The new manager effect?

Jurgen Klopp - new boss of Liverpool Photo by: opelblog www.flickr.com

Jurgen Klopp – new boss of Liverpool
Photo by: opelblog
http://www.flickr.com

The self-proclaimed ‘Ordinary One’ swept into Liverpool last week and so began a new era at Anfield. I’m not sure if the Liverpool owners read this blog – they probably don’t have a lot of time in between approving overpriced and underwhelming signings – but if they do they may have noted that in my previous post I mentioned that I had lost all faith in Rodgers and his methods.

Apparently they have now as well although I suspect the availability of Jurgen Klopp was a factor in that loss of faith. Although it rather begs the question as to why the change wasn’t made in the summer, before Rodgers went on another summer spending spree that displayed all the clarity of thought and subtlety of judgement of an overexcited contestant on Supermarket Sweep.

Liverpool’s squad is hardly brimming with world class talent and Klopp inherits a side that is not exactly overflowing with confidence either. The Rodgers era at Anfield resembled Michael Jackson’s moonwalk: there was the appearance of moving forward but in reality we were going backwards.

Klopp entered the fray at White Hart Lane at lunchtime on Saturday after a couple of confident press conference performances. I entered a pub in Dunfermline with my brother at the same time, having arrived in Scotland the previous evening. With the haggis on order, I turned my attention to the big screen to discover what Klopp was about to serve up.

By the time the Knickerbocker Glories arrived (my brother, he practically forced me) there were just enough signs of encouragement to make the meal a modestly happy one. There was perspiration aplenty with a small side of inspiration. In the build up to the game, Liverpool players had spoken of the new boss demanding a few extra yards. In his first game, he got them – Liverpool were apparently the first team to outrun Spurs this season in terms of distance covered.

They ran, but what they were unable to hide was the obvious lack of quality that I referred to above. Coutinho is an honourable exception, but the supporting cast don’t give the impression of having fully learned their lines. Of course Klopp only had a few days to work with the players following the international break so it’s hardly surprising that the new script has not yet been mastered.

In that context a 0-0 draw away at Tottenham represents a decent enough start. Many teams will leave the Lane with less this season. The most encouraging sign came as the Liverpool team left the field. Klopp was there on the pitch, cajoling them, arm around half of them, deep in conversation. The players all looked appreciative and respectful. There’s no question that this is a man that they want to play for already.

How many of those players Klopp ultimately wants to play for him at Anfield remains to be seen. The truth is that not many of them are good enough to turn Liverpool into title challengers and regular participants in the Champions League. Klopp undoubtedly is good enough but to fulfil his ambitions he’ll have to succeed where Rodgers failed most spectacularly – in the transfer market.

The Sky pundits had a bit of a disagreement over the initial Klopp effect: Neville suggested it was little more than a typical new managerial bounce; Carragher claimed that the German had already begun to make his mark on his new squad. I tend to agree with the latter view.

It’s not surprising that a new manager should have some positive effect when taking over. A new voice and some fresh ideas on the training ground should be enough to achieve that in the very short term. Over the slightly longer term though, an unchanged squad of players are likely to deliver a broadly similar set of results.

That’s not to suggest that managers wield only limited influence, far from it. Indeed, I think the best managers have a justifiable claim to be the best paid employees of their clubs. I doubt that Klopp currently is at Liverpool but he’s almost certain to be the man most influential in determining Liverpool’s results between now and the end of the season.

On Saturday I was quite impressed by the new manager effect that Klopp brought to the Liverpool dugout. On Sunday, I went to Tannadice to observe the effect of another new manager: Mixu Paatelainen at Dundee United.

It was also my son’s first ever football match. A big occasion then, and it will be the subject of my next post.

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There are only four teams for me

Totti

Totti and I. Milan, December 2010. Doesn’t he look pleased to finally meet me?

I support 4 teams. That probably seems like a lot so let me explain. First, there is a hierarchy. In answer to the question, “who do you support?” my answer is Dundee United. It’s the team I grew up supporting – I was a season ticket holder in my teens – and they will always remain the teenage sweetheart of my footballing affections.

I also support Liverpool, as my English team. Most football supporters in Scotland have an English team that they follow. Liverpool are mine because my best friend at school had family in Liverpool and thus he supported them. We used to watch lots of Liverpool videos together. It is 25 years since Liverpool last won the league title so at least I’m not often accused of glory hunting.

My third team is Roma. Ever since I saw my first Serie A game on Channel 4’s Football Italia in 1992 (a 3-3 draw between Sampdoria and Lazio) it has been my favourite league. Back then, it was the best league in the world. That is no longer the case but I love it still. That love used to have a universal purity about it. I just loved Italian football in general and didn’t mind too much who won particular games. It was 2009 until I went to my first Seria A game – Roma v Juventus at the Stadio Olympico. I’ve been a Roma fan ever since.

Last, and in all honestly least (but do not mistake that for a lack of passion, I speak here in very much a relative sense) there’s Rijeka. My wife is Croatian and Rijeka, the third largest city in the country, is her hometown. It is thus my adopted hometown and that comes with a duty of care toward the football team.

As summer turns to autumn across Europe (or as one slightly less rainy season turns into a slightly more rainy season in Scotland) it feels like a reasonable time to assess the start that each of my teams have made to the new season.

Dundee United

2015 started very well for Dundee United but it doesn’t look as though it’s going to end that way. I was there on New Year’s Day to see us beat Dundee 6-2 in an extraordinary derby. A month later, the transfer window closed with two of our best players – Armstrong and Mackay-Steven – having escaped through it to Celtic. It’s been downhill faster than a bobsleigh race ever since.

After it emerged that boss Jackie McNamara receives bonuses related to transfer fees (but is not involved in transfer negotiations), his stock has fallen quite significantly among some sections of the support. A fairly miserable run of form hasn’t helped. We currently sit second bottom of the table with just a single win from eight league matches this season.

Only two players who started the derby on January 1st were in the starting line-up for last weekend’s 1-1 draw at home to Inverness Caledonian Thistle. The current squad is barely recognisable to me. I’ll be in Scotland next month and am intending to take my son to his first ever football game. We’ll be going to Tannadice to watch Dundee United v Hearts. I rather fear that every time he asks me, “Dad, who’s that?” I will have to shrug my shoulders and say I don’t know.

He’s five years old and the only footballer he really knows and recognises is Messi. A few weeks ago he asked if Messi will be playing when we go to the stadium. Sadly not son, sadly not.

Dundee United: P8, W1, D2, L5, Pts5, League Position 11/12

Report Card: D

****

Liverpool

Things are not much better for my team south of the border. In fact, it’s pretty much all gone south at Anfield since Suarez left for the more southerly charms of Barcelona. I was happy to see him go such was the shame that he’d brought upon the club but it’s now very obvious that he absolutely carried that side to within a whisker of winning the league in 2013/14.

At the time, Brendan Rodgers got, and seemingly deserved, a lot of credit. Managers take plenty of flak when their team is losing so they surely warrant some praise and a little singing when they’re winning. Whatever trust there was in Rodgers though is evaporating fast around Anfield and personally, I have lost all trust in him and his methods.

Remarkably, it’s unclear how much influence the manager has over the signings that Liverpool make these days but it’s already evident that another summer of big spending is not likely to stave off another winter of discontent. Liverpool currently look miles away from being contenders for a Champions League place but rather less far away from League Two side Carlisle, who we scraped past in the Capital One Cup this week. On penalties.

I simply can’t see Rodgers turning things around sufficiently. Earlier in his reign, the possession philosophy that he espouses looked as though it could develop into something exciting. Indeed, it briefly did as Suarez, Sturridge and Sterling (ably supported by Gerrard) menaced defences with their skill, pace and speed of thought. Now though, it just appears ponderous and visiting defences can scarcely believe how easy an afternoon out they’ve been treated to at Anfield.

Talking of scarcely believable: Mark Lawrenson. On the 20th of September, Lawro wrote a column on the BBC website declaring that the 1-1 home draw with Norwich represented ‘fresh hope for new-look Reds.’ Really? Where he saw freshness, hope and something a bit different, I saw a stale, hopelessly inadequate performance that was eerily similar to many such performances in recent times.

Much of Lawrenson’s analysis seemed to be based on the fact that Liverpool had far more touches in the final third in their game against Norwich than they managed the previous week. That game was away at Manchester United. Thanks for picking up on such a subtle and unexpected phenomenon there Mark. He also provided a couple of diagrams to illustrate the point for anyone who’s a little bit slower than one of our centre halves.

Lawrenson is nothing if not a man of firm and unwavering opinions. He wrote another column yesterday. Now, apparently, “Liverpool have gone back to being a bit rudderless, characterless and seem to have lost their way.” No freshness, no hope, Mark? Not much else either.

“No rhyme, no reason, no pattern of play. Liverpool had 40-odd shots and most of them were from outside the box. Carlisle, middle of League Two, kept them at arm’s length. It was very samey. You are looking and thinking ‘what the hell is happening here?”. From “new-look” to “very samey” in just four days.

Much more of the same and it will be the dug-out that has a new look. Klopp is available and rumour has it he’s interested. Things definitely wouldn’t be too samey under the German.

Liverpool:  P6, W2, D2, L2, Pts8, League Position 13/12

Report Card: C-

****

Roma

And so to Rome. When in Rome … support Roma, as the saying goes. Or something like that. I visited the Italian capital in 2009 and I was delighted that my stay coincided with one of the biggest matches in Serie A – Roma v Juventus.

My ticket cost me €110 so it’s perhaps not surprising that I felt as though I was signing on for life as a Roma fan. At the club shop they assured me there was only one area of the ground that still had tickets available, and of course it was one of the most expensive areas. When the game kicked off with lots of empty seats in various other parts of the stadium, I had the feeling that I might have been taken for a bit of a Roman ride.

Roma lost 3-1 to Juventus that day and it seems as though they’ve been trying to catch up with the Old Lady of Italian football ever since (which turns out to be harder than that makes it sound).

Last season, Juventus did the league and cup double as well as reaching the final of the Champions League. Roma finished in second, 17 points behind the champions. Can they sustain a title challenge this time round?

The early signs are reasonably encouraging but that’s based more on the shaky start that Juve have made rather than anything particularly convincing from Roma. Last weekend summed up why Roma have come close but ultimately fallen short in recent years: too many draws, especially at home. Last weekend it was 2-2 against Sassuolo.

Totti scored one of the Roma goals; his 300th for the club. A week short of his 39th birthday, the Roma captain is a truly legendary figure. He only has one Serie A winner’s medal to his name (he’s finished runner up on eight occasions) and I hope that he claims a second one next May. That would possibly make him as happy as I was when I met him in Milan in 2010 when my wife and I ended up staying in the same hotel as the Roma squad (see picture above).

Roma:  P5, W2, D2, L1, Pts8, League Position 9/20

Report Card: B-

****

Rijeka

Next week I will be in Rijeka, enjoying some rest and recovery after running my first ever marathon (here in KL on October 4th, and for a very good cause: https://www.justgiving.com/Craig-Wilkie/). Sadly there’s no domestic football on while I’m there but there is an international fixture – Croatia v Bulgaria in the European Championship Qualifiers – so I might make it to that.

Rijeka’s stadium, Kantrida, is the most beautiful location that I’ve ever watched football in. Cut into a cliff on one side, with the shimmering Adriatic Sea on the other, it’s a glorious setting for the beautiful game. The football of course is not always quite as spectacular as the surroundings but the last couple of seasons have brought much to cheer for Rijeka fans, including two excellent runs in the group stage of the Europa League.

Last season a title charge looked a real possibility but Rijeka fell away slightly in the second half of the season following the sale of star striker Kramaric to Leicester. I expected him to take the Premier League by storm but so far he’s been a whole lot less than prominent. In fact, I’m almost certain that there are streakers who have spent more time on the pitch than Kramaric this season.

Dinamo Zagreb went on to win the league and finished the season unbeaten, the first time that’s ever happened in the Croatian top flight. Few would bet against Dinamo retaining the title and their 2-1 victory over Arsenal in the Champions League suggests they might even be a force in Europe as well this year.

Nevertheless, Rijeka are off to a reasonable start (despite exiting the Europa League in Aberdeen) and currently sit in second place, five points behind Dinamo but with a game in hand.

Rijeka:  P10, W4, D6, L0, Pts18, League Position 2/10

Report Card: B

****

All four of my teams drew last weekend; I didn’t get to feel the exhilaration of victory but at least I avoided the despondency of defeat. They all have winnable matches this weekend so I’m expecting three points to be collected somewhere.

Those then, are my teams. I’ll support you ever four.

Losing sleep over Liverpool

Old Trafford. Photo by: Paul www.flickr.com

Old Trafford. Photo by: Paul
http://www.flickr.com

Why do I do it to myself? I’m still a little tired as I write this, mostly as a result of staying up until 2.30 am on Sunday morning to watch Manchester United v Liverpool. The Greater Manchester police force weren’t the only ones less than impressed at the chosen kick-off time.

I have to presume that the Liverpool players weren’t informed of my commitment in staying up late as they produced a dismal performance from early on. Gloating Manchester United fans should not get too carried away – the performance of your side was only marginally better.

In a blog post last November, I wrote that this fixture ‘is the biggest game in England such is the stature, history and rivalry of the two clubs.’ It didn’t live up to that billing on Saturday. In fact, it came a lot closer to Gary Neville’s quip last year that watching the two sides these days resembled the Dog and Duck versus the Red Lion.

Neville’s observation did not go down well with Van Gaal at the time, who promptly labelled the former Manchester United fullback an “ex-legend.” I wonder if the same now applies to Rio Ferdinand who described Van Gaal’s tactical approach as “not football I enjoy watching” due to it being “really slow going.” The first half was certainly slow going; it wasn’t just tiredness that kept me on the verge of nodding off.

It’s not just ex-Manchester United players that appear to have something of an issue with the current manager.  The build-up to the game was dominated by talk of a rebellion among senior players over training sessions that they deemed to be too structured and that were making them too robotic.

The first half did rather resemble one of those news clips where scientists from Japan unveil their latest life-size robot inventions and seek to demonstrate the dexterity of the machines by having them play football. Lovren, for instance, could certainly use a software upgrade and a bit of reprogramming to approximate the centre half that he was at Southampton.

Apparently some in the Manchester United squad are also unhappy at the amount of time they are required to spend in meetings for video analysis. They should spare a thought for their Liverpool counterparts today, because that video analysis session is not going to make for pleasant viewing.

I imagine the chief analyst gathering the squad together and saying: “we’ve just picked out the sections of the game where we believe a bit of improvement is needed lads. Just press play and I’ll see you in about 93 minutes to take any questions. There’s one small cut for Christian’s goal.”

Brendan Rodgers’ tactics deserve a bit of analysing for a start. Jamie Carragher said post-match: “I don’t understand this obsession with playing 4-3-3,” correctly pointing out that Liverpool have a lot of strikers but a severe lack of wide players. Carragher’s assessment was actually quite generous, Liverpool’s formation was 4-5-1 and Rodgers set his side up looking for a 0-0.

Liverpool also continued to employ Rodgers’ preferred method of playing the ball out from the back. The problem was that most of the time they played it out to a Manchester United player. Don’t get me wrong, I applaud the manager’s desire to play possession football but the current way of doing so invites huge risks because the goalkeeper and centre backs are not comfortable enough on the ball to do it confidently or consistently.

At the other end, Liverpool lack directness and their build up play is too slow, the same issues that Rio Ferdinand identifies in the current Manchester United side. Little wonder then that the game was so ponderous for long periods.

Benteke was an isolated figure up front and despite scoring a spectacular goal, was never given much of an opportunity to put pressure on United’s defence. The creativity of Coutinho was hugely missed (he’s now Liverpool’s most influential player by far) and so of course was the drive of Gerrard.

It was revealed this week that Gerrard almost certainly would have remained at Anfield if he had been offered a coaching post. I find it absolutely astonishing that no such offer was made. In fact, back in November 2014, with Gerrard’s contract situation still unresolved, I wrote in a post that ‘I’m sure an offer will be forthcoming (and would expect it to include the option of a coaching role).’

In Gerrard’s words: “what would have kept me at Liverpool into this season was the chance of shadowing Brendan Rodgers and his staff as well as playing. Those ideas were only mentioned to me after I had announced I was leaving.” How many clubs would have lost a player of the former skipper’s status in such circumstances? Especially a club that was once famous for promoting from within the Anfield boot room.

I wonder what he made of Saturday’s performance. The match kicked off at 2.30 am LA time so Gerrard is likely to be a little tired as well if he tuned in. The man losing sleep this week though must surely be Brendan Rodgers.

And they’re off …

Arsenal fans at the Emirates. Photo by Ronnie Macdonald www.flickr.com

Arsenal fans at the Emirates. Photo by Ronnie Macdonald
http://www.flickr.com

The new English Premier League season got underway last weekend and I was quite excited about it as I settled down on the sofa for Manchester United v Spurs. By half time that excitement had all but disappeared; what a dull game. It looked as though nobody had told the players that pre-season was over. The pace was pedestrian and the play was disjointed.

Man U were pretty fortunate overall to come away with a victory. I think it’s likely that they will be title contenders this season but there still seems to be something amiss with the balance of that side. The decision to sell Di Maria also means that there is a huge onus on Rooney staying fit and in form over the course of the season. If he doesn’t then things could head downhill quite quickly at Old Trafford.

The start of the season is generally a time for great excitement and optimism. GQ magazine even ran an article titled ‘16 reasons why this will be the best Premier League season ever’ (http://www.gq-magazine.co.uk/entertainment/articles/2015-08/07/16-reasons-why-this-will-be-the-best-premier-league-season-ever). Go to the GQ website these days and you’ll find that most headlines begin with a number. Today for instance they offer, ‘10 high-tech grooming gadgets you need right now.’ On the list is a foot buffer (no, I’ve no idea either) and I’m not convinced I need one of those at all, far less right now. Who says journalism is not what it used to be?

GQ’s reasons for predicting that this will be the best Premier League season ever include the fashion statements being made by some clubs with their new kits, the first ever football boot range by New Balance, and, most incredibly of all, the return of Ian Wright to Match of the Day.

When Wright left the BBC in 2008 he said: “I don’t know how long young people are going to want to sit down and watch that same old ‘jacket, shirt and tie’ format. Fans want people who are dressed like them.” That’s right Ian, it was mostly your shirt and tie that bothered us. I quite often watch the football in my pyjamas these days such is the time difference between Malaysia and Europe. Somebody tell Shearer to have a think about that while he’s in the wardrobe department getting ready.

Well GQ, with those sound arguments, it is hard to disagree with your confident claim as to the glorious season that lies before us. Years from now we’ll look back and say “ah, remember 2015/16? What a season that was. First one with the New Balance boots you know.”

Chelsea began the defence of their title not exactly at their best ever with a rather lacklustre home draw with Swansea. The game will mostly be remembered for Mourinho’s hysterical reaction to the club doctor and physio running on to treat Hazard when Dr. Mourinho (so special he’s apparently a qualified medic now as well) had decided that there wasn’t much wrong with the Belgian playmaker.

If that was the case Jose, then maybe have a word with Eden to stop rolling around so dramatically on the floor. The subsequent treatment of club doctor Eva Carneiro by Chelsea has been an absolute disgrace.

Across London, Arsenal’s season started a day later with a home match against West Ham. They lost 2-0, a result and performance that Wenger attributed to his players being “too nervous.” For reasons I don’t understand, the perceived wisdom ahead of the season seemed to be that the signing of Cech had magically transformed Arsenal into title contenders. He’s a very good goalkeeper and although he was terrible on his debut he will improve the side. But Arsenal’s problems are not confined between the sticks.

For years they’ve needed a stronger spine to the team. Cech is one part of that but they are still a centre back, a midfield enforcer, and a top class centre forward short of having a realistic shot at the title. Arsenal will do what they’ve done for many seasons now: probably qualify again for the Champions League, get knocked out of this season’s Champions League at either the last sixteen or quarter final stage, and have a decent run in one of the domestic cups.

My team Liverpool began the season at the same place they finished last season – away at Stoke. Back in May it was a calamity as Liverpool lost 6-1 in Gerrard’s final game for the club. 11 weeks later, Liverpool again only scored once but Stoke didn’t score at all and so three hard-earned points were taken back to Anfield.

I’m not at all sure what to expect of Liverpool this season. There are a lot of new faces (again) but the pattern of play was the familiar one that Rodgers has established in his time at the club. Possession was plentiful but much of it was slow and almost entirely lacking in penetration, especially in wide areas. One point of encouragement though was that Benteke showed a sure touch and a willingness to get involved in build-up play. I think he’s going to prove to be a sound investment.

The opening round of fixtures was completed on Monday night with West Brom v Manchester City. Pellegrini’s side strolled to a comfortable 3-0 victory that was notable for the influential display of Toure and for the way that Kompany celebrated scoring the third goal (as if he’d just scored a crucial goal in a World Cup final). I get the impression that City feel they have a point to prove this season.

It may not turn out to be the greatest season in the history of the Premier League but just one week in, anything remains possible. I’m still excited about it but it seems that some people are writing football off altogether. There was an article in The Spectator last week by Mark Palmer titled ‘I’ve loved football for decades, now I dread the start of the season’ (https://www.spectator.co.uk/features/9600342/ive-loved-football-for-decades-now-i-dread-the-start-of-the-season/). Why so, Mark?

He suggests it’s because the game has ‘become a cesspit of greed, debauchery and racism, especially in Britain.’ He goes on to conclude that ‘football is rotten and there’s no point denying it any more. The penny dropped on seeing the footage of Souleymane Sylla, a black Frenchman on his way home from work in Paris, being pushed off a train by snarling Chelsea fans fuelled by drink and hate.’

There’s no denying the ugliness of that incident but it’s a bit much to give up on the beautiful game because of it. Like many things in life, football is indeed tainted by greed, debauchery and racism (and more ills besides) on occasion but those so-called Chelsea fans on the Parisian tube are not the face of football, or at least they are far from the only face.

On Monday night I received several photos from the West Brom v Manchester City game. They were sent by an Indian colleague of mine. He is a City supporter and took his son to the game while on a family trip to the UK. My colleague and his son had huge excited smiles on their faces. This was the first time that they had seen City play live. For weeks they’d been dreaming about the start of the season. 2015/16 will be one to remember for them.

Pre-season: the newbies, the nerves, and the nausea

Pre=season training. Photo by: Picture Esk www.flickr.com

Pre-season training. Photo by: Picture Esk
http://www.flickr.com

It’s that time of year, the sun is out (even occasionally in Scotland), the grass is freshly cut, and all across the land players are reporting back for pre-season training. They’ve had their summer holidays involving yachts, five star resorts, maybe turned up for an afternoon at Wimbledon, and now it’s back to work.

I wonder if the first day back at work after the summer holidays is the same for footballers as the rest of us: sharing awkward holiday pictures, delivering tacky souvenirs, and comparing tans. At least they probably don’t have around 2,000 emails to deal with unless they have a very active agent.

Of course almost straight away they then jet off to long haul destinations (increasingly turning up in this part of the world to meet and greet the global fan base). It’s surprising that travel supplements haven’t appeared yet on ‘this season’s top pre-season destinations: the ideal mix of climate, cuisine and local fans willing to pay inflated ticket prices while you go through the motions in a meaningless game.’

Indeed, the first match I saw here in Malaysia was a Malaysia Select XI v Barcelona. It wasn’t much of a game and Barca ended up winning 3-1. To their credit, Barca fielded a mostly full strength team but with one exception, yes, Messi was left kicking his heels and nursing a tight hamstring on the touchline. A week later, the Catalans kicked-off their La Liga campaign with a 7-0 victory over Levante in which Messi scored twice so the injury clearly wasn’t too debilitating.

I felt great sympathy for those in the crowd in Kuala Lumpur who chanted their hero’s name throughout the second half in the hope that the manager might be persuaded to send him on even for a brief cameo. Alas it was not to be and a lot of kids, plus a few big kids, with ‘Messi 10’ on the back of their strips went home at least a little disappointed.

It seemed a bit off to me to plaster Messi’s face all over town in the month before the game as part of the marketing effort and then not play him because he had a very slight injury. These games represent one of the enduring dilemmas of the modern game – sporting interests versus commercial interests. I doubt many managers of the big clubs would consider playing in the tropical heat of KL against vastly inferior opposition to be the ideal preparation for their forthcoming league campaigns.

Tomorrow night it’s Liverpool’s turn to experience the tropical conditions. They too will face a Malaysia Select XI (meaning that foreign players playing in Malaysia can be selected) rather than the Malaysian national team. In terms of the competitiveness of the contest, that’s probably a good thing since the national side’s last match was a 6-0 home defeat to Palestine.

I was at that game but I’m not going tomorrow night despite being a Liverpool fan. To be honest, I’ve lost virtually all interest in friendly matches. I can understand local fans wanting to see the teams they support live (and people here are huge supporters of the English Premier League as is the case throughout the region) but when you’ve seen Liverpool play at Anfield in a Premier League game, a game such as this holds a lot less appeal.

One interesting thing about this time of year of course is the transfer merry-go-round. It’s been spinning pretty furiously at Anfield but it remains to be seen to what effect. I think Milner is an absolutely terrific free transfer signing and I’m confident that Benteke will prove a decent if perhaps slightly overpriced buy. Firmino looks exciting but Rodgers’ record in the transfer market has been far from convincing so far and thus I will reserve judgment for a couple of months.

There’s a lot of pressure on new signings, especially the big money ones. If the recently arrived star striker doesn’t score in a friendly away at Yeovil or somewhere then you can be sure that he will have experienced his first crisis at his new club.

Most clubs appear to still insist on some sort of initiation ceremony for newcomers and this often seems to take the form of karaoke. I imagine Raheem Sterling may have done Abba’s ‘Money, Money, Money’ when he arrived at Manchester City. It’s a rich man’s world indeed Raheem but it can’t buy class.

As the Sterling saga demonstrated, patience is a rare commodity in football these days and the stakes are often very high, very quickly. Already a lot of clubs are battling for qualification in the Champions League and Europa League. My Croatian team, Rijeka (who have qualified consistently for the group stages of the Europa League in recent seasons), lost 3-0 at home last week to Aberdeen. At least they had the decency to lose to a Scottish team.

I had expected Aberdeen to struggle in that fixture, not least because the Croatian league season has already started while in Scotland the opening fixtures are still over a week away. I’ve recently become a convert to the idea of summer football in Scotland and one of the reasons is to improve the prospects for Scottish sides in European qualifying games.

My own memories of pre-seasons in Scotland are mostly of the harrowing variety. I remember the long runs along Carnoustie beach which lasted until at least half the squad had vomited or looked on the brink of doing so. Afterwards we would get an equally harrowing massage from the physio – it was agony but it did seem to help. Our physio wore a permanent neck brace and walked with the aid of a stick, an unlikely candidate to be a physiotherapist but he was a good one.

For all the nerves and nausea (whether as player or supporter) the build up to the first day of the season is always exciting, you’re still filled with hope irrespective of the pre-season it’s been. Football fans tend toward the optimistic at this time of year unless your team has sold all its best players (as my club have, and all of them to Celtic).

Still, a big win on the opening day and you could be top of the league. Not long to go now, I’m almost nauseous with excitement.

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.

What game were you watching?

West Ham - David Cameron's a fan. Or maybe not.

West Ham – David Cameron’s a fan. Or maybe not.

I was watching West Brom v Liverpool this weekend and so, I presume, was Brendan Rodgers. He was certainly present on the touchline but the game he witnessed seemed to be a bit different to the one that was beamed into my living room.

Rodgers described Liverpool’s performance as “outstanding,” a claim that I would describe as outlandish. There was one genuinely outstanding moment when Ibe burst past several opponents and cracked a shot against the bar but otherwise Liverpool lacked the creativity to break down the massed ranks of Albion’s defence.

Liverpool enjoyed plenty of possession (a whopping 74% apparently) but did little with it. Coutinho found himself dropping deeper and deeper in a bid to try and influence the game and West Brom were delighted to watch his gradual retreat away from their penalty area.

Gerrard was composed but not commanding while alongside him Henderson was demonstrating that a £100k/week footballer is not necessarily an outstanding footballer. To be fair, Henderson is much improved since his arrival at Anfield but he has a long way still to go before he starts bossing games consistently in the way that Gerrard did in his prime.

In the post-match interview Henderson said: “we’ve just got to keep playing like that until the end of the season.” That should please Hull ahead of tonight’s game.

Louis Van Gaal meanwhile only had to watch his side warm-up to pass judgment on their performance in the 3-0 defeat to Everton. “I had already the feeling and my colleagues Ryan Giggs and Albert Stuivenberg had the feeling because the warm up was not so good as usual.”

I wonder if Van Gaal watched the warm-up or just relied on reports from his assistants. It’s unusual for a manager to watch the warm-up and even more unusual for them to conduct it. They probably should though, at least every so often, just to keep the players on their toes.

Warm-ups have become more sophisticated over the years. I remember the days when they consisted of little more than a few leisurely stretches and then lining up to batter the ball at the goalkeeper (usually with about four or five people shooting at once). Now there’s generally much greater intensity and some small sided games to simulate what players are about to encounter.

I suspect that Van Gaal will at least have warmed his players’ ears up at half-time with some strong words on their performance.

Arsenal fans found themselves watching and chanting “boring, boring Chelsea” at the weekend as their side were held to a 0-0 draw by Mourinho’s champions-elect. The Chelsea manager’s response was classic: “Boring is 10 years without a title.” 1-0 to the Mourinho I think Arsenal fans.

John Terry later stuck the boot in again, saying: “Possession and tippy-tappy football’s great, but if you are not winning games you’re not going to win the league.” Tippy-tappy is one of the great insults of British football, often employed at youth games by the ‘let’s get it up the park’ brigade on the touchlines.

There’s no doubt that Wenger aims for Arsenal to play in the tiki taka style of Barcelona but the line between tiki taka and tippy-tappy is a fine one. Even Barcelona these days are opting for a more direct and muscular version of tiki taka. Arsenal should take note as the Gunners still lack the necessary firepower to win the league.

This weekend highlighted the fact that we all see games differently. It’s one of the things that make football so interesting. One man’s ‘outstanding’ is another man’s ‘mediocre.’ One man’s ‘boring’ is another man’s ‘winning.’ One man’s ‘tiki taka’ is another man’s ‘tippy-tappy.’

It can be difficult to agree what we’re watching, but at least we know who we’re watching. Right, David Cameron?