were off, but it looked like Insua and Johnson played Jovetic on) and beat Reina.

Liverpool had no reply and Fiorentina kept up the pressure. All too often, Liverpool pens teams in. It’s not a pleasant sight seeing it happen to the Reds. Vargas forced a good save from Reina three minutes after Jovetic’s opener, and it was the winger’s dangerous low ball into the area that Jovetic redirected past Reina at the near post in the 37th. Down 0-2 and unable to sustain any attack. Awesome.

Soon after the second goal, Setanta flashed a graphic that said Liverpool had the edge in possession 53-47%. Ha. They did little with it. It took until the 35th minute for Liverpool to get a shot on target – a Gerrard effort from distance that tamely rolled to the keeper – and it was the only one in the first half.

Halftime prompted a decent response, and things could have gone differently had Benayoun cut it back instead of shooting in the 47th or Lucas’ header from the subsequent corner hadn’t been a foot over the bar. But after 10-15 minutes of pressure, Fiorentina frustrated the away side into going through the motions. Kuyt had the ball in the net in the 75th, and who knew what infringement the ref stopped play for, but he stopped play. And from there, we ended not with a bang, but a whimper. Babel and Voronin were sent on for Insua and Kuyt respectively, but the lone chances in the final 15 minutes were a few speculative Gerrard efforts and a Torres volley high and wide created by Skrtel of all people.

Gamberini and Dainelli doubled Torres throughout, preventing the striker from doing much damage, and Kuyt, Gerrard, and Benayoun were usually too penned back to offer much support. All three ended up dropping deeper and more central to compensate for the midfield. Special mention goes out to Gamberini and left back Gobbi, who were both excellent, but Fiorentina’s team defense kept Liverpool from settling in the slightest. The misplaced passes and heavy touches didn’t help, but Fiorentina earned their three points.

I absolutely hate bringing it up, seeing as I wrote it yesterday and take no joy from being “right” in this situation, but two of my biggest fears were realized. One, Jovetic caused massive problems, evidenced by his first half brace. His second goal was right place, right time striker’s luck in the box, but the first, beating the offside trap, was something Liverpool should have seen coming. I was similarly impressed as to how he dropped into midfield to defend and hold up play in the second half.

Two, as much as I like Aurelio as a player, this is why I didn’t want to see him in midfield. It’s one thing if Liverpool’s playing Portsmouth, where they’ll see most of the ball and Aurelio will be able to exploit his range of passing. Even though he’s a defender, he’s not a midfield destroyer. Liverpool needed a midfield destroyer badly today. While it limits his gifts, Gerrard has the ability to be a midfield destroyer.

No one escapes with any credit, but I was most disappointed in Benayoun, Skrtel, Aurelio, and Kuyt. I’ve condemned the central midfield more than is probably deserved, while Liverpool often hinges on Benayoun and Kuyt and neither could knit play together today.

The only sliver of optimism is that this result will put a chip on the team’s shoulders for the trip to Chelsea. That’s all I got. Well, that and the fact that Liverpool have four more group stage games to rectify this performance.

28 September 2009

Liverpool at Fiorentina 09.29.09

2:45pm, live in the US on Setanta.

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 6-1 Hull (h); 1-0 Leeds (a); 3-2 West Ham (a)
Fiorentina: 1-0 Livorno (a); 2-0 Sampdoria (h); 1-3 Roma (a)

Referee: Felix Brych (GER)

Guess at a squad:
Johnson Skrtel Carragher Insua
Lucas Gerrard
Benayoun Kuyt Riera

Sky Sports certainly threw a spanner in the works this morning, announcing that neither Benayoun nor Mascherano traveled to Italy because of an injury and illness respectively. A couple of hours later, Benitez corrected the Murdoch outfit’s typical piss-poor “journalism.” Mascherano is out because of a tight hamstring, but Benayoun’s in the squad. Phew. That eases a few of the concerns.

After being relegated to the bench on Saturday, I thought Mascherano was a certain starter both here and on Saturday. Let’s just hope the injury heals quickly, because his ability to break up opposition attacks will be crucial against Chelsea. Unless Benitez decides to truly blood Spearing – and this match would be a baptism by fire – Gerrard will remain in central midfield paired with Lucas. I doubt we’ll see Aurelio in midfield for the second time in a week; for all his gifts, he’s too one-footed for this role against most sides.

Had Benayoun not been available, Benitez would have had to choose between Babel and Voronin, and the change in tactics each would entail. As Benayoun seems likely to play, it should be the same line-up as against Burnley, Debrecen, and Hull. Chances are there’ll be a slightly different result given the class of opposition. Hopefully not too different.

As Aurelio seems likely to come back in against Chelsea, he may get a start here so Stamford Bridge isn’t his first start of the season at left back. But I still think it’s going to take a few good performances to dislodge Insua from that role.

Having seen four of Fiorentina’s games so far this season (both legs against Sporting Lisbon, Roma, and Livorno), I’m better qualified to opine on the opponents than usual in CL competition. Fourth in Serie A, they’ve had a relatively strong start to the season, thumping league-leading Sampdoria at home five days ago. Frey is a talented keeper, and did very well against Livorno, but defensive frailties led to all three of Roma’s goals in that match, while the whole team was unconvincing against Sporting (winning on away goals).

19-year-old Stevan Jovetic has scored their key goals, and will star with Gilardino suspended and former Chelsea man Mutu a more peripheral figure since that enormously unfair CAS verdict against him. Jovetic has the makings of a top talent, and the defense will obviously need to cease the silly mistakes to keep him under wraps. Vargas at left back will also pose a threat, and I think we’ll again see Glen Johnson in a more defensive role regardless of who starts on the right wing. Plus, Vargas isn’t too shabby at set plays (gulp).

No matter the lure of Europe, Chelsea on Sunday is a more tantalizing proposition. But we’ve seen Liverpool’s success in Europe push them on in the league before. Another win here – which would be the seventh in a row – is exactly what the team needs to keep momentum going.

Supporting Torres

It’s getting difficult to find new ways to praise Fernando Torres. See here and here, among other sycophancy. The goals per game, the hat-tricks, the fact he can score any kind of goal, that he’s only 25; I can go on and on. But there’s little else to be written on how potent he is. So I got to thinking about the “supporting cast.”

The first graphic shows who’s on the pitch when Torres scores. I only counted the front six; it’s safe to say Carra and Reina probably started alongside Torres even more than Gerrard, but that correlation’s even less significant. And I’m only listing players still with the team, although Alonso’d be the only other to crack the top eight, on the pitch for 30 of Torres’ 58 goals (30 out of 50 if we just count the ones when Alonso was with Liverpool).

The second simply shows who’s providing the assists. Once again, it’s little surprise to see Gerrard’s got the biggest number. But once again, Kuyt’s not far off.

The nine players with two assists are Alonso, Arbeloa, Crouch, Finnan, Insua, Kewell, Mascherano, Riera, and Riise. The seven with one are Babel, Carragher, Keane, Leto, Reina, Skrtel and Voronin.

Back with a preview of tomorrow’s Champions League game this afternoon.

26 September 2009

Liverpool 6-1 Hull

Johnson Skrtel Carragher Insua
Lucas Gerrard
Benayoun Kuyt Riera

Torres 12’ 28’ 47’
Geovanni 15’
Gerrard 61’
Babel 88’ 90+1’

So much for struggling to beat the teams that just want a draw at Anfield. 13 goals put past Stoke, Burnley, and Hull – and Liverpool dropped points against Stoke and Hull last season.

It didn’t look like it’d end 6-1 at halftime. A 12th minute goal by Torres appeared to initiate an avalanche, but defensive blunders crept back in to postpone the rout. Liverpool had started the brighter, and when Riera found #9 in the box, Torres deftly shifted onto his left past Sonko and slotted in the far corner. I think he might have found his form.

Liverpool’s clearly had problems with set plays this season, but shipping goals soon after scoring has been as much of an issue. Spurs went 2-1 up three minutes after Gerrard equalized. Villa went 3-1 up three minutes after Torres pulled one back. West Ham equalized twice, after nine and four minutes respectively, before Liverpool finally went up for good.

And three minutes after Torres sent Liverpool on its way, Skrtel shakily headed a clearance straight to an-unmarked Geovanni, who made no mistake from 10 yards out. Poor judgment by Skrtel, but more worrying was the lack of communication between him and Carragher. An ignominious first goal conceded from open play to say the least. Thankfully, it’d be the last real threat.

The goal knocked Liverpool off their stride, and the home side had to endure five or so unsteady minutes before normal service resumed. No prizes for guessing who put Liverpool back in front. Benayoun fed Torres in the box, and the striker tangoed through the penalty area, rounding both Sonko and Myhill before toe-poking in. With two goals to his name in less than half an hour, a hat trick was always coming.

Hull made Liverpool work for the rest of the half, but the second was a completely different story. Two minutes after the restart, Benayoun again released Torres, who again beat Sonko before hammering through McShane’s legs after it looked like the chance might have gone. That was his eight of the season (in seven games!) and fourth hat trick for Liverpool. Superlatives fail me.

The away side was never going to come back from two down, and Liverpool allowed Hull a bit of possession with no end product, which would pay off as the visitors had hands on knees by the 80th minute. It took 14 minutes for the captain to seal it, which obviously means Liverpool are a two-man team. Was it on purpose? Getting the ball back from Insua after a corner, Gerrard curled it over Myhill from the left flank with Kuyt at the back post. Yeah, he probably didn’t mean it, but if anyone could mean to do that, it’s Gerrard.

The lead allowed Benitez to protect Torres, Gerrard, and Benayoun with an eye on Fiorentina and Chelsea as Babel, Mascherano, and Voronin came on. The Dutchman finally saw extended time as a central striker, and looked like he was going to waste the opportunity until the final two minutes despite constant Liverpool pressure as he and Voronin contrived to miss chances (not for lack of effort).

But Liverpool pushed until the final whistle as Hull was run ragged and demoralized, and Babel was rewarded with two late goals. The first was an awesome one-two with his countryman, releasing Kuyt on the right and getting into a perfect position to flick it in from a few yards out. Three minutes later, he got in the way of Riera’s blast, only to see fortune favor the brave, with the deflection off his back heel taking it past Myhill.

After a display like that, all eyes are going to be on the attack, and rightfully so. But other than the early equalizer, there were no defensive nightmares. Carragher was back to form marshaling the defense, and on today’s display, the Slovakian will be more under threat by Agger’s return, but it was just one game. Plus, no goals from set plays(!) despite the dangerous Geovanni and Sonko’s long throws.

And that attack. Now that’s an attack. There have been 23 games since Sunderland on March 3. Liverpool has scored 67 goals, an average of 2.9 a game. Yikes.

Torres’ genius unlocked and won the game, but the line of three behind him again caused countless problems. Benayoun was the provider for two of Torres’ goals, Kuyt popped up all over the pitch, and Riera tortured McShane all day long (and probably should be credited with the last goal). Gerrard, who still scored, again wasn’t as influential in the final third, but again, he didn’t need to be.

Mascherano will assuredly come back into the side against Fiorentina and Chelsea. And he will be crucial against the Londoners; you only have to look back to the 1-3 CL loss to see what Masch means against the Blues. But once again, Gerrard and Lucas in central midfield worked a treat against a bottom-table side. This is the second time Liverpool’s bettered a result from last season – beating both Hull and Stoke where they could only draw a year ago.

Outside of the lone goal conceded from open play, you couldn’t ask for a better result before the trip to Florence.

25 September 2009

Liverpool v Hull City 09.26.09

10am, live in the US on FSC

Last 4 head-to-head:
3-1 Liverpool (a) 04.25.09
2-2 (h) 12.13.08
4-2 Liverpool (h; League Cup) 09.21.99
5-1 Liverpool (a; League Cup) 09.14.99

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Leeds (a); 3-2 West Ham (a); 1-0 Debrecen (h)
Hull: 0-4 Everton (h); 0-1 Birmingham (h); 4-1 Sunderland (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 5; Benayoun, Kuyt 3; Gerrard, Johnson 2; Ngog 1
Hull: Hunt 2; Geovanni, Ghilas, Zayette 1

Referee: Peter Walton

Guess at a squad:
Johnson Skrtel Carragher Insua
Lucas Gerrard
Kuyt Benayoun Riera

Unless Aurelio’s forced his way into the team after Tuesday’s performance, I can only see two possible lineups. To Mascherano or not to Mascherano, that is the question. Either Masch starts, with Gerrard behind Torres and Benayoun on the left, or Gerrard partners Lucas in central midfield, and it’s the same team we saw against Burnley and Debrecen.

Even though Gerrard will be more dangerous behind Torres nine times out of ten, I think I’d rather see the above lineup. One, Gerrard was effective against Burnley once the game opened up, and there’s an excellent chance of that happening again, especially with the form Hull’s in. Two, with Hull struggling for both form and points, Phil Brown might decide to park the bus at Anfield and hope for a point, in which case Mascherano would be less necessary. However, given the Hull manager’s tendencies (read: hubris), Brown with probably play with two strikers and try to attack.

Most importantly, I’ve simply been disappointed with Mascherano so far this season. As I wrote week ago, maybe he’s had his head turned by Barcelona, or maybe Argentina’s struggles are weighing on him, but he’s not been at his best yet this season. Tuesday’s frustrated performance included a forearm to Jermaine Beckford that I’m still not sure was incidental (thanks for ignoring it, FA!). Of course, it also saw him notch the assist for the winning goal, but on second viewing, I reckon it was an attempted shot. Maybe Masch could play his way through this spell, as Torres appeared to do at West Ham, but I’m inclined to see Lucas and Gerrard in midfield.

As said above, Aurelio’s return is another possibility. But the Brazilian played 90 minutes in midfield on Tuesday, in his first start of the season, so it’s probably too soon for another 90. In my wildest dreams, I imagine Agger’s return, as a ball-carrying defender would be beyond useful in a game like this. He also has the pace to cover for fullbacks camped in the opposition half. But if he didn’t make the squad on Tuesday, he’s not likely to here. Soon though. Hopefully.

After six games last season, Hull had three wins, two draws and a loss, including an away victory at Arsenal. This season, it’s one win, one draw, and four losses. Since that atrocious 2-2 draw at Anfield in December, where two goals from Gerrard saved a draw after going two down, Hull’s played 27 games. They only won twice.

Hull rested players against Everton in the Carling Cup on Wednesday and got tonked 4-0. Hunt and Geovanni have been in decent form, but the team’s been shipping goals; the 1-0 win over Bolton was Hull’s only clean sheet of the season. Here’s hoping Altidore starts – even though his pace could cause serious problems, he’s easily my favorite American player.

Liverpool players assuredly remember the aforementioned 2-2 draw. Liverpool was top of the league when that draw happened, and while it took a few weeks for the slide to truly start, it was the beginning of the iffy stretch that probably saw Liverpool lose the league. That should be motivation enough.

22 September 2009

Liverpool 1-0 Leeds

Degen Carragher Kyrgiakos Dossena
Babel Spearing Aurelio Riera

Ngog 66’

Much harder work than it should have been, plus Liverpool needed a little bit of luck. But it was never going to be easy in front of 30,000+ Leeds fans, and no matter how awful the first half was, Liverpool finally got going – and got the goal – in the second.

And make no mistake – the first half was sloppy as hell. Liverpool were overrun in midfield, Ngog was isolated up front, and the score was only level at halftime thanks to a questionable linesman’s flag.

Leeds don’t get many games like this in League One, and they were certainly up for it. Liverpool’s unfamiliar lineup found it hard to string passes together or create any opportunities, and were on the back foot for the majority of the first 45. Michael Doyle should have scored in the 11th when a cross found him for a free header, but the midfielder could only put it wide.

And the controversy came a minute later. From a corner (surprise, surprise!), Michalik headed goalwards, neither Beckford nor Cavalieri could get decent contact, and Beccio scooped it over the line. But he shouldn’t have. Beccio was ruled offside, and Michalik’s header would have gone in anyway after Cavalieri couldn’t claim. Phew. Lucky, lucky Liverpool yet again.

Leeds never got a chance as good as that one, but still bossed the half. Liverpool’s first shot on target was a tame Babel effort after a nice run that the keeper easily smothered on the half-hour mark. Riera should have opened the scoring in the 44th, but headed straight at Higgs from a wonderful Aurelio free kick. I mean – and no offense meant – but when Phillip Degen (Degen!) is your best player in the half, you’re not firing on all cylinders.

Benitez’s response was to switch Babel and Riera for the second half, meaning both players were on their weaker foot, and Leeds kept up the pressure. Carragher and Mascherano combined to cut out Crowe’s dangerous center after a one-two with the excellent Snodgrass in the 49th, while Cavalieri was lucky to block Beckford’s stabbed effort after the striker outpaced Carragher and Kyrgiakos to a ball over the top five minutes later.

But Liverpool finally settled, and finally saw more of the ball. Mascherano, who had been casual and frustrated all game long, was lucky to stay on the field after a petulant, needless elbow before a throw-in in the 59th. Unsurprisingly, it was the Argentinean who provided the assist seven minutes later. An Aurelio corner was cleared out to Mascherano, who put the ball back into a dangerous area. Ngog collected, turned beautifully, and beat Higgs. 1-0. Finally.

Despite the defensive frailties, Liverpool was never going to let the lead slip after that. I’m struggling to think of any chances for the home side to equalize, and Liverpool brought on Johnson, Gerrard, and Skrtel to see the match out. Aurelio had a free kick deflected over in the 86th, while Gerrard forced a good save in the final minute, but that was about it for goalmouth action on either end.

Obviously, Liverpool’s play was disappointing for long stretches. But that’s understandable with an unusual side against a determined opposition. Benitez is damned if you do and damned if you don’t in the Carling Cup. If the reserves get beat, he should have played the big guns. If a key player gets injured, he should have been rested. Regardless, the team still got the win.

But the midfield performance was still unforgivable. Most of the play bypassed Spearing, Mascherano, and Aurelio in the first half. Both Spearing and Mascherano gave the ball away constantly. Outside of Aurelio’s free kicks and corners (which are almost always dangerous, and he should be first choice to take them when he’s fit), I would have forgotten he was playing. Ngog got literally zero support in the first half; he’d win the ball from a long punt out of defense, have no one to pass it to, and Leeds would reclaim. Otherwise, I thought Ngog impressed, and deserves to be man of the match.

And, of course, luck had something to do with it. Liverpool were very fortunate they didn’t go behind in the 12th minute. Beccio had no need to touch the ball from an offside position – it was going in anyway thanks to Michalik’s header and Beckford’s pressure – and it’s still questionable whether the striker was offside (depends on whether Beckford got contact, and I don’t think he did). Leeds should have taken advantage when they had Liverpool on the back foot. When you don’t, teams like Liverpool will make you pay, even if it’s the second string.

No matter how it happened, Liverpool’s now in the draw for the 4th round, which will be played at the end of October. Good enough for me. Hull at Anfield on Saturday.

21 September 2009

Liverpool at Leeds 09.22.09

2:45pm, live in the US on espn360.com. Supposedly, ESPN360 is the only US outlet. My internet provider doesn’t get it. Most people I know don’t get it. Super.

Setanta has US rights for Carling Cup too, but they’re not showing a Tuesday game. Hopefully they’ll be a stream somewhere.

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 3-2 West Ham (a); 1-0 Debrecen (h); 4-0 Burnley (h)
Leeds: 4-1 Gillingham (h); 0-0 Southend (a); 2-0 Stockport (h)

Referee: Alan Wiley

Guess at a squad:
Degen Skrtel Kyrgiakos Aurelio
Spearing Mascherano
Babel Voronin Riera

Good luck guessing the right mix of reserves, youngsters, and senior players. The only player I’m certain about is Cavalieri, who gets all the cup games. But I’ve a few educated guesses.

First and foremost, I do not want to see Gerrard, Torres, Kuyt, Benayoun, Johnson, or Carragher start under any circumstances. All are too vital to the team, and all could do with the rest. I do want to see both Babel and Riera, though. Babel’s had two decent appearances off the bench and merits a longer test (even though I still think he’s better as a sub), while Riera didn’t start against the Hammers.

Normally, this would be a perfect game for Lucas. Honestly, I’d like to see him captain the side. It’d be a great, and deserved, confidence boost for the lad. But with Aquilani yet to feature, Lucas is crucial, and probably won’t be risked here as he’s started every game so far. But Mascherano, recently back from injury, didn’t start against either Burnley or Debrecen and should be fresher. Otherwise, the alternative is Spearing/Plessis, which is probably too defensive for this game. However, Plessis might be suspended after picking up a red card for the reserves on Thursday.

Skrtel could probably use a game off after Saturday’s performance as well. But with Agger just back to training after another injury, it’s probably too soon. Which would leave Ayala and Kyrgiakos as the centerbacks. Ayala did fine against Stoke, and would probably do fine here, but I’d rather see Skrtel get time with Kyrgiakos to see if there’s something to the pairing.

We should, however, hopefully see the return of Aurelio. He’s come off the bench in the last two games, and seems to be back to full fitness. This is the perfect game to see just how fit he is, and whether he can give Insua competition for the regular left back berth.

Other youngsters who could feature are Pacheco (who did well in preseason), Darby (Degen seems more likely in case he’s needed in a real game, while Kelly’s away with the U20s), or Amoo (who’s been in sparkling form for the reserves), but Benitez has always been reluctant to throw too many youth players into the Carling Cup.

Leeds finally look like they’ll be back in the Championship next season, although it’s admittedly very early. But they’re unbeaten to start the season, with seven wins and one draw to start the League One campaign. They’ve held onto Jermaine Beckford, who’ll be the dangerman, and is top scorer with six goals.

The Carling Cup is still the Carling Cup. It’s still last on the list of priorities. But after three years, a trophy is a trophy is a trophy, and Liverpool could do with continuing to rack up wins.

19 September 2009

Liverpool 3-2 West Ham

Johnson Skrtel Carragher Insua
Lucas Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Benayoun

Torres 20’
Diamanti 29’ (pen)
Kuyt 41’
Cole 45’
Torres 75’

Phew. Jamie Carragher and the rest of Liverpool’s defense should buy Fernando Torres a steak dinner. Thank you, Nando.

The warning signs went flashing in the second minute, when Carragher dwelling on the ball allowed Hines to nip in. Thankfully, the young winger could only thump a shot off the post. It wouldn’t be the last time his pace exposed the backline.

It was one of those games neutrals describe as eminently watchable. As guessed, West Ham wasn’t content to sit back. The aforementioned Hines, Carlton Cole, and Diamanti all caused problems, as both Carragher and Skrtel were shaky throughout the first half. But Liverpool still saw the majority of possession, and opened the scoring in the 20th thanks to some Torres magic.

Insua nipped in to stop a West Ham break and found Torres down the inside left channel. One-on-one with Tomkins, Torres beat the defender like a rug, getting behind and beautifully toe-poking above Robert Green from three yards out. Unfortunately, like against Spurs, Villa, and Bolton, it didn’t take long for Liverpool to give it back.

Once again, Hines’ pace got him by Carragher, and Carra tried to muscle him off with an arm. Not the first time Carra’s shouldered an attacker off the ball, but Hines went down easily and Marriner gave the soft penalty (look, I’ll concede it’s giveable, but it happens all the time). Diamanti stepped up, and a la John Terry, slipped when taking it. Somehow, it still went in. And it should have been disallowed, as he kicked it onto his standing foot. That’s two touches. Maybe the extra official used in the Europa League would have seen it, because Andre Marriner unsurprisingly missed it.

Liverpool reasserted superiority in possession and went back in front 12 minutes later. And from a corner no less. Gerrard rose highest to meet Benayoun’s ball in, and Kuyt got a slight touch to redirect it past Green. Yet another example of why Gerrard shouldn’t take corners; he’s as dangerous in the air as anyone in the team.

But again, four minutes later, on the stroke of halftime, another equalizer from another set play. Sigh. It started with a Skrtel slip-up, followed by him fouling Hines. It ended with an easy header for Carlton Cole after the free kick went out for a corner – Cole rose highest over Carra and Torres. It’s not zonal marking. It’s defenders (Carra) not attacking the ball quick enough.

The second half was nowhere near as open as the first, and thankfully, Liverpool’s defense was far better. Back and forth for the first 15 minutes, Liverpool started to overrun West Ham around the hour mark as the home side tired. As the Hammers had to make two substitutions for injury in the first half (Gabbidon for Upson and Kovac for Behrami), there was little Zola could do about it.

Benitez surprisingly brought Babel on for Kuyt in the 60th, and his pace, along with the Benayoun and Gerrard’s running, swung the game in Liverpool’s favor. Babel again showed a willingness to get at defenders. Sometimes he chose the wrong option, as he’s prone to. But he still gave West Ham something to worry about, and that he provided the assist for Torres’ winner was deserved. In the 75th, the ball rebounded to the Dutchman outside the area after Johnson’s shot was blocked, and he drove to the byline, floating a cross into the area. Torres out-jumped both Tomkins and Faubert to knock it low past Green.

West Ham spent the final 15 minutes camped in Liverpool’s half, but thankfully, the defense of old returned. The Hammers’ lone chance came soon after Liverpool’s goal, with Reina getting fingertips to Kovac’s header after Cole won the flick-on in the 77th. But Skrtel and Carragher kept their cool, Mascherano tore around the pitch, and Johnson did excellently sticking to Hines. The right back stayed at home to good effect, negating Hines’ pace. So much for him not being able to defend.

Obviously, this game did little to ease the defensive worries. Two more goals from set plays (if we’re counting penalties); none of the nine goals conceded have come from open play. Carragher looked out of sorts for the entire first half – somehow, Carlton Cole morphed into Drogba – and Skrtel wasn’t any great shakes either. Yes, I miss Danny Agger too.

But Torres saved the day. A Sunday league defense, but an attack that can threaten any team, led by the best striker in the world. Four wins in a row. That’ll do.

Leeds in the Carling Cup on Tuesday.

18 September 2009

Liverpool at West Ham 09.19.09

12:30pm, live in the US on FSC

Last 4 head-to-head:
3-0 Liverpool (a) 05.09.09
0-0 (h) 12.01.08
4-0 Liverpool (h) 03.05.08
0-1 West Ham (a) 01.30.08

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Debrecen (h); 4-0 Burnley (h); 3-2 Bolton (a)
West Ham: 0-1 Wigan (a); 0-0 Blackburn (a); 3-1 Millwall (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Benayoun, Torres 3; Gerrard, Johnson, Kuyt 2; Ngog 1
West Ham: Cole, Noble, Upson 1

Referee: Andre Marriner

Guess at a squad:
Johnson Carragher Skrtel Insua
Lucas Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Benayoun

Three games in one week usually leads to rotation in a Benitez side, but we saw the same XI against both Burnley and Debrecen. On paper, this is the most difficult of the three, on the road against mid-table opposition. But if there weren’t changes for Debrecen, I don’t know how many there’ll be here.

Debrecen and Burnley demonstrated the two sides to Gerrard in central midfield. Against Burnley, Gerrard became increasingly instrumental as space opened up once Liverpool got in front, and he bossed the game in the second half. Against Debrecen, he was far less effective, with less touches and errant shooting. Lucas/Gerrard can work against the smaller sides and might work against the stronger. But I think Liverpool will get the best of Gerrard – and probably Torres – if the captain is playing further up the field.

Which means one of Benayoun, Kuyt, and Riera misses out. No slight to Riera, but that’s not a difficult decision. Kuyt’s been one of the first names on the team sheet for the last two seasons (and rightfully so), while Benayoun’s in terrific form. As West Ham’s at home and managed by Zola, they’ll come out of their shell a bit. Hopefully, this means there’s less chance of getting bogged down in the final third and Riera’s width wouldn’t be too missed.

Mascherano should return to the side tomorrow, and hopefully he’ll have a point to prove. With Lucas playing well in his absence, Masch will have to up his game. He hasn’t started the season anywhere near his best. Whether that’s due to having his head turned by Barca or because of Argentina’s struggles is for us to guess at, but either way, Liverpool doesn’t have the time, patience, or squad strength for passengers. If Masch can’t find his form, he’ll get fewer opportunities, especially once Aquilani features.

Now that we’ve seen evidence Aurelio’s still alive, Insua’s place could be in doubt. Again, I’ve few complaints with the little Argentinean, who played well in the last two games, but Aurelio is more experienced and more well-rounded, and will be back in the side when match-fit. As he saw just a minute or two against Debrecen, it’s probably too soon for him to start, but we’re close.

West Ham have tentatively opened the campaign, with four points from four games, the lone win coming in the first game of the season away at Wolves. Ilunga, Boa Morte, and Ashton are out, while Collison and Dyer are questionable. But Zola’s a wily manager, Carlton Cole’s shown glimpses of potential, and Liverpool will have to be on their guard. Cole is the type of striker that can punish Liverpool, especially if he’s winning aerial battles, and he’s going to be West Ham’s main outlet.

Liverpool’s now won three on the spin since the loss to Villa. The team’s picking up pace and picking up points. That has to continue, and Wednesday’s performance will have to be bettered.

17 September 2009

I love journamalism

Liverpool, Chelsea and United all won fairly uninspiring 1-0 games in the first round of the CL group stage. None of the teams were any great shakes. So let’s compare the ledes in the BBC’s and ESPN’s match reports. I mean, they’re probably similar, right?

Liverpool opened their Champions League campaign in unconvincing fashion with a narrow win over Hungarian champions Debrecen.

Chelsea started their quest to claim the Champions League crown that has remained tantalisingly out of reach with a hard-fought victory against Porto at Stamford Bridge.

• Paul Scholes earned Manchester United a hard-fought win at Besiktas in their opening Champions League Group B game.

Kuyt settles tie as Reds labour
Dirk Kuyt's 12th goal in 35 Champions League games for Liverpool saw the Anfield men claim an opening Group E victory but there was nothing to suggest a Madrid final in May is on the cards.

Anelka is Ancelotti's charm
Nicolas Anelka proved Chelsea can survive and prosper without banned Didier Drogba as the France international settled their opening Champions League qualifying game against Porto with a second half winner.

Scholes header seals United win
Paul Scholes popped up 13 minutes from time to ensure Manchester United's bid to reach a third successive Champions League final got off on exactly the right note in Istanbul.

No, no media bias at all. Whining Scousers.

16 September 2009

Liverpool 1-0 Debrecen

Johnson Skrtel Carragher Insua
Gerrard Lucas
Benayoun Kuyt Riera

Kuyt 45+1’

Well, they can’t all be 4-0, can they?

That wasn’t good enough by any stretch and yet it was. The performance left a lot to be desired, but three points are all you can ask for.

It was the same line-up as against Burnley, but Liverpool found it a lot harder to break through. A slow start, with 10 determined Debrecen defenders behind the ball, led to Liverpool forcing the play. Too many giveaways and sloppy passes gave the visitors confidence, and they increasingly grew into the game as they kept the home side at bay.

And in the 30th minute, Debrecen got the first shot on target for either side, with Czvitkovics forcing Reina into a smart save after Skrtel cleared the ball right to him. The next six or so minutes saw some sustained Debrecen pressure, although with few efforts. But the warning finally prompted some decent play from Liverpool.

Riera was the catalyst, although he probably should have taken one of his chances. Gerrard and Carragher found the winger with throughballs in the 34th and 38th, with the first shot wide of the far post and the second saved by Debrecen’s keeper, with Kuyt’s prodded rebound cleared off the line. Riera had another shot from distance parried before providing a cutback for Gerrard, who could only place his shot inches wide. Finally, it only seemed a matter of time.

And thankfully it was, with Kuyt scoring the crucial goal seconds before halftime. Benayoun played it through to Torres, who turned and fired. Again, Poleskic could only parry and Kuyt got there first, sliding in ahead of the otherwise-solid Meszoras.

One would hope that’d be the dambreaker, and Liverpool would come out guns blazing in the second half. No such luck. The team was still sloppy and Debrecen was still solid. Liverpool had the ball and the chances – a couple of Gerrard shots narrowly over and a Lucas free header wide among others – but broke down in the final third too often, couldn’t add to the lead, and could have paid the price for it.

No offense meant, but Liverpool’s fortunate that the opposition didn’t have the firepower to punish them. The home side may have had two-thirds of the possession and far more shots, but we’ve seen them penalized for not extending a one-goal lead before, and they’re lucky it didn’t happen today. Coulibaly had chances in the 78th and 82nd, but couldn’t loop it over Reina or round Skrtel respectively, both times going to ground too easily.

Benitez probably waited too long to make substitutions – Babel’s entrance in the 80th definitely helped matters, as he was the impetus behind Liverpool’s two best late chances, before Mascherano and Aurelio came on for Benayoun and Kuyt. In the 83rd, Babel’s pace started the move that ended with Benayoun shooting over, and in the 89th, he showed some lovely ball control before his shot was deflected wide. I’m still a bit puzzled that changes weren’t made earlier even though play was sloppy and players looked tired.

Kuyt was probably the only one I’d classify as “good” today – he consistently got into clever positions in the ‘Gerrard’ role and scored the winner, his 19th in Europe – although Lucas, Benayoun, and Riera had their moments. But, unlike against Burnley, Gerrard didn’t impress sitting deep. It would have helped if he’d remembered his shooting boots, struggling to get shots on target (and he had chances), but the captain was less effective in all regards. And once again, Torres had trouble making any impact.

Credit to Liverpool that they can play so unconvincingly and still win. But displays like today’s won’t suffice in too many matches.

15 September 2009

Liverpool v Debrecen 09.16.09

2:45pm, live in the US on FSC. Also, if you have DirecTV (which I couldn’t recommend more), you can get all the Champions League games on channels 461-469. And supposedly, most if not all will be in HD, but I’ll believe that when I see all the glorious pixels. (Update: So if it's on another channel, DirecTV doesn't have it in HD. So close, yet so far.)

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 4-0 Burnley (h); 3-2 Bolton (a); 1-3 Villa (h)
Debrecen: 1-0 Paksi (a); 3-1 Nyíregyháza Spartacus (h); 2-0 Levski Sofia (h)

Referee: Pedro Proenca (POR)

Guess at a squad:
Johnson Carragher Skrtel Dossena
Gerrard Lucas
Benayoun Kuyt Riera

With a midweek game following an international break, and a trip to West Ham on Saturday, there are bound to be some changes, no matter how well Liverpool played last time out. The question is how many changes.

The only one I’ve guessed above is Dossena for Insua. I would have picked Aurelio, but he didn’t make the bench for Burnley, which doesn’t bode well for his availability. But I could also see others being rested – Kyrgiakos for Skrtel, for example, or even Torres getting a game off.

I think it’s safe to say we haven’t seen the best from #9 yet this season. And he still has three goals to his name. I could easily see him starting on the bench, protected for Saturday but available if need be. Maybe the rest would kick-start his season and give him added motivation. But I assume, given it’s Fernando Torres we’re talking about, that he’ll start. It’s Torres.

Supposedly, Mascherano is in contention; according to Benitez, only El Zhar and Aquilani are ruled out. But I still don’t know if that means he’ll play. One, I worry about niggling injuries picked up on international duty – it’s happened before. Two, like against Burnley – and no disrespect to Debrecen – I don’t know if Liverpool will need Masch’s defensive capabilities. I’d rather him get fully fit for West Ham and see Lucas and Gerrard have another go from central midfield.

I wish I could tell you more about Debreceni VSC. I know they’re Hungarian, I know they won the Hungarian league, and they surprisingly beat Levski Sofia in the final qualifying round. Even after looking at their squad, I couldn’t single out any of their players. I don’t think that’s happened in 3+ years of writing this blog. In lieu of being any help at all, I’ll link to RAWK’s Spion Kop with Debrecen fans, which was an interesting read.

Regardless of the opposition, I’d like to remind that there are no easy Champions League games, which is why I’ve guessed a fairly strong squad. The Hungarians will assuredly be up for their first game in the Champions League proper, and Liverpool need a win – both for morale purposes after the iffy start to the league and to begin the European campaign on the right foot. Win, then worry about fitness.

12 September 2009

Liverpool 4-0 Burnley

Johnson Carragher Skrtel Insua
Gerrard Lucas
Benayoun Kuyt Riera

Benayoun 27’ 61’ 82’
Kuyt 41’

Perfect. No complaints. I had hoped it’d be similar to Stoke, and it’s the exact same result. Four goals (and Liverpool should have had more), a clean sheet (with no frights from set plays), a Benayoun hat-trick, and the ability to rest players like Johnson, Kuyt, and Torres (plus a Degen sighting!) with the Champions League on Wednesday.

It’s only Burnley (no disrespect meant, but they were always going to struggle once the first went in), but Gerrard sitting deeper has given me, and hopefully Benitez, something to think about. That was a comprehensive, dominating performance.

It’s not that Gerrard in central midfield was all the difference – in fact, I thought he didn’t have enough influence in the first half, although he was utterly superlative in the second as the game opened up. But Benayoun and Kuyt (and Riera to a lesser extent) were outstanding. We’ve seen that Gerrard can be effective wherever he plays on the pitch, and the interplay between Benayoun, Kuyt, and Riera was excellent, leading to the two first half goals that put the game out of reach.

It was a rocky opening five to ten minutes, with a couple of embarrassing giveaways in Liverpool’s half and a Paterson effort from the top of the box not far wide, but once Liverpool got on top, they always looked likely to score. It started with probing shots from distance against a deep backline, but Benayoun almost opened it in the 23rd, rising highest between two defenders to head Insua's cross narrowly wide.

And, unsurprisingly, it was Benayoun slotting coolly four minutes later after a mazy run, turning Graham Alexander inside out following Johnson’s throughball. Liverpool could have had a second within five minutes – Benayoun’s diving header and Kuyt’s rebound both saved in the 29th were the best during a spell of chances – but Burnley got back into it for about five minutes starting around the 35th.

However, a Liverpool break in the 41st following a Burnley corner (delightfully started by Torres), put that notion to rest. Torres’ clearance found Benayoun in so much space he had time for a conversation with Gerrard before deciding to shoot. Jensen sloppily parried the effort, and Kuyt was on-hand, although arguably offside. No matter.

Liverpool patiently dominated the second half until Burnley’s legs ran out, and then put them to the sword. The imminent third came in the 61st when Torres found Gerrard striding into the box; the ball was behind him, but the captain somehow collected and centered for a wide-open Benayoun.

Yossi should have had his hat-trick in the 72nd, tapping in the rebound from Gerrard’s free kick, but it was ruled out – a certain make-up call for the Kuyt goal. Two minutes late, Gerrard rounded the keeper after another lovely run but could only hit the post from a narrow angle.

No matter. Benayoun earned the matchball in the 82nd after a gorgeous one-touch move between Riera, Yossi, Gerrard, and Voronin ended with the Israeli beating the offside trap. Liverpool should have added a fifth, with Jensen brilliantly saving Gerrard’s curler in the 86th before Voronin fouled up a one-on-one (placing a tame shot wide with time and space to round the keeper), but Burnley were well-beaten regardless.

Seeing the way the three linked up behind Torres makes me wonder if this might be the best way of getting all the attackers involved. Gerrard as a support striker has gotten the best out of Gerrard and Torres, but if Benayoun and Kuyt can play as they did today, Liverpool might be better as a whole, especially with Alonso gone.

Benayoun was easily the biggest beneficiary. Since the end of last season, he’s been Peter Beardsley reincarnated, but this was probably his best game for the club, and it saw his third hat-trick (his first in the league). But I can praise every player’s performance. Carragher also had his best game of the season, ably marshaling the defense and preventing almost every Burnley half-chance. Gerrard was rampant in the second half, playing much higher up the pitch with the pressure off. Both Lucas and Insua were steady after coming into question.

Admittedly, Lucas would usually be the one to lose out if this formation were to become a constant fixture, and I’m not succumbing to the ‘Lucas out’ brigade – you’ve seen how often I defend the player. He rarely put a foot wrong today, and it’s not as if Masch has been any great shakes so far this season. But Masch is a more natural partner for Gerrard in this system against most teams, and if it makes Liverpool’s better, it makes Liverpool better. End of discussion.

If Mascherano really picked up a knock while on duty for Argentina, we may well see this line-up and formation again against Debrecen on Wednesday. More of the same would be just fine.

11 September 2009

Liverpool v Burnley 09.12.09

10am, live in the US on espn2

Last 4 head-to-head:
0-1 Burnley (a; FA Cup) 01.18.05
1-0 Liverpool (h; FA Cup) 01.04.97
1-0 Liverpool (h; League Cup) 02.07.95
0-0 (a; League Cup) 01.28.95

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-2 Bolton (a); 1-3 Villa (h); 4-0 Stoke (h)
Burnley: 0-3 Chelsea (a); 2-1 aet Hartlepool (a); 1-0 Everton (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 3; Gerrard, Johnson 2; Kuyt, Ngog 1
Burnley: Blake, Elliott 1

Referee: Lee Mason

Guess at a squad:
Johnson Carragher Skrtel Insua
Benayoun Gerrard Lucas Riera
Kuyt Torres

I’d love to write ‘Same as against Stoke please,’ because there’s a good chance the game could play out similarly, but I doubt the international break will allow it.

Both Lucas and Mascherano probably only returned to Merseyside from South America today. At least Lucas didn’t play for Brazil, so he’s more in contention, but that’s not an easy flight regardless. And it’s worth noting that Mascherano picked up a calf injury playing right after the international last year. Maybe Plessis or Spearing could come in as holding midfielders, allowing Gerrard to remain a nominal support striker, but I’ve got more faith in the players listed above.

If both Masch and Lucas start, the main question will be Benayoun or Riera on the left. Riera adds more width, which is often helpful against a packed defense, but Benayoun’s been in better form. Skrtel played 90 minutes against Northern Ireland on Wednesday, so he should be fit for this. Let’s also hope Gerrard’s two goals and rapturous ovation at Wembley will provide a platform to build on; he may have two goals and assists for Liverpool so far, but (like Torres), we still haven’t seen his best.

As much as I’ll praise Insua to anyone who’ll listen, I’m hoping Aurelio’s return is imminent. I still think the little Argentinean will be a star for years, and I’m not trying to allot much blame (the only glaring faux pas was allowing Elmander to win the flick-on for Bolton’s first goal), but Aurelio’s experience and guile are needed with the backline in the shape it’s in. It might be too soon to see him start, but with articles like this, it can’t be far off.

Burnley outstrips the likes of Stoke in their capacity to nick a goal, but Liverpool will again be up against a packed and determined defense. So score early and don’t concede from set plays, and it should be another three points in the bag. Easier said than done, obviously.

There’s always one team that starts out flying after promotion, and Burnley is this season’s model. The highlight was obviously the 1-0 win over the Mancs at Turf Moor (thank you!), but they’ve also already beaten that lot from across the park (thank you!). However, Owen Coyle’s side still hasn’t scored away from home in the league, losing 0-3 to Chelsea and 0-2 to Stoke. Of course, neither Bolton nor Villa had scored a league goal prior to facing Liverpool.

09 September 2009

England 5-1 Croatia

363 days ago, at the beginning of their World Cup qualifying campaign, I wrote that England’s 4-1 victory over Croatia in Zagreb was just as lucky as good, and we shouldn’t expect it every time out.

I was so cocky in my cynicism, I actually wrote, “But if I were a betting man, I’d put money on Croatia to win at Wembley in a year’s time. Ah, pessimism. I love following England.” Yikes.

Needless to say, I couldn’t have been more mistaken. One year later, England’s won eight of eight in qualifying, securing a trip to South Africa with two games to spare. So much for English mediocrity. And that’s the difference Fabio Capello makes. To slightly defend myself, I did write this when Capello was hired.

England beat Croatia like a drum from the opening whistle. The visitors never had a chance to establish themselves. A penalty claim within three minutes (yeah, ball to hand might have been harsh, but it’s Stevie), a penalty won by the outstanding Lennon within seven, and two goals to the good before 20 were off the clock. Croatia simply could not breathe for those 20 minutes.

I like Slaven Bilic (and Croatia definitely missed Modric), but Capello ran circles around him. Trying to exploit the right with both Pranjic and Pokrivac, Lennon and Johnson took them to the woodshed. Lennon’s pace was a constant threat, Johnson ably supported, Barry nullified most everything in the center (Kranjcar is no Modric, as Spurs will soon find out), and Gerrard was always a threat cutting infield (hence the two headed goals).

The second half saw three more from England, but an embarrassing consolation. Lampard and Gerrard both scored, with Gerrard starting the moves for both (while Johnson provided the typical run plus a clever cross for Lampard). Then Croatia pulled one back as Johnson let the cross in and the three other defenders stood and watched as Green strove to keep a clean sheet, only failing after two excellent saves (Eduardo with the goal, naturally). Rooney summed the night up after a Robinson-esque blunder from Croatia’s keeper, who kicked his clearance straight to the Manc standing 10 yards out. Never a smart idea.

England’s been fortunate with injuries as Joe Cole’s been the only long-term casualty, but I firmly believe this is all down to the manager. McClaren’s last game, the 2-3 loss to Croatia at Wembley in November 07, lacked Rooney and Terry and saw players like Richards, Carson, Campbell, and Wright-Phillips start, but it’s not as if the squad under Capello’s been radically different.

The difference is the inmates aren’t running the asylum. The difference is every player seems to know his role, and somehow, they’re all playing to their potential. And they’re playing hard from start to finish – not many sides still chase long balls at 4-1 with 15 minutes to play. I cannot emphasize how impressive that was; that is the definition of a well-coached team – when players are utterly frightened of giving the manager a reason to single them out.

Man management and tactics make all the difference. In hiring Capello, as opposed to the likes of Second Choice Steve and Svennis, the FA finally acknowledged it. Now, they’re reaping the benefits.

Still, it’s England. History's taught me to be pessimistic, and the next 8 months of “44 years, now England can win another World Cup” will probably make me more so.

02 September 2009

Book Review: Why England Lose

Meta: I’ll be away until Monday, which is really quite handy given the transfer window’s just closed and it’s an international break. I will miss the three-year anniversary of this blog tomorrow, but that’s no great shakes. Here’s a book review to hold you over. Don’t break anything.

Why England Lose and Other Curious Phenomena Explained
Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski

The title’s right in my wheelhouse, it got a rare five-star review in FourFourTwo, and the blurbs have compared it to Moneyball. So I couldn’t wait until October 27 for the American version, renamed Soccernomics (yes, American fans, that’s how much respect the publisher has for you!).

And since I went out of my way to get a copy, I thought I’d write a review. Mainly to save you the cost and effort of buying this book.

If you want a book with “stories,” and football’s impact around the world, get Kuper’s Football Against the Enemy (Aside: Do not get the American version. Every “football” is changed to “soccer,” including the title, which leads to lovely constructions like “American soccer quarterback” when referring to the NFL.) or Frank Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World. If you want an overarching, worldwide history of the game, get David Goldblatt’s incredibly thorough The Ball is Round. If you want a book about the evolution of football, get Jonathan Wilson’s incomparable Inverting the Pyramid. If you just want a good book about the sport, get David Winner’s Brilliant Orange, on Dutch soccer. Why England Lose wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t what it could have been, and all of the above books are more rewarding.

Basically, Kuper – a decent journalist with the Financial Times – partners with Szymanski – a sports economist who’s never met a regression he didn’t like – to use stats to “explain” some football clichés. This is why I thought I’d like the book; regular readers are familiar with how I use and abuse stats. But even I have my limits. I have no quibble with their math – it’s thorough and precise, as you’d expect from two well-respected writers. The pity is it’s ultimately uninteresting.

Even though the American title is appalling, it’s actually more apt. “Why England Lose” is but one of a number of topics, each covered in a chapter. Naturally, the title question is the first, and it, like the rest of the book, leaves us expecting more.

Kuper and Szymanski’s “answer?” England doesn’t actually lose that much, or anymore than a nation of its size should. And the team’s record is fairly consistent. Which completely ignores the John Bull “we invented the game” rhetoric behind the assumption that England ought to win more major tournaments. If you want to know why England lose, read Inverting the Pyramid. England loses because England is perpetually behind the times tactically. Now that England has a foreign coach who actually knows what he’s doing, they’re not too shabby.

The rest of the work is similarly unfulfilling. Don’t get me wrong; there are good parts. Unsurprisingly, given Kuper’s employer and Szymanski’s profession, they deftly explain how mismanaged some clubs are from a business perspective as well as the game’s reliance on money.

But it’s no surprise that total wage spending basically predicts the table. Better players make more money, and over time, the richer teams will have the better record because they can afford better players. Of course certain players (more attractive and/or after a major tournament) are overvalued in the transfer market, and poorly-run clubs are more susceptible to them, as they’re looking for the quick fix. Well duh.

Too much of the book is “well duh.” And times it isn’t “well duh” – such as the argument that having an “unbalanced” league is good for the game (big clubs get big crowds and we wouldn’t want endless 0-0s and/or home wins) – still tend to leave the reader indifferent, more often than not because the point they just took four equations to prove is obvious enough on face value.

In the end, the book is as scattershot as “…and Other Curious Phenomena Explained” implies. Unlike Moneyball, there is no dominant personality like Billy Beane. Kuper and Szymanski often refer to Lyon owner Jean-Michel Aulus’s transfer dealings and Arsene Wenger’s team-building philosophy, but rarely delve any deeper in order to explain any thesis. Which is exactly what made Moneyball so groundbreaking. Of course, Moneyball had access. Not to mention the fact that Lyon’s finally been knocked off the summit of Ligue 1 and Wenger hasn’t won a trophy since 2005 (then again, what did the Oakland A’s win?).

Kuper and Szymanski present a variety of facts and stats – some interesting, some insightful, and some irrelevant and obvious. That’s pretty much it. They definitely cite their work, and back up their points with numbers galore, but they could and should have done much more. And as a reader, you can do much better.