Thursday, March 12, 2015

Upward and Onward: Scott on Liverpool's Run of Form

photo by extranoisevia PhotoRee

Absence is said to make the heart grow fonder and my brief absence from posting to this prestigious blog has found me smitten with how Liverpool are playing, that Blackburn black eye notwithstanding. Brendan Rodgers tinkered with formations and lineups to help the Reds emerge from their late 2014 downward spiral and now sees his charges conceding fewer goals, scoring more and, most importantly, winning. No losses so far in 2015 and, aside from the aforementioned FA Cup debacle at Anfield, they have played some of the best soccer in the EPL of late. Exhibit A was their comprehensive victory over a Manchester City side that was beginning to hit full stride with a healthy Sergio Aguero. One can only hope that Blackburn was a hiccup and this improving run of form can carry them to a Top Four finish.

Still, there are issues to resolve. For one, how does Rodgers rotate and rest players like Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling, especially with the injury bug ravaging several key players like Steven Gerrard and Lucas Leiva? Getting bounced from the Europa League, after the sting passes, should actually be helpful to the long-term financial fitness of the club as fewer games and less travel bodes well for a strong finish and a coveted UCL place, with its monetary benefits.

In the meantime, the return of Daniel Sturridge, while undeniably giving the team a boost, has presented Rodgers with a new puzzle to solve - how to fit last year's 20 goal scorer back into the squad without upsetting the equilibrium so recently restored. Statistics have been put forth illustrating that Sturridge does best with a strike partner up top but the formation that righted the ship plays with only one. Decisions, decisions...

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Shaping Up

More to the point, it's been a while since Ed has written anything
It’s been a while since I’ve written on Spurs, and a lot has happened.  First and foremost, Harry Kane put us past Arsenal with two magnificent goals.  Kane continues to play at a high level and pundits are wondering if this run is real or if he’s doomed to return to the norm or something below that.  We shall see.  Regardless, he seems to look like he knows how to play even if he’s not scoring, and Kane and Eriksen have become a terrific punch for Spurs.

The following week despite some good play int he first half, Spurs lost on a Mario Balotelli goal in the final minutes.  What are the odds of that happening?  Well, prior to his snatching the penalty kick ball out of the hands of his captain this week, Balotelli had about one goal for Liverpool, so I’d say the odds were pretty low.  But to be fair, this shot was really just a tap in for Super Mario, so it would have been hard to mess it up.  But what I liked most about this game was that Spurs seemed extremely annoyed and frustrated at the end of the game — as if they felt they should’ve won the game.  I can’t recall seeing a Spurs team react like that to a loss against a big Club.  Interesting, and I think a good sign.  (On an unrelated note, I’m still not sure why Brendan Rodgers thought bringing this guy in was a good idea; clearly a desperate move by a desperate manager.  But while Rodgers has Liverpool playing well with the return of Daniel Sturridge, it seems that the number of players he brought in that didn’t work out seems a luxury that only could be afforded the bigger clubs.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Stoking a Blazing Hearth: Scott on Liverpool

Scott is admiring Liverpool's form of late:

With that nail-biter of a victory over Spurs on Tuesday, I'm ready to say that Liverpool are firmly back on track and the team is starting to gel and acclimate to this season's formation and personnel changes. Yes, it all started happening far too late for a shot at the title (which was probably never a real possibility anyway) but a top 4 finish and another go in the Champions League is well within reach, present form continuing.

That Tuesday's victory was achieved without the services of Raheem Sterling is another plus. And that super-sub Mario Balotelli provided the tap-in winner is the icing on the cake, post-goal scowl notwithstanding.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Stevie G is Tired: Ruminations on the FA and League Cups

photo by twobvia PhotoRee

...from Correspondent Ed:

The League Cup and the FA Cup have taught us some lessons.  First, the difference between the top tier of English football and the middle tiers isn't that much.  Part of this is the higher level of play in the lower leagues than in the past.  Part is also that the premier league teams just aren't that good.  And of course there's that difference between teams that want it more and teams that don't. It's amazing how far hustling will get you.
But again, let's not diminish the abilities of some of these lower level teams.  Bradford City at times looked phenomenal against Chelsea-- consider their last goal, patience in a tight spot, a terrific run, and clean finish.  And so did Middlesbrough.  Dare we also say Cambridge?  Well maybe not, but they did seem to reveal the overall weakness of the fourth place team in the league.
And what if that pesky Liverpool team? Well, they looked pretty good at times against Chelsea in the league cup, even for a team without a striker.  Had that team included Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, would it have even been close?
And what of MLS bound Stevie G.?  Did he look old?  Did he look slow?  Well, in my opinion he looked the smartest man on the pitch, making great passes and runs out of an unfamiliar right forward position.  On defense, he effectively closed down Nemanja Matic on several occasions.  Consider also Steven Gerrard's replacement at the holding position, Lucas Leiva.  Lucas was certainly all over the field but his reckless tackles gave him one yellow and could easily have had him tossed out with a second yellow at least three times thereafter.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

And Now for Something Even More Boring-er

photo by Petteri Sulonenvia PhotoRee

In which Correspondent Ed questions whether Red Devils' bossman Louis Van Gaal knows what he is doing:

What happened to Manchester United?  My son can still watch them but I sure can’t.  How did a team with Wayne Rooney, Robin Van Persie, Radamel Falcao, and Juan Mata become so ugly?  The best part of any United game these days is watching David De Gea save them from losing to teams like, say, QPR, by launching himself all over the pitch.  No really, that IS fun.

So is Louis Van Gaal the problem?   Is his system so inflexible that it’s taking the joy out of United even though it’s resulting in wins?

According to the press, LVG has commented (or at least tried to comment — someone needs to send him a Rosetta Stone asap) that the team scores more from a 4-4-2 than his chosen 3-5-2, but that the team also doesn’t set up well in the former.  I think he means that the defense isn’t too good, and that they don’t have a good enough midfield.  I could have told him that before they dropped a ton of jingle on that loan deal for Falcao.  But I also think that the 3-5-2 doesn’t help on either side of the ball.  Is that okay to say?  I mean, this isn’t David Moyes we are talking about.  LVG may just be beyond criticism.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Stamford Bridge is Falling Down?

photo by Free-ersvia PhotoRee

Correspondent Scott may not be so happy by this time next week:

Liverpool thoroughly outplayed Chelsea in the first leg of the Capital One Cup semi-final leg at Anfield.  Unfortunately, of their 19 shots (6 on target), they only converted one, largely due to the heroic efforts of Thibault Courtois.  Meanwhile, a lackluster Chelsea squad managed only two shots with only one of those on target.  Yet, theirs being a penalty, the final score ended even and sets the stage for a must-score situation for the Reds in the return fixture.  Scotland Yard needs to investigate this most outrageous of stolen victories.
I can happily write that reports of Liverpool’s demise this season were premature.  They may not consistently keep this form through the end of the season but they are winning games and dominating top competition.  With a more settled back three of Can, Skrtl and Sakho, a re-found Lucas, the surging Moreno and Markovic, the sparingly used Gerrard, the workhorse Henderson, the shifty Coutinho and the speedy Sterling, Liverpool gave the visiting Blues much more than they could handle.  They attacked, they pressed and they eventually starting picking the locks on Chelsea’s defense.  Were it not for an unfortunate error by Emre Can who then overcommitted and bundled Eden Hazard, it would be the Reds now in pole position.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Kandy Kaned, Glovers and Stevie G.

Ed is still in the holiday mood:
Spurs are usually a team on decline in the festive season.  Too many games for too thin a squad.  But not this year.  After a scoreless draw against Manchester United (we’ll take it against that payroll), Harry Kane went big and busted up Chelsea for Spurs best win in the BPL perhaps . . . ever?

The emergence of Kane has dramatically changed Spurs.  With 17 goals in about as many games in all competitions, Spurs seem finally to have found their striker.  His emergence from the Spurs own academy makes it even sweeter.  One might be tempted to say that the team is finally catching on to Mauricio Pochettino’s direction — and I’d say there is something to that — but correlation is not equal to causation and it still remains difficult to tell.  Recall that the same was said of Brendan Rodgers brilliance when he had Suarez and Sturridge, but now that they’re gone the press would say he can’t get anything right.

Kane is not merely scoring, but he’s playing the target man especially welll, and he’s also taking the space aggressively with the dribble like few strikers I’ve seen in the league.  Kane isn’t that fast, but he’s fast enough and clever enough to use leverage and positioning to keep him in front of defenders.  He’s a pleasure to watch operate and will most certainly be called up for England in the future.

*    *    *

I should note my sorrow at the loss of the Yeovil Town Glovers at the hands of a somewhat fortunate Manchester United.  The Glovers gave 110%, and for most if not all of the match made me wonder why players like Rooney and Falcao were paid so much more than some of the players on the mid-third division team.

The FA Cup is a great competition, but at no time is it greater than the third round when premier league clubs have to play at tiny grounds throughout the country.  It’s simply a pleasure to see top tier players go against what appear to be true club teams on un-pampered (and sometimes awful) grounds.  There’s simply nothing more fun than watching Eden Hazard kick a ball into a tree behind the goal, or Steven Gerrard put one into a busy road next to the pitch.

*    *    *

Wait, did I mention Stevie G?  His departure from Liverpool will, I suspect, mark the

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Liverpool's Luck, Stevie G's Decision, And a Truly Tragic Departure

photo by Ben Sutherlandvia PhotoRee

Scott with his weekly musings:

Where to begin?  Well, I suppose I could start with the shocking news that Liverpool's luck lasted all of another 45 minutes after the Swansea game.  An unearned penalty and then an earned one, both converted by Stevie G., dictated the 2-0 scoreline at halftime.  But then the Reds conspired against themselves as they continued to play half-assed at best, allowing the last place team in the league look like the better side.  After conceding in rapid succession, they did manage a foray or two forward, but even then they managed to thwart themselves, literally shooting into each other on two separate occasions.  With several other teams dropping points, being two goals up at halftime seemed like a great way to start the new year.  But instead of being only 5 points out of 4th place, Liverpool now sit 7 points out and Champions League football next year, while still possible, seems to be fading away.  Can this all change so quickly with the return of Daniel Sturridge?  We'll know the answer to that as well as find out how the Englishman can handle pressure, hopefully within weeks.  I still have my rose colored glasses on but one lens is definitely cracked.

Just a few hours ago I had to deliver the news of Stevie G's season-end departure to my children.  Never knowing a Liverpool side without the Legend, they are still unable to comprehend a future without him.  But after I allayed their fears of a transfer to another EPL team, I was able to offer hope in the form of the conventional wisdom that says Gerrard will end up in MLS.  Not having a South Florida team, nor any tremendous pull to the league until now, they are now excited about being able to cheer an American club at some point.

As I have written before, Gerrard's influence in games has been waning and the consistent quality has not been there.  Some will point to his flashes of brilliance or his willingness to play out of position.  But, for me, with where this team is headed, it was always going to be a struggle to fit Gerrard in.  Maybe it was a coincidence that we played so well against Swansea without him and so poorly against Leicester with him.  But at the very least it is a talking point about how accommodations must be made to insert him in the lineup now.  He is still a tremendously talented player with physical attributes to spare and, of course, Brendan could make it work by limiting his games and his role so that those flashes of brilliance are the norm instead of infrequent sightings during a 90 minute shift.  But aging gracefully has never been the forte of the best of competitors.  And given that Gerrard is one of the best there has ever been, I salute his decision to move on rather than cling on. You'll Never Walk Alone, Stevie G!

Thursday, January 1, 2015

You Make Your Own Luck

Scott's rose-tinged spectacles are fully polished up for this entry:

With 2014 behind Liverpool, a brighter 2015 awaits. Glimpses of the quality football to come have been seen over the past 4 games against Manchester United (I'm still scratching my head over that loss), Bournemouth (a deserved Capital One Cup victory), Burnley (a scrappy win over an under-valued club) and Swansea (with more than just a bit of luck).

Yes, there is still quite a way to go and the champagne I crack tonight will be solely to ring in the new year and not to toast Liverpool's completed turnaround. But with several players beginning to click and Brendan Rodgers finally finding a formation that seems to best utilize the talent available, it may not be long before another bottle is uncorked.

As ridiculous as it seems, in addition to the 2 quality goals against Swansea, the two lucky ones also boost my hopes. We all know that the best teams get "lucky" more than others and, in my estimation, shared by many, that luck is the product of a self-belief and confidence that manifests itself in the fortuitous block of a goalie's clearance or a generous own-goal. The best teams just KNOW they are going to win and play hard expecting that result, completing that self-fulfilling prophesy when that same expectant effort shakes a goal loose from the opposition. For too long this season, Liverpool have been playing scared, waiting for the other shoe to drop in the form of another crossbar rattled on one side before a mistake on the other leads to a depressingly familiar billowing of net. But at Anfield recently the roles were reversed and may it be a sign of things to come.

Helping, the “luck” along are several players who seem to be getting traction in the side as they gel with their teammates.  Adam Lallana was a revelation against Swansea and is beginning to look like the confident, dangerous player that pillaged so many defenses for the Saints.  His vision, control, work-rate and finishing (OK, maybe not the left footer he skied over the crossbar) were excellent.  Add to that the on-again off-again Philippe Coutinho, who flipped the on switch again, and you have a dangerously offensive midfield.  The Brazilian’s mazy runs repeatedly put defenders on their heels as he breaks forward to shoot or distribute.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

I Know What You're Thinking (about United, Spurs and Liverpool)

Ed weighs in on some football and a fantasy trip to the Hawaiian Islands:

I've decided to take a brief time out from my recent Magnum PI immersion and give you, my many fans, a few tired thoughts from the weekend's action.
First, United under Van Gaal is starting to look more like United did under Alex Ferguson -- more the red ferrari than the blue Vauxhall wagon of Moyes's tenure.  They're winning when they really shouldn't be, and scoring when the other team seems to have more chances.  Part of that always seemed to be luck when Ferguson did it, but interestingly it looks the same for Van Gaal.  In addition, Van Gaal seems hell bent to prove that you can be totally weird and yet still beloved by fans and players alike so long as you are winning.  As I write this, I remain unclear as to why he likes to do his homework during games, and why sometimes it appears that he needs to be nudged and awoken to the fact that his team has just scored.  His post game interviews?  Not really English.  Kind of.  Maybe a little.  But not really.  And finally, the flat face, the kooky hair style -- really?  
Second, Spurs fans love affair with Harry Kane is getting as strong as Higgy-baby's love affair with the Lads.  Alongside a forgettable Roberto Soldado, Kane scored yet again and did a terrific job as target man as well.  As for another Spurs' Academy product, Ryan Mason, I'm still unclear why he's starting.  He's certainly feisty and decent with the ball, but Dembele showed he is dramatically better both offensively and defensively.  I suspect Moussa will be included in the starting lineup more frequently in the weeks to come.