Friday, 7 October 2011

Clairefontaine, La Masia and...Burton?

Spain has La Masia, France has the Clairefontaine Academy and soon England will have St. George’s Park to churn out future talent to help them lift a future World Cup.

Formerly known as the Burton National Football Centre, St. George’s Park aims to be the home of English Football Development, bringing together all of the England Senior and Junior football teams under one roof.

The complex will work in a similar way to that of the Clairefontaine Academy which was founded by the France Football Federation in 1988 and developed stars such as Zinedine Zidane, Patrick Vieira, David Trezeguet and Thierry Henry.

However the French football complex has come under criticism for France’s recent failures at International tournaments as well as the outdated methods being taught to future coaches. Then of course there was the racism scandal that embroiled the FFF after it was revealed they secretly put in place a race-quota system in order to limit the number of dual-nationality players in its national academies.

The FA has promised though that St. George’s Park will not be a copy of other national football centres and has received backing from England manager, Fabio Capello, who said: "The venue will be an inspirational site, a place for coaches and players to work, learn and develop.”

Head of NFC Development, David Sheepshanks, said:” Every single leading European country has a national football centre - even Bulgaria - and we are the only leading European country that does not. Every country that has won the World Cup has one apart from us.”

England will hope that within St. George’s Park the FA can develop a team with the same calibre as the Spanish National team, most of which trained at Barcelona’s La Masia football Academy. In the 2010 World Cup final against Holland, Spain’s starting XI had six graduates from the La Masia Academy, including Gerard Piqué, Carles Puyol, Andrés Iniesta, Xavi Hernández, Sergio Busquets, and Pedro Rodríguez.

Spain could be facing real competition from England then when it comes to International football with St. George’s Park looking to create an England side with real World Cup winning potential and as it was revealed earlier this week, Manchester City have released images for their rival to Barcelona’s La Masia Youth Academy.

It seems with The FA and Manchester City looking to develop for the future, it could be quite sometime before England sees the benefits of these multi-million pound projects, but if the successes of Clairefontaine and La Masia are anything to go by, the future looks bright.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Arsenal v Liverpool Post Match Analysis

The new season’s first meeting between two top sides produced a mixed encounter of at times fantastic passages of play combined with scrappy and physical moments. Liverpool played Arsenal away at the Emirates stadium in a tight match between the two sides. Arsenal had to deal with suspensions to Alex Song and Gervinho as well as injuries to key players like Jack Wilshere. Liverpool on the other hand were still introducing four new players into the side and had to deal without Suarez for most of the match.

Honours were even for the most part with only Liverpool really looking to threaten the score, it took Emmanuel Frimpong being sent off in the 70th minute and the introduction of Suarez and Meireles before the score line was changed. Even then it took a freak own goal from Aaron Ramsey to get Liverpool started before Suarez killed the game off.

Pass and Move is the Liverpool Groove

Both sides had changes to their starting XI due to differing reasons. Suspensions for Arsenal saw Emmanuel Frimpong enter the side alongside Ramsey and Nasri in midfield, whilst new boy Carl Jenkinson played at right-back as Bacary Sagna was moved across to left-back. An early injury to Laurent Koscielny meant another new boy, Ignasi Miquel stepped into Arsenal’s standard 4-3-3 formation.

Liverpool only made two changes in comparison, switching Martin Kelly in for John Flanagan after his mistake at Sunderland and Dirk Kuyt started over Suarez for fitness reasons, with Liverpool matching Arsenal in a 4-3-3 formation with Carroll as the target man up front.

With Arsenal struggling for experience in the midfield, the Liverpool trio of Jordan Henderson, Lucas Leiva and Charlie Adam were able to knock the ball round with ease but played a much more direct game to Arsenal, getting the ball to the flanks quickly for Downing and Kuyt to cross into Carroll. This proved somewhat effective for Liverpool especially down their left flank, with the inexperienced Jenkinson finding it difficult to deal with the skill of Downing and the pace of Liverpool left-back Jose Enrique. Both swung in good crosses, first for Carroll who was denied by Wojciech Szczęsny, and the second for Henderson who couldn’t direct it away from the Arsenal Keeper. At times Liverpool were superb with the ball and even made Arsenal look second best at the Emirates

When Arsenal had the ball it was left to Nasri to be the team’s only real driving force, testing Liverpool’s Pepe Reina from afar several times and linking up with Arsharvin effectively. However Liverpool’s pressing was particularly effective, with Lucas continuing to break up the attack in midfield and having to deal with a personal battle with Emmanuel Frimpong all match. Arsenal’s lack of experience at the back and in the central midfield meant they struggled to create fluidity at the Emirates and only really tested Liverpool with long distance efforts.

Key Moment

With the deadlock going into the second half a 0-0 could have been likely, but the 70th minute proved to be the changing point in the game for Liverpool.

With Emmanuel Frimpong’s challenge on Lucas blown for a foul he saw a second yellow and Luis Suarez was introduced for Carroll whilst Raul Meireles came on for Kuyt. Until this point Liverpool had been one dimensional but with Suarez and Meireles Liverpool had some much needed creativity and flair to the side and it only took 8 minutes with the two on the pith before they helped to create the Ramsey own goal.

With Arsenal a man down and a goal down, they seemed lost. Frimpong had been a unit in midfield, winning the ball back and driving the team forward whilst marshalling the defence from a defensive midfield position. For Liverpool’s second goal the midfield advantage took the game away from Arsenal as Liverpool linked up outside Arsenal’s 18 yard box to create a wonderful move that left Suarez with an easy tap in to secure the 3 points.

Full Time

Whilst there is an argument that Liverpool’s goals were offside, sometimes in football you need a bit of luck. Unfortunately for Arsene Wenger luck hasn’t been on his side recently and a result like this against Liverpool will hurt the Gunners, particularly when everyone’s tipping Liverpool to squeeze Arsenal out of the top four. Whilst Liverpool were fortuitous with the result, they had at times dominated the game and without Frimpong Arsenal couldn’t cope as Liverpool bolstered their attacking options. Without Suarez’s creativity there is an argument to suggest that Carroll on his own hasn’t got the technical ability needed to break teams like Arsenal down, but early on he looked busy against Arsenal and it might take time before Liverpool and Carroll adapt to a style that suits both the player and the team.

It must be said that this was the opportune moment to play Arsenal with all the problems they have in their first team squad. As a result Kenny picked a strong team and gave himself even better options on the bench which paid off when the perfect moment arrived.

Some people in the media have criticised the performances of both teams but in my opinion Liverpool looked confident throughout the game and played slightly better throughout the match. Sometimes you have to create your own luck in life and that’s certainly what Liverpool did against Arsenal at the Emirates.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Liverpool v Sunderland Post match: Reds must produce more

The 1-1 draw at home to Steve Bruce’s Sunderland wasn’t the result most Liverpool fans would have suspected before kick-off. Liverpool, a team that is supposed to be on the up and challenging for a top four finish versus Sunderland, a team that many have suspected of struggling this season.

The result seems a particularly bitter pill for Liverpool fans to swallow, considering the spell of dominance the team had in the first half. Liverpool looked assured on the ball and despite Suarez missing a penalty and Andy Carroll having a goal disallowed (perhaps unjustly), they dominated throughout the first 45 minutes, creating good movement on and off the ball, keeping the majority of possession and scoring a great goal through Charlie Adam’s cross.

It was unfortunate then to see Seb Larsson score a glorious volley past Reina in the second half. Any Liverpool fan would be forgiven for not seeing it coming, Sunderland snatching an equaliser at Anfield in a game were Liverpool looked like the only likely winners. But most football fans out there will know that Seb Larsson is certainly a dangerous player and when given that amount of freedom inside the opposition’s box, he’ll score goals. It was a pity then that John Flanagan and the rest of the Liverpool defence hadn’t been given that insider’s knowledge. However that is perhaps too harsh on the young right back, after all this was the first game of the season, the pressure was on and he’d be forgiven for thinking the opposition was Manchester United, what with Kieran Richardson, Wes Brown and Ferdinand all at the back (albeit, the less talented Ferdinand brother). Mistakes like that by young players will always be remembered too and he’ll learn. Thank God.

A better question is why did two Liverpool players allow such a fantastic cross into the area in the first place? If more talented opposition is given that sort of freedom on the wings Liverpool will find themselves leaking goals.

One of the other big talking points of the match I’m sure we’ll all hear over the next few days was the performance of Luis Suarez and more importantly, the decision to play him so soon after the Copa America. Considering he won the entire tournament on his own (if you believe what all the pundits say), you would have thought he deserved to miss a match, which on paper should have been 3 points. For me Suarez dropped too deep, and more often than not was found lurking around the right wing as Henderson tucked inside, leaving Carroll somewhat isolated which was a shame considering he won a great deal of the aerial challenges. Ignoring his shocking penalty, his goal from Charlie Adam’s superb cross was well deserved and he made up for his earlier mistake.

It must be noted though this wasn’t his best performance for Liverpool and his arrival back into the squad has probably come a week too soon. His substitution after an hour for Raul Meireles, was a good idea from Dalglish and was meant to give the Reds more strength in midfield. It was just a shame that even with the quality in the centre, Liverpool all too often lumped the ball up field for Carroll to knock down, bypassing the central players in the process.

It’s very easy to criticise Liverpool for not finishing the game off but a draw is one point better than a loss and if next week when they remain unbeaten after facing Arsenal, all could be forgiven. Liverpool fans and Kenny Dalglish have high hopes for this season and the manager hopes to challenge for the title too, but that ambition needs to be matched by the performances of players on the pitch.

From today’s performance it must be said that Kenny’s ambition is not being met by some of the players and that’s the biggest disappoint of the Sunderland match. Not the 1-1 score line.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Liverpool and the Midfield Puzzle

For The upcoming 2011/12 season Liverpool have been very active in the transfer market bringing in players like Charlie Adam, Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson to an already packed midfield that boasts some of Liverpool’s key players.

You could easily accuse the Reds of having a bloated midfield with Steven Gerrard, Lucas Leiva and Dirk Kuyt joined by Raul Meireles, Alberto Aquilani, and Maxi Rodriguez all pushing for a starting place. Then of course there’s the youngsters, Jay Spearing and Jonjo Shelvey, and fringe players Christian Poulsen and Joe Cole, all presumably behind Kenny’s newcomers. That’s 13 midfielders and wingers all together (with Milan Jovanovic sold to Anderlecht) that Kenny Dalglish must find a role for within his squad.

So with all these midfield players and two talented forwards in Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez to take into account when picking a starting XI, how does Dalglish solve a midfield Puzzle like the one at Liverpool FC?

Taking into account a lot of the deadwood within the team, Joe Cole and Poulsen in particularly will certainly have to impress in training to get a starting place in the team, with rumours circulating that Cole might even be shipped off to West Ham or QPR. Then we have the ‘will he won’t he leave’ saga surrounding Aquilani who certainly looks set to be a creative element in Liverpool’s midfield if pre-season is anything to go by.

However, even if Liverpool got rid of a few of these players, Dalglish will still struggle to find a role for all of these players. A 0-10-0 formation certainly isn’t possible and it will be very difficult to get the best midfielders like Downing, Gerrard, Kuyt, Aquilani, Meireles, Lucas, Adam and Henderson all into one giant midfield system.

So what does this mean then for Liverpool? No Europa League in the upcoming season means players like Shelvey and Spearing will find it harder to get first team experience, especially if Liverpool make a push for good League and FA Cup runs this year, they’ll need the best players to play week after week. However a lack of space on the pitch should, in theory spill over to a stronger bench, something Liverpool have lacked really since pre-Benitez era and it’s a problem that has persisted until now. Then you have to consider that so few places in the starting XI will surely create greater competition within the squad to for a starting place, which should result in stronger performances on match day that should mean better results.

If we look at the attacking midfielder role within Liverpool as an example, Steven Gerrard has been first choice for years with no-one in the squad really competing for his place. Now we have the likes of Meireles, Aquilani and Henderson all wanting to play in that role Gerrard has turned into his own. So we have to assume that anyone who is charged with the task of playing behind the striker and creating chances will be the best man for the job on that day, rather than just being selected due to reputation. Next season Liverpool fans could find that a player’s status within the club and to the fans will account for nothing when it comes to squad selection, which can only lead to good thing to come.

The hardest part of the midfield puzzle however will be the formation Kenny Dalglish uses to not only take advantage of his huge choice of midfielders, but also to take into account the striking partnership of Carroll and Suarez. It would be too easy to assume that Dalglish will go with a flat 4-4-2 formation just because that’s what he did last season and with past teams. Last season he didn’t have the central or wide midfield options he has now and it’s this tactical flexibility and the variety of different types of players that may prove to be Liverpool’s greatest solution to this puzzle.

Looking at this squad it would be easy for Liverpool to play any variety of 4-5-1 (i.e. 4-2-3-1, 4-3-2-1, flat 4-5-1, 4-1-4-1), or to utilise both Carroll and Suarez in a 4-4-2 variant (i.e. 4-1-3-2, 4-1-2-1-2, Diamond 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1). However it would be just as easy to adapt a Barcelona style 4-3-3 formation, making use of Lucas, Adam and Aquilani and their passing abilities in a midfield trio similar but not as good as, Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets, with Suarez playing on the right in the “Messi” role and Downing on the left, offering crosses for Carroll in the centre of a front three.

With an almost infinite amount of possibilities for tactical style and formation, the overflowing midfield selection will undoubtedly become Liverpool’s greatest asset next season, with a team for every occasion being more than possible. Counter-attacking? Go 4-2-3-1 with Lucas and Adam sitting deep. All out attack? Go 4-3-3. Want to limit the oppositions passing ability? Go 4-3-2-1 with Gerrard and Aquilani behind the striker. For every team and for every system that will be used against Liverpool, the sheer depth of the squad should allow them to have a counter-system in place to give them the best chance possible.

This midfield puzzle will perhaps still persist for awhile, certainly until January when the next transfer window opens and Liverpool have the opportunity to drop more deadwood or bring in more variety, because the bottom line is some of the players in the squad still aren’t good enough. The youngsters will improve and some of the newer and older players will adapt to new systems. The strength in depth Liverpool have for midfield may perhaps protect weaknesses at the back if our pre-season ‘form’ continues into the new Premier League season (however with Reina in goal as opposed to Doni, we should see more clean sheets than 0-3’s).

The best way to solve this midfield puzzle however looks to be a combination of squad selection and tactical system. If Liverpool can nail down that right system to play against the opposition and pick the correct players, what appears to be a bloated midfield choice could become Liverpool’s greatest strength.

After all, if Liverpool can’t be certain who they’re going to pick week in and week out, how can their opponents ever hope to feel suitably prepared?