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Irrational Exuberance?

Editor’s Note: this post was written before the first round of Premier League matches.

As London burns in the twilight of the English summer, it has become impossible to read the words “Liverpool Football Club” without seeing this remarkable economic statistic quoted — since Kenny Dalglish returned to his rightful place on the Anfield managerial throne in January, owner John W Henry has authorised the spending of over £100m gross on transfer fees. Fortunately, this statistic, unlike Standard and Poor’s estimates of the US federal government’s future budget deficit, is accurate.

In January, Liverpool purchased Luis Suarez for £22.7m and Andy Carroll for £35m. This summer, Liverpool have spent a further £16m on Jordan Henderson, £20m on Stewart Downing, £6m on Jose Enrique and £7m (potentially rising to £8.5m if certain performance-based conditions are satisfied) on Charlie Adam. Even taking into account the sales of Fernando Torres to Chelsea and Ryan Babel to Hoffenheim for a combined £56m, Liverpool’s net spend on transfer fees since January 2011 still amounts to what is, by Liverpool’s own modern standards at least, a whopping figure of £50.7m. 

To this into perspective, prior to January 2011, Liverpool had only spent more than £20m on an individual player’s transfer fee twice in its entire history — splashing out approximately £20m on Fernando Torres in the summer of 2007 and roughly the same again on Robbie Keane the following summer. Before Torres, Liverpool’s club record transfer fee was the £14m spent on Djibril Cisse back in the summer of 2004. By contrast, over the past decade, United and Chelsea have regularly spent upwards of £20m on individual players. Here’s a short, non-exhaustive list: Veron (£28.1m), Ferdinand (£29.1m), Rooney (£20m rising to £27m depending on appearances and achievements), Berbatov (£30.75m), Nani (£21.7m), Anderson (£20.35m), Wright-Phillips (£21m), Shevchenko (£30.8m), Drogba (£24m), Essien (£24.4m) and David Luiz (£21.3m).

The last time Liverpool Football Club was casually smashing British transfer fee records, it ruled supreme over England and Europe. As Dalglish pointed out: “Certainly spending money does not guarantee you success but I don’t know of any football club that has ever had success that has not spent money. So it is necessary. But it’s even more important to spend it wisely.

That being said, the likes of Borussia Dortmund, Bordeaux and Lille have shown in recent times that clubs do not necessarily have to spend big to win league titles. It doesn’t hurt though.

Understandably, this spending spree has raised expectations at Anfield to fever pitch. Fans are openly talking of a title tilt. Captain Steven Gerrard and owner John W Henry have moved quickly to dampen such expectations, insisting that the primary target this season is a top 4 finish and Champions League qualification.

But is this trade mark optimism on the part of the Anfield faithful actually justified or is it just another case of irrational exuberance?

What would be a rational expectation as to Liverpool Football Club’s on-field performance this season?

The answer to this question depends on four main factors:

  1. the quality of the squad at the end of last season;
  2. the suitability of the summer purchases;
  3. the relative strength of the domestic opposition; and
  4. the Geordie Pirate.

1. The Quality of the Squad at the End of Last Season

Firstly, let’s examine the squad’s performance after Dalglish took over as caretaker manager on 8 January 2011. From 8 January 2011 to 12 May 2011 (the day of Dalglish’s appointment as Liverpool’s permanent manager), Liverpool hauled in 33 points from a possible 48, second only to eventual league runners-up Chelsea and 1 point more than champions United managed over the same period.

However, a critic could quite legitimately argue that this impressive half-season performance should be scaled down to reflect the fact that, given the nadir at which Liverpool found themselves prior to Dalglish’s Glorious Restoration, there was minimal pressure on the squad and the manager and the only possible direction was up. This was the fair point made by Danny Murphy in May when asked if Liverpool could challenge for the league in the 2011–12 season, after a Suarez-inspired Liverpool routed his Fulham side which had only lost three times at home all season (to Spurs, Man City and United), 5-2, at Craven Cottage, with the insouciance and style last seen in a Liverpool side when Dalglish was still in his first reign as King:

It’s hard to say because they have been playing under very little pressure. They haven’t needed to go out and win games, and everything they get now is a bonus. It will be a different ask for those players to play under pressure every week if they are near the top, but with Kenny in charge and a few more additions they will be pushing for the top four again.

Dalglish’s response to Murphy’s analysis was swift and robust:

He [Murphy] should know there is always pressure here. He played here long enough, didn’t he? I just know that we played fantastic that night against Fulham and so does he. There’s always a caveat in there somewhere, isn’t there? There’s always somebody that asks a question. But if you take any pride in your work, you are under pressure in any walk of life. It’s not just exclusive to football. You worry about their ability to play first, and I’m sure the players can handle anything else that comes with it.

In addition, I’d argue that the abyss of relegation involves as much, if not, more pressure than a title challenge or a push for a top 4 finish, especially for a big club with a history of success. It’s easy to forget how many massive clubs who were “too big to go down” have been relegated over the past decade. Just last season, Sampdoria got relegated after being in the Champions League qualifiers at the beginning of the season and Monaco went down only 7 years after appearing in the final of the Champions League! Fiorentina went down in 2002 just over 2 years after beating the likes of Arsenal, United and Valencia in the Champions League. Newcastle got relegated in May 2009 less than 7 years after beating Juventus in the Champions League group stages. Most recently, River Plate got relegated on 27 June 2011 for the first time in their 110-year history (they appeared to have been effectively reinstated on 25 July 2011, when, in an Argentinean FA executive committee meeting, 15 of Argentina’s 20 first division clubs voted in favour of Argentinean FA President Julio Grondona’s plan to merge Argentina’s first and second divisions, but Grondona subsequently “suspended” the idea).

There can be no doubt that, at the time of Dalglish’s restoration, relegation was a real and substantive danger facing Liverpool — the club was just four points above the relegation zone; had only recorded 7 wins, 4 draws, and 9 losses from 20 league games; and had deservedly lost at home to the likes of Blackpool and Wolves.

Secondly, approximately half the first-choice starting XI (Gerrard, Carragher, Reina, Agger, Kuyt and Aurelio) were integral members of the Liverpool squads from 2005 to 2009, which won the Champions League in 2005 and then made the second round, final, semi-final and quarter-final of the Champions League in consecutive seasons and finished just four points behind eventual champions United in the Premier League in 2008–09. Accordingly, the medium-term empirical evidence indicates that these players are good enough to, at minimum, qualify for, and compete effectively in, the Champions League.

Conclusion: Liverpool’s squad at the end of last season was certainly good enough to finish in the top 4 and compete in the Champions League but it was unlikely to be good enough to win the Premier League or the Champions League.

2. The Suitability of the Summer Purchases

Thus far, Liverpool have made three major purchases this summer — an out-and-out snort-the-touchline winger (Downing), an archetypal energetic box-to-box British central midfielder (Henderson), a deep-lying playmaker (Adam) and a well-rounded Spanish left back (Enrique).

The salient question is: where does each of them fit in tactically within the existing squad?

This is an easy question to answer with respect to Downing, Adam and Enrique.

Given that Liverpool had already broken the British transfer fee record in January to acquire Carroll, a centre-forward whose greatest attribute is his aerial ability, it was logical for Liverpool to acquire a winger to deliver the crosses necessary to extract maximum utility from that prowess. In and of himself, Downing is a good choice to fulfil this role — he is 27 years of age, delivered more completed crosses in open play (135) than any other player in the Premier League last season (and chipped in with 7 goals), has 27 senior England caps, and has played in a World Cup. Assuming that Premier League experience was a pre-requisite for the job, the only other realistic candidate was Charles N’Zogbia (Nani, Valencia, Malouda and Walcott being not for sale and/or too inconsistent or too old, and Pennant having already been tried unsuccessfully).

Indeed, Villa swiftly brought in the 25 year old French international N’Zogbia as Downing’s replacement for £9.5m, which highlights the only concern with respect to the purchase of Downing — value for money. At £20m, Downing cost more than twice as much as N’Zogbia, a winger of equal Premier League pedigree whose league record last term was comparable to Downing’s — N’Zogbia scored 9 goals to Downing’s 7 and made 5 assists to Downing’s 9. It seems unlikely that Downing will turn out to be twice as good as N’Zogbia. But perhaps, in the new fiscally generous climate of the Henry Administration, that misses the point entirely because the relevant criterion for the success of the Downing acquisition is not its relative value for money compared to other alternative acquisitions, but merely whether Downing successfully performs the function for which he was purchased — the consistent delivery of quality crosses to Carroll which, in turn, lead to the goals which secure Liverpool a top 4 finish. Measured by this criterion, Downing looks likely to be a good buy.

In Charlie Adam, Liverpool finally have a player capable (at least potentially) of filling the gaping tactical void left by Xabi Alonso’s departure thereby hopefully sparing the football watching public the sight of Carragher and/or Skrtel stretching the definition of the word “pass” as they attempt to move the ball out of Liverpool’s half. Descriptions of Charlie Adam as the lower-middle-class Scotsman’s Xabi Alonso should be taken as a tongue-in-cheek compliment given that Alonso is, at present, unquestionably the greatest deep-lying playmaker in the world, and Adam is the only approximation with substantive Premier League experience and success on his CV.

However, Adam has a steep mountain to climb because the role of the “deep-lying playmaker” is arguably the most difficult to fulfil in the British game. Before proceeding any further, it is necessary to define what I mean by a “deep-lying playmaker”. I mean to refer to the languid, foot-on-the-ball, passer of the ball who stations himself primarily between the lines of defence and midfield, whose job is not to run at defenders or score goals, but rather to intelligently distribute the ball to the maximum benefit of the team as a whole, whether that requires a simple five-yard pass or a 40-yard slider-rule diagonal. This is distinct from, and not to be confused with, the role of the “attacking central midfielder” more commonly seen in the modern game who is fast, positions himself between the most advanced midfield line and the forward line and whose job description includes running at defenders, making direct assists and scoring goals — think Kaka, Gerrard and Ronaldinho.

For starters, deep-lying playmakers are a rare and endangered species in the British game. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, they do not fit comfortably with the traditional British conception of the blood-and-guts, box-to-box, goalscoring central midfielder. Secondly, the default 4-4-2 formation struggles to accommodate the deep-lying playmaker in either of its two central midfield berths — one is reserved for the box-to-box goalscorer (early Scholes in Sir Alex Ferguson’s first two great United teams; Viera in Wenger’s Invincibles) and the other goes to the stopper (Keane or Butt in Ferguson’s first two great United teams; Gilberto Silva in Wenger’s Invincibles).

Indeed, Alonso himself is the solitary unequivocal example of a deep-lying playmaker successfully practising that position in England over the past 20 years. Juan Sebastian Veron — sublime in the deep-lying playmaker position for Lazio, Parma, Boca Juniors, Estudiantes and Argentina — could not make it work at United or Chelsea. Paul Scholes, the one British midfielder of the past two decades with the vision, passing range and technique to play in that position, has arguably done so for United in the latter part of his career but even he has nonetheless apparently felt the need to imitate a blood-and-guts British-style central midfielder by repeatedly attempting to tackle despite being technically incapable of doing so.

Of the current crop of Premier League midfielders, Luka Modric probably comes closest but even he is better described as a modern, mobile, high-lying playmaker who plays between the midfield and forward lines and can often be seen in and around the opposition’s box. In other words, Modric is more a Xavi-style playmaker than a Xabi Alonso-style playmaker.

The reasons for this dearth of deep-lying playmakers are self-evident. The high-tempo British style game denies deep-lying playmakers the time on the ball they enjoy in South America and continental Europe. Permissive British refereeing allows greater physical contact and more robust challenges.

To make the already Annapurna-sized mountain even steeper for Adam to climb, the manager and the fans will expect him to perform his defensive duties with the same diligence and skill shown by Alonso who, despite being one of the slowest members of the Liverpool squad, was able to perform his defensive duties to a high standard by utilising his positional awareness, football brain and superb tackling technique. Adam shares Alonso’s lack of pace but, unfortunately, on the (admittedly limited) evidence of the season past, he does not appear to share Alonso’s three counterbalancing attributes.

Moreover, Adam, despite being 25 years of age, has only experienced one season of top flight European club football (sadly, the Scottish Premier League now falls outside the ambit of the definition of “top flight European club football”). On the only previous occasion in his career when he was at a big club where the expectation was to challenge for trophies every season, he endured a torrid time.

Nevertheless, my opinion is that Adam was a sound purchase. His subsequent success at Blackpool makes him a different player to the young man ridiculed by Rangers fans. Liverpool fans place a greater emphasis on attractive pass-and-move football than the slightly more pragmatic Rangers fans and are renowned for their patience with new, technically adept players.

At a practical level, if one accepts, as most Liverpool fans do, that a deep-lying playmaker is required to practise the aesthetically pleasing style of football mandated by the club’s history, then Adam was the only realistic choice on planet Earth. Run through the list of available alternatives in the world. Javier Pastore and Paulo Henrique Ganso are both too young, too expensive and do not have the experience of English football which Dalglish and Comolli appear to have made a significant factor in analysing transfer prospects. Juan Roman Riquelme is too old. Veron is too old and twice failed in England. Xavi, Xabi Alonso and Iniesta aren’t up for sale.

Viewed in this light, £7m (potentially rising to £8.5m if certain performance-based conditions are satisfied) is a good price for a man who, when in form last season, did look every inch the closest thing British football has to Alonso.

The purchase of Enrique was a no-brainer. With Fabio Aurelio perennially injured, Emiliano Insua seemingly deemed not good enough and Jack Robinson still only 17 years old, Glen Johnson was forced to fill in at left-back last season and, although he did an admirable job, it graphically illustrated the need for Liverpool to acquire a competent, physically fit left back. Enrique fits the bill to a tee — 25 years of age, four seasons of English football at a big club under his belt, good going forward whilst being solid in defence, and ready and willing to take the step up to challenge for big trophies. Perhaps most impressive of all is Enrique’s character — despite enduring the trauma of relegation in just his second season in England with Newcastle, Enrique stayed loyal to Newcastle and was named Player of the Season as Newcastle romped to the Championship title in style to secure immediate re-promotion to the top flight.

The presence of a permanent, left-footed left-back will also improve the supply to Andy Carroll two-fold by, firstly, creating a supply of crosses from the left which the right-footed Johnson could not provide and, secondly, freeing up Johnson to play at right-back or right-wing where he can supply a greater quality and quantity of crosses than the hardworking but technically limited Dirk Kuyt.

The question of where a summer acquisition fits in tactically within the existing squad is a lot more difficult to answer with respect to Jordan Henderson. There’s no doubt that, in and of himself, he’s a good young player. He is technically solid, tactically flexible (he prefers playing in the middle but can play on the flanks), hardworking, mobile, strong, has an excellent attitude, and enjoyed an impressive first-half of his debut season in the top flight before his performances tailed off slightly in the second half.

However, right now, it is unclear where Henderson fits in within the existing squad.

In his preferred position in the middle of the park, Liverpool already have two young, mobile, hardworking and hard-tackling central midfielders in Lucas and Spearing who both performed impressively during Liverpool’s excellent run in the second half of last season, with the former being named Liverpool’s Player of the Season. In addition, Raul Meireles offers superior technical ability, passing range and international and European experience to Henderson, and Charlie Adam offers his unique ability to function as a deep-lying playmaker. Finally, despite his body showing clear and unfortunate signs of classic post-30-years-of-age breakdown, it still seems safe to assume that captain Steven Gerrard remains undroppable when fit.

In Henderson’s non-preferred position out wide, Liverpool have Downing, Meireles, Gerrard, the indefatigable Dirk Kuyt and Argentinean international Maxi Rodriguez who finished last season as one of the form players in the Premier League.

If Dalglish opts for the 4-4-2 he appeared to prefer towards the end of last season when both Suarez and Carroll were fit, then one would think that it is highly likely that Downing will start on the left wing, Adam will start in central midfield as the deep-lying playmaker, Gerrard will start in a more advanced central midfield position in front of Adam, and one of Maxi, Kuyt or Meireles will start on the right wing. Even if Gerrard’s fitness woes continue, that still leaves only one realistic spot in the starting XI for Henderson to claim and he would be up against an established Brazil international and reigning Liverpool Player of the Season in Lucas.

If Dalglish opts for a 4-2-3-1 to better accommodate a surfeit of central midfielders and the playmaking abilities of Charlie Adam, then it seems highly likely that Carroll will start as the tip of the spear, with Gerrard playing in the centre of the bank of three just behind Carroll, and Suarez and Downing on the flanks, and Adam and one other central midfielder will play in the bank of two just in front of the back four. This tactical scenario still leaves Henderson in a fight with, at minimum, Meireles, Lucas and Spearing for the lone remaining central midfield berth.

Having just turned 21, Henderson is nearly two years younger than Liverpool’s next youngest regular starting central midfielder, Jay Spearing, so perhaps the expectation from management, despite his price tag, will not be that he will start every game, but rather that he will be given time to develop and mature as a player, much like Sir Alex Ferguson has stayed patient in nurturing the mercurial talents of Nani over three seasons to be rewarded with his United Players’ Player of the Season performances in the 19th league title season. Indeed, given Henderson’s all-round attributes and Gerrard’s worrying signs of post-30 physical decline, it seems likely that his long-term role will be to replace Gerrard’s midfield drive and dynamism.

3. The Geordie Pirate

At the close of the January 2011 transfer window, any moderately informed observer could see that Suarez was a steal at £22.7m whilst Carroll, with just half a season of top flight club football and one international under his belt, was a massive risk at £35m. Of course, Carroll’s transfer fee was inflated by the unexpected nature and late timing of Torres’s transfer request which left the club in a weak bargaining position and the need for the five-times European champions to transmit a clear signal to the ruthless European football club market that they are not a selling club. In formal economic terms, Liverpool paid a two-part premium for Carroll which consisted of a market signal and an extortion fee.

Suarez’s performances to date have proven the former fold of this opinion to be correct, whereas the jury’s still out on Carroll because injuries restricted him to just seven league appearances and two goals for Liverpool last term, with both goals coming in his one unequivocally convincing performance against City at Anfield where, incidentally, he linked up beautifully with a typically irrepressible Suarez.

In the likely early season absence of Suarez, much will depend on how the Geordie Pirate performs. With Adam and a fit Agger caressing passes down the spine and a genuine snort-the-touchline winger in Downing swinging crosses into the box, supply should not be a problem and excuses are unlikely to be tolerated even by the famously patient Anfield faithful. This is Carroll’s big chance to prove that he can lead the line as a British transfer record centre-forward should.

Carroll’s strengths are well-documented — a ferocious shot, tremendous strength and excellent heading technique. However, there remain three substantive doubts which he has not had the opportunity to dispel in his brief career to date — his off-field temperament, his technique and first touch when the ball’s on the deck and his mobility.

He will have no better opportunity to dispel those doubts.

4. The Relative Strength of the Domestic Opposition

At the end of last season, five clubs finished ahead of Liverpool in the league:

  1. United;
  2. Chelsea;
  3. Man City;
  4. Arsenal; and
  5. Tottenham.

(a) United

Champions United have lost stalwarts Paul Scholes and Edwin van der Sar to retirement, sold off long-time squad defenders John O’Shea and Wes Brown, and purchased Ashley Young (£17m), Phil Jones (£17m) and David de Gea (£18.3m). Whilst it seems clear that they are no weaker than they were last season when they deservedly won the league by nine points, it is difficult to argue that they are substantively stronger.

Scholes’s retirement leaves an even greater creative void in the central midfield which was so cruelly exposed by Barcelona at Wembley and means that United now only have one genuine world-class passer of the ball in the middle of the final third of the pitch — the 37 year old Ryan Giggs.

Young is a good player coming off a career-best season but his addition to the squad appears to merely duplicate United’s existing strengths on the flanks and up front. At this stage, it is difficult to see how Young is a superior winger to Nani or Valencia and it is impossible to envisage him starting as a second striker ahead of Rooney or Hernandez. One possible explanation for Young’s purchase is that Ferguson bought him to prevent Liverpool acquiring him. Given the frequency and quality of Young’s crossing last season and the amount Liverpool splashed out on Andy Carroll, this seems as likely an explanation as any.

David de Gea, at just 20 years of age, is rightly rated as the best young keeper in Europe. In the long-term, United are lucky to have him. But, at least in the short-term, he is likely to suffer from teething problems, particularly since he himself initially seemed to reluctant to move to a big club in a foreign country at such a young age. Accordingly, he is unlikely to provide the same consistency and solidity as van der Sar did and it can be argued that, in the short-term, United have weakened in the goalkeeping department.

The 19 year old Phil Jones undoubtedly improves United’s squad depth but he is unlikely to disturb the Vidic-Ferdinand Axis of Evil in the heart of United’s first-choice defence. In the short to medium term, the only real threat to the Vidic-Ferdinand partnership remains the latter’s suspect fitness. Accordingly, any first-team opportunities Jones does get will come when Ferdinand is injured. But Jones will first have to establish himself ahead of current first-choice replacement Chris Smalling in the pecking order. There is also some question as to whether Jones who, judging by his time at Blackburn, appears to be a traditional no-nonsense stopper in the mould of Vidic, can adequately fill Ferdinand’s modern ball-playing boots.

In summary, United are neither weaker nor substantively stronger than last season — which still makes them favourites for the league.

(b) Chelsea

Their most significant purchase was the record £13.3m shelled out to Porto for their 33 year old manager André Villas-Boas. Apart from that, Chelsea have disposed of a gaggle of bench warmers and brought in three teenagers — the 18 year old “New Drogba”, Romelu Lukaku, for £18m; a promising 19 year old defensive midfielder from Barcelona B, Oriol Romeu, for £4.35m; and a 19 year old keeper, Thibaut Courtois, who they immediately loaned to Atletico Madrid, for £7.9m.

The purchases of Villas-Boas and Lukaku ensure that, instead of the thorny and, to date, unresolved problem of how to accommodate two out-and-out centre-forwards in a starting XI, Chelsea’s decision-makers (who appear to consist of a mixture of Abramovich, Hiddink and/or Villas-Boas) will now be faced with the full-blown existential dilemma of how to accommodate three out-and-out centre-forwards in a 4-3-3 (Villas-Boas publicly declared in late July that his Chelsea side will be sticking with the 4-3-3 which served him so well at Porto).

Torres only fulfilled his potential and became one of the best centre-forwards in the world when he moved to Liverpool and was finally allowed to play off-the-shoulder of the last defender with two of the best passers in Europe threading balls in behind the defence from central midfield. Similarly, when he starred for Spain in the 2006 World Cup, Euro 2008 and the 2009 Confederations Cup, Torres received quality service from the likes of Alonso, Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas and Silva and played up front either in partnership with David Villa, a second striker who dropped deep to collect the ball, run at defenders, create chances for Torres and give Torres the space and freedom to stay high on the shoulder of the last defender, or alone with support from a midfield five consisting of, at most, one player who would not be considered a world-class passer (Marcos Senna at the 2006 World Cup and Euro 2008, and Albert Riera in the 2009 Confederations Cup, both of whom are nonetheless technically adept passers).

By contrast, at Atletico Madrid, Torres never scored more than 20 La Liga goals a season and was unfairly stuck with the tag of over-rated wunderkind because, in a distinctly average side, he was constantly forced to drop deep to pick up the ball and play with his back to goal. That’s simply not his game. But dropping deep, playing back to goal and using body strength to turn defenders is precisely what Drogba’s about and he is rightly regarded as one of the best in the world in that role. And the Chelsea team is set-up to suit Drogba’s style of play. The Chelsea midfield play the ball to Drogba’s feet with his back to goal. Drogba then uses his tremendous strength and power to turn the defender and bear down on goal himself, hold up the ball for the likes of Lampard and Essien to get into the box or distribute it wide to Malouda or Anelka. It should come as no surprise then that Chelsea do not have central midfielders with the finesse to thread balls in behind the defence — until now, that’s simply not been the job required of a Chelsea midfielder. The purchase of Modric, even if it goes through, would not single-handedly solve this problem, particularly if Chelsea do not abandon their 4-3-3 for a tactical system which gives Torres the space and freedom to stretch defences. Moreover, Lukaku’s purchase seems to make the situation even more difficult for Torres because, as the “new Drogba”, his style of play is similar to Drogba’s and he would favour a similar tactical set-up.

We can deduce from the above analysis that Torres is a great striker but one who requires a peculiar tactical set-up to thrive. Divining that tactical set-up is not difficult — any formation which gives him the freedom to play off-the-shoulder of the last defender and a midfield with the technical proficiency to supply quality balls on the carpet in behind the defence. This can be achieved via a 4-2-3-1 (Liverpool in 2008–09 with Alonso in the bank of 2 in front of the defence and Gerrard playing just off Torres in the centre of the bank of 3), a 4-4-2 with a second striker playing off Torres (Spain in Euro 2008 with Senna, Iniesta, Xavi and Silva in midfield and Villa playing off Torres), or a 4-5-1 with one attacking midfielder pushed up as a semi-second-striker (Spain in the Euro 2008 final with Fabregas pushing up as the semi-second-striker).

The Torres-maximising tactical set-up cannot be achieved via a 4-3-3 with a midfield three chosen from Lampard (an energetic box-to-box midfielder), Ramires (an energetic box-to-box midfielder), Essien (who functions as either a box-to-box midfielder or a holding midfielder) and Mikel (a pure stopper), but no genuine, creative midfield passer to supply the kind of balls from which Torres made his name. This problem was exacerbated when Chelsea started Torres alongside another out-and-out centre-forward in Drogba for the big games, either in a 4-3-3 (the Liverpool game at Stamford Bridge in early February, with a midfield three consisting of Lampard, Essien and Mikel) or a 4-4-2 (the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final against Manchester United at Stamford Bridge in early April, with a midfield four consisting of Lampard, Essien, Ramires and Zhirkov). Assuming that the objective was to get the best out of Abramovich’s £50m gift, it failed miserably — Torres netted just once for Chelsea as he and Drogba resembled a lion and a tiger disputing ownership of the last remaining gazelle in the veld — and eventually ended with the abandonment not of Chelsea’s tried and trusted 4-3-3, but the individual whose introduction caused that previously smoothly functioning system to break down.

In short, in order to get the best out of Torres, Chelsea will have to revamp their midfield personnel, tactics and style of play. They have not done so. In light of this, assuming that Chelsea continue to start Torres, they are weaker than they were last season.

(c) Manchester City

In summary: City will be stronger than they were last season.

Key man David Silva adapted impressively to the Premier League in his first season, showing not only the technique and vision the world already knew he had, but the work ethic and fighting qualities his Dad proudly proclaimed that he had after a difficult first few months in England. He’ll only get better in his second season.

The team as a whole should be carrying immense confidence from the manner in which they defeated United en route to the FA Cup to break City’s 35 year trophy drought.

And, of course, City have continued to improve their squad over the summer, bringing in: an experienced Premier League winning full-back, Gael Clichy, for £7m; a 20 year old centre-half with Champions League experience, Stefan Savic, for £6m; a back-up keeper, Costel Pantilmon, for an undisclosed fee; and, last but not least, Diego Maradona’s son-in-law and anointed heir, Sergio “Kun” Agüero (£38m).

Agüero is a fantastic talent who has enjoyed a good, but not great, five season spell at Atletico Madrid, but he has yet to come anywhere close to fulfilling his billing as Maradona’s anointed heir. At 23 years of age, this move has come at the right time for Agüero, offering him the opportunity to play regular Champions League football and challenge Messi and Ronaldo for the title of the best player in the world. Agüero is blessed with a wonderful ability to create space and finish ruthlessly in the box. However, there are some factors which cast doubt on whether his move to City will be an unequivocal success. To date, he’s been more a footballer of great moments than a great footballer. He doesn’t exert a controlling influence over an entire game like Ronaldo and Messi do at club level. In this regard, he bears some uncomfortable similarities to Arshavin, a player whose flashes of spine-tingling brilliance have failed to disguise a tendency to drift out of games. Moreover, Agüero is ill-suited to leading the line on his own as Mancini often seems to require of his strikers.

Three summers ago another breathtakingly talented but, as yet unfulfilled, South American talent landed at Eastlands for a club record fee. He too, was billed as the successor to one of the two greatest players of all time. Like Agüero, his greatest strength was his ability to beat players, create space and then finish in the box, and his unaddressed weakness was that his brilliance manifested itself in flashes of inspiration rather than the ability to exert a controlling influence over an entire game.

His name: Robinho.

(d) Arsenal

In summary: about the same, if anything, a tad weaker than they were last season.

Over the summer, Wenger has signed a solid, reasonably priced forward from Ligue 1 (Gervinho who will, presumably, slot seamlessly into the same position on the right of a 4-3-3 which he has occupied with such distinction for Lille), shelled out for an immensely talented 17 year old English winger (Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain), shipped out some deadweight (Denilson and Jay Emmanuel Thomas) and cashed in on some of his best players — Gael Clichy, the last surviving member of The Invincibles, and, if reports are to be believed, Cesc Fabregas, Arsenal’s outstanding player of the past five seasons, and Samir Nasri, Arsenal’s best player last season.

Still no sign of a competent keeper, central defender or holding midfielder though.

So, same old, same old as far as Arsenal are concerned.

This means, moreover, that Fabregas and Nasri’s replacements will be likely to come from within the existing Arsenal squad — Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere. It is more than likely that they will step up to keep Arsenal competitive. That’s the Wenger way. But can they do what Cesc and Nasri couldn’t? Can they do more than simply keep Arsenal there or thereabouts before imploding in the New Year?

As much as purists wish that the answer was “yes”, the likely answer, in the absence of any sign of reinforcements in the three aforementioned problematic positions, remains “no”.

(e) Spurs

In summary: if they lose Modric, they will be weaker than they were last season. If they don’t lose Modric, they will be marginally stronger than they were last season.

It’s been a surprisingly inactive summer thus far for a normally busy club.

Aside from the standard clear-out of bench-warming and injury-prone deadwood, Spurs have only brought in a solid-as-a-rock 40 year old keeper (Brad Friedel) and two promising but unproven teenage forwards — Souleymane Coulibaly and Cristian Ceballos.

However, Friedel’s signing alone is significant as he is a distinct improvement over the gaffe-prone Heurelho Gomes who remains a frequently brilliant reflex shot-stopper but lacks the consistency and comfort under the high ball required to be a top 4 Premier League keeper.

Gareth Bale will only get better after his breakthrough season. Rafael van der Vaart, with a full pre-season under his belt, will probably shake off the niggling injuries which undermined the second half of an otherwise brilliant debut season in the Premier League. Even Harry Redknapp’s seemingly fruitless quest to sign what he regards as a world-class centre-forward is unlikely to prove fatal given that he already has one pretty good fox-in-the-box (Defoe), one pretty good centre-forward with an outstanding European and international goal-scoring record (Crouch), one over-the-hill second striker (Keane) and one centre-forward with the potential to be world-class (Roman Pavlyuchenko). With the exception of Keane, each of them had their moments for Spurs last season — Redknapp just needs to get at least one of them to convert a bunch of good moments into a consistent goal-scoring season.

The elephant in the room is Spurs’s diminutive Croatian playmaker, Luka Modric. Modric has been at the heart of everything good about Spurs the last two seasons; he is a playmaker in the truest sense of the word in that although he does not make many direct assists or score many goals, he starts, prompts and creates the moves which result in goals. As we have already established, such players are an endangered species and, as such, Modric is the most irreplaceable member of Tottenham’s starting XI. However, Chelsea, in desperate need of a Premier League-proven playmaker to supply through balls to £50m sunk cost Fernando Torres, have been casting covetous glances at Modric. Chairman Daniel Levy has already rejected two bids from Chelsea and Modric himself appears to have indicated a preference to leave for Stamford Bridge.

Conclusion

To answer the question posed at the beginning of this article, a rational expectation as to Liverpool’s on-field performance this season would be a top 4 finish, with an outside chance of a title challenge because:

  1. the squad finished last season well in the face of a real threat of relegation;
  2. the club’s generally bought well over the summer (although they’ve probably overpaid);
  3. at least two (Arsenal and Chelsea) of last season’s top 4 appear vulnerable; and
  4. the Geordie Pirate’s had a good pre-season (despite submitting an entry for the dictionary definition of a “striker’s challenge”).
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