Have I been too harsh on Klopp?

anfield

Anfield, photo by SteHLiverpool. http://www.flickr.com

Jurgen Klopp said he was looking forward to a “perfect Sunday” after Liverpool’s comfortable 2-0 win over Spurs on Saturday evening. The German has had few ‘super Sundays’ to enjoy of late, such has been his side’s wretched form in 2017.

The previous week, Liverpool lost away at Hull with a thoroughly abject performance, following which I took to Facebook to vent my frustration. I posted: ‘Liverpool starting to show a rather worrying resemblance to Man U under van Gaal.’ A friend whose opinion I respect on all matters football replied simply: ‘harsh.’

It was a harsh assessment but I still think a fair one. One of Klopp’s mantras is that performance is all since results can’t be controlled. That’s true enough but some of the performances in the last few months have been dire, especially at home against opposition who set out and set up to frustrate.

To some extent it’s a compliment to Liverpool that teams arrive at Anfield intent on ‘parking the bus.’ Sadly, the response of the home team has too often been to double park alongside it; plenty of possession, total territorial supremacy, but precious little damage to the aforementioned bus.

Have Liverpool made progress under Klopp? Yes, undoubtedly. There remains, rightly, more optimism about the future than in the final days of the Rodgers regime. And yet it was revealed recently that Klopp and his predecessor had almost identical records over their first 54 games in charge of the club.

It’s progress but it’s stuttering, unsteady and yet to be fully convincing. Those calling for the German to get on his bike are ludicrously premature (I don’t see any better candidate to take over) but the fact that the suggestion has even been made shows how far Liverpool still have to go in fulfilling their ambitions.

The short-term ambition is Champions League qualification this season and that’s far from a certainty given how competitive the race for the top four is. The resurgent Manchester United have everyone except Chelsea glancing anxiously over their shoulders.

Winning the title never seemed like a very realistic prospect for Liverpool this season and they won’t do so with the current squad. Klopp has begun to mould it to suit his preferences but more radical surgery still needs to be performed.

As a minimum: Mignolet should be sold – he’s a fine shot stopper but exhibits almost no command and authority; a new left back is needed – Milner’s done a sterling and committed job but each passing week demonstrates further that it’s not his natural position; Lucas is not a centre back and should never be played there (surely the ‘Lucas as makeshift defender’ hypothesis has been refuted on enough occasions by now); and playing a genuine centre forward on a regular basis would seem, to me at least, like an old fashioned idea that never should have fallen out of fashion.

The surgery needed on the squad goes well beyond the cosmetic and will come with a hefty price tag. Klopp seemingly assumed that a keyhole operation would suffice but the harsh winter that he’s just endured must surely have persuaded him otherwise.

Next summer’s shopping will be much easier and more pleasant if he’s doing it in the Champions League aisle. The Europa League will not tempt the calibre of player that Liverpool need to attract in order to become genuine title contenders domestically and competitive with the biggest clubs across the continent.

Managerial careers are made and broken in the transfer market, those bi-annual windows of opportunity through which they must reshape their squads. Klopp is (rightly) confident in his ability to develop players once he starts to work with them but it’s important that he finds the best available raw material.

He also needs to demonstrate greater tactical flexibility. His high-energy pressing game works best as a counter-attacking strategy and it’s therefore not a surprise that it’s proving more successful against better sides that have more possession. When Liverpool are forced to create their own attacking momentum, in situations where they face teams happy to sit back and concede possession, they look slow and ponderous.

The opposition is increasingly confident of being able to nullify Liverpool by limiting the ability of Klopp’s side to catch them on the counter-attack with fast breaks. That is a very similar issue to the one that Manchester United had under van Gaal and it’s one that Mourinho is only slowly being able to rectify – aided by astute signings such as Ibrahimovic.

To be fair to Klopp, he has responded to the recent ‘crisis’ in a calm and composed manner. The dispassionate analysis he provides in the aftermath of games is in stark contrast to his somewhat hysterical demeanour on the touchline.

Indeed Klopp recently insisted to journalists: “We will have to take all the criticism from everywhere. You can write what you want at the moment.”

Here, I have. I doubt the Liverpool manager is reading this but if you are Mr Klopp, I hope you consider it harsh but fair.

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You’ll never walk out alone

Liverpool fans walk out

Liverpool fans leave Anfield. Photo by: Ben Sutherland http://www.flickr.com

Liverpool fans walking out of Anfield in the 77th minute on Saturday probably thought they were walking out on a comfortable victory. After all, they were 2-0 up at home against a team in the relegation zone.

They of course reckoned without Simon Mignolet’s goalkeeping skills walking out on him yet again. Mignolet needs to be encouraged to take a walk through the exit door at Anfield because while he’s not a bad shot-stopper, he’s entirely unable to inspire confidence in those in front of them. His mistakes are becoming as costly as a ticket for a Premier League game.

Those prices are the reason for the walk out. Liverpool have announced a ticket pricing structure for next season which will see the introduction of a £77 ticket for some games. This, in the eyes of many fans, is too far. “Enough is enough” the fans chanted as they departed.

To be fair to the club, some ticket prices are falling next season and there does appear to be some recognition of the need to make tickets more accessible at lower prices.

Supporters groups from other clubs are apparently contemplating getting in (or should that be out?) on the action. There’s clearly a groundswell of discontent about the prices being charged for Premier League games. I have a lot of sympathy for those priced out of going to games and I think fans are justified in taking action to show that they refuse to be taken for granted.

As I’ve said before though, fans keep turning up. All those walking out on Saturday did so after buying a ticket (admittedly probably a season ticket in many cases) and I would bet that most games at Anfield next season will be sold out. Supporters complain but they still want to go to games and, so far, they largely remain prepared to pay the price to do so.

An oft-used argument is that football clubs cannot and should not be considered as businesses. To some extent this is true. We don’t often hear of protests at Aston Martin dealerships about the prices they charge. There is (sadly) no expectation that everyone should be able to afford an Aston Martin. Football is a bit different however.

A motion has been lodged in Parliament on the matter, the price of football tickets that is not Aston Martins. It reads: ‘That this House supports the protests made by Liverpool Football Club supporters in response to ticket prices showing little regard to or respect for the club’s loyal fanbase; recognises that football clubs are not simply large businesses intent on maximising shareholder value but are part of the life and soul of their community; and urges hon. Members to seek further engagement with all stakeholders including supporters’ groups across the land to see what can be done to prevent professional football outcomes being entirely determined by money and economic interest.’

Such motions are only put down in order to allow some MPs to express their views (usually outrage, couched in very parliamentary language) on an issue. It’s not an indication that Parliament is set to intervene to regulate ticket prices and nor should it in my view. MPs will content themselves with a bit of stakeholder engagement before presumably returning to more important matters such as debating whether to ban someone they don’t happen to like.

Football clubs are more than ‘simply large businesses’ but there is little point in denying that whatever else they may be, they are also large businesses rather concerned with money and economic interest.

They are seldom very adept at managing money – paying for Mignolet for example – but clubs have developed the commercial operations considerably in recent years. Liverpool now has an official ice cream provider for instance. I’m not sure how the club ever survived without one before.

So fans ultimately have a choice, they can keep turning up, paying higher prices, and gorging on the official club ice cream; or they can vote with their feet, by not going to games or possibly going to watch a lower league club. There’s a lot more to football than the Premier League.

I’ve often thought that the Scottish Premier League (or SPFL as it is known these days) should market itself as ‘football as it used to be’ (apart from the skill levels unfortunately). But if standing terraces were reintroduced, alcohol was sold at grounds, tickets were cheaper, and clubs were more obviously involved in their communities, then it could stand as an excellent counterpoint to the misgivings that many of us have about modern football.

Jurgen Klopp has previously expressed his dismay at supporters leaving before the end. He wasn’t there on Saturday to witness the walkout as he was recovering from an operation to remove his appendix.

I imagine he feels for the fans having come to England from the Bundesliga, a league that does a wonderful job of looking after fans, involving them in the running of their clubs, and keeping ticket prices affordable.

Liverpool have made very stuttering progress under their new manager but hope remains that big things lie ahead if he can reshape the squad to suit his preferred style of play. If that happens, and Liverpool become title contenders under the German, you can expect a surge in demand for tickets at Anfield. Irrespective of the price.

Will the real Louis van Gaal please stand up

van-gaal

Louis van Gaal. Photo by Mikey, http://www.flickr.com

Liverpool v Manchester United, or was it the Dog & Duck v The Red Lion as Gary Neville suggested a while back? (Incidentally, if he doesn’t start getting a few wins in Valencia soon then he might find his next managerial job is a little closer to the pub leagues). There’s no question it was a decidedly uninspiring game.

The fact that both sides had drawn 3-3 the previous midweek suggested that the game would at least involve plenty of incident and perhaps a fair few goals. Alas, not so much.

Jurgen Klopp seems to be finding the English winter rather harsh and appears on the touchline with more and more layers of clothing. He increasingly resembles a budget airline passenger who’s attempted to beat the checked luggage charge by putting on all the items in their suitcase.

Moreno’s hairdo also causes me some wonder: largely regarding the essentially unfinished nature of it. Did a fire alarm go off halfway through and the cut was never resumed? Was the barber an Everton fan and only realised who Moreno was at the midpoint of the cut, upon which he downed tools?

Equally bemusing was the sight of Jones, Carrick, and Rojo sat (or rather stood such is the fashion again) in the stand with the away fans. Presumably a plush seat in the director’s box with a great view wasn’t so appealing since they’d be watching Manchester United – a less than riveting experience at the moment as Paul Scholes never tires of reminding us.

Fergie time at Old Trafford these days is nap time.

The game started surprisingly gingerly and although Liverpool were on top it was obvious just how much Coutinho is missed when absent.

Not long into the game, Fellaini went down (as it were) following a clash of heads with Lucas. Co-commentator Jim Beglin was moved to observe: “you just hope for Fellaini’s sake that his hair cushioned the blow.” Indeed, Jim, we can only hope.

Shortly afterwards, Lallana missed a sitter when clean through on goal. As the ball bounced up he headed it weakly at De Gea, making no attempt at the lob which was the glaringly obvious option in the circumstances.

Elsewhere, I remain unconvinced by Firmino as a false nine but I am convinced by his talent and his ability in front of goal. It’s just unfortunate that when Benteke comes on he plays rather as a false nine now as well.

Klopp was his usual animated self on the touchline. He definitely takes the kick every ball approach to coaching. Van Gaal sat mostly impassive throughout as he tends to. He recently said that managers screaming on the touchline have little effect and I suspect he’s right – it seems to me more of an outlet for their own nervous energy than anything else.

Still, sitting stony faced while your team produces another stony performance is not generally a good look for a manager.

I counted the number of saves required of both goalkeepers in the first half; it was not a taxing effort mathematically, there was one.

A more taxing question: Jordan Henderson, what is he? He’s not a playmaker, that’s for sure although he sometimes forgets that fact and tries to play Gerrard-esque long passes. They mostly endanger the front few rows of the crowd. He’s not a ball-winning defensive midfielder.

He does run around a lot. With the effort demanded by Klopp, maybe that’s enough for now but he’s a poor man’s Stevie G – the poor man being whoever sanctioned the transfer that involved paying Sunderland around £17 million for his services.

Talking of overpriced transfers, that brings me to Lallana and Clyne, both of whom seem to sum up the Rodgers era to me. They’re both decent enough footballers but no more than that. Lallana on his day is actually pretty good but most of ‘his days’ seem to have been used up when he was a Southampton player. I can only hope that Clyne’s day is still to come.

Too much money spent on not nearly enough quality. That was what happened under Rodgers.

Van Gaal has not exactly been reluctant to get the company cheque book out but as with so many first halves this season, the return on investment was nil in a very literal sense.

There were thus not many highlights at halftime, a shame for Paul Parker who does some of the analysis here in Malaysia. He was poised at the giant iPad (or whatever it is) that all studios must seemingly possess by law now, but no amount of knob twiddling could conjure up much to ‘highlight’ from a pretty forgettable opening 45 minutes.

The second half began with an example of Klopp’s love of near post corners. I think every Liverpool corner of the Klopp era has been chipped just short of the near post. I don’t recall any goals, or even highlight worthy chances, materialising as a result.

Beglin, not remembering the Gary Neville quote as accurately as me, pondered: “what did Neville describe this fixture as? The Dog and Duck v the Prince of Wales?” The Prince of Wales? I think Jim must have been in for a good few toasts to the prince before this particular co-commentary gig.

Soon he was offering more insight, on Rooney playing at 10 this time: “as he gets older, that’s probably his best position.” You mean the position in which he’s played almost his entire career Jim?

The main commentator (I can’t remember who it was) suggested that the game had “rather trundled.” It was an apt description. Indeed the combination of a tropical storm plus a paper cut suffered by my wife meant that there was more blood and thunder at my house than at Anfield that day.

Then Rooney scored. A corner that made it beyond the near post (take note Mr. Klopp) was headed towards goal by Fellaini. The remarkable thing was not that the Belgian won the header but that he did so while surrounded by four Liverpool defenders. The header crashed back off the bar and Rooney hammered in the rebound.

One of those four Liverpool defenders might have been just slightly more usefully employed attending to Rooney.

Van Gaal still didn’t leave his seat. He just made a note. I suspect he’s writing a novel in preparation for life after management.

There had been much speculation that defeat at Anfield would have brought the Dutchman considerably more time to spend with his novel. A win saw him cling on but subsequent defeat at home to Southampton has again raised speculation to fever pitch.

I’m amazed that he’s still in the seat that he’s so reluctant to leave each match day.

There doesn’t appear to be a long-term future for Van Gaal at Manchester United but there surely is for Klopp at Liverpool. Progress has been stuttering so far but progress it undeniably is. Manchester United meanwhile are going backwards as steadily as their passing.

Liverpool may have lost this battle, but the more optimistic set of fans in the ground, even at the end, were not those sat alongside Jones, Carrick, and Rojo.

Gerrard v Xavi

Gerrard pic

Steven Gerrard celebrates. Photo by: terceroinf fmiralcamp http://www.flickr.com

Steven Gerrard and Xavi Hernandez were both born in 1980 (the same year that I was born). Last Saturday, Gerrard celebrated his 35th birthday; Xavi celebrated winning the Spanish Cup. Gerrard had hoped that his own celebrations would coincide with an appearance in the FA Cup final at Wembley but Liverpool’s miserable end of season form put paid to any chance of that.

Gerrard and Xavi are two magnificent midfielders who have both been one club men until now (both are off to enjoy end of career pay days in foreign fields) and have shaped the game in their respective nations over the course of my adult life.

These two players have been one club men in an era of very few such men. Gerrard and Xavi both made their debuts in 1998 just three years after the Bosman ruling came into effect. Club loyalty became almost as hard to find as any sense of shame in Sepp Blatter.

Loyalty plus greatness leads to legendary status and both Gerrard and Xavi leave as club legends. They have embodied Liverpool and Barcelona for more than a decade and a half, defining the sides of which they were a part. They are both inspirational, selfless, and winners. They are also very different players.

The first word that comes to mind when I think of Gerrard is drive; relentless and intense drive. At his peak, he imposed his will on the game and the opposition, seemingly everywhere, always committed to advancing and avoiding retreat. He would charge from box to box, brushing aside most that stood in his way, and with the goal anywhere in sight, unleash a ferocious shot that invariably induced panic in goalkeepers.

Gerrard snapped into tackles and won many more than he lost. As a captain he preferred to lead by example and cajole those around him; very rarely did you see Gerrard launch the sort of violent tirades that were the stock in trade of someone like Roy Keane.

The red mist would descend on occasion however. Gerrard’s sending off against Manchester United at Anfield in March was a dreadful loss of control from a player of his experience. Liverpool’s season never really recovered from that result and performance. The depressing finale to the season meant that Gerrard did not get the opportunity to add one more medal to his collection.

The most famous and cherished of that collection is undoubtedly the Champions League winner’s medal from that extraordinary night in Istanbul. It’s that game which ensures Gerrard’s name at least warrants mention in debates about the greatest Liverpool player of all time. He somehow turned disaster into triumph with a rampaging performance that caused AC Milan to wilt just as they were expecting to waltz to an easy victory.

I’m not sure which set of players were more stunned at the end but Gerrard knew he had risen to the occasion in a once in a lifetime experience. I was left shaking my head in disbelief as I think were most people watching.

The one medal that has eluded Gerrard in his career is a league championship medal. Nobody would have believed that a Liverpool player making their debut in 1998 and being at the club for 17 years would leave without having won the league.

The club came close last year and let’s not blame it on Gerrard’s slip. People seem to forget that Chelsea won that game 2-0 and did so quite comfortably. 3-3 at Crystal Palace was a much bigger and more significant stumble. Last season’s title charge now looks more and more like the combination of Suarez’s superlative form and glaring deficiencies elsewhere in the league.

If failing to win the league is one major regret for Gerrard then the other must be his lack of international success as part of England’s so-called (and rather misnamed) ‘golden generation.’ The golden generation scarcely got near bronze far less gold, and silver linings have been thin on the ground.

Gerrard had a fine England career but like the team generally, struggled to impose himself on the international scene at the very highest level. Gerrard is a technically sound but not supremely gifted footballer. The same is true of virtually all the players that Gerrard has lined up with for England.

The technical shortcomings of the England squad have been a constant lament following international tournaments. Usually, the complaint is that English players ‘cannot pass the ball’ and are ‘unable to keep possession.’

They are guilty of the second charge but it’s not because they lack the ability to pass the ball. Watch Gerrard ping a long pass at his best and it’s every bit as accurate and assured as what Pirlo, or Ribery or Xavi will produce. He can play cleverly weighted short passes as well including defence splitting through balls. So, if passing is not the issue for Gerrard and England then what is?

In a word: movement. Throughout Gerrard’s career, the movement of the Spanish, the Germans, the Dutch, the Italians, the leading South American nations and many other countries (think of a small nation such as Croatia for example) has consistently been vastly superior to that of the English national team.

Xavi embodies this difference. Watch Xavi play – it is especially clear when you watch him live – and you realise that the vast majority of the passes that he plays are incredibly simple. I could be successful with 90 – 95% of them. The key difference is in his movement and the movement of the players around him. For Barcelona and for Spain, just about every time Xavi receives the ball he has more options available than Gerrard has had for Liverpool and England.

Xavi in space. Photo by: Marc Puig i Perez www.flickr.com

Xavi in space. Photo by: Marc Puig i Perez
http://www.flickr.com

The intricate triangles that define tiki taka are created by movement and a sophisticated level of spatial awareness. This is what many English players lack and this is what leads them to concede possession so often.  Xavi meanwhile has arguably the greatest awareness of space in the game. That helps to explain why he always seems to have a little extra time on the ball and a conveniently simple set of passing options.

The game has got quicker over the course of Xavi and Gerrard’s careers, players have become more athletic, and defensive systems have become harder to break down. Each of these factors means that there is an increased premium on the ability to create and exploit space. Xavi is the master of it and so it’s little surprise that Barcelona have been the club side with the defining style of play of the last 15 years or so while Spain can justifiably claim that accolade at the international level.

Xavi is a more technically accomplished footballer than Gerrard. His Barcelona and Spanish teammates are, for the most part, more technically accomplished that Gerrard’s Liverpool and England colleagues but more importantly, Xavi and his teammates have grown up with a different understanding of how to play football. The key to that understanding is the movement of players off the ball to create space and provide options for the player in possession.

How many times have you seen Gerrrad receive the ball, turn, and then look up pleadingly for even a solitary passing option? When Xavi receives the ball and turns, he scarcely needs to look up because he knows not only that options will be available but what those options are likely to be.

Tiki taka has recently been refined, not abandoned as some (including even Guardiola) have suggested. This season Barcelona have been more direct and as I’ve suggested elsewhere, their game is now primarily built on their front three rather than their midfield three as used to be the case.

Xavi, like Gerrard, has not featured as regularly this season. He has often found himself starting on the bench. The Croatian Rakitic has had an excellent debut season at the Nou Camp, taking on much of Xavi’s role while also bringing a more muscular presence to the Barcelona midfield. It is to the immense credit of both Xavi and Gerrard that they have accepted their reduced roles with the utmost grace and professionalism.

These two are team players, always prepared to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Gerrard in particular has often played out of position and has usually excelled where others are often found sulking. Teammates should consider themselves very fortunate indeed to have played alongside these greats of the modern game.

Both received farewells befitting of their legendary status. It was very sad all the same to witness Liverpool collapse so abjectly in Gerrard’s last game away at Stoke. Nobody could ever accuse him of abject collapse though and he salvaged professional pride with a characteristically committed performance and a coolly taken goal.

Xavi may yet walk away from the Nou Camp with a treble to celebrate. He and his side are two thirds of the way there and face Juventus in the Champions League final on Saturday. The Italian’s are masters at denying space but I expect Barcelona to find just enough to win.

After that, Xavi will head east (rather bizarrely in my view) to play for Al Sadd in Qatar. Gerrard is taking his Hollywood passes to Los Angeles and will be lining up for LA Galaxy.

La Liga and the English Premier League are the biggest two leagues in the world right now. Xavi and Gerrard have been at the heart of the action in those leagues for almost two decades. Jetting off to different continents they can both reflect on the huge mark they have made on the European game. How interesting it would have been to see Gerrard try his luck in Spain or Xavi attempt to conduct the midfield for an English premiership team.

Gerrard is good enough and intelligent enough that he would have adapted to a new style of play. Xavi is so good that any team he joined would probably have adapted to his version of the game and the space that he at once sees and creates.

A cameo and a Classico

Photo by Ana Belen Ramon www.flickr.com

Photo by Ana Belen Ramon
http://www.flickr.com

Domestic football returns in Europe this weekend following the break for international fixtures. In the last round of games we got to assess two of the continent’s greatest leagues, and four of the biggest clubs in the world with plenty at stake – it truly was a Super Sunday (or Super Sunday/Mega Monday combo for those of us watching in the Far East) as Liverpool took on Manchester United before Barcelona squared off against Real Madrid.

El Classico is not only the biggest game in Spain but also the biggest game in the world these days and, in my view, Liverpool v Manchester United is the biggest game in England such is the stature, history and rivalry of the two clubs. Having both games played on the same day offered an interesting opportunity to compare two very different football cultures.

It may be the biggest game in England but this was no title decider. Both clubs are focused on a top four finish and qualification for the Champions League. United’s victory was a huge one in this particular race and Liverpool, despite excellent form in 2015, may have left their charge a little too late.

Van Gaal and his expensive acquisitions have found themselves under pressure all season with their stuttering and inconsistent form. The Dutchman speaks often of ‘philosophy’ and his team has mostly employed the Socratic method: posing many questions but providing precious few answers.

Things change rather quicker in football than philosophy however and victory at Anfield would prove to be a second assured display in a row from United following their convincing win over Spurs a week earlier.

Liverpool started the match as slight favourites but quickly found out how little that matters when Mata calmly stroked in the opening goal. Van Gaal was jubilant on the touchline but Giggs’ reaction to being embraced by the manager – stonier of face than Michelangelo’s David – did not exactly dispel rumours of a rift between the two.

Liverpool tried to counter but looked unusually flat and threatened only rarely in the first half. Sturridge briefly got confused and thought he was Marco Van Basten, attempting a volley from an audacious angle. De Gea wasn’t troubled by it but some supporters high up in the stand behind him may well have been.

Manchester United were dominating the game with Mata and Herrera pulling the strings in midfield and Rooney looking lively in his preferred position up front. Liverpool needed some inspiration: enter Steven Gerrard as a half time substitute.

38 seconds later Gerrard exited, rightly sent off for a stamp on Herrera. Captain marvel hadn’t even lasted a marvellous minute. It was an atrocious loss of control from a player of such experience. His subsequent apologies were swift and well made but the incident will leave a longer lasting mark on the end of Gerrard’s Liverpool career than it did on Herrera.

The remaining Liverpool players appeared to still be in shock when Mata scored his second of the game with an acrobatically elegant volley. It looked like game over at that point but Liverpool deserve a lot of credit for forcing their way back into the match. Sturridge scored with twenty minutes remaining but the unequal numbers were a factor in an equaliser remaining beyond them.

Rooney had the chance to wrap up a more comfortable win for his side when Manchester United were awarded a late penalty after Can clumsily tangled with Blind in the box. It summed up a rather clumsy Liverpool performance overall. Rooney’s penalty was in the category marked tame and Mignolet was able to make a relatively straightforward save.

Liverpool quickly ran out of time to save themselves but there was still time for another expensive stamp as Skrtel left his foot in on De Gea. The referee took no action but Skrtel subsequently received a retrospective three match ban.

Manchester United left town with three precious points. I went to bed for about three hours sleep before the Classico kicked-off.

When it did, the two best forward lines in the world were lined up against each other: Neymar, Suarez, and Messi versus Bale, Benzema, and Ronaldo. This potentially packed more of a punch than Mayweather versus Pacquiao next month. As the players lined up, it was Bale who looked by far the most apprehensive even though he was playing away from the Bernabeu where the Madrid fans have given him such an unnecessarily hard time of late.

Modric was back in the Real midfield to set-up an interesting Croatian confrontation with his fellow countryman Rakitic. I’m not yet fully convinced of Luis Enrique’s managerial abilities but he has at least been smart enough to restore Mascherano to a midfield position. The Argentinean had a superb game, snapping Real’s midfield out of their stride and using the ball intelligently in possession. The only black mark against him was some pitiful playacting on more than one occasion.

The opening exchanges were cagey, there was more dancing around the ring than direct engagement. Then Messi decided enough was enough and whipped in a free-kick that invited Mathieu to nod it in to the net, an invitation he duly accepted. The two best strike forces in the world come together and the first goal is scored by a centre half.

It didn’t take long for Real to respond though. Modric found Benzema inside the box and his brilliant back-heel bemused the Barca defence and allowed Ronaldo to find a sliver of space to score. Ronaldo is apparently refusing to talk to the press until the end of the season; his bizarre outburst at the Ballon d’Or awards suggests that we’re perhaps not missing much.

Before half-time there was still time for Ronaldo to get booked for diving (I wish he would give that up, even just for lent), for Bale to have a ‘goal’ ruled out for offside and then miss a glorious chance from just six yards out. Ancelotti will have headed down the tunnel the happier of the two bosses.

Ten minutes into the second half though, Enrique was enlivened and leaping with delight as Suarez scored a goal of pure composure to put Barca back ahead. If anybody needed reminding, this game was no Messi versus Ronaldo. It was probably the best collection of football talent you are likely to see on a pitch anywhere in the world this year (consider the fact that Xavi was on the bench).

Real Madrid had the world club cup winner’s crest on their jerseys but there’s no doubt that this is the game that determines the world’s best. In the last Classico back in October, Real looked very much the best in the world with an utterly convincing 3-1 win.

Barcelona looked disjointed and uncertain in that game. This time round they were full of confidence and conviction. It was a bit like the Barcelona of a couple of seasons ago under Guardiola but with ‘quicker ball’ as they would say in rugby. The midfield three used to be the basis of Barcelona’s game, now it’s the front three.

And with that front three it’s hardly surprising. Tactics don’t have to be very complicated when you have the option to give the ball to Neymar, Suarez, and Messi, all of whom are very willing to constantly show for it.

At the final whistle Barcelona had three points to show for their efforts and a four point lead at the top of the league.

Two great games, four great teams, six great goals. If the four teams played in a mini league the two Spanish sides would finish at the top. They are the best two teams in the world with Bayern Munich not far behind. Liverpool and Manchester United are striving to close the gap but given that the former didn’t make it out of the Champions League group stage and the latter weren’t even in Europe this season, they still have a long way to go.

The English sides return this weekend to their battle to qualify for the Champions League. They know that if they get there they’ll find the world’s best waiting. Gerrard won’t be there, he’ll be in L.A. But like the rest of the world, he’ll be watching.

The Rodgers revolution

brendan-rodgers

Brendan Rodgers. Photo by Geoffrey Hammersley, http://www.flickr.com

Last week Liverpool returned to the Champions League after a five year absence so this feels like a reasonable point at which to assess the impact that Brendan Rodgers has had on the club. It’s been just over two years since Rodgers was appointed manager at Anfield and he’s used that time to instil his playing philosophy and construct a squad that is comfortable with it.

Liverpool last won the league title in 1990. Thatcher was still in Downing Street, the Soviet Union was still intact, and Madonna was atop the charts with Vogue. Later that summer the number one slot would be held by New Order and the England squad with their Italia 90 anthem World in Motion featuring a rapping John Barnes. That’s right, Liverpool last won the league before Italia 90 (my formative World Cup at the age of 9).

Shortly after his appointment Rodgers said: “I find it all very inspiring, from the minute I drive through and walk through the door. You see the little bust of Bill Shankly, you walk in every day and walk past the European Cup.” Here was a man respectful of the traditions of the club and comfortable with its ambitions.

Rodgers was a young British manager given a shot at one of the country’s big clubs. A year later the same chance was afforded to David Moyes at Manchester United. The comparison is an interesting one. Both replaced club legends in Dalglish and Ferguson although there’s no doubt that the task facing Moyes was the more daunting.

Rodgers, inspired by Shankly and the sight of the European Cup, grew into the role, looked at ease, and as if he felt confident that he belonged at the level at which he’d arrived. Moyes however seemed to shrink before the sheer enormity of Manchester United. He looked uncomfortable and hesitant. In fact he looked a bit like Ed Miliband does now.

Miliband is intelligent, passionate (albeit in a slightly geeky sort of a way), and was politically savvy enough to win a leadership contest in which he was regarded by many as an outsider. One of the biggest challenges that he faces is that people really struggle to see him as Prime Minister. There’s something in the way that he carries himself that just doesn’t seem very prime ministerial. Similarly, there was something in the way that Moyes carried himself that just didn’t seem like the manager of Manchester United.

Rodgers does not appear to lack self belief which perhaps comes from serving part of his apprenticeship under Mourinho. The self-proclaimed ‘special one’ walks as though he believes not only that he could manage Manchester United or anyone else but that he should probably be Prime Minister as well.

Both Rodgers and Moyes made a mistake that is quite common with managers that move to bigger clubs, that of taking a player from their former club who’s not good enough to improve the 1st team at their new club. For Rodgers it was Joe Allen, for Moyes it was Marouane Fellaini. Neither has made much impact.

In fact, I must admit to being somewhat sceptical of Rodgers and his vision in the early days of his Liverpool reign. The signing of Allen made me wonder if he could really judge the quality of footballer that Liverpool would need to compete back at the top of the Premier League and while I greatly admired his passing principles there was a spell when his Liverpool side seemed to pass for the sake of making a pass rather than for any more adventurous purpose.

The first time that Rodgers took Liverpool to Old Trafford (in January 2013) was a case in point. Manchester United won the game 2-1 but were far more comfortable winners than the score line suggested. Allen had a nightmare, frequently giving away possession and he was not alone. Almost every time that Liverpool tried to play the ball out from the back – and that was pretty much every time they had the ball at the back – they put themselves under huge pressure.

It looked as though Rodgers was trying to recreate Barcelona but seemed not to have noticed that he lacked ball playing centre halves and Messi. Since then though, my admiration for his work has only grown. He has proved himself to be more tactically flexible than he first appeared, he has been lauded for his man management skills and under his direction youngsters such as Henderson and Sterling have been utterly transformed.

Last season he took Liverpool as close as they have come to winning the title since 1990. The fact that they came so close actually says more about shortcomings elsewhere than it does about the undoubted progress being made at Anfield but it was still a remarkable achievement.

Until very recently Rodgers also had to deal with the circus that is Luiz Suarez and mostly did a reasonable job of it. Perhaps he could have hired a lion tamer as well as a sports psychologist for dealing with the Uruguayan.

The Liverpool boss obviously likes a challenge, how else to explain the signing of Balotelli to replace Suarez. If Mario is the answer then it may be worth re-examining the question. To be fair, his debut at Spurs was impressive and if Rodgers can influence him in the way that he has been able to do with Sterling then it’s a gamble that could pay off spectacularly.

This season Liverpool have made a very inconsistent start. It’s not altogether surprising given the number of new arrivals over the summer after Suarez was sold. Consolidating a place in the top four will be considered a success given the improvements that have been made by other teams, most notably at Chelsea and belatedly at Manchester United.

It seems unlikely that the long title wait will end this year and the return to the Champions League is already proving to be a learning experience. A domestic cup is a real possibility however as is the prospect of Rodgers continuing to enhance his reputation as a bold and attacking coach. He clearly learned well under Mourinho but I’m glad that he appears to have been absent the day that Jose was delivering the lesson on parking the bus.