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The Importance of Winning


Monday, July 09, 2012 by

When you listen to Rodolfo Borrell or Mike Marsh talk after a defeat, you can feel their annoyance at the result.  They might try to be diplomatic in what they're saying but their tone of voice and body language betrays their true feelings.

It might seem petty but the coaches' reaction is, in truth, more than justified.  If you've been involved with football as much as they have, then you're bound to realise that for some of these players winning the FA Youth Cup or the reserves league might just be the pinnacle of their career.  It is out of respect to such players that they show such a strong desire to win games and, ultimately, competitions.

The second reason is less altruistic.  They know that winning is the best advert for their own work.  People buy into success and if they see a side that is winning they attribute part of those results to the coach.  Equally, a losing side is - in the mind of most people - at least partially down to bad coaching.  It doesn't matter what kind of players you have, how tough the competition or whether they're playing against older kids.

Yet by far the most important reason for such an attitude is that winning needs to become a habit that these kids has to learn.  This was highlighted by Iker Casillas following Spain's win at Euro 2012 when he said "We have got used to winning from a very young age. We won the Under-16s, the Under-19s, the Under-20s.  We learnt to win."

What Winning the League Cup Really Means


Friday, March 02, 2012 by

Winning; a seemingly unassuming word tasked with describing something that is seen as being fundamental in a human being’s life.  Each day we are asked to win, to wake up when we want to give in to sleep, to beat the competition, to fight the urge to eat or drink excessively.  Win, win, win.

Last Sunday, we were told that Liverpool had to win.  They had to in order to justify the £100 million spent on new players.  They had to if they wanted to justify the faith in Kenny Dalglish.  They had to in order to save this from being a disappointing season.

And, once the League Cup had been won, we were told that this was of huge significance in the grand scheme of things.  Winning is infectious and it would inspire the players to try and repeat such a success.  It was even suggested that players would now be joining Liverpool because they had seen them win this trophy.  This win would lead to more wins.

At the end of the day, however, winning the League Cup was only important because it added another trophy to the list of those won by the club.

It has side benefits, undoubtedly.  Players’ morale, you would imagine, will be higher than normal and if that translates to added confidence then it will help in upcoming games.  Financially it should be a boost because it puts the club in the headlines (for the right reasons) whilst offering a trinket to parade around.   Note, however, the conditional in those statements.

In itself the League Cup means nothing and it certainly isn’t any guarantee for any future success.  History – in the form of the Liverpool side managed by Roy Evans and its inability to win anything after a League Cup success that was similarly heralded as the start of great things – teaches that.  History also shows that performances can worsen after a similar win, with players feeling that they’ve won enough and suddenly can’t find the motivation to pull themselves out of a slump.  For evidence just look at Birmingham last year.

What the League Cup does show is that there is enough in this Liverpool team to achieve success.  Perhaps not through the final itself but certainly through the route to Wembley that included wins at Stoke, Chelsea and Manchester City.  Those were truly big wins, not because of the opposition or competition but rather as they required character and tactical discipline just as much as they required skill.

Indirectly, however, the League Cup also highlights that this is a good cup side, a team that can raise its game on special occasions. 

A comparison with the league exposes a different side, one that stutters more than it should.  It has shown this team for what it is one that can sparkle on occasion yet on others falls victim to a disjointed pattern of play that is caused by the heavy influx of new players that it has experience over the past twelve months. 

Only when that rhythm of play of all players is more in tune and incisive will those problems fade away.  And only then will the truly important winning – that which leads to the Premier League – commence.

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Book Review: The Didi Man


Tuesday, February 21, 2012 by

First off, a confession: I don't like biographies.  In particular, I don't like player biographies.  Too often they're pretentious, ego-massaging,bank account boosting exercises in self-promotion that offer little in the way of genuine insight.  Unless, of course, you consider tales of lads' nights out or those of puerile banter as falling under the category of insightful.

It is for this reason that I tend to avoid biographies especially those of players I like. Because just as it is said that you should not meet your heroes for fear that reality tarnishes the image that you might have built of them, so too (perhaps even more so) biographies because you might realise just what sort of person they are.

So it was with something approaching reluctance that I approached Didi Hamann's biography.  As a player, Hamann wasn't as visible as Robbie Fowler or Steven Gerrard but that didn't mean he went by unnoticed.  Particularly when he didn't play, as happened in the 2005 Champions League final, when the team clearly missed the defensive balance he brought to the side.

The fans certainly appreciated him and the feeling was mutual: when his career was over, Hamann opted to stay on Merseyside rather than return to Germany.  So there was a lot to like about him, and that was something that I didn't want to ruin.

Thankfully, there was no need to worry.  Hamann does talk about the people he met at Liverpool as well as recount some very colourful stories of his time in England.  He certainly confirms the rumours of him being at the heart of most pranks that took place at Melwood. But there's also a lot of thought here.

Unlike many others, he underlines the importance of Gerard Houllier in restoring Liverpool's status as a top side. He might not always have agreed with him, and he states this, yet he still manages to talk repeatedly about what was good about the French manager.  You're left in no doubt that certain aspects of Houllier's management style will be adopted by Hamann himself.

His analysis of the problems of the English national team is among the most incisive I've read, one that should be picked up by those at the FA.  There's his appreciation and admiration of Giovanni Trapattoni, who won him over by his desire to teach irrespective of whether the players in front of him where first teamers or reserves with little chance of making it.

Most of all, there's his wonderful assessment of Rafa Benitez whom Hamann ultimately defines as a genius.

And whilst the tales of his pranks are admittedly funny, the real entertainment is provided by the strength and clarity of these views in a book that will leave you not only with a greater knowledge of Didi Hamann as a player and a man but also with the ability to better appreciate the game of football.

Full disclosure: a review copy of this book was provided by the publisher.

January Not a Bad Month for Deals


Friday, January 06, 2012 by

January, the start of a new year, is often seen as a month of hope.  Resolutions made as the previous year came to an end are still fresh in the mind as is the belief that they will be maintained.  That similar resolutions were made (but not kept) before doesn't matter.  This time round will be different, this time round I will make it.

Football, however, is much more cynical and allows no space for such naive hope.  So it is that January is seen as the month for the desperate, when those who are in trouble trash about in a made bid to change the flow of things.  Only they look imploringly at the transfer window that January brings with it, praying that it will deliver that player which could save their season.

With choice not being on beggars' menu, so it is that they must make do with what is available.  And pay exceedingly for it.  They have to look for players that others don't want; those who are either playing badly or whose character has proven to be too difficult to handle. Or else take punts on young players who are on the fringes of others' squads in the hope that their talent makes up for their lack of maturity and experience.

That is how the January transfer window is seen.  There is no value in it and you cannot get the players you really want unless you're willing to spend far more than they are worth.  It is a sellers' market, and that's never a good thing for those on the other side of the bargaining table.

Such truth holds most of the time, but not always.  The £23 million that Liverpool paid Ajax last January, when they exploited the Dutch club's financial worries, was a pretty good deal.  It was the same when Maxi Rodriguez joined with Atletico Madrid unwilling to keep paying his wages.  So too when Deportivo La Coruna opted to cash in on Alvaro Arbeloa so desperate were they to get their hands on the money.

Then there were those instances where January happens to be an off-season month.  It was such a timing anomaly that brought Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel to Liverpool.

This does not mean that Liverpool will sign any players during this transfer window much less that they will be successes if so.  But it does show that there can be exceptions to any theory, regardless of how firm the wide spread belief in it is.

And that should be enough to allow you to enjoy transfer rumours in hope, rather than look at them in cynicism.

Why Carroll Needs Patience and Time


Friday, December 09, 2011 by

It only takes one bad touch for the criticism to start.  You know that it's coming as soon as Andy Carroll misplaces a pass or fails to control a ball; the comments that he's not worth the money spent on him, how he's a big mistake, that he's too lazy to try and make it work.

You can even sense some wanting him to fail so that they can tell everyone that they told you so.

There is a lesson about not writing players off prematurely in Lucas Leiva's transformation from Liverpool's fall guy into one of the team's most important players. Yet, judging by the negative feeling towards Carroll, there are quite a few who seem unwilling to heed it.

It is undeniable that so far Carroll hasn't really delivered.  Just as there's no arguing that he has struggled to make an impact.  But there have also been enough glimpses of his potential to see that there is something quite interesting there.  That game last season against Manchester City where Carroll scored twice by itself should be enough to convince just how good he could become.

That is hardly surprising.  Carroll has all the characteristics that you could want in a striker: incredible strength, a tremendous shot, virtually unbeatable in the air, the willingness to sacrifice himself for the team and also a good technique.  

Yet in his lack of experience he is missing one very important element.  Barely eighteen months of first team football - most of which were in the Championship - aren't enough for a player to have developed fully.  He still has to learn about his own game as much as anything else.

What has made Carroll's life particularly hard is the £35 million Liverpool paid to get him.  Had he joined for even half of that amount, there would be far greater acceptance and willingness to allow him to grow. But instead people look at the size of the fee and decide that for that kind of money Liverpool should be getting a player who is at the peak of his ability.

Yet he isn't.  The fee was simply a product of the circumstances that preceded the transfer and not really an evaluation of Carroll's value at that point in time.  Liverpool were willing to pay such an inflated amount because they had the cash and wanted to send out a message of their ambition.

But they were also willing to pay it because they believed in Carroll's potential.  The trick with potential, however, is that it can be difficult to coax especially when the player is under pressure.  Young players will go through rough patches, they will make mistakes and they will struggle.  It is all part of the learning process.

That's what's happening to Carroll who has to get used to a team playing in a different manner and with greater expectations then he's been accustomed to.  The potential is definitely there but the pressure is eroding his confidence.  As he doesn't yet have the maturity to deal with it so the problem keeps getting bigger with every game where he disappoints.

It is a vicious cycle that only Carroll himself can break.  Just as Lucas found the inner strength to dig deep and eventually prove his critics wrong, so too must Andy Carroll.  With time hopefully he'll manage to do just that so that Liverpool will finally get the player worthy of all that money they paid for him.

Time To Prove Worth for Spearing


Monday, December 05, 2011 by

It is an unfortunate reality of the game of football, one which dictates that an injury to one player means an opportunity for another. So it will be for Jay Spearing who seems to be the player within Liverpool's squad who can best replicate the job that Lucas Leiva carried out and which someone else will now have to do in the Brazilian's injury forced absence.

Ironically, in certain aspects Spearing's career mirrors Lucas'.  He too has been deemed as not being good enough by fans unwilling to look past first impressions.  His is a presence that many look at skeptically with the belief being that he isn't big enough to play in such a central role that is normally the fighting ground of giants like Yaya Toure.

Like Lucas, no one would have blamed him had he asked to leave or if he'd accepted one of the opportunities to go out on loan placed before him.  But instead he chose to stay at Liverpool to fight it out despite the apparent futility of such a decision.

Unfortunate or not in its origin, this then represent his make or break moment.  Now is the time for him to show that he is fit for a starring role and not just a supporting one.

It won't be easy.  Implausible as this might have seemed two years ago he will have to play in Lucas' shadow where his every game will be analysed using the standard set by the Brazilian as a measuring stick.  Which, given how well Lucas has been playing, is a tough ask.

Yet such thoughts do a dis-service to Spearing who has been playing very well whenever opportunities have presented themselves.  Perhaps his displays haven't been as eye-catching as Lucas' but they have been effective, confident and determined.

Not that this should be surprising.  Pushed forward by Steve Heighway as being ready for the first team when he captained the FA Youth Cup winning team in 2007, Spearing eventually progressed as one of the better players at reserve level.  There he rarely failed to impress, dominating most games and showing that he was on a different level to most of the other players on the pitch.

That, however, wasn't enough to get him into the first team.  It was only when Kenny Dalglish took over as manager that he started being looked at as a squad member who could be relied on, rather than simply someone for the occasional meaningless cup game.  Still, with the investment in central midfield during the summer, he was the one who ended up suffering the most.

Now he can show his true value.  Now he has the opportunity to prove that there's no need for Liverpool to bring someone else in that role in January.  Now he can prove that he's big enough for Liverpool.

Players Must Show That Liverpool Aren't a One Man Team


Friday, November 11, 2011 by

Back in the nineties teams would travel to Anfield with one plan in mind: that of stopping Steve McManaman.  The thinking was that if they managed this then they were well on their way to getting something out of the game.  It wasn't a tactic that worked as much as its reputation suggested yet it worked often enough for it to continue being used.

That tactic seems to be back in fashion.  It would be incorrect to say that the last three teams to have come to Anfield all did so with the aim of going away with a point but all three paid particular attention to Luis Suarez.  The belief that by limiting him you limit Liverpool is growing.

Yet at its core it is a false belief.  Last season Stewart Downing was often Aston Villa's match winner whilst Blackpool's valiant fight against relegation was largely down to Charlie Adam.  These two players have the potential to turn a game in Liverpool's favour.  Only they haven't been doing it.

Nor has anyone else.

Liverpool's problem isn't the over-reliance on Suarez but rather the deficiencies of other players.  Just as players used to stand back and let Steve McManaman and, later, Steven Gerrard try to save games, so too it seems that the current batch are abdicating their responsibility and hoping that Suarez comes up with an invention that wins the game.  But, as we've seen in recent weeks, it cannot work that way.

That this is happening is partly down to the number of new players that there are.  These are still getting used to playing in a different environment that has new (and greater) pressures to what they were used to.  They are also still trying to fit into a system the workings of which are still new to them with team-mates whom they don't know and who don't know them. And rather than letting their instincts take over they let fear rule.  It is much safer to try to get the ball to Suarez then try something yourself.

This was increasingly apparent against Swansea when preying at the back of the minds of most players was the thought of dropping more points like they did against Norwich.  As the game wore on and the fear grew, so did the misplaced passes which resulted in Liverpool ceeding control of the game.

Over the course of the season, only rarely have Liverpool's midfield players really taken control and been dangerous.  Rarely has anyone other than Suarez really shown the mental strength and determination to push up a notch.  When that happened - Henderson's cameo appearance against Manchester United springs to mind - then we saw midfielders really in with a chance to score.

Suarez, being Liverpool's best player, will inevitably always feature prominently in attacking moves; it would be foolish to structure the team otherwise.  But he cannot and, with the talent that there is in the squad, he need not be the only focus.

Yet if the other players keep deferring to him then it is only natural that other teams start reacting to that.  The problem, then, isn't that Liverpool's main threat is Luis Suarez it is that the other players are acting as if that they believe that he is the only one.