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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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Premier League Starting XI – 2013-2014

Luis_Suarez_Liverpool-377452

Many pints have been bought/drunk/spilled while friends/strangers/adversaries debate the Premier League’s best players.  In my list, I’ve tried to avoid hype and reputation… but that’s not to say it’s all about the stats.  I’ve also been liberal with the positions, using a 4-1-3-2 but frankly putting players in to fit.   For example, Steven Gerrard was praised for his reinvention as a defensive midfielder, but let’s face it, he mostly played the same as he always has… he just had farther to run.

Here then are my Starting XI:

Mannone of the season for Sunderland

Mannone of the season for Sunderland

Goalkeeper
Vito Mannone (SUN) – There was a reason for Vito Mannone’s switch from the bright lights of the Emirates to the ironically-named Stadium of Light.   Like almost every other professional athlete, he probably expected to start.  So it must have been disappointing when Paolo di Canio went with Keiran Westwood, a man who had spent most of his career in the lower leagues.  The Black Cats’ start to the season was dismal — going  2-1-6 — with Westwood letting in almost one out of every two shots on goal.  Mannone got his chance when Westwood got injured, and the Mackems improved, finishing a stronger 10-7-11 with 11 of those games finishing in a clean sheet for Sunderland.  In fact, Mannone faced more shots on goal than any other keeper in the league, despite missing a quarter of the season.  Quite rightly, he was named Sunderland’s Player of the Season.

Bench: Petr Cech (CHE), Tim Howard (EVE)

Coleman, Baines were lethal from the back this season.

Coleman, Baines were lethal from the back this season.

Fullbacks
(LB) Leighton Baines, (RB) Seamus Coleman (EVE) – The Toffees seem to have an embarrassment of riches at the fullback position.  Under Roberto Martinez, Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman act as virtual wingers in an already offence-friendly side.  The pair fly in with crosses, complementing the Mirallas/Barkley/Osman contingent on the wings.  That leaves the two centre backs, along with a resurgent Gareth Barry and GK Tim Howard, to worry about any defensive issues.  It seemed to work: Everton had the third-best defensive record in the Prem, while the Scouser and the Irishman both scored as many goals as their colleagues in midfield.

Bench – Patrice Evra (LB), Bacary Sagna (RB)

Skrtel, Koscielny saw both highs and lows this season

Skrtel, Koscielny saw both highs and lows this season

Centrebacks
Martin Skrtel (LIV), Laurent Koscielny (ARS) – I can hear the howls of protests already.  Why not players from Chelsea or City or even Everton? How can you pick one player who set a record for own goals in a season, and another with a propensity to self-destruct?  Because the game-in, game-out stats tell a different story.  In a league where goals are up across the board, both players were on sides built to throw everything forward in attractive — but dangerous — football.  Martin Skrtel led the league in clearances and was tied for fourth in block shots.  Think back to the images of him racing back to clear the ball, because Brendan Rodgers had his team playing such a high line.  (Don’t forget Skrtel scored seven goals… he’s a centre back!).  Meanwhile, Laurent Koscielny was in the league’s top ten for both interceptions and offsides won, and he was in the top 20 for blocked shots.

Bench – John Terry (CHE), Per Mertesacker (ARS)

Jedinak might be the hardest man in the Prem.

Jedinak might be the hardest man in the Prem.

Defensive Midfield
Mile Jedinak (CRY) – Crikey! Mile Jedinak has maintained the fearsome reputation of Aussie footballers in the Premier League — Messrs. Emerton, Neill and Cahill come to mind (like a prog-rock band! Ha!).  The Palace player led the league in interceptions per game, and was 2nd in tackles per game.  That’s all the more impressive when you realize he started every single game.  A big reason why the Eagles had the league’s sixth-best Goals-Against.

On the bench – Gareth Barry (EVE)

Ramsey was one of the league's best midfielders, despite injuries

Ramsey was one of the league’s best midfielders, despite injuries

Right Wing
Aaron Ramsey (ARS) – Mr. Arsenal this season, Aaron Ramsey set the league on fire in the season’s first half, before he was twice sidelined by injury. He was Arsenal’s second-biggest goal-scorer in the league, and tied for third in assists, despite playing in only 60% of the Gunners’ matches.

On the bench – David Silva (MNC)

Yaya holds his birthday cake that's coincidentally shaped like a trophy

Yaya holds his birthday cake that’s coincidentally shaped like a trophy

Central Midfield
Yaya Touré (MNC) – What hasn’t already been said about Yaya Touré’s season?  The first midfielder since Frank Lampard to score 20 goals in a season, tied for fifth in assists, the Ivorian was Citeh’s talisman (an overused cliché, but in this case, true) and led the Citizens to their second title in three years.

On the bench – Steven Gerrard (LIV)

"Oh my God, I can't believe I made ATR's Starting XI!"

“Oh my God, I can’t believe I made ATR’s Starting XI!”

Left Wing
Eden Hazard (CHE) – José Mourinho had a rough relationship with his forwards this season, and sometimes played without a striker.  Enter the Belgian, Eden Hazard.  The attacking midfielder led his team in goals and assists, and was one of the league’s best passers.  An incredible player to watch (unless you’re a ball boy), Hazard will be a key part of Marc Wilmot’s plans in Brazil.

On the bench – Adam Lallana (SOU)

Suarez and Sturridge: 52 goals between the pair.

Suarez and Sturridge: 52 goals between the pair.

Strikers
Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge (LIV) – The picking of these two players was almost a no-brainer… almost.  Luis Suarez tied the Premier League record for goals in a 38-game season, despite missing the first five matches.  He was also second in the league for assists — just behind team mate Steven Gerrard — so it’s not like he was being selfish.  Love him or hate him, he had a brilliant season and propelled Liverpool into the most exciting title run in almost two decades.

Sergio Agüero was almost equally brilliant, scoring 17 in 23 appearances.  But injuries hampered an otherwise brilliant season, and young(ish) Daniel Sturridge found his own touch, scoring 21 of his own.   That’s why he would start in my XI.

On the bench – Sergio Aguero (MNC), Wayne Rooney (MNU)

Player of the Season: Luis Suarez

Brent P. Lanthier

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Fergie’s Fantasy: Safe Bets for Big Four (Five?)

Flashback all the way to last Saturday morning. The Ferguson household was quiet. Manchester United was playing the early game, so I snuck downstairs with my Rooney jersey on, eager to see the Red Devils take on Everton (it takes more than cheating on your pregnant wife to before I’ll stop wearing your jersey… I also own a Tiger Woods hat).  

But lo and behold, there was a very unexpected decision from my distant relative Sir Alex Ferguson (an unconfirmed presumption of mine): Wayne Rooney would not be playing. 

While, for roughly 85 minutes or so, it seemed like the idea would work out, it was always going to be bad for fantasy managers like me. It turned out to be bad for Man United as well, as they gave up two late goals and settled for a draw.

The decision to rest Wayne Rooney was made more to protect him from the jeers of fans of his former club. But Sir Alex likely also had the Champions League in mind…  as did other top teams who rested or limited minutes to stars to get them ready for games in Europe.

Few players are hotter than Florent Malouda but he only played about 10 minutes last week for Chelsea. This is the danger you run into, choosing players from the Big Four and Tottenham. You pay a high price for the players and these teams are deep enough — and play in enough competitions — that they rotate bench players into the lineup more often than mid-table squads.

However, there are a few players (besides the goalkeepers) that manage to keep their spot in the lineup every week… even on these teams. Remember, they can’t earn you points if they aren’t playing… and yes, I still count Liverpool in the Big Four.

Essien and Cole have been fantasy league gold

Chelsea
Defender Ashley Cole and midfielder John Obi Mikel have played every minute of this season so far, while John Terry is not far behind. Michael Essien, Didier Drogba, and Nicolas Anelka have all shown offensive flair this year along with playing most of every game this season.

Arsenal
No one has played every minute of every game for Arsenal… but midfielder Andrey Arshavin and new striker Maroune Chamakh have come close. Some discipline and injury issues have caused Arsene Wenger to rotate defenders but Bacary Sanga and Gael Clichy are likely to be there for most games.

Manchester United
There’s been a lot of consistency on the back line for Man United so far this season, with John O’Shea and Nemanja Vidic playing every minute along with midfielder Darren Fletcher.  Patrice Evra has been a constant presence at left back and Dimitar Berbatov has logged a lot of time up front. Some thought the signing of Javier Hernandez would limit his minutes, but that hasn’t been the case so far.

Gareth Bale's a bit "special"... just look at 'em...

Tottenham
The main stalwarts for Tottenham have been midfielders Gareth Bale and Tom Huddlestone. Close behind them is midfielder Aaron Lennon. The defenders are settling into a pattern… but no one has played more than the equivalent of three out of four games this season and the strikers are being rotated a lot, due to injuries.

Liverpool
With Rafael Benitez gone, fantasy managers have enjoyed a more consistent lineup from Liverpool with a few players logging the full 360 minutes of the season so far. They include defenders Glen Johnson, Martin Skrtel, and Jamie Carragher, and midfielder Steven Gerrard. Also logging a lot of time are strikers Milan Jovanovic and Fernando Torres, who will be a fixture as long as he’s healthy.

FERGIE’S FIVE:

Let’s review last week’s column. Even in a week where there were few goals, I gave you some gems to add into your fantasy team. Did any other fantasy column in the world predict that West Brom’s Chris Brunt would get on the board against Tottenham? Ahem… Or how about that sage advice that Birmingham’s Ben Foster had something to prove this season? Foster rewarded myself and the managers who chose him with a clean sheet vs. Liverpool.

Here are five players to watch for this weekend:

THE CAPTAIN: I promise to pick someone different next week… but how can you go wrong with making Didier Drogba your captain when Chelsea is at home to Blackpool (and is it me or has Chelsea had a very friendly schedule so far this season…). If you don’t have Drogba, make any other Chelsea player your captain!

HOT STREAKS:Bolton’s Johan Elmander is finally living up to his potential as a goal scorer. Surprisingly he’s been more deadly around the net than Kevin Davies this season, giving Bolton a strong attacking duo up front.

One Dembele... there's only one Dembele...

Fulham’s Moussa Dembele has two goals and two assists in his last two games and will be asked to carry an even heavier load after the injury to Bobby Zamora.

BARGAINS:Even though he’s going up against Chelsea, it must be said that Blackpool’s Charlie Adam has been one of the most efficient players early in the season. Adam has a goal and two assists in the first four games from the midfield position.

And though he’s only owned by only 4% of teams in the fantasy league, Birmingham midfielder Craig Gardner already has three goals. Can he keep it up? Probably not, but it won’t cost you much to find out.

Scott Ferguson

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