Rodgers Can Fix Liverpool’s Attack with this One Simple Trick

There is no hiding from it now, Liverpool have looked very bad to open the 2015-16 Premier League season. Just a season plus removed from averaging nearly three goals a game, the Reds have scored only three goals in five games. Two of those are already goal of the season contenders and the third was clearly offside. Clean sheets and good fortune in the first three matches obscured the weakness of this setup, but back-to-back debacles have caused panic among supporters. There are problems all over the pitch, but the feeble attack is drawing the most attention. Liverpool’s problems start at the back, however, and perhaps counter intuitively, the answer to unlocking more attacking potential starts there too.

during the UEFA Europa League Round of 32 second leg match between Besiktas JK and Liverpool FC on February 26, 2015 in Istanbul, Turkey.

The stats don’t lie. Since the dawn of the Dejan Lovren era at Liverpool at the beginning of last season, the team has played 43 Premier League games. Rodgers famously shifted to a back three for a period during last season, but his most used defensive formation is a back four. Rodgers’ preferred center back pairing is Lovren and Martin Skrtel, who have featured in that role in 21 of those 43 games as the center backs in a back four, including the first five games this season, well more than any other combination. The results of those games are 7 wins, 5 draws, 9 defeats, for a return 26 points with 21 goals scored and 27 conceded for a -6 goal difference. That’s on pace for 47 points over a 38 game season, which would have been good for 12th place in the Premier League last year.

Now look at the other 22 games with any other center back combination or defensive formation. Literally any other alignment of defensive players has produced 13 wins, 4 draws, and 5 defeats for a return of 43 points with 34 goals scored and 27 goals conceded for a +7 goal difference. That would have given Liverpool 74 points over a full season with a goal difference of +12, good for fourth place, just a point out of third, and in the Champions League. Now, a +12 goal difference is not typically enough to result in a top four finish, but the points haul of 74 is usually enough to reach that level.

Given that the same number of goals were conceded in the Lovren-Skrtel games versus all the others, it could be argued that it doesn’t really matter to the defense. Fair enough, but two of those other games were the season’s final two matches against Crystal Palace and Stoke in which Liverpool allowed nine goals in a display that demonstrated serious problems at the club that went far beyond who was playing in defense. But you don’t need to cut those games out and cherry pick the stats to suit your argument to understand the important lesson drawn from a comparison of these numbers. Liverpool score more goals when the Lovren-Skrtel pairing is not playing in central defense.

It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out why this is the case. Lovren and Skrtel are simply not very good central defenders. When they play in central defense, the rest of the squad has to compensate for their weakness by playing more conservatively and more compact. This year it has required playing a right-footed central defender at left back who does not get into the final third much to babysit Lovren. This comes at the cost of not playing Alberto Moreno at left back, a player who is very adept at getting forward but is not as sound defensively and would create a significant vulnerability if paired with Lovren at the back.

Playing Alberto Moreno isn’t going to solve Liverpool’s attacking woes on his own. But putting in central defenders who can actually defend, like Mamadou Sakho and either Kolo Toure or Joe Gomez, will allow multiple changes in personnel and approach that will help get more out of the attacking pieces that Rodgers has at his disposal. He could drop the low block defensive setup that maroons in deep and wide positions attacking players like Roberto Firmino, Philippe Coutinho, and even Danny Ings. This set up has left Christian Benteke woefully isolated and contributed to the tepid start to his Liverpool career.

Check out Anfield Index for more analysis questioning the judgment of Liverpool’s transfer policy this summer or this great podcast critiquing the way in which Brendan Rodgers has used his expensive new recruits, especially in attack. I will just leave my contribution to that debate as registering grave doubts about whether Christian Benteke matches well with the other attacking players we have and concern that Roberto Firmino, despite his obvious skills, will be wasted if he is left on the right wing.

When the Reds take the field against Bordeaux in their opening Europa League group game, we know that neither Lovren nor Skrtel will feature in defense because that duo didn’t make the trip to France. Rodgers has also said that he hope his side rediscover their attacking form after the stuttering start to the season. The key question for the rest of the season is whether Rodgers understands that those two things are linked.


Spurs Strategy for 2015-16 is Either Delusional or Revolutionary

dele alliSpurs fans need to lower expectations for this season. Over the summer Spurs let go players proven in top flight leagues and in their place have largely promoted kids from the youth team. Call it a bold approach, call it faith in the next generation, but do not call it a winning strategy for the 2015-16 season. The question is whether Spurs are delusional enough to believe this is a winning approach for this season or are they trying something truly revolutionary for the Premier League: punting this season in order to build for the future.

What we know is that Spurs are an ambitious club with a shrewd and driven chairman in Daniel Levy. Spurs have never shied away from splashing cash in the transfer market and have for the last decade consistently competed for a top four champions league spot.

But for this season, Spurs are more a youth team than a Champions League team. Spurs ended the game against Everton with six midfielders and forwards aged 21, 20, 22, 19, 22, and a grizzled veteran Nacer Chadli at age 26. That’s an average age of 21.6. It is great that Spurs believe their youth academy is producing top talent. But if all of these young players are champions league caliber than England is going to win the World Cup in 2018. Not only that, but most of the team will be players from Spurs youth academy, which apparently has suddenly turned into the equivalent of Barca’s and Ajax’s academies, despite being only about 15 years old.

A Champions League Midfield

A Champions League Midfield

Most surprisingly for Premier League watchers, Spurs didn’t do any panicked deadline deals in the transfer window to get a new desperately needed striker, or an even more desperately needed central midfield. Both Berahino and Wanyama were pricey and Spurs resisted making an offer to these clubs that they could not refuse. Instead, Spurs net spending was basically zero, they reduced their wage bill, got considerably younger (players out averaged age 27; players in 23 years), and promoted youth to fill the significant gaps in the squad (Pritchard, Alli). Add in Spurs new young singings to a squad that is already extremely young and raw, except at central defense, and you have one of the youngest and most inexperienced squads in the Premier league. This squad has promise, but just isn’t a champions league caliber squad this season.

So what is going on here? There are three general explanations that make sense – one isn’t believable, one is very worrying, and one would make Spurs Premier League revolutionaries.

The first explanation, Spurs have lost their ambition and are just trying to make money by developing and selling young players. You hear this shouted at times from the Spurs fanbase. But this is just not believable, as it belies the modern history of Spurs. Why build a new stadium if you are content as a midlevel club? Why traverse the globe on preseason tours if you have no ambition?

The second explanation, Spurs genuinely believe they can compete for Champions League relying on their youth academy players. This is what we are supposed to believe is true. But this is terrifying because it means Spurs have drunk their own academy kool-aid and really genuinely believe each of these young players are good enough to make Spurs a champions league team (this season) capable of going toe-to-toe with big spending United and Liverpool, let alone Arsenal, Chelsea and City. If that is the expectation, Spurs have real problems and Pochettino will not be long for the Spurs bench, as this youth experiment will inevitably fall short over the course of a 38 game season.

The third and in many ways most hopeful explanation, Spurs are punting this season. This isn’t giving up, or abandoning their ambition. On the contrary, Spurs are punting this season with a goal toward building a Champions League-caliber squad for the new stadium. If this is the strategy it would make Spurs revolutionary and one of the shrewdest teams in football.

This strategy would be similar to a rebuilding team in Major League Baseball that recognizes the playoffs are out of reach and trades high priced aging talent for minor league prospects. The basic idea is that a team accepts being terrible or mediocre on the promise that in a year or two the young talent will make them a contender.

Champions League... A long time ago

Champions League… A long time ago

This strategy makes sense for Spurs because they simply cannot realistically compete for the Champions League right now with the transfer budgets and (crucially) the wages of the top 4 and Liverpool. Spurs have been chasing the Champions League dream unsuccessfully for the last five years and the gulf in spending is widening. An ambitious club would look for a new approach.

The centerpiece of that new approach is construction of a new stadium scheduled for August 2018. This will give Spurs the financial footing to compete with the big CL clubs. But that is three seasons from now. So recognizing that there is no realistic path to the Champions League this year, and probably next, Spurs are building a squad for three to four seasons from now (hence the reason Spurs are almost exclusively buying young players that will be in their prime or near it in 3-4 years).

There are a few elements to this strategy, which Spurs clearly seem to be pursuing:

If you build it, you can spend

If you build it, you can spend

Promote and play youth players. This means playing them even over better, more established players, to season them and give them a chance to succeed. If these players emerge (Harry Kane), you have struck gold. If they are solid Premier League players, but just not quite good enough (Jamie O’Hara, Jake Livermore, Kyle Naughton), you sell for a profit.

Buy young players that could be great in 2-4 years. Spurs know they can’t really compete for top marquee talent on the transfer market without Champions League and with their low wages, so instead they seek to strike gold with expensive prospects like Son and Njie – similar to what Spurs did with Modric. All of Spurs’ buys this summer could still potentially be key cogs in 3-4 years time. The only veteran players that have been bought have been central defenders that hit their prime later in their careers. Therefore, the emphasis on youth is to attempt to build a core group of players that in 2018 are truly elite – and would have Real Madrid calling.

Sell older more expensive players that will be past their prime in 2-4 years. Spurs have offloaded many experienced players in their prime: Paulinho (27, CM, 10m), Etienne Capoue (27, CDM, 6.3m), Benjamin Stambouli (25, CDM, 6m), Roberto Soldaldo (30, F, 10m), Aaron Lennon (28, RM, 4m), Younes Kaboul (29, CB, 3m). Few would expect these players to be around in 3-4 years.

Hoard cash now, to spend big in 2017/18. Spurs will likely want to significantly increase their spending both in the transfer market and on wages as they get closer to opening the new stadium. The last two seasons Spurs have been in the black when it comes to transfers. During the 2014-15 season, Spurs sold about 10m pounds more than they bought. In this transfer window, Spurs spent as much as they sold (about 50m) but they significantly reduced their wage bill by offloading higher priced players such as Soldaldo, Paulinho, and Adebayor. They spent a huge amount on Son Heung-Min (23) from Bayern Leverkusen for 22m but that also should raise the club’s profile in Asia, which was no doubt a consideration for Tottenham. By hoarding cash, Spurs will be able to open the wallet – not just in terms of transfer fees in the transfer market, but more importantly in regards to wages – both to lure players, and to hold onto players like Christian Erickson from suitors like Madrid. To sign more marquee players, Spurs will have to likely over-pay in wages (think of what City did to attract players during their initial rise). Thus, Spurs develop the core of the squad now and then before the transitional year playing in (hopefully) Wembley, Spurs start bringing in more marquee players and begin to set a new normal for their transfer and wage budgets that is more on par with Chelsea, City and the rest.

Try to grow profile abroad. As noted above, Spurs are also spending a lot on growing their profile in the US and Asia – demonstrating big club ambition. A club content with mediocrity, without ambition would not do tours in Asia, the US, and then go to Munich right before the season to play the biggest clubs in Europe. You do this to grow the brand and become a big global club. That way when Tottenham is finally playing in a big new stadium competing with the big boys it will already have some global visibility.

Sign a young up and coming manager who showed he can develop youth. That’s the idea behind Pochettino.

So is that what Spurs are thinking? I hope so, but I am not sure, because almost no other English team would operate in such a way to essentially punt on a season. Spurs are certainly good enough to avoid the drop, but not nearly good enough to do compete for top four. So are Spurs okay with mediocrity now in the hope it pays off in the season ahead? That doesn’t really sound like Spurs, but it would certainly be bold and shrewd and unique for the Premier League.

If this is the case, it means the Spurs fan base should sit back this year and enjoy watching this team grow and develop and not stress over qualifying for Champions League or their place in the table. That is not what this year is about for Spurs. It is about building Tottenham to eventually be one of the big clubs of Europe.

U.S.-Costa Rica – What Klinsmann Got Wrong

ImageThere is a reason why long winning streaks are rare in soccer – stuff can easily go wrong! This was evident against Costa Rica. Michael Bradley is without a doubt the most important Yank and his injury before the game clearly unsettled the team. While the US should have expected an early onslaught, they looked totally shocked and were in some ways fortunate not to give up a third goal. All looked lost. 

Yet… and there is a very big YET… the US fought there way back into the game. By the second half the US looked likely to level. Dempsey hit the post and Donovan was terrorizing Costa Rica. Unfortunately, Costa Rica hit on the break effectively ending the game. 
It is tough to be too critical of Klinsmann, especially after such a great run of games.  But last night we saw some of Klinsmann’s managerial tendencies back fire, namely his continuing willingness to play players out of position. 
First, Fiscal was totally lost at right back. The second goal was caused by him allowing CR to get behind him, forcing Gonzalez to come over. Even then Fiscal didn’t provide any help. As a result Gonzalez was isolated and could do little to prevent the cross into the box – a cross he would have cleared on the other end if he hadn’t had to cover for Fiscal. That wasn’t the only time Fiscal was beat on the wing. Furthermore, Fiscal offered nothing going forward. It is one thing if Fiscal was the emergency option. But Klinsmann had him there over Cameron who plays there for a Premier League side. Granted Cameron doesn’t get forward very much with Stoke, but if he is your back up DM, then he is clearly better on the ball than Fiscal.  The lack of true fullbacks is clearly the major hole in the US side. 
Second, the substitutions hurt, rather than helped. I thought Klinsmann decision to bring on Eddie Johnson was a good one. A true CF would through something new at a CR backline that was on its heels. But by taking off Zusi he forced Donovan – who at that point was terrorizing the CR back line out wide. All of sudden the US attack began to sputter without Donovan. A better move would have been to bring on EJ for Fiscal and shift Fabian Johnson to RB with the direction to get forward. Donovan would have then have had defensive responsibilities on the left, but wouldn’t have needed to stay wide as Beasley could have provided the width. Instead, with Fiscal offering little going forward and exposed defensively, Donovan had to stay wide and play more as a true RM. 
Furthermore, it made little sense to bring on Johnson if you wanted to bring on Altidore a few minutes later. Bringing on Altidore and taking off Fabian Johnson may seem like an attacking move, but in reality it was anything but. The problem wasn’t Jozy. It is that by bringing on Jozy required Eddie to play deeper and wide (once again a player not playing his normal position). With Donovan isolated wide, and Eddie Johnson having to link the play the US became completely disjointed. While the third goal was clearly demoralizing, the U.S. barely strung passes together once the subs were made. 
Also a note on Howard. From my view the third goal was on him. He got his positioning entirely wrong. First, at the time the ball was booted forward, Howard was very deep, essentially at his penalty spot. He should have been further forward prepared to come out and clear balls over the top. Second, his first reaction was to go backward toward his goal once the ball is kicked. If he decides to go for the ball he gets there. Even if it is close he forces Campbell to round him allowing the CB to recover. He had to see that Besler had no chance of catching Campbell. Third, even if he didn’t want to leave the box, he still needs to charge at Campbell to shut down the angle. He literally just stood there – just outside his six yard box – and was beaten low. He has to attack the ball there. Now some of this might be on the coaching staff, as Howard might have been told to stay back and not to venture out as a sweeper keeper. If so that’s a mistake, especially when chasing the game. 
Overall, the game probably couldn’t have gone much worse.  The injury to Bradley and the yellow cards (especially the boneheaded one by Altidore) will really test the depth of the US.
That being said, the US is still in very good shape for qualification and if Dempsey’s shot hits the inside, rather than the outside, of the post, we are talking about the tremendous resilience of this US side. This game highlighted some areas for the US to improve, what it didn’t do is cause reason for panic. 

Why Spurs Aren’t Going To Sell Bale (or at least why they shouldn’t)

article-2359033-1ABC8FC1000005DC-12_634x521It has been largely assumed that Spurs would have to sell Bale and would not be able to resist an 85 million pound offer from Real Madrid. Daniel Levy is now seen as just holding out to get a better deal from Madrid.  But when analyzing Spurs past transfer history and the current dynamics of the market, it becomes clear that Spurs are most likely not bluffing. They want to keep Bale and have no intention of selling Bale this summer for anything less than an absurd 100+ million pounds.  And Spurs are exactly right in their approach. Bale is worth more to Spurs in 2013-14 than 85 million pounds.

Importantly, this doesn’t mean Bale is worth more than 85 million pounds. Bale is an asset. And just like any property, just  because someone offers you a huge amount for your house doesn’t mean it makes sense to sell. Timing matters and the timing doesn’t make sense here.

But what about Spurs spending?
One reason to think Bale is on his way is that Spurs are spending likely drunken sailors – only Manchester City in the EPL has spent more this season. The logic goes that poor Spurs can’t afford this, so they must already be using the money they plan to get for Bale now. But there are reasons to doubt this.

As the transfer history shows, Spurs have money.  But until this summer, Spurs haven’t really spent considerably since Harry Redknapp’s first two years. Look at the last 8-9 years of transfer activity:

  • 2013-14 (-47 mil euros net): Spurs have spent 69 million euros (Paulinho, Soldaldo, Capoue, Chadli) and sold 22 million
  • 2012-13 (-4 mil): Spurs last year spent 72 mil euros and sold 68 million euros
  • 2011-12 (+36 mil): (Redknapp’s last season), Spurs spent just 6 mill euros (Scott Parker) and sold 42 million euros.
  • 2010-2011 (-23 mil): spent 26 million, and sold just 3 million.
  • 09-10 (-9 mil):  spent 40 and sold 31.
  • 08-09 (-50 mil): This was the year Spurs sold Berbatov and Keane (2 pts, 8 games) and then got Redknapp and had to panic buy in the January window, Spurs spent 140 mill and sold 90 mil
  • 07-08 (-72 mil): 94 spent (Bent, Bale), 22 mil sold
  • 06-07 (-23 mil): 61 spent (Berbatov), 38 mil sold
  • 05-06 (-14 mil): 36 spent, 22 mil sold.

Over the last 8 years (excluding this summer), Spurs have spent an average of 20 million euros more per season than they have sold. But if you don’t count the last two seasons Spurs were spending 30 million euros more per season than selling for the 6 seasons between 2005 and 2011. But the past two seasons Spurs have been a selling club netting 32 million euros. So if Spurs could maintain spending at 30 million per season for the six years prior to 2011-2012 than Tottenham have likely been banking revenue the past two seasons.

This means that not only do Spurs have the 32 million euros they have netted the past two seasons, but likely are capable of spending an additional 60 million from a lack of spending. In other words, Spurs have not spent their transfer allotment the past two years.  That would equate to Spurs being able to afford to spend about 90 million euros netHence, despite already having a net outflow of 47 million euros this window, Spurs should have about an additional 30-40 million euros more they could spend, given the lack of spending the past two years.  This is what makes Tottenham’s bid for Willan and others financially viable. Furthermore, if Spurs plan on selling Bale next season, they can count on likely being in the black in terms of spending, likely making them more willing to push their spending limit.

Lastly, my guess is that part of the agreement in keeping AVB at Spurs (he turned down Real and PSG) is that he will be given the resources to compete. This current rate of spending is probably part of that deal.  So Spurs spending could easily be disconnected from any Bale sale.

But still why not sell at 85 million pounds – a Premier League record?
First, Spurs will increase their chances at qualifying for Champions League. With Bale Spurs, while not assured, will be favorites for the Champions League. That’s likely an additional 20 to 40 million pounds in revenue. Without Bale, Spurs have a good shot at CL, but the odds get lowered. So lets assume you don’t sell Bale this year and his value drops to 60 million, just because the amount that Real is willing to pay lessens. You still have likely come out even by keeping him and getting into the CL than by selling.

Second, it is harder to replace Bale now because you don’t have the attraction of CL. Next year, if Spurs make the CL they can actually use the funds to lure current CL quality players. Right now Spurs have to speculate more in the transfer market, as they have to find players that they think will be of that calibre.

Third, you gain global market share by keeping Bale. Bale is the best player in the Premier League and a human highlight reel. There’s a reason why Spurs ranked top in NBC’s chose your club promotion and its Bale. He’s on the Time’s Square billboard for god sakes. In politics this is called “earned media” – ie free publicity. Spurs will never be able to get this sort of free publicity again. This could hugely impact the potential earnings of the club, as new markets, with a growing fan base have thousands of people looking for a team to cheer for, for jersey’s to buy.

Fourth, Spurs actually have a shot at winning the league with Bale. Yes, with Bale (and with AVB and new signings), Spurs can win the title. The top 3 EPL clubs have new managers this season and while Mourinho isn’t exactly “new” he has to reshape the squad and could face a couple hiccups. The winning point totals the past four seasons have been 89, 86, 80, and 86 points. There are reasons to believe that it will be less this year, due to competitive balance and new coaches. Let’s say 82-86 points wins this year. With Bale likely playing as a striker/attacking midfield from the get go and with Soldaldo and other new signings, Spurs will likely improve on the 72 points last year when they had no strikers scoring more than a handful of goals and had a new manager. It is by no means unreasonable to think Spurs could potentially be about 10 points better than they were last year. And at around 82 points they are fully in the title race.

Association Football is Back!

We’re back. Life intervened—we both got married and got new jobs—to make it very difficult to devote the kind of time necessary to keep up the blog at the frequency posting we wanted and as a result, we got away from writing anything. But we’ve missed it, and thanks to the strong admonitions of friends and a few very loyal readers, we’re going to start posting again.

The focus will remain the same: the growth of soccer in the United States both on the field with the U.S. Men’s National Team and MLS and off it as the sport grows in popularity and as a successful business; the English Premier League, Max’s Spurs and Ken’s Liverpool give us plenty to write about; the global governance of the game; and the occasional convergence of soccer and international politics.

We will be posting less frequently than our previous efforts but we will make each post count more as our style will favor the long-form column full of analysis.

One new wrinkle is that we will be more active on Twitter and Facebook. So please follow us on Twitter @assocfootball and checkout the Association Football Facebook page.

Thank you to those who have encouraged us to get back to doing something we truly loved. We hope you enjoy it as much as we do.

USA vs. Africa

The US for the first time in this tournament will play in a game with nothing to lose. Yes the US might be slight favorites to advance over Ghana, but even if the US team loses it will be seen as a successful World Cup in which they played well and demonstrated immense resolve. But free of the pressure of expectations, this is when the US team has historically been its most successful and most dangerous.

While the US should be care free, the Ghanaians will play representing an entire continent. As the only African team to advance out of their group, the Ghanaians have taken on the mantle of Africa’s team and they will likely be embraced as such by the South African fans. In short, the US are not going to be just taking on Ghana they are taking on Africa. But how Ghana plays under the pressure of such expectations is an open question. Despite expectations that South African crowds would lift each African team, the fact is that almost all of the African teams have been real disappointments thus far. Ghana advanced, but did so despite losing their last game and were aided by Australia’s surprise victory over Serbia.
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Injury Crisis? Assessing the US Central Defenders

Most attention on the US team was focused on the strikers and playmakers. We always tend to focus on goal scorers more than defenders. But in reality Oguchi Onyewu’s comeback was and is much more vital to the US team than Charlie Davies’. Under Bradley the US has thrived defensively. Going into the World Cup, we know there will be times when the American goal will be under total assault, especially against England. Therefore to make a run in the World Cup, similar to the run in the Confederations’ Cup, defensive solidity will be the key. But the backline of the USMNT is not looking in great shape right now.

The team over the last few years has had three centerbacks that are capable of playing in any league in the world: Oguchi Onyewu, Carlos Bocanegra, and Jay Demerit. It was these three that were on the field against Spain and Brazil last year (with Bocanegra playing at left back). It was these three that gave many US fans confidence. Now, all three are struggling to be at their best for the World Cup due to injuries.

US fans should not throw themselves out of the window just yet. This US team is under an intense media microscope. The ins and outs of each training session are vigorously scrutinized as are the comments of the players and coaches. A player has a slight knock – and it gets reported and becomes a big story. This is a level of scrutiny that is even rare for big time club teams.

However, despite the disclaimer the injuries are concerning. The accomplished Jay Demerit has abdominal strain. And things got even more worrying with the revelation that Carlos Bocanegra actually had hernia surgery at the beginning of May.
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