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Fast Track Bullies: Young Managers Stumble

Where have Merseyside's managers gone wrong?

Where have Merseyside’s managers gone wrong?

Just over six months ago, on the evening of April 20th, Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool FC had just finished beating a soon-to-be relegated Norwich City, 2-3, in their typical manner that season: scoring more goals than they let in.

“It’s 96 goals we’re on,” said Rodgers in the post-match interview, “and our idea is to get to 100-plus for the season. That would be an incredible effort by this team. You know when I came in here 20 months ago, we scored 47 goals so it shows their attacking mentality and their organization within the game.”

The Reds were sitting top of the league, and had been for the past month. In fact, they had remained in the top two since March 1st. The Norwich win was their 11th league win in a row.

Back on Merseyside, Everton had just ended David Moyes’ Manchester United career by beating their old gaffer’s side 2-0 at Goodison Park.  Roberto Martinez had taken the Toffees to within a point of Arsenal and the elusive fourth Champions League spot.

But the next weekend was the beginning of a decline that would reverberate into the present season.   Liverpool lost THAT match to Chelsea, after Steven Gerrard’s now infamous error (something the rest of the league will never let him forget), and the Reds’ title challenge was over.   Meanwhile, Everton would lose at St. Mary’s and then to the eventual champions, Manchester City, compounding their cross-park rivals woes and dropping out of Champions League contention for good.

LFC has yet to recover from Chelsea loss

LFC has yet to recover from Chelsea loss

Fast forward to this past weekend: Liverpool have lost the same match, albeit by a smaller margin.  It was their third league match without a win, and they have only won one game in their last six.   Everton, meanwhile, squeaked a point against Sunderland after converting a penalty.  Everton and Liverpool sit 10th and 11th in the table, respectively, with all the mediocrity of any other mid-table club looming over both outfits.

What has become of the reputations of two of Europe’s most lauded young coaches? Last season, the media fawned over the two Merseyside managers as men who could handle their rapid rise to take charge of the two big English clubs.  But now those reputations, and the idea that one can move quickly with new ideas, is on the ropes.  What has happened?

Much ink has been spilled over the departure of Luis Suárez from LFC to Barcelona, and the repeated injuries to Daniel Sturridge, who has not played for Liverpool since the end of August.  The subtraction of 55 goals has not been replaced in any way, shape or form.  The club has spent £120 million to bring in nine players.  Their goal total so far? Six… and three of those were scored by defensive players (Alberto Moreno, Emre Can and Dejan Lovren).   Only one striker has scored a goal in the league, and that is the injured Sturridge.    It is shocking for a club of Liverpool’s size and reputation.  It is more than shocking: it is a disgrace.

Last season, the Reds scored a massive 101 goals in the league, which meant that it wasn’t just Suárez and Sturridge putting the ball in the back of the net.  Steven Gerrard — supposedly a deep-lying midfielder — contributed 13 of his own.  The emerging Raheem Sterling — so publicly embarrassed by Rodgers in a television documentary series the season before — scored nine; even Martin Skrtel scored seven of his own. (Bizarrely, the sixth-highest scorer on Liverpool was the mysterious player Own Goals).

Liverpool 2013-2014 Final
Goals Scored: 101 — 2nd in the BPL
Goals Conceded: 50 — 8th

Week 11 Cumulative – 2013-2014
Goals Scored:21 — 3rd
Goals Conceded: 10 — 6th

Week 11 Cumulative — 2014-2015
Goals Scored: 14 — 8th
Goals Conceded: 15 — 11th

By this point last season, Liverpool had already scored 21 goals, the league’s third-best offence.  This season they are down to only 14… a drop of 33% and good for only eighth.  The optimist will say those numbers are decent enough until Sturridge returns.  But Rodgers already knew that Suárez wanted out, and that Sturridge was prone to injury.  Yet no one of their calibre was brought in the summer transfer period.

But what is more worrying is the defensive errors that cost them last season’s title have not been addressed.   Liverpool conceded 50 goals by May, finishing eighth defensively.  At this point last season, they had conceded 10 goals, and were sitting sixth.  This season, they have already conceded 15… a 50% increase and making them 11th in the league defensively.  Skrtel’s skittishness at the back — along with his bizarre coverage decisions on set plays — is still there.  Lovren has not been the back-line general that he was at Southampton.  Javi Manquillo and Alberto Moreno have struggled to adjust, with both having lapses in concentration that have led to goals.  Glen Johnson, never the most defensive of fullbacks, has not covered himself in glory since his return from injury.

Liverpool have had trouble keeping the ball out of the net, but not so their derby rivals… at least not last season.   Despite the media portraying Martinez’ Everton as shaking off the stodginess of the Moyes era, the Toffees were still solid at the back.

Everton 2013-2014 Final
Goals Scored: 61 — 6th in the BPL
Goals Conceded: 39 — 3rd

Week 11 Cumulative – 2013-2014
Goals Scored: 14 — 10th
Goals Conceded: 10 — 6th

Week 11 Cumulative — 2014-2015
Goals Scored: 19 — 5th
Goals Conceded: 17 — 15th

However, that has been tossed out the window.  Everton is on pace to score more but they were shipping goals right up to their 3-0 win against Aston Villa.  Since then they have outscored their opponents 6-2, and have recorded two of their three clean sheets.   But they are clinging to the last place in the top half of the table, and have given no indication that they will improve on last season.

You get the sense that both clubs overachieved last season, overreaching in years that should have been transition periods.  For Liverpool — and Brendan Rodgers — the acquisition of Daniel Sturridge in January 2013 seemed to be the final piece of the puzzle, taking just seven minutes to score in his debut in the FA Cup tie against Mansfield Town, and eventually sparked several one-sided wins.  Everyone talks about how Liverpool misses Suárez, but Sturridge was a catalyst for the Uruguayan to go even further.

So with that much talent either leaving or on the sidelines, why didn’t Liverpool a) adequately replenish their strikeforce, and b) shore up their defence?  I imagine the club’s selection committee thought they were doing both of those things, but comments by Rodgers about Balotelli as a last-minute acquisition leads you to believe that the trio was trying to get a little too cute (and cheap?) in the transfer market.  Indeed, a list of Ian Ayre’s dealings since he took over in March 2011 do not read like a who’s who of football: so far, only Sturridge, Jordan Henderson, and Philippe Coutinho have made good… and those last two, not so much this season.  But yet the club has basically brought in a new starting XI and disrupted what was essentially a free-flowing team that had some problems at the back.

The signing of Ross Barkley was supposed to help continuity

The signing of Ross Barkley was supposed to help continuity

The opposite could be said of Martinez’ Everton.  The Spaniard managed to sign contracts with key loan players like Romelu Lukaku and Gareth Barry, and convinced youngsters Ross Barkley and John Stones to stay at the club.  It seemed like Everton would pick up in August where they left off in May.  While the goals have come — including three in seven games from aging superstar Samuel Eto’o — they were pummeled early and often.  The Toffees gave up 2-2 draws to newly-promoted Leicester and then Arsenal, before a 3-6 shellacking against Chelsea.  A 2-3 loss at home to Crystal Palace and a 3-0 loss at Swansea City compounded the image that Martinez was the manager who led Wigan to relegation, instead of the manager who led Wigan to an FA Cup.

Both men are very smart tacticians who love the wonkiness of football’s minutiae.  They are also men raised in the Spanish tradition; Martinez by birth and performance, Rodgers by coaches’ training.   But they are both trying to lay blueprints of systems that are out-of-vogue at the moment (see Spain’s performance at the World Cup), and that have never fully taken hold in the rough-and-tumble Premier League.   It’s no good to try and pass your way forward with possession, when you are being pushed off the ball at every opportunity.   Both teams also like to press high, with the fullbacks over-running the midfielders in front of them (and why wouldn’t you with Everton’s Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines?), the two centrebacks spreading out and the defensive midfielder dropping back to act as a third back, with the keeper playing sweeper.   But yet both teams have been caught out this season, time and time and time again.

Both managers also seem to be struggling with squad rotation, as they try to also compete in Europe.  But where Rodgers seems to have prioritized domestic football — look at the side he put out against Real Madrid last week — Martinez seems to putting a real effort into doing well in the Europa League.  It could be because winning that tournament is an easier route to next season’s Champions League than claiming a place in the Premier League’s top four.

Hubris and a political sense is almost necessary to survive in a league that has become as fickle towards its managers as Serie A.  So don’t expect either manager to vary from their game plans… not until they absolutely have to.  But this is not Swansea City (where both managers experienced success, and who sit several places above both Everton and Liverpool in the table) where expectations are marginally lower.  These are two of the Big Four of the Northwest, clubs whose winning traditions run deep, if not recent.

That means the pair must dig deep, and find ways to turn their fortunes around.  Otherwise both men will be used as examples of promoting too far, too fast… and that could be detrimental to the fortunes of young managers for years to come.

Brent Lanthier

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England’s Unlikely Lads

“Help us, Oxlade-Chamberlain… you’re our only hope!”

For the first time in my living memory, England are not being trumpeted as a possible winner of a major tournament. No sane person, nor any insane ones, has England progressing past the quarter-finals.  In fact, most would consider it an achievement to get out of the group. So is there any way that England can possibly exceed expectations and actually win this thing?

Play like Greece

“Tell me more, tell me more, did they get very far?”

Well, yes they did. They won the whole bloody thing in 2004.

 “How?”

We’re not quite sure. But the Hellenic victory was built on a very solid defensive performance. They scraped through the group stages on goals scored, ahead of Spain. Then they scored a single goal and held on to win 1-0 against France in the quarters.  In the semis, they took the Czech Republic into extra time after a goalless 90 minutes and notched another 1-0 victory. And in the final — you guessed it — 1-0 against Portugal.

 “Er… can England do that?”

Why not, my curious friend? England’s strength is their solid defence.  Combine that with a world class goalkeeper in Joe Hart and tackling fiend Scott Parker protecting the back four, and you may have the Three Lions’ only chance.

“But weren’t Greece just lucky?”

Well yes, in a way.  But Italy have always based their game on a solid defence while nicking the odd goal, and they’ve not done too badly. Chelsea won the Champion’s League by parking the bus against Barcelona and Bayern and then riding their luck. Switzerland defeated Spain in the World Cup with a similar tactic.  So it’s not beyond reason.

Unleash the Ox

“Who is this Ox that you speak of?”

Well the Ox is a symbol of power, strength, resurrection, masculinity, fertility, fatherhood and kingship.  I know that sounds like John Terry describing a night on the town (or a tweet from Joey “I’ve swallowed Wikipedia” Barton), but in this case we are talking about Alexander Mark David Oxlade-Chamberlain.

“Is he any good?”

He has burst onto the scene similar to a young Wayne Rooney 10 years ago (yes, it was 10 years ago!).  He’s 18 years old, as strong as an… well, okay, an ox.  Plus he has electric speed and a cracking shot on him.

“He sounds great! What could go wrong?”

It’s England. We always have a player who will “win it all” for us and it never happens.  From Beckham to Owen to Rooney, we always seem to have somebody that we pin our hopes on. It’s like pinning the tail on the donkey… except that when you open your eyes, the donkeys are on the pitch.

“So how does England get the best out of him?”

It’s tempting to start him and then let him run at defences, scaring them half to death,  but I think in most people’s minds he’ll be an impact substitute. But do English fans really want to rely on the hope that AOC can change the game in the last 20 minutes? With Rooney’s absence in the first two games, it might be worth deploying the young Arsenal player from the start, using his youthful exuberance to give us a chance.  Roy Hodgson can always drag him off and put some other clueless wonder on.  Step forward, Mr. Walcott.

Wayne might be up for it

“Does Krakow have red light districts?”

Haha.. you cheeky scamp. We actually mean that, after a long season, Rooney will miss the first two games due to the red card he received against Macedonia.  After watching the sh!t show that is England stumble around for 180 minutes, Wayne will be chomping at the bit to get involved… and he just may be ready to take it out on the Ukraine and then be raring to go if we get to the knockout stage.

“Haven’t we been here before?”

Yes.  Sadly we have. Whether it’s the swish of red being shown, or a metatarsal snapping like a turkey wishbone, you can bet our hopes will be dashed upon the rocks like an Italian cruise ship. (Ed. Note: ATR takes no responsibility for this insensitive — and frankly, obvious — simile).

I’m holding out for a hero

“Is Bonny Tyler going to sing the half-time entertainment?”

No, but Martin Tyler might sing a ditty or two if we ask nicely.  What we actually mean is that we need someone to step up and grab this tournament by the scruff of the neck and drag us through to the finals.

“But who, good sir? Who can save us?”

Who needs to lead England to victory? This guy…

Good question. It’s about time Captain Hollywood — and by that we mean Stevie G — stepped up and played as well in an England shirt as he has for Liverpool. It’s his last hurrah as his career seems to be on the downward slope… so there it’s now or never. We’ll take a few Roy of the Rover moments.  A 30-yard screamer into the top corner as the Germans sink to the turf will do us just fine.

“Is he our only hope?”

No. Rooney is another player with the ability to put us on his back and crash us through the European defenses.  Maybe even Jordan Hend… what’s that? No! You said I had 30 minutes on the computer. It’s MY turn. I’m not taking those pills. You can’t make me. I don’t want to go to my room. Mother? Not mother? (Sounds of a struggle ensue, as the author’s screams reach a higher pitch.  This is followed by squeals of laughter as the author is tickled into submission.  How bizarre).

Kevin Hoggard is a frequent contributor to At The Rails about his miserable experiences as an England fan.

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Liverpool on the Edge

Kenny welcomes back his prodigal hijo..

Two-thirds into the season, the jury is still out on Liverpool. Has the storied club moved one step closer to its former exalted position? Or does Kenny Dalglish have his team running to stand still while other clubs leapfrog over the fallen giants?

One of the clubs on the rise is Tottenham Hotspur.  “Wheeler-Dealer” ‘Arry Redknapp has built a team that sits in third place, and — along with Manchester City — has displaced long-time Top 4 residents Chelsea and Arsenal.   It is hard not to see them in the group stages of the Champions League come September, but there are no guarantees.  Meanwhile, five points separate four teams for the last CL spot.  So today’s game at Anfield may be rich with meaning and consequence for both sides.

But where are the Reds exactly? They have reached one cup final, and have bested a mighty rival to progress in another.  The club has stated that its goal is Champions League football… but they have to go through the aforementioned Chelsea and Arsenal, as well as fight off the football renaissance going on in the country’s Northeast.  Newcastle were supposed to collapse after the £35 million sale of Andy Carroll to the Reds, and the defection of Kevin Nolan to play for his old boss, Sam Allardyce.  But in a case of addition through subtraction (and the smart pickup of Demba Ba), the Magpies are keeping pace.  Meanwhile, Martin O’Neill is weaving that Ol’ Black Magic with the Black Cats: Sunderland are 8-2-3 under the Irishman.

In hope of making sense of  Liverpool’s season, let’s look at the numbers.

– Liverpool have six more points than this time last year.  But in comparable games played, they are -1.  In other words, when you take all the matches they’ve played this year and compared them to the games from last year against the same teams, they are behind.

– The Reds’ record against Top 10 teams is trending to be about the same (just better than 50%), but they have improved against the lower half.

– Their away record has improved significantly, while their home record is worse.  Liverpool have yet to lose at Anfield this year, but they have frustrated fans by drawing a league-leading seven times at home.

– Liverpool’s goal difference is +7 compared to 0 at this time last year.  But they have scored three fewer goals.  A year ago the ranked fifth in offence, sixth in defence.  This year, they are one of the stingiest sides in the Prem, but are 12th in goals scored.  Fulham, Villa and Blackburn have all scored more than the Reds.

And therein lies the problem.   After spending over £100m on players like Andy Carroll, Jordan Henderson, Charlie Adam and Luis Suarez, the offence has gone backwards.  Carroll and Henderson are young players wilting under the pressure and excessive price tags. Charlie Adam seems to have been a big fish in Blackpool’s small pond.  And Suarez has been dubious in both play and disposition, letting shots go errant while embroiling himself in several controversies.

However, there appear to be several lights in the fog.  A player who is no stranger to discipline problems himself, Craig Bellamy seems to have been settled down by Dalglish, his boyhood idol. He now leads the team in scoring… not bad for a player who’s started half the games on the bench.  Jose Enrique — another wantaway from St. James’ Park — has admirably filled the long-time void at left back, and may be the team’s Player of the Year.

Is it enough?  Spurs have amassed a midfield and defence that are as good as any in the league, and snapping up Brad Friedel in the supposed twilight of his career looks like a stroke of genius.  But Liverpool have yet to lose at Anfield this season.  The talismanic Steven Gerrard will be in the line-up, and Suarez returns after his long stay in the corner, hopefully with something to prove.

If they win the Carling Cup (likely), win the FA Cup (maybe) but don’t reach the Champions League, will this have been a successful season? Or will Kenny have to take a long, hard look in the mirror and decide whether he’s the man to lead his team back to the promised land?  Tonight’s game may go a long way to answering those questions.

My prediction: 2-2.

Brent Lanthier

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Best of the Premier League: Manchester City to Sunderland

Bent's departure left a bitter taste in Bruce's mouth.

They are now the Kings of England, the most winning club side in domestic history. But Manchester United captured their 19th league title with arguably their weakest side since they started claiming silverware again in 1990. Here is my pick from that team, along with four others.

Tevez: The footballing version of Kung-Fu's Kane...

MANCHESTER CITY
Carlos Tevez (ARG)— Should he stay or should he go? Despite clashing reports of where Tevez will play next season, there was no doubt that the Argentine was the head of a very gifted (and expensive) class. He shared the Golden Boot with Dimitar Berbatov this year, but it just feels like Tevez deserved it more. He scored more in all competitions… and he scored in more games as well.

Vidic won Barclay's Player of the Season

 
MANCHESTER UNITED
Nemanja Vidic (SER) — It may seem strange to not pick a Golden Boot winner on a Championship team, but Berbatov seemed like a poacher to Vidic’s Big Game hunter. The Serb terrorized attacking opponents, while scoring five of his own. He has eclipsed Ferdinand in the backfield, earning him the captain’s armband.
 
 

Nolan keeps puffing away for the Geordies

NEWCASTLE UNITED
Kevin Nolan (ENG) — Nolan’s production tapered off after the departure of Andy Carroll, and he missed the last part of the campaign through injury. But the former Bolton player captained the newly-promoted Magpies to 12th place (it would have been ninth if not for a collapse on the final day to West Brom). Many argue that a club as big as Newcastle should aim high… but this is a team in constant chaos with a nefarious owner. A glut of young options in Fabio Capello’s midfield means Nolan will likely never earn an England cap. Pity.

Slack-jawed Shawcross is bound for Europe

STOKE CITY
Ryan Shawcross (ENG) — Here’s a shock: Stoke’s best player is a defender. Tony Pulis’ side is boring and negative, but they got the job done. Shawcross captained the Potters to a surprise FA Cup final, earning them a taste of Europe next season. Shawcross was one of the most penalized players in the Prem… fitting for a Stoke team that puts the Pulis in “pugilist”.

Will Henderson follow Bent out the door?

SUNDERLAND
Jordan Henderson (ENG) — You can’t help but tie Sunderland’s fortunes to the departed Darren Bent.  Before he left, the Black Cats were chugging along in a very nice seventh place.  But then he went south, and so did Sunderland’s fortunes.  The good news is that Steve Bruce was able to rely on young Henderson for the entire season.  The bad news is that the big clubs are knocking on the door of Wearside… and Henderson may follow them through it.

Tomorrow: Tottenham Hotspur to Wolverhampton Wanderers
Wednesday: My Premier League Starting XI.

Brent Lanthier

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