Front and Centre

Suarez

Suarez, 9. Photo by Marc Puig i Perez http://www.flickr.com

Football, like many other things in life, is subject to shifting fashions, and I’m not just referring to the design of the multiple kits that teams deem necessary these days. There are tactical fashions too, many of which have been shaped by Barcelona over the last decade or so.

The Barcelona side built around Xavi and Messi set the template for fluid attacking football that has been much imitated but with rather sporadic success since those doing the imitating have been attempting to do so without the aforementioned superstars.

One consequence of the fashion to play tiki-taka has been a reduced influence for what we might call the traditional centre forward.

With Messi playing as a ‘false 9’ (something that Totti was already doing at Roma incidentally), Barcelona became one of the greatest sides of all time without much need for a true 9 – just ask Ibrahimovic.

But when Barcelona signed Suarez in 2014, it signified the end of the tiki-taka era and the introduction of a more direct style at the Camp Nou to take advantage of the fearsome Messi-Suarez-Neymar (MSN) frontline. Messi and Neymar would float around as fluidly as ever, while Suarez would be exactly where you would expect a number 9 to be: front and centre.

I’ve written before that Barcelona have shifted the focus of their game to the forward trio rather than the midfield trio, which (when led by Xavi) used to create the “passing carousel” that caused such anguish to Sir Alex.

The Catalans may not be quite as dominant as a few years ago but where they lead others remain inclined to follow. Look at the top of the Premier League: Chelsea (Costa), Tottenham (Kane), and Manchester City (Aguero). Number 9s (even if that’s not always the number on their back) are enjoying a renaissance.

Interestingly, the fourth placed team in the Premier League remain tactically closer to a tiki-taka style of play. Roberto Firmino is many things but he is not a centre forward. Nevertheless, he has played as the focal point of Liverpool’s attack (in a false-ish 9 position) for most of the season.

Sturridge has been a combination of injured (as usual) or out of form and in any case is not in the same class as Costa, Kane and Aguero. The best that can be said of Origi is that he remains a work in progress with unfulfilled potential.

It’s unclear as to whether Klopp does not sufficiently trust his centre forwards to play them regularly or if his preferred tactical set-up has little need for them. Firmino, Coutinho and Mane (plus Lallana to a lesser extent) are tasked with bringing both creativity and cutting edge to Liverpool’s attack.

They’ve done so very erratically – Liverpool have struggled to break down lesser teams but are still currently the highest scoring side in the league. The main problem at Anfield is not the particular style favoured by Klopp but the lack of variability and adaptability on days when it’s not proving effective.

The absence of a true 9 in many games has hampered Liverpool’s ability to play more directly and pose a different sort of challenge to defences that are both packed and deep. The Liverpool boss should prioritise the signing of a centre forward in the summer, especially with Sturridge seemingly poised to leave.

Further down the league, the role of world-class strikers cannot be understated. Most of the progress made by Manchester United under Mourinho is due to the signing of Ibrahimovic, he who Barcelona struggled to fit into their tiki-taka rhythm.

Similarly, where would Everton be without Lukaku? At the other end of the table, Sunderland would be in considerably more trouble without Defoe. Arsenal have laboured for years now without a truly exceptional number 9 (and a few other missing numbers); Giroud is unfairly scapegoated on occasion but he’s no Costa or Kane.

Barcelona’s tiki-taka influenced the game defensively as well as in an attacking sense. Many teams sought more defensive cover and rigidity to guard against the shape-shifting nature of Barca’s movement. Strikers were primarily tasked with being the first line of defence and one was judged to suffice for such a mission.

4-5-1 thus became a common formation – sometimes of a more attacking disposition, often less so. It could be subtle, even at times sophisticated, but it was rarely swashbuckling. It tended to be dull though, particularly when 4-5-1 lined up against 4-5-1.

There is, no doubt, an art to defending (really there is PSG) but the artistry in football is primarily to be found at the other end of the pitch. A player such as Mascherano can paint in broad brushes but those with the talent of Messi and Neymar produce the masterpieces.

As in art, fashions change and usually they hark back to something that’s come before. The return to fashion of the centre forward is worth celebrating; welcome back number 9, may you cease to be false.

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.

15 minutes is a long time

jurgen-klopp

Jurgen Klopp. Picture by Dave Wood, http://www.flickr.com

I have tonsillitis. I’m not one to complain (much) but it feels rather like man flu squared. Thus I felt pretty miserable when I slumped on to the sofa on Sunday evening (Malaysia time) to watch Bournemouth v Liverpool. 90 minutes later, my misery had deepened.

It all started so well. Liverpool began the match purposefully, pressing high in the style that Klopp has drilled into them and immediately put the home team under pressure.

Liverpool were playing in their ghastly luminous lime 3rd kit, which at least made it easy for them to find each other with passes – unlike that time when Fergie blamed Manchester United’s defeat at Southampton on their grey strip. Luminous lime in HD was not the sort of tonic I was looking for.

Cheer arrived after 20 minutes though when Mane gave Liverpool the lead, aided by some uncharacteristically hesitant goalkeeping from Boruc.

Just two minutes later, Origi doubled the lead. Boruc, perhaps overcompensating for his hesitancy just moments earlier, dashed recklessly from his penalty area and gave the Belgian a simple decision to make in rounding him. The finish, from an acute angle, was far from simple but was accomplished with aplomb.

At this point, I sensed some slight recovery in my condition. There seemed very little prospect of a Bournemouth recovery.

The previous day had seen big wins in different ways for Chelsea, Arsenal and Spurs – all potential title rivals. The first half at Dean Court was a dominant declaration by Liverpool, playing like a team entirely comfortable with the tag ‘title contenders.’

Apparently, there had been 1,061 occasions in the Premier League of a team leading 2-0 at half time. The team ahead at the interval had gone on to lose the match only 22 times. The 23rd such occurrence would’ve got long odds at half time on Sunday.

As I popped a few more painkillers, Jurgen Klopp must have been anticipating a painless conclusion to his day on the south coast.

Bournemouth started the second half brighter – not as bright as Liverpool’s kit, but brighter nevertheless. Then, after 55 minutes, Ryan Fraser came on.

The Scottish winger (were you watching Gordon Strachan?) upended the entire plot of this game, starting with being upended himself and winning a penalty for his side just a few minutes after coming on. Wilson converted. 2-1.

The penalty was conceded by Milner. In my opinion, he has been Liverpool’s best player this season. Yes, Coutinho has been brilliant but Milner has done an incredible job playing out of position and done it with immense professionalism.

The fact remains though; he is not a left back. Klopp clearly doesn’t fully trust Moreno and so he should buy a left back and let Milner fight for a place in the side for which he is more naturally suited, on the right side of either the midfield or front three.

Milner’s mistake was a rare one but it exposed his defensive limitations. Bigger problems lurk elsewhere in Liverpool’s defence however, especially when relying on Lucas as a stopgap centre half.

Just as things were starting to get a bit worrisome, Can curled home a very elegant third to all but put the game to bed. That is certainly the point at which I should have gone to bed for the rest of what I endured was a freakish, nightmarish horror show.

Fraser’s effervescence was causing Liverpool’s creaking rearguard more and more problems and the young Scot got his name on the scoresheet after 76 minutes. Apparently, he didn’t make it onto a single manager’s teamsheet in the official Premier League fantasy football game last weekend but I suspect that will not be the case for the next round of fixtures.

So, with just 15 minutes of the game remaining, Liverpool had led 3-1. Fraser’s goal brought renewed heart to Bournemouth’s cavalier charge but a cannier opposition (dare I say Conte’s Chelsea) would probably still have seen the game out comfortably from there.

Instead, Liverpool panicked. And boy did they panic.

Fraser scampered down the right again, exposing Milner again, and crossed for Cook to equalise. Klopp was starting to look as ill as me. Eddie Howe looked ecstatically bemused, like a drunk man who unexpectedly won some money at the casino on the way home.

But the big payout was still to come.

In the 4th minute of stoppage time, Karius played Santa and gifted all three points to the Cherries. He spilled Cook’s shot before haphazardly trying to regain the ball. His failure in that task handed Ake the early Christmas present of tapping into an empty net for a last gasp winner.

Fortunately my painkillers had kicked in by now but no pharmaceutical firm has yet developed a cure for being a football supporter.

This was one of the worst capitulations I’d ever witnessed.

The job of finding a remedy is Klopp’s and I was impressed by his post-match reaction. He took it on the chin, he didn’t try to make excuses (not even the kit), and he credited Bournemouth where they were rightly due. He also asserted, correctly, that his side had played very well for much of the game.

Most importantly, he resolved that Liverpool would learn from this. I think it will be a busy week for the video analysis team at Anfield.

Coutinho was missed but not in the ways that might have been expected. Liverpool still scored three in his absence and created three or four more good chances. What was missed most was his composure on the ball when the game got frantic, his ability to vary the pace of a game and slow it down when necessary.

Frantic suited Bournemouth’s scramble for an equaliser and then winner. On the touchline, Klopp is a frantic presence and he must be careful how he transmits that energy to his players. In his interview afterwards though, he was sober, serious, and restrained.

“You cannot be champions in December” Klopp correctly pointed out. It is also still too early to say if Liverpool can sustain a title challenge but to do so they will have to recover quickly from setbacks such as this one.

I’m sure many Liverpool fans made the long journey home feeling quite sick. Probably not quite as sick as me though as I made the short journey to bed.

Sam Jose

Jose Mourinho

Jose Mourinho, photo by Aleksandr Osipov, http://www.flickr.com

It’s the year of the manager. Jose, Pep, Antonio, Jurgen and Claudio – reads rather like a Euro boy band – are set to be the real superstars of the Premier League season. Meanwhile, Big Sam has taken on the big job of attempting to restore England’s credibility at the international level.

The TV cameras will be trained on the dugouts more than ever as the aforementioned, plus Arsene, Slaven et al plot, scheme and tinker. The vast sums being paid by the broadcasters for their seat at the table means that the most important decisions the managers make will occur during the transfer windows. Take note Arsene.

Wenger must be getting a better interest rate than most in the UK who leave their money in the bank at the moment as he persists with his almost comical reluctance to invest. The joke is wearing thin for Arsenal fans though as they can see that in standing still, their side is sliding slowly but surely backwards.

If Wenger is waiting on the market cooling off he may have a long wait ahead and he’s likely to feel some considerable heat from his supporters before that happens. The start of the season should be a time of hope and expectation for fans but Arsenal fans know what to expect: top four (maybe, just), last 16 or quarter finals in the Champions League, and at least one decent domestic cup run.

One man who hasn’t hesitated to throw open the owner’s wallet is Mourinho. He’s spent extravagantly but wisely. Of course Pogba is not really worth all that in absolute terms but if Man U win the title, it will prove to be money well spent.

An even smarter decision that Jose’s made is snapping up Ibrahimovic. He’s a Cantona-esque signing: top-quality, a proven winner, and brings with him an unmistakable aura. I make United slight title favourites ahead of their Manchester neighbours based mostly on the Zlatan signing.

I foolishly left him out of my initial fantasy league selection; a mistake that I have now rectified.

City fans meanwhile are enjoying the long-held fantasy of having Pep in charge. As expected, he’s wasting little time in putting his stamp on the side and appears to have little love for Joe Hart. The squad still needs more of an overhaul and I’d be surprised if his summer spending has reached its conclusion.

Guardiola will probably want to avoid getting caught up in a sideshow with Mourinho but the Portuguese will relish it, stoke it, and embrace it. The first Manchester derby of the season should be worth a watch.  I’d be quite happy to watch a camera that only showed the two managers throughout – like that strange film they made a few years ago that focused solely on Zidane (‘A 21st Century Portrait’) for 90 minutes.

Conte must seek to make something of an omelette from the broken eggs that Jose left behind at Stamford Bridge and Chelsea fans will have been encouraged by what he was able to eke out of a modest Italian squad at Euro 2016.

It might not be pretty but it’s sure to be intense under the Italian. Chelsea will be very hard to beat, their work rate will be off the charts, and they will be tactically flexible. I don’t think they’ll be champions but I expect them to be the highest placed London club this season.

Two games in and I have almost no idea what to expect from my club, Liverpool. Triumph at Arsenal followed by disaster at Burnley suggests that one of those performances was an imposter but it’s hard to tell yet which one.

Klopp has declared the squad at Anfield his own and he knows that vast improvements on last season are required. In any of the last few seasons, Liverpool’s current squad under Klopp would be near-certainties for the top four but this is likely to be the most competitive season in a long time.

Klopp is as competitive as they come and he doesn’t lack ambition. His squad still lacks something though and a further addition or two could make a big difference for Liverpool.

Ranieri must be hugely relieved that his squad doesn’t now lack most of its best players. It’s a tremendous tribute to what Leicester achieved last season, and the way in which they did it, that almost everyone has opted to show loyalty and stay.

They surely cannot repeat the heroics of that fairy tale run but they will enjoy the experience of being champions and are unlikely to relinquish the crown meekly. Ranieri, once seen as something of a jester, has been enthroned as the Premier League’s managerial king. The loyal subjects at the King Power Stadium may never witness anything so remarkable again.

It is to be hoped that none of us ever have to witness Gary Lineker presenting in his pants again although whoever sold the garment in question may warrant investigation under the Trade Descriptions Act.

Whatever embarrassment Lineker may have felt was probably not as great as that of the England players who contrived to lose to Iceland in the Euros. That defeat – possibly the worst in the country’s history – brought to a close the rather farcical reign of Roy Hodgson.

Big Sam thus has small boots to fill.

England’s young and energetic side actually travelled to France having displayed some promise in the build-up to the tournament. Not unusually of late, it was a promise they failed to keep. Is Big Sam the man for the rebuilding job?

Why not? He has lots of experience, he excels at man management, and he’s more tactically astute than he’s often given credit for.

There are no quick fixes for England in terms of the fundamentals: players who are not as talented as they think they are, a squad that is tactically naïve, and a lack of opportunities for young players at many top clubs.

That said, he will select players who are in form (I don’t envisage many Allardyce ‘favourites’), instil a simple but consistent style of play that his squad is comfortable with, and attempt to create more of a club atmosphere for the national team.

None of these changes will turn England into Spain or France overnight (or even Portugal or Croatia) but they should suffice to avoid banana skins such as the Iceland debacle. For England then, as well as in the English Premier League, it’s the manager who looks set to take centre stage.

So put your clothes back on Gary, be careful of the bets that you make, and let’s see who turns out to be this season’s special one.

The Unlikely Lads – Season 2015/16 Review

Leicester champions parade

Leicester champions parade. Photo by: JPAG http://www.flickr.com

Well, that was quite a Premier League season that just finished. Here’s my short verdict on each team:

  1. Leicester – a little bit of Thai money, Italian tactics, and an English core produced a fairy tale; Champions League and Hollywood now beckon
  2. Arsenal – the jubilation at finishing above Spurs risks masking the shame of finishing ten points behind Leicester. Wenger won’t win another league title at Arsenal but he’s probably safe in his job for another season
  3. Tottenham – a subdued and flat end to an otherwise thrilling season. If Pochettino stays, the future looks bright at Spurs
  4. Manchester City – “when is Pep coming?” “Is he here yet?” A season of waiting, every bit as tragi-comic as Waiting for Godot
  5. Manchester United – “probably not a team I’d have enjoyed playing in” said Paul Scholes. Nobody looked like they enjoyed playing in it and the supporters don’t seem to much enjoy watching it. Van Gaal should be evacuated, permanently
  6. Southampton – maintaining standards is harder than setting them but Koeman has managed it; a well-run club making sustainable progress
  7. West Ham – bye, bye Upton Park and a final season there with plenty of highlights (and the sad lowlight of the incident with Manchester United’s bus). Bilic is an excellent and underrated manager
  8. Liverpool – Klopp has been good but not as magnificent as his cheerleaders in the press would have us believe. Liverpool were 10th when he took over and they finished 8th. Progress, but only a little. A major summer overhaul is required.
  9. Stoke City – actually scored surprisingly few goals (41) considering the attacking talent they have. Much easier on the eye than before but sometimes easier to play against too
  10. Chelsea – oh dear, a season that those of us who are not Chelsea fans might describe as a special one
  11. Everton – underwhelming, with the whole appearing lesser than the sum of its parts
  12. Swansea – up and down but never remotely in danger of actually going down so a steady enough season, but difficult to see them improving much upon next season
  13. Watford – a sartorially elegant manager aiming at an elegant style of play. Like fashion, it looks great when it works but the occasional disaster is always lurking
  14. West Brom – too good to go down, not good enough to go much further up
  15. Crystal Palace – much Pardew about nothing (unless they win the FA Cup at the weekend)
  16. Bournemouth – survived relatively comfortably but can’t afford to get too comfortable (or, I suspect, to be able to strengthen much)
  17. Sunderland – Big Sam got some big results when it really mattered. Jermain Defoe remains an excellent Premier League striker and at 33 still plays with the energy of an 18 year old
  18. Newcastle – a decline that’s been long in the making. Benitez staying gives them a reasonable chance of bouncing straight back but if they don’t then they could yet fall a lot further
  19. Norwich City – “where are you?” Delia Smith once famously asked the fans. Back in the Championship is now the answer. They will be competitive though and I expect to see them back in the big time before too long
  20. Aston Villa – they scored only 27 goals and conceded 76. They amassed just 17 points all season; a hapless effort from start to finish (every Fantasy League manager kept an eye on who Villa were playing each weekend and made sure at least one opposition striker was in the team).

Speaking of Fantasy League, I just won manager of the month for May after a season that admittedly has been more Newcastle than Leicester. Leicester’s late charge to avoid the drop in 2014/15 serves as an inspiration for my fantasy league efforts next season.

I bet Jamie Vardy will be more expensive though. I wish I’d put a bet on Leicester this season at 5000/1. Odds are they’ll be a shorter price in August but it will still be a long shot for them to retain the title.

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.

We’re doomed (my team that is), happy new year

Tannadice and Dens

Tannadice and Dens. Photo by: Brook www.flickr.com

Happy New Year readers. 2016 hasn’t started quite as well for me in a footballing sense as 2015 did. On the 1st of January 2015 I was at Tannadice to watch Dundee United triumph over Dundee in the derby, 6-2.  It was a victory that even prompted some optimistic talk of us joining Aberdeen in a ‘new firm’ bid to challenge Celtic for the title.

Sadly it turned out to be the sort of optimism that is so often found in those activating gym memberships at this time of year; it had mostly evaporated by the end of January (by which time three of our best players had moved to Celtic).

I was not in Scotland this festive season and thus I wasn’t at Dens to watch us lose the New Year derby 2-1, a result that leaves us floundering at the bottom of the league – 11 points behind Kilmarnock who occupy the position above us. If a week is a long time in politics, a year is an eternity in football.

In that period, the manager has been sacked and there’s been a major overhaul of the squad, not exactly for the better. It’s been a bit like an episode of 60 Minute Makeover in reverse. You don’t need to be as serial a pessimist as Private Fraser in Dad’s Army to nevertheless reach the conclusion that we appear to be doomed. Captain Mainwaring couldn’t save us now.

Considerably more hope is invested in Jurgen Klopp saving Liverpool. So far, the German has made a good if slightly inconsistent start. West Ham v Liverpool was the first game that I watched in 2016 and it didn’t bring much cheer for a Liverpool fan. West Ham won 2-0 and did so comfortably.

In press reports of the game I read that Klopp was angry at his side’s failure to give their all. One newspaper quoted him saying that they had only given “95%” while another suggested that he had said “90%.” If there’s only 5-10% more to be had from that side then I’m afraid we’re back in Private Fraser territory. I would say it was a 70% performance at best.

Somebody should really check Lucas’s passport because it looks increasingly implausible to me that he can actually be Brazilian. I’m almost certain that if you picked a random guy of the Copacabana they would display greater skill than our number 21.

Then there’s Clyne: a half-hearted sort of a full-back. He doesn’t mind going forward (although he shows only a moderate talent for it) but he’s bit less sure of things when called upon to perform defensive duties – a not altogether uncommon occurrence for a defender. In this aspect of the game he’s something of a liability, seemingly regarding it as all a bit inconvenient.

He was out-jumped for both West Ham goals. Well, I say out-jumped, that’s actually a rather generous description of his efforts (well, I say ‘efforts’) to disengage his feet from the pitch. I think on one of the two occasions in question he got high enough that a slow motion camera would have been able to capture at least half of one of his studs.

I once played for a manager who bemoaned such instances with the phrase: “couldn’t get a Sunday Post under you there.” The insertion of a Sunday Post beneath one’s feet would not require a very spectacular, salmon-like jump.

One Liverpool player who could not be accused of lacking effort in his performance was Benteke. Sadly most of that effort was entirely ineffectual. Klopp has demanded more of his young striker in recent weeks and Christian ran around looking as lost as your average KL taxi driver (for those of you who haven’t been in a KL taxi, that’s generally quite lost).

The overall performance had all the huffing and puffing that we’ve already come to expect from a Klopp side but nothing appeared very much at risk of being blown down.

Much of the fallout from the game has focused on the spate of hamstring injuries that the squad has suffered; an occurrence that Sam Allardyce suggested was due to Klopp’s preferred high intensity playing style. Klopp’s response was something along the lines of: “pull the other one Sam.”

The fortunes of Liverpool and Dundee United are certainly pulling in different directions. There’s no question that Liverpool are improving under Klopp and there is a lot to be excited about at Anfield in 2016.

Dundee United on the other hand, are on a run of results comparable to that of Donald Trump’s barber. 2016 is looking like a relegation year for us but we football supporters are required to make the same resolution ever year: we’ll support you ever more.