29 May 2010

¿Cuatro-Uno-Tres-Dos o Cuatro-Dos-Tres-Uno?

International friendlies frequently don't mean much, especially when the team's rusty in its first match for a few months, so don't look too hard at Spain's late 3-2 win against unheralded Saudi Arabia. At least they didn't do as badly as Serbia, Portugal, or the US (prior to today, at least). They can't all be 3-1 wins over Mexico.

What's more significant is how the team lined up, and how potential starters played when given the chance. Which is why I was interested to see Spain's 4-2-3-1 in the absence of Torres.

Spain's usual formation – at least the one they won Euro 2008 (and lost to the Americans in the Confederations Cup) with – is 4-1-3-2, with either Alonso or Senna holding, a playmaking line of three led by Xavi, and two of the world’s best strikers in Torres and Villa. Yet I'm still not sure it's their best team.

It was strange to hear today's match commentator say that Torres' injury makes Del Bosque's life easier, but it's true. When El Niño's out, Spain simply has to play two deep-lying midfielders, leaving Villa as a lone striker. Today's line-up was:

Ramos Pique Puyol Arbeloa
Busquets Alonso
Silva Xavi Iniesta

Despite starting slowly and conceding two sloppy goals, it was a line-up that worked. Again, there are different standards for "worked" in friendlies. Villa scored, Xavi was the pivot, Iniesta appears near top form, Alonso notched from distance, and there was yet another late winner. Had Casillas not flapped at an early corner, and had Spain not gone to sleep after taking the lead and making four substitutions (or had the strike not deflected off Al Numare), we'd be talking about a thorough if somewhat uninspired victory.

It was different when Senna was the primary defensive midfielder. A beast of a tackler as well a clever passer, Senna could hold the fort on his own: a one-man shield while the front five attacked at will. He wasn't named it, but I thought he was Spain's best player at Euro 08. As much as I love Xabi Alonso – and this season's done little to diminish that love – he doesn't fill the role in the same way.

Aside from '04-05, when Benitez stuck with the 4-4-2 left over from Houllier's reign, Alonso was paired with a "tackler" at Liverpool. First Sissoko, with Gerrard moving out right, then Mascherano as Liverpool transitioned to 4-2-3-1. We can argue the merits of Rafa's conservatism another time, but that Benitez didn't trust him defensively speaks volumes. I may be underrating Alonso as a tackler, but he's clearly better when hunting in tandem with another.

And I've gone through this tactical charade without mentioning Cesc. A candidate to start when fit, whether in place of Alonso or Silva, he's another dynamic midfielder who doesn't offer much protection. It was Busquets paired with Alonso today, and individually, he was mediocre at best. Senna must have been pretty average this season to be left out for Sergio. But he adds a different, and arguably crucial dimension to the Spanish XI, and I'll fervently argue that while Busquets certainly didn't impress, he made Alonso look very good.

Spain's almost always chosen the more attacking option, a philosophical choice if not cultural. It's the way football's played – or should be. In a group with Switzerland, Honduras, and Chile, it shouldn't matter much. But if they face the likes of Brazil, Argentina, or even England later on, conservatism might be the smarter option. Even with the likes of Torres and Villa in your team.

25 May 2010

On Fabio Aurelio

It's a sad day, despite the fact it's the five-year anniversary of Istanbul. And it's a sad day despite knowing the inevitability of today's news. But Fabio Aurelio's exit from Liverpool was always going to be a sad day.

If Aurelio wasn't made of glass, he could have been one of Liverpool's best ever left backs. And that's not hyperbole. He could, and arguably still should, have been a regular starter for the Brazilian national team. When fit, Fabio could do it all in defense and attack. He was consistently Liverpool's best crosser of the ball, and arguably the best on free kicks (sorry Stevie) during his time here. He is a perfectly modern fullback, and one hell of a footballer.

But if Aurelio wasn't made of glass, he probably never would have joined Liverpool. He was a free transfer, on moderate wages, because of his injury history. Benitez took a gamble on the player having worked with him before, and the gamble worked whenever nature allowed it. Pity nature didn't allow it more often.

In a perfect world, Aurelio would have been healthy enough for this year and the next, allowing Insua to progress at a more reasonable pace instead of the baptism by fire suffered this season. I truly wish he had taken the pay-as-you-play deal offered by Liverpool, for both selfish and footballing reasons. But that's he's looking for more security, whether on the continent or back in Brazil, is completely understandable.

So, below, is a video of Aurelio's four (fantastic) Liverpool goals, as well as my favorite assist, which I reckon perfectly encapsulates his talents.

Best of luck, Fabio. You'll never walk alone.

24 May 2010

England 3-1 Mexico

G Johnson Ferdinand King Baines
Walcott Carrick Milner Gerrard
Crouch Rooney

Carragher for Ferdinand 45’
Defoe for Crouch 45’
Hart for Green 45’
Huddlestone for Carrick 62’
Lennon for Walcott 77’
A Johnson for Milner 85’

King 17’
Crouch 34’
Franco 45+3’
G Johnson 47’

After 45 minutes, pundits were sharpening their swords and searching for enough soil to cover England’s coffin despite the 2-1 advantage. But after 90 minutes, it’s a ho-hum, forgettable 3-1 victory, if one that’ll leave Capello with some things to complain about.

That England were two up with a third of the game gone can only be credited to Mexico’s laughably bad set play defense. England scored from their first corner – a training ground routine from Gerrard to Crouch to King – as well as the second – Crouch finishing (from an offside position) after Rooney’s header was well-saved – despite Mexico having almost complete control of the ball.

I was only somewhat joking when I tweeted that Wembley hadn’t seen any away side with so much possession since the Hungarians in 1953. Carrick and Milner couldn’t tackle their way out of a paper bag as Mexico’s 4-3-3 caused problems, limiting England to counter attacks. But like Barcelona proved in this year’s Champions League (and Liverpool somehow proves ten or so times a season), sometimes possession doesn’t mean all that much.

Amongst England’s first half goals, Green came up with two incredible saves, twice denying Vela on the break, while Salcido rattled the same post Chelsea repeatedly thumped nine days ago. On the stroke of halftime, England hospitably mimicked Mexico’s hopeless defending, allowing Franco to pull one back after Marquez headed a corner goalwards, cleared off the line by Baines directly to the striker’s feet.

I’m certain Capello peeled paint off the wall with his halftime talk. Thankfully, Glen Johnson’s blistering strike less than 90 seconds into the half rendered the next 45 minutes mostly moot. Combining well with Walcott to charge down the flank, Johnson cut inside and curled a brilliant lefty shot into the far corner.

What little momentum that might have carried over from Franco’s goal was dead, while England also did a better job pressing the opposition, helped by moving Gerrard inside and Milner out wide. Mexico continued to see more of the ball, but did a lot less with it. Although the final 20 minutes were mainly spent in England's end, with the substitute Barrera often torching Baines, Hart had little to do besides catch shots straight down his throat and take goal kicks.

All in all, a mixed bag from England, but that I feel secure in writing that about a 3-1 win shows the team’s progression under Capello as well as the expectations going into the World Cup. What needs to be fixed is identifiable; a central midfield of Lampard and Barry (or Lampard and Parker, or Lampard and Huddlestone, or even Lampard and Gerrard) won’t have as much trouble closing down a fluid side and Ashley Cole will reclaim his starting spot, among others.

Obviously, England were impressive on set plays. Walcott also used his pace to great effect (if the end product left something to be desired at times), while Johnson – good in both attack and defense – was my man of the match. Rooney, Crouch, and Gerrard also showed some signs of understanding, although Gerrard was far better when central in the second half.

No injuries, despite the much-maligned Wembley turf, a win, and Capello knows a good deal more about the 30 players in his squad. That’s all you can ask from a friendly.

23 May 2010

On Milan Jovanovic

Well, the worry that Liverpool would find a way to foul it up seems to be put to rest, although I am still afraid of jinxing it. But Milan Jovanovic recently said that the deal's on, contingent upon his contract with Standard Liege coming to an end next month.

And I am pleased, but a warning. Everything I've seen and read about Jovanovic makes me picture him as a slightly crazier left-sided Dirk Kuyt. And a decent number of you probably just swore under your breaths. To make matters worse for those, Kuyt even scored more goals in the Dutch league, arguably more difficult than the Belgian, although he played as an out-and-out striker more there as well. And yet, unsurprisingly, I'm pretty positive Jovanovic will be a valuable addition to the club.

You know my feelings on Kuyt, and despite yours, Jovanovic checks a lot of boxes. Versatile, experienced, fast, hard-working, passionate, cheap, and an attacker – all good things (well, except cheap, but that's sadly still a necessity). Other than fast and cheap (not that £9m is a massive wedge), those are also attributes that Kuyt brings to mind. Liverpool could do with a creative, tricky attacker comfortable out wide – one not reliant on cutting inside and capable of crossing, so Insua's not the only one trying to deliver them from that flank – but Hicks is still looking for someone sucker to buy the club while Gillett scrounges nearby sofas for loose change. Jovanovic fills a big hole, whether he primarily starts on the left, partners Torres, or backs him up.

But don't expect him to be that tricky winger or a 20-goal striker. I've seen him as both a striker and left winger in Liege's 4-4-2 and as a left forward in a 4-3-3. He played similarly for Serbia during World Cup qualifying. He'll probably play similarly at Liverpool, meaning that if the 4-2-3-1 remains, he should vie for the position Benayoun or Babel usually occupies, replacing Torres as the lone striker if necessary.

From what I've seen – somewhere between 5-10 European appearances with Liege and a match or two for Serbia – Jovanovic is much quicker and a far better dribbler, although it remains to be seen if he can replicate that in the frenetic Premiership. No matter how passionate he is, he'll probably never replicate Kuyt's perpetual motion. Let's hope he can copy Dirk's nose for big game goals. Jovanovic's return at international level is better – 9 in 24 compared to 16 in 60 – but the countries he scored against were Finland, Austria, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Romania, and the Faroe Islands. Kuyt at least found the net against the likes of France, England, and the US. Maybe his knack for running with the ball makes Benayoun's a better comparison, just Milan's more a forward where Yossi's a midfielder, but in being versatile attackers rather than an out-and-out striker or winger, I see more similarities than differences with Kuyt as well.

This isn't to denigrate one at the expense of the other, or both. Regular readers are well aware of the lengths I travel to defend Kuyt and I truly am happy about Jovanovic's imminent arrival. Yes, on the one hand, it's a free transfer, evoking memories of Degen and Voronin (and Maxi, Aurelio, and Fowler). On the other, he was also courted by the likes of AC Milan and Valencia (and Villa and Everton). And contrary to what some might think, there'd be big clubs after Kuyt if Liverpool ever decided to get rid.

I'll definitely be paying closer attention to Serbia's World Cup, but we'll have to wait and see. Don't expect miracles but don't write him off either – the story of almost every free transfer. Blindfolded darts unless it's a big name on ungodly wages (cough Ballack cough). All in all, it seems a good move, if somewhat spendthrift (even considering a reported £10m in wages over three years). But that's the reality at present.

Besides, how can you not be on pins and needles for a player who says this (from the above link, and others, translated this Serbian interview):
"They might have had a poor season, but Liverpool are still Liverpool," he said. "There will still be a squad of 20 players of the highest quality and everyone waiting for the chance to show what they can do.

"There will be a lot of games and everyone will have the chance to play. I really see this as the place where I want to be. The thought of playing at Anfield is an incredible inspiration for me."

19 May 2010

Infographics Update

Figured I'd update two of the graphics rolled out during the season: Points per game through eight games and 2008/09 vs 2009/10 Results Comparison.

The thicker, brown (I thought the color was fitting) dashed line in the middle of the graphic represents this campaign: one of only three seasons in the last 11 where Liverpool regressed after the first eight games. The other two years were Benitez's first campaign – 04/05 – and Houllier's penultimate – 02/03 – where Liverpool were unbeaten through eight (5W-3D) after ending the previous campaign in second place, before finishing with just a point more than this year's total. Sounds vaguely familiar.


This season, Liverpool had a worse record against United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Villa, Fulham, City, Wigan, Pompey, Blackburn and Sunderland – exactly half the division. They improved results against Everton, West Ham and Stoke, and accrued the same number of points against Spurs, Bolton and Hull. And Liverpool were three points worse against this year's promoted teams than last year's relegated sides.

Of the teams that Liverpool had a worse record against, Chelsea, Arsenal, Villa, City, Blackburn, and Sunderland improved their points total this season. United, Fulham, Wigan, and Pompey regressed, yet still took more points off Liverpool. Of the sides Liverpool improved its record against, West Ham were far worse this year, while Everton were marginally worse and Stoke marginally better. Finally, Liverpool continues its streak of dropping three or more points to relegated sides in each of Rafa's campaigns (at least one loss in four years, two draws in '05-06 and '06-07).

All in all, just like this season's results, these "updates" aren't all that encouraging.

17 May 2010

Is the future bright? Is there a future?

In lieu of further complaining, further rehashing of all Liverpool's faults this season, I've been looking for positives. Looking for the silver linings that might make this abomination of a season worth experiencing.

You don't need me to review how this season went wrong. Liverpool, assuming they'd challenge for the title, started poorly, to put it nicely. Alonso's exit still can't be overemphasized. Defensive ineptitude, partly due to injuries and partly due to an imbalance from more attacking fullbacks, saw Liverpool lose to the likes of Spurs and Villa, damning Championship chances in August. The team tottered from disappointment to disappointment, with an unsettled line-up and confidence in the toilet, exiting the Champions League at the group stage for the first time under Benitez. Away form never improved, injuries never eased. The squad was too thin, with too few world-beaters, and with the world-beaters often injured or jaded. It never got better. It might still get worse. Hence, my attempt to focus on a few positives, as if it could improve next season.

Unfortunately, those silver linings are few and far between.

Some players didn't disappoint:
Only a few. Reina, Torres, Mascherano, and Kyrgiakos, really.

Reina arguably had his best season in a Liverpool shirt, again winning the Golden Gloves despite frequent defensive incompetence. You think seventh was bad? Without Reina, Liverpool wouldn't have qualified for Europe. That's not hyperbole. Pepe proved why he's one of two players I wouldn't trade for any other in their position.

And here's the other. When Torres was on the pitch, he was a star this season, scoring 18 goals in 22 league matches. He was the only player – no exaggeration – who struck consistently this season. The. Only. Player. Unfortunately, his frequent injuries were in line with this season's luck.

Importantly, Kyrgiakos was excellent value for money, something we haven't been able to say about many signings in that last two years. Liverpool had to replace the irreplaceable Sami Hyypia with pocket change and somehow pulled it off. Kyrgiakos isn't and won't be the big Finn, and made mistakes this season – including a crucial one to let Lyon sneak the draw that sent Liverpool out of the CL – but his height and ferociousness came in handy more often than he hurt the side.

Finally, Mascherano may have disappointed early in the season, with his head turned by Barcelona (get used to that) and Argentina struggling to qualify for the World Cup. He certainly wasn't the only one, and by the winter, he was back to being the monster, putting in his usual terrifying performances. I think it became fairly clear he missed Alonso's presence more than anyone in the side, save possibly Stevie.

Yes, there actually were a few good games:
And when there were good games, they came one of two ways: a dominating Liverpool performance, which really were few and far between, or a resilient, 'we're not going to lose' match.

The first category saw results like 4-0 Benfica, 3-0 Lille, 4-1 Pompey, 3-0 Sunderland, 4-0 Stoke, 4-0 Burnley (twice) and 6-1 Hull. Most of those games were rightful dismissals of substandard sides. But at least Liverpool were able to put bus-parkers to the sword at Anfield, which was what cost the team the title in 2008-09. And against the likes of Benfica, Lille, Pompey, and Sunderland, we saw what Liverpool could do with a full squad. Pity you could count the games on one hand.

The second saw the majority of "false dawns" – 2-0 United, 2-0 Spurs, 2-0 Everton, 1-0 Everton, and 1-0 Villa. These were the games Liverpool won by being Liverpool: grinding out results despite a weakened line-up or stronger opposition. This was the Liverpool that came second in the league the season before. This was the Liverpool Benitez has built: a team that refused to lose, and would eke out needed wins when backs were against the wall. Again, pity you could count the games on one hand. This is what we needed to see more of. This is the Liverpool we're accustomed to. Showing this belief and self-confidence in more than five games next season might be helpful.

The future is young, the future could be bright:
For the first time in a long time, we're juiced about prospects in the Under-18s and reserves.

In the senior side, young players such as Lucas, Insua, and Ngog – all under 23 – saw a lot of pitch time, which will benefit the team next season. I know all three have their detractors, and all three disappointed at times. But age is a valid excuse, and the trials of this season will strengthen all three for the subsequent campaign. Baptism by fire often works.

Then there are the players we just got glimpses of: Ayala, Pacheco, Kelly, Robinson. All four displayed potential – even Robinson in his sole cameo – and all four will see more time next season. Under them are the stars of the reserves and Academy, who we get tantalizing reports on: Amoo, Duran, Dalla Valle, Gulasci, Ince, Ngoo, Tony Silva, Sokolik, Wisdom, and Sterling. I've written about Benitez reestablishing the assembly line before, but I've honestly never been this excited about youngsters. Bringing in Borrell and others from Barca's Academy only heightens the expectations. There assuredly will be players that make the breakthrough from this group.

And the signing of Raheem Sterling also bodes well in another area. Sterling, Shelvey, and supposedly Danny Wilson herald a new era in Liverpool signing British youngsters. The new UEFA and Premier League quotas have partly forced this trend, but its still heartening. Liverpool needs an English core, and in regards to Danny Wilson, the club's never won the title without a Scot in the squad.

The owners want out:
This, obviously, could be the biggest development, and will probably be the summer's biggest talking point (outside of how all Liverpool's star players want to jump off the sinking ship, at least according to Soccernet).

I will continue to maintain the Chuckle Brothers were the root cause of every turmoil faced this season. It all comes back to squad depth, funds, and morale. Hicks and Gillett cold-bloodedly murdered all three.

They're still here, and we've seen few offers mooted since putting the club up for sale. Gossip still pervades the Anfield atmosphere, and we'll be hearing about possible player departures all summer long, at least until Stadler and Waldorf sell up. The uncertainty isn't going away until they do.

But putting the club up for sale is a step in the right direction. They've at least come to terms with their failure. Getting them out is another matter entirely, but at least we're crawling in the correct direction.

Liverpool survived:
Your mother was right. It can always get worse, and the ways it can get worse are readily apparent. Most of them pertain to off-the-pitch problems.

But if Liverpool can get through a season like this and still qualify for Europe – hell, could have qualified for the Champions League without choking against Wigan, Fulham, and Hull in the last six weeks – who knows what could happen with one or two signings, players staying fit, and a better start.

Stranger things have happened. The Sword of Damocles still hasn't fallen.

14 May 2010

Direct Assists 2009-10

Okay, so the narrative review I usually wrap up the season with isn't going well. I think I've scrapped three drafts so far, no closer to what I'd like to publish. I blame the fact I eulogized this team all season long. So far, what I've written looks too much like previous posts, whether it's the 'What's Changed' post from December or the lamentation of Liverpool's away form from a month ago.

I do hope to have an encompassing season review up at some point. Probably Monday. I will still be blaming some combination of owners, tactics, squad depth, injuries, and away form. Obviously. So, in lieu, here's my total of direct assists from this season.

I've frequently complained about how assist statistics are kept. So I kept my own this season. Again, let me reiterate that these are direct assists: the pass/shot directly leading to the goal. Most of the time, it's cut and dry. But there are some qualifications; for example, I gave an assist for each penalty won and if a goal was scored from a rebound, I gave the assist to the player who took the first shot.

Unsurprisingly, Gerrard had the most by a decent margin, followed by Benayoun, Aquilani, and Insua. The latter two are somewhat surprising, especially since Aquilani only had one less Premiership assist than Gerrard despite playing in 15 fewer games. He didn't tally his first until the end of January and still finished joint-third. That stat alone is a big reason why I don't think he'll be sold this summer. Finally, out of 84 total goals, six were unassisted.

I didn't include it in the graphic for spatial concerns, but I have an Excel file with every goal and why I scored the assist as I scored it, in case you have any detailed questions.

13 May 2010

Top 10 Liverpool Goals 2009-10

Like last year, it's a fairly big video; just under eight minutes. I recommend hitting play, pausing, and letting it load for a minute or two before trying to watch in full.

10) Masch 1-1 Unirea: He may not score a lot of them, but he certainly smacked that one. With two goals in about a buck-fifty's worth of games, you might snipe that even a broken clock's right twice a day. My response is, well yeah, but it was really right this time.
9) Babel 2-1 Unirea: Babel's control there, pulling a ball that high down to easily stab home from six yards, all in one movement, is flat-out awesome. Such flashes of potential...
8) Torres 2-2 Bolton: Liverpool regroup after a cleared corner, Gerrard lofts it into the box, Kuyt deftly chests on the turn to Torres, whose touch kills the ball so he can fire over the keeper despite being encircled by defenders. Fantastic.
7) Torres 1-0 West Ham: There's at least one of these a year with Torres in the team. He's one-on-one with some poor schmuck and flat-out bamboozles and flies by them. Getting old now really...
6) Gerrard 3-2 Bolton: A thigh-high volley from 17 yards is an awfully hard trick to get right, but it looks so simple there.
5) Agger 1-0 Benfica: Set play theatrics culminating with a backheel from a center-back. Yes please. You cheeky bastard.
4) Insua 1-1 Arsenal: Not a bad first for the club. Chest down, half volley on the run, couldn't have been better hit.
3) Kuyt 3-0 Stoke: 12 passes in Stoke's half in exactly 30 seconds, seven players involved, and a phenomenal ankle-breaking one-touch turn towards goal from Gerrard to put it on a plate for Kuyt. Pass. And. Move. Pity Liverpool can't penetrate a packed defense like that more often.
2) Aquilani 3-0 Pompey: One of those rare moments this season when I went, "Whoa, this might actually work." Build-up down the flank leads to an impudent backheel from Torres, smart dummy from Gerrard, and Aquilani's first goal for the club. Perfect clever attacking play. Maybe, just maybe, there'll be more of that come August.
1) Torres 1-0 Sunderland: He is magic.

Honorable mention: Benayoun 1-0 Burnley (h), Gerrard 2-0 Burnley (a), Torres 1-0 United (h), Johnson 2-0 Stoke, Maxi 3-0 Burnley (a)

Random notes noticed after the fact:
• Only one of the Top 10 was scored by Gerrard this year, compared to four last year and three the year before. He did, however, provide the assist for four of the 10.
• Only counting domestic opponents, and including my five honorable mentions, Liverpool scored 10 of 12 goals against clubs in the bottom half of the table. United, Arsenal, Benfica, and Unirea are the exceptions. Three against Burnley, two against Stoke, two against Bolton and two against Unirea – not quite a murderer's row. I did not do that on purpose.
• Three of the Top 10 were scored from set plays.
• The Top 10 and Honorable Mentions all came during two six-week stretches: five from mid-August through October and five from late February through April. I'm sure you remember how awful the winter months were. Coincidentally, those stretches were when Torres was fittest. Funny, that.

12 May 2010

OYB Awards 2010

Third year running. Can’t let anything like an awful season spoil tradition.

Leave your own awards in the comments. You know, when you're in the mood to relive this glorious campaign.

Player of the season:
1) Pepe Reina (Without a doubt. Unanimous decision.)
2) Javier Mascherano (His usual monstrous self once Argentina qualified for the World Cup.)
3) Fernando Torres (Let’s not imagine what would have happened had he been fit the whole time.)

Most pleasing result:
1) Liverpool 2-0 United
2) Liverpool 1-0 Everton
3) Liverpool 4-1 Benfica

Most dominating performance:
1) Liverpool 6-1 Hull
2) Liverpool 4-0 Burnley (h)
3) Liverpool 3-0 Sunderland

Most entertaining game:
1) Liverpool 4-1 Benfica
2) Liverpool 2-0 United
3) Liverpool 3-0 Lille

Most underrated player:
1) Sotiros Kyrgiakos (Direly needed his aerial ability after Sami's exit.)
2) Pepe Reina (Will be on this list until everyone recognizes he’s the best keeper in the league and one of the top three in the world.)
3) Lucas (Sorry. Had to. It's true, though.)

Young player of the season (PFA does 23 or younger, I’m using 21):
1) Emiliano Insua
2) David Ngog
3) Daniel Ayala

It’s a close call between Ayala and Pacheco, both only 19. While the glimpses of Pacheco tantalized, Liverpool only let in one goal during the 234 minutes Ayala played over five games. And that goal came with nine men on the field. Otherwise, two clean sheets in starts against Stoke and Burnley, while he steadied the ship as a substitute against Spurs and Chelsea. Had Kelly stayed healthy, he’d probably be #3, though.

Also, I’d rather not start more fights over Insua; I know he was skinned often and got worse as the campaign went on. But he was absolutely thrown in the deep end with a brick tied to his ankle because of injuries and a lack of resources, and performed adequately – despite his struggles since mid-season – for his age and experience. Baptism by fire.

Best Signing:
1) Sotiros Kyrgiakos
2) Glen Johnson
3) Maxi Rodriguez

So, yeah, Liverpool barely made enough signings to have this list. Yes, I know Aquilani’s missing. Next season will be his true test. And two consecutive years where I struggle to fill out this category – two seasons where Liverpool’s been ballin’ on a budget – probably isn’t a good thing.

Best Goal:
1) Torres 1-0 Sunderland
2) Aquilani 3-0 Portsmouth
3) Kuyt 3-0 Stoke

The annual Top 10 video will be up in the next couple of days. Yes, I’m surprised Gerrard’s not in the top three.

Worst performance of the season:
1) Liverpool 0-2 Pompey
2) Liverpool 0-1 Wigan
3) Liverpool 0-2 Fiorentina

Toughest category by far.

Stomach punch of the season:
1) Liverpool 2-1 Atletico aet
2) Liverpool 1-2 Reading aet
3) Liverpool 1-1 Lyon

Unsurprisingly, this was the second-toughest category.

Daylight Robbery:
1) Liverpool 0-1 Sunderland
2) Liverpool 1-2 Spurs
3) Liverpool 1-2 Fiorentina

Also difficult.

False Dawns/Non-Turning Points:
1) Liverpool 2-0 Everton
2) Liverpool 2-0 Spurs
3) Liverpool 2-0 United


11 May 2010

Reading too much into Carragher’s call-up

I’m late to the party, but I wanted to wait until the England squad seemed certain before jumping the gun. Admittedly, it’s a bit surprising to see Jamie Carragher’s name back in an England line-up. And Carra’s return from the wilderness, accepting Capello’s invitation after repeatedly spurning McClaren, probably isn’t good news for Liverpool, at least on the face of it.

First, it’s yet another player who’ll sacrifice rest for a chance to represent his country, which we can’t begrudge. But it means less recovery time for an aging defender, and every Liverpool fan will spend June fearful of injuries – whether it’s Carragher, Torres, or whomever. In theory, Carra won’t be first choice at any position in South Africa, but chances are he’ll start at least one game. And regardless, he’ll be far more physically active than if he took the summer off.

But what’s total speculation on my part (yes, I’m a hypocrite) seems more significant, and far more worrying. Carragher retired from international football in 2007, basically saying that club came first. Even if it’s not true, that he’s willing to return implies Liverpool isn’t first and foremost anymore. So much for “Fuck it, it’s only England.” And that’s a frightening prospect after a season full of rumors and innuendo about dressing room discord.

Let me make it clear. I’m not condemning Carra’s choice one bit. Very few get to play in a World Cup; it’s a life’s ambition for every professional footballer. Carragher probably wouldn’t come out of retirement for the Euros and definitely wouldn’t for a friendly. The World Cup will always be different. Plus, playing for (and learning from) a manager of Capello’s caliber is an extra enticement.

And there’s an identifiable place for him in the squad, with a very good chance that Carra will actually play. England’s weak across the entire back four, and Jamie can handle all four positions. Johnson’s less than fit on the right, no center back has stood out this season, and Ashley Cole’s just returning from an extended injury while Bridge hasn’t looked the same since the scandal on the left. Wes Brown and Joleon Lescott will likely miss the tournament. As it often was under Houllier, Carragher’s Jack-of-all-Trades versatility will be his biggest asset. Jamie is a pair of safe, steady hands, and that's massive in a tournament of this importance.

I just hope I’m reading too much into this decision. No matter Carragher’s bad spells this season and the murmurs of dissension behind the scenes, he’s still a moral center at this club – just as important a talisman as a player. He has to be on board with Liverpool’s future.

10 May 2010

Stats Comparison 09/10

Like last year (and the year before...), I want to start off the season review posts with a comparison of campaigns under Benitez. No prizes for guessing which was the worst of the six. The first one! This year was only second worst in most categories! Hooray!

Liverpool’s league record under Benitez:
Home: 12 wins, 4 draws, 3 losses
Away: 5 wins, 3 draws, 11 losses
58 points
Home: 15 wins, 3 draws, 1 loss
Away: 10 wins, 4 draws, 5 losses
82 points
Home: 14 wins, 4 draws, 1 loss
Away: 6 wins, 4 draws, 9 losses
68 points
Home: 12 wins, 6 draws 1 loss
Away: 9 wins, 7 draws, 3 losses
76 points
Home: 12 wins, 7 draws
Away: 13 wins, 4 draws, 2 losses
86 points
Home: 13 wins, 3 draws, 3 losses
Away: 5 wins, 6 draws, 8 losses
63 points

Away record, away record, away record. I’ll be beating that drum a bit over the next couple of weeks.

League goals for and against:
04/05 – 52 scored, 41 conceded (82 for in all competitions)
05/06 – 57 scored, 25 conceded (104 for in all competitions)
06/07 – 57 scored, 27 conceded (90 for in all competitions)
07/08 – 67 scored, 28 conceded (119 for in all competitions)
08/09 – 77 scored, 27 conceded (106 for in all competitions)
09/10 – 61 scored, 35 conceded (84 for in all competitions)

Top scorer:
04/05: Milan Baros - 9 in the league, 13 in total (Gerrard and Garcia also finished the season with 13 goals)
05/06: Steven Gerrard - 10 in the league, 23 overall
06/07: Peter Crouch - 9 in the league, 18 overall (Kuyt was top scorer in the league with 12)
07/08: Fernando Torres - 24 in the league, 33 overall
08/09: Steven Gerrard – 16 in the league, 24 overall
09/10: Fernando Torres – 18 in the league, 22 overall

Players with double-digit goals in the league:
04/05: 0
05/06: 1 – Gerrard
06/07: 1 – Kuyt
07/08: 2 – Torres, Gerrard
08/09: 3 – Gerrard, Torres, Kuyt
09/10: 1 – Torres

This stat might be the most disappointing regression. Except, of course, the away record.

Clean sheets:
04/05: 7 in the league, 18 overall
05/06: 22 in the league, 33 overall
06/07: 20 in the league, 28 overall
07/08: 18 in the league, 25 overall
08/09: 20 in the league, 26 overall
09/10: 17 in the league, 22 overall

Points behind the league winners:
04/05: 37
05/06: 9
06/07: 21
07/08: 11
08/09: 4
09/10: 23

09 May 2010

Liverpool 0-0 Hull

Mascherano Carragher Kyrgiakos Agger
Gerrard Lucas
El Zhar Aquilani Babel

Good riddance, 2009-10.

It took 35 minutes to find an internet stream that actually worked, and other than an El Zhar shot saved, it doesn’t look like I missed much. Of course, I wouldn’t have missed much had I not seen any of it.

Even though a win would allow the team to start three weeks later thanks to Villa losing to Blackburn, a relegated Hull in front of its own fans was the only side with any impetus. We saw more passion from Liverpool during some of the preseason friendlies.

The away side only looked themselves in the final seconds of either half, hitting the frame of the goal in the 46th and 91st. Even though, depressingly, Hull were the better side for long stretches, and Pepe earned the clean sheet which sees him finish the season level with Cech (winning the Golden Gloves for the fourth of his five seasons), those two opportunities should have seen Liverpool undeservedly win. No such luck this season. Duh.

Right before the intermission, Aquilani hit the crossbar, moments after Kuyt’s center narrowly missed an on-rushing Agger. The makeshift left back toed the rebound for Aquilani’s shot embarrassingly over from eight yards. Right before the final whistle, Gerrard hit the foot of the post after finally trying to finish a trademark run forward. But in between, Hull “took” the game to Liverpool, as much as Hull could.

Their young players – Cairney, Cullen, and Atkinson – had a point to prove, while Mendy was excellent. But the home side was mostly limited to a couple of scary crosses (usually Mendy), a few dangerous free kicks not good enough, and a shot from distance straight down Reina’s throat.

It was evident that a fair few senior players couldn’t be bothered for long stretches today, especially since the best and only chances came near at the close of the halves, like a switch was flipped. Pacheco (for Aquilani in the 74th) and Robinson (for Babel in the 88th) both came on, but that the youngsters had more to play for should have seen them on sooner. If we’re going down in flames, go down in style. At least Robinson takes Owen’s name out of the record books for youngest league debutant. If Liverpool’s as bad off financially as we think, the 16-year-old might get a few more games next season.

We’ll have lots of time to fully eulogize and dissect this piss-poor season during the coming weeks. I'll probably roll out the usual end-of-year stuff over the next couple. For now, suffice it to say that it certainly wasn’t good enough – just like today's display – and I couldn’t be happier it’s over. Any writer who had guessed this team would finish 7th would have been laughed out of the press room, and I'm not the only idiot who thought they'd have a chance at the title (but I am still an idiot). Yes, Liverpool looks to be on the precipice of mediocrity – at best! – if matters don’t change off the field. But even after eight months of disappointment after disappointment, I’m still adamant there’s a real team in there somewhere.

Let’s see what the next step off the pitch entails before we start covering the coffin with dirt.

08 May 2010

Liverpool at Hull 05.09.10

11am ET, not on TV in the US. Don’t even think it’s delayed anywhere, which doesn’t bode well for streams tomorrow. RAWK and Twitter are usually helpful, but your best bets are probably MyP2P.eu and Empire of the Kop

Last 4 head-to-head:
6-1 Liverpool (h) 09.26.09
3-1 Liverpool (a) 04.25.09
2-2 (h) 12.13.08
4-2 Liverpool (h; League Cup) 09.21.99

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-2 Chelsea (h); 2-1 Atletico aet (h); 4-0 Burnley (a)
Hull: 2-2 Wigan (a); 0-1 Sunderland (h); 0-2 Villa (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 18; Gerrard, Kuyt 9; Benayoun 6; Ngog 5; Babel 4; Johnson 3; Aquilani, Kyrgiakos, Maxi, Skrtel 1
Hull: Hunt 6; Bullard 5; Geovanni, Vennegoor of Hesselink 3; Fagan, Folan, Zayette 2; Altidore, Atkinson, Boateng, Cairney, Cullen, Dawson, Ghilas, Kilbane, Marney, Mouyokolo, Olofinjana 1

Referee: Andre Marriner

Guess at a squad:
Mascherano Carragher Ayala Agger
Gerrard Lucas
Benayoun Aquilani Babel

It’s almost over. Finally.

I again apologize for the extended silence, but there’s been little to do but speculatively worry about the future. A moot game is actually a welcome distraction, especially if it carries the bonus of seeing some youth players. Getting time for the likes of Ayala and possibly others, as well as keeping a clean sheet so Reina ends the season with the most in the league, is all I really want to see out of tomorrow.

Unsurprisingly, more injuries will impact the starting line-up. Maxi and Carragher went off last weekend, with Carragher’s twisted ankle less likely to keep him out than Maxi’s thigh problem. At the same time, both Johnson and Ngog are carrying knocks which could preclude their participation; I especially doubt Johnson will play with the World Cup imminent.

Were Ngog fit – and honestly, I haven’t seen any new news on that front – I’d guess him up top with Kuyt on the right. But there are few other spearheads than Dirk if the young Frenchman’s missing. It’d also allowed both Benayoun and Babel to start on the flanks. While I’d be thrilled to see Pacheco start, I doubt it’s likely. He plays the same position as Aquilani, and I don’t think the Spaniard can or will start on the flanks. But I’ll be thoroughly annoyed if he doesn’t come off the bench.

And if I could suggest someone other than Masch at right back, I would. But Johnson’s injury lingers, Kelly’s out, and Degen’s Degen. That it’s Hull and the last game of the season may make Degen more likely (in what would probably be his last match for the club), but I’d still rather Mascherano play there instead, especially since it’d allow Gerrard, Lucas, and Aquilani to all start as well.

Thanks to Georger for the heads-up that Under-18s left-back Jack Robinson will be on the bench, hopefully joined by Pacheco and possibly Amoo. The fullback crisis and that it’s the last game of the season are why young Robinson’s making the bench, but I’m thrilled none the less. He’s been highly-touted in the Academy, and has been earning rave reviews for nearly 2 years now. In November 2008, The Times speculated he’d be a member of the 2018 World Cup – the youngest forecasted starter, no less. Were he to play, he’d be Liverpool’s youngest debutant, beating that Taffy Judas Midget Manc.

Hull, already relegated, will look to save a little face by going out of the Premiership with a bang. And caretaker manager (or whatever his title is) Iain Dowie will be looking to keep his job next season. Folan and Bullard are injured, in addition to long-term casualties Zayette, Ashbee, Garcia, and Hunt. US striker Jozy Altidore remains suspended for the rest of the season after hilariously head-butting Alan Hutton two weeks ago. Rightly, Hull will continue to give young players like Atkinson and Cullen a look-in, which hopefully will be mirrored by Liverpool including the likes of Ayala and Pacheco – or even Robinson – at least at some point.

The last game of the season is usually played at friendly pace, and I doubt this’ll be much different. It’s been a long, disappointing season that every player (and fan) will be glad to see the back of. At best, Liverpool can finish sixth, and only if Villa lose to Blackburn while Liverpool beat Hull, which would push the Europa League campaign forward a few much-needed weeks, the difference between starting in July and August. That, coupled with some pride, will hopefully be enough motivation.

07 May 2010

Just Because You Keep Repeating It Doesn’t Make It True

The anglophile and political junkie that I am, I watched the BBC’s streaming coverage of the UK election for more than a few hours last night. I can’t help these masochistic tendencies. And even knowing what I know about the media, I was still amazed to see a narrative fully created with less than a quarter of the results in.

With hours of airtime to fill, politician after politician was interviewed, and every one was forced into the cliché of ‘we’ll have to wait for the full numbers’ while the hacks fumbled for a storyline. David Dimbleby et al went with whether Gordon Brown “had the moral right” to form a government with a hung Parliament imminent and the Tories with more seats. Evidently, it’s still going on this morning, although I haven’t fully caught up on the “news.”

By midnight US time – seven hours after polls had closed – I was screaming at the computer for one of the random Labour stuffed suits to respond, “Look you nitwit, numbers don’t lie. If no party has a majority, we get first chance at a coalition. It's not rocket science.” Never happened. It didn’t fit with the “Tory wave” narrative that’s been lovingly built for more than a year. If there was any narrative, it should have been “A pox on all your houses, third parties never win, and all politics is local.” But that’s too stunningly simple. It’s evidently easier, and more fun, to fit the facts to the story rather than the story to the facts. As Liverpool fans, we should be used to that.

We’ve watched a narrative forced on Liverpool all season long, one in a long line of unfair criticisms of this club and manager. I hate drawing any parallel between Gordon Brown and Rafa Benitez, but the hacks have long been planning both men’s downfall (a downfall partly of each’s own making, but that’s another essay), and have been willing to mold the “news” – any news, even speculation – to make it fit. Speculation like what we’re frequently forced to rely on in football, and which the pundits had to rely on last night while waiting for winners to slowly arise.

We all succumb to the narratives around Liverpool, and I’m admittedly as reactionary as most. Neither Benitez nor Liverpool has said anything concrete about Juventus or buyouts, but every word from either is diagnosed in great detail for a clue. The recent club statement – or what was lacking in that statement – on the meeting between Benitez and Broughton (and Purslow!) has invited even more. That the Guardian’s article states Benitez won’t hold a press conference before the Hull match invites even more speculation that feeds into the frightening storyline.

It’s little use listing the misguided narratives and half-truths used to bash Benitez, but it makes me feel better: zonal marking, rotation, transfer spending, poor man management, too defensive, never plays young players, etc. Yes, there are truths in many of them, but a quick search of my archives hopefully demonstrates that there are arguments against those myths, as well as arguably more important reasons why he needs to stay.

I should apologize for the weeklong silence, but I’ve been hard-pressed to write anything about the club. Morale is still in the toilet after a long, disappointing season with zero light at the end of the tunnel. Off-field turmoil is as virulent as ever, unabated after the aforementioned meeting. I just haven’t had the stomach for it, and I’d rather wait for reality to play out instead of forcing a narrative into words for once. Otherwise, it’s shouting into the wind.

The preview of Sunday’s match, thankfully the last of the season, will be late tomorrow or early Saturday.

02 May 2010

Liverpool 0-2 Chelsea

Mascherano Carragher Kyrgiakos Agger
Gerrard Lucas
Maxi Aquilani Benayoun

Drogba 33’
Lampard 54’

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
- T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men.”

The culmination of a season full of melodrama is probably what’s inspired the poetry references, and today was the epitome of going gently into that good night. Comical too, as if it’d go any other way.

I hope all who wanted Chelsea to win in the hopes of keeping Manchester from the title are happy. Maybe Gerrard was one of you. While Chelsea cantered by the end, they were handed victory on a platter. At least at this stage of the season, it’s no great matter.

Honestly, the first 30 minutes weren’t bad. Liverpool stifled Chelsea and created a couple of chances from distance, most notably Aquilani’s 11th minute effort that just whistled over the bar. But then familiar calamity rose its head.

A ridiculous back pass from Gerrard, under little pressure, allowed Drogba to nip in and easily round Reina. It was a carbon copy of when Captain Fantastic set up Henry for a late Arsenal winner in March 2006 and handed France a 93rd-minute penalty in Euro 2004. And that it was from Gerrard will prompt some especially amusing conspiracy theories I’m sure. But, really, it’s just emblematic of Liverpool and Gerrard’s seasons – questionable decision-making and a whole heap of bad luck.

From there, there was only going to be one winner. Liverpool’s sole motivation prior the match was pride; going behind in such a manner surely sapped any remaining morale. And Maxi’s injury five minutes from halftime was a further blow, with Babel taking his place.

Liverpool need not have bothered coming out for the second half, while Chelsea clearly looked to remove any doubt, taking the game to the home side for the first time in the match. Kalou beating Mascherano down the flank, only for Anelka to miss his clever center across the box and with Carragher injured moments later, was the prelude to Lampard’s strike. This time, Chelsea came down the right, with Anelka played onside by Mascherano and Carragher barely able to stand (Ayala came on immediately after), with Lampard sliding into the six-yard box to meet the center.

The last 35 minutes were a formality. Babel’s deflected shot in the 59th and Agger’s blast from distance in the 83rd were the only Liverpool “chances” worth mentioning, while Reina had to make some big saves on Malouda, Ballack, and Anelka. As usual this season, Pepe’s the only one coming out the match with much credit. This result means he's now level with Cech for most clean sheets.

A fitting final home match of the season, I guess. Little more needs to be said. The effort was there from most, with Kuyt, Mascherano, Lucas, and Benayoun willing runners, but Liverpool were impotent at the best of times, pathetic at the worst, and massively unlucky to boot. Thankfully there’s only one match left in this horrific campaign. Unfortunately, it looks like the summer will be fairly horrific as well.

This is the way the world ends.

01 May 2010

Liverpool v Chelsea 05.02.10

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

Last 4 head-to-head:
0-2 Chelsea (a) 10.04.09
4-4 (a; CL) 04.14.09
1-3 Chelsea (h; CL) 04.08.09
2-0 Liverpool (h) 02.01.09

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 Atletico aet (h); 4-0 Burnley (a); 0-1 Atletico (a)
Chelsea: 7-0 Stoke (h); 1-2 Spurs (a); 1-0 Bolton (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 18; Gerrard, Kuyt 9; Benayoun 6; Ngog 5; Babel 4; Johnson 3; Aquilani, Kyrgiakos, Maxi, Skrtel 1
Chelsea: Drogba 25; Lampard 20; Malouda 12; Anelka 9; Ballack, Kalou 4; A Cole, Essien 3; J Cole, Deco, Terry 2; Alex, Sturridge 1

Referee: Alan Wiley

Guess at a squad:
Johnson Carragher Kyrgiakos Agger
Gerrard Mascherano
Maxi Aquilani Babel

Emotionally exhausted and physically spent after a crushing European exit and the season from hell. Stories about Benitez’s “imminent” departure to Juventus have intensified in the last 24 hours. And a win tomorrow could help hand United the title that sees them overtake Liverpool in number of championships. So, everyone’s all excited for a huge match against Chelsea? Super.

It’s a complete surprise to see malignant articles about Benitez’s future the day before a big match. That’s never happened before. But it’s hard to dismiss rumors that haven’t been fully dismissed by those involved even though they’ve been public for months, and especially when written by credible journalists like Barrett and Kay. Sigh. Hopefully that Sword of Damocles can wait for another day; let’s get to the others…

When the fixtures came out in August, everyone circled this as a potential title decider. It might decide the title, but Liverpool won’t be involved. I can’t blame people for not wanting a Chelsea win tomorrow – damn United, save the Empire – but I can’t do it. Yes, I’ll be furious to see United pass Liverpool’s record mark, but it’s seemingly inevitable. And I can’t bring myself to root against this club. Plus, in a perversely comical way, handing the Mancs this title would be a fitting final act for this awful, awful campaign.

As for the squad (yes, I’m embarrassed I’ve gone more than 200 words without discussing the possible team), I’ve little idea how Liverpool will approach the match, tactically or psychologically. It’s been a tough two weeks, physically and mentally (in contrast to the rest of the season, natch), with four games in ten days capped off by Thursday’s tragedy.

I’m tempted to just say ‘fuck it,’ and suggest ‘fan favorites’ and youngsters. The slight mathematical possibility for fourth is so massively slight (and might be gone in two hours), and so many senior players are either injured or jaded or both, that maybe it isn’t worth it. Play Pacheco, play Aquilani, play Babel, play Ayala; give the fans something to cheer for. But it’s not in Rafa or Liverpool’s DNA. Even given circumstances, I’ll be surprised if there’s much deviation from the norm.

And the norm in these matches is a tight, physical battle with only a smattering of half-chances. The above isn’t even my best guess at a squad – although it’s a better possibility with how coherent the attack looked at times on Thursday. Lucas in place of Aquilani, with Gerrard further forward, is. No surprise.

Benayoun’s unlikely to play after such a long shift on Thursday. The same might go for Kuyt with his calf strain, in which case Babel would probably play up top. Kyrgiakos seems almost certain to come back, and hopefully he’ll offer Spartan protection against a Chelsea team that ran riot in its last match.

A seven-goal demolition of Stoke, led by a hat-trick from Kalou and a brace from Lampard, was the right reply to a surprising loss at Tottenham the week before. It’s been a strange month as they fight for the title: they beat United at Old Trafford to secure pole position, then stuttered to a narrow 1-0 home win at Bolton in their next league outing before losing to Spurs. And when you’d assumed Chelsea had thrown away their advantage, they utterly annihilated the Potters.

John Terry will return from suspension, while Ashley Cole will be back in the side after an extended injury. Essien, Mikel, and Boswinga are the only players assuredly out. Drogba always has engrossing battles with Agger and Carragher, and it should be interesting to see how Kyrgiakos copes with the beast if he plays.

All I’m hoping for is what Reina’s been quoted saying in the press. Fight for pride, fight for the shirt. It’s the last home game of the season, and if rumors are true, could be Benitez’s last match at Anfield. Make it count.