Liverpool’s summer change of direction

September 15, 2011
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Although it’s a cliché that I have very rarely actually seen myself, much like Newcastle fans and their fabled sense of entitlement and countless other footballing clichés (seriously, someone should actually look into how many of these go beyond what Sky like to present to us), at the start of the summer I was part of that group of Liverpool fans who thought the club could finish the 2011/12 season atop the Premier League table.

It’s not that Liverpool should be considered favourites. It’s just that the 6th place finish of last season suggested a gap larger than what may exist this season – a title challenge was a realistic possibility.

Truthfully, the big two of Spain aside, I don’t think any club around is particularly special at the moment. Manchester United had obvious deficiencies is midfield only worsened over the summer by the retirement of Paul Scholes, their neighbours City were still a somewhat unknown quantity with Roberto Mancini focussing on considered but patient development rather than mindless splurging, as were Chelsea newly under Andre Villas-Boas, Arsenal had yet again collapsed at the end of last season and Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri looked (rightly) on their way out, leaving them seemingly facing another year of disappointment, while Tottenham seemed like challengers for a Champions League spot but not realistically for the title.

While Liverpool had been awful under the stewardship of a certain face-rubbing Englishman, the return of Kenny Dalglish had seen an upturn in form that meant only Chelsea got more points than Liverpool since his appointment, employing the same sort of intelligent passing game that had seen Liverpool, and more recently Barcelona, dominate Europe for years. With everyone else either looking weak or at least mixed, the possibility of the league title returning to Anfield didn’t seem out of the question.

Now I’m not so convinced.

As mentioned above, Dalglish had improved Liverpool by encouraging an intelligent passing game. The same style that Rafa Benitez had built his squad around, the majority of whom still remained on Merseyside, the traditional style that Liverpool based their success upon, and crucially the style that Barcelona have proven to be still very relevant today. However, his business over the summer suggests he’s trying to move to a more individual-based game.

At the start of the window, I said I would have been happy with a new left-back and possibly a new versatile attacker if possible. Other than that, I was happy with the squad – only the deadwood like Paul Konchesky and Joe Cole needed shifting, and that was more to do with off-pitch issues seeing as they were unlikely to see much playing time. I was even happy for neither of the new players to come in if Steve Clarke could sort out Emiliano Insua’s positional issues. Regardless, both of the players I wanted came in in the form of Jose Enrique and Craig Bellamy – Enrique wasn’t the most exciting of signings (although how many left-backs are?), but was exactly the sort of player needed: a solid, pacy defender who was good going forward, while I was more suspicious of Bellamy’s transfer: a possibly great addition providing he doesn’t act too stupidly off-pitch.

It wasn’t something I explicitly saw the need for but the swapping of Sotirios Kyrgiakos for Sebastian Coates pleased me. Kyrgiakos was a decent back-up albeit very limited and slow, so the club did well to move him on respectfully, while Coates looks potentially great. The 6ft 6 Uruguayan showed enough defensive ability to earn the award for being the best young player at the 2011 Copa America, which we at Holding Midfield agreed with, as well as looking decent with the ball. Uruguay’s deep defence makes it hard to judge how quick he is, but he seemed fairly mobile for his size, so hopefully Liverpool’s high line won’t be a problem for him.

So far so good, but there were of course four players signed before this, as well as a host of outgoings. First to come in was Jordan Henderson, like Enrique another fairly unexciting signing despite his pricetag, but one I endorsed. As I saw it we didn’t need any more centre midfielders, but Henderson has great potential and his ability to also play out wide seemed to fit with the lop-sided 4-4-2 Dalglish appeared to be going back to. So long as he was eased into the side and not at the expense of better players, I was happy to have him on board.

Next to join was Charlie Adam. At £7m, he seemed a useful squad player, yet he wasn’t bought as a squad player. Capable of long “Hollywood” passes, he had made a habit of using them when inappropriate. Some of that could be to do with the fact he was playing for Blackpool and the emphasis was on him to make things happen, but Ian Holloway threatening to drop him if he didn’t stop suggests otherwise. He also didn’t strike me as particularly good defensively. Not a bad player, but only his set-piece delivery would suggest he’s good enough to be starting for Liverpool, and he’s not playing American football where he can just trot on for kicking duties.

Third came Doni, a bit of an irrelevance really. I’m a fan, but he’s never going to get ahead of Pepe Reina, so he’s just a bit of an upgrade on Brad Jones as back-up. The next significant transfer was Stewart Downing, a conservative, unspectacular yet ultimately quite effective winger. Many gushed over his statistics and the idea of his crosses meeting Andy Carroll’s head, but, while I thought he would do well, I thought we could have done better.

Up until here, I was still okay with how the transfers had gone. I was disappointed to see Insua and Milan Jovanovic leave as they were treated harshly, never given a second chance to show what they could do after doing unenviable jobs in tough conditions, but their departures were bearable – along with David N’gog’s, who had done a decent job but wasn’t realistically going to get in the team now, it was good to give him a chance at first team football elsewhere – unlike the loaning of Alberto Aquilani and transfer of Raul Meireles.

In Aquilani and Meireles was an intelligent and somewhat complete midfield pairing. In a 4-3-3 with Lucas Leiva propping them up, the pair could lead Liverpool into a beautiful, passing game, manipulating space to dominate the opposition. With the likes of the equally intelligent Luis Suarez, Maxi Rodriguez and Dirk Kuyt in front of them, the team could have been brilliantly fluid. What’s more, although Aquilani has been accused of being lightweight and Meireles of shirking tackles, the pair are better defensively than the many of Liverpool’s remaining midfielders. The departure of Aquilani appears to be out of Liverpool’s control, his other half preferring a return to Italy, but Meireles seems to have been pushed. From having two midfielders with the creativity and brain to unlock defences, they are now left with only really Suarez capable of doing this.

My dream of the beautifully fluid 4-3-3 full of intelligent players, all capable of defending and attacking seems to have been exchanged for a more individual-based game. The first example of this was the acquisition of Andy Carroll in January. A classic target man, Carroll has come in for a lot of criticism for his time at Liverpool so far, but when given the chance to be fluid component of a side, such as against Man City, he has done well – the problem is that he’s often been misused by his teammates. Still, Carroll’s main purpose seems to be as a Plan B.

With one of the best headers of the league up front, Downing’s arrival suggested Dalglish wanted someone to supply Big Andy with crosses. Adam’s long balls generally went diagonally, so the logical assumption was that Lucas was meant to do the defensive legwork for the Scotsman, give it to him to hit wide for Downing, who would whip in a cross for Carroll. There’s nothing wrong with this gameplan, but if one of the components stops working, either through injury or loss of form, the system falls down. If Lucas gets injured, Adam’s defensive frailties get exposed; if Adam gets removed, it’s more difficult to get the ball to Downing; if Downing is removed, Carroll receives less crosses.

The Downing problem has caused Carroll some problems already this season. Although he’s played well, Downing has often look to move inside rather than stay wide and hit crosses for Carroll, leaving Carroll without his desired supply. If this movement was the plan for Downing all along, you have to question why he was bought instead of a better pass-and-move player.

Regardless, Adam’s been decidedly hit-and-miss so far, appearing somewhat of a liability defensively, giving Lucas a huge workload, and frequently giving the ball away needlessly in possession. Elsewhere, while he may develop into a good intelligent player, Jordan Henderson has been completely anonymous so far, and it looks as if more substitute appearances would be more effective in blooding him into the side.

It’s been a decent start to the season for Liverpool, but if something happens to Lucas the defence could easily collapse and against Stoke they already looked as if they were missing Meireles’ ability to find pockets of space.

All in all, it’s been a strange summer for Liverpool fans, although admittedly the majority seem happy with the dealings. Manchester United have developed a style that depends more on their attacking quartet making their shortfall in midfield less of an issue, while City have seemingly kicked up a notch away from the unknown quantity of Chelsea, while Arsenal and Tottenham have been distinctly unimpressive. So far, although still very early days, it looks as if Liverpool will do well this season, and more than likely finish in the Champions League places, but I can’t help but feel it could have been better.

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3 Responses to Liverpool’s summer change of direction

  1. fourfourwho on September 16, 2011 at 4:53 am

    Love the blog, read it often, just going to argue against a couple of points, as I for some reason have the urge to write a lengthy response.
    1. Henderson ultimately is an upgrade from Meireles.
    2. The 4-3-3 is hard to implement; only Barca have perfected it. English clubs generally play the compromise between the historic 4-4-2 and the 4-3-3 — the 4-2-3-1 (Pep Segura). English clubs don’t have the same technical skill and intelligence as Spanish teams (esp. Barca), and therefore this is the best we can do right now.
    3. Aquilani, while a good player in his own right, was phased out by the summer transfers who were, again, more universal than he was.

    1. Henderson is an upgrade from Meireles for a couple of reasons. First is chance creation- he had a much better chance-creation ratio than Meireles. Meireles’ signature playing style was based on positional awareness, work-rate, and fluidity/moving the ball around on the ground. Henderson’s positioning could be better (he can work on it, he’s only 21), his has energy on the field and exuberance (perhaps too much, his touches can be heavy with excitement, see youtube video of him vs Hull preseason at around 55sec, and so on), and has excellent ball retention and therefore can move the ball around as well. He matches Meireles on 2 points, but the selling point is that he is young and hungry, as well as more universal than Meireles. He can play on the right wing and deliver some great crosses. He can operate in the center and in hole. Meireles gets a big reputation for being able to play in the hole, but the truth is he isn’t very creative with the ball, and has too many gray-areas in terms of best position (both backed-up by ZonalMarking). He definitely cannot play out wide, so Henderson is better in that sense. He isn’t as good as Lucas for holding midfield, and there are people better in-the-hole, namely Stevie G, Aquilani, and now, Henderson, and maybe Downing. His role was to provide the energy and intelligence for the box-to-box role, but even this role is filled by Henderson, and maybe Adam.
    2. 4-3-3 would be nice, but we should not copy the Spanish sides, mainly Barca (Pep Segura lecture/interview in Spain). English clubs have their own identities and qualities, mainly energy and pace. That kind of system demands that kids be doused and baptized from when they are 6 years old; the LFC pass and move is more than adequate anyway, while less intelligent, which is debatable. The lop-sided 4-4-2 you pointed out under Dalglish can also be viewed as a 4-2-3-1, which depends on the average positioning of the right midfielder.
    3. Aquilani suffered the same problems as Meireles- we had players that could operate in-the-hole, which is his best position. As Comolli said in the recent LFC.tv interview: “But Kenny and the coaching staff felt he would play in a certain position. As I told Alberto during the summer, unfortunately in that position is someone called Steven Gerrard and it would have been difficult for Alberto to play. There were different reasons. There were tactical reasons…” Stevie is at his best in-the-hole, Henderson, Downing, maybe Suarez, and even Shelvey could fit that position. And it was mainly the only position Aquilani could play. It was down to his mentality as well, which he obviously wanted to head back home to Italy. No loss there, in my opinion. Sure, he may have had the best assists/goal ratio for the times he played in the EPL, but most likely wouldn’t have created as many chances as Henderson and Downing.

    Not sure about Adam, I agree with you in that he’s an unknown quality. He plays less long-balls at Liverpool, but he will probably always be written off as a poor-man’s Xabi Alonso. His tackling is atrocious, and he can’t control the pace of the game as well as Xabi.

    Not disappointed by the transfers at all this summer. Every player bought fills the glaring gaps in the squad.

    Anyway, it would be cool if you responded, though I understand if you don’t, it’s quite lengthy… anyway, keep up the good work on this site.

    • Joshua Askew on September 16, 2011 at 4:05 pm

      Going to answer point two first as it partially answers my reply to one:

      2)I don’t think there’s a great deal of difference between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3, especially given one of the doble pivote generally plays higher than the other. Often under Benitez, Mascherano would push on and Gerrard would come deeper looking for the ball to make it more of a 4-3-3 with Alonso sitting. Plus Chelsea have done well using it in English football, I don’t think you need to . The only real problem I see with the framework is that the full-backs receive less protection, although that issue is sort of covered here: http://www.holdingmidfield.com/?p=69
      Even the Dalglish 4-4-2 could be considered a 4-3-3 when you consider Kuyt/Suarez regularly look to pull wide.

      1) I think Henderson could be an upgrade on Meireles in the future, but he’s not close at the moment. I don’t think the chance creation stats are overly convincing: Meireles was part of an awful Hodgson side then a fluid Dalglish side where chance creation was spread between several players, whereas Henderson’s crossing was a major feature of how Sunderland got the ball to Gyan and Bent. As I reckon the 4-3-3 would work, it’s that box-to-box role that he’d fit into – I don’t think Henderson’s capable of outdoing Meireles there yet and Adam never will be. On his influence in the hole: he’s not overly creative with the ball, but his ability to find little pockets of space was invaluable, and his simplicity with the ball wouldn’t be an issue in a deeper role, it took the introduction of him + Suarez for us to get a goal against Arsenal and we missed this sort of ability against Stoke.

      3)Completely disagree on Aquilani. I think his best role would have been either box-to-box or deeper, where he could have linked play far better than Adam has done so far. There was obviously off-field issues to take into consideration with him though.

      Although I disagree, thanks for the comment. Was an interesting read.

  2. Dav on September 19, 2011 at 12:11 am

    When Rafa was in charge was it a case of “right manager, wrong owners”, Hodgson, “wrong manager, wrong owners and now ???????? Is it “wrong manger, right owners”. Now I wait for the MASS CRITICISM, how dare I possibly label king Kenny the wrong man. BUT, is a team comprising of British players a good thing.

    British players = poor lame technical ability.
    British players = poor lame tactical play.

    Regardless of defeat at Stoke and Spurs Liverpool have spent a hell of a lot of money and apparently the squad is the best we have had for years. Is the starting lineup really that good? Compared to:
    Reina
    Carragher
    Hyypia
    Arbeloa
    Aurelio
    Mascherano
    Alonso
    Gerrard
    Riera
    Benayoun
    Torres

    Is the current team technically or tactically as good as the one listed above?
    (yes there are players from current team that would walk in to Rafa’s team, but not Henderson, Downing, Adam and Carrol)

    Downing vs Sunderland on opening day runs with the ball 50-60 yds, cutting in from the right, he does this UNOPPOSED, he does this in acres of space, and then with plenty of time to pick a spot in the goal, instead he venomously smacks the ball with true British passion against the cross, GO ON, GET IN THERE! Passion, desire, yeah, Liverpool are back, they have a winger, yeah passion, England, yeah, go on.

    Henderson vs Bolton, finishes his goal well, and plays some good passes throughout the game. Get in, yeah this guy is the real new gerrard, (hope not coz Stevie is up there with the most overrated sportsmen in history).

    Adam v Bolton, 60yrd diagonal passes, back spin passes, scores with his weaker foot, switches the play, etc… etc… etc… get in, passion, desire, yeah, Liverpool are back

    “If you give any player 5yds of space, they will look world class” Johan Cruyff

    January 2011. Liverpool sell Fernando Torres to Chelsea for £50 million and sign Luis Suarez and Andy Caroll. Money spent for the two, £58 million or something. Apparently Liverpool is now better off with 2 strikers rather than 1 superstar.

    Since: Luis Suarez’s movement, dribbling, turning back to goal, physical strength, ability to win fk’s and assisting goals for others = BRILLIANT. Can he finish like Torres = NO!

    Andy Carrol, well the less said the better, or “that was money well spent!”

    Is Liverpool’s strike-force better-off?

    Liverpool have spent a lot of money on players, British players, players who come from countries that have MAJOR issues with their grassroots coaching, a grassroots level that has failed to produce a world class player and world class players for how long?.

    Early days I suppose. A couple of wins and its all ok.

    But if were honest, the Rafa team was built on wheeling and dealing because of the lack of funds and it could dominate possession, counter attack, strike fear in every European team during a champions league draw and defend 1-0 lead for a week. It didn’t win the league, yes but imagine if Rafael Benitez had the funds of Kenny Daglish, Alex Ferguson, Roberto Mancini, Luis Enrique (Roma), Jose Mourinho (Chelsea, Inter, Real (Kaka on the bench), Antoine Kombouare (PSG), Bayern Munich and etc…. you get the point.

    If Liverpool challenge for the title this year, then what I think is clearly wrong.

    If Liverpool get into top 4 then again im wrong.

    Despite losing Francesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri Arsenal are now an incompetent football team. Vermaelen, Mertersacker, Andre Santos, Arteta, Arshavin, Van Persie, Chamakh, Rosicky, Ramsey & Wilshere (currently the only 2 technical British players). This team looks on paper technically very gifted, but like the current Liverpool team, weak when they don’t have the ball. But Liverpool supposedly will do better because they have a stronger squad, and they have British players, YEAH GET IN! forget nous, A British nucleas is all you need because then you have PASSION, COMMITMENT, DESIRE! forget nous.

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