"What do you mean you've hurt 'your' knee, it's Liverpool's knee" - Bill Shankly.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Dirk Kuyt's goals

Extracted from Tomkin's article: Reds are coming up the Hill

I do still despair at the minority who focus on Dirk Kuyt's shortcomings rather than his attributes. For a centre-forward he's not especially prolific, but for a wide midfielder he contributes massively. His movement is superb, largely because he mixes intelligence with great stamina and heart. 
  
And in the last two years, he has scored an incredible amount of important goals. 
  
His finishes took the Reds to the semi-final of the Champions League last season, and into the group stages this time. He also took two massive penalties at Goodison Park last season, the second in injury time to win the game. 
  
Rather incredibly, this year his 10 goals have all been vital: either the team's first in a match, which he's done seven times, and/or late, late goals to help win games for the Reds (four times) and salvage a draw (once). Go and check: not a single 'luxury' or consolation goal in there. 
  
Ten solid gold goals. 
  
Some goalscorers rack up high figures in routs, or bang one in when the opposition is easing off with a big lead, but goal difference aside, they can be meaningless. Kuyt's great strike against Villa was just the latest in a long line of telling contributions. 

The Cost of Premiership Squads - A Comparison

Link

This is designed as an accompaniment piece to my latest article for the LFC website, which I've submitted today. The explanations of the figures are in that article.

(I've updated the figures to include most of the well-known home-grown players from all teams, and added Zoran Tosic to United's figures; the Guardian said he and another player (Adam Ljajic) cost £17m as a double deal, so I took a figure of £9m as an estimate, even though he was the star name and therefore likely to have cost £11m or £12m, if the £17m is correct.

I didn't bother to calculate the cost of other squads, but feel fairly certain that none would cost as much as Liverpool's in 5th place. I'm guessing Villa's and Newcastle's cost a fair bit, and when I get time I will try to add them and Arsenal.)


1. Chelsea


Chelsea 


2. Manchester United


United 
 

3. Spurs

Spurs 


4. Manchester City


City 


5. Liverpool

Lfc


Saturday, March 28, 2009

Media Myths: Rafa Benitez and His Transfer History With Liverpool Football Club



Link

Myth: "fable, fiction, lie; a widespread but untrue or erroneous story or belief."

There appears to be a trend growing amongst media outlets, “expert” pundits, and supporters who ensure a negative air surrounds Liverpool Football Club and more commonly its manager, Rafa Benitez.

It seems he can do no right in the eyes of some people—his own supporters included—and more false claims appear every week that serve only to derail him from his aims.

As more and more newspapers churn out sensational headline after headline and television pundits spout opinion as fact; the more people are brainwashed by these stories.

Many lazy debaters claim their opinion to be fact or truth whilst they simply recycle misleading newspaper propaganda as their own knowledge or belief.

Biased supporters who choose to jump on the slander bandwagon when it involves a rival team are common place, and this only adds to the ever-growing ideology of a story perceived as fact.



Ideology: “a system that derives ideas exclusively from sensation or a set of ideas proposed by the dominant group of a society to all members of this society.”

“Organizations that strive for power will try to influence the ideology of a society to become closer to what they want it to be. Organizations and other groups (e.g. Media Outlets) try to influence people by broadcasting their opinions.”

One such myth which seems to have appeared recently has been the same tired line about Rafa Benitez and his transfers since his time at Liverpool.

You will hear people claiming things like:

“A larger proportion of Rafa's signings have been expensive and poor.”

This does of course depend on how a person interprets the words expensive and poor—the latter obviously being down to their personal opinion of a player.

For example if someone wants to use the barometer of anything over a million pounds to be expensive and any player other than Messi or Ronaldo is considered poor; then anyone will struggle to argue against that logic—me included.

We can address the “expensive” part of the argument first:


£20-30+ million: 1 (1)

Torres

£10-20 million: 4 (3)

Mascherano, Keane, Babel, Alonso

£5-10 million: 14 (9)

Dossenna, Riera, Agger, Skrtel, Reina, Benayoun, Leiva, Kuyt, Pennant, Crouch, Bellamy, Sissoko, Morientes, Garcia

£0-5 million: 47 (36)

Degan, Cavelieri, Ngog, Plessis, Insua, Leto, Itandje, Voronin, Arbeloa, El Zhar, Aurelio, Palletta, Fowler, Kromkamp, Barragan, Nunez, Zenden, Gonzalez, Carson, Pellegrino, Josemi, Martin, Antwi, Hobbs, Miki Roque, Gulacsi, Anderson, Poloskei, Crowther, Hansen, Saric, Ayala, Weijl, Blanco, Flora, Mendy, Ajdarevic, Simon, Bouzanis, Nemeth, Pacheco, Palsson, Brouwer, Durán, Huth, Domínguez,

(Numbers in brackets are players still at the club)

It is easy to see that the majority of Rafa’s signings have been below the £10 million mark and nothing like the fabrication that he has bought mostly “expensive” signings.

Especially when you consider that 49 of his signings are still at the club and the selling on fee cannot yet be determined.
Here are some more comments and claims made about Rafael Benitez:

“He has bought 53 players for £190 million and sold 56 for £108 million, clearly a loss of £82 million proves he doesn’t have a clue in the transfer market.”

This is a full rundown of Rafael Benitez’ signings since he joined Liverpool in June 2004:


Players bought in by Benitez: 66

Players still at the club: 49

First Team: 18

Alonso, Reina, Agger, Aurélio, Kuyt, Arbeloa, Mascherano, Lucas, Torres, Itandje, Benayoun, Babel, Skrtel, Degen, Dossena, Cavalieri, Ngog, Riera.

Reserve Team: 22

El Zhar, Insúa, Palsson, Brouwer, Durán, Huth, Domínguez, Pacheco, Nemeth, Plessis, Hansen, Saric, Ayala, Weijl, Blanco, Flora, Mendy, Ajdarevic, Simon, Bouzanis, Crowther, Poloskei

Out on Loan: 9

Andriy Voronin, Jermaine Pennant, Sebastian Leto, David Martin, Godwin Antwi, Jack Hobbs, Miki Roque, Peter Gulacsi, Paul Anderson



A figure of 49 players bought by Rafa are still playing for the club with the majority (22) bought as youth players for the reserve team—with the idea for future revenue if they perform to their potential. It will also save the club a great deal of money if they turn out to be superstars worth a large transfer fee.

From that 49 figure, there are 18 still playing for the first team and contributing on a very large scale with the majority of them being priced by many as a greater figure than when the players were initially bought by Rafa.

From the nine players out on loan, only two are established players with the other seven being young reserve players gaining experience at other clubs—with the hope of either returning to Liverpool’s first team or making a profit to invest in future transfers.



Players Sold On by Benitez: 56

Players Bought By Other Managers and Sold on by Benitez: 39

Players bought and sold on by Rafa Benitez: 17

For me, this is the key point from which poorly informed debaters’ opinions collapse. Most propaganda articles or rival supporters will wildly claim that Rafa has sold 56 players and made little money in return.

They claim the “majority” of the 56 players the Liverpool manager has sold on have been at a loss and “proves” his failings in the transfer market. This is such a misleading statement to make that I really don’t know how people can still get away with it.

Benitez cannot be held accountable for selling a player at a loss when Benitez was not the one who identified the player as a target in the first place or sanctioned the over-inflated transfer fee.

You can only really judge him on the players he has bought and sold since he has been at the club and this brings the true figure down to just 17 players.



Profit: 7

Carson +2.25, Barragan +0.43, Sissoko +2.6, Crouch +4.0, Gonzalez +2.0, Bellamy +1.5, Nunez +0.5

Loss: 6

Garcia -2.0, Morientes -3.3, Palletta -0.8, Josemi (swapped for) Kromkamp -0.25, Idrizaj -0.19, Keane -3.0 (could be even less depending on contract triggers)

Even: 4

Pellegrino, Zenden, Fowler, Padelli (all four players were brought in and moved on for a free transfer)



So the true extent of Rafa’s failings in the transfer market is just six players from 17, coming with a loss of just under £10 million within four and a half years—the most expensive loss being just £3.3 million; nothing like the losses achieved by other established Premier League managers.

Hopefully that one more media myth thats been eradicated.

Shanks & Rafa - a meeting of two great football minds

On Pass & Move

What Shankly said: "Football is a simple game based on the giving and taking of passes, of controlling the ball and of making yourself available to receive a pass. It?s terribly simple."

What Benitez says: "This is the pass-and-move thing. If we could take this concept on to the pitch every time we played then football would be simple and beautiful. Every single manager tries to achieve it, but we can hardly ever do it."

On referees

What Shankly said: "The trouble with referees is that they know the rules but they do not know the game."

What Benitez says: "This is an old, old debate. By the time referees are finally experienced enough to understand the teams and what the players are trying to get away with, it's time for them to retire. It's a disgrace, but that's the way things work at the moment."

On football & life

What Shankly said: "Somebody said to me, 'Football's a matter of life and death to you.' I said, 'Listen, it's much more important than that."

What Benitez says: "I wouldn't be as extreme in my expression, but I does explain perfectly the passion he had for this sport. We have to place a huge value on our jobs because we have so many people whose hopes and happiness hang on what we do. It is very important to do everything as well as we possibly can, just for them."

On the mind

What Shankly said: "A lot of football success is in the mind. You must believe you are the best and then make sure you are. In my time at Liverpool we always said we had the best two teams on Merseyside, Liverpool and Liverpool reserves."

What Benitez says: "I agree that the mind is crucial not only for football, but also for your normal everyday life. If you want to reach your goals you need a great and strong mind."

On not being first

What Shankly said: "If you are first you are first. If you are second you are nothing."

What Benitez says: "People never remember the seconds. The third places always enjoy it more than the second. The third wins a bronze, but the second loses the gold medal."

On directors

What Shankly said: "At a football club there is a holy trinity - the players, the manager and the supporters. Directors don't come into it - they are only there to sign the cheque."

What Benitez says: "When he says 'come into it' then if it means obstruct, it is not beneficial. If it means bringing useful knowledge, then it is."

Friday, March 27, 2009

Flying Dutchman's lesson for Gerrard

Last updated at 5:40 PM on 25th March 2009

by Martin Samuel

There is a reason Steven Gerrard is not asked to play for England in the same position he plays for Liverpool, and his name is Wayne Rooney. Those who think that the great conundrum of England selection still concerns Gerrard’s relationship with Frank Lampard are living in the past.

They occupy different areas of the field now and one might as well debate whether John Terry and Gareth Barry are mutually exclusive. Gerrard versus Rooney is the issue these days because Gerrard performs so brilliantly for Liverpool at deep centre forward, behind Fernando Torres, and that is where Rooney expects to play for England (except with Emile Heskey as his foil, which might explain why England are not quite up there with Spain yet).

The teaser for Fabio Capello, the England manager, is whether he indulges Gerrard, as the man in form, and shunts Rooney to a wide area, or whether he keeps Rooney in a role that, this season, has seen him turn in his best international performances since the 2004 European Championship, therefore keeping Gerrard on the left, a role he plainly dislikes.

Either way, he could do worse than to sit both men down with a DVD of Dirk Kuyt of Liverpool as a way of demonstrating that occupying the wide position does not mean the end, but the beginning.

Enlarge Liverpool striker Dirk Kuyt

At the top of his game: Kuyt

Perhaps the ultimate Kuyt goal is Liverpool’s equaliser against Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium in the Champions League last season. Ryan Babel slips the ball to Torres, who has dropped out of his lone striker position to assist on the edge of the area.

Torres plays in Gerrard, who drives into the Arsenal penalty area, going past Emmanuel Eboue, then Kolo Toure, before pulling the ball back from the byline to cross. Kuyt, arriving late at full pelt from a wide right position, out-muscles Philippe Senderos, the Arsenal centre half, in the six-yard box and forces the ball past Arsenal’s goalkeeper Manuel Almunia.

And there, encapsulated, is the changing face of modern football. The striker comes out of the space and the midfield and wide players flood into it. What Capello wants from his wide forward, Kuyt has been doing for years now, often to little credit. His work ethic, unselfishness and ability to operate in a netherworld between the touchline, forward line and midfield make him the epitome of the modern attacker.

Kuyt will never have an FA Cup final named after him like Gerrard or draw comparisons with Pele as Rooney did in Portugal but at the top of his game for Liverpool, pound for pound, he continues to punch his weight against the best of them. He knows what his manager wants and he delivers it without ego or introspection.

Enlarge Dirk Kuyt equalises for Liverpool against Arsenal in the Champions League

Great leveller: Kuyt (second left) beats Senderos (second right) and Gael Clichy (left) to Gerrard's centre, leaving Almunia (right) stranded

While Gerrard can obsess about his place in a game and Rooney can become angered by his predicament if unsuccessful, Kuyt has somehow learned to balance his past with his present and accept that circumstances have changed.

He is known as a down-to-earth character — his father was a North Sea fisherman in Katwijk aan Zee, and his wife continued to work as a nurse at an old people’s home even when her husband was one of the most famous footballers in Holland — and his performances reflect that. There is little ego in what Kuyt brings to his team, even though at Liverpool he could easily have thrown a tantrum by now.

Kuyt was bought as a striker. Yes, he could play wide if required because in Holland the 4-3-3 system is king, but he was the Dutch league’s top goalscorer on two occasions, Feyenoord’s for three consecutive seasons, was voted Footballer of the Year in 2005-06 and left for Liverpool with a record of 71 goals in 101 league games.

His boyhood hero was Marco van Basten and on arrival he would justifiably have harboured ambitions to follow in the footsteps of Anfield legends such as Ian Rush and Robbie Fowler.

To have been so thoroughly recast, several years later, as a right-sided wide player whose creative talents and defensive running are as valued as the odd, often vital, goal, would have set off an outburst of temper in lesser men.

Kuyt could no doubt have found a club to accommodate him as a striker had he wished and many foreign imports would have done just that. His willingness to conform to the policies of Rafael Benitez, his manager, has paid dividends, however. Kuyt now recreates his Liverpool role for Holland when, as a striker, he might not have got into the national team.

In this, the system in his country is also rewarded. Dutch football teaches its young footballers to be comfortable in a variety of roles, rather than fearing new ideas, which seems the English way.

Albert Riera, Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard, Dirk Kuyt, Liverpool

Inspirational presence: Gerrard's (second right) Liverpool team-mates (l-r) Albert Riera, Fernando Torres and Kuyt congratulate their skipper after taking the lead at Old Trafford

This is where Kuyt’s adaptability bisects Capello’s vision for England. To make the next step, Capello requires a player with Gerrard and Rooney’s ability but Kuyt’s understanding of the game and absence of ego. He needs someone approaching the perfect footballer and he does not have that within his England team: not in terms of temperament, at least.

Gerrard may be an inspirational presence on the field for Liverpool, but off it, and with England, he is beset by insecurities. When he complained that he had only been played in his best position five times in 68 games by England he was referring to a role so specific it would determine not just his selection, but that of another one, or maybe two, players.

Gerrard was speaking not of central midfield, but of attacking central midfield with another player detailed to sit and hold. So, given that he felt short-changed playing centrally with Lampard, imagine his reaction when asked to start wide. Never forget that Capello’s first thought was to make him captain and play him in the role he occupies so magnificently for Liverpool now — behind Rooney, who was deployed as a striker — and it was a failure.

Rooney has started on the left with Manchester United to some success, particularly in Europe last season when Sir Alex Ferguson preferred his defensive work-rate to that of Cristiano Ronaldo, but the player would appear to be on something of a short fuse at the moment and Capello may not wish to risk unsettling him further by moving him from a position in which he is beginning to prosper.

Manchester United's Wayne Rooney (R) gesticulates towards referee Phil Dowd

Short fuse: Rooney's temper gets the better of him after being sent off at Fulham by referee Phil Dowd

Capello’s instinct was to try to use Rooney as a lone striker last year, but he quickly became convinced that he is better in the hole between attack and midfield. Gerrard is also gradually looking more comfortable starting on the left and Capello may feel that swapping the players now is change for the sake of it.

Against that, if he is going to experiment, the time to do so is on Saturday in a friendly against Slovakia, not the following Wednesday in a competitive match with Ukraine. If he can work on switching Rooney and Gerrard this week, then that variation can be taken into the World Cup qualifier, where it will pose a serious problem for the Ukraine defence.

At times, Capello appears to react only to club form (judging by the selection and subsequent de-selection of a gang of Aston Villa players in the past two months) and this promotes the case for Gerrard in the centre.

Yet if he gets it wrong and Gerrard fails to rise to the occasion, with Rooney also in unfamiliar international territory on the left, Capello risks reducing two of his best players at a time when his England team are running relatively smoothly.

Capello is, of course, handsomely rewarded for these judgment calls but, even so, how much simpler just to be able to play a low-maintenance, highyield, ever-reliable, technically excellent Dutchman. If only everything in life was as simple as picking Dirk Kuyt.

The machine keeps crushing


Liverpool 5-0 Aston Villa

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Liverpool's revolution under Rafael Benitez

Link
Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez's former assistant coach Paco Herrera revealed all about the revolutionary changes implemented by the Spaniard in his first five years at the Merseyside club.

By Emily Benammar
Last Updated: 12:55PM GMT 24 Mar 2009


Revolutionised: Rafael Benitez has transformed Liverpool since arriving in 2004 according to former assistant Paco Herrera Photo: PA

Benitez, who has just signed up until 2014, has transformed Liverpool into one of Europe's most threatening teams. In the last fortnight alone they have closed Manchester United's seven-point lead to one, knocked Real Madrid out of the Champions league and put five goals past Aston Villa.

Hererra, who left Anfield to take over at Castellon, describes his former boss as a man who "lives football 24 hours a day" and revealed to the Sun what Benitez has achieved since 2004.

Creating a database of over 10,000 world players:
"Benitez does not leave any room for improvisation and he himself supervises everything. It's true he has a database with information on more than 10,000 players. It was when we started to sign up all the scouts. We started incorporating people from one country or another [and] as time went on Rafa proposed to create a personal database. That's where every day all the scouts are putting information on all the players they are watching - I would say it would be closer to 14,000 players."

Building a video room and ensuring access to footage from 12 top leagues around the world:
"There are big satellite dishes and contracts with two or three companies that make sure every month the club get all the videos from every country."

Transforming the Melwood training ground:
"Everything was created little by little - most of the things were done in the first two years. In the second year we started building a hotel of about 20 rooms. It was completed before I left so the players could concentrate there - above all before Champions League games. The players rest there in the training centre and they don't go to any other hotel. Benitez also created small hills in the training ground for the players to do resistance running."

Revolutionising the player's lifestyles:
"Dietary habits were changed from the outset. In general terms in the teams where the management staff were English the diet was not very careful. St the start the entire training ground - restaurant areas, areas with refrigerators where you can get energy drinks - as soon as Rafa arrived he banned everything he thought might be bad for the players. From that day food was meticulously studied. Now breakfast and lunch is made with commonsense for the good of an athlete."

Paco Herrera on Rafael Benitez and Liverpool:
"Everything is very detailed and thought through. Rafa lives football 24 hours a day. He has faith in his coaching staff and we had a great team. What they [Liverpool] value is the personality of Rafa. Professionals are respected there and Rafa is hugely respected. Bill Shankly is a myth for them - he is everything. but I think Rafa, in those five years at least, will match what they consider Shankly to be."

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Perhaps the best week ever without winning a trophy


Liverpool 4 - 0 Real Madrid


Manchester United 1-4 Liverpool

Oh, and my sister got married too!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Pepe Reina gives Iker Casillas an English lesson


Liverpool goalkeeper Pepe Reina has been giving Real Madrid’s Iker Casillas some language tips before the two Spaniards meet at Anfield on Tuesday night. At one point Casillas successfully translates ‘Liverpool are the best team’ into Spanish, but he cannot quite bring himself to declare Pepe Reina the best keeper in the world in any language!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Fabio Capello - a man and his tactics

Fabio Capello is the new England boss. Hopefully he cannot fail do better than the last chap. But what do we really know about our Italian saviour? Will he be able to get the best out of the ‘Golden Generation’? In terms of his man management style it is difficult to say, but from looking at his previous sides it seems the former Real Madrid, Juventus, AC Milan and Roma boss favours a pretty distinctive tactical set up.

Each of his last three title winning sides (Roma and Juventus in Italy and Real Madrid in Spain) have been based around a 4-4-2 formation with two defensive midfielders deployed in the centre.

In all three sides, the king-pin of the team was actually the same man - Brazilian international Emerson - whose job was simply to protect the back four. Rather like Claude Makelele at Chelsea, Emerson is quite a limited player in terms of skill, however his discipline, ability to read the game, and tenacity in the tackle made him ideal for playing this ‘road-blocking’ position.

Generally Capello chose to partner Emerson with a slightly more creatively minded player, but one who would still be strong in the tackle and carry his weight in the centre. The best example of this sort of player is probably Patrick Vieira who played alongside Emerson in Capello’s 2005-2006 title winning side at Juventus.

Vieria offers considerably more than Emerson going forward, but is not the sort of player who will be going out to get ten or fifteen goals in a season. Players like Vieria have the ability to play the Emerson role, but offer a little more as well - usually in terms of starting attacks.

Playing with two defensive minded midfielders has the obvious benefit of making your side exceptionally difficult to break down, but relies heavily on having talented attacking players in wide areas.

Capello achieved back to back titles with Juventus in 2005 and 2006 in part thanks to the extraordinary talent of Pavel Nedved who used the protection offered by Vieira and Emerson to influence the game hugely from the left wing, whilst at Real Madrid last year it was David Beckham who eventually had the intelligence to benefit from the freedom Capello’s preferred system offers.

However being a wide player in a Capello side is clearly a tough task. With two ‘sitters’ in the centre, the wide men are charged with covering a huge amount of the pitch and carry a lot of the creative responsibility. Often therefore, Capello relies on hugely athletic full backs to provide width, and perhaps more importantly, a striker who drops deep to link midfield and attack.

At Juventus in 2005 and 2006, Zambrotta spent most of his time playing both left back and left winger, whilst at Roma in 2001 Cafu did the same on the right. However in both cases Capello also had a striker (Raul at Real and Totti at Roma) who could also support the midfield and would usually operate in front of the opposition’s back four.

So how will this all work for England? The closest any Premiership side has come to replicating Capello’s preferred formation was the Arsenal ‘Invincibles’ side of 2003-2004 where Vieira and Gilberto played central midfield with Pires and Ljungberg on the wings. In this case the wide men were supported by the pacy Lauren and Ashely Cole from defence as well as the hugely talented Dennis Bergkamp in attack.

However, even back in 2002, the only English regulars in the Arsenal side were Sol Campbell, Martin Keown and Ashley Cole and generally it has to be said that English players are not used to operating with two holding midfielders.

Thankfully, Capello will have a firm defensive base from which to start building his England side with John Terry, Rio Ferdinand and Ashley Cole probably among the top five players in the world in their positions. Right back may prove a little more problematic with Gary Neville, at 32, unlikely to make the next World Cup. Capello may fancy a punt on Micah Richards, although full back does not look like his best position.

In midfield, Owen Hargreaves looks set to become one of the first names on the England team sheet, protecting the back four as he does so well for Manchester United. Choosing a partner for Hargreaves could prove more difficult, although I have a feeling we may see Steven Gerrard shackled into a more disciplined role – which given his headless chicken performances under McClaren may well be a good thing.

Another possibility may be for Gerrard to play the right sided role, just as Nedved played on the left under Capello at Juventus, although much will depend on whether a suitable successor to David Beckham can be found - Bentley, Lennon and Wright-Phillips have all seeming fallen short so far.

In the centre, players such as Gareth Barry, Michael Carrick, Scott Parker and Joey Barton may interest Capello, although the feeling has to be that they all lack the quality to be England regulars - perhaps with the exception of Parker. Lampard looks set to be a player to lose out, although he could potentially play in front of the midfield as the link man.

In Joe Cole, we may just have the ideal candidate to play the left sided role, although Ashley Young may be a possibility in the future, whilst up front Wayne Rooney should be able to play the link role with aplomb. Generally Capello has favoured an out and out goal getter as his second striker, a role which – fitness permitting – should suit Michael Owen perfectly.

Finally, as far as the goalie goes, I think he’ll stick with Robinson. So far as I can see the England goalkeeping crisis is just a media myth which hopefully Capello will see through straight away.

Importantly though, Capello will need able cover if he is to stay consistent in his tactics. McClaren had terrible luck with injuries, but failed to establish his preferred cover for stars like Michael Owen. Capello cannot afford to make the same mistake.

Overall though, the new boss appears to have plenty of talent at his disposal – certainly more than enough to mould the team in his preferred manner. England under Capello is unlikely to be exciting, and there will be a fair fews rows and a fair bit of contraversy along the way, but whatever else, at least we have a ‘proper’ boss now.

Capello’s title winning sides of the 00’s:

Real Madrid 2006-2007

Casillas, Cicinho, Ramos, Cannavaro, Roberto Carlos, Beckham, Diarra, Emerson, Guti, Van Nistelrooy, Raul

Juventus 2005-2006

Buffon, Zebina, Thuram, Cannavaro, Zambrotta, Camoranesi, Vieira, Emerson, Nedved, Ibrahimovic, Trezeguet

Roma 2000-2001

Antonioli, Cafu, Samuel, Mangone, Rinaldi, Candela, Tommasi, Emerson, Nakata, Montella, Totti


In the Milan period 1991-93 this was a typical Capello formation.


--------------------------Rossi---------------------------

--Tassotti---------Baresi-----Costacurta------------Maldini--

--Evani----------Albertini----Rijkaard---------------Donadoni

-------------Van Basten-----Gullit--------------------

other players available, F.Galli, Ancelotti, Simone, Massaro, Cudicini, Boban, Savicevic, Papin, Laudrup, Raducio, Nava, Lentini.

1993-95

----------------------- Rossi----------------------

---Panucci---------Baresi-----Costacurta------------Maldini--

--Boban----------Albertini----Desailly---------------Donadoni

-------------Savicevic-----Massaro--------------------

Other players, F.Galli, Sordo, Tassotti, Eranio, Simone, Lentini, Ielpo, Orlando


--------------------------Rossi---------------------------

--Panucci---------Baresi-----Costacurta------------Maldini--

------------Boban------Albertini---------Desailly------------

--------Savicevic-----Weah-------R Baggio--------------------


other players, Ielpo, F.Galli, Sordo, Viera, Di Canio, Simone, Futre, Eranio, Tassotti

In these periods Capello won 4 Serie A titles 1992, 1993, 1994, 1 champions cup 1994, 3 Italian super cups, 1992, 1993, 1994 and a european super cup 1994.


Link

Steven Gerrard Documentaries

Steven Gerrard - A Year in my Life


Steven Gerrard - My Story

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

What Lucas brings to the team. What Babel might bring

Posted by yorkykopite on January 1, 2009

Probably like a lot of us, when Lucas Leiva and Ryan Babel joined Liverpool I scanned websites of both Gremio and Ajax to see what the two sets of divested fans felt about losing their starlets to the Reds. 

The Gremio site was marked by fatalism, pride and a certain amount of anguish. But whatever the individual response to losing Lucas it was plain to see that the young lad commanded the complete confidence of his former club’s supporters. In fact it was clear they loved him. There were comparisons there between Lucas and Falcao, Lucas and Cerezo, even Lucas and Gerrard. Here, apparently, was a player of the authentic southern Brazilian style – a box-to-box midfielder who played football with the high technique we expect of players from that part of the world and the sense of urgent purpose that sometimes seems lacking. People talked about his one touch play, his imaginative running off the ball, his tireless desire to close down the opposition. They talked about his combativeness and his quick thinking. And they talked about how irreplaceable he would be and how they would miss him. No Red could scan those pages without experiencing a surge of joy (and because we are football romantics here at Anfield a tinge of pity for the Gremio lads too). This was a 19-year-old they were talking about! But probably most Reds reading those fantastic enconiums also felt a blast of disbelief that it was wind-swept Liverpool - not Real, not Barca, not Benfica, not Milan (sun-kissed, the lot of ‘em) - who were going to land the best young Brazilian to emerge since Kaka. 

The Ajax site was different. Babel divided opinion in Amsterdam. For every fan who talked up his staggering pace on the ball, there was a tired Dutch shrug at his erratic decision-making. For every supporter who mentioned his hammer shot there was another who bemoaned his shot selection and complained of his naivety. Maybe the idea of raw talent doesn’t impress in a country where even school footballers are expected to show something that’s been cooked. Or perhaps there’s simply more sour grapes at a prestigious club which is perennially and – for them - boringly stripped of its best young players. But even allowing for that there was a strata of genuine disbelief on the Ajax sites that Liverpool had thrown such a lot of money at such a misfiring talent.    

I liked both Lucas and Babel as soon as I saw them. I also liked the idea of them because both acquisitions seemed to signal that Rafa was thinking beyond the functional to the decorative. I don’t mean that in a bad sense. But compared to what we had at Anfield, and certainly to what we’d been used to under Houllier, both Lucas and Babel promised excitement and adventure and a readiness to take a huge punt on precocious talent. They indicated very strongly that we hoped soon to meet the best teams in Europe on level terms when it came to flair and technique. I still think that the two signings carried a colossal symbolic value which was every bit as important as the signing of Torres – and  something which probably wouldn’t have happened were it not for Istanbul. 

* * *

Eighteen months on, what are we to think? Well here’s a cautionary note. To ask that question even three weeks ago would have been to provoke an avalanche of derision at one of the young players. Lucas Leiva, we were told, was not Liverpool quality. He couldn’t pass, couldn’t tackle, couldn’t run and probably couldn’t piss without asking his mum first. He was a fraud, a waste of money, the worst Brazilian footballer of all time and he was, in fact, keeping far superior local talent out of the team. Against Fulham he was booed by the know-nothings and then his house was burgled. Jesus, you had to feel for him even if you didn’t rate him as a footballer. You also had to feel embarrassed that Anfield, which Lucas had honoured in several interviews to foreign journalists, had paraded such a public thumbs down to a solitary young player when no one in a Red shirt that day, not even the experienced players, seemed capable of lifting their game.    

Whoever had a private word with him at that point and said “please stick it out lad, you’re a great player, this is a great town, things will get better” deserves the Shankly Cross or whatever honorific we give to these local heroes. If that conversation took place it might end up ranking as one of the great turning points in Liverpool’s modern history. It’s possible of course that no one said anything out of the ordinary to Lucas. He might have just knuckled down, drawn on his own resolve and decided to come up fighting. Some young footballers have huge reserves of inner belief and ambition. That’s why they are where they are. This must be especially true of Lucas who showed the balls of a young Liverpool merchant seaman setting out on his maiden voyage by uprooting himself from home to come to a country where he understood no one and no one understood him. 

So what does he bring to the eleven? It’s obvious now of course. But there were clues from the first time he appeared in the Red. Lucas brings the traditional Liverpool qualities of pass and move to a team that is slowly re-learning something that used to be its birthright. Lucas knows that the best pass in football is usually the five yard pass, followed instantly by a move into space. Occasionally it’s necessary to throw something longer into the game, and Lucas can do this too, but his regulation pass is a five to ten-yard stab into the opposition’s ribcage. A couple of those in quick succession and it begins to fucking hurt. A couple more and the other lot are struggling for breath and space is opening up in nasty areas all over the pitch. And that’s what Lucas does. He asphyxiates them and fills us with thunderous air. I’m not a spiritual bloke but in these past few games I swear it’s been possible to squint at the field and see the ghost of young Ronnie Whelan on the lad’s shoulder.   

I also believe he was making these rapier passes and these ingenious runs from his very first game. For sure he sometimes appeared to lack the physique (or technique) to hold off physical challenges and make his neat collection of the ball really count. Probably no one in Brazil had ploughed into his shoulder with as much industrial force (and with the ref’s permission) as Michael Essien continually did at Stamford Bridge. But part of the problem was that no teammate was reading him, or they didn’t have true confidence in him, and much of his good running was being squandered. The story’s different now. There’s a swelling in both Lucas’s confidence and the esteem in which he’s clearly now regarded by Gerrard and the others. Players are starting to look for Lucas. And he really wants the ball. I hope, I pray, that he doesn’t become cloistered when he next treads the turf at Anfield. It would be a great thing if he could feel the Kop’s new confidence in him right from the start.     

But, jeez, did you see the way he was using his chest against Arsenal to control and take command of loose balls in crowded areas? Magnifico, no? Three or four times he did this and it was sublime. He looked lightning quick to seize on these loose balls but this was probably a trick of the eye because to Lucas the balls  weren’t there to be contested at all. In other words they weren’t ‘loose’. He’d anticipated the evolution of play perfectly, even when that evolution was full of accidents. This is top class football. It’s like Xabi Alonso – the same accelerated brain pattern, the same enhanced ability to compute movement, the same  intuition that defies rational analysis. The result was gorgeous. The normal player would have been involved in a series of 50-50 tackles to grab hold of the ball. Lucas was half a second quicker and already emerging from the pack with the ball falling off his chest into the empty space he was running into.  Yes, that’s football. 

I’d play Lucas with Alonso, Mascherano and Gerrard. All four of them in the same team – especially against the bus-parkers when it makes as much sense to go through them as around them. That quartet would mean ownership of the pitch as well as sufficient dynamism to capitalise on that ownership. It would help us turn the little pockets of space that exist between the lines of densely packed opponents into relative chasms. Remember Valencia? 

* * *

What about Ryan Babel then? Were those Ajax supporters right when they qualified their praise for the young Dutchman? 

Well so far he’s had a miserable season really, despite destroying Man United at Anfield and showing Olympique Marseilles (again) that wonderful combination of dainty feet and surging body strength. But the promise he showed at the back end of last season, when he was terrorising Arsenal and Chelsea, has not been translated into regular form or a regular slot. That’s been the biggest disappointment of our season to date. It has meant an extreme over-reliance on the far inferior, though arguably more dependable, qualities of Dirk Kuyt and has led to a crisis of confidence in Babel himself. Why, he must be asking himself, have I not got within sniffing distance of a regular slot in the team – especially with Torres unavailable for so long and especially with the boys shedding home points to such unfancied clubs as Stoke, Hull, Fulham and West Ham?  It’s worth reminding ourselves that Babel started none of those matches (notching up a paltry 39 minutes as a sub across all 4 games) and that Kuyt started all of them - and finished all but one. Such is the lack of confidence that Rafa has in Babel. 

Of course all was not rosy with Babel even when he was terrorising those Arsenal and Chelsea defences in last season’s Champions League matches.  His greatest moment last season – possibly Liverpool’s greatest moment - was when he came on in the quarters at Anfield and tore the heart out of Arsenal. Power, pace, trickery, and intelligence allied in one individual will always propel a team a long way towards victory and Babel, momentarily, combined all those elements in that game – and again, when he came on at Stamford Bridge in the semis. And yet, the lad had been wretched at the Emirates in the first leg when he’d found himself in the starting line up and suddenly bereft of the ability to trap a ball - and not much better when he’d started in the Anfield leg against Chelsea. 

Consequently a theory emerged last season that Babel was most effective coming into games as a sub when the opposition was tiring. The idea was that a sudden injection of a turbo-charged Babel was bound to be too much for a tiring opposition team that had been rope-a-doping for the best part of the game. I never believed that – and certainly don’t believe it this season when he’s been a relatively ineffective substitute. But I did think there was a bigger problem, which was psychological. At 0-0 in a virgin game Babel often seemed to be a bag of nerves, the first few touches hesitant at best, clumsy at worst. But as a sub coming on to a pitch in relative disarray (compared with the first minute of the game), often with a specific and ambitious objective (overturning an impending defeat) Babel looked primed and almost superciliously confident. It was as if once the rulebook was thrown away and there was no need for caution he was a liberated footballer. In other words he performed far better coming into a game that needed a dramatic solution rather than starting one where the emphasis was on not creating a self-inflicted problem.

This might explain why he has been relatively ineffective when he’s been used as a substitute against Stoke City, Fulham, West Ham, and Hull. In all of those games Liverpool had something to lose when he came on as well as something to win. Maybe it was only a measly point each time but it was possibly enough to intimidate Babel. And therefore what we got each time (which we didn’t get in the desperation of the Champions League) was the familiar Babel - a player who seems afraid to make mistakes. 

But is it Babel who is intimidated? Or is it his coach? Is it a temperament problem he has or is he simply burdened with too many defensive instructions? Does he respond better to the request to “cut the full back to ribbons lad” or “whatever else you do, make sure their full back doesn’t get beyond you with the ball”? We can only speculate. But many people will remember one of his first interviews with the media after joining the Reds in which he said that after several weeks coaching Rafa had never once mentioned what he should do with the ball. Everything had been about how to defend. Babel wasn’t complaining. Indeed he said he was learning valuable things. But, still, there was a tinge of amazement – the same sort of amazement, perhaps, that Quaresma apparently expressed when he declined a move to Liverpool because he didn’t want to turn into an auxiliary defender. 

Perhaps Babel will soon leave us. I'd be sad if he did because he would make a fine player somewhere else. He may even be a great one if he finds a coach willing to wager on his fragile genius and not be over-concerned about the natural lack of caution in his play. Ironically, his best chance of succeeding at Liverpool is if we find ourselves five or six points off the pace near the end of the season with absolutely nothing to be gained by cautious football. Chasing the leading pack you’d want Babel in the team. But, obviously I hope it doesn’t come to that. It’s a shame though because with the staggering amount of killing possession we are now getting thanks to Alonso we ought to be in a position to exploit Babel's gifts and make his incredible cameos against Arsenal, Chelsea and Man Utd a regular feature of our football. 

Liverpool's use of pressing and forcing inspired by Sacchi

by hesbighesred

With regards to 'pressing' and 'forcing', is it possible that we have something of a middle ground, and degrees of it that vary according to the players? Because I'd say we perfrom it almost like it works effectively on football manager, like each player almost has a 'zone' in which they're allowed to press. Let me try and break it down.

Torres presses all along the back 4. Our wingers press the full back, possibly one centre back, and track the winger back. One of Mash/Alonso/Lucas presses all around the midfield, one keeps his position much more.  The Gerrard role seems to have less responsibility, perhaps doubling up when others are pressing, but he tends to hold his position, and indeed Rafa has indicated one thing Gerrard needed to improve on here was almost learning how to stay still. This would make sense to me as this role is the pivot for the attack.

Also, remember what the article said about 'pressing' making the team vulnerable to a counter if it fails? Now, while there is no doubt whatsoever that we commit numerous 'tactical' fouls per game, I think it's also fair to say that we rarely get outnumbered or pulled out of position while in open play...from our own set pieces, yes, that's one of our problems, but not from open play.

This leads me to conclude that we only 'double up' when zones overlap. For example, Kuyt and Torres are often seen harrying the full back or a centre back together. This also allows the players behind to get tight on their opposite number. Gerrard may not press much himself, but will help double up in midfield and further upfield. The right back will help out Kuyt once play reaches a certain point, or tuck in and help out the centre back, if that makes sense.

I would say this is also why Torres is often taken off for that last 10 minutes, and why the 'wingers' and full backs are the most rotated. These are the players who have the most pitch to cover, and are in almost perpetual motion. The need for squad depth is also absolutely vital to this. A certain level of pressing must be maintained, and while you can often see us easing off and simply plying deep and compact and countering against poorer teams when we have a decent lead, against top teams we press constantly.

Just briefly on Momo and Dirk. I think Rafa loves these kind of players because they are very rare in being able to maintain that pressing game almost 100% of the time, without losing their basic level of performance. Unfortunately for Momo, his basic level was never consistent enough in terms of keeping the ball, and giving the ball away is a big crime in our set up. Dirk, on the other hand, may not be the most spectacular, but he is by and large pretty neat and tidy, and rarely gives the ball away needlessly. He is also capable of tracking his winger, pressing the full back, and one of the centre backs all game long every game. His stamina is quite extraordinary in this respect, and hugely underappreciated in my opinion.

Hence the wide players get rotated the most, Gerrard can be rotated the least, Torres misses the last 10 mintes (I'm no expert but I would guess that this phase also proves to be the most tiring for players, and is also, along with the wide players, one where the player must almost always be able to close down). I think this also varies a little with the quality of the opposition, we can play some players 3 times a week for normal opponents, but 3 tough games and we need to give them a rest.

One that really summed this up for me was the three Arsenal games last year. Our midfield had a whole game off, Arsenal's played all three games.

Now, while they started the Anfield leg apparently full of energy, it became obvious after our first goal that Fab and Flam were running purely on adrenaline. They simply didn't have the energy to keep up with us after that. Their equaliser came from their one truly fresh player, expoiting our weakness on the break from set pieces (as did Man Utd for Brown's goal), but we could see in the last 20 minutes just how much more energy we had. We were able to recover from that equaliser, they were not able to recover from Gerrard's penalty. They simply didn't have the energy, as was shown by the 'ease' with Babel scored our fourth.

I'd also add that this freshness is one of the big reasons why a) we often score in the last 10 minutes and b) why Rafa often seems to hold back until the last 10-15 minutes.

I do feel sometimes he should gamble more, but on the other hand I can also see a strong argument for holding back until the opponent is at their most vulnerable. Kind of like middle distance runners who, by reigning in their natural instinct to go all out at the beginning, are able to seemingly sprint away in the last 100m or 200m, when in reality they are actually maintaining a steady pace throughout, wheras their opponents are starting out quick then slowing down.

I may be totally wrong of course, but that's what it generally looks like to me. Perhaps a reason for Barry over Alonso is also to share the pressing duties more evenly between the two 'holding' midfielders, which may also help preserve Mash and reduce the chances of him getting injured/the need for him to be rested before big games.

Liverpool Tactics and the Sacchi Influence

The AC Milan side of Arrigo Sacchi is known as a huge influence on Rafa’s ideas and methods, and he in turn was inspired by the early ‘total football’ sides like Michel’s Dutch side and Lobanyovski’s Dynamo Kiev. Many of these ideas, especially the defensive ones, underpin all of modern football. However, one crucial idea is rarely, if ever, implemented to its fullest extent.

This is, essentially, the idea that all players must play an equal part in the system. Every player is as important in attack as in defence, and that the players must have the mentality and the capability to accept that the team’s full potential can only be exploited if every player understands and implements the system fully. Sacchi puts this very well:

Quote
"Football has a script. The actors, if they’re great actors, can interpret the script and lines according to their creativity, but they still have to follow the script."

Note interpret, not improvise. This is where I believe we are closer to that ideal than many of our rivals. They adapt the system to individuals; we adapt the individuals to the system.

Given that, I want to take a closer look at our ‘script’. To start with, I’ll be looking at how we attack when in control of the match. Many of these ideas relate to the ‘Level 3’ concepts

Key aspects of this are versatile players…or at least ones with a broad range of skills, interchange of positions and full backs who can get forward. All players should, if possible, be comfortable on the ball, each one able to act as a ‘playmaker’. 

Next I’ll be looking at our defence, paying particular attention to our pressing systems, some ideas on how this works, and a look at some of the different variations we employ. You’ll find along the way that many common questions have sensible answers if looked at through an understanding of our overall approach. 

The need for strong mentality, defensive discipline, tactical awareness, versatile players, even rotation and the problems for Rafa inherent in buying ‘orthodox’ wingers are at least partially explained once the team is seen as one machine made of the most suitable 11 components, rather than trying to build 11 components into the best machine you can.

To start with, a quote from Jonathan Wilson in his history of tactics ‘Inverting the Pyramid’:

Quote
"…The man out of possession is just as important as the man in possession…football is not about eleven individuals but about the dynamic system made up by those individuals."

Some important principles that will recur throughout this article, and indeed any you read about the legendary modern coaches:

1.   From Renus Michels: ‘players who can regain the ball are indispensable.’
2.   ‘Total Football’ is about making the pitch big in attack, and small in defence
3.   Mentality, technique and versatility are hugely valuable, mentality most of all.

Some more things I learned from ‘Inverting the Pyramid’: 

1.   Players able to ‘play between the lines’ are the key to unlock defences.
2.   As is winning possession in the opposition third. This second is hugely important.
3.   All teams these days employ some key features from ‘total football’ ideas, particularly varieties of zonal marking (note that the famous current ‘zonal marking’ debate surrounds set pieces. It is relatively rare for teams to man-mark in open play anymore) and pressing systems.

I’ve listed these ideas here because they really do crop up repeatedly, and are a big help in trying to answer ‘why’ a Rafa or a Sacchi approaches certain things in the way they do. For example, hitting it long and being compact in defence, with 10 behind the ball, seem  the very antithesis of ‘total football’, but are actually a vital part of a true ‘total football’ team, if you consider the maxim of making the pitch big in attack and small in defence. Long passes are great for stretching the play - expanding the pitch - a compact, 10 man defence shrinks it.

One thing I love about Rafa’s Valencia: 

1.   Their nickname: ‘The Crushing Machine’. I want it.

Attack, attack, attack, attack - attack! Our approach when dominating games: 

Keeping those ideas in mind, here are some of Rafa’s ideas in attack. The reason I’m using specific players here, not when I look at the defence is that I find it much easier to visualize how our attack might perform when specific players are named within it. In defence I feel the roles are the same regardless of who is in which formation ‘slot’, but in attack using faceless dots to represent players makes me feel like I’m abandoning the reality of what I see on the pitch and only trying to imagine what I think we should see.

-------------------------Torres---------------------

--Riera------------Keane/Gerrard------------Kuyt

--------------Alonso---------Gerrard/Mash

------Dossena----Agger----Carra-----Arbeloa

--------------------------Reina   

Lets start with the front men. Each player can easily swap in two positions: Either winger with Gerrard, or either with Torres. Gerrard/Keane can swap with anyone, so can Torres. Each player has the quality to not just offer something in the swapped position, they can something different. Being out of position is an irrelevant consideration, as regardless of the notation, they are all operating in areas of the pitch they are comfortable in and have played in many times. At times we're 'blurring' the distinction between these positions in the way that Man Utd and Arsenal are so praised for.

What at first can be seen as a defensive formation ‘4-2-3-1’, actually has the potential to be as attacking as a 2-3-5, all we have to do is tuck in Riera and Kuyt, and have the full backs pushing on. It can just as easily take the shape of other ‘back 4’ based formations. 

Any of the front four can hold, run with the ball, run off the ball, go wide, cross or come in from a deeper position. Also notice that both ‘holding’ midfielders are able to operate box to box and out wide, while both centre backs can also take on the function of players ahead or wide of them.

This versatility goes all the way back to Reina, and every single one of these players can do something effective, efficient or unexpected with the ball at their feet, in any position they find themselves in. Over to Arrigo Sacchi:   

Quote
"The player needs to express himself within the parameters laid out by the manager…Then the player makes decisions based on that…it’s about being a player. Not just being skillful or being athletic. I didn’t want robots or individualists. I wanted people with the intelligence to understand me, and the spirit to put that intelligence to the service of the team. In short, I wanted people who knew how to play football."

We’ve seen signs of how this looks since the pre-season friendly games. Balls played quickly into feet from the defence and holding midfield. Interchange and movement from the front four, often one takes the ball while the other three run, if no pass presents itself one of the full backs has had time to offer some width, while the ‘holders’ and remainder of the defence (including Reina) provide deeper options, and all of whom can play probing passes or even run with the ball should space and opportunity arise.
 
Alonso’s goal against Valarenga is a good example. Interplay between Arbeloa and Kuyt, on to Keane who has ghosted central and deep from wide left, pulling a man massively out of position and laying off for Xabi to score. If Xabi didn’t fancy the shot, Keane’s movement meant an acre of space for one of Dossena, Benayoun or Torres. If this comes to nothing, the ball goes back into midfield/defence, to be returned to one of the front four either dropping deep or making a run.



Now, while our current players don’t offer the crossing strength of a traditional 4-4-2, we more than make up for this minor fault by having eleven players all capable of contributing to an attack independently and collectively, pretty much every single one of whom is able to step out of their role or line and into another one with little or no discomfort.

This is the circulation football described in Royhendo’s article as ‘Level 3’ football, and while it is by no means our only way of attacking, it is the game dominating approach we are aiming for. 

A note on the Barry saga. While I don’t want to get into that debate here, I hope with the explanation above you can see how important versatility and the ability to change shape within the game with the same players can be. In this sense alone, Xabi is one of our most limited players, the one least able to take up and cover the positions of those around him, whereas Barry can and does do it with ease. 

However, Xabi on top form also brings a level of sheer quality few can match, and to his credit we’ve seen in recent games that he is upping his versatility level too, it’s not uncommon to see Xabi around the edge of the box, or filling in at full back, or even staying much deeper if Agger starts roaming. Carra is also somewhat limited compared to Skrtel, but even in his case we can see he is making a huge effort to carry the ball out more.

The Case for the Defence:

Now to look at our defence, and to Sacchi again: 

Quote
"I used to tell my players that, if we played with twenty-five metres from the last defender to the centre-forward, given our ability, nobody could beat us. And thus, the team had to move as a unit up and down the pitch, and also from left to right."

We are solid in defence. That’s a function of the system and players. This is not to say we are inherently defensive, quite the opposite in fact…as was the case with Sacchi’s Milan. All of the traits described for our attack start with what we do without the ball. This is why players who can regain it are indispensable. Just as we have 11 potential ‘attackers’, we need 11 potential ‘defenders’. Sacchi again: 

Quote
"…when you have the ball, you dictate play. When you are defending, you control the space."

The approach to controlling space is two-fold. There is the physical position of the players (keeping ‘compact’, as Saachi describes above) and the degree of pressing we employ. The less time the opponent has on the ball, the smaller his pitch becomes, but also the more tiring it is for our players. Knowing when to sit deep and let the opponent pass in front of us, or when to close down with maximum intensity from the front players on back is a big part of our success so far.

Defensively is where formation, as written, becomes more relevant. I visualise our system as something like a pinball machine. Most outfield players are ‘pins’, with the centre-backs and central midfielders acting more like the flippers you get at the bottom, and on the better ones half way up a pinball table.

---*----------*-----------* (*denotes a pin, flipper or player, note that the wide forwards 
 
-------*------*------*------   track back, the centre-forward tracks sideways, the centre

--*------*-------*--------*   mids are more of a triangle, with the central one moving less)

Just like in pinball, the way to get a big score is to keep the ball at the top end as much as possible. The aim of the ‘flippers’ (the two CBs and the wider CMs as portrayed in this diagram) is to keep the ball at that top end, although there is a different emphasis. Again like in real pinball, the higher flippers can be more precise, can target high scoring areas more efficiently, at lower risk should the target be missed. For the CBs the aim is to get it clear first, but for that clearance to still be aimed quickly into one of the danger areas. Agger and Reina are superb at this…Reina in particular is more like a rugby full-back than a ‘keeper with his sweeping and long kicks.

Now imagine overall shape of the ‘pins’ is kept together by the back 4, who slide around the pitch trying to get the ball into that front end, and trying to keep no more than 25 metres between the back four and the front men, with the front men being right up to the opposition’s back four. Now imagine that the pins aren’t static, and that aside from the CBs they are actively closing down and harrying within a certain area of influence around each pin.

This is my visualisation of ‘full pressing’. Employing this is the best way of winning the ball back in the final third, which is by far the likeliest way to score. Unfortunately doing this often requires enormous mental and physical resources, and it always requires an exceptional back four playing a well drilled offside trap, and a sweeper keeper. Fortunately, Rafa has equipped us with all of those things.

Now, imagine the ball fired to the top end of the pinball machine, and the amount it bounces/scores points before it falls back down towards the CB ‘flippers’. Imagine if one, two or even three of the front six pins don’t work. Suddenly the ball can return to the back four almost instantly down certain avenues. This is why all players should have positional sense and tackling ability. Tackling ability is probably less important than positional sense and the will to track back (or harry/deny space when an opponent is in your zone), but still, you can see a problem Rafa has here looking for quality orthodox wingers.

The ones with the mentality don’t often have the skills, the ones with the skills don’t have the mentality, while those with both come with astronomical price tags attached as soon as they’re detected in the womb, and even then often lack the stamina to last whole games, never mind seasons. Sacchi explains how this differs from Dutch pressing: 

Quote
"…they were based more on athleticism, we were more about tactics. Every player had to be in the right place."

The physical demands placed on the wider players in this system also explain why they are rotated more often, and the demands on the whole team show why rotation is so important, as an unfit player has a similar effect to one who can’t/won’t defend. Our centre forward also has to be in near perpetual motion. Although he doesn’t run as far as some, he always has some pressing responsibility. This, for me, is why Rafa often likes to take the striker off with ten minutes to go. Here a fresh striker can have the most impact, while a tired striker can do the most damage, or be more likely to get injured.

It’s also important to remember here that different positions need to do more work. Wingers do the most, but strikers are most dependent on sharpness, and also have to be able to close down the whole back 4 themselves at times. CBs do the least pressing, and you can see this in the players Rafa substitutes. I don’t think we’ve ever ended a match with the exact same front 3 (wingers and striker) who started it.

There is another feature to our defence though. Sometimes we drop off, defend deep. Let them try and play through the back 6, while the front/wide players harry/track them with varying intensity. This serves three functions. Firstly, it lets us recover. Secondly, it draws out the opposition. Third, it changes the size of the pitch.

What happens here can easily be mistaken for standard long ball tactics. I like to think of it as controlling the opposition mentally while posing a number of new and fiendish problems, especially to weaker teams with a more fixed mindset. If we change our mentality, it can force the opponent to change theirs. Both teams could sit back exchanging long balls, but that suits us, we recover energy for another burst of full pressing. If they try and keep possession or seize their perceived chance, we can be more direct and/or counter quickly. Sacchi again: 

Quote
"Pressing is…about controlling space. I wanted my players to feel strong and the opponents to feel weak. If we let [them] play in a way they were accustomed to, they would grow in confidence. But if we stopped them, it would hurt their confidence. That was the key: our pressing was psychological as much as physical. Our pressing was always collective."

The wide forwards are important for this. They have to have the physique and technique to be able, along with Torres, to control and make use of long balls from the back as well as quick balls into feet, and the versatility to either go for the quick cross/run on goal, or to make use of the new option of several runners from deep positions, or to pick up on any flicks from Torres. The second goal against Valarenga was an example of this.



This kind of variation and flexibility does significant damage even when goals aren’t being scored. Remember the Valencia crushing machine. Not only can we pin you in your own area, make and exploit small spaces and stretch you with our full backs, we can also drop deep, draw you out, expand the pitch and hurt you with direct play/quick countering. Of course, because it is us initiating the changes we are in control, while the opponent is always (so to speak) looking over his shoulder, unsure what to expect.

Chelsea was a wonderful example of our different types of pressing, from high up the pitch, winning the ball back from their back four if at all possible, to sitting deeper yet stopping them doing the same to us (namely staying compact in our half) by having Babel, Riera and Kuyt all as a constant aerial threat, with two stretching the pitch out wide, and Babel with his pace stretching it lengthwise, thus preventing Carvalho, Cole and Bosingwa having their usual attacking influence.

You could think of it as like playing a concertina…as we squeeze and stretch the pitch we get it to play to our tune. We start to ‘own’ it. Remember as well that all our opponents are working on similar defensive principles in terms of a zonal, defensive block. By having varieties of pressing, versatile attackers and as much threat through the centre as out wide we are able to pull their block out of shape…and exploit the spaces. Over to Paulo Maldini:

Quote
"…with [Sacchi] it was all about movement off the ball, and that’s where we won our matches. Each player was as important defensively as in attack."

Vitality of Versatility:
 
This illustrates how vital versatility, or at least a broad range of skills in each player, is to building a truly great team, rather than a team of great individuals. This is why players like Pennant, Crouch, Bellamy and Alonso are/were either at risk or on the way out, while players like Keane, Kuyt and Barry are sought after or favoured. 

Having greatly skilled but inflexible players is ultimately hugely counter-productive, simply because we are now at a stage where every player has to be able to operate in more than one position, and be able to cover gaps that others leave. Crouch was a great option, for example, but a very static one. His lack of movement also means the wide players can’t move, as their supply line is vital, which also means defenders don’t get pulled out of position, which means less space for Torres, Gerrard and anyone running from deep. Compare this to even an off form Keane, and you can start to see why the extra £10million was worth it to Rafa.

This huge interdependence is arguably the strength and the weakness of very systematic football, as one part missing has a huge effect on the whole, and is surely one of the major reasons behind our excellent disciplinary record, namely that Rafa is obsessive about things like needlessly losing at least 10% of our pressing efficiency.

A last quote from Sacchi: 

Quote
"In my football, the regista - the playmaker – is whoever had the ball. But if you have makelele, he can’t do that. He doesn’t have the ideas to do it, although, of course, he’s great at winning the ball. It’s become all about specialists. Is football a collective and harmonious game? Or is it a question of putting x amount of talented players in and balancing them with y amount of specialists?"

This is Sacchi talking about the Galacticos, but he could be talking about any number of teams. He describes this as reactive rather than pro active football, and I think he is right. Play the same way all the time, with the same players in the same formation and no matter how good you are you can always be beaten by a determined opponent with a plan to stop you. 

Being pro-active and controlling games is not only about being able to do unpredictable things with the ball, but also being able to vary your game plan, stop the opponent achieving theirs, and having as many players as possible capable of making and exploiting spaces. Most of all, it is about having the ball in the first place, and this depends on the defensive system.

There is an argument that says there have been no radical innovations since Sacchi. While this has a lot of truth to it, I think it’s fair to say that Rafa, at the very least, is seeking to push these ideas as far as they can go. We have not just a team, but an entire squad of multi-rolled and multi-skilled players, with more of the same coming through the youth ranks, all of them being schooled in the same systems. 

Rafa’s Valencia were arguably only a couple of seasons with better backing away from achieving similar legendary status. I hope Rafa can not only fulfil that vision with us but in time take it even further.

All quotes are taken from Jonathan Wilson’s exceptional history of tactics, ‘Inverting the Pyramid'.

Thanks to Royhendo and all the contributors on his ‘Level 3’ thread, and to RAWK for being quality.

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Quote of the moment

Defying belief however, is a market Benitez has cornered quite well. The moment you think Benitez is clueless, he defies it by pulling off a result of majesty, like the one achieved in Madrid. The moment he is hailed a genius, he masterminds toothless surrender to a team going nowhere. In the ongoing Anfield power struggle, just when he was cornered by the firing squad, the Spaniard's demise at Liverpool looking practically assured with the ominous suspension of betting by the bookmakers, he squeezes out through a narrow trapdoor and eliminates Rick Parry. Rafa Benitez is Keyzer Soze.
- Just Football blog: The Curious Beast that is Football 28 Feb 2009