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Different tactical systems mean different duties for individual players

October 23rd, 2012 SB Tang No comments

Earlier tonight, I wrote during the second half of the Barcelona v Celtic Champions League group game at the Camp Nou:

Where was Song (Barca’s only nominal holding midfielder) in that 2 v 2 Celtic counter-attack which Wanyama fluffed!?

It was left to poor Xavi to hare back to support the two exposed Barca centre-backs. The man’s got enough on his mind, what with his symphony orchestra conducting duties and all …

In response, a gentleman named Dave Konopka emailed The Guardian to say:

I love how SB Tang apparently thinks that Song “holds” or otherwise plays defense. As a loyal Arsenal fan, I can tell you with absolute certainty that three things will happen whenever Alexandre Song plays. 1) He will play at least one incredibly incisive pass. 2) He will never be in position to break up a counter-attack. 3) He will commit a lot of fouls. This is why Arsenal are playing better defensively after selling Song, even if Arteta is far from a prototypical defensive midfielder.

Unfortunately, The Guardian didn’t have time to publish my response to Mr Konopka so here it is in full:

Dear Mr Konopka

Um, yeah mate, I reckon we’re in agreement — my point was that Song isn’t actually performing his function in this Barca side as the one and only holding midfielder, hence my reference to him as “Barca’s only nominal holding midfielder”.

Arsenal’s tactical system last season and this season is slightly different from Barca’s.

Arsenal typically play a midfield triangle with a deeper-lying two man base (last season it was any two of Arteta, Song, Ramsey, Frimpong or Coquelin) and only one more advanced creative midfielder (this season: Cazorla, Cazorla and, if Cazoral ever gets injured, a life-size cardboard cut-out of Happy Gilmore) supporting their lone striker, so Song could afford to lope forward and play his trade mark scoop passes for Van Persie to volley home. (As a Liverpool fan, Van Persie’s volley at Anfield still gives me cold sweats at night.)

By contrast, at Barca, Song is expected to play centre-back or function as the one and only nominal holding midfielder in their central midfield triangle which typically features two (you know who) playing high.

In short, different tactical systems mean different duties for individual players.

Cheers

SB

Michael Carrick: The Atypical English Regista

April 29th, 2012 SB Tang No comments

Last Sunday afternoon at Old Trafford, one Manchester United player was instrumental to the creation of three of United’s four goals against Everton.[1] Without him,[2] United would surely have lost a game they ended up drawing 4-4, and allowed second-placed Manchester City to cut the points gap to two, instead of three, ahead of their meeting at Eastlands this Monday night. However, that same player was singled out for criticism for his performance against Everton — for example, The Guardian’s Jamie Jackson posited that “one verdict is that [he] did not do enough to shape this afternoon for his team.

The player’s name is Michael Carrick and he will no doubt be used to such criticisms by now. Indeed, when, in March 2011, United announced that the Geordie had signed a new three-year deal keeping him at the club until the end of the 2013–14 season, the response from a significant segment of United fans was underwhelming to say the least.[3]

*****

Football, as we are so often told, is a team sport and the success of a professional career is measured primarily by reference to the number of championship medals won, not individual awards accrued. By this criterion, Carrick ought to be regarded as one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s best ever acquisitions.

Before Carrick arrived at Old Trafford from White Hart Lane in the summer of 2006 for a seemingly exorbitant fee in the region of £18.6m[4] as Sir Alex Ferguson’s solitary summer purchase, United had not won the Premier League for three seasons — their longest title drought of the Premier League era.[5]

In Europe, their performances had been even worse — United had not made a Champions League semi-final in four seasons; had not made a Champions League final in seven seasons; and crashed out in the group stages of the Champions League in the 2005–06 season, finishing bottom of their group with six points from six games. Even more alarming was the steady downward trend in their Champions League performances — from the 2001–02 season to the 2005–06 season United’s Champions League record read: semi-final; quarter-final; round of 16; round of 16; and group stage.

Meanwhile, in the preceding two seasons, Chelsea, with Jose Mourinho’s tactical guile and Roman Abramovich’s riches, had won two consecutive Premier League titles and reached the semi-finals of the Champions League. They looked set to dominate English and European football for the foreseeable future.

Since Carrick’s arrival at Old Trafford, United have won four of the last five Premier League titles and made three out of the last six Champions League finals (winning one). This sustained European success is particularly notable because it is something which both Sir Alex Ferguson’s first and second great United sides, for all their domestic dominance, conspicuously failed to achieve — in the first two decades of Ferguson’s reign, United reached one paltry Champions League final.[6]

Carrick has played an integral role in each and every one of United’s four Premier League title-winning seasons since his arrival. In each of those seasons, Carrick started at least 23 of United’s 38 Premier League games — the most of any United central midfielder in the 2006–07 and 2007–08 seasons and the second-most (by just one game behind Darren Fletcher) in the 2008–09 and 2010–11 seasons.[7] Indeed, in the only completed season since Carrick’s arrival in which United did not win the Premier League, Carrick notched up his lowest number of Premier League starts as a United player: 22 in the 2009–10 season.

In Europe, Carrick’s influence at United since his arrival has been even more pronounced. In each of the four seasons in which United made it at least as far as the semi-finals of the Champions League, Carrick started the most Champions League games of any of United’s central midfielders.[8]

*****

Why, then, has Carrick still not been fully embraced by United’s fans?

I suspect that the answer revolves around his style of play and tactical function.

Carrick isn’t the quickest, doesn’t rack up many assists and is a thinnishly-built, awkward-looking tackler. To top it all off, he displays roughly the same level of commitment to goal-scoring that the Lannister twins demonstrate to obeying society’s legal and moral prohibition of incest.[9]

As for his on-field demeanour, Carrick is quiet and undemonstrative — so, no red-faced shouting of directions at his teammates.[10] In this respect, as in his aforementioned relative lack of speed, thinnish build and ungainly-looking tackling, Carrick is the antithesis of the United legend whose number 16 shirt he inherited — Roy Keane, a combative, energetic, box-to-box midfield general famed for his forceful tackling and equally forceful on-field direction of his teammates. To some observers, it appeared, at first glance, that Sir Alex Ferguson had replaced a fearsome warrior with a lanky university student who’d gotten lost on his way to his cultural geography class.

However, Carrick’s playing style complements, and is arguably a product of, his very peculiar tactical function as a deep-lying playmaker. His job is to play between the lines of United’s defence and midfield, sweeping up in front of the back four whenever United lose the ball and starting plays when United have the ball. It is a role which he not only excels at, but one which no other British central midfielder of his generation is capable of performing to the same level.

It is because Carrick functions as a deep-lying playmaker stationed between United’s midfield and defensive lines that he doesn’t rack up many direct assists — he rarely makes the final pass for a goal because he is typically busy making the second-last, third-last or first pass in the move which led to the goal, as he did for three of United’s four goals against Everton last Sunday.[11]

His agile football brain more than compensates for his relative lack of straight line speed by enabling him to languidly position himself in the right place at the right time to break up opposition attacks, as well as know when to play a simple lateral five yard pass to his midfield partner, when to play a quick, low 20 yard pass into the feet of a deep-lying forward and when to attempt a 50 yard cross-field diagonal ball. This high football IQ, combined with his technical proficiency, allows him to find the space and time to calmly keep the ball and elegantly execute such passes.

*****

Over 200 years ago, Vice-Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson famously signalled the British fleet before the Battle of Trafalgar: “England expects that every man will do his duty”. The men of the Royal Navy did not let their country down, winning a famous victory which secured Britannia’s rule of the waves and laid the foundation for the largest empire the world has ever seen.

On the football pitch, England has been expecting, in vain, for close to half a century now.[12] At a broad level, it is reasonably clear what English fans expect — consistent international team success at European Championships and World Cups. However, English fans’ expectations with respect to individual positions within their club and international sides are a bit more culturally complicated than that.

As Scott Murray eloquently explained in issue zero of The Blizzard,[13] Roy of the Rovers, the enduringly popular English football comic first published in September 1976, embedded the most pernicious of stereotypes deep in the English psyche, namely, that of the all-action, goal-scoring superhero “thundering home one of his trademark Racey’s Rockets in the last minute to save the day.”[14] Consequently,

[w]hile little schemers from Italy dreamt of becoming fantasistas, conducting their team-mates to victory from the centre of the park, while South American youths honed their skills and picked up a few street-smarts in the dusty favelas, hoping to put it all together in a gambeta; thanks to Roy Race, English children spent their formative years sat on their arses being taught a very strange lesson: it doesn’t really matter what you do for 89 minutes, because a superhero will turn up eventually, welt the ball into the net, and you can all go home with your cups and medals.

Although Roy Race himself was a striker, Murray explains that the stereotype he unleashed applies equally to dynamic, box-to-box, goal-scoring central midfielders such as Steven Gerrard and Bryan Robson.[15] Indeed, Robson’s nickname, “Captain Marvel”, is that of a comic book superhero.[16]

So there we have the answer to the question posed earlier: Michael Carrick, a central midfielder whose value is defined by his specialised role within a tactical system, will invariably be undervalued and unloved by a generation of English fans instilled with “a disdain for tactics and organisation” and “a fear of progressive thought” by their upbringing in the comic book universe of Roverland.[17]

Carrick’s curse is that he is atypical for an English central midfielder — an understated orchestra conductor, rather than the all-action comic book hero English fans have been culturally conditioned to expect. Nonetheless, Carrick is typically English in one important respect — he belongs to a long and illustrious line of Geordie technicians, such as Paul Gascoigne, Chris Waddle and Peter Beardsley; but even they were predominantly final third of the pitch attackers, not centre-circle playmakers.

*****

Perhaps Carrick’s greatest misfortune as a footballer was to be born in England, rather than, say, Spain or Italy where the particular tactical position he occupies is not only recognised with special terminology (regista in Italy and pivote in Spain), but highly and widely prized.

In Spain, the pivote position has been filled with distinction by the likes of Pep Guardiola, Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso, whereas in Italy, over the past two decades, one player has towered above all others in the regista position — Andrea Pirlo. The diminutive Brescian spent the last decade guiding AC Milan to Champions League and Serie A titles and Italy to a World Cup; now 32 years of age, Pirlo is currently enjoying an Indian summer at Juventus, having led the Bianconeri to the brink of their first Serie A title since 2002–03.[18]

It should come as little surprise then that Spain’s World Cup- and European Championship-winning midfielders, such as Xavi and Xabi Alonso, frequently praise Carrick. In February 2011, Xavi described Carrick as a “player[] who treat[s] the ball well” and “tr[ies] to play.”

Similarly, in November 2011, Xabi Alonso explained that: “Michael Carrick … makes those around him better, regardless of the fact that he’s not the one who scores the most goals, or a great tackler.” Indeed, Alonso’s praise of Carrick echoed what Alonso’s first coach said of him as a 10 year old playing for his local club side Antiguoko in San Sebastián: “He makes others play”.

This subtle but indispensable virtue was certainly recognised by Carrick’s Dutch manager at Tottenham, Martin Jol: “Michael’s biggest quality is to move play from defence to attack and win the ball. Because of him, other players play better.[19]

*****

In the summer of 2010, as I stood in a north London pub with some English mates watching England struggle to a turgid 1-1 draw with the United States in the opening game of their 2010 World Cup campaign, I received the following four-word text message from an English mate watching the game in another pub: “Why can’t England pass?”

My very learned and well-travelled English friend — a Cambridge Classics graduate, polyglot, lifelong Spurs fan and true football connoisseur — correctly identified the problem which has plagued England sides for generations.

International football, with its slower pace and lower tempo, places much greater emphasis on ball possession and circulation in the middle third of the pitch than the English Premier League which, with its high-tempo and physicality, underlines the primacy of the two penalty boxes.

However, England struggle to adapt their tactics, playing style and team selection to the different demands of international football. Instead of picking the right team to play a different style of football, England typically staff their central midfield with their best individual players (namely, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, both of whom are box-to-box goal-scorers) and attempt to practise an English Premier League style and tactical system in major international tournaments. This is what Xabi Alonso alluded to when he observed: “Sometimes it seems the English don’t rate those who make the team work rather than standing out themselves. You shouldn’t necessarily pick the best players; you have to have a collective identity.”

So the answer to my English friend’s question — as he well knew when he sent me his flippant, semi-rhetorical text — is quite simple: England can’t pass because they don’t play with a deep-lying playmaker tasked with winning, retaining and circulating the ball; instead, they pack their central midfield with box-to-box goal-scorers. Meanwhile, Spain, the reigning World and European Champions, currently play with not one but two pivotes: Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets.

Carrick — the only Englishman of his generation to excel as a regista in the Champions League — would seem to offer the solution to England’s international woes. But, curiously, Carrick has never nailed down a spot in England’s starting XI — he was in the England squad for both the 2006 and 2010 World Cups but only made one appearance in Germany and never got off the bench in South Africa. He has not played for England since May 2010 and has only managed a total of 22 senior England caps over the course of an international career which started back in May 2001.

The Roy of the Rovers warping of Englishmen’s cultural expectations as to what central midfielders ought to be goes some way to explaining Carrick’s strangely stop-start England career. However, even when England have had an Italian manager in Fabio Capello, Carrick has barely got a look in — he was only capped seven times during Capello’s four year reign.

In current interim England manager[20] Stuart Pearce’s one match in charge thus far, a 3-2 defeat to Holland in a friendly at Wembley in February 2012, England switched from the 4-4-1-1 favoured by Capello to a 4-2-3-1 with newly-appointed England captain Scott Parker and Gareth Barry occupying the two holding central midfield berths.

A 4-2-3-1 system is well-suited to accommodating Carrick’s talents as a regista (being the same system in which Alonso has thrived at club level for Liverpool and Real Madrid and at international level for Spain at the 2010 World Cup) and Parker, with his speed, running and strong tackling, makes for a complementary partner in midfield. But, Carrick was not even selected in the squad for the February friendly against Holland.

Perhaps, an additional explanation for Carrick’s status as an international semi-exile is that he was born in the same year as Xabi Alonso — the finest regista in the world — and, as such, is frequently compared to the Basque maestro. Such comparisons are inevitable but utterly irrelevant — surely, the salient point is that Carrick is the best Englishman in the regista position and that should be sufficient to get him in England’s starting XI. If Alonso is the Rolls-Royce of registas and Carrick a mere Jaguar, then that still makes Carrick England’s best option in that position when the alternative is a souped-up Ford Focus.

*****

Whilst Carrick’s talents may go unappreciated by some United and England fans, they are certainly recognised by Sir Alex Ferguson who, last month, praised Carrick for his “absolutely superb” form and mental strength.

One thing which is certain is that if, indeed, United clinch a record 20th English league title on Monday night and move two clear of Liverpool on 18, then Carrick will play an important role, sitting in front of United’s back four and managing the tempo of the game with a minimum of fuss.


[1] For United’s first goal: Tony Hibbert’s headed clearance fell to Marouane Fellaini outside Everton’s box, but just as Fellaini was about to receive the ball, the United player in question nipped in and with one exquisite touch of his right boot, passed the ball to Patrice Evra who took a couple of touches before giving the ball to Nani on the left wing; Nani delivered a perfect in-swinging cross with his right foot which Wayne Rooney duly headed in. For United’s second goal: an Antonio Valencia cross from the right wing was only half-cleared by Leon Osman; the ball fell to the United player in question, positioned outside Everton’s box, who, with one touch of his left boot passed the ball to Nani on the left edge of Everton’s box; Nani attempted a pass into Everton’s box which Darron Gibson only managed to clear straight up in the air; Nani won the header against Phil Neville; the ball dropped to Danny Welbeck who sold John Heitinga the dummy and curled the ball into the top corner of Tim Howard’s goal with his right boot. For United’s third goal, the United player in question received a throw-in from Valencia on United’s right wing and exchanged passes with Rafael and Nani before playing a one-touch right-foot pass into the feet of Welbeck who, with his back to goal, played a one-touch right foot pass around the corner for Nani to run onto, take one touch and dink the ball over Tim Howard.

[2] He was not culpable for any of Everton’s four goals.

[3] See, eg, manutd.com message boards; Chris Wright, “Man Utd Hand Michael Carrick New Three-Year Contract”, Who Ate All The Pies, 3 March 2011 (see also the comments at the bottom of the article).

[4] The fact that Tottenham had purchased Carrick from West Ham at the Upton Park everything-must-go relegation fire sale in the summer of 2004 for the bargain basement price of £2.75m only exacerbated the perception that the £18.6m fee United paid two years later was inflated. Within days of Carrick completing his move to Old Trafford, United’s Chief Executive David Gill publicly defended the price United paid for him.

[5] It is easy to forget just how pessimistic many United fans were feeling at this point. Learned football writers, such as Rob Smyth, presented well-reasoned and well-evidenced arguments that United’s dominance of English football had reached an end and that the Ferguson era would end with a whimper. To the dismay of many United fans (who continued to chant his name), Ferguson had just flogged Ruud van Nistelrooy, scorer of 150 goals in just 219 appearances and United’s all-time top scorer in European competition, to Real Madrid for the meagre sum of £10.3m. Daniel Taylor’s This Is The One: Sir Alex Ferguson: The Uncut Story of a Football Genius (2008) brilliantly captures just how negative the mood around Old Trafford was during the 2005–06 season and the attendant enormity of Ferguson’s achievement in recapturing the Premier League title the very next season.

[6] United’s relative lack of European Cup/Champions League success both before and during Ferguson’s reign (at least until the maturation of Ferguson’s third great United side in the 2006–07 season) is the one blot on Ferguson’s otherwise impeccable copybook and still rankles the perfectionist Scot. As recently as April 2011, in the lead-up to the first leg of United’s Champions League semi-final against Schalke in Gelsenkirchen, Ferguson admitted: “we do get envious of the records of other clubs in Europe. We look at other teams’ records and we are trying to get parity with that. We look at clubs like Real Madrid, AC Milan, Ajax, Bayern Munich and Liverpool and we really need to progress quickly to get to that level.”

[7] I compared Carrick’s statistics with those of Paul Scholes, Anderson and Darren Fletcher. I excluded Ryan Giggs from the comparison because he is still sometimes deployed as a winger. Even if Giggs is included in the comparison, his Premier League games started only exceeded those of Carrick in one of United’s Premier League title-winning seasons since Carrick’s arrival: the 2007–08 season in which Giggs started 26 Premier League games to Carrick’s 24.

[8] I compared Carrick’s statistics with those of Paul Scholes, Anderson and Darren Fletcher. I excluded Ryan Giggs from the comparison because he is still sometimes deployed as a winger. In any event, the statement remains true even if Giggs is included in the comparison.

[9] His meagre goal tally of 19 in 270 appearances for United means that he averages a goal every 14.21 games. He has never scored more than six goals in a single season for United and he managed to go the entire victorious 2010–11 campaign without scoring, despite making 44 appearances for United across all competitions. His sweet strike for United’s second goal in their 2-0 league win over QPR at Loftus Road in December 2011 was his first goal in 70 games for United and his first in the Premier League in almost two years.

[10] Hence, the accusation that: “He has no passion”. His demeanour off-the-pitch is similarly unassuming — Ferguson describes him as a “a quiet lad” who is “not the type to trumpet his achievements”; his assistant manager at West Ham, Frank Lampard Senior, described him as “a nice, easy-going lad”; and he spent one summer working as a roadie for his brother-in-law’s rock band, Sound Ex.

[11] See above n 1.

[12] See, eg, James Corbett, England Expects: A History of the England Football Team (2010).

[13] The Blizzard is a quarterly football publication put together by a cooperative of journalists and authors, which features articles by the heavy-hitters of English language football writing (for example, Jonathan Wilson, Andy Brassell, Tim Vickery and Uli Hesse) about the stories that matter to them. The Blizzard contains, quite simply, the best English language football writing in the world and it is available on a pay-what-you-like basis. I urge you to check it out.

[14] Scott Murray, “How Roy Race Ruined English Football” (2011) 0 The Blizzard 43, 44.

[15] Ibid 45.

[16] A recent tribute in the Daily Mail described Bryan Robson as a player “who ranged from box to box as tough-tackling defender and deadly goalscorer”.

[17] Murray, above n 13, 45.

[18] At the time of writing, Juventus are three points clear of AC Milan with four games to play. Juventus were officially stripped of their 2004–05 and 2005–6 Series A titles by the Italian Football Federation as punishment for their part in the Calciopoli scandal. The official Juventus website still includes these two officially revoked Serie A titles in their total count of 29 Serie A titles on the front page of their online Trophy Room; however, their individual web pages for their 2004–05 and 2005–06 Serie A titles each include asterisked one-word footnotes which state: “Revoked”.

[19] (Emphasis added).

[20] The FA released a statement on Sunday 29 April 2012 stating that they have approached West Bromwich Albion’s manager Roy Hodgson regarding the position of England Manager.

Rational Expectations: A Tale of Two Lucases

January 20th, 2012 SB Tang No comments

Saturday the 22nd of November 2008. Liverpool lie second in the league, behind Chelsea only on goal difference. The afternoon’s fixture is a home game against Fulham, a side sitting mid-table who have collected just one point on the road all season. Thirty-five minutes pass and it is still 0-0. A young Liverpool midfielder receives the ball, plays a poor pass and loses the ball. His name is Lucas Leiva. The crowd’s response is instantaneous: a chant of “Xabi Alonso” rings out across the ground. The match finishes 0-0. Lucas, just 21 years of age, trudges off the pitch to a most peculiar sound — a chorus of boos. The Anfield faithful, famed for their patience and loyalty, are booing one of their own.

Sunday the 15th of May 2011. Liverpool’s final home game of the season ends in a 2-0 defeat to Spurs. After the game, Lucas is presented with a Golden Samba by the influential fan site Red All Over the Land to commemorate his victory, with an extraordinary 75 per cent of the vote, in their player of the season poll.  A packed Anfield cheers at the very sight of Lucas. After accepting the award, Lucas, with his baby boy cradled in his arms, walks along the edge of the packed stands to graciously accept the adulation of the delirious crowd, like an American President working a rope line after a glorious, landslide election victory. Nine days later, Lucas is crowned Liverpool’s official Player of the Season for 2010–11 after winning an astonishing 40 per cent of the 129,774 votes cast in the official fan poll.

It is the most remarkable of turnarounds.

But why was the Anfield crowd booing Lucas in the first place and was it justified? How did Lucas manage to win a seemingly impossible case in the once hostile court of fans’ opinion? What is the explanation for such a radical change in collective opinion?

The answers to these questions have as much to do with expectations as actual performances.

When Lucas arrived at Liverpool in the summer of 2007 for £5m, he was arguably the best-credentialed young midfielder in South America. As a 20 year old, he had just led Gremio to the final of the Copa Liberatores and become the youngest ever winner of the Bola de Ouro award for the best player in the Brazilian National Championship. The four preceding winners of the coveted award read as follows: Carlos Tevez, Robinho, Alex and Kaka. Lucas captained a Brazilian U-20 side containing Pato to victory at the 2007 South American U-20 Championship, scoring 4 goals, including the opener in the title-clinching 2-0 win over Colombia, along the way. With a CV like that, it was little wonder that Liverpool had to beat the likes of Inter Milan in order to secure his signature.

Naturally then, the general expectation amongst Liverpool fans was that Lucas would be an attacking force. At the very least, he was expected to deliver assists and goals. Moreover, as a highly-rated young Brazilian attacking player moving to an English club, he was subject to the perception, widespread in the English-speaking world, that he would play in a style similar to that exhibited by the likes of Kaka, Robinho and Ronaldinho who are distinguished by their exquisite touch and technique, and their ability to dribble at pace and beat defenders.

However, the reality is that at Gremio and for the Brazilian underage national sides, Lucas played as a box-to-box central attacking midfielder with a licence to rumble forward. He had many virtues: he knew when to time his forward runs; he scored goals; and like all modern Brazilian central midfielders, he had a phenomenal engine and a terrific work-rate. Technically, he was solid, but he was never a playmaker or a dribbler. He was a completely different style of player to that which many Liverpool fans expected. Bryan Robson would have been a more appropriate analogue for Lucas than Kaka. The trouble is that many fans expected the latter.

Accordingly, even before Lucas had kicked a ball for Liverpool, he was subject to the expectation that he would be something that he is not and never was, namely, a Kaka/Robinho style player. Once he arrived at Liverpool, this gap between expectation and reality was widened by his deployment in a position in which he’d never previously played, requiring him to both change his style of play and learn new skills, all whilst taking the place of one of two regulars who had spent a lifetime in that position.

For the bulk of Lucas’s early Liverpool career, Rafa Benitez favoured a 4-2-3-1 formation. In such a system, there were only three positions which a career central midfielder such as Lucas could conceivably fill — the two deep-lying midfield berths (occupied by Alonso and Mascherano) in front of the back four and the central attacking midfield position (occupied by Gerrard) in the bank of three behind the lone striker.

The problem for Lucas was that each of those positions was occupied by a world-class player with a particular style and peculiar strengths which Lucas did not necessarily share. Mascherano was one of the best pure stoppers in the world. Alonso was a deep-lying playmaker with the technique and tactical awareness to both elegantly stroke 30 yard passes and diligently perform his defensive duties. Gerrard was an all-out attacker with a scoring record which put most strikers to shame.

Lucas did not have the technique and passing ability required to function as an Alonso-style regista. Having spent his career up to that point as a box-to-box attacking midfielder, he did not yet have the tackling technique or positional know-how required to effectively play the Mascherano pure stopper role. He was probably best suited to the central attacking midfield role but he could not play there because, well, that’s Gerrard’s position. And he most certainly could not occupy one of the two wing positions — he was born and raised in a country where wingers are long extinct.

On the infrequent occasions when Lucas did get the chance to start, it was typically as a holding midfielder in place of Mascherano or Alonso — that was the case that chilly November afternoon against Fulham as Benitez opted to rest Alonso, a man in the form of his life. Lucas struggled in a new and unfamiliar position. He did not seem to know how and when to tackle or where to position himself as a holding player. He picked up a lot of yellow cards and gave away unnecessary free-kicks in dangerous positions. He struggled to move the ball out of defence, often passing the ball sideways and/or backwards rather than forward.

During this difficult early period in Lucas’s Liverpool career, it was difficult to see what, exactly, his strengths were, but, even then, they were visible if one looked hard enough — pace, stamina, work-ethic, mental fortitude, reservoirs of self-belief and crocodile-thick skin. Unfortunately, much of the time, he employed these abilities to run around like a headless chook making poorly-timed and awkward-looking challenges.

So, yes, some of his early performances in a Liverpool shirt were objectively poor and, like any player who delivers such performances, he was fairly criticised as a result. But the criticism of Lucas, as the Fulham game example above illustrates, went much further than this. Even at a club as successful as Liverpool, there have been many players who have performed poorly — it happens, even when players giving it their all. Names such as Djimi Traore, Igor Biscan and Jan Kromkamp spring to mind as obvious examples. None of them were booed by their own home fans like Lucas was.

So performances alone, no matter how objectively poor, cannot fully explain the vehemence of the criticism directed at Lucas.

The answer can be found in the theory of rational expectations — the simple-sounding but powerful idea that people’s behaviour is determined by their present-day expectations of the future and those expectations are formed by people constantly updating and reinterpreting all available information.

When Lucas first arrived at Liverpool, many fans expected the new Kaka; instead, they got what initially looked like an undersized, wannabe Gattuso trying to fill the boots of the world’s best deep-lying playmaker. Hence, the depth of their disappointment which in turn fuelled the vehemence of their criticism. By contrast, with respect to the likes of Traore, Biscan and Kromkamp, the fans never expected very much in the first place and hence were not especially disappointed when they delivered very little.

So, with respect to Lucas, what’s changed between then and now?

The short answer: newly available information has caused fans’ expectations to adjust in a rational fashion.

Initially, fans had very little empirical data on Lucas (because Brazilian football is not widely televised in the UK), therefore, mistaken expectations, perhaps better described as stereotypical perceptions, were formed. People acted on the basis of these mistaken expectations: this explains the Fulham game. However, as time has passed, Lucas has played more and more games as a holding midfielder in a Liverpool shirt following the departures of Alonso and Mascherano, allowing the fans to gather more empirical data on him. They have seen him improve as he has learned to adapt to a new and unfamiliar role by both applying his pre-existing strengths (for example, his mobility and work-rate) to that role and working to acquire the additional abilities required to excel in that role, most notably, a vastly improved tackling technique and quicker, more incisive distribution. All this new information has been taken into account by the fans and expectations have adjusted accordingly.

Now, rational expectations align with reality — the fans expect and receive one of the most effective holding midfielders in the Premier League. Fittingly then, it was another Lucas, a Professor Robert E Lucas Jr of the University of Chicago, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics for “for having developed and applied the hypothesis of rational expectations”.

Looking forward, the rational expectation now is that Lucas, already an outstanding stopper, can and should get even better once he recovers from his knee injury. In acquiring the defensive steel required to succeed in the holding role he now fulfils with such distinction for both Liverpool and Brazil, Lucas had to shed the goal-scoring prowess he showed in his youth. If Lucas can somehow marry the defensive steel he has learned in England to the attacking powers he showed in Brazil (assuming that Kenny Dalglish and/or Mano Menezes give him the tactical freedom to do so), then he has the potential to become, not just one of the most reliable stoppers in England, but one of the best all-around midfielders in the world, a box-to-box colossus who combines the defensive acumen of Busquets with the attacking verve of Gerrard.

Has Fernando Torres Got His Mojo Back?

November 20th, 2011 SB Tang No comments

From 31 January 2011, the date of his British record £50m transfer from Liverpool to Chelsea, to Wednesday 19 October 2011, Fernando Torres scored just 3 goals in 26 competitive appearances for Chelsea.

However, on Wednesday 19 October 2011, Torres scored twice against Genk in a Champions League group stage match at Stamford Bridge, exhibiting the pace, tactical intelligence, technique, strength and finishing ability which made him one of the most feared strikers in the world from 2007 to 2009 and perhaps the most revered player at Anfield since Kenny Dalglish.

The salient question then is — has Fernando Torres finally got his mojo back?

In order to answer that question, it will first be necessary to determine what caused his dramatic loss of form in the first place and whether those causal factors have now been ameliorated.

There are three possible causes for Torres’s 18 month form slump (taking the starting point as 18 April 2010, the date of the knee surgery which ended his 2009–10 season).

1. Burn-Out and Injuries

The first and most obvious explanation is a combination of burn-out and injuries. Torres has been playing first team football since the age of 17. His fitness record during his time at Atletico Madrid was impressive — from 2002–03 (the season Atletico returned to La Liga) to 2006–07 (Torres’s last season at Atletico), Torres averaged 35 league starts per season and suffered no serious injuries. As Torres explained in an interview with FourFourTwo early in his debut season in England after missing a couple of games through injury: “I think it was the first time I’ve ever been injured for more than a game and I really suffered.

Since Torres’s move to England in the summer of 2007, his fitness record has progressively deteriorated each season — he made 33 league appearances for Liverpool in his debut season in 2007–08, 24 in 2008–09, 22 in 2009–10 and although he managed a combined 37 league appearances for Liverpool and Chelsea in 2010–11, he looked a shadow of his former self.

In addition to the greater physical demands of English football, Torres’s body has had to cope with the rigours of international duty in three consecutive summers — Euro 2008, the 2009 Confederations Cup and the 2010 World Cup.

The frequency and severity of his injuries appear to have increased over time. In 2008–09, Torres suffered three hamstring injuries and an ankle injury. In 2009–10, he suffered a groin injury and his knee had to be operated on three times — the last of these operations on 18 April 2010 resulted in him missing the last three weeks of Liverpool’s disastrous 2009–10 season.

Unsurprisingly, at the World Cup in South Africa in the summer of 2010, Torres looked short of not only basic match fitness, but that extra yard of pace which had previously enabled him to slip effortlessly off the shoulder of the last defender to latch onto the through balls delivered by the likes of Gerrard, Alonso, Xavi, Iniesta and Silva. A miserable tournament for Torres individually — he was subbed off early in each of his four starts, he failed to score and he was dropped from the starting line-up for the semi-final against Germany and the final against the Netherlands — reached its denouement when he pulled up with a hamstring injury in the 121st minute of the final against the Netherlands, just 15 minutes after coming on as a late extra-time substitute.

It can be argued that, like other early starters before him, such as Michael Owen, Torres’s body, exposed to the constant rigours of senior football at a tender age, started breaking down commensurately early, namely, when he hit his mid-20s, precipitating a permanent, albeit steady, decline in performance through his late 20s as his body is shorn of the pace which characterised his earlier success.

The comparison with Owen proffers a cautionary tale. Both Torres and Owen made their senior club and international debuts as teenagers. Both function optimally as high-lying strikers who utilise their pace to make runs in behind the opposition’s defensive line. Both looked like world-beaters in their early 20s — Owen won the Ballon d’Or as a 22 year old in 2001 and, as a 24 year-old, Torres finished his first season in England in 2007–08 with 31 goals in all competitions, including 24 in the league to break Ruud van Nistelrooy’s record for most goals scored by a foreigner in their debut season in the English top flight, and was runner-up to Cristiano Ronaldo for the Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year award. Both started suffering more injuries as they hit their mid-20s.

However, on balance, this argument, although persuasive, is not conclusive as Torres suffered no serious injuries from 15 August 2010, the date of his return from the hamstring injury picked up in the World Cup Final, to 31 January 2011, the date of his transfer to Chelsea. Indeed, although Torres started his final half-season at Liverpool slowly as he struggled to regain match fitness and sharpness following the succession of injuries which plagued the second half of his 2009–10 season and his 2010 World Cup, he looked to be well on his way back to his best in his final three weeks at Liverpool, notching up 3 goals in 4 league games after Kenny Dalglish returned to the Anfield managerial throne on 9 January 2011.

2. Incompatible Tactics

In Torres’s first half-season at Chelsea under Carlo Ancelotti, the incompatibility between Torres’s strengths and Chelsea’s tactics, personnel and style of play seemed obvious, even to the untrained eye — a pacy, off the shoulder of the last defender centre-forward being forced to feed off scraps from a midfield unit lacking the personnel to consistently deliver quality balls in behind the opposition’s defence.

In England, there seems to be a perception, probably derived from his approximate £20m price tag (a club record for Liverpool at the time), that Torres arrived at Liverpool in the summer of 2007 fully-formed and fully-proven as a European-class centre-forward.

The reality is that he was anything but — certainly, his potential was not in question but, at Atletico Madrid, Torres never scored more than 20 La Liga goals a season and he was unfairly stuck with the tag of overrated 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 not his game.

Rafa Benitez, to his credit, realised this and played Torres high up the pitch with two of the best passers in Europe threading balls in behind the defence from central midfield. The result: Torres finally fulfilled his potential and became one of the best centre-forwards in the world.

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).

We can deduce from the above analysis that Torres is a great striker but one who requires a peculiar tactical set-up to thrive — any system 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 opposition’s defence.

The problem for both Chelsea and Torres when the latter arrived last season was that Chelsea did not have the personnel to execute such tactics. The Chelsea team was, understandably, set-up to suit Didier Drogba’s style of play. The Chelsea midfield played the ball to Drogba’s feet with his back to goal. Drogba then used his tremendous strength and power to turn the defender and bear down on goal himself, hold up the ball for the likes of Lampard, Essien and Ramires to get into the box or distribute it wide to Malouda or Anelka. It should come as no surprise then that Chelsea did not have central midfielders with the finesse to thread balls in behind the opposition’s defence — until now, that simply has not been the job required of a Chelsea midfielder.

Accordingly, for most of last season Torres, when he started for Chelsea, was forced to play up top in a 4-3-3 in front of a midfield three chosen from Lampard (an energetic box-to-box midfielder), Ramires (an energetic box-to-box midfielder), Essien (who functions either as 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 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 of Lampard, Essien, Ramires and Zhirkov).

Whether or not the power to make such fundamental tactical decisions was actually within the ambit of Ancelotti’s political authority as manager is uncertain; what is certain is that the tactics chosen did not suit Torres’s style of play.

By contrast, this season, the incompatibility between Torres’s strengths and Chelsea’s tactics, personnel and style of play has been ameliorated by a change in tactics and manager and, crucially, the acquisitions of Juan Mata and Raul Meireles, two players with the technique and vision to play the passes in behind the defence on which Torres thrives. It was Mata who played the clever diagonal ball over the top for Torres’s opener against Swansea and it was Meireles who, in the 26th minute against Genk, made an intelligent run out to the right wing to curl in a teasing first-time cross (from a quick pass supplied by the deep-lying Anelka) for Torres to head home after making an astute horizontal run across Genk’s defensive line.

Indeed, Torres himself has, through his conduct, demonstrated both an awareness of the nature of the tactical problem which bedevilled him as well as a willingness to take active steps to ameliorate that problem. Firstly, Torres encouraged Mata to make the move to Stamford Bridge. Secondly, Torres’s remarks in a now infamous interview with the La Liga website in September 2011, although widely misconstrued in the English media as an attack on his Chelsea teammates for being “older” and “play[ing] very slow”, were in fact merely a cogent analysis of the unsuitable tactics which hampered his performances for Chelsea last season and the steps the club is taking this season to “redesign the team” (for example, acquiring Juan Mata who “is going to give another pace to the team”) and amend its tactics (that is, embrace André Villas-Boas’s ideas “about paced and vertical football”) to better suit his strengths.

This season Torres no longer has to play alongside Drogba in big games. New manager André Villas-Boas has bitten the bullet by adopting a general policy of picking one or the other in the starting XI, but rarely both. In the 13 competitive games Chelsea have played thus far this season, Drogba and Torres have only started together once — against Norwich at Stamford Bridge in late August, a match which Chelsea won 3-1, but neither Drogba nor Torres scored.

By contrast, last season, although Drogba and Torres only started together in four of Chelsea’s 19 competitive games following Torres’s January transfer, two of those four starts came in season-defining games — firstly, against Liverpool at Stamford Bridge in early February in Torres’s first game following his transfer and, secondly, against Manchester United at Stamford Bridge in April in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. Chelsea lost both games 1-0 and neither Drogba nor Torres scored. Indeed, to date, neither Drogba nor Torres have scored in a match in which they started together.

When Villas-Boas has started Torres, he has allowed him to operate as the tip of the spear like he did for Spain and Liverpool, with any additional forwards playing off him. In this respect, Chelsea’s tactical shape at Stamford Bridge against Genk is notable. Although, as promised in pre-season, Villas-Boas stuck to the 4-3-3 formation which served him so well in his one season at Porto, Villas-Boas implemented the system in a manner which complemented Torres’s style of play, deploying him high up the pitch as the lone out-and-out centre-forward, with the two other forwards, Malouda and Anelka, tucked in deeper to help create chances for Torres through the middle of the pitch and the two attacking full-backs, Cole and Bosingwa, pushed up high and wide to ping in crosses for Torres — Torres should have completed his hat-trick in the 71st minute from a cross whipped in by the overlapping Bosingwa.

Moreover, in central midfield, although nominally one of the two anchors alongside Oriol Romeu, Meireles had licence to roam further up the pitch (with Romeu staying deep to cover) where his technique and passing ability enabled Torres to do what he does best — play high and utilise his pace and movement to profit from well-weighted passes delivered in behind the opposition defence. As early as the 6th minute, Meireles picked up the ball just forward of the centre circle, took one touch and played an inch-perfect ball over the top of the Genk defence, only for Torres to hit the post with his left-footed finish. It was the kind of ball Alonso used to routinely serve up for Torres when both were dressed in Liverpool colours; against Genk, Meireles looked every inch an Alonso with marginally inferior passing but superior mobility.

Indeed, Villas-Boas’s interpretation of the 4-3-3 bears some resemblance to the Benitez 4-2-3-1 in which Torres flourished at Liverpool with Gerrard and two of Kuyt, Riera, Benayoun and Babel in the bank of three just behind him and a deep-lying playmaker (Alonso) and a pure stopper (Mascherano) in the bank of two in front of the defence.

With David Luiz regularly stepping up out of defence to exhibit the impressive range and accuracy of his passing, Torres had a glut of quality balls to feast on. Even Lampard, the consummate box-to-box goalscorer, contributed to the great feast in the 10th minute by taking one touch then quickly sliding a crisp, short diagonal ball in behind the Genk defence for Torres to run onto in trade mark fashion and side foot around the keeper. As Michael Cox observed, Lampard is successfully adapting his game to survive under Villas-Boas, passing much more from deep, “rather than simply breaking towards goal from a centre-left midfield position.”

3. A Guilty Mind

The third possible cause is psychological — more specifically, a young man’s awareness of his own moral culpability.

The whole world is familiar with the Liverpool fans’ Fernando Torres song which once reverberated around the great football cathedrals of Europe. What is less well-known are the historical origins of the opening line: “His armband proved he was a Red”. It refers to the historical fact that, even before his move to Liverpool in July 2007, Torres was photographed, whilst captaining Atletico Madrid in an away game against Real Sociedad in April 2007, wearing a captain’s armband with the words “We’ll Never Walk Alone” inscribed on the inside. Upon signing for Liverpool in July 2007, here is the explanation Torres himself gave for the armband (emphasis added): “A group of my mates and I are all Liverpool fans and we have been for some years. … [O]n my last birthday they gave me the present of the armband with it written on the underside.

From the moment he signed for Liverpool Football Club, Torres was not shy about broadcasting his knowledge and appreciation of the club’s illustrious history, telling the club’s official website just minutes after signing: “I’m aware of the history and how special this club is. The tragedies that have happened have made the bond between the fans and the club so strong.

During Torres’s three-and-a-half year stay at Anfield, he took every opportunity to not only reiterate this appreciation, but pledge his love of, and fealty to, the club and its fans.

In a January 2009 interview with The Daily Mail, Torres declared (emphases added):

Liverpool is a massive club in reputation, but as soon as I came here it felt like Atletico to me. … I had many offers in football, I had many big clubs to choose from, so I decided on something more than football.

The people here, the history, the way everybody comes together, I looked at that and I thought we have the chance to make this one of the greatest clubs in the world, again.

Now I feel Liverpool is my English club, the way Atletico is my Spanish club. I would not like to play for another English or Spanish club. This feeling is very important to me.

In October 2009, Torres told The Guardian (emphases added):

One of the reasons I chose to come to Liverpool was because of the mentality of the club. It’s a working club and a working city. I don’t know why but I feel like one of the people here.

It is so important for me to get my first club medal with Liverpool

Accordingly, it came as something of a surprise to hear Torres declare in a February 2011 press briefing following his transfer to Chelsea on 31 January 2011 (emphases added):

I was not a Liverpool fan or a Chelsea fan in Madrid. I was an Atletico fan. I still am. Maybe they’re the only badge I will kiss.

I see some players doing that [kissing the badge] when they join a club, but the romance in football has gone. It’s a different thing now. People [players] are coming and leaving. When you are joining a club you want to do the best for yourself and that club, and that’s all.

When asked in a November 2009 interview with The Telegraph whether he was at Anfield to stay, Torres replied: “Who knows. But for the next four years, yeah. Deffo.

For the avoidance of doubt, on 9 January 2011, Torres stated (emphasis added):

More than ever, we need to stick together. We must live in the present, from match to match.

We need to add more points, win matches and improve our standing in the table. That is our challenge and I demand the total help of our supporters in doing that.

My head is in Liverpool and on helping save our season. I am professional and I always fulfil my deals. I haven’t considered leaving, although in football that depends on the club.

However, less than three weeks later, he handed in a written transfer request and in a February 2011 press briefing following his transfer to Chelsea, Torres went so far as to say (emphases added):

I really wanted to leave Liverpool, so I told them straight. Everything was clear. At the end of the day, it’s about being fair and honest with everyone.

I explained my situation, my feelings, and was honest with everyone. I told everyone, face to face, my feelings and that I wanted to leave for Chelsea. They didn’t hear that in the press. They heard it from me. That was maybe 10 or 12 days before the window closed.

So, on or around 19 January 2011 (that is, approximately 12 days before the January transfer window closed), Torres told Liverpool that he “really wanted to leave”, despite publicly stating on 9 January 2011 that “I haven’t considered leaving” and “I am professional and I always fulfil my deals”.

Furthermore, in an interview with Marca in March 2011, Torres confessed (emphasis added): “[Leaving Liverpool] was a decision I had mulled over for a long time, even though it appeared to be taken very hastily. I had made up my mind a long time before. In the summer in which Xabi Alonso left [2009] I started to wonder.

It is difficult to reconcile this statement with what Torres said to The Telegraph in November 2009.

In the same March 2011 interview with Marca, Torres reiterated the assertions of honesty he made at his February 2011 press briefing (emphases added):

I wanted to be honest. If others haven’t been honest, that’s not my problem. Football is not a sport populated by honest people. You can’t tell the truth or be up front with people. It’s a business and no one is friends. I was honest. I know [the transfer] wasn’t [handled in] the best way but I was honest. If anyone used the press, it wasn’t me. I was straight and I have a clear conscience.

What then are we to make of all these inconsistent statements?

It is submitted that it is the sound of an intelligent but confused young man, who realises that he ought to be at the very peak of his professional career, striving and struggling to come to terms with a decision he made with the purpose of advancing his own career but with the full knowledge that it would not only hurt many innocent people who had shown him nothing but love and loyalty, but also breach promises and contradict statements he made to them.

In Torres’s repeated thinking-out-loud-style affirmations of his own personal honesty, one can detect a tone of plaintive moral self-justification. As Talleyrand said of Napoleon’s execution of the Duke d’Enghien: “It is worse than a crime; it is a mistake.”

In short, Torres’s behaviour bears all the hallmarks of a guilty mind; the deleterious effects of which it is impossible to ever underestimate.

However, time, not to mention an improvement in the suitability of one’s tactical environment and a commensurate improvement in one’s workplace performances, can heal such self-inflicted wounds.

The Answers

Returning to the two questions posed at the beginning of this article, it is submitted that the answers are, firstly, all three causes posited above — burn-out and injuries, incompatible tactics and a guilty conscience — contributed in varying degrees to Torres’s form slump, and since each of those causes has now been ameliorated, there is every reason to believe that Fernando Torres has finally got his mojo back.

Categories: Champions League, Premier League Tags:

Farewell Meireles (and a Real Risk of Strategic Suicide?)

September 1st, 2011 SB Tang No comments

I argued previously that Liverpool should keep Raul Meireles. Unfortunately, the news has just broken that he has been sold to Chelsea for a reported £12m, which represents a measly £0.3m profit on his £11.7m purchase a year ago. Now that the decision’s been made, Liverpool fans will, quite rightly, lend it their full support in light of the excellent track record to date of the decision-makers — Damien Comolli and Kenny Dalglish. But equally, I’m sure Liverpool fans will be quick to acknowledge and thank Meireles for his excellent contribution in his one full season at the club.

Unlike the Torres transfer, this is not a case where a fairly remunerated player, rated a certain starter by the manager, has knowingly lied to the fans about his intentions and voluntarily chosen to leave in circumstances where it was not necessary to do so in order to secure first-team football or a fair wage. Rather, an unfortunate situation has arisen whereby all the current parties at Liverpool were, to an extent, victims of circumstance.

Fenway Sports Group inherited an excessive squad wage bill (the fourth highest in the Premier League despite Liverpool finishing 7th in the league in 2009–10 and sitting in the bottom third of the table when FSG took over on 15 October 2010) from the previous owners. They quite rightly adopted a fiscally responsible policy of wage restraint, particularly with respect to players closer to 30 than 20 years of age.

Meireles, at 28 years of age, was caught by this strictly enforced policy despite being one of the few players who was under, rather than overpaid, as he had been so keen to move to Liverpool (ironically enough to escape Porto where the then newly appointed manager, André Villas-Boas, included him in a cull of senior players) that he accepted a below market wage of £35,000 per week subject to a gentleman’s agreement that this would be bumped up to approximately £65,000 a week if he had a successful first season in England.

However, such a pay bump would clearly be inconsistent with FSG’s policy of wage restraint. Moreover, over the summer, Liverpool acquired three new midfielders — Jordan Henderson, Charlie Adam and Stewart Downing — at a cumulative cost of £43m, thereby presumably limiting Meireles’s first team opportunities this season.

No opprobrium should be directed towards Meireles for wanting to leave in order to secure first team football and a fair market wage. Portuguese internationals with four Portuguese league titles, six seasons’ worth of Champions League experience, and appearances at Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010 on their CV don’t want to sit on the bench and get paid a fraction of what the market judges them to be worth — if Meireles is worth less than a third of a Milan Jovanovic, then Glenn Beck is a Nobel prize winning economist. Like Alonso before him, Meireles is simply behaving as any responsible professional in any profession would.

In light of the summer midfield arrivals, fans legitimately wondered where Meireles would have fit in at Liverpool. I would submit that the answer is that he would, at minimum, have offered comprehensive, quality cover for every conceivable position in a modern midfield. Holding central midfield, deep-lying playmaker, attacking central midfield, left wing and right wing — Meireles not only played them all for Liverpool last season, but played them well.

Gerrard, Downing, Adam, Henderson and Lucas are all excellent players but I find the thought of not a single one of them losing fitness, form or simply energy over the course of a full season slightly implausible. Of course, at his best, Meireles was more than mere cover for others — he offered a unique blend of tactical flexibility, technical surety, Champions League and international experience, and a positive dressing room influence. I must admit that, in light of Dalglish’s emphasis, following the win over Arsenal, on the importance of “the squad” in modern football, I am slightly puzzled as to why Liverpool would want to dispose of such a player.

However, my biggest concern is that, tactically, Liverpool could be playing right into Chelsea’s hands. As I pointed out in my season preview:

  • “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”; and
  • at present, “Chelsea do not have central midfielders with the finesse to thread balls in behind the defence”.

That’s why Chelsea were so desperate to acquire Luka Modric. Given Meireles’s technical qualities and contract situation, it is no surprise that Chelsea turned their attention to him when it was clear that Daniel Levy was in no mood to sell. A midfielder of Meireles’s pedigree, with the technical ability to thread balls in behind the opposition defence, is the key tactical component Chelsea have been looking for to restore Torres to his former glory.

Accordingly, by selling one professional, hardworking servant, Liverpool may have unwittingly unleashed the latent powers of their greatest traitor. That would be the cruellest of ironies; the consequences of which not even a living legend like Kenny Dalglish could fully escape.

Finally, it is surprising that an old school manager like Dalglish would sell unnecessarily to a direct domestic rival. Practically speaking, Liverpool did not have to sell because Meireles is a model professional — despite the mounting transfer speculation, he has happily played three times for Liverpool this season and performed well on each occasion. No schoolgirlish sulking and telling the manager he doesn’t know if he’s right to play ala Luka Modric. If Meireles had stayed, he would not have been a disruptive influence in the dressing room and, at minimum, he would have been an important squad member. In the meantime, Liverpool could then have privately agreed with Meireles to sell him to a non-domestic rival in the summer.

Categories: Premier League Tags:

Why Liverpool Should Keep Raul Meireles

August 31st, 2011 SB Tang No comments

Buried amidst the countless reports of Liverpool’s £43m midfield spending spree over the summer, were rumours that Raul Meireles was for sale at the right price. The theory offered for why Kenny Dalglish would want to dispose of the reigning PFA Fans Player of the Year seemed to be a combination of a lack of room in a newly reinforced midfield and current owners Fenway Sports Group reneging on a gentleman’s agreement between Meireles and the previous owners that Meireles’s well below market contract wages of approximately £35,000 a week would be bumped up to approximately £65,000 a week if he had a successful first season in England.

With just one day to go until the transfer window closes on Wednesday night, Meireles sidelined for up to two weeks by a collarbone injury picked up in a League Cup match against Exeter, and the outbreak of a further flurry of rumours that Meireles could be sold, now seems an apposite time to examine the question of whether Liverpool should keep Meireles.

Meireles was purchased from Porto for £11.7m last August. Roy Hodgson needed to bolster Liverpool’s central midfield stocks following the £17.25m sale of Javier Mascherano to Barcelona and Porto’s then newly appointed manager, André Villas-Boas, wanted to initiate a clear-out of the more experienced members of Porto’s squad, such as Meireles, after the 24-times Portuguese champions failed to win the league for the first time in five seasons. So Meireles was on the look out for a new club and Liverpool was on the look out for a European-class central midfielder. A marriage of convenience perhaps but, as it turned out, not one without its merits.

Meireles arrived at Anfield with an impeccable pedigree — four Portuguese league titles, 38 caps for Portugal, six seasons’ worth of Champions League experience, and appearances at Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010. Although frequently referred to in the British media as a Mascherano replacement, Hodgson never intended Meireles to be, and Meireles has certainly proven himself to be much more than, a mere direct replacement for Mascherano.

Mascherano was a world-class one-dimensional defensive stopper but a one-dimensional defensive stopper nonetheless, whereas Meireles is a genuine all-rounder. Whilst Meireles may lack Mascherano’s pace and tackle frequency, he possesses superior touch, technique, goal-scoring ability, passing range and accuracy, and offensive (and defensive) positioning. This was evident in a purple patch in the New Year when Meireles scored five goals in six games, including the winner at Stamford Bridge in the game where Torres lined up against Liverpool in his first game for Chelsea just six days after completing his acrimonious £50m transfer.

That goal at Stamford Bridge — a thigh-high volley of a bouncing Gerrard cross with his non-preferred left foot following a lung-busting run into the left side of the box — exemplifies his unique qualities and illustrates precisely why Liverpool need to keep him. It was a goal only Meireles, Downing and Gerrard, of Liverpool’s current midfield crop, would have been likely to score.

Kuyt undoubtedly has the work rate to get into that goal-scoring position but lacks the technique to execute such a difficult volley. Adam doesn’t quite have the pace to be making such runs. Since moving to England, Lucas has blossomed into a great holding midfielder but his ability to shoot, so prominent in his Gremio days and time in the Brazilian national under-age squads, seems to have completely deserted him. Jordan Henderson, on the basis of Saturday’s exceptional performance against Bolton could well have the pace, work-rate and technique to score such goals with regularity but it is still a bit early to be placing the entire responsibility for doing so upon his young shoulders. Maxi Rodríguez could well have scored such a goal — if he can manage to fight his way off the bench and/or the stands and onto the pitch this season.

Most importantly of all, Meireles can open up defences. In tight games against quality defences, players of Meireles’s mental and technical surety are what make the difference. There are not that many players of that ilk in the world, much less ones successfully bedded in with the Liverpool squad and attuned to the culture of the club and the league.

At 28 years of age, Meireles is in the prime of his career. It makes no sense to dispose of such a player, particularly when, if reports are to be believed, Meireles is costing the club very little in terms of wages — even if he is granted a deserved pay bump to £65,000 per week, that would be no more than a fair average wage for a player of that quality in today’s market where the likes of Shaun Wright-Phillips command approximately £70,000 a week.

So far this season, Meireles has looked good in very limited game time against Sunderland and he was instrumental in turning a draw into a win against Arsenal, coming off the bench to help set up both Liverpool goals — firstly, playing a neat one-two with Suarez on the edge of the box which opened up the Arsenal defence, creating the pressure which resulted in Ramsey’s unfortunate own goal and, secondly, demonstrating his excellent temperament and technique in opting to lay on an inch-perfect pass for Suarez to tap-in from a position where many would have (erroneously) opted to  shoot.

As Liverpool look to build a league-winning squad, the importance of off-the-pitch qualities cannot be underestimated. The manner in which Meireles was swamped by his teammates after helping set up both Liverpool goals against Arsenal and his passionate celebration says it all — he is a respected and valued member of the dressing room and he wants to stay at Liverpool. When asked, on Liverpool’s pre-season tour of China, if he was staying at Liverpool, Meireles’s answer was succinct and to the point: “Of course.” No whining about the weather in the north-west, the physicality of the English game or the lack of Champions League football this season.

Meireles speaks excellent English and, on the evidence to date, he has put his language skills and tremendous experience — a veteran of six Champions League campaigns, one World Cup, and one Euro and still just 28 years of age with no history of serious injury — to good use by mentoring younger players. For example, taking Andy Carroll to Madrid last season to watch an instalment of El Clásico in the company of model professionals Pepe Reina and Tim Cahill and … a pint of beer, thereby doing more to subtly demonstrate to Carroll that alcohol can be enjoyed responsibly than a lifetime’s worth of court-mandated alcohol education programmes could ever do.

At minimum, Meireles will be a vital squad member for Liverpool. In this respect, Dalglish’s emphasis, following the win over Arsenal, on the importance of “the squad” in modern football was instructive. But, of course, he can be much more than that because, at his best, Meireles can be as important to Liverpool’s league campaign as he was to Liverpool’s victories over Arsenal last Saturday and Chelsea in February. I hope he stays.

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Arsenal 0 – 2 Liverpool, 20 August 2011

August 27th, 2011 SB Tang No comments

Glib One Line Summary

A professional and tactically astute performance away from home, with the technical quality of Suarez and Meireles being the difference between a draw and a win.

Team News and Tactical Set-Up

Dalglish opted for a more conservative tactical set-up away from home as Liverpool started with a five man midfield in what could be described as a 4-5-1 or a 4-4-1-1 with Henderson playing in the hole behind lone striker Andy Carroll: Reina, Enrique, Agger, Carragher, Kelly, Downing, Lucas, Adam, Kuyt, Henderson and Carroll.

Suarez dropped to the bench as he continues his recovery from his summer Copa America exertions and Martin Kelly, so impressive whenever fit, made his long-awaited return to the starting XI after being out since February with a hamstring injury he picked up in Liverpool’s 3-1 defeat to West Ham at Upton Park.

Despite suffering from an early season injury and suspension epidemic, Arsenal lined up in their now standard 4-3-3: Szczesny, Sagna, Vermaelen, Koscielny, Jenkinson, Nasri, Ramsey, Frimpong, Arshavin, van Persie and Walcott.

With teenagers Carl Jenkinson and Emmanuel Frimpong making their full Premier League debuts at right-back and holding midfield respectively, Liverpool would be looking to profit from attacking forays down the left through summer signings Enrique and Downing.

Tactical Analysis

The match looked headed for a goalless draw until Frimpong was shown a second yellow in the 69th minute for a dangerous challenge on Lucas which could have merited a straight red. Up until then, the match was evenly poised as both sides looked happy to settle for a point.

Liverpool struggled to achieve the passing fluency they showed in the first half against Sunderland as Frimpong impressed on his Premier League debut, efficiently breaking up the play in front of Arsenal’s back four and even finding the time and space to get forward to hit a low shot just past Reina’s right post.

Carroll, tasked with leading the line on his own, seemed to carry his second-half form from last week into this match, as he looked sluggish and off the pace, struggling to link up with his midfield. However, Carroll was again impressive in the air and his powerful header from an excellent Enrique cross from the left drew a sharp save from Szczesny.

Enrique and Downing continued their good form from last week and their attacking forays down the left looked Liverpool’s best chance of a breakthrough. Jenkinson acquitted himself creditably on his Premier League debut as he was repeatedly tested (and, understandably, occasionally beaten) by the two proven Premier League performers.

Henderson looked much more comfortable playing centrally in the hole than on the right and turned in an improved performance, demonstrating some of the qualities which convinced Comolli and Dalglish to part with £16m for his services in the summer — neat, effective touches, a terrific engine and some well-timed runs into the box, one of which resulted in a good chance which he did well to head on target but with insufficient power and accuracy to trouble Szczesny.

Kelly was impressive as always — strong in defence and dangerous going forward as he went close with a stinging shot which went just wide of Szczesny’s near post. On the basis of Kelly’s consistently strong performances to date, it seems likely that he will challenge Glen Johnson for the England right-back slot and that the latter will face an uphill battle to reclaim one of the Liverpool starting full-back slots once he’s fit again.

Dalglish acted decisively once Arsenal were reduced to 10 men by Frimpong’s 69th minute red card, sending on Suarez for Carroll and Meireles for Kuyt.

Suarez’s pace and movement and Meireles’s calmness and technique made all the difference — a neat interchange of passes between the duo in the box created the pressure which resulted in the Ramsey own goal and a precise pass each from Lucas and Meireles set up Suarez for the simplest of tap-ins.

Dirk Kuyt, for all his hard work, determination and character, simply does not possess the same level of technique that Suarez and Meireles do, and, ultimately, it was that technique and, of course, Dalglish’s decision to deploy it at the opportune moment, which brought Liverpool their first away win over Arsenal since 2000.

Man of the Match

Shared between Suarez and Meireles.

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Match Analysis: Liverpool 1 – 1 Sunderland, Anfield, Saturday 13 August 2011

August 21st, 2011 SB Tang No comments

Glib One Line Summary

A match of two halves — Liverpool were as fluent in the first half as they were tepid in the second.

Team News and Tactical Set-Up

On paper, Liverpool lined up in a conventional 4-4-2: Reina, Enrique, Agger, Carragher, Flanagan, Downing, Adam, Lucas, Henderson, Carroll and Suarez.

Interestingly, Dalglish answered the question of where Henderson will fit in the starting XI by stationing him out on the right, despite initial reports that he would be played in his preferred position in central midfield.

Somewhat surprisingly, 18 year old Jon Flanagan was preferred to Martin Kelly at right-back. Presumably, Dalglish still had concerns about Kelly’s match fitness following a long injury layoff, although Kelly himself appeared to have no such concerns on the eve of the match after enjoying a full pre-season.

Jose Enrique started at left-back, just over 24 hours after completing his £6m transfer from Newcastle, after perennial injury magnet Fabio Aurelio was struck down by injury.

Suarez started up front alongside Carroll despite only having had a couple of weeks off  after spending the summer leading Uruguay to their record 15th Copa America title and Dalglish earlier indicating that he may need to be rested for the early part of the campaign.

In practice, in the first half, with Henderson and Downing both playing quite high and Suarez doing his usual trick of dropping deep to collect the ball, the 4-4-2 almost became a lopsided 4-2-3-1.

Sunderland lined up in the increasingly popular 4-4-1-1, as Steve Bruce opted for the security of a five man midfield, with an (admittedly attacking) right back, Elmohamady, playing at right wing and a midfielder, Stephane Sessegnon (who filled in capably as an emergency striker last season after Bent was sold and Gyan, Campbell and Welbeck were struck down by various injuries), playing in the hole, despite the big money summer signings of highly rated young strikers Ji Dong-Won and Connor Wickham: Mignolet, Richardson, Brown, Ferdinand, Bardsley, Larsson, Cattermole, Colback, Elmohamady, Sessegnon and Gyan.

Tactical Analysis

The first half unfolded like every Liverpool fan’s prolonged summer wet dream.

Charlie Adam was imperious in the centre circle, displaying an assured touch and wonderful passing range and accuracy. Most importantly of all, Adam demonstrated the tactical nous required to calmly manage the tempo of the game, knowing when to spray the 30 yard diagonal to Downing and when to play the simple five yard pass to Suarez or Henderson.

Downing was equally impressive — always making himself available, running at defenders and putting quality crosses into the box.

And, of course, Suarez was his usual effervescent self — buzzing around collecting the ball deep, linking up well with the midfield and taking on defenders with his pace and dribbling ability as well as making good runs in behind the Sunderland defensive line and closing down defenders.

With most of Liverpool’s fluent attacking play flowing through Adam, Downing and Suarez, Carroll had less to do but what he had to do, he did well — he showed sufficient mobility and technique to provide a good quality return pass to Suarez where necessary, made himself available for Downing’s crosses and used his strength to win the vast majority of aerial contests.

Even in the midst of this wish-fulfilling dream, there was one readily apparent concern — Liverpool’s right. Henderson looked every inch a central midfielder shunted out wide. He ran hard but looked uncertain as to his role as he often abandoned his post on the right to run into a tactically superfluous position in the middle high up the pitch, crowding out the space in which Suarez operates so effectively and leaving Liverpool’s right flank, guarded by the 18 year old Jon Flanagan, vulnerable to counter-attack.

However, this seemed to be, at worst, a minor concern in the first half when Liverpool rarely let Sunderland have the ball. Liverpool could easily have been 3 or 4 up at the break. Suarez won then missed a penalty. Carroll had a classy goal — chest down, one perfect touch and a sweet hit with the outside of his left — wrongly chalked off for laying a fingernail on Anton Ferdinand. Downing hit the cross-bar with a ferocious shot from the edge of the box following a mazy, dribbling run down half the length of the pitch cutting in from the right wing. As it was, Liverpool had only Suarez’s well-taken header from a textbook Charlie Adam free kick to show for a half of total dominance.

As so often happens, Liverpool’s profligacy in front of goal seemed to provoke the football gods. From the very outset of the second half, Liverpool simply could not find their rhythm, struggling to string more than a handful of passes together and constantly giving away possession cheaply. It came as no surprise when Sunderland grabbed a deserved equaliser in the 57th minute through summer signing Sebastian Larsson who struck with a superbly executed volley on a memorable competitive debut for his new club. The position from which Sunderland’s goal was scored did not come as any surprise either — the exposed right side of Liverpool’s own box where Larsson was left completely unmarked by both Flanagan and Henderson.

Despite effectively having three central midfielders, Liverpool continued to struggle to win and retain the ball as the second half progressed. Henderson was anonymous — his absence from the right wing unbalanced the formation yet his additional presence in the middle did little to improve Liverpool’s winning and retention of the ball — and he was subbed off in the 60th minute for Dirk Kuyt. Nonetheless, it was great to see him receive warm applause from the Anfield crowd as he walked off on his home debut. It was a mediocre performance at best from Henderson but it must not be forgotten that he’s only 21 years of age and, provided that he continues to receive the support that he’s received thus far from the manager and the fans, there’s no reason that he can’t develop to become world-class.

Adam, so unflappable in the first half, seemed to tire in the second and, on the rare occasions Liverpool got the ball, he struggled to distribute it as effectively as he did in the first half. Suarez was the next to be subbed in the 75th minute for Raul Meireles, having already given Liverpool 75 minutes more than they were entitled to reasonably expect in light of the fact that he has not had a summer off for three years. Downing was simply starved of the ball and consequently drifted out of the game through no real fault of his own.

With the slick passing and possession domination of the first half seemingly a distant memory, Liverpool often resorted to hitting hopeful long straight and/or diagonal aerial balls to Carroll who did well to win the majority of the ensuing aerial challenges, although he did fail to convert any of the handful of half-aerial-chances which came his way. Moreover, he struggled to lead the line on his own in Suarez’s absence when the ball was kept on the carpet. Despite having the benefit of a full pre-season under his belt, his movement seemed slower and his touch heavier than it was in the first half. Accordingly, it came as no surprise when, on the one occasion in the second half Liverpool managed to string some passes together culminating in Adam making a great run and rolling a dangerous ball across the face of goal, Carroll failed to make the near post run which would have resulted in an easy tap-in. Liverpool’s one genuine scoring chance in the second half and Liverpool’s number 9 was nowhere in sight!

Of course, some Liverpool fans would protest that Suarez would most definitely have made that run had he been on the pitch and that it is Suarez’s, not Carroll’s, job to make such runs. However, the reality is that this was but the first of many occasions on what will presumably be a long Liverpool career in which Carroll will be expected to lead the line in Suarez’s absence due to injury, rest or suspension. Fatigued or not, it was a run any competent number 9 would be expected to make and it was a run which a British transfer record number 9 is required to make. Carroll’s mobility (or lack thereof) was a legitimate concern when Liverpool purchased him and, unfortunately, his performance on Saturday, like most of his performances to date in a Liverpool shirt, did little to ameliorate that concern.

Refereeing Decisions

Two big refereeing decisions did not go Liverpool’s way.

Firstly, in the fourth minute Suarez charged down and blocked Kieran Richardson’s attempt to hoof the ball out of Sunderland’s defence. The ball rebounded off Suarez’s face in behind the Sunderland defence towards the Sunderland goal. Suarez chased down the loose ball and dribbled towards the Sunderland goal with only the keeper — the impressive Mignolet — to beat. Suarez entered the box and touched the ball to Mignolet’s left to go round him and then … a desperate Richardson charged in to submit his late bid for inclusion in England’s 2011 Rugby World Cup squad, utilising his arms to execute an above the shoulders rugby-style tackle on Suarez in the box. The referee, Phil Dowd, awarded a penalty and yellow carded Richardson but did not send him off.

In his post-match press conference, the ever dignified Dalglish declined the opportunity to criticise Phil Dowd’s decision to allow Richardson to stay on the pitch, stating:

I don’t know what the interpretation of the law is, but you certainly don’t want to see anybody lose a player if it’s something that not malicious. I mean it was a penalty kick. It was a goal-scoring opportunity. And if you’re in the middle of the goals and you want to go around the keeper, you’ve got to go away from the goal. But he was never out of control of it so I would’ve thought that Kieran was fortunate he stayed on the pitch and I just hope that if our club are ever in the situation like that, that our player will get the same courtesy that Phil Dowd showed Kieran today.

After all, dissecting and criticising referees’ decisions is what unpaid, ill-informed amateur blogs such as this one are for.

The referee got this decision wrong — he should have sent Richardson off. The relevant question of law is whether Richardson’s act constituted a “sending-off offence” under law 12 of the Laws of the Game, by “denying an obvious goalscoring opportunity to an opponent moving towards the player’s goal by an offence punishable by a free kick or a penalty kick.” (emphases added)

There is absolutely no doubt that, by charging into the box and using his arms to execute an above the shoulders rugby-style tackle on Suarez in the box, Richardson committed at least one of the 14 “offences punishable by a free kick or a penalty kick”. Richardson’s act could constitute any of the following “offences punishable by a free kick or a penalty kick”:

  • tackling Suarez in a manner which is careless, reckless or uses excessive force;
  • pushing Suarez in a manner which is careless, reckless or uses excessive force;
  • holding Suarez; and/or
  • playing in a dangerous manner.

Take your pick.

Next, was Suarez moving towards Sunderland’s goal? Although Steve Bruce attempted to argue otherwise in his post match interview, the replays clearly show that Suarez was moving towards the Sunderland goal in a direction which would have taken him neatly around Mignolet. Here are some evidentiary screenshots:

The final element of the sending-off offence (and the only one typically cited in the media) is the requirement of “an obvious goalscoring opportunity”. The above screenshots clearly prove that that requirement was satisfied — Suarez’s well-weighted touch had already taken the ball round Mignolet and all that remained was for Suarez to catch up with the ball and tap it into an open Sunderland goal from approximately five yards out.

So, the referee got it wrong. If there is even the faintest shadow of a doubt, that is removed by FIFA’s Interpretation of the Laws of the Game and Guidelines for Referees which states: “A player must be sent off if he denies an obvious goalscoring opportunity by holding an opponent” (emphases added).

Secondly, in the 20th minute Andy Carroll had a well-taken goal chalked off for a push on Anton Ferdinand. Contrary to the popular belief in some parts of the world, football is a contact sport. According to law 12, “pushing” an opponent only constitutes a foul if it is done “in a manner considered by the referee to be careless, reckless or using excessive force”. Pushing is not, in and of itself, unlawful.

By contrast, “holding” an opponent is an absolute liability offence, that is, the mere act of holding an opponent constitutes a foul irrespective of whether it is done carelessly, recklessly or using excessive force. FIFA’s Interpretation of the Laws of the Game and Guidelines for Referees explains that: “Holding an opponent includes the act of preventing him from moving past or around using the hands, the arms or the body.” Looking at the replays, it is clear that Carroll did not “hold” Ferdinand.

That being said, Carroll’s hand did make contact, however slight, with Ferdinand’s back. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that Carroll’s hand exerted sufficient force on Ferdinand’s back to move Ferdinand away from Carroll, thereby constituting a “push”. The question then is whether Carroll’s push was done “in a manner considered by the referee to be careless, reckless or using excessive force”. Given the lightness of the contact and its short duration, it is difficult to see how the referee could have answered this question in the affirmative.

Accordingly, Carroll’s contact with Ferdinand did not constitute a foul and Carroll’s goal should have been allowed to stand.

Of course, none of this is an excuse for dropping two points at home. Liverpool created more than enough chances in the first half to put the game to bed and they should have done so.

Soapbox Rant of the Week

More broadly, Carroll’s disallowed goal raises the issue of the inconsistent interpretation and application of law 12 (which deals with “fouls and misconduct”), particularly to fouls and misconduct committed inside the box.

Take the common examples of pushing and tackling. In order to determine whether a push or tackle constitutes a foul, a referee must make a judgement, based on the conduct of the players, as to whether the push or tackle was done in a manner which was careless, reckless or used excessive force. The problem — apparent to the fans and the players — is that, in some instances, a relatively light push or tackle will be adjudged to be a foul (particularly where the push or tackle is executed by the physically larger player), whereas in other instances, a heavy push or tackle will be adjudged to not be a foul (particularly where the push or tackle is executed by the physically smaller player).

Legally, the referee is given the discretion to determine whether a push or tackle is done in a manner which is careless, reckless or uses excessive force. However, as far as I am aware, there exist no clear, official, authoritative interpretative guidelines for the referees to enable them to exercise their discretion consistently. There is some guidance for referees in FIFA’s Interpretation of the Laws of the Game and Guidelines for Referees but it is sparse and inadequate as it does not clearly delineate the meaning of “careless, reckless or using excessive force”.

Of course, there exist de facto cultural interpretative guidelines in every country. For example, in Britain, it would appear that a high-threshold definition of “careless, reckless or using excessive force” has traditionally been applied as players have been given greater latitude to make physical contact whereas, in Spain and Italy, a lower-threshold definition has been applied making physical contact less frequent and less robust.

From the perspective of fairness, it really doesn’t matter whether a high or low-threshold definition is employed in each jurisdiction, as long as that definition is clearly promulgated and consistently applied so that fans and players know what to expect (and the latter can adjust their play accordingly).

The drafting and promulgation of clear interpretative guidelines is clearly the responsibility of FIFA, the game’s governing body. But if, as is so often the case, FIFA abdicates its responsibilities, there is no reason why national football associations and/or domestic referee organisations such as Professional Game Match Officials Limited (the body responsible for providing match officials for all professional football matches played in England and for training, development and monitoring of referees and assistant referees) should not step in to fill the lacuna. After all, provided that the interpretative guidelines are drafted so that they are consistent with the Laws of the Game, they will merely aid the interpretation and application of, rather than supplant, the latter, and as such, I can see no legal basis on which FIFA could object.

By contrast, there is no excuse for referees’ continuing failure to enforce the absolute liability offence of holding because FIFA’s Interpretation of the Laws of the Game and Guidelines for Referees already clearly explains:

Holding an opponent includes the act of preventing him from moving past or around using the hands, the arms or the body.

Referees are reminded to make an early intervention and to deal firmly with holding offences especially inside the penalty area at corner kicks and free kicks.

Unfortunately, this broad, inclusive definition of “holding” and the reminder to referees to enforce the law swiftly and firmly, seems to be ignored by referees when the holder is a defender, the holdee is a forward and the offence takes place inside the box.

John Terry and Jamie Carragher are rightly recognised as two of the best British centre-backs of the past decade but it has to be wondered what would become of them if the holding law was ever properly enforced.

Man of the Match

Wes Brown.

He played like the Premier League and European Cup winning centre-back that he is.

Brown did not cheat. Yes, he tread a fine line but he did so successfully. He did not dive but nor did he stay up when the laws of physics (and the match situation) did not require him to do so. He did not set out to devise and execute pre-meditated fouls on Andy Carroll, but, when he did foul Carroll, he did not make any great effort to do so in the referee’s eye-line or draw the fouls to the referee’s attention.

Accordingly, he asked hard questions of the referee.

The referee failed to provide cogent answers because he failed to apply the rules consistently — that is the referee’s fault, not Brown’s.

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Irrational Exuberance?

August 14th, 2011 SB Tang No comments

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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What’s Torres Thinking?

January 31st, 2011 SB Tang No comments

First, full disclosure — yes, I am a Liverpool fan.

Nonetheless, in the same way that, as a lawyer, I try (successfully, I hope) to provide the same logical analysis of the merits of their case to clients regardless of my personal feelings towards them, the words which follow constitute my honest, good faith attempt at a rational and dispassionate analysis of the Torres transfer saga unfolding before our very eyes.

I have only two points to make.

Firstly, assuming that his motive is to win major trophies, the proposed move to Chelsea is not in Fernando Torres’s own best interests. It will not increase his chances of winning the league or the European Cup. Chelsea are currently 10 points adrift of league leaders United with an inferior goal difference. They have spent the past several months sliding inexorably down the league table. Their best players are all the wrong side of 30 — Drogba, Malouda, Lampard, Anelka and Terry. Lampard (32 years of age) is two years older than Gerrard (30 years of age). Luis Suarez is 24 years of age, whereas Didier Drogba is 32 years old and practises a style of play which relies heavily on speed and strength — the kind of physical virtues which deteriorate most with age.

Chelsea are not financially self-sustainable — in the absence of Mr Abramovich’s cash and propensity for converting interest-free loans into equity, they would be in deep financial trouble. But, Chelsea fans protest: Mr Abramovich is not going anywhere anytime soon, so the risk of their club financially imploding is minimal. Such an opinion is based on a rosy assessment of the political situation within Russia. However, the truth is that all political assessments are inherently uncertain, particularly where they concern a nation which has a recent history as traumatic as Russia’s. I live in Moscow. I sincerely hope that Senor Torres is aware that Moscow has suffered no less than eight major terrorist attacks over the past decade. So he should think very carefully before he places all his eggs in the basket labelled “Abramovich”.

By contrast, Liverpool have just been purchased by John W Henry’s New England Sports Ventures. Mr Henry has been one of the most successful owners (both on and off the field) in American sports over the last decade, breaking the Boston Red Sox’s 86-year Curse of the Bambino whilst maximising internally-generated revenue. He made his fortune legally via hedge funds. His teams are financially sustainable. His assets are not at constant risk of seizure by the state. He has just authorised the acquisition of one of the most highly-rated young strikers in Europe.

Secondly, as much as it pains me to say it, the available evidence demonstrates that Torres’s personal conduct, even in this modern day and age, is morally questionable at best, and downright dishonest at worst.

During Torres’s three-and-a-half year stay at Anfield, he took every opportunity to not only reiterate this appreciation, but pledge his love of, and fealty to, the club and its fans.

In a January 2009 interview with The Daily Mail, Torres declared (emphases added):

Liverpool is a massive club in reputation, but as soon as I came here it felt like Atletico to me. … I had many offers in football, I had many big clubs to choose from, so I decided on something more than football.

The people here, the history, the way everybody comes together, I looked at that and I thought we have the chance to make this one of the greatest clubs in the world, again.

Now I feel Liverpool is my English club, the way Atletico is my Spanish club. I would not like to play for another English or Spanish club. This feeling is very important to me.

In October 2009, Torres told The Guardian (emphases added):

One of the reasons I chose to come to Liverpool was because of the mentality of the club. It’s a working club and a working city. I don’t know why but I feel like one of the people here.

It is so important for me to get my first club medal with Liverpool

When asked in a November 2009 interview with The Telegraph whether he was at Anfield to stay, Torres replied: “Who knows. But for the next four years, yeah. Deffo.

For the avoidance of doubt, on 9 January 2011, Torres stated (emphasis added):

More than ever, we need to stick together. We must live in the present, from match to match.

We need to add more points, win matches and improve our standing in the table. That is our challenge and I demand the total help of our supporters in doing that.

My head is in Liverpool and on helping save our season. I am professional and I always fulfil my deals. I haven’t considered leaving, although in football that depends on the club.

These comments are entirely inconsistent with his submission of a transfer request less than three weeks later.

My first moral proposition is a simple one — if you want to leave, fine, but at least be honest enough to admit it and, if you can’t do that, at least have the decency to not say that you want to stay. In short, please don’t lie.

My second moral criticism relates to the timing of Torres’s transfer request. Instead of submitting his transfer request last summer, early this January transfer window or early next summer, Torres chose to submit his transfer request a matter of days before this transfer window closes. I am assuming that he is an intelligent young man. Therefore, he would be aware that by submitting his request at the last minute, he is depressing his own transfer value (and inflating his own wages) and denying the club full compensation and the reasonable opportunity to find a replacement.

The last minute nature of his transfer request means that there is only one bidder — Chelsea. If he’d submitted his transfer request last summer, early this January transfer window or early next summer, there would be multiple bidders — Manchester City, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Inter Milan at the very least. It doesn’t take a PhD in economics from MIT to work out that:

  • multiple bidders = higher sale price; and
  • lower transfer price = more money for a player’s wages.

Finally, Senor Torres should keep in mind that, unlike Chelsea, Liverpool is a club with a rich history and deep support, not only in England but all around the world in places like South Africa, Singapore, Australia, Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. I would advise Senor Torres against taking any extended trips to any of these destinations in the near future. Indeed, Spain, west London and the Tverskaya region of Moscow might be about the only places where he’ll be welcome for the foreseeable future.

My two cents is that if Ronaldo is worth £80 million and Ibrahimovic €69 million (plus Samuel Eto’o), then £35 million for Torres is laughable. Liverpool should hold out for at least £60 million, even if that means having to wait till the summer to sell him. In the meantime, it’d be in his own interests to play well to make himself a desirable acquisition for suitors. And if he doesn’t play well, benching him for a couple of months is unlikely to significantly adversely affect his transfer value given his achievements over the past three to four years.

Now that Torres has unequivocally stated in writing that he doesn’t want to stay, no efforts should be wasted on trying to convince him to stay long-term. However, the club must ensure that it gets, at minimum, fair market value for a striker who is still just 26 years of age (that is, younger than Ibrahimovic at the time of his €69 million transfer from Inter to Barcelona) and, unlike Ibrahimovic, boasts European Championship and World Cup winners’ medals and an exceptional Champions League goal scoring record.

If Torres wants to cynically treat Liverpool Football Club like a means to an end, then he will be treated like what he truly is — an economic asset owned by the club which will not be disposed of unless its sale price has been maximised in a public auction. Senor Torres should not easily forget that he works in the land which gave birth to the modern liberal market economy and now that he has shown his true colours, his departure should be treated dispassionately and rationally for what it is — the disposal of a valuable economic asset by its legal owner.