28 June 2009

US 2-3 Brazil

Spector DeMerit Onyewu Bocanegra
Dempsey Clark Feilhaber Donovan
Altidore Davies

Dempsey 10’
Donovan 27’
Luis Fabiano 46’ 74’
Lucio 85’

So close and so far. My allegiances were far less conflicted in this match, and no surprise, the result was a bit different. But for a moment there…

The first half was stuff of dreams, even less believable than Victory. The second half was far less surprising, but all the more disappointing given where the US stood at the break. And those Liverpool fans who saw United come back against Spurs a couple of months ago will have felt some déjà vu.

Unsurprisingly, Brazil pressed the Americans early on, but the US was first on the board again, from their first attack. And again it was Spector to Dempsey, and a cross from the right back cleverly redirected with a right-footed volley past Julio Cesar.

Brazil stormed down from the field from the restart, with Howard making the first of countless fantastic saves on Robinho's effort. Two US chances from corners quickly followed after Davies' break, but it didn’t take long to revert to ‘all hands on deck,’ as it was for long stretches against Spain. Notably, Howard had to make two more stops, on Felipe Melo and Maicon, in the 25th and 26th minutes.

And then it was two, with an absolutely textbook counter-attack goal. Donovan broke following a corner and found Davies on the left. Somehow the striker got the ball back to Donovan (seriously looked like he had no angle), Landycakes checked back onto his left at the top of the box, steadied himself, goal. Holy shit.

And the US could have had a third in the 30th, but Donovan’s cross just too far in front of Davies and Altidore, who both looked like they’d beaten the offside trap. From there on out, it was all Brazil, with ESPN helpfully pointing out that the first half possession was 60-40 in Brazil’s favor. Howard made at least three more saves before the break, while Maicon’s deflected cross whistled across the face of goal on the stroke of halftime.

Unfortunately for the US, they suffered the worst possible start to the second half. 41 seconds in, and it’s 2-1. A cross in from Maicon, a wonderful quick turn by Fabiano, fooling DeMerit, and the lead’s halved. If they don’t let it that goal, there’s a chance. A full 45 minutes left with only a one-goal advantage is frightening.

The goal marked the beginning on an onslaught more furious than the one faced on Wednesday. If the possession was 60-40 in the first half, it had to be something like 70-30 in the second. If it wasn’t for Tim Howard, the second goal would have come a lot earlier, and the US would have lost by a few more. First, he stopped a bullet Lucio header at the back post in the 58th before controversy two minutes later when Kaka’s back post header looked over the line before Howard palmed it away.

Donovan and Dempsey shots from distance saved by Cesar in the 65th and 66th were the US’s lone chances during the blitz, while Howard kept the US in front when he took the ball off Fabiano’s foot with the striker through in the 71st.

But the dam finally broke in the 74th. It looked like the crossbar would keep Brazil out again after Kaka’s cross found Elano at the far post, but Fabiano was there for the rebound and his brace. 2-2 after 30 minutes of constant pressure did not bode well, and after DeMerit came up huge against Fabiano in the box, Lucio slammed home the resulting corner. Well, fuck. It was nice while it lasted. There was a glimmer of hopewhen Gooch headed over in the 88th, but it wasn’t to be.

Skeptics will wonder where the hell this team came from. Diehards will claim this is what the Yanks have always been capable of, and they even should have won. The truth, as usual, is probably somewhere in the middle.

As said after the Spain match, it’s a hell of a lot different when you play without pressure. And although there were certainly nerves making the final, against Brazil no less, they still weren’t expected to be there and weren’t expected to win. At the same time, they haven't played as well as a unit in these last two matches since the ’02 World Cup. And the backline was the best I've ever seen from the US.

It’s almost better for the US’ World Cup hopes that they lost today. A win would have raised expectations too high and painted a big target on their backs. This provides incentive and proves they can hang with the big boys.

A win certainly would have caused a media stir, but this’ll still be headline news on ESPN and in local sports pages, and even soccer-haters like Jim Rome will be discussing it tomorrow. And the rest of the world will take notice. It may not be the long-hoped for tipping point for American soccer, but it’s another step in the game’s evolution on these shores.

24 June 2009

Spain 0-2 USA

Sergio Ramos Pique Puyol Capdevila
Fabregas Xavi Riera
Torres Villa

Spector DeMerit Onyewu Bocanegra
Dempsey Bradley Clark Donovan
Davies Altidore

Altidore 27’
Dempsey 74’

And you thought I was kidding when I said I wouldn’t be surprised by a US victory. Well, I was. But it was bound to happen. That’s this sport. That’s why it’s the best. And now a team that lost its first two games by a 6-1 margin is going to be in the final, having beaten the #1 team in the world, one that hadn’t been beaten in 35 games. My result of jinxing teams stands, and it helps to explain why I don’t predict Liverpool games.

I thought of titling this review “Fuck you, play me,” but that’d diminish the effort of the entire US team. Yet it was still eminently amusing to see Jozy Altidore, who barely got a look-in at Villareal and never featured for second division Xerex, announce himself on the world stage with a goal against the country where his club(s) won’t play him.

The US had two good chances in the first ten minutes – through Davies and Dempsey – before Spain’s first – Villa not far off the top corner with a wicked volley. Less than a minute later, Howard sprang a fantastic save on Torres, which was made moot by a incorrect offside flag.

This marked Spain establishing themselves with their usual game - passing and possession. Unfortunately, it was also one of those games where that passing and possession leads to naught. And, against the run of play, the US opened the scoring through Altidore in the 27th. Receiving the ball at the top of the box, he held off Capdevila incredibly well, turned, and fired past Iker, who could only deflect it on its way into the net. And that Capdevila’s his teammate at Villareal makes it even more delicious.

It was a Spanish onslaught for the rest of the half and most of the second, but the US held them off. I’m used to teams shutting up shop and somehow keeping a clean sheet thanks to following Liverpool, but I still don’t know how Spain didn’t score. Demerit, Spector, Howard, Onyewu, and Bocanegra (in approximately that order) were all simply immense.

I could rattle off more than 10 Spanish “chances” that could have gone in on another day, whether a defender made a last-ditch block, Howard came up with an excellent save, or a Spanish attacker just couldn’t get on the end of a cross. But the US goal was impenetrable despite Spain’s dominance in possession. And in the 74th, Dempsey again made the difference after moving up top when Feilhaber came on for a striker. Ramos couldn’t clear Donovan’s deflected center, steering the ball to Dempsey’s toe. 2-0. You have to be kidding me.

The game was won with hustle, heart, and the break of the ball. I don’t want to sound dismissive of the US by writing ‘break of the ball,’ but there were so many moments where if the rebound had bounced differently or a deflected shot that ended with a corner had gone in another direction. But again, that’s soccer.

And that takes nothing away from the US team. I have to draw the inevitable Arsenal comparisons; Spain is prone to the same problems. Even when the team is off, they still see a ton of possession, but can’t make that breakthrough and are often over-intricate in the final third. Yes, Liverpool being guilty of that probably lost them the league last season, but Arsenal’s better known for it.

More importantly, the US simply out-worked Spain, and each player put in a hell of a shift. It also helps to play without fear. The pressure was on in two tough early games against the likes of Italy and Brazil. They were holding their own against the Italians until going down to 10 men, and Brazil is, well, Brazil. But against Egypt and in 4th place in the group, no one expected them to advance. And everyone’s spent the last two-plus days predicting a Spain/Brazil final. Well, as American readers know, the media and advertisers gambled on a Kobe/Lebron final, and we saw how that turned out.

Still, this was the best I’ve ever seen the US defense. Dempsey popped up with another crucial goal despite the criticism he’s received from idiots like me. Donovan (really, when I write “Landycakes,” it’s with love) was absolutely everywhere, and was more important as a defender than as an attacker in the second half. It's a pity Bradley will miss the final thanks to another dubious red card (looked a ton worse at full speed), but Feilhaber's been impressive in his last two appearances, although that might be down to being used as a substitute.

I am disappointed in Spain’s performance, and, yes, partially with the result. I can’t help it. I like seeing Spain win. I’m used to seeing the US lose to better teams. But I am very proud of the US’s performance – honestly – and thrilled for Altidore, who I like as a player, respect for going abroad at 18, and desperately want to see succeed in Europe.

However, I don’t expect the final to look much like this. We’ll see how that prediction holds up on Sunday.

23 June 2009

What’s the penalty for treason these days?

I readily admit it. I’m not a huge fan of the US national team. I’ll watch more often than not. I even hope they win more often than not. But I’m usually watching their games with a wry, detached smile.

And yet, I’ve still written about the team on occasion. The most recent post under that tag is from the Spain-US match a year ago, and I wrote about that because I was rooting for Spain in the Euros. The preceding post argues that Bob Bradley should have had his interim tag removed after the 2-0 win over Mexico. After two-thirds of Sunday’s win over Egypt, I was sure Bradley was getting sacked. So, yeah, my insights into US soccer aren’t always on target.

Chances are I’ll have to catch tomorrow’s match on DVR later in the evening, but I’ll probably review the match. Because of the large Liverpool contingent, Spain’s one of the international teams I actually pay close attention to, along with England (guilty secret – my first love in football, since Italia 90, although the more I’ve followed Liverpool, the less I’ve cared about Ingerlund) and Holland (the 1974 World Cup team. That is all.). And yes, I am American; even though I’m a US soccer agnostic, I still can’t hate the national team.

Plus, the way the US backed into the knockout stage of the Confederations Cup was delicious, and another example of why this game’s so great. The US, outside of the first half against Italy before capitulating have gone down to ten men, were absolutely dire in their first two matches. Dempsey looked tired and uninterested after a long season with Fulham. Beasley is a shadow of the player he was three years ago. Red cards have led to an unsettled midfield; only Michael Bradley has come close to establishing himself. And I can’t put it better than Unprofessional Foul did yesterday:

I would say that a goal on Father's Day for the 2nd year in a row is an apt display of how nepotism has allowed you to keep your starting role. I would even say that you and your dad should both still lose your jobs, but that is unlikely to happen given this result.

To be fair, a substitution led to the third goal. And I honestly thought Bradley was insane – needing a goal, the US took off a striker (Altidore, who’s young, but seemed to be playing better as the game went on) and brought on a midfielder, moving Dempsey up front. Dempsey’s probably the US’ best player (sorry Landycakes), but he’s been gash all tournament long. And yet, as soon as he moves upfront, he pops up with a terrific header from an equally terrific Spector cross. Bob Bradley 1, Internet schmucks like me 0.

And thanks to Brazil steamrolling an uninspired Italy, USA goes through with a 1-0-2 record on goals scored. And now they get to face an in-form European champion, playing to set the record for consecutive games without a loss. Alonso and Fabregas have stepped in for the injured Senna and Iniesta, and Torres has been in the mood for murder since returning from injury, whether with Spain or Liverpool.

And yet, with the way this tournament’s gone, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the US nick a 1-0 win. Just another reason why this is the best sport there is.

22 June 2009

So, Glen Johnson (yes, again)

I thought I’d said pretty much everything about the Glen Johnson deal in the previous post, but seeing as it’s been seven days, it almost feels like new news. And I’ve got a few addenda I could make, although some of this might sound familiar. Plus, having 20+ comments in the last post necessitates some new material.

First and foremost, I’m struggling to think of many deals done before the window’s opened since Benitez came to the club. Lucas was, maybe Bellamy and Reina, and that’s it. Whether that’s down to Parry’s exit and Rafa’s subsequent rise in power (more likely) or the owners actually backing the manager (far less likely, but hey, at least Gillett finally sold the Canadiens), it’s a very good sign.

Rafa identified a player who was ostensibly his primary target, and got the deal done by June 22. As said, it’s a record fee for a defender, and the third-highest fee in Liverpool history (yes, offset by the £7m still owed on Crouch, but still). And I still doubt Benitez would spend all his money in one place – the summers of ’05-07 showed how Benitez spends on a budget. Right back is a place where Liverpool needs to improve, especially in the opposition’s half, but I still don’t think it’s the biggest weakness, and more deals will be done.

The “news” over the last week makes me think Arbeloa’s probably leaving. Which is an utter shame, both for morale and defensive purposes, and I’ll be very sorry to see him go. I think Liverpool will have to buy a replacement or promote Darby, because Degen wasn’t bought for his defense (I’d argue he’s who Johnson’s replacing). But against 16 or so teams, the fullbacks will be attacking as much as defending, and this transfer shows the need for more from that position.

Last summer
, I wrote about how width had to come from fullback for Liverpool to fully utilize the 4-2-3-1. Unfortunately, in the same post, I rejoiced in the signings of Dossena and Degen for that purpose. Ha.

But the sentiment remains. When teams sit back, Liverpool needs fullbacks who can charge upfield, supply crosses, and even offer a threat at goal. Aurelio does this. Insua’s done it on occasion (and much more so for the reserves), but has been restrained more often than not (and rightfully so given his age and experience). And Johnson has done it well enough to become first choice for England.

Arbeloa gets forward, but his overlap and crosses aren’t always up to par, and he and Kuyt can be one-dimensional. It’s similar to Finnan at his best; both were consistent, both were decent, but both also had a tendency to stop on the ball and play back into center midfield instead going at a defender, although I'd argue Arbeloa is marginally better.

I’m not saying Glen Johnson is a panacea, or the end all, be all of transfers. I’m massively afraid these last two posts are over-hyping him and his potential impact on the squad. I’m similarly afraid he might be a big fish, small pond player, and it’s a surprisingly large fee for a right back that cost £4m two years ago.

I obviously think he’s going to help the team or I wouldn’t have written these posts. And without regard for jinxing it, Benitez rarely fails with big money deals (no one mention last summer).

And again, I still think money needs to be spent in attack. But this is a very encouraging signing.

16 June 2009

So, Glen Johnson…

Looks like right back can be checked off the list.

Liverpool poised to sign Johnson

All the stuff I’ve seen around the Internet focuses on the fee. Don’t focus on the fee. It will only make you crazy.

1) We really don’t know how much money Benitez has. But I’m pretty sure Benitez knows. And if Johnson – even at £17m – is within his budget, awesome. Sign him up. Rafa knows the holes in his squad better than we do. And chances are he’s smart enough not to spend all his summer cash in one place. Liverpool needs an attacking right back, and it looks like Liverpool will get an attacking right back. That’s all that matters. If it makes you feel better, Portsmouth supposedly still owes £7m on the Crouch deal, which will just be written off.

2) You pay a premium for English players. This is nothing new. What’s new is that Liverpool finally looks able to afford it. Ferguson has been paying over the odds for English talent for years, and sadly, it’s paid off for him. With this signing, it looks like Liverpool might be there as well. And the prices for English players are only going to get worse if Platini’s quota plans bear fruit.

3) I’ve written time and time again that width in the 4-2-3-1 comes from full back. This signing fills that to a tee. Both Aurelio and Insua are excellent at it, and it’s why I was optimistic over last summer’s signings of Dossena and Degen. Glen Johnson is a far better player than Dossena or Degen. And for all of Arbeloa’s outstanding qualities, attacking flair isn’t one of them; too often, he and Kuyt are one-dimensional on the right. But Glen Johnson is one of the best attacking fullbacks in the league, and is the best English one.

I sincerely hope this signing doesn’t come at the expense of Arbeloa. Not only is Alvaro an excellent squad player, he’s excellent for the squad – he seems to get along with everyone (the Carra incident not withstanding), and his goal celebrations are a perpetual riot. Liverpool is thin at right back even with Johnson’s signing (Benitez obviously doesn’t think Darby’s ready, and Degen’s injured more than Kewell). And Arbeloa could still be crucial, whether it’s because of injury or in a match where Liverpool will actually have to defend.

Right back and left wing are the two positions that Liverpool has to strengthen. Another striker to beef up the squad would also be nice, but those are the two “glaring” holes in the first team.

This solves one of them – once personal terms are reached, mind you – and it’s only June 16. Johnson will offer more in attack, and will be another dangerous player forward when Liverpool’s struggling to break down 10 men behind the ball. And that Benitez is confident enough to spend £17m on a right back – double Liverpool’s previous record for a defender, and the third-highest transfer fee in club history – shows that there’s probably more money to spend, despite all the dire predictions.

Next season cannot start soon enough.

13 June 2009

A global recession?


If Spanish outlet Marca (I’m linking Google News, but only because it’s in English) is to be believed – which isn’t a huge stretch considering it’s basically Real Madrid’s PR department – David Villa will sign for the Madrileños next week.

As the list above hopefully suggests (which, as you’re probably aware, are the fees for Kaka, Ronaldo, and Villa – about £170m spent and we’re not even midway through June), I’m not writing to lament that Villa’s not signing for Liverpool. As marvelous as he is, I’ve written that Liverpool should stick to the 4-2-3-1 more than enough. I’m just stunned by Real’s spending spree, and that’s bearing in mind we knew Perez would return to his Galácticos roots.

Maybe it’s just Liverpool and Setanta that are struggling financially. I mean, we’ve already seen City pay £12m for Gareth Barry in the final year of his contract and strongly linked with a £25m Carlos Tevez (Really? From United to City?), among countless others.

It didn’t take long for United move for Luis Antonio Valencia as Ronaldo’s replacement, at least positionally. Whether they buy the bigger names mooted – like Ribery or Benzema – depends on whether the indebted Glazer family will release any more of that £80m. Nani looks likely to be sold as well, so there should be further holes. But the mountain of stories (e.g. this one) about how Fergie will definitely get the money, and the proceeds unquestionably, honestly, for sure won’t be withheld to pay off the £650m debt makes me skeptical of those stories’ veracity.

Ferguson’s been clever in the transfer market before, and is never afraid to cut ties when he feels it’s time: Stam, Beckham, Roy Keane, van Nistelrooy, etc, etc. But I’m not sure how much of this is of Fergie’s accord – like those aforementioned deals were – or player power. United pretty much admitted Ronaldo wanted out in their statement (I’d rather not link to that lot’s website), although, of course, that could just be shifting the blame. If former Real president Ramon Calderon and the papers are to be believed, this deal’s basically been done for months now. Evidently Slur Alex would sell that mob a virus.

But back to Real Madrid. This article – from Foreign Policy of all places – is fairly illuminating, as is this one from 2001, which reminds how Madrid’s city council basically subsidized Real to the tune of over £200m. Which, naturally, occurred under Perez’s first tenure, and partly paid for the first Galácticos project.

On paper, Real Madrid is absolutely frightening. Casillas, Ramos, Pepe, Diarra (Mahamadou a bit more than Lassana), Sneijder, Gago, van der Vaart, Kaka, Robben, Ronaldo, Villa, Higuain, van Nistelrooy, Huntelaar, and Raul. Obviously, sales will be made, but that roster reads like Real should play the dreaded 0-6-4 formation. No matter how many attackers they buy, there are still glaring holes in central midfield and defense.

Which is why Perez is pursuing Xabi Alonso so intently (which we’re still not contemplating, no matter the paper talk), and why Real will probably pilfer Albiol from Valencia, or someone similar (Vidic! Buy Vidic!), as well. I saw the rumors about Arbeloa (not linking, discussing further, or believing because it originally came from that dogshit rag which doesn’t get named on this site), but that makes no sense. Ramos may be a defensive liability, but the right back position is his.

I’ve a hunch – it’s only a hunch, and I’d like to remind of the many times I’ve written that I know little about finance – there are only two teams that’ll be spending silly money this summer: Madrid and City. With mainly Barry and Tevez in the news, City’s been quieter than expected, but the £120m offer for Kaka in January couldn’t have been an aberration. Hopefully, that Kaka turned it down and went to Madrid for less than half that fee six months later demonstrates City’s true transfer muscle.

But, in contrast to United’s promises, Milan probably won’t be spending their profit. Kaka’s quote said absolutely everything about the situation for most clubs: “I wanted to stay on at Milan, but the global economic crisis has affected many clubs, especially those like Milan that run as a business. I spoke with the directors and we agreed that the transfer would be in everybody’s interests at this moment in time.”

The divide between the Haves and the Have-Nots is growing, and there are going to be fewer and fewer Haves. This is why it’s such a crucial time for Liverpool, and why Hicks and Gillett are so dangerous. The sword of Damocles really is hanging over the club. And yes, I write that fully aware that I cautioned against believing the media’s dire predictions about Liverpool’s debt only eight days ago.

It goes without saying that Real will be a better team next year. With those additions, they have to be, even if there are bound to be problems bedding in all those stars. La Liga will assuredly be more competitive than it was last season; a two-team race is better than one. But the Galáticos project wasn’t a panacea last time around, and the only place Real will be unbeatable is on FIFA 2010.

Nevertheless – and despite how much I loathe that winking, sashaying, diving prat of a man – I still think Ronaldo is a phenomenal footballer, up there with Messi as the most creative force of this generation. And his sale will make United less potent no matter who they replace him with. Which can only be a good thing for the rest of the Premier League.

Thank You Baby Jesus

A day late (and a dollar short, but that's another matter), but this couldn't go without a mention. And yes, it's also an excuse to employ the underused "Rob Styles is an imbecile" and "schadenfreude" tags.

Rob Styles retires to escape demands of officiating

There just might be a God after all.

Naturally, the Guardian can't resist mentioning the infamous Liverpool/Chelsea match where Styles decided that Malouda flinging himself to the ground in a bid to reenact Saving Private Ryan was a penalty.

Referees, no matter the sport, have an utterly thankless job. I know. I try not to criticize officials, even with the wonderful anonymity that the Internet provides. And I'd like to point out that this is coming from a guy who's had rec soccer teammates get mad at me for sticking up for calls against us.

But Rob Styles is, well, Rob Styles. The aforementioned Malouda incident. Those two awful decisions this year - the "penalty" leading to a United win over Bolton and the Beye sending off against City (which, if we're nitpicking, probably cost Newcastle two points that would have seen them stay up). And, yes, he's helped Liverpool before; Neil Warnock (a jewel of a man in his own right) still curses his name because of a penalty given which led to a 1-1 equalizer against Sheffield in the the first match of the 06-07 season. There are probably more egregious examples in Styles' catalog, but I've neither the willpower nor patience to seek them out.

I almost feel bad writing it, given we're discussing a man's livelihood, but frankly, the league will be better off without him. There is a dearth of good officials in the Premier League, and it's something that needs to be rectified - better wages, more emphasis on recruitment (which would come with better pay), some actual weight behind the "Respect" campaign, and improvements in technology (which will help them do their jobs). But Rob Styles has proven time and time again he's not one of the "good" ones.

08 June 2009

How Good is Torres?

I like to toss out phrases like “best striker in the world” when discussing Torres, and with good reason. 33 goals in his first season in English football, deceptively strong while still lightning quick, and he can score goals of any variety. He’s faster to 50 than Rush, Fowler, Owen, and Aldridge.

He’s tallied 50 goals in 84 appearances in his first two seasons – an average of .6 goals per game or a goal every 1.68 games. So I figured I’d compare that return to some other recent renowned strikers. I wanted to pick strikers who made big money (relatively speaking in a couple of cases) moves at a similar stage in their careers; Owen is the only one on this list who came up with the same club.

Van Nistelrooy (United 2001-03)
80 goals in 101 games
.79 goals/game; a goal every 1.26 games.
Eto’o (Barca 2004-06)
63 goals in 93 games
.68 goals/game; a goal every 1.48 games
Shevchenko (Milan 1999-2001)
63 goals in 94 games
.67 goals/game; a goal every 1.49 games
Henry (Arsenal 1999-2001)
48 goals in 101 games
.48 goals/game; a goal every 2.1 games
Owen (Liverpool 1997-99; played two games in ’96-97)
46 goals in 84 games
.55 goals/game; a goal every 1.83 games
Villa (Valencia 2005-07)
44 goals in 86 games
.51 goals/game; a goal every 1.95 games
Adebayor (Arsenal 2006-08)
42 goals in 92 games
.46 goals/game; a goal every 2.19 games
Rooney (United 2004-06)
36 goals in 91 games
.40 goals/game; a goal every 2.53 games
Tevez (United 2007-09)
34 goals in 99 games
.34 goals/game; a goal every 2.91 games
Drogba (Chelsea 2004-06)
32 goals in 81 games
.40 goals/game; a goal every 2.53 games

Only van Nistelrooy, Eto’o, and Shevchenko have better goal returns in their first two seasons. 19 of van Nistelrooy’s 80 goals came from the spot, and while I don’t think either Eto’o or Sheva were main penalty takers (Ronaldinho was certainly the main man for Barca), I’m pretty sure their tallies include some spot kicks as well. None of Torres’ 50 have been from the spot. Not to mention the second-season injuries that have held Torres back.

And he’s still fourth best on this list, with only van Nistelrooy registering better totals in the Premiership. I cannot emphasize how different I think this results would be had Torres played the same number of games as in his first season. He’d have given Eto’o and Sheva a run for their money.

As I like to remind, I am admittedly biased. But I would not trade him for any player in the world. He’s the complete striker – two-footed, an excellent header, strong, tall, and blazing fast. He has an incomparable partnership with Gerrard. And just like Gerrard, his talents are crucial to the way Liverpool plays.

Long may it continue.

05 June 2009

Hicks and Gillett re-enter the conversation

Sigh. This'll be short.

BBC News et al are reporting that Hicks and Gillett's holding company lost £42m last year. Which is a big bloody number, and bound to cause a riot.

I would like to throw up a word of caution, and link to this thread on RAWK by ttnbd.

I've linked to ttnbd on financial matters before, and with good reason. He's far more thorough that what you'll find in the news reports. Unsurprisingly, it's not good news, but it's not as bad as it appears on first glance.

02 June 2009

On Liverpool’s left flank… again

Back in early March, I took a look at Liverpool’s record depending on who started on the left. I reckon it’s worth updating that post, given the continuing emergence of Insua, more starts for Benayoun, and much less of Babel and Dossena. Fair warning: this is long, even for me.

The previous post went up to Sunderland on 3/3. Those numbers are here, and the new additions are above in red for comparison. There were 13 matches over this stretch.

2-1-1; 14 goals for, 8 against
4-4 Arse; 1-3 Chelsea; 5-0 Villa; 4-1 United
9-4-0; 20 goals for, 6 against
1-0 Real; 2-0 Chelsea; 1-1 Everton; 0-0 Stoke; 1-0 Marseille; 0-0 Fulham; 2-0 Bolton; 3-0 West Brom; 1-1 Atletico; 1-0 Chelsea; 3-2 City; 3-1 PSV; 2-1 United

3-1-0; 13 for, 5 against
3-1 Spurs; 3-0 West Ham; 3-0 Newcastle; 4-4 Chelsea
1-0-0; 1 for, 0 against
1-0 Liege aet

2-0-0; 5 for, 1 against
2-0 West Brom; 3-1 Hull

1-0-0; 4 for, 0 against
4-0 Blackburn
3-1-0; 8 for, 1 against
2-0 Sunderland; 2-0 PNE; 3-0 Bolton; 1-1 Arsenal

1-0-0; 4 for, 0 against
4-0 Real
1-1-1; 2 for, 3 against
0-2 Boro; 1-1 Wigan; 1-0 Pompey

1-0-0; 1 for, 0 against
1-0 Fulham

3-5-2; 13 for, 10 against
1-1 City; 0-1 Everton (FA); 2-2 Hull; 3-1 PSV; 0-0 West Ham; 1-2 Spurs; 1-1 Atletico; 3-2 Wigan; 2-0 Everton; 0-0 Stoke

2-1-1; 8 for, 8 against
3-2 Pompey; 1-1 Everton (FA); 2-4 Spurs (CC); 2-1 Marseille

2-1-0; 3 for, 1 against:
2-1 Boro; 1-0 Sunderland; 0-0 Liege

2-0-0; 8 for, 2 against
5-1 Newcastle; 3-1 Blackburn

Insua/El Zhar:
1-0-0; 2 for, 1 against
2-1 Crewe (CC)

0-1-0; 0 for, 0 against
0-0 Villa

• Dossena didn’t start at left back after the 1-1 draw against City on 2/22. He started once – as a winger against Fulham after two goals in two substitute appearances against Real and United. And he played a grand total of about 30 minutes in three trips off the bench after that.

• Liverpool won every game Insua started from late December on, and only dropped points in the 1-1 draw at Arsenal. 11 matches: 10 wins, 1 draw. Amazing… even though admittedly that stat’s a bit misleading. The updated matches were against Fulham, Hull, West Brom, and Blackburn (no disrespect, but not quite a murderer’s row) and Liverpool won 10 of these last 13 matches anyway. But still. 10 wins, one draw.

• On first glance it’s surprising that Babel only started one match, Liverpool won 4-0, and he still rarely featured. But that’s evidence that stats aren’t the end all, be all. Babel hasn’t impressed this season – I’m struggling to pick a star moment outside of the winner in the 2-1 victory over United in September, despite over 40 appearances (most as a late sub). Maybe the assist for the third goal in the Real rout. And that’s why he seems the most likely departure, especially since he should still recoup a fair bit of his original fee.

• Benayoun didn’t start on the left from the 8/27 late win over Liege until the second CL leg against Chelsea on 4/8. From there, he was the most frequent starter on the left – probably thanks to Benayoun being in outstanding form as well as Riera fading as the season went on.

Either way, the number of players deployed at this position shows it’s one of Liverpool’s main weaknesses. Liverpool used five different left wingers – six if you count Keane’s cameo against Villa – and only Benayoun and Riera came close to making the position their own.

And as much as I like both, they’re probably squad players in a title-winning team. That comes off much harsher than I mean it to; both have been important in a very good Liverpool team, and both merit a place in the squad. I certainly wouldn’t sell either. Riera’s definitely had some highs, but his inconsistency means that competition’s needed. And Benayoun, while in fantastic form, is not a left-sided player. He’s best as a backup for Gerrard in the hole and competing with Kuyt on the right. And deployed on the left as a last resort.

Aurelio has been the better partner for Yossi because of Fabio’s ability to get forward and stay wide while Benayoun cuts in and operates centrally. And that’s why it worked a treat against the likes of West Ham and Newcastle, where Liverpool was on the front foot for long stretches, and less so against a team with the firepower of a Chelsea.

Insua’s not bad at getting forward in his own right, but due to his age (and, I’m assuming, Benitez’s instructions), he’s a bit more conservative and restrained in attack. But, and again, no disrespect meant, it’s not easy to get a good handle on his and Benayoun’s capabilities when the pairing’s only been deployed against West Brom and Hull.

Yes, Benitez doesn’t often play with ‘out-and-out’ left wingers, especially in the 4-2-3-1. You can see it in the way Riera hugged the touchline less and less as the season went on. The fullback usually provides the width, and I don’t disagree with that. But, at the least, Liverpool needs a player that’s predominately left-footed, if not at least capable of whipping in crosses with his left. The player has to be able to cut in, but also able to stay wide if the fullback’s penned back, which will happen against the top clubs. The need for versatility is one of the drawbacks inherent in Benitez’s preferred fluid style, I guess.

And, although I doubt this inference will be welcomed by all Liverpool fans, it would explain the continued pursuit of Gareth Barry. Which wouldn’t be bad business, although I still think there are better options; whatever the fee, it’d be less than last summer, and probably cheaper than other rumored targets. However, I think it’s just as crucial the player be able to run at and beat his man. Which is why Babel’s inability to progress is so frustrating. On paper, he’s the type of player Liverpool needs – only he cannot deliver on anywhere near a consistent basis. And it’s not as if players like that are ubiquitous.

This is why left winger is the position I’m watching all summer. It’s the one place I think Liverpool definitely needs improvement to win the title. A back-up striker would be nice, as would a right back to compete with Arbeloa. But, worst-case scenario, N’Gog will be a year older (and Voronin could always come back from loan!), while Degen might get fit (*snicker*) and Darby’s been touted for a step up in the past (plus, he’s English!). I’m not even suggesting replacing Alonso because I’m not even contemplating him leaving.

But Dossena and Babel are seemingly on their way out, and will probably be pushed to increase Rafa’s budget. Neither are lost causes – Babel is still young and it was Dossena’s first season in England – but neither have been good enough and money’s most likely needed. Would I be disappointed if neither went and Liverpool kept basically the same squad? Probably, but I don’t think that’d mean a title challenge is impossible. But, as this year proved, it’ll be very, very difficult, and it’s not likely that Liverpool will take 12 points off United and Chelsea in subsequent seasons.

Long story short, more damage must be done against teams content to sit back, especially at Anfield, and improving this position is probably the best way to remedy that problem.