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Liverpool Season Preview – Can the Reds push for success without Suarez?

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The 2013/14 Premier League season was an unprecedented success for the boys from Anfield as their efforts drove them to fight for the title until the very end, only to fall at the final hurdle and finish in second place. Liverpool have not yet won a Premier League trophy and this was the closest they have come in a long time. The wave of support behind them grew from week to week and as the climax of the season drew ever nearer, it seemed that they would be carried to the title itself. As it turned out, it was not to be for one more season at least, but let us look back at a tremendously successful campaign nonetheless.

Star striker Luis Suarez was missing for the first 5 league matches of the season for a ban carried over from the campaign before, and so many of the concerns initially revolved around scoring enough goals to win matches in this period. These fears were not realised however as Daniel Sturridge stepped up to the plate, scoring the winner for 3 consecutive games. In these early stages, Liverpool were also a great deal more solid in the defensive department, with victories often being paired with a clean sheet. This trend dropped off quite severely as the season went on and while the increased number of bodies committed forward resulted in scoring a hatful of goals, they became like a leaky bucket in defence. 1-0 results suddenly transformed into 3-2’s; brilliant excitement for the neutral viewer but the eventual downfall of their title challenge.

After topping the table in the early parts of the season, Liverpool dropped off the pace during the festive period with many observers believing this would be yet another year that The Reds fell out of the top 4. However, as all others around them began to stumble and trip up, Liverpool marched on in unstoppable fashion. They gained points on their rivals at an alarming rate, drawing ever closer to leaders Manchester City. Some of the most memorable moments of last season for Liverpool fans came in these months as they put several top teams to the sword in relatively quick succession. 4-0 against local rivals Everton, an unbelievable 5-1 versus Arsenal and 5-0 against fellow North Londoners Spurs, and perhaps most pleasingly defeating arch enemies Manchester United 3-0 on their own patch gave Liverpool true belief that they could lift the trophy.

As the season entered its final throes, the realisation began to sink in as everyone looked at Liverpool as serious contenders for the first time. What had manifested itself as hope and possibility was fast transforming into expectation in the eyes of some and this additional pressure took its toll in the end. Consecutive 3-2 victories over Manchester City and Norwich City put the title in Liverpool’s hands, but a morale shattering defeat at home to Chelsea was a monsoon on their parade. The Merseysiders had won a lot of friends over the year with their fast-flowing play and the excitement that ensued from somewhat forgetting their defensive responsibility from time to time. Sustaining a similar challenge this season will almost certainly be a tougher proposition with the additional strains of Champions League football to contend with, in addition to losing Luis Suarez to Barcelona. However, Brendan Rodgers has not been afraid to spend money to add to his squad in the necessary areas, leaving the hope that last season was not just a flash in the pan.

Biggest Transfers

Luis Suarez: An absolutely huge departure from Anfield came this summer, and almost certainly the most significant since Fernando Torres left for Chelsea in the January of 2011. Incidentally, this was the same month that the now Barcelona-bound Luis Suarez arrived at Liverpool, and it is his exit which has dominated Brendan Rodgers’ transfer dealings over the last months. While I believe the club were completely correct in selling him, the hole that he leaves behind in the side is one that takes some filling in. His goals are the most obvious absentees but what should not be ignored is the number of assists and amount of space that he creates for his teammates. The reported £75 million received by Liverpool will go a long way to strengthening the squad and it is Rodgers’ transfer choices that will determine whether the deal has been a positive one for The Reds.

Emre Can: In what may well turn out to be a bargain deal, Liverpool have brought in the German-Turkish youngster from Bayer Leverkusen for only £10 million. The powerful midfielder has shown a great deal of promise already in his brief career to date, and his characteristics are exactly what Liverpool need in the engine room. Comfortable taking possession of the ball with both feet, equally adept in the defensive area of the field as he is charging forward, Emre Can could well turn out to be the long term successor to Steven Gerrard in the Liverpool midfield. I cannot wait to see how quickly he takes to the Premier League and the energetic combination with Jordan Henderson could be crucial to Liverpool’s success.

Dejan Lovren: While Liverpool were banging in goals for fun last season, they were certainly not watertight at the back. The defensive unit attracted a great deal of criticism as their failures were seen as the primary cause for Liverpool’s eventual title defeat. However, I do see it as a rather more complex issue than that, for the team as a whole would often commit so many men forward that the defenders were left isolated. Johnson’s inability to complete his defensive responsibility did not help matters and if this trend is to continue, then the presence of leaders in the back line will be vital. Skrtel is certainly that, and new signing from Southampton Dejan Lovren can easily grow into a strong personality at centre half. He brings added steel to the team, a no-nonsense attitude that should result in a minimal number of sloppy goals conceded, and his prowess at defending corners is another important asset. I am excited to see which partnership flourishes between Lovren, Skrtel and Sakho in the coming months.

Key Men

Steven Gerrard: Despite his age, Steven Gerrard remains a vital cog in the Liverpool machine although in a different way to during his younger years. Now, rather than the enigmatic and all-action displays of years gone by, he has dropped into a deeper position in front of the back four to dictate the tempo of the game. Here his leadership qualities, game intelligence, and passing prowess come to the fore. Despite the significant summer investment, Gerrard remains the best at this job in the Liverpool squad by some distance and when he is rested, it is likely that Rodgers will have to adapt his tactics or philosophy somewhat. The recently retired England international will simply not be able to play week in week out this season, so the levels that he can achieve when on the pitch will be crucial to Liverpool’s overall success.

Raheem Sterling: Not 20 years old until December, Raheem Sterling may well be one of the youngest members of the side but that does not degrade his importance to it. He was a huge part of the lethal attacking trio last campaign and now that Suarez has left, Sterling’s role has become even more paramount to the success of the club. Liverpool’s style of play suits the youngster’s attributes down to the ground, and he often finds himself isolated with a defender where his supreme pace and dribbling ability can create chances galore. Sterling can play in a variety of positions and systems, and most importantly capable of performing to a high level in all of them. With a great deal of change taking place in the squad’s attackers this summer, the consistency of Raheem Sterling should help to bed the new arrivals in and be a reliable link between the midfield and forward line.

Daniel Sturridge: The former Chelsea and Manchester City forward has been hugely impressive ever since his move to Liverpool 18 months ago and will possibly need to find yet another level this season. Settling in instantaneously, he has never found goals hard to come by in Liverpool red and in particular when paired with Luis Suarez last season he looked unstoppable at times. Some of his greatest traits are rapid feet and change of pace, an eye for the goal and the confidence to pull out the spectacular. Now that the infamous Uruguayan has left Anfield, even greater responsibility now falls on the shoulders of England’s number 9. Premier League defenders will have become wiser to his goal scoring tactics, requiring him to be constantly on the lookout for self-improvement. Furthermore, he has never really been tested on the European stage and with Liverpool finding themselves in the Champions League for the coming campaign, he will be expected to hit the ground running here too. Currently as The Reds’ top striker by some considerable distance, there will be many looking to him for the goals that can help Liverpool progress into the knockout rounds and challenge towards the tail end of the season domestically. Assuming he can stay injury-free, Daniel Sturridge has the tools to enjoy another terrific season, hopefully passing the 30 goal mark in all competitions for the first time in his career.

Possible Starting Line-up

Simon Mignolet did not have the greatest first season in a Liverpool shirt but a starting place for the Belgian is not in any real doubt. This has been assisted by the departure of Pepe Reina to Bayern Munich who was the only other goalkeeper in the squad who possessed the attributes to challenge him.

I hope that Javier Manquillo starts in place of Johnson at right back, who has become more of a liability than ever in my eyes. The young Spaniard is hugely promising also, and frequently rumoured as being the natural successor to Juanfran in the national side. There is a tough choice to make at centre back, both due to the quantity and relatively equal quality of the options available. Martin Skrtel was probably Liverpool’s best defender last year, but the £18 million and £20 million spent on Sakho and Lovren respectively in recent times leads me to think that they may receive the most game time. My preferred partnership at the moment would be Skrtel and Lovren, but I hope that Sakho’s first experiences of the Premier League last season along with a solid showing at the World Cup will lead to a more stable year at Liverpool. We need to see how successfully Enrique has recovered from long injury lay-off before making a final decision at left back. He definitely needs to improve on the ball to remain in Rodgers’ long term plans, so I think that Alberto Moreno will end up in the first team sooner rather than later.

I, along with almost every Liverpool fan, would still have Gerrard as the side’s holding midfielder in the strongest line-up, but as everyone is acutely aware, he won’t be able to feature every week. Lucas has been good in pre-season but he doesn’t give enough for me to break into the team. Joe Allen has been coming on very strongly for the latter portion of last season and will certainly play a lot of minutes in the months ahead, but I think the last 2 midfield slots are a straight fight between Jordan Henderson, Emre Can, and Philippe Coutinho. Henderson’s energy will always give him the edge from week to week, and then the calibre and set-up of the opposition should determine who slots into the final berth.

Further up-field, Sterling continues to grow into an even more complete player as time goes on, almost guaranteeing a spot on either flank. The battle between Markovic and Lallana for the other wing will be interesting, and a refreshing one when you consider the distinct lack of options here in recent years. Markovic may take time to adjust to Premier League football, possibly giving the edge to Lallana once he has recovered from a knee injury. In addition, the presence of Jordan Ibe and Suso waiting in the wings should not be forgotten, especially the 18 year old Englishman who has shone throughout pre-season.

In the striking department, regardless of any potential additions still to arrive, Daniel Sturridge will be Liverpool’s man to lead the line. Lambert is a useful option but Sturridge is a much more complete player and one that suits the club’s fast-flowing attacking approach to a much greater degree than the former Southampton man.
Liverpool - Football tactics and formations

Predicted League Finish

With all of their title and top 4 rivals strengthening significantly over the summer, it will be an even greater test for Brendan Rodgers and his troops to repeat the feat of last season. Whilst retaining a strong squad from their last campaigns, both Chelsea and Manchester City have added in areas that they were short in. In my opinion this makes them the favourites for the title itself, leaving 2 from 3 out of Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal to take up the remaining Champions League qualification spots. The lack of additional European strain on United’s players, along with Van Gaal’s new injection of intensity bodes well for their league chances and in my opinion will be the tougher of the two for Liverpool to overcome. Arsenal have added well in some areas, but long-standing issues do remain which I believe will result in them dropping out of the top 4 this time around. As such, I predict a third placed finish for Liverpool, just pipping Man United in the final throes of the campaign to secure automatic qualification for the Champions League for a second year in succession.

Manchester United

Paul Pogba defies critics as his incredible Manchester United record marches on

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Photo: Reuters

There is no denying that Manchester United’s Paul Pogba is a footballing enigma.

There is nobody in the Premier League more talked about and, either for better or for worse, his name has plagued each and every leading sports publication since returning to Old Trafford last year.

His £89 million price tag has followed him around like a shadow ever since the then-world record fee was announced, with journalists and pundits alike using it as a means of leverage as soon as he puts one foot wrong.

Add this to the fact that he is a footballing purist’s worst nightmare and there is even more leverage to use.

His ever-changing hairstyles, his constant attempts at audacity on the football pitch and his inventive celebrations perhaps lend him more towards a younger breed of fan, rather than those that have presided in the Stretford End since the pre-Premier League era.

But say what you want, he doesn’t half know how to play football.

Monday night’s comfortable 3-0 victory over beleaguered Stoke City increased Pogba’s incredulous personal unbeaten run to 35 Premier League games – a record unmatched by anyone in the division.

Has this run come about through luck? Is it a coincidence? Or is it just his brilliance?

On balance you would have to say that it is the latter option.

His brace of assists against the Potters took his tally up to nine for the season from just 13 league outings, taking him level with Manchester City’s duo of golden boys Kevin de Bruyne and Leroy Sane.

To try and gather a sense of perspective on just how impressive a feat this is, there are six players across Europe’s top five leagues on nine assists at the time of writing (including Paris Saint-Germain’s Neymar) and the Frenchman has reached the mark the quickest – it makes for impressive reading among esteemed company.

His creativity can’t be disputed in the Manchester United midfield and, even though he missed ten league games through a combination of injuries and suspensions, he is still the third-most creative outlet in their side.

Over 13 appearances he has crafted 27 clear-cut opportunities, only narrowly behind Juan Mata’s precedent of 33, and you can bet your life he will have trumped him by the time January is done and dusted.

To reach the nine-assist mark in 967 minutes less than De Bruyne, who has unequivocally been the stand-out player in the league this season, is merely a marker of how good the 24-year-old really is.

However, naturally there are those that will still criticise his every move.

They may have a point – after all, at least four of Pogba’s assists this season have come virtue of individual brilliance from his teammates (Anthony Martial vs Swansea City/Stoke City, Antonio Valencia vs Stoke City and Jesse Lingard vs Everton) – and compared to the type of defence-splitting pass that a number of De Bruyne’s assists have come from there is a lot more skill and finesse on show from the Belgian.

Yet, what those nay-sayers fail to acknowledge is Pogba’s ability to find pockets of space between midfield and defensive lines to play those short passes into his teammates. And there’s little coincidence that his increased impact on matches and his upheaval in form has come since Nemanja Matic stepped through the door.

Jose Mourinho’s ability to lure him out of Stamford Bridge and over to Manchester has evidently given Pogba a new lease of life, and more importantly the sense of freedom to be a creative force that he so often was at Juventus.

When he was playing in Serie A he had the comfort of knowledge that Claudio Marchisio was marshalling the defence behind him, and this is something that United didn’t have in 2016-17.

Last season, part of Pogba’s struggle to impress was, in part, down to this constant need to help out in defence, and he was often playing in a deeper role than he would have liked. Yet this season Matic’s holding role offers the defence that protection, freeing the Frenchman to be more elaborate in attack.

To see just how instrumental he has become to this Manchester United side you only have to look back to his time spent side-lined by a hamstring knock, where they suffered their only three defeats of the season to date.

These – which came against Huddersfield Town, Chelsea and Manchester City – were games that were crying out for Pogba’s assertiveness in midfield, but that spark, which he has in abundance, was found missing.

Whilst both Juan Mata and Ander Herrera are good Premier League quality players in their own right neither possess the box-to-box drive, the physical power or the pace that Pogba himself does, and it showed as they failed to replicate the Frenchman’s energy and endeavour in defeat.

This season alone Pogba’s completed 33 of his 46 attempted dribbles, achieving a 72% success rate, and it is this ability to maraud into the opposition territory that United sorely missed in his absence.

There are those that will say that his return to the side saw United bow out of the Carabao Cup to Championship side Bristol City and then draw three successive Premier League fixtures.

And, once again, they have a point.

But when taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture there aren’t many players in the English game that can conjure up a piece of magic to turn a game around, nor consistently reach a high-level week-in, week-out, and Pogba’s one of them.

He makes everything look effortless on the football pitch – whether that be spraying a raking pass across the pitch to someone’s feet or muscling an opponent off the ball easily to turn over possession – and it is fair to say Manchester United would look a worse side without him.

Whilst this may sound like a glowing review, it has not always been good news, of course.

Pogba will be the first to admit that he struggled to reach his extremely high standards during 2016-17 – despite leading United to two pieces of silverware – and he will have felt the pressure of his price tag as the season went on.

And, while he has come out ready to impress this time around, there are still parts of his game that frustrate – not least his wastefulness in front of goal, often attempting to shoot from 30-yards out.

But that is just the player he is, and don’t expect it to change anytime soon.

At the end of the day, his demeanour both on and off the football field will always get him talked about, and the only thing he can do is continue to rack up the wins to keep his harshest critics at bay.

Whilst Manchester United’s early season hopes of a title challenge have been diminished due to Manchester City’s brilliance, Pogba’s enjoying a fine run of personal form that is catching the eye.

Should he stay fit there is no reason as to why Mourinho’s men cannot sustain a challenge for the Champions League and the FA Cup long into the year.

And you never know, should Pogba extend his unbeaten run to 60 Premier League matches come the end of the season then there may even be a chance of the unlikeliest title in top-flight history – although I wouldn’t book a day off work for the United trophy parade just yet.

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Arsenal

Why Everton are the perfect club for Theo Walcott to rebuild his career

Rob Meech

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Theo Walcott

It is hard to believe Theo Walcott is only 28 years old. He burst on to the scene aged 16 for Southampton in League One and was snapped up by Arsenal shortly afterwards. His inexplicable selection for England’s 2006 World Cup squad, without playing in a single Premier League game, transformed him into an overnight star.

Big things have been expected of Walcott ever since. It’s fair to say that, despite winning 47 caps for England and making 397 appearances for Arsenal, he has failed to live up to the hype. Now, after 12 years, Walcott is bidding farewell to the Emirates and hoping to revive his flagging career under Sam Allardyce at Everton, whom he has joined for £20 million after agreeing terms on a three-and-a-half-year deal.

Speculation that Walcott’s days at Arsenal were numbered had persisted for several years, but his desire to prove himself at the club kept him in north London even when admirers came calling. His 21 goals in all competitions in the 2012/13 campaign suggested he had cracked it, but that proved to be a false dawn.

In truth, Walcott’s decision to sign for Everton was probably a no-brainer. Now in the prime of his career, he simply has to be playing regularly. The reality of how far down the pecking order he had fallen at Arsenal struck this season, when he often failed to make Arsene Wenger’s match-day squad. His last appearance for the Gunners came as a second-half substitute in the 2-1 defeat to Bournemouth.

Everton’s interest in Walcott emerged only recently, but he was clearly one of Allardyce’s top targets. One look at the Toffees’ recent form underlines why. After an immediate upturn in fortunes after the former England boss’s appointment, Everton have embarked on a winless streak that stretches back to December 18.

Lack of pace is a pressing concern and this is an attribute that Walcott possesses in abundance. The likes of Wayne Rooney and Gylfi Sigurdsson are intelligent footballers, but not the type that will blitz opposition defenders. Instead, they have relied on chipping balls over the top for the striker to chase. As such, Everton are one-dimensional and easy to play against, with no player capable of launching a counter-attack.

Also highlighting their urgent need for more firepower is the grim statistic that only rock-bottom Swansea have had fewer shots than Everton this season. New big-money signing Cenk Tosun has increased competition in the striking department but may take time to settle, whereas Walcott’s Premier League pedigree means no transitional period will be needed.

The former Southampton man’s versatility makes him an attractive proposition. For Arsenal, he predominantly featured on the right wing – either in a four-man midfield or a three-man attack – but he is equally adept at playing up top on his own, a position where he tried but ultimately failed to establish himself at the Emirates.

Potential is a word that has long been associated with Walcott. It is no longer applicable. At 28, this is possibly his final chance to realise his ambitions, both domestically and internationally. Everton, a sleeping giant, are a perfect fit. Under the auspices of major shareholder Farhad Moshiri, plans are in the pipeline for a brand-spanking new stadium to enable them to compete alongside the Premier League’s elite.

After being a peripheral figure at Arsenal for so long, Walcott has become the forgotten man of English football. For the sake of his career, he simply had to leave north London. By joining Everton, Walcott, who will wear the number 11 shirt, has the security of working under a manager who rates him highly. Now, he has the opportunity to become the player he always promised to be.

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Manchester United

Why renewing Jose Mourinho’s contract is a risk for Manchester United

Jake Jackman

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Mourinho
Photo: Reuters

Manchester United are close to reaching an agreement with manager Jose Mourinho over a new contract, according to BBC Sport. There have been ongoing talks with the Portuguese manager and it is thought to be only a matter of time before the new deal is officially announced.

Mourinho’s current contract expires at the end of next season and both parties will want more security heading into an important summer for the club. There have been rumours regarding his long-term future as some in the media suggested he is unhappy at Old Trafford, but he was quick to shoot those down, as shown by the following quotes reported by The Guardian:

I can’t find a better word than garbage to define the [recent] talk. If you want to ask me directly, I see myself next season at Manchester United. I will leave when the club wants me to leave; at the moment I have no intention to leave at all. I want to stay, I don’t see any reason not to stay.”

Mourinho is a difficult manager to read in press conferences, as he often says one thing but means another. Although his words can’t always be trusted, it appears that these sentiments were genuine as he is set to commit his future to the club. For the former Chelsea and Real Madrid manager, the next stage of his Manchester United career will be interesting.

Despite being one of the most successful managers in the history of football, Mourinho isn’t known for delivering long term success to a football club. His longest period in charge of a team came during his first spell at Chelsea, during which he lasted just over three seasons. The Blues sacked him in September of his fourth year after some poor results and friction with the hierarchy.

As he is a divisive figure, it can be difficult for him to maintain success over a long period. Either the players or the board will grow tired of his antics and that will result in a parting of ways.

Manchester United are known for wanting stability and it doesn’t suit them to change managers every couple of seasons. In Mourinho, they see a manager that can continue to deliver success and a figure that the supporters can get behind. The fans had difficulty believing in either Louis van Gaal or David Moyes, but that isn’t a problem that the current boss has had.

In terms of results, Mourinho has done a decent job since taking over at Old Trafford. In two of the three seasons prior to his appointment, Manchester United had failed to qualify for the Champions League.

The Portuguese manager brought the club back to Europe’s premier competition during his first season and did it by winning the Europa League. Although supporters would have expected a top four finish, it was a lot more satisfying to achieve their goal by winning a major competition. In addition to that, they found success in the League Cup.

The winning mentality was being built again within the club.

This season has started well for the Red Devils and they look set to challenge for trophies, even if the Premier League title is likely out of their grasp.

Manchester City have a 12-point lead at the time of writing and that is probably one of the motivating factors behind a new deal for Mourinho. He has been a long-time rival of Pep Guardiola and he will want to get one over on his adversary during their time in England.

The next task for Manchester United is to win their first Premier League title since Sir Alex Ferguson retired and they see Mourinho as the man to deliver that.

The club will be hoping that he has matured and is now ready to lead a club for longer than three years. Although there have been issues since he was appointed, they are making progress and will want that to continue for years to come.

However, it is a huge risk to renew the contract of Jose Mourinho for the reasons alluded to above. He has never been able to deliver sustained success and there have been worrying signs of decline this season. H

is war of words with Antonio Conte has been pointless and nothing more than a deflection tactic as his side were dropping a lot of points at the time. The United boss invites controversy and that can be problematic for a club, especially one of their size.

In addition to that, his tactics in big matches are negative and not suited to a club with Manchester United’s history. They have always been a team that attack their opposition, but that hasn’t been the case under Mourinho.

Against Liverpool earlier this season, they had 38% possession and managed to get only one shot on target. Considering the frailties of the Reds’ defence, this was a disappointment and the decision saw them accept a point.

Their recruitment has been high-profile, but it is difficult to see the joint-up thinking from the manager as he seems intent on signing big name players rather than building a team.

Since he was appointed, the club have spent big money to secure Romelu Lukaku, Paul Pogba, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Nemanja Matic and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Meanwhile, they are determined to sign Alexis Sanchez this month. There is a lot of talent coming in, but it is difficult to see how they fit into the same system.

The Mourinho of the past could build a team. His Inter Milan team of 2009/10 was superb and was custom built to suit the style of play. During his first spell at Chelsea, he had his finger of the pulse and could spot a player before they made a name for themselves. Didier Drogba is a great example of this.

Now, the Portuguese manager relies on having big money to sign players that already qualify as world class and he expects name value alone to result in victories. He has become lazy and that is a worry for Manchester United in the next few years if the trend continues.

During his first 18 months, Mourinho has done well at Manchester United and the team have progressed back to the top. However, it would be difficult to state he is doing a great job as he has had a lot of money to spend. There is certainly room for improvement and that is why this new contract is a risk.

History shows that a decline in the third season is likely and considering the club are far from secure in the top four of the Premier League, missing out on the Champions League would be a real possibility.

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