28 July 2012

Liverpool 0-0 Tottenham

You play a preseason friendly against all-too-familiar opposition in nearly 100°F full sun afternoon heat – while wearing black even though there was no color clash, no less – and this is what you get. A tepid, underwhelming, half-assed, even boring 0-0 draw.

I don't wholly subscribe to the "you can't learn anything from preseason" notion. Especially when it's a new manager's first preseason. You can see who'll get chances, you can see who's actually bothered to compete for a place, and we've learned that Rodgers will assuredly stick with his preferred 4-3-3 formation. It can be an augury for both tactics and personnel, even if you're hard-pressed to read too many omens from the entrails.

Still, we learned next to nothing today. The only possible lesson was that Liverpool are far better with the likes of Gerrard, Henderson, Lucas, Borini, and other almost-certain starters. Which was a fairly safe assumption to begin with. Liverpool weren't good in the first half, weren't bad in the second half. No matter the players, Liverpool rarely looked like scoring, but outside of two frightening moments late in the first half, Liverpool rarely looked like conceding either.

The second half improvement was almost totally due to the first shift of substitutions, followed by even more first-team regulars just after the hour mark. The addition of Henderson made the biggest difference between the two halves. A more churlish man would say "the subtraction of Charlie Adam" – and I am admittedly a churlish man – but Henderson's movement and short, controlled passing was vast improvement almost regardless of who he replaced; Rodgers' style of play is the style of play that he can revel in. Adam has not had a good preseason, looking lost in these three matches, uncomfortable in Rodgers' system, but Henderson actually looked good, more comfortable than in most of Liverpool's matches last season. We can't say the same about many involved, whether they're kids, reserves, or regulars.

The other starting scapegoats did little better. Cole combined well at times, worked hard, and tried to impress, but lost the ball just as often and still has the fitness of a emphysema sufferer. Downing was even more hopeless, contributing just one dangerous cross early on that no one ran onto, but that it's his first preseason game provides a marginal excuse. Spearing again did both good and bad, ticking over in midfield as needed but then bafflingly, sloppily conceding possession, all while often charging out of position. It was his giveaway which nearly led to a Spurs opener, a hospital ball pass that ended with Bale's cross flicked on to Lennon at the far post, his point-blank half-volley ricocheting off of said post. At the same time, it was his pass which led to Liverpool's best opportunity, when his perfectly-timed long ball caught Spurs' high line on the back foot, only for an onside Morgan to shoot too close to Friedel. Shelvey, on the other hand, was the best of the first half bunch, attempting to take control of Liverpool's midfield, confident on the ball and full of running.

The second half saw more of what we expect – or, I guess at this point, hope to expect – from Liverpool. More control in possession, more intelligence in passing, but still blunt in front of goal. The lack of pressing is easily explained by the conditions. But it remained cagey; the two true chances, one for each side, came from central defenders. In the 55th, Skrtel bombed forward from his own half, charging past defenders, deftly switching onto his right foot, but telegraphing his shot for an easy Friedel catch. 12 minutes later, Huddlestone's excellent chip over the top found Gallas bombing forward, but Gulacsi and Wilson did enough to prevent him making clean contact. Disconcertingly, Carroll did little to help his cause with poor passing after he came on in the 71st; Borini (playing on the left) found possession, let alone chances, had to come by; and Lucas continues to look better with each minute back on the field. I was most impressed with Sama and Wilson in defense: Sama's been the biggest revelation, comfortable in each friendly, while Wilson – back in his preferred position – wholly put Wednesday's horror show behind him.

So that's the friendlies all but done with. There's still one to go, against Sami Hyypia's Leverkusen at Anfield on August 12. Coming just three days after the second leg of Liverpool's Europa League qualifier, we're not likely to learn much there either.

With five days before Liverpool travels to Belarus for the first leg of that qualifier, we'd hoped to have seen better from pretty much everyone involved, most notably more than an average of 0.67 goals per game on this North American tour. Liverpool will have to be far better than they were in each friendly to beat FC Gomel, who are currently in the middle of the Belorussian season, in third place after finishing third last season. With the aforementioned first-team regulars back, more suitable playing conditions, and an actual, tangible reward, there's every hope that Liverpool can and will be better. But at this point, it is hope.

Still there's also the hope that, as everyone says, you just can't learn anything from preseason.

25 July 2012

Liverpool 1-2 Roma

Bradley 63'
Florenzi 69'
Adam 80'

Who would have guessed that Roma would pose more of a problem than Toronto FC, especially when starting the likes of Totti, Osvaldo, Pjanic, Bradley, Rosi, and Burdisso, and bringing on Bojan, Lamela, and Heinze in the second half?

Still, it was disappointing to see regression from last Saturday's friendly. It's hard to be certain without the accustomed stats and chalkboards, but it sure felt like Liverpool had less possession, less cohesion, and more long, errant passes.

Granted, Suarez, Carroll, Borini, and Bellamy are missing, but the next tier of forwards – Eccleston, Morgan, Cole, Sterling – again looked impotent. Something something Maxi, Kuyt rabble rabble rabble. Liverpool's defense also seemed far worse, especially at left back – whether it was Enrique completely off the pace or Wilson completely out of position, used because Robinson supposedly picked up a knock in training yesterday.

Liverpool again played 4-3-3, with two midfielders ahead of a holder in the first half and an attacking midfielder ahead of two holders in the second half. Liverpool's slightly weaker first half side looked slightly more impressive; only Shelvey and Cole actually played well – the only two with actual chances to score – and Spearing admittedly almost gifted Roma a goal if not for a weak shot and good save. But overall there were fewer mistakes, especially in defense, despite a less than impressive performance from Enrique, despite Carragher turned inside out by Osvaldo in the 17th. Shelvey forced two good saves from Lobont, the first self-created with a strong run, the second from Sterling's cross which eluded Cole, and the keeper did well to push both away from any potential Liverpool rebound. Cole hit the crossbar, set up by Aquilani's excellent chip, then tested Lobont just before halftime after a good turn and run.

Liverpool probably played its best in the first 15 minutes of the second half, before the final four changes. Shelvey continued to play well – although made a giveaway similar to Spearing's which required Jones to save Tachtsidis' shot with his feet – combining well with also-impressive Pacheco. Most importantly, Liverpool at least kept, if not dominated, possession, which seems the starting point for what Rodgers wants to accomplish.

Not coincidently, Roma's goals swiftly followed Liverpool's final changes. Specifically, Erik Lamela simply destroyed an uncertain Danny Wilson. For Roma's first, Lamela danced around Wilson, dragging him far up the pitch and into the center before delivering a through ball for Michael Bradley, bursting forward from midfield between Pacheco and Agger, picked up by neither, slotting in off the far post. Six minutes later, soon after Adam conceded possession with a trademark hopeful long ball to the wrong team, Roma burst down the pitch, through the middle then down Liverpool's left. Lamela cut inside around Wilson, then got in front of Wilson to receive the pass back, centering for Florenzi to hammer into the net. Unsurprisingly, the goals sandwiched Liverpool's best chance of the match so far, when Pacheco beat Rosi to the byline and crossed for Suso, whose point-blank volley was somehow blocked by a retreating defender.

Adam pulled one back ten minutes from time with an excellent low piledriver from the top of the box, set up by Pacheco's lay-off from Flanagan's long cross, once again proving that there's good to go along with his bad. But Liverpool couldn't find a second; Lamela was the only player to come close in the late stages, cannoning a shot off the post after flummoxing poor Danny Wilson yet again, a minute after blazing over from the top of the box. He was the best player on show, but made better by his marker. But this is overly cruel to Wilson, used out of position by his third Liverpool manager; hopefully this manager will realize he's a center-back and no more.

Still, for all the above criticism, this is Liverpool's second preseason game under a new manager, using at least 22 different players in each match, many who've never started a senior league match before. 15 of the 25 players used against Roma and Toronto are 22 or under, the average age of the 25 players is 22.4. Meanwhile, this was Roma's sixth preseason match, with only Daniele De Rossi missing from its usual line-up. All that's truly worrying is Liverpool's continued impotence up front, the lack of depth with key players missing, reliant on untested, raw youngsters.

Preseason is only good for fitness, after all. However, even without Suarez, Gerrard, Borini, Henderson, Carroll, Bellamy, Reina, Downing, Johnson, and Kelly, I just wish Liverpool looked more like I imagine Rodgers' side can and will look in the future.

21 July 2012

Liverpool 1-1 Toronto

Amarikwa 58'
Morgan 69'

Yes, yes. Preseason is preseason is preseason. It's the same mantra repeated every year, but we're still here. The usual post-match analysis is beyond moot, but a few thoughts seem worth noting

What stood out was that Rodgers' ethos, both promised and hypothesized, seemed to be taking hold, despite how little time he's had with the squad and how many "regulars" were missing.

Since Liverpool deployed completely different XIs in each half, lets break this up.

1st Half
• Liverpool had a 67-33% advantage in possession, but Liverpool had exactly zero shots on target. Pacheco had a couple of efforts blocked, Liverpool should have won on a penalty when Enrique's wild right-footed shot was blocked with an arm, and Eccleston looped an off-balance header from an Adam ball over the top wide of the goal. Liverpool kept the ball well, won the ball back well – often gratifyingly high up the pitch – but didn't do enough with it.

• Liverpool's midfield was "2-1" – Spearing sitting in front of the back four, with Aquilani and Adam ahead of him.

Aquilani looked a class above, but Aquilani looked a class above in preseason a year ago too. Spearing did good things and bad things. This was a role that suited him, and he usually kept it simple and kept it moving, but still tried too hard too often because he's Jay Spearing and almost always tries too hard too often. Adam mostly just looked lost, frequently switching sides with Aquilani, which seemed more happenstance rather than a planned feature to unsettle the defense. And his set plays were crap. In his defense, which I feel required to do on occasion because no one else wants to, this is this first time he's played with a midfielder like Aquilani while at Liverpool.

• Pacheco was one of the other highlights, Liverpool's most frequent threat, but his final pass was terrible. Just terrible. And that's putting it nicely. He got into wonderful positions, through good movement and good footwork, but wasted every single one of them, whether crossing too close to the keeper or under-hitting a cut-back towards the spot.

Ibe looked a typical, promising 16-year-old, with absolutely no fear, but too easy to read, running at defenders then losing possession. Eccleston's movement was impressive, dropping deep, chasing into the channels, and harrying defenders when they were in possession, but that movement was often impotent when Liverpool were attacking. Still it was ever so encouraging to see forwards pressing opposition defenders in their own half, especially in the first preseason match.

• Toronto may have registered the only shot on goal in the first half, but they still looked just as unlikely to score as Liverpool did. I was most impressed by Stephen Sama, whose positioning belied his age. Wisdom, in an unfamiliar right-back role, noticeably improved as the half went on, especially going forward. Carragher was Carragher and Enrique was Enrique – and, fair warning, Enrique's gonna cause some heart-in-mouth moments when playing out of defense this season, as Rodgers' side looks determined to do.

2nd Half
• When you play a midfield of Adorjan-Suso-Shelvey, you can't be surprised when your side concedes after getting carved open through the middle. All three midfielders were caught upfield after Liverpool lost possession deep in Toronto's half, Liverpool's back four backed off and backed off and backed off, allowing Camargo to run straight down the center of the pitch. Gulasci saved his shot from the top of the box, but Skrtel, continuing to back up, played Amarikwa onside; first to the rebound, Gulasci had no chance.

• Unlike the first half, it was more a 1-2 midfield, with Liverpool's formation frequently looking like a 4-2-3-1, with Suso clearly ahead of Adorjan and Shelvey. Admittedly, I'm less familiar with the young reserves than I should be, but I was under the impression Adorjan was primarily an attacking midfielder, if not a support striker. Regardless, he looked less than comfortable in the role. And regardless of the goal concession, it was still disappointing to see the three fail to gel, with Liverpool more disconnected in midfield than in the first half, although both Suso and Shelvey impressed at times.

• Rodgers' tactical "revolution" was less apparent in the second half, whether due to personnel or the change in the midfield structure. There was less patience and less possession, despite being up against Toronto's academy players and reserves rather than the first team that played in the first team. Liverpool seemed to have a singular plan: find Sterling, usually with cross-field diagonals from Suso or Shelvey. And Toronto realized this fairly early on. Still, it eventually led to Liverpool's equalizer. With Toronto players sucked over to Liverpool's right after build-up down that flank, Cole found Sterling with a low cross-field pass. Sterling feinted past a first defender when he over-reached trying to intercept, then burst past a second defender with that well-known blistering pace after a drop of the shoulder. Sterling's left-footed shot probably would have eked in, around the goalkeeper after he over-committed to his near post, but Morgan was on hand for a two-inch tap-in, as all good goal-hanging strikers should be. Morgan's reaction belied the importance of the occasion. No matter if it's preseason, it's a young local lad's first senior goal, and he celebrated as such.

• From there, there was only one storyline. Lucas. L-U-C-A-S. The Brazilian midfielder made his long-awaited return in the 74th minute, replacing Adorjan, to stadium-wide applause. Sure, he looked rusty. Sure, a couple Toronto players ran around him when the Lucas we know would have taken both ball and leg, but no matter. He's still back. Earlier than expected, no less. Saints be praised.

• Otherwise, the match ended as the match progressed, with Liverpool in possession but spoiling any potential opportunities. Joe Cole was particularly wasteful, but that's not entirely unexpected because, yeah, Joe Cole.

It's been just a couple of weeks, but the team's already starting to play according to Rodgers' blueprint. Yes, Liverpool sloppily conceded. Yes, it wasn't especially effective, and it disappointingly lessened in the second half. But – it should go without saying – it's incredibly early. This is exactly what preseason's for. Young players got the chance to impress – and a few of them did – and, tactically, Liverpool started to look a different side compared to last season's massive disappointments.

There's obviously a long road ahead but it's still nice to have a new beginning.

14 July 2012

On Fabio Borini

Rather than pretend I have any great insight into Borini's abilities, I'll link to a few articles I've found enlightening and add a few thoughts.

• The official site is unsurprisingly all over this, with approximately 15 different articles, but the interview with Borini and Rodgers' take on the player are the only required reading. I especially liked Borini's answers for "what kind of player are you?" and about working with Rodgers.

Liverpool Offside did the necessary, concise biography on Thursday.

• EPL Index – specifically @LiverpoolScoutexamined his attacking statistics, focusing on Borini's conversation rate and minutes per goal. Which are promising, especially considering Liverpool's inconceivable profligacy.

Roma blogger Blogistuta has some interesting insights from last March, when Borini was on a run of seven goals in eight games. The article focuses on Borini's well-rounded abilities, but what stood out at me was a paraphrased quote from then-manager Luis Enrique: "Borini gives 100% even when sleeping." Which coincides with what both Rodgers said about Borini and what Borini said about himself. And it's a necessary trait in Rodgers' system. Gabriele Marcotti hit a similar note on Friday, tweeting "[He's] not naturally uber-gifted, but very bright on the pitch. Coaches love him. Greater than sum of parts."

• Finally, here are highlights of all his goals for Swansea and Roma (Soccerclips has seven of his nine league goals if you'd prefer to avoid compilations). He scored six in 12 league appearances for Swansea (playing 908 minutes) and nine in 24 for Roma (1685 minutes), an average of 151 minutes per goal for Swansea and 187 minutes per goal for Roma. If you include his one Coppa Italia goal in two matches (both as a sub), it's an average of a goal every 174.5 minutes. Any of those numbers would beat Liverpool's best from last season: Maxi averaged a league goal every 200 minutes, Bellamy every 207, Suarez every 232, Gerrard every 242, Carroll every 516, and Kuyt every 1001 in the league. Factoring in the cups, Suarez's average drops to 192 minutes per goal; no one else breaks the 200 barrier.

Borini was mainly a goal poacher at Swansea, a typical, cliché fox in the box. Five of his six goals were scored with his right foot. Five of six came inside the penalty area – the lone exception a direct free kick against Norwich. Three were scored from rebounds, either inside the six-yard box or just outside.

His league goals for Roma were similar, although Borini usually started from wider positions: all nine from inside the box, seven of nine with his right foot, with the majority less than ten yards from goal, many from rebounds. A handful came from through balls or chips over the top where he hangs off the shoulder of the last defender and beats the offside trap. Interestingly, none of his goals for either Swansea or Roma were headers, but this against Germany, his first for the Italian U-21s, shows he's capable of doing so – a well-placed strike and well-timed leap.

His predilection for close-range strikes is even more apparent when you plot his goals.

Finally, over to WhoScored for a few more statistics than what's presented in the above EPL Index article.

In his 20 starts for Roma, seven came as a left-sided forward, seven as a right-sided forward, and six as a central striker. That versatility will come in handy, especially since Luis Suarez has similar qualities, able to play anywhere across the front line. However, Borini started as a central striker in 11 of his 12 appearances for Rodgers' Swansea. I expect that will be his main position at Liverpool, but his versatility can still be of great benefit.

Second, he fits snuggly into Rodgers' ideal of defending from the front. Borini's 1.8 tackles per game were third-most for a forward in Serie A last season; only Udinese's Albi (started as a forward just six times) and Catania's Barrientos averaged more. And that was in a Roma side which completed the fewest tackles in Serie A. Borini also averaged 0.9 interceptions (again one of the higher totals for a Serie A forward) and 1.4 fouls committed. His defending statistics dwarfed those from Roma's other forwards: Totti, Osvaldo, Bojan, and Lamela. While Borini remains primarily a goal poacher, he will put himself about, vital to the way Rodgers wants to play and again similar to Suarez. Who also averaged 1.4 fouls committed per match, as well as 1.1 tackles and 0.4 interceptions. And that was in a Liverpool side which rarely pressed in the opposition half.

This certainly isn't to say that Suarez and Borini are wholly similar. They aren't. Borini's a better finisher, Suarez a far better creator. Few players attempt more dribbles than Suarez, Borini rarely does so – completing just 21 last season (Suarez completed 76). But the similarities – versatility, defending from the front, and that never-say-die, never-even-think-die work ethic – make the potential partnership (well, more likely two-thirds of a three-man front line) incredibly promising, especially considering Rodgers' style of play.

As LiverpoolScout noted, Borini's passing leaves something to be desired, completing just 359 of 474 passes for Roma (75.7%) – a lower percentage than any other Roma player except the goalkeepers and a forward with just two substitute appearances. He completed just 16 key passes (0.7 per match) and tallied zero assists. Despite usually playing as a wide forward, Borini only attempted 36 crosses, completing just five – fewer than Roma's other four strikers.

Of course, he isn't being bought for his passing. He's being bought for his scoring, his defending from the front, his relatively young age, and Rodgers' experience with the player. All of which bode well for his Liverpool career. £10m is a pittance compared to some of the fees Liverpool has paid out in the last 18 months, especially for a top-tier prospect, already involved in the Italian national side (the youngest player for the Euro runners-up, in fact). And it's not as if Liverpool are lacking in homegrown players, but Borini also counts as one having spent four seasons with Chelsea.

Here's how Liverpool's squad currently looks in what I suspect will be Rodgers' preferred formation.

Obviously, some can play multiple positions even where not listed, especially the midfielders and wide forwards, but this gives you the gist of it. There's definitely some promise there, but there also seems a fair bit of business required. The addition of Fabio Borini is an intriguing start.

13 July 2012

On Maxi, Summer Signings, and FSG's Business Model

Well, while waiting on pins and needles in the hopes that Liverpool have signed Fabio Borini (look, there's a picture of him in training gear!), we get news that Maxi Rodriguez's inevitable exit has finally come to pass.

Which Liverpool did an excellent job of promoting, as has become par for the course. While everyone's waiting for Borini news, Liverpool's Head of Content tweets this:

Everyone clicks, everyone goes to the website, everyone freaks out in anticipation. Nope, not Borini, not Dempsey, or not any of the other multiple names perpetually linked. Maxi's exit. At least we know where Liverpoolfc.com's priorities lie. Website hits.

It's not that Maxi – or Kuyt, as I wrote about five weeks ago, prompting many of the same squad depth fears – is irreplaceable. As many, many have already said, Maxi was criminally underused, with Liverpool's joint-best shot conversation rate and best league goals-per-minute rate last season. But both he and Kuyt are over thirty, had increasingly smaller roles last season, and were on comparably high wages considering each's relative value. This always seemed likely, as much as Maxi will be missed both on and off the field.

It's not even that Liverpool haven't signed anyone yet, despite the squad leaving for its US tour next week, despite the Europa League qualifiers beginning in just under three weeks, despite Liverpool having signed at least one player by this point in every summer transfer window over the last decade. And don't even start that Aquilani and Cole are like new signings because, come on. Let's be serious here. The lack of incoming players are obviously a concern, but it's an explainable one: Rodgers is still getting a handle on the squad, the Euros dampened business across the market, etc. Borini almost assuredly will be announced soon [Update (2:30pm): That didn't take long.], if not later today. And others will follow.

Still, as @AvoidingTheDrop cleverly quipped:

The perception is that LFC (read: FSG) care far more about commercial deals and the wage bill than the actual football. Granted, at this point, it's still perception, arguably reactionary perception, but the prevailing perception nonetheless. And with the season soon to start, frightfully close to becoming reality.

Of course, we were warned. A guest post from friend-of-the-blog Mike Anton said as much 21 months ago. The relevant section:

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

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

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

That last paragraph sounds vaguely familiar. Especially given FSG's announced preference for renovating Anfield.

Just look at the stories on Liverpoolfc.com at the moment. Sure, there are articles on Maxi's departure and routine fluff about or from Henderson, Flanagan, and Enrique. But there are also links to the US Tour and Auto-Ticket Scheme – give us your money! – an announcement about Garuda Indonesia as the new official airline partner, a promotion for the new monthly magazine, a promotion for the television channel, and slide-show of kids in the new Warrior kits. A slideshow. Of little kids. In the new kit. I utterly despair. The football-to-business ratio is almost exactly split right down the middle.

Let's make no mistake about it. FSG are running a business here. But whether they're running a football club remains to be seen.

10 July 2012

Benitez and Houllier in the Premier League [Infographic]

I've been trying to come up with different ways to visually represent results. I like this one.

That both Benitez and Houllier were in charge for six seasons allows for a straightforward comparison, even if we don't count the first 12 games of 1998-99 because of the ill-fated Evans/Houllier managerial pairing. Houllier's win percentage was 50%, Benitez's 55%. Both finished 2nd once, 3rd twice, 4th once, 5th once, and 7th once.

I'd like to direct your attention to a couple of areas.

First, the lower portion of Houllier's – and, to a lesser extent, Benitez's – wheel. There's an argument for a winter break right there, especially the results from 2001-02 and 2002-03. From the 15th match of the season through the 23rd, 54 matches over Houllier's six years, Liverpool won just 19, losing 18 and drawing 17, a win percentage of 35% compared to Houllier's 50% overall. Benitez's record during the winter months is better, but there's still the greatest concentration of draws in that part, especially during the '08-09 campaign – draws which directly led to Liverpool failure to win the league.

However, both managers had an outstanding record during the run-in. Benitez's sides suffered just four losses in the last seven matches during his six campaigns: 28 wins, 10 draws, 4 losses – winning 67% of the matches, dropping just 32 of 126 points. And half of those losses came in 2006-07, when Liverpool used a weakened line-up in the league while focusing on the Champions League Final – something Neil Warnock still complains about.

Houllier's results during that frame weren't quite as impressive, especially in 1999-02 and 2003-04, but there are still far more wins than draws or losses from, say, nine o'clock to midnight. His record of 13 wins, 1 draw, and 1 loss to close out 2001-02 is what led to Liverpool's second place finish that season, spoiled by the clutch of losses and draws during the winter when Liverpool dropped from 1st to 5th. But then Liverpool went out and bought Diouf, Diao, and Cheyrou, finished 5th the next season, and the rest is history.

Here's hoping Brendan Rodgers lasts six seasons (at least), and can replicate some of the heights hit by either of these managers.

04 July 2012

LFC Summer Signings Since '04-05

Liverpool haven't signed anyone yet! Sigurðsson chose Spurs over Liverpool! Everyone freak out!

Well, maybe.

Liverpool have signed 51 first-team players since 2004-05, not counting youngsters who never played a first team game such as Németh and San José. 14 of those 51 – 27% – were signed before July 4.

In fact, Liverpool have signed someone on or before July 4 every summer since 2004. Even in Benitez's first season, when Cisse was already wrapped up before Benitez was. Even in 2009, when Liverpool had less than zero money, and 2010, when Liverpool had less than zero money and before Hodgson officially became manager, thanks to Rafa's parting gift of Jonjo Shelvey.

Incidentally, July 4 has also been Liverpool's busiest business day over the last eight summers, with six players officially signed on that date: Barragán, Reina, and Zenden in 2005; Paletta in 2006; Torres in 2007; and Dossena in 2008. Two out of six ain't bad. Okay, maybe it is.

To be fair, Liverpool have excuses, some actually valid. It's understandable that the club are reticent to break their wage structure for Sigurðsson, if that's truly the reason he went to Spurs. The Euros, and the typical lack of business during a major tournament, have made it harder for the new manager to evaluate the current players, let alone make signings. Today was the first day Rodgers met with the squad, and that obviously doesn't include players who went to the Euros.

Still, it's less than reassuring when nearly all of Liverpool's rivals have started their summer business. Hell, even Everton's signed someone. At least the club are all geared up to release the third kit at midnight. Priorities…

All signing dates via the invaluable, irreplaceable LFCHistory.net.

01 July 2012

Spain 4-0 Italy

Fàbregas 14'
Alba 41'
Torres 84'
Mata 88'

The score line may flatter Spain, the by-product of Italy playing with 10 men for the last half an hour, but that's the only thing which flatters Spain. There will be effusive praise, but it's not exaggerated praise. This side deserves every superlative that will be thrown their way.

So much for a patient, protracted, drawn-out death by a thousand passes. The lesson of the day is that you might not want to give Spain any added motivation. "Boring? We'll show you boring."

Maybe Spain's earlier patience was more than just a defensive strategy. Resting with the ball is still resting. The fatigue on display against Portugal a few days ago certainly wasn't present today. Sticking with Del Bosque's preferred line-up, with Fàbregas as false nine with Iniesta and Silva roaming inside and out, Spain started furiously.

The front three constantly switched positions while Xavi poked and prodded, and the goal wasn't long in coming. A string of short passes to get defenders moving, Fàbregas charging in behind from the inside right channel, bombing behind Chiellini to receive Iniesta's through ball despite Pirlo's pressure, bisecting the center back and left back. Chiellini couldn't recover, Fàbregas burst to the byline, chipping a cross for the on-rushing Silva, brilliantly placed between retreating center-backs watching Fàbregas rather than the runner, a deftly-placed header from a 5'7" midfielder.

However, as we've come to expect from Prandelli's Italy, they responded, keeping possession. Chiellini's subsequent injury may have helped Italy, at least in the short-term. Balzaretti, unfairly left out after his excellent performance at right back against the Germans, is far better going forward, and his crosses troubled Spain, forcing Arbeloa to remain deep, requiring Silva to frequently help out in defense. Still, for all their improvement, Casillas was rarely tested; other than parrying Cassano's fierce blast from distance, Spain were most often threatened on set plays, where Casillas adequately, repeatedly punched clear while Ramos and Piqué contributed crucial clearing headers.

The Italians were arguably the better side when Spain struck again, another doctoral thesis in geometry. The StatsZone goal buildup shows a nine-pass move, but only four really matter, the first five simply a matter of keeping possession at the back, as Spain had competently done since taking the lead. Evidently, Spain can play route one football. A long ball from Casillas, Iniesta's chest down to Alba, to Xavi, to Alba. Xavi's pass to Alba was too good for words: perfectly-timed, immaculately angled. Alba barely had space to fit between Barzagli and Bonucci when bursting forward, but somehow Xavi minded the gap, holding until the perfect moment to catch Alba just onside. One-on-one with Buffon, the left-back coolly placed his shot around Italy's captain. Spain with a one-goal lead is almost always a death sentence. At 2-0, the warden's taking requests for your last meal.

Still, Italy showed flashes of being able to get back in the game after the restart, Prandelli showing typical proactivity with two quick changes in Di Natale and Motta for Cassano and Montolivo – substitutions we've seen in Italy's earlier matches because of Cassano and Montolivo usually lasting just an hour. Di Natale nearly scored Italy's best chance, just onside, but was denied by Casillas – as ever reliable the few times he's called upon. But then Motta pulled up lame in the 62nd, just six minutes after coming on. With Italy out of substitutions. Game well and truly over.

You have to admire Prandelli's chutzpah. He's restored this Italian side's belief, brought attacking flair to a country renowned – rightly and wrongly – for dour football. He's shown an adventurous willingness to adapt his side's formation to its available personnel and the opposition's. But starting Chiellini and bringing on Motta, both injured earlier in the tournament, were true riverboat gambles. And both went down in brilliant flames.

Spain is the last side you'd ever want to face with 10 men and a two-goal deficit. This was never going to be Chelsea against Barcelona, because of Italy's set-up and ethos, because of Spain's lead. Matches like this, against opposition like this, makes you yearn for a mercy rule. It certainly wasn't what Italy deserved.

Spain's final two goals were ambushes. The last two substitutes, Torres and Mata, scored with their first touches – Torres nine minutes after he came on, Mata barely more than a minute after. Torres was set up by Xavi's interception and immediate through ball, Mata by an unselfish, somehow onside Torres after Busquets' 30-yard pass rendered six Italian defenders irrelevant.

Prior to today's match @castrolfootball noted that just 28.3% of Spain's passes had been forward passes. It was 47.5% today, and that was after taking the foot off the gas in the final half an hour. That percentage was 51.7% until the first goal, 48.0% until the second, and 49.5% until Motta's injury. This was Spain at its most glorious, most rapacious – a fitting conclusion to its dominance during the last four years.

I've only been watching international football since Italia '90, so I've just seen Brazil in 1970, Holland in 1974, West Germany from 1972 to 1976 on videotape, have just read about 1954 Hungary. I still feel fairly safe asserting Spain are the best international side ever. Had they lost this game, we could have the debate. Winning this tournament, their third in succession, makes the debate moot. Some may have done it better, but no one's done it longer, and that's what makes this so indescribably impressive.

Spain didn't concede once – once! – in the 10 knock-out games beginning at Euro 2008. They conceded six in total during this stretch: to Italy in this tournament's first group game, to Chile and Switzerland in the World Cup 2010 group, and one in each of the three group games in Euro 2008. Six goals in 19 matches, never more than once in any. They were behind in exactly two of those matches, the earlier draw against Italy, behind for all of four minutes, and that fluke of flukes when losing to Switzerland in the first match at the 2010 World Cup. A loss which arguably propelled them to the title.

And Spain did this without Puyol and Villa, cornerstones of the last two tournaments. Players like Cazorla, Pedro, Torres, Mata, Negredo, Llorente, Javi Martínez, Valdes, and Reina rarely if ever started, if even featuring at all. There's an embarrassment of riches, and there's 'so rich you can piles millions and millions of dollars onto a bonfire just to stay warm.' Somehow, Vicente Del Bosque has found a way to manage this extraordinary squad, handling egos, keeping them hungry enough to follow success with more success. The first championship isn't the hardest. The second is. Then the third is. Most sides, no matter the sport, fall victim to what Pat Riley called "the disease of more." (Apologies for the article linked) This side has never looked like succumbing to that illness.

We will almost certainly never see this dominance in international football again. This has not been an era where Spain excelled because of others' weaknesses. Germany were impressive in all three tournaments; Italy were deserved finalists in this one. Portugal took Spain to the limit in 2010 and last week, both Russia and Italy tested Spain in Euro 2008. Any of those sides, or Holland or Uruguay at World Cup 2010, would have been worthy winners. But they ran into a Spanish freight train.

Seeing history marvelously rewritten seems an appropriate end to this excellent tournament.