31 October 2010

Liverpool 1-0 Bolton

Carragher Kyrgiakos Skrtel Konchesky
Maxi Meireles Lucas Cole

Maxi 86'

Lucky, lucky Liverpool. 86 minutes of impotence, with Liverpool under pressure more often than not despite neither side looking likely to score, then one moment of brilliance from Torres and Maxi broke the deadlock. Two wins on the bounce, Liverpool's third league victory, and up to the heady heights of 12th place. Hodgson's first Premiership away win since the first match of 2009-10, Liverpool's first since beating Burnley at the end of April. It's hard to complain after that, but I'll find a way.

Liverpool started well, and Torres could have opened the scoring twice in ten minutes, first heading a corner over the bar then lingering too long on Gerrard's through-ball only to see the opportunity vanish. But Bolton soon pushed the away side back. Or, more honestly, the away side retreated, closer to a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 than last week's fluid 4-2-3-1. Reina did well to palm Holden's excellent volley away in the 23rd minute, but the pressure was mostly of Liverpool's own making – with few Bolton opportunities – as Torres and Gerrard weren't firing while the defense was happy to hoof the ball out of defense. Like Torres, Gerrard had a chance he would normally bury in the net, in space at the top of the box thanks to Maxi and Cole's clever play, but the captain screwed his shot horribly wide.

The second half was more of the disjointed same, with Liverpool incrementally better, until Cole tweaked his hamstring on the hour mark. As against Blackburn, Hodgson replaced the winger with Ngog, moving Maxi to the left, Meireles to the right, and Gerrard to midfield for a 4-4-2. And as against Blackburn, it invited more pressure. Ngog did well to try and link up play, but more often than not, Meireles looked uncomfortable and Gerrard went missing, unable to protect the back four as the Lucas/Meireles pairing did. Elmander spooned a couple of shots wide, and a free kick caused panic, luckily sailing untouched through the six-yard box, before Liverpool won the game with a singular moment of magic.

Lucas, collecting a haphazard Bolton clearance, split two defenders to find Torres, whose indescribably-wonderful backheel released Maxi. Checking onto his right foot, the Argentinean's toe-poke did just enough to beat Jaaskelainen, unable to stop the shot despite getting a hand to it. One moment, one incandescent moment, was enough. No matter today's struggles, it's hard to argue it wasn't deserved, especially after what we've suffered through this season. Unsurprisingly, Bolton responded for a nervy final few minutes, but Reina was there to claim every threatening flick-on, deflection, or cross.

It's also hard to argue that Liverpool were good enough, or that we've seen enough progress, but we'll take any port in a storm. Liverpool had won seven straight matches against Wanderers, who are better under Coyle, but not better enough to cause so many problems. Liverpool still look too static, too willing to sit back away from Anfield and hoof clearances when under pressure, with the added bonus of Torres and Gerrard unable to stay on the same page.

But that goal and these three points mean there's something to build on. Once again, Lucas and Kyrgiakos were excellent, as were Skrtel and Reina. Maxi and Torres made the necessary breakthrough. Ngog did well off the bench. I do fear that this victory will "justify" Hodgson's tactics and paper over the multiple cracks, and it'll assuredly buy him more time, but it's hard to be upset after a much-needed win – and the first late winner in far too long – on the road, no less. Three points are what matters, and three points were taken.

29 October 2010

Liverpool at Bolton 10.31.10

12pm ET, live in the US on FSC. Daylight Saving Time ends a week earlier in the UK, which is why the game is at noon instead of 11am.

Last four head-to-head:
2-0 Liverpool (h) 01.30.10
3-2 Liverpool (a) 08.29.09
3-0 Liverpool (h) 12.26.08
2-0 Liverpool (a) 11.15.08

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 Blackburn (h); 0-0 Napoli (a); 0-2 Everton (a)
Bolton: 1-1 Wigan (a); 2-1 Stoke (h); 1-1 West Brom (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard 3; Kyrgiakos, Torres 2; Kuyt, Ngog 1
Bolton: Elmander 5; K Davies 2; Blake, Chung-Yong Lee, Klasnic, Knight, Petrov 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Guess at a line-up:
Carragher Kyrgiakos Skrtel Konchesky
Meireles Lucas
Maxi Gerrard Cole

If Agger and Johnson are ruled out, as Hodgson seems to have done, then same as against Blackburn, please.

Which means that Carra would continue invoking the ghost of Carlos Alberto (so close to writing that with a straight face), Kyrgiakos and Skrtel would stay at center-back, and Konchesky would still be preferred to Aurelio on the left. Incidentally, Kyrgiakos made his debut at Bolton last season. Partly at fault for both of Bolton's goals, with Liverpool needing to come back for a 3-2 win, the big Greek still demonstrated some of the qualities which have made him a contender to play every match. He's become a revelation on set plays, the first consistent threat since Hyypia left. Although calling Soto the second coming of Tony Adams or Jack Charlton (or John Terry!) might be going a little overboard.

And as against Blackburn, the front six should write itself. Specifically, Poulsen cannot come straight back into the line-up after the performance Lucas and Meireles put in last Sunday. Muamba has been Gerrard's shadow in recent meetings between the sides, which could be an argument for deploying the captain deeper, but if it ain't broke, etc. It'll be the job of Cole, Maxi, and Meireles (to a certain extent) to push forward, supplementing the attack if Gerrard's closely marked, to ensure Torres doesn't spend another 90 minutes in complete isolation.

Yet there's always the worry as to how often Liverpool will push forward away from Anfield under this manager. As more than a few have pointed out, Sunday will mark the 442nd day since Hodgson last won an away league match. Liverpool have routinely set up differently on the road, more content to spoil the opposition and hope to nick a goal on the counter, with last Thursday's match at Napoli the "best" example of the tactic. But after the improvement shown against Blackburn, and still fiercely needing points to rise out of the relegation zone (let alone the bottom half of the table), one would hope Liverpool continue to push on, and replicate the tactics that got the team its first league win since the end of August.

In addition, while Owen Coyle's Bolton is much easier on the eyes than the previous clogging incarnations under Allardyce and Megson, it's still a side that loves the long ball at times, which could undo a deep rearguard at the drop of a hat. Kevin Davies' elbows still have a starring role and Muamba still puts in "rugged" tackles – most recently against Wigan's James McCarthy. But with wingers like Chung-Yong Lee and Martin Petrov, and striker Elmander finally finding Premiership form, Bolton can actually play football.

Eighth in the table, three points ahead of Liverpool, Coyle's stuck with a settled 4-4-2, with Cahill and Knight as center-backs, Steinsson and Robinson at full-back, Muamba and Stuart Holden in the middle, Petrov and Lee on the flanks, and Davies and Elmander up front. That team's started Bolton's last three matches, and with no new injury concerns or suspensions, it'll probably be the same on Sunday.

Obviously, a win is crucial – all matches are crucial thanks to Liverpool's current league placement – but the performance against Blackburn was just as encouraging as the result. Keep that up, and results will follow. Otherwise, chances are we won't have seen a light at the end of a tunnel, but yet another false dawn.

25 October 2010

Liverpool's Average Position: Blackburn v Everton

As has become a weekly trend, Monday's image of the day...

This week, the average position of Liverpool's ten outfield starters in the last two matches, according to ESPN Soccernet. The blue circles, the average position against Everton, superimposed atop the graphic from yesterday's match at Blackburn. As always, click the image for full-size in a new window.

Summed up in four words: more expansive, further forward.

I'd like to make special note of two players: Joe Cole and Steven Gerrard. Cole stayed far wider against Blackburn, actually operating mainly on the flank. Not only did this better protect Liverpool's vulnerable left, but Cole also provided the cross, albeit from a broken-down set play, from this area – with his left foot, no less. And Gerrard truly attacked with more license, playing as a second striker basically in a 4-4-2, preventing Torres from being completely isolated in yet another match.

But in almost every regard, Liverpool's players are yards higher up the pitch. Carragher actually spent more time in Blackburn's half, and did well as a makeshift full-back, arguably more suited to the position in Hodgson's system than Glen Johnson. Skrtel and Kyrgiakos are not only further forward, but with space between them, not permanently under threat while protecting their own penalty box. Lucas and Meireles are on the "right" side of the center circle. In fact, on the whole, Liverpool's players are further forward than in this fixture last season (starters are circled), which also finished 2-1 (and it's worth noting that Liverpool were definitely 4-4-2 in last year's match).

Now, admittedly, Blackburn made it much easier than Everton did, and the home team will almost always have more license to impose its tactics on the opposition rather than vice versa. Liverpool's home form, while shaky (see: Blackpool, among others) is far less of a problem than away form. And again, as with The Guardian's chalkboards, these graphics aren't gospel. But, as written in the match review, we finally saw signs of progress yesterday. Whether Liverpool can maintain this progress away to Bolton next Sunday will be a much better test. One match can be either a turning point or an aberration.

24 October 2010

Liverpool 2-1 Blackburn

Carragher Kyrgiakos Skrtel Konchesky
Lucas Meireles
Maxi Gerrard Cole

Kyrgiakos 48'
Carragher (og) 50'
Torres 53'

Even though we finally saw Liverpool "at its best," that was a lot nervier than it needed to be against an anemic Blackburn. Only Paul Robinson prevented a rout in the first half, but the goals came during a far more frightening second, bracketed by an immensely sloppy equalizer, with Liverpool under unnecessary pressure for long stretches.

It's amazing what a competent midfield and pressing from the front can accomplish. Blackburn came to park the bus, and rarely got out of their own half in the first 45 minutes. Meanwhile, Liverpool had something like 72% possession and 10 corners, and Robinson had to make three incredible saves to keep the scoresheet blank. In the 8th minute, a flowing move ended with Cole's shot from Rodriguez's cutback saved and Meireles' rebound wide of the post. Less than 10 minutes later, Robinson palmed Kyrgiakos' bullet header from a corner over the bar. And in the 25th, Robinson again came to the rescue after a flying Liverpool break: Gerrard to Lucas to Meireles, centered for Gerrard, stopped by yet another diving save. Even with the team hitting all cylinders, lady luck continued to prove a fickle mistress.

The break-through finally came after the restart, and it again came from the Greek colossus on a set play. The 11th corner was the charm. Kyrgiakos rose highest for Gerrard's cross, with Olsson deflecting it in at the near post. The goal still should go down as the Greek's.

But yet less than three minutes later, we were treated to an actual own goal, and another comical example of "defending" by Liverpool's back four. Benjani easily beat Konchesky and Skrtel down the left, cutting back for the hated Diouf, who stepped around Carragher for the shot. But Konchesky's clearance off the line ricocheted off Carragher for the Scouser's 574th own goal (rough estimate) of his career. This season in a nutshell: anything good quickly followed by bad.

However, against this season's run of play, Liverpool were soon back in front. Cole's delicious left-sided cross was just over Kyrgiakos, but found Torres in acres of space for an easy tap-in. Horrific marking from the away side, but absolutely wondrous to see the Spaniard back amongst the goals. He's scored in every match he's started against Blackburn, and coincidentally, last struck in Liverpool's last league win two months ago.

After reclaiming the lead, Liverpool were far happier to stay compact and keep their shape, as is Hodgson's primary wont. Kyrgiakos nearly got a second from another set play, only to see his downward header bounce just over the bar, but Blackburn were increasingly invited forward despite offering next to nothing in attack to that point. Few forays ended with a shot in anger, as Reina's primary responsibility was to claim wayward crosses, but the pressure was telling. The two-thirds of the game that Liverpool bossed were outstanding. The final third was utterly frightening, especially given how fragile Liverpool's been this season.

Bringing on Ngog for Cole in the 77th minute, while ostensibly an attacking substitution, absolutely didn't help. It meant that Meireles had to man the right while Maxi moved left, making Liverpool even narrower and exposing space along Liverpool's already-vulnerable left, and Meireles was lucky to stay on the pitch after a dreadfully high tackle for which he only saw yellow. Yes, Liverpool should have won a penalty in the 86th – again, surprise, surprise, Kyrgiakos on a set play – but the temerity in those final thirty minutes again leads to the belief that we're papering over this regime's multiple cracks.

It's not rocket science to see that Liverpool were far better when pressing from the front, taking the game to the opposition and getting the fullbacks forward, but I won't be happy unless we see the same ambition at Bolton in a week's time. The true test of any progress will come away from Anfield. Either Lucas or Kyrgiakos could be named man-of-the-match, with the Brazilian bossing the midfield and the big Greek an utter handful both in defense and on dead balls. Poulsen simply cannot come straight back into the side after the midfield's dominance today. Maxi also had one of his best games for the club, staying wide and given time on the ball to create. But Carragher, Skrtel, and Konchesky still looked like accidents waiting to happen, and that accident happened. Thankfully, Robinson couldn't save the day yet again and Liverpool had enough for it not to be a costly one.

This result's obviously bought Hodgson a little more time – although I remain convinced he's wrong for the job – but Liverpool's still 18th, and we need to see the first 70 minutes replicated in the next match at the very, very least. Only three points separate 18th from 7th; there is still more than enough time to move up the table if Liverpool's let off the leash every week. In addition, Allardyce's Blackburn made it surprisingly easy today – only Robinson and Phil Jones impressed – mirroring Hodgson's usual away match tactics, which simply won't work when Liverpool's in the form they showed in the first hour.

Long story short, it's nice to see progress for the first time this season, and it's even nicer to get all three points. Beating an Allardyce-led side makes it that much better. Today proves that there's still a good team in there somewhere, and it's both encouraging and a massive relief. But one match obviously doesn't make a season, and one win isn't a revolution. The margin is still perilously thin, and Liverpool need to learn from today's positives before we remove Roy's blindfold and recall the firing squad.

22 October 2010

Liverpool v Blackburn 10.24.10

10am ET, not live in the US. Delayed on FSC at 5pm. Once again, it's live in Australia at the least, so there should be streams.

Last four head-to-head:
2-1 Liverpool (h) 02.28.10
0-0 (a) 12.05.09
4-0 Liverpool (h) 04.11.09
3-1 Liverpool (a) 12.06.08

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 Napoli (a); 0-2 Everton (a); 1-2 Blackpool (h)
Blackburn: 0-0 Sunderland (h); 0-1 Stoke (a); 2-1 Blackpool (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard 3; Kuyt, Kyrgiakos, Ngog, Torres 1
Blackburn: Kalinic 2; M B Diouf, Emerton, N'Zonzi, Samba 1

Referee: Phil Dowd

Guess at a line-up:
Kelly Carragher Skrtel Aurelio
Meireles Lucas
Maxi Gerrard Cole

One would assume those rested for yesterday's match would be among the first names on the team sheet for Sunday. Johnson and Agger are both questionable, still carrying injuries (with Johnson more likely to feature), but Torres, Gerrard, Meireles, Lucas, Maxi, and Cole should all come back into the squad. Which means we're probably looking at a similar line-up to the one which lost 0-2 at Goodison. Maybe, just maybe, we'll see a little more impetus at Anfield.

Most of those who played 90 minutes against Napoli don't look likely to start. Specifically, I hope it precludes Poulsen's participation. I wouldn't mind seeing Jovanovic on the right again; he did well as an inside out winger, creating Liverpool's two best chances, but he hasn't started two games in a row for nearly two months, with Napoli his first start since the Northampton farce.

Ideally, Aurelio's 25 minute cameo means he's fit enough for a first start since Trabzonspor. Questions remain over who'll man the other full back spot. Johnson may not be fit and Kelly went the distance in Naples, looking more than winded by full time. As against Everton, we may see Carragher at right back with Kyrgiakos and Skrtel in the middle.

Unsurprisingly, it's been same old, same old from Allardyce's Blackburn. Tough to break down, tough to beat, with a bit of physicality and infuriating personalities (wave to the nice people, El Hadji) thrown in for good measure. Big Sam may have taken offense to Danny Murphy comments about Blackburn's coarseness, but it seemed a case of 'the lady doth protest too much,' hilariously complemented by Christophe Samba picking up a straight red card in the next match, which rules him out of Sunday's contest. No matter what he'd like to believe, Allardyce's teams are always in the same vein, although Newcastle and Blackburn have rarely sunk to the same depths as his Bolton squad.

Blackburn's been stingy in defense all season long, conceding more than once in just two league matches this season – against Birmingham and at Arsenal. Paul Robinson was excellent against Sunderland last Monday with Blackburn down to 10, the difference between a draw and a loss. English u-21 defender Phil Jones has been a revelation at the back. Like Liverpool, they're struggling for goals, with both sides averaging less than one a match having scored seven through eight games. However, Liverpool's conceded 13. Blackburn's let in five less. Nikola Kalinic's becoming a handful up front as a lone striker, finding his feet in the league. He's Blackburn's top scorer with all of two goals, and could pose problems if the defense gives him space. But as has been the case throughout the season, I'm most fearful of the opposition scoring from set plays, especially since Allardyce's sides have always thrived on dead balls and Gamst Pedersen knows how to take a free kick. Having Samba suspended will ease those fears a little, but the threat remains.

A nil-nil draw in Naples was "good enough" to ease some of the criticism in Hodgson's direction. But at Anfield in the league, with the team in 19th, means that much more will be expected. Defending deep, trying not to concede, and hoping for "a little bit of luck" (Hodgson's actual words) in attack won't be enough. Liverpool will actually have to try to win a game for once. It'd be the first in the league since the end of August.

21 October 2010

Liverpool 0-0 Napoli

Kelly Carragher Skrtel Konchesky
Spearing Poulsen
Jovanovic Shelvey Babel

Another 0-0, but nowhere near as frustrating as the one against Utrecht. That's partly down to the strength of the squad and partly down to diminishing expectations, but this time, when Hodgson says it's a well-earned draw, he'll actually be right.

Despite the relative inexperience in the first XI, this was as near as Liverpool's been to last season's Fulham squad. Liverpool basically shut up shop, aided by Napoli's profligacy in attack and a Konchesky clearance off the line on the stroke of halftime, while carving out just two good chances at the other end, both in the second half. Babel and Jovanovic started as inside-out wingers, each cutting in on their opposite foot, as did Davies and Duff last season, although both changed positions – along with the impressive Shelvey – throughout the match.

Once again, Liverpool were absolutely insipid in attack, toothless in the extreme with Ngog massively isolated, but Liverpool were never going to offer much going forward in Naples with this manager. Shelvey registered the only shot on goal in the first half, a strike from distance easily smothered by De Sanctis, but Napoli rarely tested Reina as well. As expected, with three center-backs marshaling the lone Ngog, Liverpool had the numbers advantage over the rest of the pitch until Campagnaro started getting forward down Liverpool's right. And as usual, Liverpool only looked shaky on set plays, specifically corners: first in the 18th, with two half-chances spurned before finally clearing their lines, then in first minute of stoppage time, when Konchesky saved the game after Cavani beat Carragher and Poulsen deflected Hamsik's shot for the left back to clear. On first viewing, it appeared that the ball may have crossed the line, but subsequent replays proved that the official on the goal line made the right decision. UEFA's additional linesman actually matter. Who would have thought?

It didn't get much better in the second half, even though Liverpool finally took advantage of an increasingly open game. Babel had a glorious chance in the 69th, sprung by Jovanovic on the counter, only to see De Sanctis save the low shot with his legs. Ngog almost created something from nothing in the 81st, cleverly controlling Jovanovic's cross before turning the center-back, only to see his on-target shot blocked. Napoli had more and more possession, but they continually failed to find a final ball. It was nice to see that happen to the opposition for a change.

With Blackburn on Sunday, pre-planned substitutions were made in addition to the key players rested. It was strange to see Kyrgiakos come on for Carragher at halftime, while Aurelio replaced Konchesky in the 65th. Yes, Hodgson actually made changes before the 70th minute (with Cole coming on for Babel in the 77th), but neither were due to injury, and it made little sense for Carragher to play 45 minutes before ostensibly being rested. On the other hand, Aurelio replacing Konchesky, finally fully fit, will always be welcomed, even considering Konchesky's contribution to today's result.

Yes, it's a good point in a very difficult away match, even if Napoli made it easier than expected. Shelvey and Spearing did well, Poulsen didn't embarrass himself, and Liverpool didn't stupidly concede. Nonetheless, it's still seven games in a row without a win; United, Northampton, Sunderland, Utrecht, Blackpool, Everton, and Napoli isn't exactly a murderer's row either. Liverpool's atop the group with five points, compared to Utrecht and Napoli's three, and I'm not complaining about the result, but it still feels like we're settling for mediocrity.

Today saw some signs of progress, but with Blackburn likely to press furiously and fight for every loose ball, Sunday's match should look nothing like today's. Liverpool's been at its "best" in Europe because the play has been far more patient, which allows the two banks of four to get into position. And in nearing Fulham's archetype, the question remains whether we'll ever see enough progress under this manager.

20 October 2010

Liverpool at Napoli 10.21.10

1pm ET, live in the US on DirecTV channel 481 (HD on 481-1).

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-2 Everton (a); 1-2 Blackpool (h); 0-0 Utrecht (a)
Napoli: 1-1 Catania (a) 2-0 Roma (h); 3-3 Steaua (a)

Group Stage so far:
Liverpool: 0-0 Utrecht (a); 4-1 Steaua (h)
Napoli: 3-3 Steaua (a); 0-0 Utrecht (h)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Ngog 5; Babel, Cole, Gerrard, Kuyt, Lucas 1
Napoli: Cavani 3; Vitale 2; Denis, Hamsik, Lavezzi, Maggio 1

Referee: Thorsten Kinhöfer (GER)

Guess at a line-up:
Kelly Carragher Kyrgiakos Aurelio
Maxi Spearing Poulsen Babel

With Hodgson now focusing on Premier League survival, hopefully in the death throes of his ill-fated regime, it's little surprise to see Gerrard, Torres, Meireles, Lucas, Agger, and Johnson left at Melwood with an eye on Sunday's match against Blackburn. Even before the troubles set in on the pitch, Hodgson promised to use his second-string in the Europa League. Under the last manager, players were rotated. Under this one, almost the entire side is, with distinctions made between the "A" and "B" teams. Nothing recedes like progress, after all.

The squad that traveled to Italy:
Reina, Konchesky, Aurelio, Cole, Pacheco, Jovanovic, Kyrgiakos, Maxi, Babel, Wilson, Carragher, Ngog, Jones, Spearing, Poulsen, Shelvey, Kelly, Skrtel, Eccleston, Hansen.
However, we had hoped to see a fair few youth players in this competition. The above guess includes only three if we're at our most generous: Kelly, Spearing, and Ngog. Pacheco, Wilson, Shelvey and Eccleston are there to make up the numbers, and I'll be stunned if any of those four start. Wilson and Eccelston went the full 90 for the reserves yesterday, while Pacheco saw 65 minutes. Incidentally, Pacheco, Shelvey, and Wilson haven't seen first team action since the loss to Northampton. I'm sure that's just coincidence, not punishment.

The only positions that don't seem certain are Babel on the left (it could easily be Jovanovic), whether Aurelio's finally fit enough, and whether Carragher will really start another game, having played all but three of Liverpool's matches this season (only missing Northampton, Steaua, and the first leg at Rabotnicki). Babel could also play on the right with Jovanovic on the left, or it could be more of a 4-4-2 with Cole on the wing and both Babel and Ngog up top.

On the other hand, Napoli, currently 4th in Serie A, will play their first team. Perhaps you've heard of some of them. Hamsik and Cavani shone during the World Cup, while Gargano also played a bit part for Uruguay. Lavezzi was a rumored transfer target for Liverpool in the summer of 2008. And then there's the small matter of their left wing-back, Andrea Dossena.

Napoli Blogger expects their standard 3-4-1-2: Italy's third-string keeper De Sanctis, Dossena and Maggio or Zuniga bombing forward, Gargano and Pazienza in midfield, Hamsik as the playmaker, and Lavezzi and Cavani up front. Cavani is Napoli's top scorer in this competition, and leads the team in all competitions with 14. It'll be interesting to see how two from Carragher, Kyrgiakos, and Skrtel cope, especially if it's the above guess, which obviously lacks in pace.

If Napoli does play three at the back, it might make sense to play Ngog up top as a lone forward, occupying three players with a solitary striker, but that would necessitate Cole and the wingers getting forward at will, coming from different directions, to supplement the attack and cause confusion in Napoli's rearguard. Otherwise, it'll be a long, long night for the young Frenchman. 60,000 Neapolitans will be up for this match; ITV's Rocco Cammisola is calling it Napoli's biggest European match since Maradona's heyday.

I apologize for letting my pessimism and distaste for the manager spill over into these previews. I know full well I'm beating a dead horse into the ground. And I promise, I'm not rooting against Liverpool by any stretch of the imagination, even if a win prolongs the doomed management. But I'm also unhappy with the direction of the team, and skeptical of this line-up against a very good Napoli side. The league is the obvious priority at the moment, but that shouldn't necessarily mean more chances for the likes of Poulsen and Maxi/Jovanovic at the expense of potential talent in Pacheco or Shelvey, who are still seemingly being punished for the Northampton debacle. All told, it's yet more reason to be upset with the on-field direction of the club.

Of course, I'll assuredly change my tune, at least for one day, if Liverpool somehow run out winners tomorrow afternoon. Such are the perils of being a supporter.

18 October 2010

On Liverpool Crosses

Yes, the usual Monday post where I complain about the result and Liverpool's current direction, often with accompanying graphics. One would assume I'd quickly run out of grievances, but it hasn't happened yet.

This week it's crosses. Click on the name of the opposition for the relevant Guardian Chalkboard. I figured it'd be better to bury the graphics behind links this time as there's 10 of them involved. This is long enough as it is, and they're not particularly attractive viewing.

Successful: 2
• Cole, Konchesky 1
Unsuccessful: 21
• Cole 6; Konchesky 4; Carragher, Gerrard 3; Meireles, Torres 2; Lucas 1

Successful: 8
• Johnson, Meireles 2; Kuyt, Maxi, Ngog, Torres 1
Unsuccessful: 26
• Johnson, Kuyt 8; Jovanovic 3; Ngog 2; Carragher, Cole, Gerrard, Meireles, Torres 1

Successful: 4
• Johnson, Kuyt 2
Unsuccessful: 16
• Kuyt 5; Johnson 4; Torres, Cole, Meireles 2; Agger 1

Manchester Utd
Successful: 1
• Johnson 1
Unsuccessful: 9
• Johnson, Meireles 2; Agger, Cole, Konchesky, Poulsen, Torres 1

Successful: 4
• Agger 2; Konchesky, Poulsen 1
Unsuccessful: 17
• Gerrard 5; Johnson, Jovanovic 4; Meireles 2; Konchesky, Poulsen 1

West Brom
Successful: 4
• Gerrard 2; Kuyt, Torres 1
Unsuccessful: 10
• Johnson 5; Gerrard 3; Torres 2

Manchester City
Successful: 1
• Agger 1
Unsuccessful: 11
• Gerrard 4; Johnson, Kuyt 2; Agger, Lucas, Ngog 1

Successful: 3
• Johnson, Mascherano, Torres 1
Unsuccessful: 7
• Johnson, Kuyt 2; Agger, Jovanovic, Ngog 1

144 crosses, 27 of them "successful," leading to exactly 2 goals. And honestly, one of those two shouldn't count; the Guardian classifies Mascherano's throughball to Ngog against Arsenal as a cross. I beg to disagree. It's a straight pass down the inside right channel on the ground after an Arsenal giveaway. Which would make the statistic 1 goal out of 143 attempts. That's .7%. Point. Seven. Percent. "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again" really is the maxim of the current regime.

[Update: I should have watched replays of all the goals before posting Guardian's chalkboards as fact. Gerrard's equalizer against Sunderland should have counted as a cross; I don't know why it isn't listed. Maybe because Torres' ball took a deflection, maybe because their stats are faulty. Liverpool charges down the field on the break, Torres beats his man on the right touchline, gets to the byline, and lofts a cutback that's deflected, only to see Gerrard compensate with an excellent header. So let's go back to the original statistic mentioned at the top of the last paragraph: 144 crosses, 2 goals. That's still just under 1.4%, which is still just shy of "absolutely terrible." I'm leaving the above paragraph as a reminder that I need to do my homework, and to warn that while the Guardian's chalkboards aren't always 100% accurate, they still paint a larger picture than we get anywhere else. Carry on.]

Unsurprisingly, the cross count is lower against United (who gave away the middle of the pitch by playing 4-4-2), City (where Liverpool were bossed from start to finish), and Arsenal (down to 10 men for the entire second half). These statistics have been especially bad in the last two matches, where Liverpool needed to chase the game after conceding twice, with more possession after going behind but still struggling to create goals. Despite that increased possession, Liverpool's lone riposte, the consolation against Blackpool, came from a set play. The team wasn't able to luck their way into a goal in such a manner yesterday, which isn't surprising when you compare Everton's center-backs to Blackpool's.

And for further comparison, here's a look at what were arguably Liverpool's worst two games last season: the 0-1 loss at Wigan and the 0-2 loss at Portsmouth.

Successful: 3
• Insua 2; Maxi 1
Unsuccessful: 10
• Mascherano 3; Insua 2; Babel, Gerrard, Kuyt, Maxi, Torres 1

Successful: 3
• Carragher, Dossena, Johnson 1
Unsuccessful: 10
• Gerrard, Johnson 2; Aurelio, Carragher, Dossena, Insua, Kuyt, Torres 1

The 13 crosses in each of those matches made up approximately 3% of Liverpool's total passes. 8% of Liverpool's total passes against Blackpool were crosses; it was 5% against Everton. Those numbers make a difference when the tactic isn't working, especially when it's the primary means of trying to create goals the few times the team enters the opposition's final third.

With "wingers" like Kuyt, Cole, and Maxi and "target men" like Torres, Liverpool simply isn't a team that thrives on crossing. They aren't especially good at making or converting them. Liverpool's best crosser of the ball last season – Emiliano Insua – isn't even on the team anymore. Benitez's system at least compensated for that, with Gerrard in support of Torres and players like Kuyt and Benayoun cutting in as "attacking midfielders" rather than wide-men. Johnson and Insua were the ones who created width and provided crosses, and it was reflected in their assist totals – last season, Insua had six and Johnson had five in all competitions; only Gerrard, Benayoun, and Aquilani (also shipped out) registered more. But, like with the deep backline and man-marking, the way Hodgson's set out his side just doesn't play to its talents. And as we've seen time and time again, there's no Plan B when Plan A inevitably fails. Crosses aren't working? Well, then hoof more of them into the box!

Which is why I'll continue to reiterate that Hodgson needs to go as soon as possible. As I wrote after the Blackpool match, when you make a bad decision, the best way to fix it is to cut your losses before reaching the point of no return.

17 October 2010

Liverpool 0-2 Everton

Carragher Kyrgiakos Skrtel Konchesky
Maxi Meireles Lucas Cole

Cahill 34'
Arteta 50'

Absolutely dreadful, utterly embarrassing, yet again. So much for any clouds being lifted. If Hodgson had any class, he'd resign right away. Somehow, I can't see that happening. Rome is burning, and the manager doesn't even know how to fiddle.

Liverpool invited Everton to attack from the opening whistle, and amazingly, Liverpool paid for it. I used to joke that I had a template for the bad games under Benitez, but almost every match review's been the same this season. The only difference is that Liverpool at least scored against United, Sunderland, and Blackpool. Otherwise, it's same old, same old yet again.

Gerrard may have been further forward and Meireles finally started in his preferred position, but once again, the away side perpetually had at least 9 men behind the ball. Everton attacked and attacked and attacked, while Liverpool didn't enter the opposition's final third until the 23rd minute. Torres immediately registered an attempt on target, heading Cole's cross on goal, but that was Liverpool's only chance of the half.

Meanwhile, they conceded in the usual manner. Cahill struck first after Hodgson's side was again beaten down its left, Coleman torching Konchesky before his deflected low cross found the Australian in space. Soon after the restart, despite the usual marginal improvement, Liverpool let in a second, from a set play. Man-marking somehow left Arteta in acres of space outside the box after Kyrgiakos' "clearing" header, with time to set himself, smoke a cigarette, and sip an espresso before lashing past Reina. Fun times.

Once again down by two, just like against Blackpool, Liverpool finally consistently sent men forward, but fumbled aimlessly in Everton's half. Torres almost always got the ball with his back to goal, which clearly isn't his preferred position. Despite an increasingly narrow Liverpool, with Maxi and Cole pushing forward in almost a 4-3-2-1, the away side continued to send in cross after cross which were easily headed away. Liverpool were limited to a spat of shots from distance, with few actually testing Howard.

And again, Hodgson delayed in making changes despite the deficit. Ngog replaced Lucas in the 71st. Babel came on for Cole in the 79th. Jovanovic for Maxi was the final substitution, six minutes before time. None helped, and all came too late. Babel was the brightest of the three, stinging Howard's palms with a blast reminiscent of his wonder goal against Lyon, but it was too little too late even if Mr Tourette's hadn't punched away.

Six points from eight games, out of a possible 24, is utterly unforgivable. I might be more inclined to hold fire if Liverpool demonstrated any signs of positivity before being down by two goals, simply due to the unworkable situation the previous owners put the manager in, but we haven't seen any. The tactics are prehistoric, unsuited to the personnel, and Hodgson has no Plan B when Plan A unsurprisingly fails. The deep backline continues to concede sloppy goals, and man-marking let in yet another set piece goal. The players seem even more jaded than during last season's terrors; the attitude is simply horrific, and that starts at the top. Liverpool stars – Gerrard and Torres – are being criminally misused, Torres especially.

I fear that the new owners will give Hodgson more time because of their newness. They'll be hesitant to rock the boat, unfamiliar with the set-up, sport, and country. But Liverpool can't afford that. We may only be eight games into the league, with 30 left to play, but there have been zero – ZERO ZERO ZERO ZERO – signs of improvement. Hodgson keeps traveling the same worn, muddy path to nowhere. This is where it's got us, and this is where we're going.

Liverpool's lost some good players over the last two years, but on paper, this side has no business being relegation contenders. Yet on the pitch, they're playing like relegation contenders. It's Groundhog Day all over again, especially when you look at how Hodgson began the '98-99 season with Blackburn before being sacked in December, with the team at the bottom of the table after finishing sixth the prior season. By December, it was too late, and they went down in 19th place. No matter how talented Liverpool's squad looks, that could absolutely happen here.

15 October 2010

Liverpool at Everton 10.17.10

8:30am ET, live in the US on Fox Soccer Plus.

Last four head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (h) 02.06.10
2-0 Liverpool (a) 11.29.09
0-1 aet Everton (a; FA Cup) 02.04.09
1-1 (h; FA Cup) 01.25.09

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-2 Blackpool (h); 0-0 Utrecht (a); 2-2 Sunderland (h)
Everton: 2-0 Brum (a); 0-0 Fulham (a); 1-1 Brentford [3-4 on penalties] (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard 3; Kuyt, Kyrgiakos, Ngog, Torres 1
Everton: Cahill 3; Arteta, Pienaar 1

Referee: Howard Webb


Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Carragher Skrtel Konchesky
Meireles Poulsen Lucas Cole

Oh, right, football. I vaguely remember that. Now we get to see if removing the ominous specter of the "custodians" helps the on-field form in the slightest. Then again, form has a tendency to go out the window in these matches.

It doesn't matter if it's only October, as of the moment, it's a relegation six-pointer. This match is indescribably crucial, even more so than usual, regardless of the date. Everton's only above Liverpool, in lofty 17th compared to Liverpool's 18th, on goal difference. Both sides need points, and quick.

On the pitch, one hand giveth while the other taketh away. Torres should be "fit" (as should Konchesky), but Kuyt's out for at least the next month. Which is actually better than the 3-4 months initially feared. Agger's also out with a calf strain incurred during the international break, but who knows if he would have started anyway given Hogdson's proclivities. However, the Dutch robot has almost always been at his best against the blue half of Merseyside, with these contests tailor-made for his talents. And with all the problems Torres has had with his adductor, I'm skeptical of how healthy he actually is, and deathly frightened of another recurrence, two weeks after going off against Blackpool. But he's still a player that can win a match in a single moment. That is, if he gets the service to do so.

Once again, I'm hoping against hope that Poulsen won't start, but past is usually good precedent in this case, which is reflected in the above guess. Still, the manager seems to be the only one satisfied with his performances this season, and it was marginally hilarious to see Danish paper Ekstra Bladet give him a zero out of six and recommend he find a different sport after Denmark's 1-3 loss to Portugal a week ago. Sunday's is no match for a player who'd move faster if he were in a wheelchair.

So, being away from Anfield, I expect it'll be more 4-4-1-1 than 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2, Meireles will probably stay on the right (instead of Maxi, or Cole moving over there) while Jovanovic remains on the bench, and Gerrard should be pushed further forward due to Kuyt's injury, which would allow Lucas a starting spot. Not much difference to the formation and tactics we've seen so far this season. Again, we should somewhat find out how much the off-field horrors affected the play. Can optimism travel to the team via osmosis?

Everton's win at St Andrews before the break, a venue where Brum had been unbeaten for more than a year and where Liverpool were lucky to draw 0-0, was the Blues first win of the season. Unlike Liverpool, who went away for the break with an awful result hanging over their heads, Everton have been waiting two weeks to try to build on their previous performance.

Fellani and Jagielka are both struggling with hamstring injuries – Fellaini's assuredly out, Jagielka's questionable – while Anichebe, Saha, Pienaar, and Rodwell are long-term casualties. Of course, if I were Fellaini, I'd deliberately injure my hamstring to stay away from Kyrgiakos after the last derby. However, with Cahill scoring goals and Arteta working his way back to fitness, Everton have their two best attacking threats available, and Liverpool's dubious (and dubiously deep) backline will have to up their game.

But, even considering the lingering fears over Liverpool's performances, at least we're able to focus on on-field matters for a change.

13 October 2010

So, it's been an uneventful international break...

Update (11:25am ET Friday):

Deal was finally confirmed around 11am ET, but I had to wait for the official Liverpool FC statement. It's the most beautiful artwork I've ever seen in my life. As was watching Broughton and Henry make a statement on BBC News.

Finally. There will be time to hold the new owners feet to the fire, to make sure nothing like these past two years happen again. Hicks and Gillett initially made the right noises as well. But NESV has a far better resumé. And today is cause for celebration.

Preview for the Merseyside Derby up later this afternoon, after soaking in this wonderful, wonderful news.

Update (4:30pm ET Thursday): Don't feel like starting a new post, but do feel as if I should keep this somewhat current. This'll be an exceptionally short round-up of today's shenanigans.

After appearances in court on both sides of the ocean, we're in a holding pattern for one more day. The day began back in the UK High Court, where the "home team" were again victorious, winning an anti-suit injunction. We then traveled to Texas, where the District Court Judge basically gave Hicks until 7am tomorrow (Dallas time) to pull £300m or so from his cavernous ass. I'm struggling for other reasons why the judge recused today's hearing at 2:30pm (again, Dallas time) if not to give Hicks one more night to wreak nonsense. Maybe because he's never had to read two UK High Court rulings before.

As in the previous updates, the Guardian live blog and the Dallas Observer paint as full as a picture as we're going to get until tomorrow morning. I don't see how Hicks could miraculously find funding overnight, nor do I see the Texas judge ignoring two High Court rulings from the country where the club's located, but who knows what could happen after what we've seen over the last 48 hours.

Being a Liverpool fan is never boring. Unless we're watching this season's team play, that is.

Update (6:30pm ET): It ain't over until they're tarred, feathered, tied to a donkey, and ridden out of town.

Hicks has gotten a temporary restraining order preventing the sale to NESV in Dallas District Court.

• Here's the LFC.tv statement
Here's the Dallas Observer story, with the full text of the TRO
Here's another link to the Guardian's live blog, as in the earlier part of this post.
And here's a link to my real-time Twitter comments over the past two hours, because I don't have the stomach to summarize them.

Long story short, Hicks was granted jurisdiction because RBS and NESV do business in Texas, as does Broughton in his capacity as British Airways chairman. Hicks may reside in Dallas, but the various Kop Holdings are incorporated in Delaware and the Cayman Islands.

It's not going away yet – as if it's be as easy as a single High Court case (silly us) – but I'm not giving up hope that we'll get resolution before this Texas hearing on October 25th – which is a cheeky delaying tactic – or that LFC can avoid administration to end this sad, sorry saga.

I'm hesitant to post anything until tonight's board meeting, which will take place at 8pm UK time, but it feels wrong to let today's historic – and I don't use that word lightly – events go unmentioned for even a short while.

It actually appears Liverpool's long off-field nightmare is drawing to a close.

Not only did the UK High Court rule in favor of RBS/Broughton, Purslow and Ayre, but Justice Floyd imposed injunctions reconstituting the board and allowing the sale, refused to grant an appeal in his court, and ruled that Hicks and Gillett are liable for court costs. Here's the Guardian's live blog of today's proceedings. Here's Broughton's most-recent tight-lipped interview. All in all, both read as a complete and total win.

New owners aren't confirmed; the board has to reconvene to discuss proposals, which will most likely include Peter Lim, who publicly (and somewhat distastefully) upped his bid during the hearing yesterday, but John W Henry tweeted a celebratory message congratulating Broughton, Purslow, Ayre, RBS, and the fans soon after the verdict. While Hicks and Gillett can't appeal to the High Court, they still have the right to take a case to the Court of Appeal, but that restarts a whole new process, and while I'm clearly no legal expert, it appears that they'd only be able to claim compensatory damages, not prevent the imminent sale of the club because of the aforementioned injunctions (although a couple of lawyers quoted in the Guardian's live blog think it could lead to further delays). There's no explaining Tweedledee and Tweedledum's thought processes, but after today's firm smackdown, including somewhere between a quarter of a million and half a million pounds in court costs according to the Guardian, it'd make little sense. But much of the havoc they've wreaked makes little sense, and they stand to lose a hell of a lot more than £500,000 if the sale goes through as previously announced.

Today's events truly are cause for celebration. As many have delightfully pointed out on Twitter, it's especially karmic that Scousers and miners (well done, Chile) are celebrating on Maggie Thatcher's 85th birthday. But it's obviously not the end of the hard work that so many, such as Spirit of Shankly and Save Liverpool FC (among countless others), have put in. I'd still encourage people to join SoS; just because the tumors seem to be excised doesn't mean that the new owners/board/etc won't need to be held accountable. And, truth be told, they've haven't fully been excised yet, no matter how heartening today's affairs have been.

But it's nice, and somewhat unfamiliar, to have good news for a change. I'll echo John Henry in saying 'well done Broughton, Purslow, and Ayre,' and I'm even tempted to not include a sarcastic 'for once' or 'about time' (no such luck). Broughton especially appears to deserve a lot of credit for his maneuverings, and RBS played a blinder by appointing him. If this is seen to fruition, he'll go down in club history. Seriously. And deservedly.

Let's hope the good news keeps coming, and let's hope it starts translating to good news on the pitch. There is the small matter of the Merseyside Derby this Sunday.

06 October 2010

On New England Sports Ventures

Even though it's bumping this morning's post off the top, as promised, a good friend of the blog, Mike Anton, chimes in with his thoughts on the Red Sox ownership group. There are a lot of well-placed baseball fans giving their opinions on Henry et al today (see LFCNY and the Liverpool Echo for two), but I thought Mike was a good source for a few reasons. One, I trust his opinion. Two, the masochist that he is, he actually enjoys baseball. And three, most importantly, I expected him to be somewhat blunt, as a Yankees fan who lived in Boston during their two World Series titles in 2004 and 2007. Which had to have been fun for him. Always trust a Yankees fan to say as many bad things about Boston as possible. But being a Liverpool fan, I also expect him to be as rational as a Yankees fan who lived in Boston can be.

Without further ado...
Well, lucky Liverpudlians, that terrible turn with American owners seems to be solved with...more Americans!! Thankfully, New England Sports Ventures have a much better track record than our departing duo ever had, collectively or individually.  

There are quite a few parallels between the Boston Red Sox and Liverpool FC, so we can hopefully extrapolate what happened in Boston to what will probably occur with our Reds.


They're winners: The Red Sox were lovable losers, always finding a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, especially against their main rivals, The Yankees, who dominated the sport over various decades. They had an 86-year World Championship drought (makes the wait for the League look a bit easier...or more foreboding...) and this ownership group was one of the main reasons why it stopped at 86 years. Just to be braggarts, they also won the World Series in 2007, making it two titles in five years.

They Spend Money Wisely: John Henry, the man at the head of the ownership group, made his money as a commodities trader, first in the 70s with soy beans, and then later with full-blown futures funds. He created a prediction formula on his own (well, with a couple history books and a calculator, too) and made millions because he knew how to manage his money.  

The same goes for the Red Sox. In 2004, they had the perfect mix of young, cheap talent, the right specialty players (a fast player who was a steals specialist, someone who could hit left-handers off the bench, etc.) a few big name (and big-ticket) stars, and a number of character guys who just wanted to work hard and win at all costs.  

They Understand The Fans: Red Sox fans are a fairly masochistic bunch. Their constituency, roughly five states in the US, are utter lunatics. They live and die with every regular season game. They know every player on the roster both at the main club and in their farm team (read:  reserve system). They see the rest of the league and know exactly what it is they do or do not need and are fairly "woe is me" about the whole situation, all the while having the strangest optimism every April that "this is the year" they're going to win. Sound familiar?

These same fans also treat the ownership group like heroes. The new group came in after a few decades of worthless spending, doling out big money on players that didn't amount to anything and refused to build up their young talent. NESV demanded the team be treated like a world-class winning organization, and soon they became that very thing.

But it's not all sunshine and lollipops....

They Don't ALWAYS Spend So Wisely: A couple years ago, there was a Japanese pitcher named "Daisuke Matsuzaka." He was in his mid-20s and dominated Japanese baseball like no other pitcher. A bidding war struck up between a few teams, but whenever it's Red Sox against Yankees, dollar signs go through the roof. The way the bid worked was much like football: you paid a transfer fee to the club, then had 72 hours to negotiate a deal. The Sox paid $51,111,111.11 to the club for the right to give him a six-year, $52 million dollar contract. He currently sucks ass.

And They Don't Always Spend Enough: The American baseball free agent market is the closest we have in sport to the capitalistic-as-all-get-out football market. You can pay any player anything your heart desires, so long as you'll be able to afford the contract. On a few occasions, however, the Red Sox were steadfast in not going the extra mile to sign players. One of the heroes from the 2004 team, center fielder Johnny Damon, was allowed to walk to the hated Yankees because the Sox refused to give him a four-year deal. Clearly, sentimentality comes second to business. Furthermore, they let a franchise free agent in Mark Texiera sign with the Yankees because they couldn't cough up another $3 or so million dollars.

The Sox believe in playing baseball on a budget, even if they are one of the top three in revenue year in and year out. This past season, they decided to sell the team on "defense!" and "pitching!" when in reality they decided to spend on one big free agent pitcher (and overpaid for his services) while plugging in cheap, decent players, hoping that the overall talent could make the team a winner. They missed the playoffs this season.  When they spend and spend well, they win. When they don't, they're still a good, solid team, just... underwhelming.

Boy, Do They Like Making Money: Their home field, Fenway Park, was first built in 1912, which they still use. It's an ugly matchbox of a stadium that people now consider "quaint" because they're too nice to use "horribly outdated." Most ownership groups who wanted to purchase the Sox in '03 were going to tear it down and build a new stadium. But not these guys! They believed that the park was the franchise, so they decided to keep the old barn because they couldn't envision a franchise without it. (Editor's Note: Please ignore the use of the word "franchise." A can of worms better left closed.)

Then they whored that thing out as hard as they possibly could.

The place only holds roughly 35,000, while most comparable stadiums fit 55,0000, so seats were placed everywhere. On top of the Green Monster, the space-saving giant wall that is meant to simulate a wall 380 feet away, there are now rows and rows of seats (at $200 a pop). There are new expensive club seats, banners and ads all over the Green Monster and anywhere else you look, corporate sponsorships all over the place. After games, on their own TV network, the Red Sox cut their post game show in half so they could sell "exclusive" naming rights to two different companies, one to their "Red Sox Post Game" show, and one to their "Post Post Game" show. They have a fan club named Red Sox Nation that costs about $20 a year, and a couple years ago they had a novelty "name the President of Red Sox Nation" vote....that cost 99 cents per vote.

In closing... It seems like a really good fit. There are some very clear similarities between both clubs, as noted, and the people themselves are fairly similar. The Boston area has a good number of Liverpool supporters (headed by www.lfcboston.com) already, so they'll put the heat on the Yanks if they screw up like Hicks/Gillett did. There are some concerns, but their management style is very similar to that of Rafa: spend well, hopefully spend wisely, but sometimes it doesn't work out the way everyone hoped. Sure, they aren't Saudi sugar-daddies, but it seems to be a phenomenal match with Liverpool FC... even if they are the owners of my most hated rivals (think of Bitters buying out your second-favorite sports team – this is my nightmare). So over in the states, I'll be moping about, but all of you closer to Anfield should rest easy. Your nightmare is nearly completed.

Xenophobia... think less but see it grow

So, it's been an eventful 24 hours. For those living in a cave, a quick summary.

• The junta of Broughton, Purslow, and Ayre seized control of the website yesterday, putting out a hilarious statement after Hicks and Gillett attempted to sack Purslow and Ayre. Unsurprisingly, the offers that the three wanted to accept weren't big enough for George and Tommy. Maybe Broughton and Purslow weren't as evil as we thought, at least when it comes to off-the-pitch matters.
• Those three outvoted Hicks and Gillett, accepting the takeover proposal from New England Sports Ventures.
• There will be a legal challenge, but given the terms of Hicks and Gillett's most recent refinance, the UK board members are apparently on solid ground, and Broughton's already giving self-satisfied interviews. (LFC.tv Q&A, BBC News video)

Two American owners ran the club into the ground, and now we're getting an American consortium instead. Some understandably see it as out of the frying pan and into the fire, while others are simply happy that the long nightmare seems to be coming to a close. And as an American, it puts me in a strange place. It's not often I feel the need to (or want to, for that matter) defend my countrymen.

Surprisingly, Broughton summed it up well in his Sky Sports interview.
"First of all, there’s nothing wrong with being American. Ask Sunderland, Ellis Short is a great owner there. There’s nothing wrong with being American. Leverage is a problem in a football club."
Spirit of Shankly thankfully said similar:
"The identity and nationality of any owners of Liverpool Football Club is irrelevant. How they act as custodians is the most important thing and we have seen previously that initial announcements and promises made by new owners and the checks and due diligence made by those entrusted with that role on our behalf have all been left wanting."
'Once bitten, twice shy' is a good maxim. NESV will be held to their statements, and the fans are far more clued up than they were three years ago. But holding the prospective new owners' accountable cannot descend into out-and-out anti-Americanism, as is already happening in various corners of the internet. Thankfully, it's been a minority so far.

Didn't we blame xenophobia for some of Rafa's treatment by the British press? How is this different? Why is nationality important? In this case, past does not necessarily equal precedent, and Americans aren't all alike. Again, thankfully.

Deep-pocketed "philanthropists" weren't lining up to put in offers, whether from China, Hong Kong, or the Middle East. A similar situation to what Manchester City fell into was never on the cards or it would have manifested by now. And because of UEFA's impending financial fair play regulations, the days of free spending City and Chelsea are soon coming to a close.

Any new owners need to clear the debt and either build a new stadium or renovate Anfield. Broughton's already claiming that's been agreed. Because of commercial revenue, if the club's put on a solid financial footing, it can be run in the vein of Arsenal: making a small profit while reinvesting in the team as need be. That's the goal. Not being beholden to a Sheikh Mansour or Abramovich.

As I wrote in the comments yesterday, I'm not familiar with the intricacies of the Red Sox. Baseball is fucking boring. I've read opinions from a fair few Boston LFC fans that Henry/NESV are excellent owners (keeping an eye on LFC Boston's twitter account may not be a bad idea), and for balance, later today I hope to have a summary of Henry's tenure from a friend who's a Yankees fan that lived in Boston during the Red Sox's World Series seasons. But what I do know is that the ownership group provided a platform to "reverse the curse" (God, I hate that phrase) and walked a tightrope in renovating Fenway Park (a new stadium was even less feasible than on Merseyside because of sentimental attachments to that ballpark's history) while maximizing revenue.

No owner's coming in as a charity case. They will expect to make money off of Liverpool. That's football these days; sport is business. If the on-field product is good, something's done about the stadium, and Liverpool's debt is manageable, they'll make their profit and the club will be sustainable into the future. Whether that will actually be the case still remains to be seen.

By all means, be skeptical. But judge any new owners on their business plan, not their nationality. Anything else is irrational, reactionary, unfair, and unhelpful.

04 October 2010

Roy Hodgson = Robbie Keane?

Buying Robbie Keane was arguably one of Benitez' biggest mistakes. It was the last major purchase that wasn't financed with outgoing sales (as when Alonso paid for Aquilani and Johnson), and it turned out to be a massive bust.

However, Rafa realized it in short order, and shipped Keane out at the first opportunity. Having paid £19m for the player, Liverpool recouped somewhere between £12-16m, depending on unannounced add-ons that may or may not have been reached. Granted, £3-7m is still a loss, and that the manager wasn't allowed to use those funds to replace the player still frustrates, but Liverpool knew when to cut its losses, and still came the closest to winning the league since the trophy was last lifted in 1990. Since then, Keane's barely featured for Spurs, and was loaned to Celtic last spring, who refused to pony up whatever Tottenham demanded for the player. Now, the former captain is behind Defoe, Crouch, and Paylyuchenko in the pecking order, and Spurs couldn't give him away during the summer transfer window. Had Liverpool kept Keane for the entirety of '08-09, who knows if they would have reaped the same results, and I highly doubt they would have reaped as much in the transfer fee.

Liverpool needs to do the same thing with Roy Hodgson.

I'm as afraid of the Newcastle parallels as anyone. Liverpool has rarely been a firing club. Souness and Evans were sacked mid-season (February and November, respectively), but more often than not, the manager's given multiple chances to come good. Which, of course, is why it was so frustrating to see Benitez sacked after one bad season.

And yes, it's only been seven league games (14 in all competitions), but I fear that Hodgson will never come good. His tactics are embarrassingly outdated, unsuited to the current squad, and he's shown little clue as to what managing Liverpool means.

Let's review the tactical problems first.

Refusal to press high up the pitch. This is one of the biggest changes from Benitez's style, along with the deep backline and man-marking on set plays (we'll get there). And it's hindering Liverpool in attack. Eto'o gave an interesting interview a week ago on the topic:
"With Mourinho we played on the counter-attack, with Benitez we press more and that's better for us forwards because we win back the ball higher up the pitch and create more chances."
It's no coincidence that while Eto'o is thriving under Benitez, Torres is struggling under Hodgson, almost completely starved of chances. Yes, he's been injured, but he's been injured off and on for three seasons now, and still scored 17 goals in '08-09 and 22 goals in '09-10. In 38 and 32 appearances respectively. But because Liverpool's not pressing as high up the pitch, Torres is receiving the ball in deeper positions, often with his back to goal. Players like Kuyt, Cole, and Gerrard aren't able to get behind the backline when Torres does hold play up because they're coming from deeper (if Gerrard comes forward at all). Nonetheless, if we're counting set plays won (specifically, the two against United), Torres has created four goals, the most assists in the squad so far this season. But he looks a disgruntled, off-form fish out of water, and that's massively frightening given the rumors that surrounded the player this summer.

The dreadfully deep backline. I've highlighted this on multiple occasions, most notably in the average position comparison of the Sunderland matches. Liverpool's used to a high backline reliant on the offside trap, with attacking fullbacks who provide the width. Now, players like Johnson are being asked to defend at the edge of their penalty area, which leads to moments like the terrible penalty concession against Blackpool. They're basically inviting teams to attack, which Blackpool were glad to do on Sunday. Liverpool's happier hoofing the ball out of defense than playing it to the defensive midfielders and building from the back, and Agger – the most-creative center-back in the squad, has been ostracized for the bullying talents of Carragher, Skrtel, and Kyrgiakos. The Dane's played nine times this season. He's been a center-back twice, against Steaua and Northampton. He's been a left-back in all six of his league appearances, including thrice off the bench because Konchesky got injured.

Lack of width. Yes, width was a problem under Rafa as well. It has been since the days of Barnes and McManaman. But we rarely saw a central midfielder forced out to the right; it's diabolically baffling that Meireles continues to play there, and it's no surprise the Portuguese looked twice the player when moving centrally in the last 30 minutes against Blackpool. At the same time, Kuyt, Cole, and Jovanovic aren't 4-4-2 wingers. Benitez's 4-2-3-1 system (while pressing high up the pitch) played to Kuyt's strengths – as he did with Holland during the World Cup – but asking him to play as a typical out-and-out winger highlights his deficiencies on the ball and on the touchline. If he, or Cole, or Jovanovic come inside, the fullback's completely exposed because there's no one like Mascherano to cover. And Cole's had the same problems when deployed on the left (as has Jovanovic), leading to the incredibly narrow formation. This is the one difference to Hodgson's formation at Fulham, where he used "opposite wingers" like Duff and Davies (left-footers on the right, right-footers on the left, allowing players to cut in and shoot) to good effect.

Man-marking on set plays. Zonal marking was a stick used to unfairly beat Benitez throughout his tenure, but like pressing high up the pitch, it was a tactic suited to the players in the squad. Liverpool's not the tallest team, and aside from Hyypiä and Kyrgiakos, Liverpool hasn't had aerially-dominate center-backs. Zonal marking helped ameliorate that weakness by marking areas instead of creating one-on-one matches where the opposition were at an advantage. At the same time, Reina, at 6'2", isn't incredibly tall as goalkeepers go. Man-marking leads to crowds around the keeper when opponents pile men into the box, making it harder for Pepe to get space and claim balls into the box.

Leaving substitutions until late. Thankfully, this changed against Blackpool, but Hodgson waited until the 75th minute against Birmingham, the 81st against Utrecht, and at the beginning of extra time against Northampton. Liverpool were level in all three. Was Hodgson really happy with the team during those matches? Were ineffective draws the goal? And we thought the last manager was stubborn in his starting XI selections...

Poulsen. This isn't truly tactical. But I'm still flummoxed that Christian Poulsen – who can't jump, can't tackle, and plays even safer, less creative passes than Lucas – has marginalized the Brazilian. Every manager has favorites, but those favorites shouldn't be keeping better, younger players out of the squad.

Shipping out Aquilani and Insua, marginalizing Agger and Lucas. We don't know how much the board (read: Purslow) is to blame for the first two. But Hodgson could have fought those battles if he so desired. Now, Liverpool has a huge hole at left-back (despite buying Konchesky and re-signing Aurelio) and Aquilani's been increasingly excellent for Juventus – paired with the defensive Felipe Melo in central midfield, no less. Not as an out-and-out attacking midfielder as we thought he needed to be. At the same time, the likes of Lucas and Agger – both better than those who have replaced them – are relegated to the second-string. The fear that both will depart in the January window heightens with each match.

And then there are the embarrassing comments, making it that much harder to respect Hodgson, leading to the belief that he just doesn't get this club or its fans. He took five days to defend Torres from Ferguson's drunken rantings after the United match. He threw his "B-team" under the bus after the loss to Northampton. He was seemingly satisfied with underwhelming draws against Birmingham, Sunderland, and Utrecht, with Liverpool arguably outplayed in all three. He ham-handedly critiqued fan's protests against the owners. And there were the recent jaw-dropping quotes in the run-up to Sunday's match, where Hodgson referred to himself as 'one of the most-respected managers in Europe.'

I've become more vehement in my critiques, and in demanding his exit, for two reasons. One, because I'm increasingly convinced Hodgson can't and won't change. Some say he needs time to implement his system, but we're seeing his system. It's the same system he used at Fulham. Defend deep, 'keep the shape', hope to strangle the opposition, and hope to get something against the run of play. It actually worked for Fulham against Liverpool in both meetings last season. But it's a small-club mentality, and it's not working with the players Liverpool has. I doubt that it ever can.

Two, because of the international break, this seems as good an opportunity as any to get a new manager in. Admittedly, the majority of first-team players will be away with their countries, but it's still two more weeks for to get settled and work with those not on international duty. And if the new man is Dalglish, he'll hit the ground running because of his familiarity with the club and players. If Liverpool failing to get a result against Everton on the 17th (God forbid) leads to Hodgson getting the sack, there are only four days before the next match at Napoli. Because of the Europa League, Liverpool has two games a week almost every week until mid-December. That schedule will really hurt a new manager's chances of settling quickly. And by then, it really could be too late.

I don't want to see Dalglish's legacy tarnished by the ownership debacle, but I truly believe we can't wait until they're finally booted out. Multiple RBS deadlines have been mooted, whether it's the 1st, 6th, 11th, or 15th of this month, but that won't be the end of the fight by any means. And because of the situation, I think Dalglish is the best choice – a legitimately safe pair of hands, unlike the manager we got this summer. Other names mooted, like Pelligrini, Rijkaard, etc., actually are untenable until the off-field situation is resolved. Dalglish is different. It's not as if he's been away from the game, living in a cave, since his last managerial position.

To use a phrase our Texan tumor will understand, know when to hold them, and know when to fold them. It's time to fold this hand before the stakes are too high to buy back in.

03 October 2010

Liverpool 1-2 Blackpool

Johnson Kyrgiakos Skrtel Carragher
Meireles Gerrard Poulsen Cole
Kuyt Torres

Adam 29' (pen)
Varney 45+1'
Kyrgiakos 53'

The height of embarrassment. We're past infuriating and well into comical. Well done to the manager for making Liverpool look as bad on the pitch as the owners have off the pitch.

We had hoped that an open game, with Blackpool bound to attack, would help Liverpool find its feet in front of goal. Ha. Ha ha ha ha. The open game simply meant that Liverpool couldn't keep its terrible shape, and the home side were deservedly two down by halftime. And, in keeping with this season's overriding theme, Torres had gone off injured less than ten minutes into this fiasco. It feels like I've written "shit rolls downhill" in every match review this season.

Liverpool were in utter shambles until the intermission. Promoted Blackpool, with a squad that cost less than most of the Liverpool starters, dominated from the start. Liverpool simply abdicated the flanks, with Meireles and Cole again forced wide, but Blackpool still bossed the center of the pitch. Reina was forced into action by the second minute. But while Liverpool had marginally regrouped following Torres' injury, with Cole's 26th-minute chance from a corner blocked on the line, Johnson continued his sparkling defensive form, bamboozled by Varney and stupidly conceding a penalty with the majority of Liverpool players caught upfield. Reina went the right way – as he did for Bent's penalty a week ago – but Adam's shot still found the net. When the world's falling down around your feet, sometimes you still can't help but laugh.

And the home side had no immediate response. Fumbling aimlessly in attack, limited to speculative "shots" from distance and easy saves for Gilks, Liverpool were again exposed on the counter right before halftime. Blackpool passed their way through Liverpool's backline, with Varney beating the offside trap as Johnson failed to track his run, slotting past Reina seconds before the whistle.

Once again, Liverpool responded after halftime – it'd be nice if they could "respond" at the start of matches – and Kyrgiakos pulled one back in the 53rd, smartly heading in Gerrard's free kick. Who would have imagined that a centerback who's good in the air would make Liverpool better on set plays. From there, it looked a matter of time until Liverpool leveled, especially after Hodgson replaced the insipid Poulsen with Jovanovic on the hour mark, moving Meireles into the middle.

But Blackpool weathered the storm. Liverpool couldn't find a way past a team whose manager's repeatedly stated that it can't defend. Crosses went to no one. Moves broke down at the top of the box. Yes, Cole should have leveled, through in the 59th, and Liverpool could have had a penalty in the 70th when Adam handled Johnson's cross, but I'm struggling to remember any Liverpool chances from the 66th until the 88th. Meanwhile, Blackpool nearly when 3-1 up twice, both on the break, with Johnson making a redeeming tackle in the 69th and Varney shooting over in the 83rd when defenders stood off him. Then Gilks saved Kuyt's header, Kyrgiakos' landed on the roof of the net, and the Greek defender – again thrown forward in a last-ditch attempt – was spectacularly denied with the final act of the game. An equalizer wouldn't have been deserved.

It's impossible to encapsulate just how awful Liverpool were. There have been zero signs of progress all season long. The team's only gotten worse since the near fight-back against the Mancs, and has deserved its results in the last four matches. Square pegs continue to be forced into round holes. The insanely deep backline is an utter mess. Gerrard's had little influence, Joe Cole can't find his feet in any attacking position. Even Reina – Liverpool's only redeeming player – looks shakier because of the trouble in front of him. Liverpool is just terrible from top to bottom, and there doesn't seem to be any light at the end of the tunnel, any signs of positivity, or any plan for improvement.

After playing the likes of Northampton, Sunderland, and Blackpool, we can't complain about the opposition's strength anymore. It's the worst start to a season for 57 years. Liverpool were relegated that season, leading the way to Shankly's renaissance. I hope the club won't have to suffer that baptism by fire, but if this continues, there's every chance Liverpool could go down. You wanted Leeds and Newcastle parallels? We're getting Leeds and Newcastle parallels. This team is simply bad, and only so much can be blamed on the owners.

I try to avoid being reactionary, but this result bolsters the belief that Hodgson has to go. The sooner the better. I completely understand those saying that there's no point firing the manager with so many deeper problems, but it shouldn't affect the players to this extent. There's still some separation between the on-field play and the off-field turmoil, and Liverpool's shown no sign of getting better on the field. And while I don't trust the board at all, Liverpool has a ready-made replacement in the wings with Dalglish. While that's again a frightening parallel to Newcastle – resorting to an old favorite in the hopes of coming good – it's hard to believe the King could be any worse.

There needs to be a catalyst. Roy Hodgson cannot be that catalyst.

01 October 2010

Liverpool v Blackpool 10.03.10

10am ET, not live in the US. Delayed showing on FSC at 5pm. It is being shown live in Australia, so there should be streams in the usual places.

Last four head-to-head:
2-2 (h) 01.09.71
0-0 (a) 08.17.70
1-3 (h) 05.13.67
2-1 (a) 09.05.66

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 Utrecht (a); 2-2 Sunderland (h); 2-2 Northampton [2-4 on penalties] (h)
Blackpool: 1-2 Blackburn (h); 0-4 Chelsea (a); 2-0 Newcastle (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard 3; Kuyt, Ngog, Torres 1
Blackpool: Harewood 2; Adam, Baptiste, Campbell, Phillips, Taylor-Fletcher, Varney 1

Referee: Mike Jones

This is only Jones' second time in charge of a Liverpool match. You may remember the first.

Guess at a Desired line-up:
Johnson Carragher Skrtel Agger
Gerrard Meireles
Kuyt Cole Jovanovic

The above is almost certainly a pipe dream. Agger's probably still injured, I expect teacher's pet Poulsen to keep his spot, Jovanovic hasn't been seen since Northampton, and Meireles and Cole seem likely to stay on the flanks. Huzzah. If I were actually wagering money on the starting XI, it'd be Reina; Johnson, Carragher, Skrtel, Kelly; Meireles, Gerrard, Poulsen, Cole; Kuyt, Torres.

If Agger's still out, we'll have to hope Kelly's fit enough after injuring his knee yesterday. At the same time, we'll have to hope that whoever plays left back is able to supplement the attack, especially if Cole starts on the left, with his propensity to drift inside. Is this a bad time to mention that Insua was pretty good at going forward? And if Kelly and Agger aren't fit, I have absolutely no clue who'll start at left back. Carra? Johnson? Darby? Torres? Your guess is as good as mine.

Gerrard's return to the line-up should see Liverpool marginally more dynamic in midfield. But as long as it's not Lucas/Poulsen – not singling out either player, just the pairing – Liverpool should be more dynamic. Despite my complaints, Gerrard is Liverpool's top-scorer in the league, although two of the three came from dead balls and he still hasn't registered an assist in any competition (13 other players have, and Torres is Liverpool's top creator if we're counting penalties and free kicks won). Which is why I'd like to see him play in tandem with Meireles; on paper, that should be an attacking, competent pairing. And we've only seen Meireles in central midfield – his supposedly preferred position – against Steaua. Which, incidentally, Liverpool won 4-1. Relatedly, Cole was also in the hole for that contest, and picked up the man-of-the-match award.

I do worry whether Torres will start after a tough 90 minutes on Thursday. Yes, he's not in form, but I've steadfastly defended the player because of Liverpool's current tactics. If we're asking the main striker to hold up play with his back to goal, maybe Liverpool is better suited starting Ngog or playing 4-4-2. Yet, regardless, you have to want El Niño's name on the teamsheet, and hope he crams the complainers' complaints down their gullets. One of these days.

These two clubs haven't met in almost 40 years. And Liverpool's recent tactics should be familiar to the fans alive for that last meeting; they're straight out of Alf Ramsey's "wingless wonders" book.

'I'm going to attack them, and see how good their back four is...'

Words that should strike fear in the heart of any Liverpool fan that's seen the team this season. Ian Holloway's never been a shrinking violet, and Blackpool seemingly only know one style of play. Attack, attack, attack. Then attack some more. It's led to absolute maulings at the hands of Arsenal and Chelsea, and cost them a late goal against Blackburn last Saturday, but the style's still commendable. They've scored in every match but the two against the current 1st and 3rd-placed sides.

One would hope that these tactics lead into Liverpool's hands. The team's suffered against sides willing to pack the penalty area, and Sunday's match is at Anfield. But you can't rule any result out during this era of bad feelings.