Archive for November 2008
Wednesday, November 26, 2008 by Paul Grech
I’ve always been eager to know what’s happening in every corner of the world of football. As a kid that meant religiously buying World Soccer each month where the knowledge of writers like Brian Glanville and Gavin Hamilton used to fascinate me.
The internet eventually became the main source of information and it was much more timely: you got to know what was happening by the end of the weekend rather than the following month.
Yet it is still difficult to get any in-depth insight into what’s happening anywhere apart from the major leagues. The BBC’s World Football phone-in is good but its’ is a scattergun approach.
So you have to look deeper if you want to know more and occasionally you come across something really worthwhile.
The Football Portugal Podcast falls straight into that category. Set up by two expats, this weekly hsow talks about every aspect of Portuguese football. Neither one of these presenters projects himself as an expert yet they both know enough to make the show both entertaining and informative.
Category Spreading the Word
Monday, November 17, 2008 by Paul Grech
His was a low-profile entrance. Indeed, if any emotion was expressed when Mauricio Pellegrino joined Liverpool's coaching staff last July, it was skepticism: how could the player who had done so badly during his brief stay in 2005 add anything in a coaching role?
Thursday, November 13, 2008 by Paul Grech
Good Game Bad Game [vs Tottenham Hotspur]
There were too many mediocre players out there on this occasion for me to even to attempt to split them between those who played well and those who didn’t. This team played as if they didn’t know each other – which, from a playing perspective, is true – and as a result every aspect of Liverpool’s game failed to click.
Faced with Tottenham Hotspur, a team riding the confidence wave and with practically the first eleven out there, there was only going to be one conclusion.
Yet the nagging doubt at the back of my head is that, had Liverpool been fractionally more careful then they could have won this. But they weren’t and that’s that.
As I said in the introduction, there were too many mediocre performances. Worryingly, these didn’t come from the youngsters like Damien Plessis and Nabil El Zhar both of whom had decent games in my mind, but rather from people like Philip Degen and Andrea Dossena.
The two full-backs were atrocious which can turn out to be a significant problem. The concept of defending seems alien to Dossena and it was telling that, when Insua came on, it was the Argentine who slotted in at left-back.
As for Degen: what can you say? I struggle to think of a player who has played a worse game than he did against Spurs. Of course, it is still early on and all that but let’s just say that I’m hoping that his contract only covered one season. If I were Stephen Darby, I’d be knocking on Benitez’s door this morning asking why a player as limited as Degen was ahead of me.
Incidentally, both Darby and Insua looked good when they came on. Question is: how ready is Benitez to play them instead of the players that he brought in for a considerable amount of money? Not that I want to turn this into a debate about Liverpool’s youngsters and how they compare to Arsenal’s which unavoidably some will try to do this morning.
Yet perhaps the most worrying (although a better word is probably frustrating) aspect of the night was Ryan Babel’s form. The Dutchman clearly has lost a bit of spark and performances levels have slipped lately. Against Tottenham he played like a petulant boy, eager on doing everything on his own and in doing so he kept going down blind alleys.
I’m sure that Rafa will take some pointers from this game with the main one being that the squad isn’t that good but at the end of the day this was the League Cup and if elimination is the price that Liverpool have to pay for resting some of key players then so be it.
Category Good game - bad game
Wednesday, November 12, 2008 by Paul Grech
Yesterday I reviewed Paul Tomkins' latest book Dynasty which, in case you missed it, I wholeheartedly recommend. Here's a brief-ish chat that I had with Paul about this book and Liverpool's current situation.
How did the idea of the book come about?
I was getting sick of the notion that everything in the club’s history was perfect, and Benítez could do no right in some people’s eyes. Liverpool FC has such a wonderful past, but it is often used against the men of the present. At times people talk about the great old teams as if they never lost, or even drew games. That doesn’t help anyone, as it’s patently untrue. They sometimes lost to poor teams at home or lower league sides in the cups, and in 1984 won the league when failing to win almost half their games. It was three points for a win, and yet the win-rate was below what Benítez has delivered.
I wanted to try and write a definitive history of the last 50 years in terms of the club’s managers, looking at every relevant aspect I could think of, to make it as fair as possible. I wanted to celebrate the genius of Shankly, Paisley, Fagan and Dalglish, and herald their strengths, but also point out that they also bought some crap players, and lost plenty of games. I also wanted to try and find some good things to say about the less-popular managers, including Souness, even if the overall story was one of failure.
So I wanted to try and create a level playing field to judge all the managers. Much of the effort went into finding out how strong the rivals of the day were, and devising a way to judge each manager’s spending, so that valid comparisons could be made with other Liverpool managers and also with the spending of the clubs of that era.
There was a bit of controversy early on with the book and the official site. What was all that about?
Someone at the club felt there was criticism of the owners and the current manager. They then told the official website that no mention of the book could be made, when my agreement to write for them was based on the fact that they didn’t really pay me – although in 2007, after two years unpaid, I started getting a small monthly fee – but that they would help promote my books, to help me make a living.
So I’d just finished this book, only to be told that all mention of it had been banned. Naturally I was distressed, particularly as I’d worded the book carefully. As far as I was concerned I merely reported the events of the fallout behind the scenes in 2007 as they appeared in the press, based on the statements of those concerned. It was all 100% factual. Anyway, the people at the website were very supportive and argued my case, and the ban was overturned.
How much research went into the book?
A lot! I think that much is clear from reading it. One of the nicest reactions to the book has been how many older match-going fans have emailed me to say that they loved it, and were surprised at how much they learned from it. I learned a lot researching it, and I think that comes through.
What brought about the idea of the panel?
A key part of the book was determining the quality and contribution of each player over the past 50 years, whether to judge a manager’s signings or to work out the strength of the squad he inherited. So I decided to assemble a Brains Trust of experts, supplemented by a cross-section of longstanding fans, to get a truer picture, rather than rely on just my own opinion. A consensus would always be better.
Vic Gill – Bill Shankly’s son-in-law who was on the club’s books from 1957-1962 – had been a fan of my writing for a while, and had contacted me a couple of years back to let me know. So he was an obvious person to ask. Some of the others, such as Brian Reade and Oliver Kay, I’d exchanged emails with about the Reds, while everyone else had contacted me at one point or another. When you get people in their 80s, who first went to a game 62 years ago, contacting you to say they like your stuff, it seems absurd to not invite their views on the past 50 years. I think it’s a great panel of people, with most having been fans for a long time, and I’m grateful for their contribution.
Are you happy with the end result?
Very much so. You can always look back and think of things you could have added, or done differently, or more research you might have uncovered, because you cannot cover every aspect of 50 years in 256 pages, but overall I believe it to be my best book by some distance. The feedback has been incredible. I’m usually sick to death of a book by the time it hits the shops, having lived with it for months on end and read and reread it eternally, but Dynasty is different. I’m very proud of it.
Is it fair to judge Benitez seeing that his is still a work in progress?
Dynasty puts into context what he’s achieved so far, but as I point out in the book, opinion on what he’s doing will change if he brings league success, or if it falls away badly like it did under Houllier after his first four years. I make it clear that he can only be judged at the time of going to print, and that it is therefore not definitive in terms of a final analysis. But as it’s a book on the past 50 years, you clearly he’s been part of that.
I also made it very clear that the perceptions of his signings would change in time. Martin Skrtel’s form this season would mean he would now be rated higher. Nabil El Zhar has moved from being seen as a total irrelevance to a tidy little squad player. Lucas, however, looks less assured than last term, but of course, could still come good.
There is occasionally a comparison between Benitez and Shankly: do you think that this stands?
There are a number of similarities and parallels outlined in the book. But also, of course, there are a number of differences. Also, clearly Benítez isn’t yet proven to Shankly’s level at the club.
In terms of personality, they’re miles apart, but some of their philosophies are similar. For example, a player’s character was crucial for both men when making a signing. I can see Shankly loving someone like Dirk Kuyt, and not touching El Hadji Diouf with a barge-pole. Shankly said he let talented trainees go if they didn’t sweep the floor properly, but those kids who put their all into it got contracts. I think Benítez has put a lot of that work ethic and pride back into the club.
Both managers also signed a pretty equal mixture of successes and failures, but the ones they got right were massively influential, and that’s always the key thing. But of course, it’s a different era now, with very different challenges, and that is also outlined in the book.
Reading through the book I realized how few players have come through the youth system yet Benitez keeps getting blamed for not giving young players a chance. Is such criticism fair?
I believe that if young players are good enough, they will play. Of course, initially it’s catch-22, because to be good enough they usually need experience, and those same fans will not have the patience for a rookie to find his feet if it means risking losing games. These days that experience has to be on loan. But too many Liverpool players have failed when out at lower league clubs, and that suggests they weren’t ready even for those teams, let alone Liverpool. Equally, Danny Guthrie aside, none of the youngsters let go are undoubtedly good enough to be in the Premiership, let alone the top four. Mellor, Welsh, Potter, Otemobor, Partridge: none have pulled up any trees.
Someone like Paul Anderson did very well in League One, now he has to prove he can cut it in the Championship. If he improves, he has a chance. Ditto Jack Hobbs. Nemeth was knocking on the door, but has been injured all season.
Also, it’s hardly like the Reds have let the next Wayne Rooney go from the Academy in order to accommodate Robbie Keane. Also, there are more world-class foreigners in the league now, so home-grown players need to be that much better. It’s the same at Chelsea and United. Their best youngsters now tend to be foreigners, and even they don’t play that often.
The other thing is that Benítez has bought a lot of young first-team players who are already internationals, and in some cases world-class stars: Torres, Mascherano, Agger, Skrtel, Reina, Babel and Alonso, plus Sissoko, were all 20-23 when signed. So it’s harder to put in teenagers when the core of the team is already pretty young to start with. Most weeks, Liverpool only have a three players over the age of 26 in the team, with Carragher, at 30, the oldest.
Overall, how do you judge Benitez's buys?
Overall, he’s spent his money very wisely, particularly as he can’t buy lots of £20-£30m players like his two main rivals. Every manager signs duds, but his ricks have mostly been inexpensive and quickly shipped out. In real terms, as is calculated in the book, he’s spent the least money per-player of any Liverpool manager on his first-team squad. He’s not even come close to breaking the British transfer record, while someone like Souness not only did so, but bought several other players who were almost as expensive. In today’s money, Paul Stewart cost £22m!
I would rate Torres, Reina, Agger, Skrtel, Mascherano and Alonso as players who would have not looked out of place in even the very best Liverpool sides. Riera and Babel have the potential to join that list, and in time others might too. As with Wenger at Arsenal, it’s the great ones that are remembered, and the chaff gets forgotten. At least they do in Wenger’s case!
Then there’s the fact that players like Crouch and Sissoko had excellent seasons early on in their time at the club, and were then sold for a profit after they lost form or fell down the pecking order – that’s unheard of at Liverpool in recent decades, with unwanted players usually leaving for a big loss. Add players like Bellamy and Carson, and you have a manager selling for profit in order to raise his own funds to reinvest in better players. When Sissoko lost his way, he was sold an it helped the club afford Mascherano. So that is good trading-up.
Finally, if you look at how we was denied the chance to sign players like Simao and Alves because of the money involved – which wasn’t even massive figures – and how well they’ve flourished since moving for even bigger fees, you can see that his judgement is generally excellent. Put those two into the current side, and it would be very interesting.
Finally, what are your plans for the future?
The books sell well for the genre, but as any sports author will tell you, bar the biographies of the big stars, they are not very profitable. And as it’s almost my only source of income, I have to keep thinking of new ideas, hence also selling another new book, Compendium, via my website.
I’d like to take time off and have a rest, but my plans to do so usually end up in tatters as I have to get working on promoting the current book, or thinking about the next one. I know for sure that I cannot maintain this pace of output, so something has to give. If the credit crunch hits the Christmas book market, I’m stuffed. The long term aim has to be to get well enough to get more paid, regular writing work. Of course, a 19th league title would be an excellent excuse to pen the next book.
Read my review of Dynasty here.
Further book reviews can be found here.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008 by Paul Grech
Book Review: Dynasty by Paul Tomkins
People who read Paul Tomkins’ regular columns fall into two categories: those who appreciate his insightful musings and those who do so to complain about his ultra-positive tinge. That over the past few years he has been writing largely for the official website has strengthened the latter’s view that he is simply a mouthpiece of the club.
It was therefore highly ironic that there was, briefly, the treat that he wouldn’t be able to promote his latest book Dynasty in his regular articles on the liverpoolfc.tv. Ultimately everything was cleared up yet the fact that his articles now come with a disclaimer hints that they might not sit comfortably with everyone at the club.
All of this might be interpreted that there is something controversial within the pages of Dynasty. If I’ve given out that impression then let me clarify: that’s not the case. But, contrary to what seems to be current conventional wisdom, there is no need for controversy for a book to be brilliant and this is certainly proof of that.
The project that Tomkins has taken on here is highly ambitious: assessing each of Liverpool’s managers since Bill Shankly. He does this in his own irrepressible style of analyzing in detail every area that falls within a manager’s remit. And whilst Tomkins has a talent for such a task, where he excels here is in approaching each manager without any apparent pre-conceived ideas. This can lead to some surprising points of view: whereas the directors who appointed Shankly are often seen as making an inspired choice, Tomkins puts across the possibility that they were simply lacking in ambition when they chose a relatively unproven manager more noted for balancing the books than winning trophies or promotions.
It is such insight that makes Tomkins and the book such an interesting read. To be honest, having seen what it was about I was half-expecting a rehash of things we’ve heard before. In hindsight, I should have given Tomkins more credit.
In particular, he has gone into a lot of effort to be as objective so much that the analysis of players is down to the collective view of a panel of Liverpool fans. It is an innovative – although not infallible – approach.
Ultimately, however, it is simply an aside to Tomkins' excellent writing. Of course, there is no damning criticism of any manager – that is simply not his style – but rather a great body of evidence with which to judge and rank each manager’s achievements.
Further book reviews can be found here.
by Paul Grech
Paul Anderson has had a pretty miserable season so far, with injury greatly forcing him to sit out the first three months. Worse than that, he's seen the club he opted to join on loan - Nottingham Forest - slump to the bottom of the table whereas the one that he could have joined - Swansea - have been pushing for promotion.
Slowly, however, things are turning round. Anderson is back playing and Forest are showing signs of a revival. None more so than last weekend when they were unlucky to draw against highly rated Birmingham.
It was the first time that Anderson really started to show his class at the City Ground and his performance caught the eye of the Guardian's John Ashdown who had this to say in his weekly Football League review: the 10-point guide to the weekend action:
"Forest now have reason to look forward with optimism. Mark Thornhill, Joe Heath, Joe Garner and particularly the on-loan Paul Anderson were all impressive. All are only 20. In fact the average age of the 13 players that made the pitch on Saturday was 22. It's still a long road back - they remain second-bottom, five points from safety, after all - but the first green shoots of recovery are there."
Monday, November 10, 2008 by Paul Grech
It has been a pretty bleak season so far for Liverpool’s reserves. Four defeats in a row have been quite hard to take for the side that only lost once last season. Players who this time last year were being pushed as potential first team material – Stephen Darby, Miguel San Jose, Damien Plessis, Jay Spearing and even Daniel Pacheco – have been under-performing no matter what Gary Ablett tries to do.
One of the few bright spots amidst all of this gloom has been the return of Francisco Duran. Signed at the start of last year from Malaga, Duran was considered quite special and, although all new signings are hyped up to some extent, there was genuine excitement around him.
It wasn’t to last. Not because of Duran’s lack of ability but rather because of ill-fortune: the player injured his cruciate ligaments in a game against Middlesbrough and spent nine months recovering. Worse was to follow when he returned as, within a couple of weeks, he suffered another cruciate ligament injury in a friendly game against Tottenham that kept him away for another nine months.
It is only this season that he has been able to show his worth. Introduced slowly in order to gauge whether he was ready or not, Duran immediately impressed. A great touch allied with an excellent work rate, he has been Liverpool’s best midfielder whenever used which says a lot given that the highly thought of Spearing and Plessis also featured.
What is impossible to asses is how the injuries and the time away from playing have influenced his physical development. Can he handle the pace of Premiership football? Physically, is he up to it?
If those questions can be answered in the affirmative then there should be little doubt about him. The skill is there as is his character because you don’t return from such injuries if you aren’t determined to succeed.
Interested in reading more about Liverpool's young players? Find many more profiles here.
Saturday, November 08, 2008 by Paul Grech
It says a lot that the reaction among
Yet not everyone seems to have welcomed the way the new
This piece isn't aimed at telling those with such views that they are wrong for, clearly, they have a very valid argument.
What I do want to do, however, is try to put across what I appreciate about Maradona.
Up till Maradona's arrival, the passion of the city for its football club was a cause for ridicule: a club that wanted and deserved to be big but could do little against the financial might of the Northern clubs. In almost a hundred years of existence, it had never won a league title.
Then Maradona came and suddenly greatness was bestowed upon Napoli Calcio.
For a few years, at least in football,
That is what I like about Maradona. Of course, no one can condone what he did in his private life, but what I do know is that for a few years he made the people happy. And surely we can empathise with that.
Here are some of Maradona's most spectacular goals in a Napoli shirt:
If you want to see what Maradona meant to the fans, look here:
That refrain goes something like this:
Oh mamma mamma mamma
Oh mamma mamma mamma
sai,perchè,mi batte el corazon
ho visto MARADONA,ho visto MARADONA
eh mammà !!! Innamorato son!!
Oh mother, mother, mother
Oh mother, mother, mother
you know why my heart beats so much
I've seen Maradona, I've seen Maradona
and, mother, I've fallen in love
And if you want to read about Maradona's life, look no further than his autobiography El Diego.
Friday, November 07, 2008 by Paul Grech
The appearance of David N'Gog last Tuesday as a second half substitute was a surprising one, yet it says much about the quality of Liverpool's squad.
In explaining the substitution, Rafael Benitez said that he wanted to change things up front, to put on a striker who could perhaps add something different. Nothing wrong with that yet when that something different is a nineteen year old with one substitute appearance to his name, it is unlikely that much will change.
It isn't simply striking alternaties that Benitez lacks. Players in other areas have struggled to prove their worth: in theory Yossi Benayoun is a valid alternative in midfield yet lately he has struggled to make an impact when given the chance. The same applies, although to different degrees and for varying reasons, to Ryan Babel and Jermaine Pennant.
Elsewhere, Andrea Dossena has admitted that he has found settling at Liverpool hard whilst Philip Degen has barely been seen.
It is only Sami Hyppia and Lucas Leiv who offer a fair degree of reliabiity even though the latter's inclusion here won't sit well with many fans.
Even so, Benitez is increasingly being faced with a situation where if the regulars fail to do the job then he has no real alternatives.
Of course, squad players are just that: players whoc can't be considered as being as good as the regular starters. Yet their value in the modern game is immense. And it is where Liverpool struggle most when compared to Chelsea and, in particular, Manchester United.
What's worse, ultimately it could have a telling effect on any possible title challenge
Wednesday, November 05, 2008 by Paul Grech
For so long it was a case of deja vu. As with last Saturday, Liverpool pressed hard, came close to scoring on a number of occasions but failed to do so. To be fair to them, Atletico were a lot classier than Spurs and you have to wonder what Simao could have achieved had the transfer to Liverpool gone through a couple of years back.
Then came the penalty. Was it the right choice? Probably not but, you know what, the earlier two were, Liverpool deserved to win let alone draw this game and when you've lost a Champions League semi-final to an own goal in the final minute it doesn't really matter.
Apart from the goal, Pepe Reina had very little else to do. Atletico slice Liverpool open for the goal but otherwise Jamie Carragher and Daniel Agger had a good game against some formidable ball players. Even so, there's that nagging doubt that the absence of Martin Skrtel is being increasingly felt. Not to mention that Agger should have at least scored once.
Both Fabio Aurelio and Alvaro Arbeloa did their job well. They moved well forward and helped stretch Atletico's defence.
Perhaps I'm a bit biased, but I feel that this was another masterclass by Xabi Alonso who always seems to pick out a Liverpool player no matter how many opposing players surround him. My man of the match.
Javier Mascherano hasn't hit the heights of last season, probably due to the fact that he had such a tough summer, but his covering in midfield is still priceless. The same adjective has to be used for Steven Gerrard. This wasn't his best game, he should have scored earlier but he kept running till the end and got that penalty. It is that belief and drive that makes him such a good player, and not only his undoubted skill.
The same goes for Dirk Kuyt. He runs so much and so intelligently that he takes defenders all over the place. His touch has gotten better this season as the confidence has grown and thankfully those who were so critical last year seem to have shut up, at least for now.
Neither one necessarily had a bad game but Albert Riera's form has dipped lately whilst Robbie Keane, for all the effort that he puts in, isn't really being that effective. And he should have scored wehn put through against the keeper.
The introduction of Ryan Babel for Albert Riera made sense seeing that the Spaniard was being increasingly marginalised. Same goes for Lucas Leiva's introduction instead of Mascherano. Not that either one of the two made that much of an impact on the game.
Much more has to be said about David N'Gog. Benitez seems to like putting on these surprise players: see Nabil El Zhar's occasional appearances. Does it make sense, however? Perhaps it he simply wanted to put across a message to Robbie Keane or else it is simply because he doesn't have any real alternatives. Whatever the reason, it was a surprising decision.
Because whilst N'Gog has some potential (as seen by his cut-back and shot that almost resulted in a goal) and physically he seems very strong but he's nowhere near ready to play in such a delicate game.
Monday, November 03, 2008 by Paul Grech
Last week, Liverpool were linked with a move for Brazilian striker Keirrison and, although the link seems a bit spurious, I thought that the name sounded familiar.
So I looked around a bit and, true enough, found that last month I had linked to a post on the Pitaco do Gringa's blog about the most promising Brazilian players around. So, if you want to know more about Keirrison, then you can look here.
If you ask my opinion, however, I doubt whether there's any truth in the rumour.
Category Spreading the Word
Sunday, November 02, 2008 by Paul Grech
This was bound to happen, wasn't it? Having won so many games at the death this season, Liverpool were due to suffer a bit of hearthbreak of their own. Yet, for it to come in this game was astounding, such was Liverpool's domination till the 70th minute.
By the time Jamie Carragher put the ball past his own net,Liverpool should have been comfortably ahead. Instead it got Spurs back level and, given their result on Wednesday, you could sense them coming back.
The important thing now is to see how Liverpool react. After last week's defeat to Liverpool, Chelsea have come back by hammering both Hull and Sunderland. Arsenal, on the other hand, followed up the draw with Tottenham with a defeat at Stoke. It is the former that Liverpool must try to emulate.
Let's archive Champions League qualification and then focus on a series of games that are all win-able. It is easier said then done, however, given the number of disastrous Novembers that we have had in the recent past.
Once again Xabi Alonso was magnificent in the middle of the park. Tottenham tried to man-mark him but he simply side-stepped anyone who came near him. My man of the match even though he really should have scored from that header.
Steven Gerrard too had a good game, putting in his usual passion and drive. Unlucky not to score but, then again, luck hardly smiled on Liverpool on this occasion. Javier Mascherano did what he does best in stemming attacks, yet he showed as well that he can pass the ball as Liverpool had Tottenham chasing shadows for much of the game.
Albert Riera and Robbie Keane both returned to the starting line-up and both had a similar sort of game in that they were very good in the first half before seeming to tire in the second. Keane also handled the emotional side of this game well, even though you could see that it played a part as well.
Having scored a fantastic goal Dirk Kuyt put in his usual shift and worked extremely hard all over the pitch. A look at the disappointment and frustration on his face at the end of the game should be enough to show the doubters just it is why he is so valuable for the team.
I consider Pepe Reina the best goalkeeper in England but yesterday his indecision cost Liverpool. Not necessarily because he was at fault with the goals but rather because they didn't instill in the defence the sort of confidence that he normally does. Once Spurs starting pressing you could see that the defenders were panicking and Reina missing a couple of punches certainly didn't help them
This might seem harsh on Jamie Carragher but only he can answer why he decided to head that corner towards his own goal. Could it be that tiredness is setting in?
Neither Daniel Agger nor Andrea Dossena did much wrong throughout the game - indeed Dossena was quite good going forward - but both should have defended better for Spurs's second goal. Had they done that then Liverpool would still be top.
Having been impressed by Alvaro Arbeloa on Wednesday, I have to say that this was a more disappointing version. Too often he chose the wrong option as Liverpool's attacks broke down.
Thrown up front against Ledley King, Ryan Babel failed to repeat what he did last week against John Terry and he was a peripheral figure. If Babel was disappointing, Yossi Benayoun was shocking. He loses possession far too easily and seems to be playing on a different wavelength to the rest of the players. Unless he improves soon, it will be hard to put forward an argument to keep him at Liverpool.