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

Thursday, December 30, 2010

What could have been

After all the criticism of Rafa, there is plenty of evidence of what he was aiming for. That even losing Alonso, this is what Aquilani was supposed to come in for

Similar to the way Barca plays

Monday, December 20, 2010

Rafa vs Roy

From YNWA, compiled by Sion.

"I have come here to win, and my players have to have the same mentality."

"I am young, I want to win lots of matches and in the right way. I hope the players think like us that it is possible to win titles.

"I want the supporters to be proud of the team, of the manager, of the players, of the club."
Rafael Benitez

"Are people suggesting that we should be doing the same as Arsenal, who have had the same team together for the last six years and Chelsea, who have just won the league?

"If so I would accuse them of being unrealistic at this moment in time.
Roy Hodgson


"When you see the supporters and how the club works it is like a religion to them. We will try to do our best to bring more trophies back for them."
Rafa Benitez

"This is a new team, there are four or five new players. We finished seventh last season so I don't understand why it's suggested we should be comparing ourselves every day with Chelsea or Manchester United at this early stage of the season.

"It will be nice if we can get there. We will see but I certainly don't make that demand upon the players."
Roy Hodgson


When they start talking and talking about us, it shows they are worried about playing Liverpool,"
Rafa Benitez

"Northampton are a formidable opponent"
Roy Hodgson


"No, I'm not thinking about a draw. We're going out to win."
Rafa Benitez

"It was a good point because we knew it was going to be a tough game. (Referring to a draw against a mid-table Dutch side)
Roy Hodgson

Never call me the special one!"
Rafa Benitez

"To suggest that, because I have moved from one club to another, that the methods which have stood me in good stead for 35 years and made me one of the most respected coaches in Europe don't suddenly work is very hard to believe.
Roy Hodgson

"To work hard and have our supporters behind us and believing until the end, you run a little bit more."
Rafa Benitez

"The protest does not help but it is something I have had to live with since I came to the club,"
Roy Hodgson


"I have a lot of confidence in the team, maybe Milan are favourites -- they have a lot of good players -- but we have confidence and we can win." (Referring to one of the best teams in the world at the time)
Rafa Benitez

To get a result here would have been Utopia (Referring to Everton)
Roy Hodgson


I picked the team which I felt was right for the game and I have no regrets about that. In the first half Burnley were better than us but in the second half we were better. The bad thing is we conceded a poor goal and it was then always going to be difficult for us to score on a bad pitch against a team that was fighting for everything.
Rafa Benitez - refuses to blame youngsters after Burnley loss

"These players have to accept responsibility. I accept responsibility for changing a lot of players in the team, I did it because I honestly thought the players I put on the field were good enough to win the game and they weren't.
Roy Hodgson - lays into youngsters after Northampton loss

The Real Truth of Rafa Benitez's Reign As LFC Manager

By Brian Reade in the Mirror

Right to the end the professional pundits failed to understand why so many Liverpudlians stayed loyal to Rafa Benitez.

As 500 fans marched on Anfield after his departure, chanting the Spaniard’s name, heads shook at a footballing sub-species bracketed *somewhere between romantic die-hards and mawkish morons.

To the “expert” eye, these deluded fools had been conned by Benitez’s cunning and blinded to his failings by the glory of Istanbul and the *criminal incompetence of the American owners.

Liverpool fans they said, once among the most knowledgeable in the world, had clearly lost touch with the modern reality, and were now a sad throwback to the days when sideburned men kicked orange balls.

Well, I’d argue one of the saddest aspects of modern *football is too many pundits, including ex-players, have not paid to watch a game since those orange ball days. And they’ve lost touch with the fan.

I’m not saying Benitez had to stay. The results and the football last year were shocking, he’s been a major player in Anfield’s destructive civil war, and the number of fans disillusioned with his style and methods was growing.

But to paint his six-year reign as an unmitigated disaster, sustained only by the over-sentimentalising of Istanbul, is analysis at its most skewed and cringeful. By 2004 Liverpool had been relegated to the status of European also-rans. Benitez made the club a genuine world force again.

It wasn’t just that 2005 *Champions League win (which is shamelessly downplayed as a fluke despite beating Fabio Capello’s Juventus, Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea and Carlo Ancelotti’s AC Milan). Or reaching the 2007 Champions League final and the 2008 semi-final. It wasn’t even UEFA elevating Liverpool to Europe’s top-seeded club due to results under Benitez.

It was beating Real Madrid and Inter Milan at the Bernabeu and San Siro (which the Reds had never before done) and Barcelona at the Nou Camp. Magical victories at the very top of world football, which restored long-overdue respect to Liverpudlian hearts.

Ah say the experts, but he didn’t win the league. True. But he got closer than any Liverpool boss in the past 20 years. A season ago he was a whisker away, taking the highest number of points by a runner-up in a 38-game season and the club’s best points haul since 1988.

And he did so despite having the 5th highest wage bill *in the league, the 5th *costliest squad, the 5th biggest stadium capacity and a net annual transfer spend of £15million. Which should have made experts ask why Liverpool were ever considered a nailed-on top four side under Benitez, especially when the boardroom was mired in anarchy.

Ah, they say, but he’d long lost the players and the board. So why have Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres, Daniel Agger, Dirk Kuyt and Pepe Reina signed new long-term contracts within the past year? Why last August did managing director Christian Purslow do interviews purring over Benitez and how he was integral to the club’s future?

Ah, the experts say, but that was before he let Xabi Alonso go, which everyone could see was a calamity. These would be the same experts who, for the previous couple of seasons, claimed Liverpool were a two-man team. With Alonso (on whom Benitez turned a £20million profit) never being mentioned as one of those two.

Ah, they say, but Torres apart, he only signed sub-standard dross and ended up with a shockingly-weak squad. Really?

Liverpool are sending 12 players (13 if you count Milan Jovanovic whose Bosman signing is going through) to the World Cup. Or an entire team: Reina, Carragher, Agger, Skrtel, Johnson, Babel, Gerrard, Mascherano, Rodriguez, Kuyt, Torres. Subs: Kyrgiakos, Jovanovic.

Eleven Chelsea players flew out to South Africa, the same number as Arsenal, and Manchester United sent eight. Does that look like he’s left Anfield bare of talent?

The truth is Benitez leaves a squad worth many times more than the one he inherited, despite spending less in the past three transfer windows than he’s brought in.

I don’t seek to rewrite history or airbrush Benitez’s *failings. I saw last year’s football and it stank. I felt the growing anger among players and fans at his single-mindedness and knew something had to give.

Which is why it may be best for all concerned that he walks on. But now he has, let’s do him the honour of getting his legacy right.

Rafa Benitez was many things at Liverpool but unlike every manager since Kenny Dalglish, he was not a failure. Indeed a majority of *Liverpudlians will remember him as a legend.

Because like Bill Shankly, on more days and nights than those expert pundits ever care to recall, he made the people happy

Friday, December 10, 2010



I was asked by the editor of our partner site The Busby Way, Chudi Onwuazor, about whether I thought midfielder Lucas was better than their Brazilian midfielder . Below is the analysis of both of our respective players.

( by Chudi)

Arrival - came to United with massive expectations and an equally big price tag. Hailed as the new Ronaldinho by those who had never seen him play before, that was already a huge weight of expectation on his young shoulders and in all honesty he hasn’t lived up to these expectations – yet.

’s time at Old Trafford has been tumultuous to say the least. He has put in some great performances against some of the country’s best midfielders spawning a song detailing him, Fabregas and something you might see in a Japanese skin flick.

Weaknesses – Those of us experiencing the highs of these performances were quickly brought down to earth in the Champions League final in 09 where he was made to look ordinary by Barcelona and their superstars but Xavi, Iniesta and co could have done that to most if not all and for me was all part of his learning curve.

For a young player his lack of consistency is no major concern, it happens but having already seen that he poses considerable talent I’m more interested in seeing him put together a strong run of appearances which he seems to be doing at the moment. He hasn’t been helped by injuries, supposed off field issues like the car crash this summer as well as uncertainty over his position but his attitude appears to be right and it is benefiting him as well as the team.

Strengths – has displayed his talent; he can pass, is very direct with his dribbling, is strong and can tackle. The only thing that is disappointing for me is his lack of goals, having only scored 3 (2 official) in his spell here is disappointing but as a player I feel he offers way more than Lucas, who to me is quite one-dimensional, and has a lot more to come.


Arrival – In contrast to , Lucas was bought from for £6million, a small price compared to the amount that paid . The smaller fee didn’t necessarily dampen expectations though as he was the reigning Brazilian player of the year when he was purchased by . Having already made his debut for Brazil, being ’s captain as well as helping his team to the Copa Libertadores final, many felt that had got a bargain.

The first two seasons especially were very difficult for Lucas as he didn’t live up to expectations. The Anfield crowd got on his back and many questioned his continuing inclusion in the team. Unlike , who already had a spell in European football; with , Lucas came straight from the slower pace Brazilian league, into the rough and tumble of English football. He was used to having time on the ball but now in the Premier League, he found himself rushed, miss-timing tackles and regularly misplacing passes. Added to this, Rafa had decided to convert the player from an attacking midfielder, (similar to ) into a holding midfield player. It was a rocky transition which took years and has made it even more difficult for Lucas to settle in England.

Weaknesses – Unfairly touted as the replacement for in some quarters, his long range passing was nowhere near the standard of his former Spanish team-mate and he played a similar role in the team to , which frustrated many fans. With Alberto Aquilani either injured or ill for the majority of last season, Lucas was picked alongside Mascherano on many occasions, but the similarity in both player’s games, led to very defensive team without any supply to Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres further up the field. Out of the two, Lucas was the worst tackler and passer leading many to question why he was in the side at all. He was however still in transition from a more attacking midfield role, as at his time at he had been used to making forward runs and arriving late in the box to finish passing moves rather than holding the fort in midfield. Lucas however rallied by the end of last season and was rewarded with ’s young player of the year. Time in the English football has seen him develop as a player and he was gradually getting used to the holding midfield role.

Strengths – The transformation from Lucas in 2007 to Lucas in 2010 has been quite astonishing. No longer the butt of jokes by Reds fans and used as a scapegoat for every poor performance, he has evolved this season into becoming one of ’s most consistent performers. Much of this has to be credited to his mental strength for after years of being derided for his poor performances; he has never gone hiding on the pitch and has always looked to get on the ball. The departure of has seen the Brazilian step up to the plate as the Reds sole midfield destroyer. Not only is he tackling better and intercepting opposition attacks with aplomb, his pass completion stats are exceptional, and he barely gives a stray pass to team-mates. Many of the passes are short and square, but he has begun this season to be more expansive, passing forward rather than backwards. Two man of the match performances against Chelsea and Aston Villa have seen Lucas perform a remarkable turn around in regards to popularity among Reds fans. People want Lucas and Raul Meireles to be the first choice midfield partnership now; this time last season, they wouldn’t have wanted him anywhere near the first team squad, let alone the starting eleven.

Overall – Currently Lucas is a fair way ahead of in terms of developing his game. may have a good deal more natural ability than Lucas, but the high work ethic, strong mental character and solidity that Lucas gives his team, makes him, for me, the better player at the moment.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Total fitness from the land of Total Football


Craig Bellamy graphic

By John Sinnott

Nearly 40 years after Netherlands legends Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff unleashed Total Football on an unexpecting world, along comes a Dutchman espousing a new philosophy - periodisation.

If it is a concept that is unlikely to ever acquire Total Football's sexy cache, Raymond Verheijen believes periodisation - in essence a less is more approach to training - is important in allowing clubs to protect their key asset - players.

The 39-year-old Verheijen has an impressive pedigree.

He worked with Guus Hiddink, Frank Rijkaard, Louis van Gaal and Dick Advocaat at three World Cups and three European Championships with Netherlands, Russia and Korea, as well as with the Korean national team at the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa.

Rijkaard also used Verheijen when he coached Barcelona, as did Hiddink when he managed Chelsea, while Advocaat used the 39-year-old fitness expert when he was in charge of Zenit St Petersburg.

A lot of coaches treat players the same way, whatever their age, whatever their body composition, whatever their injury history, whatever their playing position

Raymond Verheijen

Former Manchester City boss Mark Hughes also turned to Verheijen at the start of the 2009-2010 season and Craig Bellamy has been so impressed by the Dutchman that he now pays to work with him at his own expense.

"The objective of periodisation is to play every game with your best 11 players," Verheijen told BBC Sport during an hour-long interview, following a presentation at the UKSEM sports medicine conference at the end of last month.

"First of all because you want to win and secondly because the fans deserve to see the best players."

The idea that you start every game with your best team sounds like common sense.

But a look at the statistics shows that it does not always happen, even though it is estimated that up to 70% of Premier League clubs are using computer and medical analysis to measure player performance and fatigue levels.

The website physioroom.com's Premier League injury table on the weekend of 4-5 December recorded there were 108 top-flight players out of action.

On average, that is 5.4 players for each Premier League team or a fifth of each club's designated 25-man squad, with Aston Villa and Tottenham each having as many as 11 players on the treatment table over the weekend.

Guus Hiddink
Verheijen has worked extensively with Guus Hiddink

It is not just in England that clubs are having to juggle their resources due to injury. On the weekend of 20-21 November, 124 players were unavailable to play in Italy's Serie A due to injury.

Since former Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez took charge at Inter Milan, the Italian champions have come under particular scrutiny.

Up to 28 November, Inter had 37 injuries this season, it meant that those injured players missed a total of 68 games.

Before Inter played Spurs in the Champions League on 2 November, Italian newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport identified 15 muscle-related injuries that had affected Inter players since the start of the 2009-10 campaign.

"All teams have injuries," Benitez said. "We have a certain amount of muscle-related injuries but 40% of them were picked up on national team duty. Also, 85% of them are recurring from last year."

But for Verheijen, injury clusters demand closer analysis.

He believes as many as 80% of injuries are preventable, arguing that fatigue due to overtraining is the cause, pointing out that 14 of the 23-man 2010 Dutch World Cup have already been injured this season.

"World Cup players start the pre-season fit but fatigued," stated Verheijen, whose football career was cut short by a hip injury. "So there is no need for fitness training in pre-season as this results in even more fatigue and, eventually, injuries due to a loss of coordination and control.

"People make training so important that it is like survival of the fittest and at the end of the week when you have a game you see who is left and say OK we will play with these 11 players."

Verheijen, who has a Uefa A coaching licence, argues that too many fitness coaches are not from a football background and do not fully understand the sport and its relationship to training and preparation.

"Coaches should take the games as a starting point and build training sessions around them so players can fully recover and start the next match fresh," he added.

"They are afraid their team will not be fit enough for the start of the season. However, with this 'high injury-risk' training regime - subconsciously - they make fitness development more important than team development."

Bellamy, who after leaving City continued to work with Verheijen at Cardiff, is a convert.

Arjen Robben
Last season Robben benefited from cutting down on the volume of training

"Last season at Manchester City I really felt great and Verheijen played a big part in this," Bellamy told a Feyenoord fan magazine in October.

"In the past, I used to train at 100mph until I was exhausted. No wonder I always broke down halfway through the season. I always thought this was a logical consequence of my playing style and I even started training harder when I was not fit."

Periodisation has been around as nearly as long as Total Football.

Developed by Russian researcher Leo Matveev, it is an approach designed to prevent overtraining and result in peak performance.

Most clubs would claim that their fitness regimes are designed to achieve that aim, but Verheijen suspects it is not happening enough.

"If football is an intensity sport, then less is more and you have to focus on the quality of training instead of the quantity," stated Verheijen, whose bête noire is double-training sessions.

"Doing two sessions a day in pre-season...I really I don't understand, because all you are doing is exhausting your players," added Verheijen, who believes different types of players - young players who have just joined the first-team or experienced defenders - should each be following specialised training plans.

"By doing one session a day with maximum intensity, when you come to November and December you're players will be much fitter and fresher than they are normally are with the traditional approach."

Both Bellamy and Carlos Tevez were vocal critics of City manager Roberto Mancini's insistence on weekly double training sessions last season.

Within 10 days of Mancini taking over from Hughes in December 2009, Joleon Lescott, Sylvinho, Roque Santa Cruz, Stephen Ireland, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Micah Richards and Nigel De Jong all picked up injuries.

"That was amateur stuff," said Verheijen.

"You take over a team that has the best statistics in the Premier League in terms of work rate - the most sprints - and you have the best injury record, based on a quality approach: one session a day, with maximum intensity that is no longer than 90 minutes.

World Cup 1998: Netherlands defender Winston Bogarde broke leg in training
Euro 2000: Netherlands defender Jaap Stam pulled hamstring during shooting after training
World Cup 2002: No injuries with Korea side that reached semi-finals
Euro 2004: No injuries with Netherlands squad
World Cup 2006: No injuries with Korea squad
Euro 2008: Russia striker Pavel Pogrebnyak injured by tackle in preparation game against Serbia
World Cup 2010: Central defender Kwak Tae Hwi injured by tackle in preparation game against Belarus

"Then you take over and you start doing two sessions, each session two hours long, which is totally the opposite."

City insist those injuries were due to a glut of games over the Christmas period last season.

"Injuries are inevitable in this period for any club," said a City spokesman in a statement.

"Sylvinho, De Jong, Santa Cruz, Wright-Phillips were all fit for the 4-1 win at home to Blackburn on 11 January - Mancini's first league game after the 10-day period mentioned.

"Lescott and Richards had injury problems both before and after Mancini's arrival last December, so attributing those problems to his arrival is also unfair," added the spokesman, pointing out that City have only one player - Emmanuel Adebayor - who is injured at the moment.

When Verheijen worked with Rijkaard at Barcelona and Hughes at Manchester City, his ideas were initially greeted with scepticism by the players.

None more so than Bellamy, who was so distrustful that he kept a training diary over six weeks during pre-season ahead of the 2009-2010 season so he could argue that Verheijen had been wrong.

"He wrote the diary to kill us with it afterwards," said Verheijen. "But after six weeks it was the first pre-season that he did not get injured in his career."

Verheijen, who has also studied exercise physiology and sport psychology as well as taking a one-year Science in Football course, is not without his critics. Craig Duncan, head of human performance at Sydney FC, argues a reduction in training is not always positive.

"A problem is that there needs to be more corrective work to decrease the risk of injury through faulty movement patterns," Duncan commented.

"Specific strength training also needs to be incorporated as does flexibility and I have also had positive results from yoga.

"This is all supplementary work to work completed on the pitch. Recovery strategies also need to be enhanced so we don't necessarily have to train less just train smarter."

Other critics of Verheijen argue that his almost injury-free record is distorted by primarily working with international teams and also as a consultant.


Verheijen admits it is more difficult being a consultant but still firmly believes his methods are better than those employed by most coaches.

"A lot of coaches treat all the players the same way, whatever their age, whatever their body composition, whatever their injury history, whatever their playing position - everybody is doing the same training," Verheijen said.

"The culture in football is you either train or you don't train and there is nothing in between."

It is a culture he has spent his career trying to change and he will continue to preach his gospel to the unconverted.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Lucas Leiva

Lucas Leiva

November 30, 2010
By Joshua Askew

Lucas Leiva arrived on Merseyside as the hottest property from Brazil. At 20, he had captained Gremio and his national youth side, also gaining senior caps, and became the youngest player to win the Bola de Ouro, joining the esteemed company of Zico, Falcao, Romario, Kaka and Carlos Tevez. Liverpool fans thought they were onto a winner; an intelligent box-to-box midfielder capable of being the driving force of his team, all for just £6 million.

Things started well enough for Lucas - making his debut the day after signing for Liverpool, replacing Steven Gerrard in the Merseyside derby to win a penalty thanks in part to the goalkeeping ability of Phil Neville and scoring a beautiful curling shot from 25 yards against Havant & Waterlooville – but it quickly became apparent that he wasn’t quite up to pace. He was always just a second behind: too long on the ball or a mistimed challenge. He looked at home in the Champions League, particularly against Inter, where he had more time and space on the ball and footballing intelligence became more important, but he was found lacking in the Premier League, and conceding a penalty against Wigan and a sending off against Everton didn’t help his standing amongst the fans, getting booed after an uninspiring display against Fulham.

Lucas’ lacklustre early displays have developed the idea that he simply doesn’t have any talent, rather than him needing time to adapt. It’s become somewhat of a cliche to mention English football’s fast and physical style in regard to overseas players thanks to people using it for any foreign player, but when coming from the Brasileirao it’s particularly true. Lucas was used to a reasonably slow-paced league where he would get a free-kick anytime a defender came near him; it’s only reasonable to expect him to need time to adapt. Too often, a foreign player is labelled as being unable to cut it in the rough and tumble of the Premier League early on in their Premier League career – yes it might be true if the player is hitting or past their peak, such as Andriy Shevchenko, but dismissing a 19 year-old is absurd.

Rafa Benitez appeared irritated by the derision. “People just don’t know how good Lucas is. He is a fantastic player,” he said. “He can tackle, he can pass the ball and he can win in the air. He is still a very young player learning to live in a different country. It is not easy for him to get into the team, considering the quality of the opposition he has to face in that department at Anfield. He is competing against Javier Mascherano, the captain of Argentina and against one of the best players in the world, Steven Gerrard, who has also captained his country, and then there is Xabi Alonso, who is now a European champion for club and country.”

This is a key point; it isn’t obvious that Lucas can ever be in the same class as his (mostly former) midfield colleagues. He doesn’t possess the tenacity of Mascherano, the passing range of Alonso or the all-action style of Gerrard. His attributes are more subtle, making him easy to dismiss as a passenger.

Lesser players would have buckled under the abuse, yet Lucas knuckled down and improved his game. He bulked up so he could compete in challenges, he quickened his time on the ball even if that meant sacrificing some of the incisiveness, but the most important thing he did was earn the trust of his teammates. Early on in his Liverpool career, his colleagues didn’t read his passes or movement because they were used to a different type of player – now they have spent time playing with him we are seeing the best of him.

Although often derided as not being of “Liverpool quality”, Lucas is the epitome of the Liverpool player. Throughout their years at the top of Europe’s footballing pyramid, Liverpool built their game on an intelligent patient passing game. Bill Shankly claimed it was no use “running into no man’s land. If you get the ball in the Liverpool team, you want choices… you want at least two people to pass to, maybe three, maybe more… You might not be getting very far, but the pattern is changing. Finally, somebody will sneak in.” He also claimed it was important “that everyone can control a ball and do the basic things in football” and his training sessions would often consist of four boards set up in a square with a player stood in the middle, while balls were flung at them from each corner to trap or strike first-time.

Looking at Lucas, you would expect him to slot straight into a Shankly side. Like many holding midfielders, his first touch and close control is often immaculate (Next time you see him, look out for the way he traps the ball with his chest – beautiful stuff) and his passing is neat. The basis of pass and move is that the short passing in one area of the pitch will draw the opposition into this space, opening up space elsewhere, and Lucas is great at controlling the playing area. The sideways and backwards passing is often used as a criticism against him and Mascherano, but is a sign of how intelligent a player Lucas is – once space has opened up, he’s perfectly capable, again much like Mascherano, of making an incisive run or pass into it.

What’s more, when he knows he can’t make a run or a pass without putting himself or a teammate in danger, he’s excellent at drawing a foul – quickly shifting his body to shield the ball from his opponent. This shouldn’t be confused with diving – it’s the equivalent of whatFransesco Totti is so good at, but with the added force of the Premier League crashing into him.

It’s difficult to show off extended passing moves creating space in just a few pictures, but showing simply how Lucas taking time to make fairly simple passes shows it excellently:

Lucas receives the ball from a short throw-in

He takes longer than he needs to control and pass the ball, giving the opposition player (blue) time to close him down

Giving the ball away at the last moment opens up huge amount of space for Agger

And here he is attacking space himself:

A series of short passes in deep positions draws Lille's players forward, a short ball to Kuyt and there's suddenly a lot of space

Which Lucas runs into, using the space to engineer a good shot on goal

“The strength of British football lay in our challenge for the ball, but the continentals took that away from us by learning how to intercept,” Bob Paisley claimed and, again, Lucas shows the intelligence that would have won him a place in the great Liverpool sides. Slotted alongside the rabid Mascherano, Lucas’ focus off-the-ball was, like Alonso, on positioning to cover for his teammate’s more blood-and-thunder approach. This is the most unglorious style of dirty work, because most fans don’t realise you are even doing it. However, defensively, Lucas offers much more than Alonso; the Spaniard was positionally disciplined, but was much less mobile than Lucas, which is one of the reasons Benitez wanted to trade him for Gareth Barry. Lucas’ work rate and mobility means he can press too, particularly considering his improved strength and timing in the challenge, pushing towards the universality that Benitez wanted from his players.

Mascherano (green) pressing Lille player in possession with Gerrard

Lucas (blue) moves to the centre to cover Mascherano and intercepts the pass

Here is Lucas pressing while Mascherano covers

Lucas is fast becoming one of the best holding midfielders in the world and it can only be a matter of time before everyone stands up and takes notice rather continuing to scapegoat him for his team’s failings. The game against Chelsea was just the beginning.

Tactics: Liverpool’s new-look old-fashioned defence

Liverpool’s new-look old-fashioned defence

November 17, 2010
By Joshua Askew

In 1973, Liverpool exited the European Cup to Miljan Miljanic’s Red Star Belgrade. Having lost the away leg just 2-1, Bill Shankly had every reason to be optimistic about progressing to the quarter-finals, but an impressive counter-attacking game by the Yugoslavians ensured they went through. It was time for introspection.

Upon emergence from the famous bootroom, Shankly declared: “The Europeans showed that building from the back is the only way to play.”

“We realised it was no use winning the ball if you finished up on your backside,” said Bob Paisley. “The top Europeans showed us how to break out of defence effectively. The pace of their movement was dictated by their first pass. We had to learn how to be patient like that and think about the next two or three moves when we had the ball.”

If the Merseyside club wanted to dominate Europe as they had done domestically, they would have to develop their defence beyond the old-fashioned stoppers that had previously so impressed in their backline. Once Larry Lloyd tore his hamstring, midfielder Phil Thompson was moved back to accompany Emlyn Hughes in the centre of defence, leading to greater fluidity. “The main aim is that everyone can control a ball and do the basic things in football,” said Shankly. “At the back you’re looking for someone who can control the ball instantly and give a forward pass. It gives them more space and time to breathe. ”

At the end of the season, Bob Paisley, whose espousal of pass-and-move football was arguably greater even than Shankly’s, replaced the Scot and carried on in this direction. In came Alan Hansen, whose humble claims that he barely ever crossed the halfway line are far from true – a cultured centre-back not too different from some of the best Italian liberi, the Scot was the paradigm of what Liverpool wanted. Even his lesser defensive partner Mark Lawrenson was at odds with the typical British defenders of the time; an enduring memory of Lawrenson is his goal in the 1982 Merseyside derby, where he finished off a move he started.

“At Liverpool we don’t have anyone running into no man’s land,” explained Shankly. “If you get the ball in the Liverpool team, you want choices… you want at least two people to pass to, maybe three, maybe more… You might not be getting very far, but the pattern is changing. Finally, somebody will sneak in.”

Under Roy Hodgson, Liverpool are playing the stereotypical English kick-and-rush style that the club opposed in the seventies, only minus the rush. There is no “running into no man’s land” because no one is allowed that far forward, all there is are repeated long balls into no man’s land. Fernando Torres is out of form because the only service or support he receives are Jamie Carragher’s hoofs delivered directly to the opposition’s defenders instead of him.

Not that Hodgson is the first to do so, Gerard Houllier implemented a similar system at Liverpool to moderate success, the difference being that he actually had the players available to do so. His teams set up in much the same way as Hodgson with two narrow bands of four, forcing the opposition to play through them; it was negative but it worked. The key was the big man-quick man striking duo of Emile Heskey and Michael Owen – sit deep and you allowed Heskey closer to goal, perfect for his aerial ability, play high and you allowed Owen space in behind.

When Rafael Benitez arrived at Liverpool, he went about completely switching the way Liverpool played. Sami Hyypia and Stephane Henchoz were a dominant partnership under Houllier, but were ill-suited to Benitez’s style. Their reading of the game and domineering physique were key when playing Houllier’s backs-against-the-wall style, but their lack of pace would be exposed by the higher line Benitez required to play his more imposing style. Henchoz was immediately dropped for Jamie Carragher while Hyppia was later replaced by Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel.

Prior to Benitez’s arrival, Carragher was considered as part of the deadwood alongside the likes of El Hadji Diouf and Salif Diao that needed removing – however his reinvention as a centre-back proved to be a masterstroke. Given videos of Sacchi’s Milan and his training under his new manager, his reading of the game improved tenfold and, while he’s never been anything close to quick, he had the extra yard of pace necessary to make those last ditch tackles. Previously, he was the equivalent of John O’Shea to Liverpool – a utility player to fill in any gaps in the defence. As a right-back, he had frustrated Liverpool fans with his complete lack of attacking ability and, with the success of Arsene Wenger’s use of attacking full-backs at Arsenal, was replaced by Steve Finnan.

A huge fan of Arrigo Sacchi, Benitez aimed to apply the idea of universality to his team as well as the pressing, carrying on where Houllier had begun and what Shankly and Paisley had done years before. When Finnan began to age, in came Alvaro Arbeloa, a solid if fairly unspectacular player, but one whose attacking qualities are generally underrated, and then Glen Johnson, a right-back so attacking that his weaknesses lie in his defensive game.

At left-back was Djimi Traore until John Arne Riise was moved back from his left-midfield position, and once he was (mistakenly) sold on, Fabio Aurelio and Andrea Dossena vied for the position; the first a former central midfielder with an exquisite left foot and the latter a bombing wing-back. Eventually, it was the young Emiliano Insua who became first-choice – another full-back whose defensive qualities were called into question more often than his attacking ones.

In the centre came Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel – both very good ball-playing defenders, particularly Agger, who is reminiscent of Hansen, and notably faster than their predecessors making them better suited to Benitez’s higher pressing. Behind them is Pepe Reina, one of the finest sweeper-keepers around and perfect for dealing with any balls played over the top. It is fair to assume that the backline Benitez was hoping to create was one of Reina, Insua, Agger, Skrtel and Johnson had he continued.

Fast forward to Hodgson’s tenure and against Stoke Liverpool had a much deeper backline of Reina, Paul Konchesky, Skrtel, Sotirios Kyrgiakos and Carragher. Reina, I repeat – one of the finest sweeper keepers around, is being groomed for a more English style. Konchesky has most of his question marks over his defensive ability too, but only because we knew he had nothing going for him on an attacking front. Skrtel looks nervous all the time playing in such a deep defence, wary of how close to goal he is. Kyrgiakos is a player on form because he reads the game well and is physically imposing, much like Hyypia and Henchoz, but isn’t particularly good with the ball at his feet.

Meanwhile, Carragher, his extra yard of pace gone, is playing at right-back again, endlessly hoofing the ball forward instead of passing the ball a few yards to Lucas, whose red card was most likely born out of frustration that he was endlessly having to retrieve the ball because Carragher was electing to give it away with his embarrassingly poor long balls rather than pass it to him (Lucas made just 25 passes on Saturday, almost half as many as in the same fixture last season – a game that Benitez was particularly defensive in without any fit wingers – with Stoke having more than 50% of possession for the first time since they have been promoted to the Premier League). The likes of Agger, Johnson, Martin Kelly, Danny Wilson, Daniel Ayala and Andre Wisdom must be wondering what they have to do to displace someone who’s looked like the average player he always was without Benitez for the past 18 months, especially since he’s been rewarded with a new two year contract – let alone Insua, who’s been replaced by the worst player I can recall playing for Liverpool.

Gareth Roberts recently put forward the suggestion that Hodgson hasn’t improved a single thing since taking over, but it goes further than that: tactically, Benitez has him beat, Houllier has him beat, as do Roy Evans, Kenny Dalglish, Paisley and Shankly. If a man who’s been dead for close to thirty years and famously couldn’t complete a week-long coaching course because he found it too boring tactically outmaneuvering Hodgson isn’t a sign that he should receive his P45, I don’t know what is.

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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