28 February 2010

Liverpool 2-1 Blackburn

Mascherano Carragher Agger Aurelio
Maxi Lucas Gerrard Benayoun
Kuyt Torres

Gerrard 20’
Andrews 40’ (pen)
Torres 44’

Last season’s fortitude beats this season’s pervasive bad luck. Oh, and a fit Fernando Torres might have had something to do with it too. Pepe Reina’s not bad either.

Despite the change in formation, despite Mascherano at right back, Benitez had nearly a full compliment of players to pick from, and it led to three deserved points. Blackburn made a real fight of it, especially over the last half an hour – partly down to their fortitude, partly down to Liverpool unsteadiness, and partly down to Alan Wiley loving him some Blackburn today – but the result's justified.

And the away side started on the front foot, creating pressure and winning corners (two in the first three minutes) – one of which Samba had a free if difficult header on that he tamely hit straight at Reina. It took Liverpool nearly five minutes to establish any sort of possession and 20 to create a flowing attacking move.

But they scored from that first attacking move, and what a move it was. Gerrard started it in midfield: Gerrard to Kuyt to Gerrard to Benayoun to Gerrard. The captain received the ball back from Yossi when striding through the box, his touch taking it past defenders then cleverly lofting over Robinson. That’s what you get from Gerrard in midfield – a surging, beautiful move capped with a goal when running in from deep. But you also get more gaps in midfield, even if they’re not necessarily the captain’s fault. Liverpool was just as open in the victory over Wigan in December, the last time they played this formation. Blackburn having more possession than opponents usually do at Anfield wasn't coincidence.

And Blackburn didn’t go away after the opener, as Pedersen forced two saves from Reina in quick succession a minute later. However, Liverpool were clearly growing in confidence and time of possession, while Blackburn reverted to type even quicker than usual, hoofing and barging when with the ball.

But they didn’t deserve the equalizer. Benayoun sloppily cleared the ball straight to Pedersen, who found Kalinic surrounded by four defenders. He looked to be muscled out, but somehow Carragher slipped and handled, and Wiley immediately pointed to the spot. To compound the stomach punch, Reina went the right way only to see Andrews’ penalty squirm under him.

Based on the majority what we’ve seen this season, you’d expect the team to fold after conceding such a soft equalizer in front of the Kop. But it took less than four minutes to reclaim that lead, thanks to that man Torres. Lucas’ tremendous long distance throughball nearly found the striker, and Samba’s clearance fortunately fell to Maxi. And when Robinson strangely decided to jog out to no man’s land, the winger easily found Torres to tap into an open net.

That Liverpool couldn’t find a third goal to open the gap and seemingly seal the game caused problems throughout the second half, and may have caused a few heart attacks on Merseyside, especially given this season’s proclivities. But Wiley’s leniency for anyone in blue and white is what kept Blackburn with a full complement of players.

Nzonzi should have marched for petulantly pushing Lucas to the ground after fouling the midfielder five minutes after the restart. Chimbonda should have marched for karate-kicking Maxi after being fouled in the 80th. And somehow the likes of Kalinic, Salgado, and Diouf failed to pick up second yellows. Diouf should have been sent off for simply being Diouf. How Liverpool picked up six bookings last week compared to how this game was refereed baffles the mind.

Blackburn’s bullying tactics started to pay dividends around the hour mark, when Andrews volleyed Agger’s clearance wide before Hoillet shot straight at Reina after a quick passing move, and Liverpool spent most of the last 30 minutes defending. After a “lull,” Blackburn again upped the pressure with ten to play, when the likes Torres, Benayoun, and Maxi were clearly gassed. Babel and Ngog came on for the first two (in the 78th and 90th, while Insua replaced Aurelio not long before the Blackburn’s goal after Aurelio tore his right thigh edit: Commentators lie. Quad strain according to Rafa.), and Liverpool began to sit deeper and deeper, which obviously raised the heart rate.

It looked as if Liverpool would hold on without a serious threat to Reina, as Blackburn hoofed and hoped and Liverpool ultimately cleared, until the second minute of injury time. Here’s where we thank Pepe Reina. Another deep Blackburn free kick after another nothing foul (in contrast to how Wiley saw Blackburn offenses) finally found Samba in the area, but somehow Reina stretched across his goal to keep the header out with his fingertips. Amazing. Immaculate. And absolutely saved two points.

It would have been nice to see Liverpool hammer a league opponent, and the game could have turned out that way had Carragher not slipped in the box or had Wiley correctly sent off Nzonzi with 40 minutes to play, but this type of win might be more reassuring. Liverpool didn’t fold under the weight of an unfortunate equalizer and didn’t fold under constant late pressure like we’d seen all too often this season.

That both Gerrard and Torres scored is probably the most heartening player statistic. But Mascherano continued his immense form, probably man of the match, this time in an unfamiliar right back role (last seen in the 2-0 win against Sunderland last season that started the closing run). It was easily Maxi’s best game for Liverpool and he earned his first assist. And outside of the penalty, the backline stayed firm despite frequent physical pressure (although Kyrgiakos would have been helpful today).

It’s probably not coincidental that the final score was the same as when Liverpool last played 4-4-2, against Wigan in December. And coincidentally, they’re also the next opponents. Both wins were more workman-like than impressive, with Liverpool marginally more threatening in attack but also more open in midfield. Torres even scored the winner in both. Obviously, there are trade-offs, and that Benitez has been more willing to “experiment” in recent games probably shows we’ll see the team adapt tactically to the opposition, like Rafa was wont to do earlier in his Liverpool career. Again, back to basics during a difficult stretch.

Now, all eyes are on staying fit during this midweek break before the aforementioned Wigan match in eight days.

27 February 2010

City at Chelsea and Liverpool at Old Trafford

As usual, I hate bumping match previews off the top, but it's inescapable after watching City demolish Chelsea this morning, which prompted a massive bit of déjà vu. It looked an awful lot like Liverpool's away victory over United last season.

How many similarities? Let me count the ways...

• A late winter/early spring match between the league leaders and the league "upstarts."

• An opening goal for the home side, in the first half, which appeared to put them on the path to the predicted victory.

• A fortune equalizer for the visitors. And the equalizer came because the defense messed up a hopeful punt and the visitor's star striker terrified the defense into more mistakes when running straight at them.

• A 1-2 goal against the run of play, from another defensive mistake.

• A red card for the losing home side after the 70th minute, after the team had made a raft of substitutions to change the shape.

• The red card immediately led to the visitors’ third goal, from a set play. Liverpool's came from an Aurelio free kick and City's from a Tevez penalty.

• A 1-4 goal, again on the break, again against the run of play, for added gloss.

• Converted penalties for both sides.

• A surprising double for the visitors. Liverpool beat United 2-1 at home and 4-1 away. City beat Chelsea 2-1 at home and 4-2 away. The only reason the scorelines finished different was a late consolation penalty, given in injury time and converted by Lampard. It would have been too spooky had all four matches ended with the same score.

Liverpool's win, coming right after beating Real Madrid by four goals, sent them on a run of nine wins and one draw to finish the league campaign. City have 11 games left. If the similarities between today's match and last year's continue, City will assuredly cement a Champions League place. And it'll probably be at the expense of Liverpool.

26 February 2010

Liverpool v Blackburn 02.28.10

10am, live in the US on FSC

Last 4 head-to-head:
0-0 (a) 12.05.09
4-0 Liverpool (h) 04.11.09
3-1 Liverpool (a) 12.06.08
3-1 Liverpool (h) 04.13.08

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-1 Unirea (a); 0-0 City (a); 1-0 Unirea (h)
Blackburn: 3-0 Bolton (h); 1-0 Hull (h); 0-3 Stoke (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 12; Kuyt 9; Benayoun, Gerrard 5; Ngog 4; Babel, Johnson 2; Kyrgiakos, Skrtel 1
Blackburn: Dunn 5; Roberts 4; Nelsen, Pedersen 3; Doiuf, Givet, Kalinic, Samba 2; Chimbonda, Di Santo, Nzonzi 1

Referee: Alan Wiley

Guess at a squad:
Kelly Carragher Agger Insua
Mascherano Lucas
Benayoun Gerrard Babel

So, now that Liverpool’s finally scored three in a game and delivered a cohesive attack, do we see the same lineup?

I’d be a lot more comfortable with Kuyt starting up top if the above lineup didn’t look almost exactly like the one that finished 0-0 at Blackburn in December. The only changes between this guessed lineup and the previous meeting are Kelly instead of Johnson and Babel instead of Riera.

Despite how often I seem biased against the player, I was impressed with Babel’s contribution yesterday – especially the goal – and reckon he deserves another start. Liverpool looked far more dangerous with Benayoun and Babel on the flanks (who haven’t started together on the wings since the 0-1 loss at Sunderland).

That Benayoun’s only returned from injury means two games in four days may be too much to ask. If that’s the case, Kuyt will probably start on the right with Ngog up top. But Benayoun looked lively throughout, and was subbed off for Aurelio with 15 to play. I obviously still think it’s too soon for Torres to start, but with eight days until the following game (not counting the infuriating midweek international break, which Torres has annoyingly been selected for), there’s still a slight ray of hope.

Who knows anymore, but I’m tempted to think Aquilani didn’t get a look-in yesterday because of the atrocious conditions, both weather and the state of the pitch. That Liverpool’s at Anfield on Sunday makes his inclusion a bit more likely, but Lucas and Mascherano both played well against Unirea.

There are few possibilities in defense thanks to Skrtel’s broken metatarsal. Johnson’s just returned to light training and Kyrgiakos is suspended for one more league match. The only possible difference is the inclusion of Aurelio, who – like against Unirea – seems more likely off the bench or in midfield.

Blackburn’s captain Ryan Nelsen is still out with a knee injury, but both David Dunn and Franco Di Santo could be back after surviving a midweek reserve game. Key defender Chris Samba also comes back from a ban; Samba and Nelsen were outstanding in the last meeting.

Blackburn have hauled themselves up to 12th since the New Year, 11 points above the relegation zone. Since beating Fulham on January 17, Blackburn are 4-1-1 in the league, with the lone loss coming at Stoke at the beginning of the month, and have kept clean sheets in four of those six matches. Admittedly, the four wins all came at Ewood, and were over Fulham, Wigan, Hull, and Bolton, but results are results, and those results are better than Liverpool’s over the same stretch.

25 February 2010

Liverpool 3-1 Unirea Urziceni

Liverpool win 4-1 on aggregate

Carragher Skrtel Agger Insua
Lucas Mascherano
Benayoun Gerrard Babel

Bruno Fernandes 19’
Mascherano 30’
Babel 41’
Gerrard 57’

Three goals in a match, coming from behind, and a comfortable win. Oh, it’s been way too long…

It was a substandard first half, with a somewhat-unexpected front four, in which Liverpool sloppily conceded from a corner. And for a moment it felt like we’d returned to the beach ball days that had thankfully looked behind us. But the team finally showed some resiliency in getting two very good goals to take a dominating 2-1 lead into the break, and coasted to victory in the second half.

Two early chances, one for each side, was an encouraging sign that this game might be a bit different than the last. But after Frunza shot over when Liverpool failed to clear a corner followed by Gerrard forcing Arlauskis into an excellent save from Lucas’ throughball, it soon turned into a carbon copy of last week. Liverpool absolutely took the air out of the ball, getting little going while the home side racked up the corners when they got forward.

And on Unirea’s seventh corner, with only 19 minutes off the clock, the defense finally broke. And this time, pundits can blame zonal marking. Fernandes hesitated outside of the penalty spot before a static Insua didn’t pick up his smart late run, allowing the last leg’s best defender an easy free header.

Although the leveler clearly knocked Liverpool off their stride, it didn’t take long to put the tie to bed, from two fairly unlikely scorers with supremely well-taken goals. But Liverpool were definitely helped when Unirea’s captain, Galamaz, went off in the 26th. Still, you can’t let that take away from the quality of the strikes.

30 minutes in, Mascherano slammed in his second for the club, another from 25 yards out, after Carragher’s cross that Gerrard knocked down was cleared. Unirea had a spell of pressure starting around the 36th, in which Insua nearly put the ball in his own net when another dangerous corner skidded across the box, but Babel iced the tie by slotting in Gerrard’s right channel free kick in the 41st.

On first glance, Babel appeared a bit lucky, getting in a mix with Skrtel before prodding over the line. But the replays made his lovely control to bring the ball down in a shooting position clear; whether or not the Unirea flick-on led to the good fortune, it was an exceptionally clever goal.

With Unirea needing three to win, Liverpool were in a better position to play the keepball they wanted to from the off. And after Gerrard added a third in the 57th – Benayoun mazily ran through the box and trickled a pass to the captain, who slammed a shot in off Arlauskis – they were able to sit deeper and break at will, although I use the term “break” very lightly, as Liverpool casually spilled forward when in possession.

Kelly replaced Carragher soon after the hour mark, before the night’s worst news: Skrtel injured coming together with Semedo in the 63rd, going off on a stretcher with Kyrgiakos taking his place. Hopefully it was mostly precautionary, but that Kelly was able to see 30 minutes (and didn’t look out of place) is comforting; if Skrtel can’t go on Sunday, the backline will definitely be Kelly-Carra-Agger-Insua with Kyrgiakos still suspended.

From there, neither side saw much goalmouth action until the last five minutes. First, Reina had to conjure a brilliant save, somehow keeping out Bilasco’s stabbed effort after a dangerous left-wing cross in the 86th. Yet Liverpool finished strongest and could have added a fourth, but Gerrard’s narrow low shot was saved, as was Lucas’s last-minute curler.

Unirea were tougher opponents than the aggregate scoreline suggests (Paduretu and Bruno Fernandes both impressed), but we finally got the things from Liverpool we needed to see. Three goals – in an away game where Lucas and Mascherano manned (read: bossed) the midfield, no less. A couple of unlikely scorers, including a marvelous Masch and an in-form Gerrard (who’s now the top English goalscorer in European competition). The backline was superb: Agger probably man of the match where Skrtel was on Sunday, and Kelly back in the fold. Hopefully the Slovakian won’t miss much time.

Benayoun also made a big difference, a willing runner in midfield, while Babel got on the scoresheet. He may infuriate at times, just like Garcia did, and sometimes it feels like I have to reel in my bias, but he performed today, and will probably continue to get chances to. Hopefully the runs and tricks come off, and his ability to bring teammates into the attack improves, as he gets game time.

I seriously hope people don’t use Kuyt’s absence as a stick to beat his attacking contribution with. I’m fairly certain his omission today came down to rest, and I honestly think he would have done a better job as a lone striker in place of Ngog. But those are minor complaints, and along with the soft goal and fears over Skrtel, my only complaints.

Job done, and with a bit of style, even if the scoreline does Unirea little justice. Both the result and the way it was achieved were exactly what Liverpool needed.

Fenerbache and Lille are currently playing for the right to face Liverpool in the next round, with the French team taking a 2-1 home win into a second leg that’s currently 0-0.

24 February 2010

Liverpool at Unirea Urziceni 02.25.10

Liverpool leads 1-0 on aggregate.

1:00pm, live in the US on DirecTV channel 462 (or in HD on 462-1).

Group Stage Results:
Liverpool: 1-2 Fiorentina (h); 1-0 Debrecen (a); 1-1 Lyon (a); 1-2 Lyon (h); 0-2 Fiorentina (a); 1-0 Debrecen (h)
Unirea: 1-3 Stuttgart (a); 1-0 Sevilla (h); 1-1 Rangers (h); 4-1 Rangers (a); 1-1 Stuttgart (h); 0-2 Sevilla (a)

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 City (a); 1-0 Unirea (h); 0-1 Arsenal (a)
Unirea: 0-1 Cluj (h); 2-0 Iasi (h); 1-3 Stuttgart (a)

Goalscorers (all competitions):
Liverpool: Torres 12; Kuyt 10; Benayoun, Ngog 7; Gerrard 6; Babel 3; Johnson 2; Insua, Kyrgiakos, Skrtel 1
Unirea: Bilasco 7; Onofras 5; Semedo 4; Apostol, Brandan, Frunza 2; Galamaz, Maftei, Paduretu, Rusescu, Varga 1

Referee: Stefan Johannesson (SWE)

Guess at a squad:
Carragher Skrtel Agger Insua
Mascherano Aquilani
Babel Gerrard Riera

So, how many changes will Liverpool make? We’re all well aware of the Premiership’s importance, and there’s yet another crucial game on Sunday, but Liverpool only has a narrow lead and any game in Romania will probably be a difficult trip.

How does Rafa “remedy” the attack? Will Aquilani start, as he did in the last leg? And will Benitez keep the same backline, which has been impressively solid, or change it up with games coming fast and thick?

The possibility of Torres starting has already been ruled out, and rightly so. I doubt Benayoun will be in the XI as well. Both should be eased back into the side, getting 15-30 minutes if the situation calls for it. Ngog’s back from the ankle sprain that kept him out over the weekend, but the recent knock and that this is in Bucharest (only two of his seven goals this season came away from Anfield: at Leeds and Debrecen) suggest Rafa will start with an attack similar to the one that faced City.

As Maxi’s ineligible for the Europa League, the only attacking change I’ve guessed is Riera on the left. His recent omissions, without suggestion of injury recurrence, have baffled, even if he was ineffective in the last leg. And if Rafa’s still hesitant to start Riera, we could see Babel on the left, Kuyt on the right, and Ngog up top. Maybe even Aurelio given Rafa’s predilection for caution; Aurelio at least seems more likely than Benayoun starting. If Liverpool had a larger lead, maybe Pacheco would start, but again, the bench is a better possibility, especially with Babel looking to get a run in the team.

Once again, I hope to see Aquilani in the middle, although I’m not opposed to the previous suggestion of playing him in the Gerrard role with Stevie deeper or out right. He seems much more likely to play in European games, giving him more time to adapt to his teammates with a more familiar style of play. And Mascherano’s been undroppable of late, even if I was terrified of him picking up a red card for the entire City match.

I feel most certain in guessing Benitez will keep the same backline. Maybe Kyrgiakos is a different (and potentially better) option away from Anfield, still a game away from returning from a league suspension, but if he didn’t start in the last leg, I doubt he will tomorrow. Besides, the back line is what’s keeping Liverpool afloat at the moment. Like in the last meeting, if there are any changes, they’ll probably come at left back. That Aurelio had little to write home about a week ago is why I’m guessing Insua tomorrow, although his delivery on set plays could be important on the road.

Unirea will undoubtedly be far more dangerous in Bucharest (it seems wrong to write “at home” given that their home stadium isn’t Europa League-complaint), but I still expect them to keep a fair few men behind the ball. They also lost to title rivals Cluj at home over the weekend, in the first game back from the league’s winter break. Left back Brandan, who played well at Anfield, is suspended, but otherwise all signs point to the same XI.

Since the demoralizing defeat at Besiktas in the ’07-08 group stage, Liverpool’s lost exactly once on European soil: to Fiorentina in October, ten games with a only single loss. That’s a reassuring statistic, especially considering Liverpool’s league troubles on the road. Let’s hope the streak continues tomorrow.

22 February 2010

Three or Four or More

Liverpool hasn't scored three or more goals in a game since beating Hull 6-1 on September 29th. If the team maintains that streak against Blackburn next Sunday (which seems fairly likely), it'll be five full months – 21 games – without scoring more than twice in a league contest.

If that's happened before, it's been a while. The closest stretch came in '91-92 when Liverpool went 20 straight, which equals where the team's at now. Liverpool also had stretches of 19 in '91-92, and 17 in '93-94 and '02-03. Of course, it's worth noting that Liverpool frequently needed to score three goals to win under Roy Evans and finishing sixth was a good year with Souness in charge. Anyone can see how awful the attack is of late, but that stat's still surprising. And that Liverpool's record isn't worse at least demonstrates some defensive steel, in contrast to the early season losses.

Liverpool's only scored three or more in five league games this season (through 27), which actually seems a lot considering they all came in August and September. But it happened 15 times last season. In fact, the number of league games where Liverpool scored more than twice had increased in each of Benitez's seasons: 6 in '04/05, 7 in '05/06, 8 in '06/07, 9 in '07/08, and 10 in '08/09 before the "explosion" last year, most coming during the tremendous run-in. The only way that trend could continue is if Liverpool scores at least three in all the remaining Premiership matches.

Just to show how far "the mighty" have fallen, 5 out of 27 is 18.5%. 6 out of 38 is 18.4%. "Lies, damned lies, and statistics" has never rang truer, but that suggests Liverpool's only a tenth of a percent better in attack since Rafa's first season. Yikes. Just yikes. Incidentally, Liverpool's never lost a league match under Benitez when they've scored three or more; the only defeat came against Arsenal in the League Cup in January 2007, the infamous 3-6 drubbing at Anfield.

One can only hope that the return of Torres and Benayoun will ease the pain, but the complete dearth of goals suggests something more sinister. I've been arguing that this season's a perfect storm of calamities, and I still think that's the case, but an increasingly insipid attack deservedly inspires more questions. Yes, key players have been injured in every phase of the season – Torres, Gerrard, Yossi, Riera, Johnson, Aquilani, etc. – but there has to be more to it than that. An attack doesn't completely fall apart out of the blue. Hell, in the 23 games prior to this stretch, from Sunderland on March 3rd through Hull in September, Liverpool averaged almost 3 goals a game. 2.913 to be precise.

This recent stretch without Torres, where Liverpool's continued to misfire even with Gerrard back in the line-up, makes me think it's ultimately a combination of squad depth and Gerrard's ineffectiveness as a second striker without Torres. Yes, Stevie had some big games in a free role without Fernando, most notably 5-1 against Newcastle with Kuyt up top, but the longer Gerrard's been in the position, the longer teams have had to figure him, and the system, out.

I don't know what changes to suggest – Ed and I have been trying to hammer that out, to little effect, during these recent Benitez back-and-forths – but maybe something has to give, whether it's playing two up top or moving Gerrard out wide or deeper. But maybe key players (read: Torres and Benayoun) returning to fitness will spark the end of season run Liverpool often delivers. It just goes to show how confused this season has me. I'm still tempted to argue for the 4-2-3-1, and will probably do so in future, for all the reasons I've constantly sounded. I didn't create a "This Season Sucks" tag out of the blue.

However – in an attempt to end this on an optimistic note – Liverpool went a fairly long stretch without scoring three or more last season: more than two and a half months if you don't count that odd 3-2 contest against Pompey. Once the dam burst against Madrid and then Manchester in March, the goals couldn't stop coming for the rest of the campaign.

Let's hope springtime brings similar this season.

The full list of games follows:

'09-10: 4-0 Stoke (08.19), 3-2 Bolton (08.29), 4-0 Burnley (09.12), 3-2 WH (09.19), 6-1 Hull (09.29)
'08-09: 3-2 City (10.05), 3-2 Wigan (10.18), 3-0 WBA (11.08), 3-1 Blackburn (12.06), 3-0 Bolton (12.26), 5-1 Newcastle (12.28), 3-2 Portsmouth (02.07), 4-1 Man Utd (03.14), 5-0 Villa (03.22), 4-0 Blackburn (04.11), 4-4 Arsenal (04.21), 3-1 Hull (04.25), 3-0 Newcastle (05.03), 3-0 WH (05.09), 3-1 Spurs (05.24)
'07-08: 6-0 Derby (09.01), 3-0 Newcastle (11.24), 4-0 Bolton (12.02), 4-1 Portsmouth (12.22), 3-0 Sunderland (02.02), 3-2 Boro (02.23), 3-1 Bolton (03.02), 4-0 WH (03.05), 3-0 Newcastle (03.08), 3-1 Blackburn (04.13)
'06-07: 3-0 Spurs (09.23), 3-1 Villa (10.28), 4-0 Wigan (12.02), 4-0 Fulham (12.09), 3-0 Charlton (12.16), 3-0 Bolton (01.01), 3-0 Watford (01.13), 4-0 Sheffield Utd (02.24), 4-1 Arsenal (03.31)
'05-06: 3-0 Portsmouth (11.19), 3-0 Wigan (12.03), 3-1 Everton (12.28), 5-1 Fulham (03.15), 3-1 Newcastle (03.19), 3-1 Everton (03.25), 3-1 Villa (04.24), 3-1 Portsmouth (05.07)
'04-05: 3-0 WBA (09.11), 3-0 Norwich (09.25), 4-2 Fulham (10.16), 3-2 Crystal Palace (11.13), 3-1 Newcastle (12.19), 5-0 WBA (12.26), 3-1 Fulham (02.25)

21 February 2010

Liverpool 0-0 Manchester City

Carragher Skrtel Agger Insua
Lucas Mascherano
Babel Gerrard Maxi

A clear display of how tight the battle for fourth is, with both sides deathly frightened of conceding and rarely willing to come out of their respective shells. A draw is definitely deserved. And both live to fight another day, I guess.

City came out in a mirror reflection of Liverpool’s formation – with Ireland off Adebayor and De Jong and Barry holding – and the two sides, nearly level in the league, canceled each other out in the first half, leading to few and far between attacks for both.

The first 45 saw three shots for Liverpool, one for City, and none tested the keeper. Rodriguez and Gerrard cut in from the left and right respectively (in the 13th and 25th) with Maxi’s shot deflected wide(r) and Gerrard shooting over with a left-footed effort, while Skrtel had the best chance right before halftime, heading Gerrard’s sixth corner wide in the 44th. City’s lone shot came after Zabaleta collected Agger’s clearance, with Adebayor (who looked offside) deflecting the Argentinean’s strike wide. Most of City’s chances came when attacking at pace, usually after a Liverpool giveaway, with Adam Johnson far and away the most threatening.

Constant Liverpool giveaways, with Lucas and Mascherano the guiltiest (especially Lucas, although no one was exempt), kept the away side from putting their minute advantage to use, but that Liverpool saw slightly more possession and had the marginally more meaningful chances (as well as six corners to City’s one) meant that at least the two South Americans were winning the battle.

An even more disjointed Liverpool saw City up the pressure after the break, taking less than 10 minutes to equal the corner count and almost forge a winner within five, when a Gerrard slip allowed City to break through Ireland and Adebayor, with Ireland missing wide after Adebayor’s throughball, although the midfielder looked offside. The first shot on goal came soon after, from Adebayor and despite a handball from the striker, but Reina got down low to make an excellent save.

We got two important players making returns from injury in Benayoun (for Maxi) and Torres (for Babel), in the 63rd and 75th (with Aquilani making a cameo for Kuyt in the 87th) and Liverpool finally got a first shot on goal in the 74th – another Gerrard lefty shot from 22 yards straight down Given’s throat – but a winner wasn’t coming for either side, and neither really deserved one.

City finished with the better chances, with Skrtel wonderfully getting back for a last-ditch tackle on an apparently-through Adebayor, the Togolese striker heading over from a corner flicked back in, and a coming together between Agger and Adebayor in the box which might have been a penalty, before Benayoun could have won a penalty of his own in the first minute of added time, staying on his feet after Kompany left his foot in, only to see his cutback cut out.

Liverpool’s rebuilt the season brick by brick with a formidable defense, and that remained the case today. Skrtel and Carragher were absolute rocks, and a 4-2-3-1 formation from City allowed Skrtel and Agger to double Adebayor for long stretches, with the two looking a better partnership with each match together. The resilience shown, against a strong City side on their ground, was definitely welcomed.

That Babel started on the right with Kuyt up top (Babel and Maxi switched sides around the half-hour mark) shows Benitez is looking for ways to change up the attack, with obviously limited resources and within the system he’s built, although Ngog was apparently injured, not in the squad. Unfortunately, it was the same old hard road to hoe, although City clearly made defending a priority, something Mancini was already focused on.

And that both Benayoun and Torres returned is massively heartening. Torres was invisible for long stretches, even picking up an unwarranted yellow for an innocuous challenge, but just being on the pitch and not suffering a relapse is a boon. And Benayoun looked lively at times, trying to run at defenders although clearly not match fit. If he would have gone down under Kompany’s challenge, we might have seen a penalty; Walton definitely would have had something to think about, although the referee was inconsistent with his whistle today (although on the whole even for both clubs, despite a questionable six yellows for Liverpool).

‘At least it’s not a loss’ usually feels worse than this. A win would have been lovely, but taking a point at a difficult venue isn’t a terrible result by any means. A loss would have been reprehensible, leaving Liverpool with Mount Everest to climb. This, coupled with Spurs and Villa’s results, at least leaves everything to play for over the next 11 matches.

19 February 2010

Liverpool at Manchester City 02.21.10

10am, live in the US on FSC

Last 4 head-to-head:
2-2 (h) 11.21.09
1-1 (h) 02.22.09
3-2 Liverpool (a) 10.05.08
1-0 Liverpool (h) 05.04.08

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Unirea (h); 0-1 Arsenal (a); 1-0 Everton (h)
City: 1-1 Stoke (a); 1-1 Stoke (h); 2-0 Bolton (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 12; Kuyt 9; Benayoun, Gerrard 5; Ngog 4; Babel, Johnson 2; Kyrgiakos, Skrtel 1
City: Tevez 13; Adebayor 9; Bellamy 6; Petrov 4; Richards, Wright-Phillips 3; Barry, Ireland, Santa Cruz 2; Garrido, Kompany, Lescott, Toure 1

Referee: Peter Walton

The referee who gave Ngog a penalty against Brum for “diving,” so Liverpool can probably plan on getting zero 50-50 calls from him.

Guess at a squad:
Carragher Skrtel Agger Insua
Mascherano Lucas
Kuyt Gerrard Maxi

I’m not saying I agree with the line-up, but chances are it looks a lot like this.

There are only three differences between this guessed side and last night against Unirea – Lucas for Aquilani, Maxi for Riera, and Insua for Aurelio. Lucas is a no-brainer: at City, against a club with immense attacking capabilities, the Brazilian’s holding qualities will be necessary in conjunction with the terrifying Mascherano. On the other hand, Maxi for Riera seems likely because of the way Liverpool’s played of late, especially considering Riera’s ineffective performance yesterday. However, given that Riera provides something different and clearly needs match fitness, I wouldn’t be totally surprised to see him keep his place.

I realize Ngog isn’t everyone’s favorite option. Only 20, he often looks out of his depth as a lone striker, incredibly reliant on support from Gerrard, Kuyt, and whomever. But Liverpool has an implausible lack of options. I highly doubt we’ll see a formation change given the strength in midfield and Benitez’s underlying principle of controlling the game. And Kuyt’s been more useful on the right; he still loses possession a bit too often for my liking, but his workrate, tracking back, ability to get into the box, and adequate crosses means he’ll probably stay on the flanks.

Gerrard looked more influential sitting deeper after Babel and Pacheco came on, and maybe there’s a case for starting him in midfield, but I doubt it’ll come in an away match against the closest competition for fourth place. We know Benitez and we know Liverpool. Keep it tight, control the game, and hope to spring a winner. It’s not quantum physics. Both Babel and Pacheco were crucial off the bench against Unirea, and I expect that to be their role on Sunday.

The only potential change in defense seems Aurelio for Insua, as we saw yesterday, but Fabio rarely plays two games in three days even when fit. His experience could be key, but he was caught upfield as often as Insua yesterday, even if Unirea didn’t have the players to punish it. Otherwise, Carra, Skrtel, and Agger seem nailed-on starters.

It will be a much more open game than yesterday’s, with City likely lining up 4-3-3, and hopefully Liverpool will be able to exploit it. City have improved under Mancini, but are still vulnerable and still concede sloppy goals, evidenced in the two recent draws against Stoke and the 1-2 loss at Hull. City are 2-1-1 in the league since losing the Carling Cup semifinal, the two wins coming at home against Pompey and Bolton.

Vieira is suspended, Petrov, Johnson, and Kompany are questionable due to injury, and Tevez is unlikely to feature as well, having traveled to Argentina with his daughter in intensive care, having been born prematurely last week. Bellamy will probably start in Tevez’s absence – just back from injury himself – and you should be terribly frightened of the former Red punishing Liverpool.

I’ve written this far too often this season, but you can’t overestimate this game’s importance. City currently sit one point above Liverpool with a game in hand. With trips to Chelsea and Arsenal on the horizon, as well as matches against Tottenham, Villa, and United still to come, City arguably has a harder run-in than Liverpool, or Spurs or Villa. It’s nearly impossible to quantity the importance of a Liverpool win. But a loss would make fourth place immeasurably more difficult.

18 February 2010

Liverpool 1-0 Unirea Urziceni

Carragher Skrtel Agger Aurelio
Aquilani Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Riera

Ngog 81’

Hey, a late winner! It’s been a while. And the substitutions were the key! Again, that’s something new and nice for a change.

It’s also been a while since a team parked the bus against Liverpool. Really, it’s only happened in Europe: twice against Debrecen and today – and it wasn't just the scoreline that was the same. Maybe continental sides haven’t gotten the memo on Liverpool’s weaknesses.

And it was basically the strongest team Liverpool could have named, disregarding the frequent debate over Babel, who again made his impact off the bench. With Carragher right of the Skrtel/Agger pairing, it was the defense we’ll probably see for the next few league matches, with Aurelio finally making his way back into the squad.

Liverpool must have had at least two-thirds of the possession in the first half, with Unirea’s lone striker Bilasco the only player to spend more than five minutes on the other side of the pitch. But an excellent opportunity within 30 seconds – Aurelio teeing up Kuyt on the edge of the box, whose throughball let Gerrard in, only for keeper Aurlauskis to make an excellent save – soon turned into some dire ‘pass around the box prodding for some sort of opening, only to eventually give it away.’

Liverpool had chances, but mostly struggled to break down an exceptionally-packed final third. Kuyt’s narrow shot was pushed around the post in the 11th, Gerrard spurned a difficult free header from Aquilani’s cross in the 19th, and Liverpool were consistently winning corners and deep throws. The team even upped the tempo around the half-hour mark, but it resulted in multiple shots from distance deflected wide, a clever Ngog chest-and-turn inches past the far post, and Gerrard nearly through, only to be caught by Bruno Fernandes (who saw yellow with other defenders nearby). Breaking down the crowded box, led by the impressive Fernandes, proved too much to ask in the first 45.

And the second half seemed at an even slower tempo than the first. It took seven minutes for an attempt at goal, with Gerrard heading Carragher’s cross wide, reminiscent of his first chance. Another excellent save by Arlauskis, on Aurelio’s low shot from outside the box, came ten minutes later, right before Babel replaced the ineffective Riera.

It took Liverpool some time to actually raise their game, with the usual breakdowns in the final third complemented by Babel running into dead ends. But a five-minute spell of pressure around the 70th minute – with Ngog’s shot deflected just wide, Skrtel heading Aurelio’s corner over, Ngog flicking a header wide, and Gerrard’s stabbed effort palmed away – before Pacheco came on for the anonymous Aquilani finally saw Liverpool mount enough pressure to get a winner.

It’s little surprise that Liverpool’s two most problematic players – Riera and Aquilani – were those with the least match fitness. Chances weren’t coming for lack of effort: it was a combination of a resilient and packed defense and Liverpool’s inability to spark something special.

But in the 81st minute, the substitutes sparked something special. Babel beat a man to deliver a lofted right-footed cross from the left, finding Pacheco (who played on the right, with Kuyt central and Gerrard in midfield) to center for an on-rushing Ngog. Finally.

Liverpool could have made it a much-better two-goal lead minutes later, only to see Gerrard shoot inches wide after some lovely close control. But the referee seemed intent on keeping Unirea close, ignoring a blatant foul by Brandan on Mascherano just outside the box, which would have been a second yellow sending off, before giving the away side a few questionable free kicks which allowed them to put a marginal amount of pressure on a side susceptible to late goals. But Reina continued to have nothing to do (I’m fairly sure his lone “save” came on a speculative effort which looked to be going wide anyway), and now Liverpool takes a one-goal lead to Romania.

It’s obviously not an ideal situation – Liverpool’s been awful on the road in the league and conceded against both Lyon and Fiorentina in Europe (scoring just twice in three away games) – but it’s better than 0-0. I was preparing to review a frustrating scoreless draw by the 70th minute, and I still would have written that I expected Liverpool to advance. A settled defense, which Benitez appears to want by unexpectedly playing the big guns today, will go a long way towards being able to keep a clean sheet. Liverpool has missed Aurelio’s free kicks, experience, and cool head, and Carragher even did well going forward, although I was surprised to see Kelly not even make the bench.

As per usual, Liverpool set out to control the game, which they did. But “controlling the game” against Romanian opposition (even if they’re decent – having beaten Rangers and Sevilla and tallying more group stage points than Liverpool – the stereotype persists) at Anfield in a competition Liverpool’s disappointed to be in almost didn’t work.

We’ve seen that Benitez wants to restore confidence with a firm defense, going back to the basics. It’s probably a smart tactic given injuries and the amount of stupid and unlucky goals Liverpool conceded earlier in the season. Both Benayoun and Torres could have made a massive difference today. That the tactics might have mistaken is arguable – Liverpool were 10 minutes away from being stifled – but it worked in the end. And Unirea is going to have to come out of their shell in the next meeting.

Special mention goes out to both Babel and Pacheco, who offered different options off the bench and played key parts in the winner. That’s Babel’s second lofted cross which won a game this season (Torres’ strike against West Ham), while the diminutive Pacheco did well to provide the assist in a congested box (guess he's getting game time, huh?). And that the criticized Ngog tallied the goal seems warranted.

Liverpool has the advantage going to Bucharest and returned to winning ways after the disappointment against Arsenal. That’s all that matters.

17 February 2010

Liverpool v Unirea Urziceni 02.18.10

3:05pm, live in the US on DirecTV channel 462 (or in HD on 462-1).

The Europa League is only carried on GolTV and DirecTV. GolTV isn’t showing the Liverpool match live or on tape delay, so if you don’t have DirecTV, you’re probably stuck with a stream. I know you’re sick of me suggesting, but DirecTV is quite awesome and you should get it if you can (although we’re still without FSC HD or FSC+).

Group Stage Results:
Liverpool: 1-2 Fiorentina (h); 1-0 Debrecen (a); 1-1 Lyon (a); 1-2 Lyon (h); 0-2 Fiorentina (a); 1-0 Debrecen (h)
Unirea: 1-3 Stuttgart (a); 1-0 Sevilla (h); 1-1 Rangers (h); 4-1 Rangers (a); 1-1 Stuttgart (h); 0-2 Sevilla (a)

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 0-1 Arsenal (a); 1-0 Everton (h); 2-0 Bolton (h)
Unirea: 2-0 Iasi (h); 3-2 Ceahlaul (a); 2-0 Gloria (h)

Goalscorers (all competitions):
Liverpool: Torres 12; Kuyt 10; Benayoun 7; Gerrard, Ngog 6; Babel 3; Johnson 2; Insua, Kyrgiakos, Skrtel 1
Unirea: Bilasco 7; Onofras 5; Semedo 4; Apostol, Brandan, Frunza 2; Galamaz, Maftei, Paduretu, Rusescu, Varga 1

Referee: Eric Braamhaar (NED)

Guess at a squad:
Kelly Skrtel Kyrgiakos Insua
Lucas Aquilani
Babel Gerrard Riera

This is a complete and utter guess at a line-up. It’s even more of a shot in the dark than usual, made less certain by injuries and a crucial game against City three days later.

With Kyrgiakos suspended for the next two league outings and Carragher just recovering from a groin strain suffered against Arsenal, I’m hoping the big Greek lines up in the middle with either Skrtel or Agger. More importantly, I’m really hoping to see Kelly at right back instead of Carragher or Degen. Now that he’s fit after the unfortunate injury against Lyon, we need to see what the young defender can do. He looked the part against the French side, and can’t do much worse defensively than Degen did against the Arse.

I’m also hoping to see Aquilani feature after a virus last week. I don’t know how necessary Mascherano is at home against Romanian opposition, even if he is in tremendous form, but I know he’ll be key against City. Lucas has done an adequate job as a holding midfielder when paired with Aqua or Gerrard, and I think the dynamism of those two going forward will be far more important.

Many will be surprised I’m guessing a start for Babel. I am too. However, I still think Liverpool will stick with the 4-2-3-1, which Ngog has struggled in. Hopefully Riera will be fit given he hasn’t started the last two matches. Maxi’s ineligible, having played for Atletico in the Champions League. Had either Liverpool or Atletico qualified for the CL knockout rounds, Maxi’s be available, but no such luck. I think a front four of Kuyt, Gerrard, Babel, and Riera is the best mix of speed, attacking prowess, and balance possible given injuries and squad depth. Three of the four can switch positions at will. I’m obviously hoping to see Pacheco, as was mentioned in the post-Arsenal comments, but I think it’s far more likely to happen off the bench.

Unirea, joint top of the Romanian league along with Cluj and Steuea Bucharest, hasn’t played since mid-December due to the league’s winter break. And manager Dan Petrescu, formerly of Chelsea, resigned since the draw was made, replaced by Israeli Roni Levy. That name might be familiar – Levy was in charge of Maccabi Haifa when they faced Liverpool in ‘06/07 CL qualifying.

I admittedly know very little about the club. I didn’t see any of their CL games and I don’t know any of the players on their roster. But they beat and held Rangers – who are running away with the SPL – in their two meetings, running Stuttgart and Sevilla close as well.

This will be no picnic. There’s a temptation to put all the eggs in the fourth place basket, but European competition is European competition and a trophy’s a trophy. Liverpool should start with a strong line-up in the hopes of recovering from the Arsenal loss, getting back to the form that saw them unbeaten in seven league games.

15 February 2010

On Rafa Benitez: Part V

The continuing series between Ed from Liverpool Offside and I on Rafa Benitez's reign. Part V is on media relations – how Rafa deals with and is portrayed by the media.

Part V: In the Press
Intro | Managerial Record | Tactics | Man Management | Transfers

Ed: I'm always hesitant to give much weight to clubs, players, managers, whoever when they talk about the unfair treatment they receive from the media. My default position on these types of things has usually been "you asked for it, you got it;" it simply comes with the territory of being a professional athlete. They find themselves as the story on a daily basis whether it relates to sport or not, and while at times it's likely a bit of a burden (slight understatement), I think they also gain a tremendous amount of validation and power that comes from the constant attention.

As supporters we do the same thing, just without the pressure or power. I know that I'm prone to calling immediate bullshit on anything negative written about Liverpool, or at least anything negative that doesn't line up with any negative feelings I already had. I'm especially likely to push the spoon away if I feel like I'm being force-fed a blatant literary agenda---I'm my own man dammit, and I'll form my own opinions. But how long do you stave off the narrative that's being written (to borrow your phrase) before it almost insidiously creeps into your psyche and starts to shape your view?

With Rafa Benitez it's tough to tell what's created and what's real, and the unfortunate thing for us is that we'll never really know fact from fiction. But I think we (speaking of supporters in general) should at least try to do so on both ends of the spectrum---smart enough to call bullshit on the good and bad press and not accepting of a perception that's being created for us.

Obviously the first thing that many people will think of with this topic is Facts, Rafa's one-man drama in January of 2009. Talking to the media largely about Sir Alex Ferguson and the preferential treatment United receive, it was...f***ing awesome. At least that's what my first thought was after seeing it. Sure, I thought it was brash, ballsy, and slightly bizarre, but what more could you want? He was never out of control, he threw his hat in the media game, and actually made some valid points.

But then comes the aftershocks. "Disturbed." "Crazy." "Astonishing." "Heading for a Keegan-style breakdown." And in the time since, that has become one of the defining moments in Rafa's time at Liverpool, and it can't be defined as anything but failure. It's parody at this point. Shit, the guy even parodied himself earlier this season. Although I can't help but think that it wasn't that big of a deal, not that crazy, not that astonishing. What we read afterward certainly was, as we were able to see Sir Alex striking the stupefied victim the rest of the season, vindicated by United's ability to win yet another title. Really showed Rafa. Made him eat his words. Just "looking after his family." Played Rafa perfectly.

All of that, though, is if we're to believe that the intent of Facts was a manipulative act by a man who was seizing on the brink of madness, desperate to play old Red-Nose's game. In that light, you can't help but view it as failure. But I think about my initial reaction vs. where I stand on it, even now. Was it that crazy? Am I completely incapable of original thought? Or is it just that I have original thoughts, but they're so fragile that they can be shaped by the press an ocean away?

I don't intend for Facts to be the sole focus of our discussion here, but as I mentioned, it can't help but be the first thing that people think of. And as you brought up earlier, there's much more to this than one press conference. So I'm interested in your take on this, but also the role that media's played in Rafa's time at the club.

nate: For once, I might not know my history well enough. And this conversation is one where being on the opposite side of the ocean makes it harder to fully comprehend. But it seems like Liverpool's been both target and scapegoat since Thatcher's days. It's near impossible to relate to as an outsider, but I wouldn't trust a media that claimed Liverpudlians pissed on and robbed from their own dead either. Whether an anti-LFC bias is due to consistent and comprehensive Liverpool successes in the 70s and 80s or Thatcher's persecution of the industrial north is debatable. But I don't think it's simply imagined.

I'm in complete agreement with how you saw 'Rafa's rant.' I thought it was brilliant, and more importantly, necessary. Every single word was true. Granted, I'm clearly biased, but United always seems to get preferential treatment, whether it's in the amount of injury time added, soft penalties, or whatnot.

Rafa is never out of control. His press conferences have become far more revealing and entertaining as his grasp of English has improved (being able to understand his Spanish interviews made 10 years of taking the language in school worthwhile), but he's always known exactly what he's saying. That's why the coverage of the "rant" seemed to disproportionate to me. Nothing was ranted. And nothing was wrong. When Ferguson or Mourinho do it, it's mind games. When it's Benitez, he's disturbed.

'Rafa's rant' never reached the comedic heights of Keegan's ‘I’D LOVE IT!’ speech. But the media made out as if he came into the briefing room foaming at the mouth and lifted his leg on the press corps. That Liverpool went into their usual mid-Winter slump starting with the next fixture only fed into the "he's cracking up" narrative that Fleet Street was so eager to promote. And United being United, getting to the top of the table and just staying there, evidently proved Benitez's blistering insanity. Or something. You know what? The season turns out exactly the same if Rafa never ranted. United was (gulp) deeper and more experienced.

The zonal marking debate is another of my favorites played out in the media. Benitez handled it perfectly prior to the Derby, making me wish he'd made the statement years earlier. Zonal marking and Liverpool's susceptibility on set plays has been a stick frequently used to beat Benitez. I've argued in the past that it's down to the players more than the system – zonal marking and set plays were far less of a problem with Hyypia in the team – but the media seem convinced it's the system's fault. Andy Gray and his Sky Sports brethren love bringing it up. Benitez's response in reference to Tim Cahill will probably silence that criticism for a while, though. You might not know it from reading the papers, but he can actually be witty sometimes.

Prior to "zonal marking," it was "rotation." Remember when Rafa went 99 games without using the same line-up in consecutive games? It’s still being mocked. The same newspaper has repeatedly lauded Ferguson’s United for the exact same tactics.

I realize that what many see as "media bias" is just the media's self-interest in selling as many papers as possible. Both controversy and Liverpool sell papers. Liverpool controversy seems to sell even more. Plus, there's a bit of South Park's take on The Lottery in it; build them up to bring them down, and kick them on their way down.

Because if it's not that, my only conclusion is there's some sort of xenophobia involved. I know that's a reach – Rafa's not the only foreign manager in England – but he certainly seems to court more criticism that the likes of Ferguson, Redknapp, O'Neill, or even Hughes. I'm still stunned how quickly pundits lined up to suggest Benitez should be sacked earlier this season. Hughes got an easier ride when City were drawing almost every match, and now he's the one out of a job.

So is it just paranoia or are they really out to get us?

Ed: One of the things you touch on, particularly in relation to "the rant," is a lack of cause and effect when it comes to press conferences and pitch results. I think it flatters managers, whether it's Rafa, Ferguson, Mourinho, whoever, to say that their words on a Thursday or Friday will have a direct impact on Saturday or Sunday's result. For me, that's as clear a case of media manipulation as any--the "posterboard material" that spurs a team onto victory. And in many cases, it's also wrongly applied to the course of the season. Nevermind that after Rafa foamed at the mouth Liverpool went on arguably one of the finest runs in recent memory, including a 4-1 humbling of Ferguson's United at Old Trafford. But Rafa had already cursed the season back in January, right? No matter that Liverpool had started to slip in November, first drawing with Fulham, then West Ham, then Hull, as well as Arsenal at the Emirates. If anything, his rant had...no impact.

I'm in agreement that the thrust of the media's intent can be lost in the Trans-Atlantic shuffle--I'm lost as to how Rafa can be roundly criticized for that, while stateside we watch Denny Green blow a gasket, Mike Gundy preach about manhood, or Bobby Cox break his own record for number of times getting tossed from a game and then forget about it the next day. Chalk it up to being American. But I do think there's something about Liverpool in the post Spice-Boys era that makes the club easy to mock. Decades of success combined with pomp and no follow-through makes for an easy target, and while the Houllier and Benitez years have been a stark shift from those days, I think there's a residual resentment that could only be refuted with a championship. Liverpool are the easy target for their failure to win league since 1990 in the same way that it's easy to say Chelsea are as green as they are blue, or that Arsenal play lovely football but can't finish. Of course, both those mentioned have more recent titles to assuage any faltering self-esteem.

And with Rafa it's taken the next logical step given his early success. You brought up the idea that he's a victim of his own success in an earlier section, and I think it's just as applicable here. He won the Champions League and FA Cup in his first two years and was the darling of Merseyside. But whether it was a lack of mastery of the English language or a reluctance to assert himself in the press, he was as anonymous as a manager of Liverpool can be in the media. This might be my relative inexperience as a Liverpool fan, but I'm hard-pressed to identify any memorable press conferences, good or bad, from Rafa prior to January of 2009.

One of the things that's easy to lose sight of, at least for me, is that there's always a counter to what we read in the press, but you'll never read it on a large scale. Zonal marking is a perfect example--that link you provided is something that few outside of eseason subscribers will have seen, and it might have gotten an inch or two in the papers. What we never hear is that whether it's man marking or zonal marking, men are still responsible for the execution, and it's men who are largely at fault for gaps in either system. Completely without supporting evidence, I'd be comfortable in asserting that the breakdown in the system wasn't necessarily due to a faulty system, but faulty execution. It's always going to come down to the figurehead, and rightfully so in some cases. But the responsibility can only go so far beyond the touchline.

So is it xenophobia? It's not something I feel qualified to comment on, given how removed I am from the climate and culture. But there is a "different-ness" that managers like Benitez and Wenger have that ruffles some sort of feathers. Fergie is lovably British, Ol' 'Arry has endless anecdotes, and there's a familiarity with O'Neill that's comforting. That doesn't really exist with Benitez, and when it comes along with a failure to win league, a lack of positive results, occasional lapses in tactics or performances, it's almost hard not to find fault.

nate: I think you hit the nail on the head with the line: "Decades of success combined with pomp and no follow-through makes for an easy target, and while the Houllier and Benitez years have been a stark shift from those days, I think there's a residual resentment that could only be refuted with a championship." It's something I should have been clearer about in the last section. Liverpool are an easy target for mutually dependent reasons: one, because the club used to win titles religiously, and two, because they haven't won the league in going on two decades. It's not quite pre-2004 Red Sox, but there are parallels.

And simply having Benitez as manager increases that pressure because of the reasons we've elucidated. He's not a media darling, nor is he eminently quotable, and that he's a foreign manager feeds into some of the British media's stereotypes. I like that you compared Benitez to Wenger; the two managers have been defending the other in public recently, both before and after the Liverpool/Arsenal match. Both foreign managers, both under increasing pressure to end the trophy drought. Football makes strange bedfellows.

You say that there have been few memorable press conferences, but since when are press conferences supposed to be memorable? To continue with American sports references, they can't all be Jim Mora's "PLAYOFFS???!?!" The sole purpose is to feed the beast prior to kickoff. And maybe that's the problem. Mourinho fed the beast. Ferguson, when he's not avoiding post-match interviews so he can start drinking sooner, feeds the beast. Redknapp assuredly feeds the beast, and with a lovable Cockney accent to boot. Benitez, on the other hand, wasn't fluent in English for the first few years and doesn't suffer fools. And when the beast isn't fed, it writes its own headlines. And we get to read about how Rafa ranted Liverpool out of the title race.

A Playoff For Fourth Place?

It came out over the weekend that the Premier League is contemplating a playoff for the final Champions League qualification spot. Naturally, as a Liverpool fan during their worst season in recent memory, I'm conflicted.

It's little surprise that United, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Liverpool are the four clubs opposed to this plan. They're the Big 4. These clubs see the Champions League as their birthright, and these four clubs have contested the places for the past four seasons. Only Everton broke up the cartel in '04-05, only to see Liverpool make the tournament by winning in Istanbul and for Everton to lose in the qualifying round.

But I'm less opposed to the plan, and, as said above, a bit conflicted.

First, let me say I'm not a fan of playoffs in principle. What's the point of the regular league season if 4th through 7th are basically meaningless? Also, the fixture list is already packed, with more and more clubs seeing players injured because of the amount they're playing for club and country. Wembley already hosts the playoff finals for the lower leagues; when will these matches be played?

But there is historical precedent for a playoff, with most leagues using the system. Promotion from the Championship, League One, and League Two are decided by playoffs, with the aforementioned finals at Wembley.

Plus, the extra games at the end of the season who preclude the ignominious Game 39 from taking place. That's a big benefit in and of itself.

Also, while this is putting the cart far ahead of the horse, you'd have to fancy Liverpool in a knockout competition for the final CL spot. The team almost always plays better with backs against the wall and in a one-game playoff, and has the European experience to not be overawed by the competition. To be honest, I'd expect the likes of Spurs, Villa, and City – this season's European contenders – to wilt under the lights, at least at the first time of asking.

Were this idea already instituted, Liverpool would have only been in the playoffs once under Benitez – in 2007/08. The other time Liverpool finished outside the top three was 04/05, and they would have made the CL as the previous year's Champions.

Here's what the playoffs would have looked like since 05/06:

'08/09: Arsenal, Everton, Villa, and Fulham.
'07/08: Liverpool, Everton, Villa, Blackburn
'06/07: Arsenal, Tottenham, Everton, Bolton
'05/06: Arsenal, Tottenham, Blackburn, Newcastle

You see a few of the same names, but no team's there for all four years. Seventh place is different every season; Blackburn and Bolton are now decidedly lower-mid table, while Newcastle's in the Championship.

As a Liverpool fan, I can see how this would hurt the club. And I truly don't like to see the regular season diminished, which this plan would do. But the idea's interesting, and would definitely change the European participants from time to time. I know Platini loves that idea.

The saddest thing is, the plan might actually help Liverpool this season, although it wouldn't be invoked for at least three seasons because of the preexisting TV deal.

The plan was proposed at a Premier League meeting last week, and we'll find out if it has any legs at the next meeting next month. Hopefully, by then, Liverpool's predicament will also be clearer.

10 February 2010

Liverpool 0-1 Arsenal

Carragher Skrtel Agger Insua
Mascherano Lucas
Kuyt Gerrard Maxi

Diaby 72’


Well, the game plan “worked” for 70 minutes – keep it tight, hope for the break – but Liverpool’s appalling attack play let Arsenal hang around, and they finally made the breakthrough in front of their baying fans. One defensive error – from Degen, on for Carra because of a groin strain – and it cost them. Haven’t heard that in, oh, six games. Nice while it lasted. And despite constant Liverpool pressure for the last 15 minutes – including a last minute Gerrard free kick, from a position reminiscent of the win over Villa two seasons ago, which Fabregas seemingly handled – it’s another debilitating loss.

Other than a five-minute spell a quarter of the way through the match and an early Gallas free header when Agger lost him on a corner, Arsenal posed few questions in the first half. The home side sparked to life in the 24th when Skrtel did well to cut out Nasri’s center after Insua was caught upfield. Two chances for Bendtner and a smart block on Nasri’s shot by Insua followed before we reverted to prudence for the rest of the half. Meanwhile, Liverpool had absolutely nothing to write about for chances at the other end as Maxi, Kuyt, and Ngog took every possible opportunity to lose possession in the final third.

But it was far more open in the second half. Liverpool had two excellent chances within ten minutes, but Lucas shot just over after surging into the box and Ngog lingered on a breakaway from Gerrard’s throughball, allowing Gallas to get back for a wonderful tackle. But it wasn’t one-way traffic, as Arsenal marched right down the field following Ngog’s chance, with Rosicky allowing Reina to smother after overrunning Arshavin’s delicious throughball.

We’re not going to be blaming one person for that loss, but I’ll firmly maintain the turning point came when Carragher limped off in the 54th. Arsenal soon began to up the pressure, with Bendtner nearly scoring after his pass was deflected back to him, only to see Reina do just enough before the ball was cleared. And the home side grew in confidence, playing keep ball before Diaby broke the deadlock.

Arsenal must have had something like 75% possession from the hour mark until the goal. And while chances were at a premium – Bendtner seeing yellow for a dive in the box when he could have been through and a Rosicky blast just deflected over – an Arsenal goal felt imminent with the home side’s increasing dominance. And with Liverpool caught forward, Rosicky’s cross found an on-rushing Diaby, left open as Degen didn’t follow his run. Just despicable.

The goal at least prompted a response from Liverpool, with Babel replacing Lucas as Liverpool went 4-4-2 for the final 15 minutes. And it’s gonna be hard to argue against Babel after his cameo off the bench, creating about as much as the rest of the team in 75 fewer minutes. Only Almunia's fingertips prevented him an equalizer, cutting in and blasting an immense shot in the 86th, with the keeper barely tipping it onto the bar. In my defense, I think Babel’s a good option off the bench, and that’s where he did his damage from. From there, Babel headed at Almunia from the subsequent corner, Rodriguez shot straight at the keeper two minutes later, and Gerrard’s aforementioned free kick hit the wall. And now, we’re back in crisis mode. Feast or famine.

I do not understand why Maxi’s started ahead of Riera in the last two matches, and Rodriguez did absolutely nothing today meriting the 90 minutes. None of the front four worked well together, in contrast to the pre-match hopes, and Kuyt was also especially poor on the opposite flank. But Liverpool had improved with Riera back in the side, and Maxi’s inability to mesh with his teammates clearly weighed the team down. Insua was also inconsistent, but surprisingly in attack instead of defense, where he wasn't bad up against Nasri, Eboue, and Rosicky (who came on for an injured Nasri in the 37th).

I do understand – and lobbied for – the game plan. And other than that solitary goal, the defense did well; Arsenal is a tough team to face at the Emirates, even given current form, and were stifled for long stretches. But the attack was absolutely dreadful and it took Benitez 78 minutes to change things up. Even I’m infuriated. That change – some change – needed to be made 10-15 minutes sooner.

We’re not back to square one, but Liverpool’s seeing Sisyphus’ rock rolling back down the hill after a seven-game struggle to push it up. The gap between Arsenal and Liverpool is a basically-impossible-to-overhaul eight points, while City’s level with two games in hand. And City’s the next opponent.

For better or worse, there’s still a long road to hoe.

09 February 2010

Liverpool at Arsenal 02.10.10

2:45pm, live in the US on Setanta

Last 4 head-to-head:
1-2 Arsenal (h) 12.13.09
1-2 Arsenal (a; CC) 10.28.09
4-4 (h) 04.21.09
1-1 (a) 12.21.08

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Everton (h); 2-0 Bolton (h); 0-0 Wolves (a)
Arsenal: 0-2 Chelsea (a); 1-3 United (h); 0-0 Villa (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 12; Kuyt 9; Benayoun, Gerrard 5; Ngog 4; Babel, Johnson 2; Kyrgiakos, Skrtel 1
Arsenal: Fabregas 11; Arshavin, van Persie 7; Vermaelen 6; Diaby 5; Denilson, Eduardo, Gallas, Ramsey, Rosicky 3; Bendtner, Eboue, Merida, Nasri, Song, Vela, Walcott 1

Referee: Howard Webb

Odd, seeing how Webb's gotten the last two Liverpool/Arsenal league games.

Guess at a squad:
Carragher Skrtel Agger Insua
Mascherano Lucas
Gerrard Aquilani Riera

Carragher Skrtel Agger Insua
Mascherano Lucas
Kuyt Gerrard Riera

Update: I should have waited an hour. Evidently Aquilani's picked up an illness that rules him out. I'm leaving what I wrote below for posterity's sake, but the absence of Aquilani forces a bit of a rethink.

Arsenal’s last two matches, against United and Chelsea, provide the perfect road map on how to beat them. Villa did similar, but couldn’t score on the counter in the 0-0 draw two weeks ago. Admittedly, both United and Chelsea are stronger than Liverpool at present, with or without Liverpool’s current injuries. And Liverpool has rarely impressed away from Anfield this season. But it’s eminently doable, and Liverpool’s recently reacquired fighting spirit increases that possibility.

The first requirement will be not allowing Arsenal to play their game. Well, Liverpool will want them to try to knit passes through the middle – their too-clever-by-a-half football – but cannot give them any space in the final third. As Arshavin’s repeatedly shown. That Liverpool’s coming off three successive clean sheets – six in the last seven league games – is an enormous boon, and while there’ll be enforced changes due to Kyrgiakos’ red card, I’d have guessed Skrtel to return to the backline for the upgrade in pace regardless.

Closing down the midfield is the second part of that task. And that’s why I imagine both Lucas and Mascherano will be in central midfield. The pairing’s become standard fare against top-tier sides, especially when Liverpool’s away from home, and its best asset is nullifying the opposition.

But I still think there’s a role to play for Aquilani, and it’s why I’ve guessed the front four listed above. United and Chelsea put a combined five goals past Arsenal thanks to the counter attack. The interplay of the front four is most crucial, and that’s where Aquilani’s close control and vision comes in. The pace of Ngog or Babel doesn’t seem as essential (but could be very important off the bench), and while even I’ll admit Kuyt’s usually no great shakes upfront, he’s best attacking in combination (see 5-1 over Newcastle in 2008) and on the counter. Whomever plays on the right, whether it’s Gerrard, Kuyt, or Maxi, will need to test Clichy, who’s been absolutely gash in the last two matches.

Don’t get me wrong. It wouldn’t be a walk in the park on a normal day, and Arsenal’s become a wounded animal after taking one point in the last three games, against the seventh, second, and first placed sides. Despite scoring once in the last three matches, they’ve tallied 60 goals in 25 games, 17 more than Liverpool. Arshavin always ups his game against Liverpool, scoring five in his last two against. Sagna and Clichy will bomb forward, and Liverpool can be vulnerable to crosses. Maybe Arsenal will start Bendtner (I would if I was Wenger), but otherwise they aren’t very tall in attack.

Liverpool’s only dropped four points from the last seven games, finally working their way up to fourth. The final CL place is nearly Liverpool’s to lose; with Manchester City coming after Arsenal, a win there could see City’s games in hand made moot. And a victory tomorrow, at a stadium where Liverpool’s never won at (three draws and two losses), would see third place eminently achievable despite the disastrous first half of the season. But, of course, a loss would cancel out almost all of the last few weeks’ good work.

07 February 2010

On Rafa Benitez: Part IV

The continuing series between Ed from Liverpool Offside and I on Rafa Benitez's reign. Just three more parts to go (counting this one), which means there are probably less than 5000 words left to read. Cherish every single one of them.

Part IV: Transfers
Intro | Managerial Record | Tactics | Man Management

Ed: So after a relatively active January transfer window, and players traveling both ways, we have a more up-to-date picture of Rafa's transfer dealings with the club. You can't really have this type of discussion without mentioning finances, but I'd love to try, mostly because I'm not patient/intelligent enough to dig very deep into it. But it's also a slippery slope---you start with the "what if's" pertaining to financing for the transfer market, and next thing you know Liverpool have a four man midfield with everyone making £150,000 per week.

Plus, I don't really think he's done that poorly. In the past I've written some harsh things about Rafa in the transfer market, but on the whole it's not a complete disaster. High praise, I know, but there's been times when my frustration with things on the whole have bled into other areas, and it seems like the transfer dealings, for whatever reason, are an easy enough target. But given the funding he's had (first funding reference!), he's brought in a level of talent that's arguably comparable with the other big clubs.

So after looking for a source that had a list of the signings that wasn't nearly five screens long, I'm just highlighting some of the "bigger" signings since Benitez came to Liverpool. Granted, not entirely comprehensive, and missing some vital information about the funding (number two!), but still a decent list of who's come in:

2004: Josemi, Antonio Nunez, Xabi Alonso, Luis Garcia

2005: Fernando Morientes, Bolo Zenden, Scott Carson, Peter Crouch, Momo Sissoko, Mauricio Pellegrino, Pepe Reina

2006: Robbie Fowler, Mark Gonzalez, Jan Kromkamp, Fabio Aurelio, Gabriel Paletta, Daniel Agger, Dirk Kuyt, Nabil El Zhar, Craig Bellamy

2007: Fernando Torres, Alvaro Arbeloa, Dani Pacheco, Andriy Voronin, Sebastian Leto, Javier Mascherano, Jermaine Pennant, Yossi Benayoun, Lucas, Ryan Babel, Krisztian Nemeth, Damien Plessis, Mikel San Jose, Lauri Dalla Valle, Charles Itandje

2008: Martin Skrtel, Andrea Dossena, Phillipp Degen, David Ngog, Robbie Keane, Diego Cavalieri, Albert Riera

2009: Glen Johnson, Sotirios Kyrgiakos, Alberto Aquilani

2010: Maxi Rodriguez

Obviously some highs, some lows, and plenty in between.

Couple of questions---what do you make of the transfer business since Rafa's been with the club? And is it even possible to evaluate all of this given the backroom turmoil?

nate: Surprise, surprise, I think Benitez deserves more credit than he’s given in the transfer market, but I can’t argue that multiple players on your list aren’t “Liverpool quality.” It’s evident in how many are still with the club: none from 2004, one from 2005, and four from 2006. But starting in 2007, you can see Rafa’s side taking some shape, with 10 out of 15 (2007), 5 out of 7 (2008), and 3 out of 3 (2009) players still at Liverpool.

The axiom ‘Benitez has mostly succeeded with the bigger purchases, had decent success with mid-range buys, and has been hit-and-miss with free transfers and low-cost deals’ basically works. A breakdown of transfers you listed, but only counting players with at least one first XI start (no Pacheco, Nemeth, San Jose or Dalla Valle):

Big purchases (>£10m): Xabi Alonso, Torres, Mascherano, Babel, Keane, Johnson, and Aquilani

Mid-range (£3-10m): Luis Garcia, Morientes, Crouch, Sissoko, Reina, Agger, Kuyt, Bellamy, Pennant, Benayoun, Lucas, Skrtel, Dossena, Cavalieri, and Riera

Low-cost: (free-£3m): Josemi, Nunez, Zenden, Carson, Pellegrino, Fowler, Gonzalez, Kromkamp, Aurelio, Paletta, El Zhar, Arbeloa, Voronin, Leto, Plessis, Itandje, Degen, Ngog, Kyrgiakos, and Maxi

That’s seven “big” purchases, 15 “mid-range,” and 20 “low-cost” or free transfers. Five big and eight mid-range players are still with the club, while only seven of the low cost are (four of whom were signed within the last two seasons). The percentages are 71%, 53% and 35% respectively, and that’s probably an above-average record.

I’m fairly sure both Chelsea and United have purchased more than seven £10m+ players since summer 2004. Even if you buy the argument that Liverpool’s spent more than United recently (as Ferguson drunkenly claimed last season), Liverpool doesn’t have anywhere near the means to spend a combined £17m on the off-chance Tosic and Ljajic might one day become Premiership players, just as one example.

There’s no two ways about it – Liverpool are the poor relations in the “big four,” and it’s finally come to bear this season. The team needed a much greater overhaul when Rafa arrived than United or Arsenal thanks to their respective successes. Chelsea got their needed overhaul thanks to Roman’s millions, and have spent comparatively less in the last couple of seasons, although they can still pay £18m on the likes of Zhirkov (who’s started less games than Aquilani). It’s no surprise fourth place is under threat from the nouveau riche Manchester City and relatively free-spending Tottenham.

Two things have impressed me in Benitez’s dealings: a ruthlessness that Houllier desperately lacked if players aren’t working out and making money on players sold. You rarely saw a player leave after six months or a year under Houllier, but Benitez is never afraid to cut ties. And more often than not, Liverpool makes money when he sells players. Alonso, Crouch, Bellamy, Sissoko, Carson, Arbeloa, and Voronin – among others – all brought a profit.

Admittedly, Keane stands out like a sore thumb: the only out-and-out failure as big purchases go (Babel’s still here…). I still don’t know why Benitez bought him without a deal also in place for Barry. But even then, Liverpool only lost £3m or so. Spurs bought Keane back for £16m only to loan him to Celtic – for free – exactly a year later.

I wish Liverpool had more money, and I blame the fact Benitez doesn’t on the debt laden on the club by two lying owners who happen to share my nationality. Purse strings have clearly tightened since 2008, although the worldwide recession and subsequent inability to build the new stadium obviously factors into that.

But at least 15 clubs operate under similar financial restraints, and most have fewer resources than Liverpool. Of course, it’s little coincidence that coincides with Liverpool’s current league position.

Ed: Dividing the transfers up in that way (big, mid-range, low-cost) is something that makes a world of sense, but for whatever reason I wouldn't have ended up there in ten thousand words on my own. Either I haven't read it or you haven't shared it, but thinking about what Liverpool have bought in the transfer market, nothing could be closer to the truth. The only hiccup, as you mention, is Robbie Keane, and given recent events, his failure at Liverpool might not have had anything to do with Rafa.

Looking at the "mid-range" buys, I think you can make the argument that this is now "Liverpool quality," like it or not. Reina, Kuyt, Riera, Lucas, Agger, and Skrtel are all regular first-teamers, and rightly so, and of the mid-range buys that have departed, Garcia, Crouch, Sissoko, and Bellamy figured on a consistent basis during their time at the club, and made significant impacts in their own right. The only real gems in the "low-cost" bracket, at least proven, are Arbeloa and Aurelio, with Ngog, Kyrgiakos, and Degen recently coming good.

And the idea of Rafa's ruthlessness rings true. We discussed his tendency to stick with his plan tactically in a previous section, and the same works here. It was never clearer than with Keane---came in for big money, didn't perform, sold him 6 months after arriving. That takes cantaloupes. He's done it with players of every stripe---Peter Crouch, Craig Bellamy, Xabi Alonso, Jermaine Pennant. Granted, some have asked to leave, but I think Rafa could have had some flex if he wanted them to stay. You get the feeling that sentimentality doesn't have much bearing for Rafa in the transfer market, and it likely shouldn't.

I know in my initial piece I pleaded for the chance to avoid the "what-if" scenarios, but now I'm compelled to move in that direction. I know you can't go by rumors, because God knows there've been literally thousands of players linked with the club since Rafa arrived. But it is interesting to think about where and how Benitez could have done better given the circumstances.

Has he settled with the buys he's made? Even with those who have gone on to have success at the club, could he have done better? The simple answer is yes, every bought player would ideally succeed. But I think it's a much more interesting question to think about the constraints he's operated under, and how it affected the players he "chose" to purchase.

nate: The “what if” game will drive us crazy. We’ll never know for certain, but I’d hazard a guess you could make one hell of an XI from players who got away.

And nearly every "what if" player can’t be blamed on Benitez. Dani Alves? Made it as far as an airport runway before Sevilla hiked the price by £2m, £2m that Liverpool were unable to pay or Rick Parry dithered on. And we got a £6.7m Jermaine Pennant instead. David Villa or Silva? Nope, the owners are out of money. Wouldn’t pay the extra money Villa were demanding for Barry either.

And those are just three, three recent ones no less. Who knows how many more we never heard about or which went further than idle media speculation? Frankly, it’s best not thinking about it.

But Benitez didn’t “settle” for many of the mid-range buys you list as “Liverpool quality.” Kuyt, Lucas, Agger, Skrtel, Reina, Garcia, etc. were identified and – avoiding the usual debates over the first two named – have done well at the club.

The constraints Liverpool operate under – first under Moores and Parry, now under Statler and Waldorf – rule the day. As much as we’d like better players, Liverpool simply can't afford it. And given the needs from 2004 up until last year at best, Benitez had to buy quantity over quality to replace the deadwood in the squad and nonexistent Academy. And until that changes, we’ll continue to rue missed opportunities and debate "Liverpool quality.”

06 February 2010

Liverpool 1-0 Everton

Carragher Kyrgiakos Agger Insua
Lucas Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Maxi

Kuyt 55’

Wonderful. “Can we play you – with 10 men – every week?”

It was a typical Merseyside derby, and the first half seemed typical of Liverpool’s season. Chippy beyond belief, multiple set plays for both sides, chances few and far between, and the inevitable red card. And given Liverpool’s luck, it was Kyrgiakos sent off when Fellaini stamped on his ankle, with the Belgian escaping any sanction. After Fellaini had kicked Kuyt in the face eight minutes earlier.

Unsurprisingly, it was finely balanced to begin the match: the game played mostly in midfield, with fouls, free kicks, and corners quickly piling up. Gerrard tested Howard early on with a dangerous free kick from near the byline, but neither side carved out much in front of goal. Reina was first called into action on an Everton set play, tipping Baines’ free kick over the bar in the 22nd.

The story was clearly the battle in the middle. Carragher, Mascherano, and Pienaar all picked up cautions before the 30th minute, and there probably should have been more, most significantly the aforementioned Fellaini incident, kicking the ball into Kuyt’s face from inches away after Pienaar committed his first bad tackle. The South African’s second tackle, where he got the yellow, could have seen him off as well.

And in the 33rd minute, Fellaini was in the middle of more controversy. Both he and Kyrgiakos charged for a loose ball. The Greek defender dove in two-footed, winning the ball and getting the man, with Fellaini stamping on Soto’s ankle as he rode the challenge. Both players stayed down while the commentators bayed for a red card, and the red card came, but not for whom the announcers and fans expected. If anything, both should have gone. But Kyrgiakos bafflingly wandered off the pitch as Fellaini was stretchered off, to be replaced by Arteta hoping to exploit the space between Liverpool’s 10 men. To be fair, it's almost impossible to referee a derby, and at the end of the day, Atkinson tried let the game flow, but to say I was infuriated at this decision is a massive understatement.

Liverpool shifted to 4-4-1, with Mascherano moving to right back, as Everton looked to put their numerical edge to use. Yet Liverpool had the best chance of the half, with Gerrard pinging a 25-yard free kick off the crossbar in the 45th. The second half started with Everton’s best spell of pressure, finally using the ball with a man advantage, and Cahill nearly heading in from Mascherano’s errant clearance in the 47th (although there looked to be an offside flag in the build-up).

But in the 55th, Liverpool got the goal the only way it was coming, finally putting the set plays to good use. Kuyt, making a nuisance of himself in the six-yard box, got between Neville and Howard to redirect Gerrard’s in-swinging corner past the keeper. I can’t wait to hear the media condemn the man marking on that one.

The goal clearly knocked Everton off their stride, possibly remembering Liverpool’s 3-1 win with 10 men in 2006. After Kuyt deftly cleared for a corner from Donovan’s clever run and cross in the 59th, the away side took 30 minutes to threaten Liverpool’s goal. It was the perfect display of how to play with 10 men, as two banks of four soaked up pressure, and Babel (on for Ngog in the 64th) put in an impressive performance as a lone striker relieving the pressure with pace.

Liverpool was perfectly content with a contentious, closed off game as Lucas and Gerrard were outstanding in midfield and Carragher a rock at the back. Emotions boiled over the 84th, Gerrard seeing yellow for a rude tackle in which he won the ball but purposely followed through Pienaar’s shoulder, prompting Anichebe to start handbags for which he was also cautioned.

Everton pressure was obviously coming, and they finally threatened in the penultimate minute of normal time. Yakubu worked out an inch of space and forced an excellent save from Reina with a fierce shot. Three minutes later, Anichebe rolled Insua to get to the byline, but tried to chip the on-rushing Reina, who smoothly collected. The game went out with a rightful bang when Pienaar finally got his marching orders, a second yellow for elbowing Gerrard, which was basically the last action of the match. And now we get to gloat.

It’s easy to be a Kuyt and Lucas apologist today. Along with the two Scousers, these four were utterly instrumental to the victory. Make no mistake – everyone played well, it was an immaculate team performance, which was needed given circumstances – but those players were head and shoulders above the rest. Another derby goal for Kuyt (who seemingly loves big games) – his 50th for the club and another season in double figures – while Lucas and Gerrard (in an inspiring and vocal performance worthy of Liverpool’s captain from Stevie) shut down the creative Arteta and Osman. Carragher gave Saha and Yakubu no space to operate, diving in reminiscent of Istanbul even if Everton posed half the threat of Milan. Special mention also goes out to Insua, who memorably kept Donovan quiet for long stretches.

Along with those against United, this is my favorite match when Liverpool wins. That they did it with backs against the wall – both because of this season’s form and today’s harsh sending off – makes it even better. The perfect riposte; I couldn’t be prouder right now. Yes, Liverpool needs results, and three points couldn’t be more warmly welcomed, but what we’ve demanded is resilience, fortitude, and Liverpool looking like an actual team. We got that in spades today.

Not a bad morale boost before Arsenal on Wednesday.

05 February 2010

Liverpool v Everton 02.06.10

7:45am, live in the US on espn2.

Last 4 head-to-head:
2-0 Liverpool (a) 11.29.09
1-1 (h; FA Cup) 01.25.09
1-1 (h) 01.19.09
2-0 Liverpool (a) 09.27.08

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-0 Bolton (h); 0-0 Wolves (a); 2-0 Spurs (h)
Everton: 1-0 Wigan (a); 2-0 Sunderland (h); 1-2 Brum (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 12; Kuyt 8; Benayoun, Gerrard 5; Ngog 4; Babel, Johnson 2; Kyrgiakos, Skrtel 1
Everton: Saha 11, Cahill 4; Bilyaletdinov, Pienaar 3; Fellaini, Osman 2; Baines, Donovan, Gosling, Vaughan, Yakubu, Yobo 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Guess at a squad:
Carragher Skrtel Kyrgiakos Insua
Mascherano Lucas
Kuyt Gerrard Riera

Similar to last match’s line-up, unsurprising with Torres, Benayoun, Johnson, and potentially Agger and Aurelio still out.

I mentioned in the last match review that I wouldn’t necessarily be surprised to see Aquilani start again, but the nearer we get to the match, the more doubtful I am. Not only will it be a tight, frenetic match, as derbies always are, but those in blue will be kicking ankles for 90 straight minutes, which is something Lucas has far more experience with. This is one of those increasingly rare matches where Liverpool still needs two holding midfielders at Anfield, especially with the form Everton’s in.

But the front four should remain the same. There will probably be less switching along the line of three, with Gerrard more central in the absence of a man-marking shadow. But the interplay between Kuyt, Riera, and the captain will be essential in keeping Ngog from being isolated. With Jagielka out for the season, chances are Everton’s centerbacks will be Neville and Senderos.

I’m tempted to think that Agger might return to the first XI now that he’s back in training, and wouldn’t necessarily be surprised to see it happen in place of Skrtel. Aurelio and Kelly are also back, which would allow Insua rest and Carra to return to the middle. But the back four has looked far more secure since Carra went wide and Kyrgiakos became the main organizer, although I obviously worry about their pace with the likes of Pienaar, Donovan, Osman, and Cahill floating around the box, even though main striker Saha isn’t a speed merchant.

Everton are unbeaten in nine league matches, since Liverpool’s 2-0 win in November. It’s also the first time a Liverpool team will face one of my American arch-nemeses in Landycakes, who’s been surprisingly brilliant since coming over on loan. Marouane Fellaini, who gave Liverpool fits when he played for Standard Liege, is also in the form of his life. He was absolutely out of this world against City three weeks ago, and could cause Gerrard and the line of three big problems from his anchor role.

There’s no underemphasizing the importance of the derby, any derby. Given Liverpool’s incremental progress over the last few weeks, a win’s obviously essential. Making those three points even more crucial is the fact that Liverpool’s subsequent matches are against Arsenal and City. This run of games will either hammer the final nail in this season’s coffin or put Liverpool back on the road to where they should be.

01 February 2010

On Rafa Benitez: Part III

The continuing series between Ed from Liverpool Offside and I on Rafa Benitez's reign. Update: Fixed the links. I'm sorry; I'm a moron.

Part III: Man Management
Intro | Part I | Part II

nate: Before getting waist-deep in man management, I want to reply to a couple of the points about Gerrard you brought up in the last edition. Sadly, I think they can be addressed just as well here, although Saturday’s match against Bolton took some of the steam out of my complaints.

It’s not that Gerrard just hasn’t done it in the free role, with or without Torres. He hasn’t set the world afire from central midfield either; the early season victories over Hull and Burnley with Gerrard and Lucas “holding” in the 4-2-3-1 came at home with almost everyone fit. The last thing I want to do is scapegoat Steven Gerrard after all he’s done for this club – I’ve tried to make it clear I think it’s a club-wide chain reaction – but he is the captain and he sets the tone. And as you said, it’s inevitable given his CV.

He’s absolutely had a heavy weight on his shoulders, and it’s been both on and off the pitch. Not only has he faced increasing responsibility in light of departures and injuries while injured himself, but he’s the face of Liverpool’s failure to reclaim the league, almost 30 and seemingly no closer to the title. In a World Cup year. It’s obviously going to plague the player.

Gerrard’s relationship with Rafa has always been speculated upon. “Professional” seems the best, and nicest, way to describe it. More than most, it appears Gerrard needs to be encouraged when he’s struggling, and that’s evidently not Benitez’s style. Given his symbiotic relationship with the club, it’s little surprise the team as a whole suffers when Gerrard’s off-form and vice versa. But there’s also no arguing that Gerrard’s added more to his game since Benitez became manager.

Despite having Fabrice Muamba as a shadow on Saturday, he looked a lot better, both fitter and more interested. I know it’s one game; Bolton weren’t exceptionally imposing opposition, and knowing this season, it could be an illusion. But seeing improvement three days after Wolves leads me to think it’s more fitness than anything else, and that’d be a massive relief. Of course, I still worry.

Let me throw out a disclaimer now. I don’t pretend to have any insights into the Liverpool dressing room. I also don’t often believe those that don’t come from players, staff, or a few in the media with an actual knowledge of the team (read: Tony Barrett). So I’m frequently skeptical of claims that Rafa isn’t a good “man manager.” But it’s always been one of the sticks most frequently used to beat Benitez.

He’s cold. Dispassionate. Treats his players like chess pieces. Won’t throw an arm around the shoulder and have a cuddle like Harry Redknapp or jump up and down the touchline like Martin O’Neill.

Admittedly, Benitez could be closer with his players – although out of date at this point, Guillem Balague's "A Season on the Brink" (among other books/reports/interviews) demonstrates this – but that’s not necessarily a good thing. There’s a thin line between being a players’ manager and letting the inmates run the asylum, especially with the wages this generation’s on. At the same time, Benitez’s ability to “rally the troops,” a la Ferguson’s renowned hair dryer treatment or the way Arsenal was a completely different side in the second half at Anfield in October, is rightfully questioned.

But Liverpool’s certainly seen a few come-from-behind victories and backs-against-the-wall wins. And we’ve seen the likes of Carragher, Gerrard, Torres, Mascherano, Alonso, and Reina – among multiple others – improve under Rafa.

I think how players get on with Benitez says more about their character than his. Compare what players like Torres (cover article in this month’s FourFourTwo: 'How Rafa Made Me The Best In The World') and Reina say about him compared to Robbie Keane and Babel. Problem children like Jermaine Pennant haven’t flourished under him, yet Bellamy had nothing but nice things to say.

Alonso can’t be avoided when discussing Benitez’s man management. It was clear there was tension at the end, whether down to Rafa’s being angry that Xabi missed Inter for the birth of his first son or the attempted sale to Juventus or because of Gareth Barry. Alonso 'blamed' Barry a few weeks back, but I’m still suspicious. The merits of selling Alonso and/or buying Barry have been endlessly debated, but once Real made their intent known, Xabi wanted to leave. I doubt any relationship with the manager could have prevented it. Although maybe changing English tax laws could have.

So, while I've certainly wished Benitez was more of an imposing, pro-active, and reassuring manager when Liverpool's in situations like this season's sprung, I'm tempted to think he's undervalued in this regard (in every regard!), and part of it's down to media and public perception. The taciturn, unapproachable foreigner (taking over for Wenger), in comparison to Sir Alex, Happy Harry, or O'Neill (no clever nickname for him).

But I'm a relentless Benitez apologist. What do normal people actually think?

Ed: Sadly "normal" is not a concept that people are tripping over each other to apply to me.

Working through your first point, the Gerrard we saw against Bolton is the one I've been clamoring for--sort of a rudimentary way to describe it, but there was a friskiness to his play that we haven't witnessed in awhile. Pounced on loose balls, freed himself from some admirable marking by Muamba, and thrust a couple of shots goalwards that have been greatly missed. On at least two occasions, maybe more, a Gerrard effort was parried by Jaaskelainen and nearly led to a goal. Granted, Jaaskelainen isn't Iker Casillas or Gigi Buffon, but he's not exactly a mannequin. It's hard to say whether this performance was down to growing fitness, the presence of Aquilani to buttress the attack, or new found inspiration, but I know that I want more. Much, much more.

As it relates to Rafa, and it's kind of something you touch on, I think there's some sort of conflict about Gerrard's role as the "face" of the club. This is and has been Steven Gerrard's Liverpool, and will continue to be until he either retires or plies his trade overseas (there's no way he goes to another club in England at this point). It's never really been Rafa's club, despite his work to bring in players that will fit the system he wants to run. Taking Gerrard off for Lucas in the Merseyside derby was about as close as Rafa's come to asserting his clout when it comes to the captain. But I just don't believe that Gerrard is a prototypical "Benitez" player, which is to say that he's more action than he is cerebral, at least in terms of playing style. Maybe more comfortable playing unhinged and unencumbered by tactics or direction, and it just so happens that he's the hometown boy at his hometown club, fighting desperately to earn them the title they so desperately long for. Whether this is major conflict, minor conflict, or non-existent, we'll never know---as you mention, it's tough to have insight on the inner workings of the club. But it's sort of fun, isn't it?

But I do think it puts Benitez in a strange spot, because a passionate fight for a long-awaited title is not exactly how you would define Rafa's reign at Liverpool, even when they were racking up the points last season. It's almost as though his style of interaction with his players is entirely goal-focused, on both a micro (in-game) and macro (over the course of a season) level. You play football to win, this is how you go about it, little room for pomp or circumstance. There's a controlled nature to the tenure of Rafa Benitez, so much so that when you see bursts of hand movements or scuffles with other managers on the touchline that it's almost uncomfortable, placing you squarely in the throes of cognitive dissonance. What you know, or what you've been fed by the media, about the man does not play out before your eyes. But there's usually no smoke without fire.

You brought up some of the catch phrases that are most typically used to describe Benitez (e.g., "cold," "dispassionate"), and I think there's both truth and hyperbole in their use. For some reason I can't shake the picture of Benitez on the touchline during the penalty shootout against Chelsea in the 2007 Champions League semifinals. The entire Liverpool world was shaking, trembling, hoping, and waiting, and there sat Rafa Benitez, legs crossed, checking his watch as he so often does, shaking his coat sleeve off the watch face in an almost rehearsed manner. It was just so bizarrely methodical, although with hindsight it's about what you expect.

So how does this play out in the way he deals with his players? I think "professional," which you use to describe his relationship with Gerrard, is about as dead-on as it gets. He's not quite Robo-Cop, but he's not Uncle Rafa with the goofy stories, sneaking you beer after training and telling you stories about chasing ladies. There's such an upside/downside when you're dealing with human beings---some players absolutely require instruction in great detail, others find it an inconvenience. There's never really a "perfect" manager, and Rafa's no different. He clearly has a highly developed understanding of the game, its tactics, and the technical necessities of player performance.

I think it's why players like Torres, Reina, Insua, Mascherano and Gerrard have developed technically under Rafa. But it does also feel like there's something missing with Rafa, and maybe it's something the club needs more of. The word "chemistry" is overused in sports, but I think that might be as close as I can get to describing what's missing. Players can certainly create it between one another---among the departed, I think Arbeloa and Riise were fantastic in this sense. Reina's a constant here, and recently we've had Kyrgiakos setting a new tone, and Carra and Gerrard bear much of the responsibility for the club. But I think some of it needs to come from the top, and that's where Rafa might be falling a bit short.

I think the failings were clearest with Xabi Alonso, and here's where I think the "chess piece" metaphor might be apt. Rafa identified someone he wanted and went after him, perhaps without regard for the effect that it could have on what he currently had. It's as though the thought that it wouldn't work out never occurred to him. But we know that when it didn't, and if we take Xabi Alonso's word that it changed his mind, we witnessed a season-long 7.0 on the Simmons Vengeance Scale. If we get really wild with this idea, Rafa should have proposed a firesale in August of 2008 and Liverpool would have set a league record in points.

But Rafa's not an asshole, he's not a man to sell-out his players, and he's never going to make a show of imposing discipline or order. The latter likely occurs behind-the-scenes, while the former two likely never occur. I think that's why players like Craig Bellamy have nice things to say after leaving, it's why players sing his praises about the improvements they've made, and why it's tough to get too high on anti-Rafa emotions. It's almost like the approach he espouses bleeds into the perception I have---I shouldn't jump to conclusions with him, because that would be out of control, and the last thing I want to do is be out of control.

So all of this is a long way of saying that I think Rafa will never be short of finding technical justification for the way he handles his players, but it's not just a case of having empirical evidence, or the footballing equivalent, as grounding for dealing with human beings. Football's much more complex than that, and I think this year has provided plenty of evidence for that.

nate: Chemistry’s the most intangible of intangibles, and while the manager sets the tone and the environment, it’s more down to the players to actually get along. This is where I fear Gerrard fails as a captain, even if his other qualities often override that.

It’s always about striking the balance between the intellectual and the instinctive. As fans, we want to see blood and guts, Gerry Byrne breaking his collarbone in the 3rd minute of the FA Cup final. It’s why rampaging Gerrard is the icon that he is.

But Liverpool will never rely on the instinctive under Benitez. It’s just not his character. And I often see that cold, dispassionate strategizing as a positive. Penalties against Chelsea were the perfect example. Seeing Benitez cool enough to invoke Buddha on the touchline was massively reassuring. You knew Liverpool were going to win with Rafa that confident. But I derive pleasure from every goal where Benitez just shrugs and looks at his watch, whereas grown children like Ferguson and O’Neill jump up and down the touchline like they’ve won the lottery. Different strokes for different folks.

There are positives and negatives with each manager. When things are this tough, the grass will always be greener on the neighbor’s lawn. It’d be nice to see Benitez publicly rally the troops and the media, but it’s not the way he manages.

But, I still think the positives outweigh the negatives, and I’m still incredibly skeptical of the media’s ‘Benitez has no personality and no one likes him in the dressing room’ narrative.