Interview with Tim Lees about tactics and current trends

*First published on These Football Times*

How would you setup against the modern 4-3-3 side? I mean one who play from the back, whose full backs get high, wingers come inside and play on a rotation in the middle?

There is no right and wrong way to organise against another system; the success or failure of the setup determines its significance but there are always dozens of ways to combat a tactical problem. Recently I was fortunate enough to coach a youth team alongside an international captain & Premier League defender who was doing his badges. The thing I learned the most from him was how two players at the same level, in the same position, deal with the same situation completely differently but with equal success.

Nowadays, most teams will play a version of 4-3-3 using principles of central rotation, aggressive full backs on the fourth receiving line and wingers who come late on the inside; these are the most common tactical problems opposing players are faced with. The success of Barcelona has meant that lots of coaches copy this system; the aggressive will play 4-3-3 and the pessimistic will employ a 4-2-3-1. The question is difficult to answer given that the different mechanisms of playing against this system will depend on the player profiles of both teams. You could show the opposition into areas where you are strong in the press and where they are weak with the ball or into areas of the pitch where you feel your team could exploit them the most. I always look at the strengths the opposition have and exactly how they want to construct their attacks. Adam Booth, a world class boxing coach, says that you must first take away the opponent’s strength(s) and then find a way to deploy your own strength(s). One method I feel is applicable against a 4-3-3 is the following:

The opposition want to play from the back with centre backs splitting, full backs getting high which  then prompts the wingers to come inside. They want to rotate centrally by dragging your midfielders apart and creating space for the 9 (or false 9) to get turned higher. Therefore, I would play a 4-4-2 diamond. The strikers would split 60 yards wide in between the full backs and centre backs allowing the first pass out. Their first job then is to block the passing line from centre back to full back (that is where they want to play as the space is out wide against a diamond) and show the centre backs inside the pitch. In central areas, we have a 4v3 whom are sitting zonally, not following their midfield three, thus allowing them effectively to rotate into you. Our midfielders are on the front foot in their relative zones ready to press the second pass from the back. The opposition’s full backs will get high with wingers coming inside but if we get good pressure on the second pass out, into central areas, then their wingers effectively become dormant and we are playing 10v8.

As soon as their centre back plays into our diamond zone, we press together closing the net, preventing circulation, pressing from one side to keep players inside our ‘net’ and showing play into the pressure zone. The pressing triggers and timing to steal in the diamond is imperative as are 1v1 defending techniques to prevent turns. From this position, on the regain we have a 2v2 to counter as their full backs are out of the game and our strikers are playing outside shoulders of centre backs with space (no centre back likes to be running towards his own goal, no pressure on the ball with a striker on his outside shoulder).

If the opposition’s pass has gone into the second line of midfield and we regain, we also ask our number 10 to play in the spaces (he only does this once the ball has gone past the first line and he cannot affect the deep lyer) and get wrong side of their deep lyer which effectively creates a 3v2 on the turnover. The other scenario here is that their centre back begins to drive inside the pitch with the ball as his full back is cut off and he sees a wall centrally. As he does this, our striker presses him whilst still cutting off the line to the full back; effectively our strikers are pressing two players by jumping down the line of the 2 and 3 thus creating a defensive overload elsewhere. When the centre back has lost possession, be it playing passes into midfield lines or driving in when pressed by the striker, his decisions then begin to go long. The keys to this system are playing in a medium block, allowing the first pass out, jumping on the second one and understanding roles on the turnover. Once a counter attack happens the opposition will change what they are doing, usually by dropping a full back deeper and now you begin to control the attacking lines of the opposition.

In simple terms, in possession we have a 4v3 centrally to dominate the ball, we get attacking width from the full backs whilst also playing two up front. The four receiving lines in the middle make it very hard for any team to get control of the game. When a four man defence play against a 4-3-3, the 2v1 centrally against our 9 makes it hard for us to penetrate – full backs can defend wider than normal allowing the space between them and their centre back to be bigger because they have the security of the 2v1. If you are a full back against a 4-4-2 diamond then you have no winger to mark but you have to offer extra cover inside against two number 9s but also defend late runs from the opposition’s full back and third man runs penetrating centrally from the opposition’s 10. If coached right, the diamond is very difficult to play against. This is only one solution to negate a 4-3-3.

 

How do you deal with criticism of your methods or mental challenges as a coach?

With the accessibility of football now attracting so many ‘experts’ through avenues online for them to voice their ideas, I am very cautious and wary of being accused of the same.  If you have an opinion in football then to some people you are arrogant. By doing this interview, I will be perceived by some as arrogant but that is their problem. If you cannot deal with criticism then working in elite football is definitely not for you. Being thick skinned is entry level criteria. When we introduced playing from the back as a philosophy at Wigan, there was a period of time where it was tough as every age conceded goals, did not get final third entries and had deteriorating results. Collectively as staff, our belief had to be strong and we had to educate players and parents on the long term returns. The easiest thing in the world is to criticise a coach or player after mistakes. People are, for example, often quick to highlight the dangers of playing from the back when goals are conceded but these are the same people who don’t recognise or equally emphasise how many chances, goals and techniques it gives the players for the rest of the game(s).  It’s as if people think that Pique and Puyol came out of the womb knowing that when a 9 and 10 press you, every yard you take them down the box creates a yard of space for midfielders! As a coach, I want my team to have control over what happens and have method behind how we attack with the ball. Imposing our style on the opposition is absolutely imperative for individual and collective development, which coincidentally nearly always leads to positive results long term! If we get the process right then the outcome will take care of itself. Criticism is part of this journey.

 

How would you play to break down a side that used a low block and were more than happy to allow you 70% possession? They’d use a 4231 on paper which when defending was more of a 4411 formation. I ask this with many away sides using this tactic in the Premier League these days and home teams find it hard to figure out.

Playing against a low block is one of the most difficult, yet prevalent problems in the game. If a team is going to dominate the ball and look to control the game then they need to have knowledge of how to break down a deep lying defence. The two situations come hand in hand and you rarely get one without the other. Many teams defend extremely compactly and focus on starving the opposition of space thus it is vital that elite players have years of coaching in, and experience of breaking down the wall. The best players in the world can play and operate inside the blocks dominating opponents in 1v1 situations and finding ways to play forward and break the lines. If you look at the elite players in the Premier League they all are game changers inside that block and they don’t particularly need the spaces to dominate; practitioners include Hazard, Ozil, Sanchez, Coutinho etc. If a team is setting up to defend deep then generally they are happy to block the middle of the pitch, starve you of space in terms of vertical lines and prioritise showing you wide.

There are several important principles that I would encourage against a low block:

–          Fast circulation. The function of circulation is to drag the opponent to one side in order to switch play quickly to attack where there are fewer players. Slow circulation is completely pointless and counterproductive. When the opposition have shifted their block to one touchline then the team in possession must switch play faster than the opposition can recover to the opposite side. The methods of switching play (long switch, defender on the side turns and building through combinations) if done quickly all lead to creating, isolating and dominating one v one situations on the weak side.  If the opposition have managed to shift part of their block over in time then a quick overload to break the defensive line is imperative. Here, the full back must overlap if the winger has come inside and underlap if he is tight to the line. As soon as a midfielder receives on the back foot or the pass from the opposite winger goes backwards, the weak side full back begins his forward movement. Teams who circulate slowly have a high percentage possession with little penetration, shots or goals and are vulnerable to counters. Having 1v1 (defender in front) specialists on the sides are of huge importance.

–          Forward runs centrally. Midfielders must have the hunger, desire and tactical flexibility to break lines with their movement. Many midfielders in the modern game want to support behind the ball and build play, mainly for fear of the transition. The most valuable midfielders are those who make forward runs to break the low block; Lampard, Sanchez, Bale, Ronaldo etc.

–          Penetration of the five channels. Teams need to look to penetrate the five vertical channels around the back four through late and explosive movements, with and without the ball. Strikers need to continually look to make movements off the shoulder of defenders playing out of the eyeline and players in possession must look to thread passes into the five channels. With no clever movement in behind, teams end up having 80% possession with everything in front of the back line, with a back four against one striker. Defenders want the game in front of them and do not want to constantly be on the turn and facing their own goal.

–          Dominate pressure behind. Players must be able to dominate opponents with pressure behind as this is the most common 1v1 scenario (80% in Champions League).  Taking one opponent out of the game disrupts their balance and cover mechanism centrally.

–          Change in tempo. The opposition want you to move the ball slowly across the pitch so that they can slide and keep their defensive shape. Playing one and two touch football is easy for them to keep the ball in front of their lines and keep their shape. The team in possession must be able to show a change in tempo in and around the penalty box with quick combinations. Arsenal and Barcelona are the best examples of this.

–          Change their territorial positioning. If a team wastes time, sits in their block, wants to slow the game down at every opportunity and kicks long waiting for set pieces or a counter attack then one way around this is to change their desired positioning. Rather than pressing high on the first pass and making them go long where their centre backs are on the edge of their box and striker is receiving on the halfway line, setup in a medium block by asking your strikers to drop just outside of the centre circle. This encourages their centre backs to move 20-30m up the pitch thus you now can play more on the counter with space in behind.

–          Play in transition. As a rule, risk the first pass on the regain by playing through the lines. This may risk a higher loss in possession but as soon as their midfielders get setup 10m in front of their back line, they are comfortable and where they want to be. Look to play through the lines early and get players turned so that their midfielders are running towards their goal. On the turnover of possession, if you penetrate the midfield line then the opposition will look to delay you by showing you wide thus look to play centrally (and stay there) as early as possible.

–          Movements against the grain. When a team is circulating the ball, the opposition are sliding with it. Movements against the direction of the ball are very affective at finding space as defenders are focused on the ball therefore attackers move out of the eyeline for reverse passes.

–          Disguised and around the corner passes. The defensive lines are reacting to body shape and body language of the opposition in possession. Players in central areas must have the techniques of shaping up to play wide then playing disguised passes through the bank to break the line and also play around corners quickly to disrupt the block.

Inside forwards are becoming the norm but, how would you set up to get the best out of traditional wingers such as Jefferson Montero and Yannick Bolasie? Teams seem reluctant to play these types of winger from the start these days.

Recently, there was a document released by UEFA that showed the low conversion rate of crosses and it solidified the obsession for many coaches with inverted wingers. It has become a tradition to play wingers on the opposite sides and subsequently wrong foot full backs (because full backs can only tackle with their dominant foot apparently!) to the point where you very rarely see old school wingers. It is only my personal opinion, but no matter where the game goes and how complex defensive systems get, getting the ball wide to players who can deliver a range of crosses with consistency will always be affective. I am a huge fan of playing with old school wingers who can go 1v1 on the outside, as long as they are in a system where they are protected.  The prominence of inside forwards began years ago when 4-2-3-1 became a formality for most teams; two screeners and effectively three number tens in the pockets. The wide players became more like ‘forwards’ who had to score goals rather than wingers who went on the outside, primarily because there was a heavy reliance on one striker to score and full backs started to provide height.  Many managers now perceive dribblers as liabilities as they become more concerned with forward runs from the opposition’s full back.  Even Real have this problem with Ronaldo which contributed to Mourinho playing him as a lone striker. In fact, it could even be argued that managers would currently be more inclined to convert wingers to full backs. I find it disappointing to see players such as Theo Walcott being used as a plan B in the last 20 minutes of games when the game is crying out for pace and penetration in wide areas. If people want to use Spain as the model then they must really put La Liga under the microscope instead of copying the tiki-taka disciples. For all of their intricate technicians, some of La Liga’s most effective players in recent years were exponents of speed on the outside; Di Maria, Neymar, Sanchez, Navas, Pedro, Bale, Joaquin and Ronaldo to name a few. Football goes in cycles and wingers will come back into fashion. Whether it be Stanley Matthews in the 50s, George Best in the 60s, John Robertson in the 70s, John Barnes in the 80s, Ryan Giggs in the 90’s or Gareth Bale more recently; old school wingers will always have a huge place in the game.

 

Can a fluid, passing side effectively play with a target man upfront? 

If you are Barcelona and have a freak like Messi, you don’t need a ‘target’ nine. You don’t need a player that allows you to get up the pitch through hold up play because these players are technically so superior to other teams and they get into the final third regardless. However, not every team is Barcelona and not every team has Messi, therefore the profile of the number nine has to be different. It’s hard to distinguish a ‘target player’ because when does one fall into this category and one not? Andy Carroll is your obvious old school type target player who West Ham play very early and direct to but he was surplus to demand at Liverpool in Rodgers’ philosophy. Depending on a person’s categorisation, though, it could be argued that three years later they have replaced him with another ‘target player’ in Benteke. Ibrahimovic could be branded a target player but technically is outstanding and plays in possession dominating teams, as does Lewandowski at Bayern. Target men became popular in the last decade due to the prominence of 4-2-3-1. The target man (Drogba) allowed the three (recent) creative players (Hazard, Willian & Oscar) to play off him, to have freedom of rotation and to run in behind. A strong, back to goal player who helps his team to get positioning high up the pitch will always have a place in any philosophy. The better the team keeps possession and the higher the level, the more demand of technique from the target player!

In your opinion, how important are defensive midfielders in modern football? In the previous interview you said you wanted your sides to have 65%, so would you use one? 

This area of the pitch is the heartbeat, requiring a player to dictate the rhythm, both with and without the ball. Every successful team has at least one defensive midfielder who is responsible for the orchestration of defensive movements and synchronisation of attacks – not necessarily a ‘ball winner’ as such. Chelsea were very good last season for various reasons, but Matic alone earned them over a dozen points in my opinion,  with his discipline, breaking up of play and consistently accurate positioning. Whether teams play with one defensive pivot (Lucas) and two energetic more advanced who can press (Henderson and Milner) or they play with a double pivot (Khedira and Alonso under Mourinho), you will not find a successful team who doesn’t have an intelligent deep lyer. Having a defensive midfielder of this type allows for fluidity, rotation and interchange higher up whilst maintaining structure and shape on the transition. The defensive midfielder has to have incredible intelligence and tactical flexibility recognising the rhythms and shapes within the game(s). For example, if the opposition are playing in a medium block, the average centre midfielders will go and drop in between the centre backs in front of the opposition’s striker(s) where the game is easy and they have time and space. These players are ‘pretenders’ who want to look good popping the ball sidewards and backwards to full backs and centre backs rather than receiving higher thus functioning better for the team. I find these players very frustrating, however there are a few at the top level stealing a living doing it. With the increasing demand on full backs to contribute in the final third, defensive midfielders allow them to be aggressive and brave with their positioning.  Take Arsenal at the moment; they have the most talented squad in the league but are completely devoid of defensive discipline centrally – the phrase ‘If there is a hole in the boat, the whole thing sinks’ is extremely applicable. Manchester United have had a bad start to the season currently, but they have the ingredients to be outstanding. If, for example, they played with Schneiderlin/Carrick and Schweinsteiger as a double pivot, it would allow Rooney, Mata and Depay to rotate off a nine. Instead, their shape looks disorganised and open because there is added responsibility for the front four to recover and they receive too deeply. The key to being a defensive midfielder, though, is being able to play a ‘double position’ during the game. This refers to having the tactical flexibility to recognise underloads and disorganisation of shape – filling in for full backs, dropping in to make a back three or becoming the second centre back. Think of the best players in the world in this position and they have this flexibility – Lahm, Alonso and Busquets to name three.

There is a lot of criticism of the F.A. for not producing world class players. Do you agree with this?

Players signed to professional clubs spend three nights a week, in addition to day release hours and weekend matches, at their respective clubs. The Academy Manager, Lead Phase and age group coaches are responsible for the education of players at their club. I acknowledge that the F.A. have an influence over the education of coaches but they are not accountable on a weekly basis. Many people blame the education of the coaches which has some valid argument but is not the whole story at all.  Criticism can be levelled; I paid £5,000 for my A Licence where on the opening evening we had a presentation on Barcelona and the statistics of a passing philosophy only to go out on the pitch and practice long throw in routines for an hour. The contrast and irrelevance was alarming as we were literally, throwing it long to the big man in the box.

There seems to be a dichotomy at the heart of the FA. There are genuinely some brilliant coach educators at the F.A. who have influenced my thinking and practice  a lot and they are doing some great work. On the flip side, there are also some people there that are so embedded deep in an old school culture, it’s too far to recover. It’s  -‘our way or no way’. As someone once said, you can build a spaceship but if you put dinosaurs in it, isn’t going anywhere! In my opinion, the reason this country does not produce world class players is due to the education they receive between 9-21 yrs. Players must be fostered and nutured in a specific environment for years where everyone at that club is on the same page, or, more accurately, pages. Unfortunately, you often have people in charge whose minds have been closed for years and don’t understand the process of HOW to create a development driven philosophy. They, therefore  don’t even try. Many academy managers and youth coaches are results driven (by any means … and I mean any means!) and focus on this Sunday’s result with e.g. 12 year olds, instead of the first team’s performance 10 years down the line. Robert Martinez was utterly dismissive when I asked him about the importance of results with younger teams.

There has to be a vision and a relentless driving force behind every academy instead of coaches making sessions up in the car on the way to training. Too many academies are driven by the principles of the individual coach which means that if the under 12 coach likes watching Barcelona on Sunday night then they play from the back, yet when they go to under 13’s under a different coach who supports a separate approach they hit the channels. The F.A. can spend as much money as they want on St George’s Park, new DNA model or Skills Coaches in schools but until clubs stop employing dinosaurs to oversee their youth setup, absolutely nothing will change. But what we will have is a brilliant facility for coaching qualifications (academy players play once a year), a fancy glossy document and players going to high school with a Maradona turn in the locker. If you go to any ‘English’ game from the Championship to non-league or an under 18’s professional academy, watch what the crowd appreciate. They love the 50-50’s, they complement the thunderous tackle and they applaud the player who wins the header. Believe it or not, most fans still praise the full back who hooks balls on and sticks the ball in a general area of a striker. This is not taking responsibility and requires no bravery or class whatsoever. The Secret Footballer’s book had a great excerpt on this subject “winning the header for the sake of it is a coward’s way to play football; it does not take responsibility in any way and the turnover of possession is high. Barcelona never get credit for the amount of times they head aerial balls to teammates as passes. A ball dropping out of the air is an opportunity to retain possession and build an attack, and should not be viewed as an opportunity to clean somebody out and make yourself look good in the process.” Give three players a ball on a park in England and they will kick lumps out of each other and stick one person in goal. Do the same in Spain and watch how they practice their technique. The culture in England will take a long time to change and there will be no magic wand to change it.

In possession do you use receiving lines?

I know some first team managers who use the line markings on the pitch as reference points for movement and request the grass to be cut in specific ways to aid the players visually. Personally, I view the pitch in layers both vertically and horizontally, the latter carrying the biggest significance. In general, most teams defend on three or four lines; 4-2-3-1 (four lines), 4-3-3 (four lines) and 4-4-2 (three lines) thus I want my teams to find the spaces around the opposition’s shape in order to shift, move and isolate specific parts of it. My personal philosophy is based around four receiving lines, to understand how I reached this concept I will expand on how it evolved…

I first introduced receiving lines into my methodology and practice when ‘the document of Brendan Rodgers’ was leaked five years ago about how his Swansea team plays on seven lines and each line had a specific profile description. I tried to implement it but found that it confused players. Trying to isolate seven horizontal layers became difficult for players to recognise. The document, supposedly by Rodgers, showed seven lines beginning from the goal kick and leading right up to the opposition’s box. In reality with most teams defending one half only, I questioned how it would be possible for a team to play out and the opposition’s defensive line on the edge of their own box, a scenario I have never seen in my life as it means the distance between defence and striker would be 90m. Therefore, as I experimented with various zones I found four receiving lines to be the most realistic and productive. If I am a centre back and I receive on line one, it is realistic for me to quickly (one second) analyse which line we have overloaded the opposition on and it is easy to give feedback during games. For example, if our centre backs keep playing into line 2 and the opposition are in a 4-2-3-1 ready to press, it is easy to get a message to the player to look into lines 3 and 4. If the opposition are pressing high then I will ask the centre backs to drop line one deeper etc.  Also, for a team to play on seven receiving lines would mean that they are extremely open on the defensive transition, four receiving lines allows for recovery and pressing in units smoothly, from my personal experience.   It’s just a way of creating verticality and penetration with the ball.

In terms of vertical columns, I split the pitch into six different zones to establish specific principles of rotation. The wider two (on each side) relate predominantly to the position of the winger and full back (Guardiola). They can never be in the same vertical column; if, for example, a centre back is in possession, he looks up and none of the two are ever blocking each other’s passing line. If the winger comes inside into the narrower channel then the full back provides the width, and vice versa. This also encourages overlaps and underlaps from the deeper player, creates overloads and drags the opposition’s block. The central area of the pitch is then split into two wider columns and gives midfielders an indication of playing on opposite movements to disrupt the shape of the opposition’s midfield; ‘never be in the same column’. The striker also often plays on the opposite column to the ball to create penetration and drag the back line deeper (he is always out of the eyeline) with the 10 roaming where he can find the space. These are all general rules worked on in training with relevant zones as opposed to black and white instructions.  The specific movements and rotations within these columns are developed in training and too elaborate to list in an article. For example, when a right back plays back to his centre back who then opens up back foot, the far side central midfielder begins to drop into the second widest channel on the weak side. As the left centre back receives the pass in circulation, the midfielder now drops to receive on the angle where the full back was. This gives aggressive height for the full back and allows the winger to overload centrally as a floating 10. This is one example of the use of the vertical columns. The above terminology is merely for the coaches though; the key is making it simple for the players.

 

Would you always coach a team to play to one philosophy or do you think that players need to be able to adapt to different ones?

In a technical based philosophy aiming to dominate the ball, the technical returns cannot be argued against. However, every team and individual will go through times when they have to defend deep and compact, and show discipline without the ball.  Whether you have a lead that you need to protect late on with fatiguing players, perhaps had a player sent off or are just playing an opposition that are better than you; every player will have to show how good he is without the ball at some point. Therefore, knowledge and practice of defending behind the ball and playing on the counter attack is a must for youth players. I learned this the hard way a few years ago when I was coaching a youth team. The player who had dominated every game since u14 got a loan move to a club who played direct in a 4-4-2 where he struggled to impact the games. He said to me ‘I can’t play central midfield in a two, I don’t understand it’. At this point, I realised that playing him as a number ten in a 4-4-2 diamond and 4-2-3-1 had set him up for a fall. Generally, 4-3-3 will create deep lying midfielders who want to sit behind the ball constantly and never run forward whereas 4-2-3-1 will create a load of number 10’s who cannot play any other position and find themselves sat on benches for the rest of their career as the ‘luxury player’. I was discussing systems with Roberto Martinez a few years ago and he said ‘any time the players are comfortable, change the system, change the depth of the block, tell them they have to defend deep for 15 minutes, tell them they are defending with 5 players for 10 minutes; I want players who are tactically flexible with game management’.  Equally, an International defender once advised me on the mentality of pressing. He said that in the first ten minutes of games when teams allowed him the ball, he gained confidence and took more touches, and his mind got used to having time on the ball promoting laziness. After ten minutes the opposing team’s front line then went full press out of nowhere and it caught him out. He reiterated how your mind gets used to a certain rhythm in a game and being challenged with something completely different made him make mistakes, when for the previous ten minutes he had looked like Beckenbauer (his words not mine!). Tactical flexibility and playing in diverse strategies has to be a huge focus of any periodised youth programme.

 

What system do you prefer playing?

Whichever suits the best players. The most important thing is to impose our principles on the opposition rather than focus on one specific system. If you teach players specific roles within one system then you are setting them up for failure. When they leave that group as an individual (first team, on loan, older age group, transfer etc.) then you must have provided them with the tactical flexibility to adapt to different circumstances, formations and situations. The system can definitely help a team to get the best out of their players and dominate an opponent but the principles are more important. Dominating the ball for 65% of the time, playing with width/depth, rotation, interchange, receiving lines, getting the opposition deep in their half and being aggressive without the ball; these are the focus for every session and game.

In the topic of systems, I began playing 4-3-3 then 4-2-3-1 at Watford which was very flexible and interchangeable. At Wigan, every team operated with a back three in a 3-5-2 and 3-4-2-1 system to mirror the first team but after Roberto left we changed to a 4-diamond-2 to accommodate the profile of players we got through the door who were all very similar. They were very good technically but lacked the physical explosiveness and speed of the elite clubs, therefore we had to adapt to compete. More recently at Liverpool, the system was flexible around the players but had a prominence of 3-diamond-3 which was extremely aggressive with and without the ball. Pep Lljinders and Alex Inglethorpe were excellent in educating staff on the intricacies of this system which was heavily influenced by Ajax in the 90s.  No matter what system you play, there is always space somewhere and it is down to the coach to decide where that space is best vacated/exploited for each opposition.

 

Do you have specific player profiles for each position?

I think it is very dangerous to profile positions. With the ever increasing analysis microscope being focussed on the game, people look to make football as objective as possible, and although profiles and stats have their place, it will never be a completely objective game. Take, for example, the full back position. For many years it was notoriously the position that wingers and central midfielders converted to, paid the lowest wages, was seen as the least important position on the pitch and generally demanded the lowest transfer fees. Clubs very rarely had their marquee signing as a full back. However, in the last few seasons (mainly due to Bielsa and Guardiola) the profile of a full back has completely changed with clubs paying in excess of £30m for players such as Luke Shaw, Fabio Coentrao and Danilo. For decades, full backs earned their crust by stopping the opposing winger from affecting the game whereas in the modern game they are often judged more on their productivity in the final third. With a heavier focus on pivot midfielders filling in and protecting the centre backs, the profile of a full back has evolved, with transfer fees and wages reflecting this. If I am an Academy Manager mapping out a 10 year cycle for a central midfielder from the age of 10, then it is dangerous to create one specific type of midfielder with the same profile. Central midfielders have diverse traits, strengths and weaknesses tactically, technically and physically. If I select some of the best midfielders in the last decade; Modric, Scholes, Matic, Pirlo, Gerrard and Rooney, they all have completely different profiles yet played in the same position. Yet, you would not complain if any of them came through your youth system!  Also, some coaches like specific things in players that others don’t. For example, I absolutely hate it when a full back/centre back is under pressure from the winger running towards his own goal (a ball  played into the channel) and he kicks the ball out for a throw in instead of finding a way to retain. For these reasons, I stay away from trying to profile a position and focus more on polishing the individual.

A Goalkeeper’s lonely job

MANUEL NEUER MADE GOALKEEPING FASHIONABLE AGAIN. Coming third in the Ballon d’Or reaffirmed that point. The face of the ‘new’ breed of goalkeeper, the German phenomenon is currently at the pinnacle in his position and at the relatively young age, for a goalkeeper, of 29. Under the tutelage of Pep Guardiola, it doesn’t look like he’s anywhere near his peak.

With that said it’s unfair to compare all goalkeepers to Manuel Neuer. It’s fine for the goalkeepers themselves to aspire to his level in terms of reliability, brilliance and standing within in the game but something that’s often overlooked is the fact there are various goalkeeping styles. It’s not simply ‘they’re a goalkeeper, they should be like Manuel Neuer’. Believe it or not, not all clubs need a goalkeeper like Neuer, and that’s the crux of it all and that so many people seem to overlook.

Football and the game’s fans have developed dramatically in the last decade or so, with fans becoming more knowledgeable on players and their positions. There’s an understanding when it comes to viewing a player and their position. It’s this type of understanding that is still lacking when it comes to goalkeepers, however. It’s not like for like. They aren’t all the same.

Manuel Neuer gives this quixotic idea of how goalkeepers should be. Goalkeepers of similar style are becoming more predominant within the game but this super breed doesn’t mean all goalkeepers will reach that level, nor should they. It’s unrealistic to expect every left back to be on par with David Alaba and every right sided forward to be like Lionel Messi. These are exceptional talents with no equals.

There are three broad categories for goalkeepers:

  • Defensive Goalkeeper – The type of ‘keeper that stays in his six-yard area and is at his most confident there. A good shot stopper with great reflexes but not the best on the ball. You get the feelings it’s “you’re good at what you do so do it”. (Simon Mignolet)
  • Sweeper Keeper – High starting point for a goalkeeper, probably on the edge of his area and it means the team can play a high line safe in the knowledge the ‘keeper is able and confident enough to come and meet the ball outside of the area. These keepers are usually used in possession-orientated teams. (Hugo Lloris)
  • Possession Keeper – This is probably the upgrade to sweeper keeper. Teams don’t want their goalkeepers to just come out and clear the ball anymore. They want a little more composure and a ‘keeper that can pick a pass and start attacks. It’s almost like a Libero Goalkeeper, they bring the ball out from the back. (Manuel Neuer)

Football is always evolving, so it’s only natural players adapt with the times, but as a goalkeeper how much can you adapt? You’re primary role is shot stopping. You do whatever and use anything in your power to stop that ball crossing the line. In the past if you saved the most shots you were considered a good goalkeeper. Now if you make the most saves it’s because your defence is letting you down and you’re having to face more shots.

These days you’ve got to be able to pick a pass from 60 yards, be able to perform a rabona and save a penalty blind folded to get any recognition from some. Advances in the sport means everything evolves but like in Jurassic World if you tamper with something too much you end up causing havoc.

It’s not that basic, though. You also have to analyse the systems the teams play. Take Chelsea, for example:

  • They play a low defensive line so their keeper, Thibaut Courtois, won’t need a high starting point to sweep. As a result, there’s ground for the keeper to control or dominate.
  • Their defenders are first and foremost defenders, they aren’t a team that starts many attacks from the back so it’s not integral that their keeper can pass like an outfield player. Their goal kicks often go long.
  • Chelsea don’t play an expansive game, it’s all low risk, and they have one of the best defensively minded managers in world football in José Mourinho. He doesn’t set it up to leave his side exposed therefore his keepers aren’t facing a barrage of shots each game.

Let’s compare this to Liverpool:

  • They play a higher than average defensive line meaning the keeper, Mignolet, has to have a higher starting position.
  • Liverpool play a high risk game and play out from the back. This means they often take short goal kicks. This would mean the defenders sometimes have to play it back to the ‘keeper therefore he’d have to be confident with the ball at his feet and be able to pick a pass.
  • Liverpool use a high pressing tactic which sometimes means that if the opposition manage to play through the press they’ve got a run at an exposed defence and goalkeeper. Therefore the keeper theoretically has to make more saves and, importantly, more one on one saves.

It begs the question: how much is a goalkeeper’s success is down to the system they’re a part of? If you were to swap these ‘keepers around and had Mignolet at Chelsea and Courtois at Liverpool in exactly the same set ups that the clubs use now, who would be number one for Belgium? It’s an interesting thought because both keepers excel at reflex saves and both are good one on one.

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“We play with 11 men, other teams play with 10 men and a goalkeeper.” Brendan Rodgers

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Teams want to dominate the ball; it’s not a new philosophy – as much as media will make it out to be – but there’s certainly more pressure on all 11 players being able to play ‘proper football’.

Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers likes to play possession-based, high-risk football. With this in mind you’ve got to consider what sort of scouting went into the Simon Mignolet deal, and this is my next point. Are goalkeepers signed for their shot stopping ability or other facets of their game?

I spoke to Phil Casey, a semi professional goalkeeper in Ireland who had this to say: “I played for all types of teams. I went from relegation threatened teams who never really had much possession and wanted the ball as far away from my goal as possible to teams challenging for the title. The change in style was noticeable and I had to adapt my game 50-60% just to fit in. Everything changed.

“My positioning was tweaked so I was between the penalty spot and the edge of the ‘D’ so I was able to receive a pass from the defenders and sweep if the opposition tried to play a ball over the top. To get me used to playing short they banned me from kicking long in training. Then they banned me from kicking full stop when I had the ball in my hands. This leads to speeding up target identification and technique. With correct coaching and focus, a change in style can be achieved relatively quickly”.

Do teams sign goalkeepers who are strong in the traditional goalkeeping sense and hope to mould them to fit their style? This is arguably what Liverpool tried to do when they sold Pepe Reina and signed Simon Mignolet. Towards the end of Reina’s last season there was a match against Man City in which he rushed to the outside of his area in the hope of beating Sergio Agüero to the ball; he failed and the Argentine scored from an acute angle. The Spanish International was lauded for how quick he was off the line throughout his career but at that moment fans and media alike both said he had no right to do that and a ‘keeper should stay on their line. Nine times out of 10, however, he’d have cleared that ball.

Fast forward two seasons and it’s once again Liverpool versus Man City, and Sergio Agüero comes out on top. Brendan Rodgers had said he’d been working with Mignolet on his positioning with Liverpool using a higher defensive line.

Sergio Agüero has the beating of the retreating Dejan Lovren and is one on one with the Belgian number two. It’s worth noting here that he’d been outside of his area originally, before retreating and then advancing to square up to Agüero. However he’s got his angles all wrong and the Manchester City hit man is able to literally pass the ball past Mignolet. For me that’s the perils of trying to adapt a goalkeeper’s game in such a competitive league. There’s no evidence to suggest he’d have saved it had he not been implementing a new starting position, but as a goalkeeper you get used to looking at certain parts of the pitch to help set your position. If you’re starting from a different position you’re going to be a little uncertain where you are and how your angles are – and this seems to be what happened, and still happens, with Mignolet.

You’ve taken a fantastic ‘defensively minded’ goalkeeper and changed him into a sweeper keeper; the risk is that his overall game falters and you have a keeper with no confidence all because of a position tweak. Are the pressures of Premier League football too much for managers to try and retrain their ‘keepers? Is it not best to find a ‘keeper suited to your style when scouting? We’ve all heard of players not fitting the system, but can the same be said for goalkeepers?

What’s next for these specialist players? Will we reach a point in football were clubs have two keepers with different strengths and they’re rotated depending on how the team intend to play? You can’t expect all goalkeepers to fall into the three categories mentioned earlier. There’s no such thing as a versatile goalkeeper.

Add to this the fact that there’s more pressure on ‘keepers to be two footed than there is for outfield players these days and many young goalkeepers may start to reconsider their position. The unfair expectations may overcomplicate an already complicated position. Judge these players as individuals instead of a collective.

Football works in cycles; trends appear and disappear within a matter of seasons. What people want ‘keepers to be now could be different by the time 2017-18 season begins. At the end of it all, it’s the saves that go down in history. After all, we remember that Gordon Banks save against Brazil and that David Seaman save against Sheffield United, not their starting position.

The True Value of a Centre-Back in the Modern Era

MODERN DAY MEDIA, ESPECIALLY IN ENGLAND, has had a negative impact on the way central defenders are perceived. Gone are the days when a team was applauded for being defensively sound; instead of praise these teams are lambasted for their anti-football ways. It’s not anti-football – far from it – it’s tactical football at its finest. Media, pundits and fans alike have been brainwashed into believing goals are the be all and end all.

Chelsea ‘parking the bus’ is seen as a negative and it infuriates fans, but why? Football, as I’ve said before in features for These Football Times, is like a game of chess. If you have a winning tactic, why change it? Isn’t it up to the opposition manager to force José Mourinho into breaking his habit? Does the frustration from the fans stem from the fact that they know how the Chelsea manager will line up and yet their manager can’t figure out how to defeat him? Do pundits and media criticise him because they’re the ones who push the ‘Premier League is the greatest league, look at all the goals’ tagline, which José seems to disprove time and time again?

It’s this mentality that leads to fans asking why teams will pay copious amount of money for a player that doesn’t score goals. Something I’ve seen on social media more times than I’d like to admit lately is the rumours of John Stones (pictured) being courted by reigning Premier league champions Chelsea. The 21-year-old has made 46 appearances for Everton in the past two seasons, scoring once, and played a big part in Everton having the third best defence in the league in 2013-14.

Everton supposedly rejected a bid of £25 million for Stones, and this has caused a split in opinion. Some fans think it’s silly money and the club should accept, whereas other seem to think Everton should hold out for more. This is a centre back with over 40 Premier League appearances to his name by the age of 21, who averaged 90% pass success rate in a team that struggled last season, He’s confident on the ball which is a must for all modern day defenders and he’s only picked up two bookings during his Everton career. If Chelsea sign Stones he’s going to be moulded by Mourinho, Gary Cahill and John Terry into one of the best defenders in the league, if not the world, for the next decade. Anything under £30 million for him should be considered a bargain.

With the way the market is going it’ll be hard to find a player with potential for less than £30 million in the coming years. Chelsea are switched on and aware of this, hence the desire to strike now. With John Stones being young, home-grown and the complete opposite of many of his English peers, his value will continue to rise.

When pricing up defenders you also have to factor in the demand for these players. The market is scarce when it comes to young centre backs capable of playing at the highest level, especially British ones. You only have to look at James Chester, who moved from Hull City to West Brom this summer for a fee of £8 million; he’s already 26. Steven Caulker has recently moved to Southampton on loan and, at the age of 23, his moves to various clubs have already amassed £16 million in transfer fees. Are these two the benchmarks for when pricing up home-grown talent? Gone are the days of John Terry, Rio Ferdinand and Tony Adams. John Stones moving to Chelsea could be a positive for the national team in the long term.

English clubs have also shown an interest in two other highly rated centre backs, both from Italy. Alessio Romangoli and Daniele Rugani are going to be the centre back pairing for Italy in years to come, I’ve no doubt in my mind. They’re what Italy have been waiting for since the days of Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta. Romangoli, who recently moved to Milan, was subject to a £22 million bid from Serie A rivalsNapoli which was eventually gazumped by the Rossoneri. Rugani, who is owned by Juventus but on loan at Empoli, was rumoured to be interesting Arsenal, who had a £16 million rejected. These two and Stones are highly rated for a reason.

It’s an obvious statement but one many fans overlook these days. If you concede less goals you don’t need to score as many to win. The less pressure on your attack the better, right? In the 2014-15 season, Chelsea only conceded two or more on four occasions; that means in the other 34 games in theory Chelsea only needed to score two goals to win the game. That’s the impact a good defence can have on a team. Compare this to Liverpool who had a spell in 2013-14 in which they scored 13 goals for six points in six games. By Chelsea standards, that would be enough for 15-18 points.

It also seems to me that prices for defenders are only just coming in line with other modern day positions. Lilian Thuram went from Parma to Juventus in 2001 when he was aged 29 for £36.5 million. The following year Rio Ferdinand, Alessandro Nesta and Fabio Cannavaro all made big money moves: Ferdinand to Manchester United for £30 million, Nesta to AC Milan for £27 million and Cannavaro to Inter for £20 million.

Ricardo Carvalho moved from Porto to Chelsea in 2004 for £20 million and three years later Porto sold another centre back, Pepe, to Real Madrid for £26 million. In 2011 Chelsea signed David Luiz from Benfica for £26 million before selling him on for £50 million only three years later. More recently, we’ve seen PSG splash out on Thiago Silva for £37 million and the talented youngster Marquinhos for £27 million. A good centre back is hard to find so teams will pay big for them. The Marquinhos deal set the precedent when at 19 he moved for nearly £30 million.

Do you think any of these teams regret paying this money for these players? Thuram, along with Buffon, was part of the best defence in world football. Ferdinand was at Manchester United for 12 years, part of a solid defence and was amongst the top 10 defenders in the world for nearly a decade. Nesta was at Milan for a decade, forming a key part of their famous defence which helped them reach three Champions League finals. Cannavaro was sold after two years but Inter made their money back on him. Carvalho was part of a Chelsea defence that conceded the fewest amount of goals in Premier League history and Pepe has been part of the Madrid defence for eight seasons now and has assisted them in winning almost every trophy imaginable.

These are the fees we should expect for these talented defenders, especially when the likes of Erik Lamela is going for £30 million, Juan Iturbe £25 million, Raheem Sterling £49 million. Defenders are just as important as these types of players.

I know pundits and fans want goals and that Pep Guardiola been innovative with his choice of centre back; it seems to have planted a seed in the heads of viewers who now think of centre backs as a null position, that central midfielders and full-backs could do just an effective a job. Perhaps in a Guardiola system, yes, but everywhere else, teams need proper central defenders. And they need to be prepared to pay big for them.

Interview with Tim Lees

Tim came through the academy system in England with both Bolton Wanderers and Everton as a youngster. He has over 300 appearances semi-professionally in England and in 2007 earned the highest scholarship awarded to an athlete at Maryland, USA. In 2006, he was chosen to represent the UK from 17,000 players for The Pepsi Max World Challenge, a global TV Series screened on Channel 4. Tim competed against the best semi-professional players from ten other countries in  2V2 tournament around the globe; working with Ronaldinho, David Beckham and Thierry Henry. In 2006, he was chosen by Jamie Redknapp to represent England semi-professional team at the FIFA World Cup finals in Germany.

He is also a football skills champion, finishing second in the World 2004 Nike Freestyle Championships and has performed choreographed and body doubled on dozens of commercials and advertisements around the world for the past ten years.

Tim was selected by Pepsi as a Technical Coach alongside David Beckham in Madrid and Ronaldinho in Camp Nou before being recruited by the Watford FC academy where he worked full time with 12-16s at the pioneering Harefield Project. This system saw over 50 players progress from the academy into the Championship first team squad. He was Youth Development Manager of 12-16s at Wigan Athletic, overseeing the coaching programme and philosophy at all age groups before managing the 13-14s philosophy at Liverpool’s academy. Tim was also seconded to coach in Spain by Roberto Martinez in the summer of 2013, holds a BSc Hons Degree in Sport Psychology, a UEFA A Licence and has been a guest speaker at several youth national coaching events.

What made you get into coaching?

“I first got into coaching when I was released from the professional academies and realised I was not going to reach the heights that I had dreamt of as a player. I was a skinny and small, technical deep-lying midfielder with no pace that kept dropping in to receive from centre backs – all they were being asked to do was hit the front players early. The philosophy in academies is very different now than it was in the 90s; the game has moved on so much and I was a very late developer. When I left school I was forced to take a session as part of my college course. I loved it. This is where I first started – and the session I put on was terrible.

“The reason I started was born from my own experiences. I had played under so many coaches and managers who had polar opposite beliefs to me and operated in ways that I felt was completely unacceptable. They would lie continually, were lazy in terms of preparation and applied no thought or creativity to their sessions. We went for three mile runs around the streets, we wouldn’t see the balls for 60 of the 90 minute sessions and we played conditioned games with absolutely no relevance to the game at all.

“I remember at Bolton, being put into a sprint race over 60 yards against the under-15 players and I was chronologically barely 13 with the biological age of 11. When I look back to some of the things I was asked to do I wonder how some of the coaches were even employed. Some people still use these methods and term them ‘making boys into men’ and all that alpha male rubbish that ‘did them no harm’, but what they don’t ask is how much better they could have been if they hadn’t wasted time on things that had no relevance.”

Fans and the media are becoming more privy to buzzwords for coaches such as ‘ideology’ and ‘philosophy’, can you explain what your philosophy as a coach is?

“Philosophy is a really difficult word to get across on a piece of paper or in an interview. My core philosophical values are to treat people with respect and to always be honest with others. In football, the higher you go the more bad people you find. Some of the dishonesty I have seen it truly staggering and due to this I am always open with my feelings with others around me.  I never want people to be unsure on what I am thinking whether that be good or bad. When people know you will tell them the truth 100% of the time then you have an environment where people are working towards a goal together. Trust is the most important principle to any philosophy yet it in football it is something that seems to be devoid in most clubs.

“My on field philosophy never changes but constantly evolves. If I was still coaching the same things that I was two years ago then I would not only be naive but also not adjusting to the demands of the modern game. Brendan Rodgers spoke about how the speed of the Premier league changes with each pre-season thus everyone has to evolve. If I don’t evolve and improve as a coach on a weekly basis then I will never reach the levels that I want to. I am not good enough to coach a Premier League first team now therefore I need to know the steps to get me there.

“The core principles I believe in never waver in any circumstances, regardless how extreme or difficult the situation may seem. If you don’t stand for something then you’ll fall for nothing. It’s an easy principle to have as a core value yet one that many abandon when the chips are down. Roberto [Martínez] once said to me ‘never move from your principles, many people will come along who don’t believe in it but you cannot be influenced – if it was easy then everyone would be doing it’.

“In a short sentence, I believe in dominating possession of the football to be in control of what happens. When asked about my philosophy I could detail principles like how many receiving lines I like to use, the number of vertical columns I like to play on, about how to create specific overloads in certain areas of the pitch or how to change the amount of pressure behind 1v1’s in a game from 81% to 30-40% so you are facing the goal in space but it is all irrelevant without the player profiles in front of you. The reality is that you see things in individuals that they need which may give them short term failure but you know long term it’s best for them. You identify things in games which tactically need your input for the benefit of both the team and the individual but it’s extremely hard to document these principles without having two teams on a pitch in front of you. Instead, I will explain from, start to finish,  what I would like from any team that I coach and hopefully this will provide a more relevant answer to your question. I want my team to have the ball for several reasons:

  • Most importantly from a youth perspective, the returns technically are paramount. The obvious passing repetition and myelin built cognitively from a high frequency, repetitive process is imperative. Players receive with pressure behind 80% of the four 1v1 situations so the more times we create this, the more opportunities the players get to dominate players. Champions League players have over 2700 receiving situations per season therefore we need to get as close to this as possible. To get these technical returns, we need the ball.
  • From a tactical point of view, if we want to dominate the ball then we have to have control of the opposition in terms of their block and their defensive movements. If they show us into specific areas setting traps and working off pressing triggers then we are playing into their strengths. We have to dictate to them what is happening in the match, not the other way around. To hurt teams we need 1v1 situations higher up the pitch where we can outplay opponents but we also need the spaces. Thus, to control the spaces we need to get the opposition’s players in areas on the pitch where we want them; we need the ball most of the time.  To have the ball more than the opposition would mean that statistically, in black and white terms, we need to have the ball 51% of the game. However, this is not enough so I aim for my teams to have the ball for a minimum of 65% possession (average of Barcelona and Bayern last season). This is reflected in every possession practice and training session. So, for the above reasons, the first objective target is to have the ball 65% of the time. Although it is not the sole objective, the possession percentage is not just a meaningless statistic, it has specific returns at 65%.
  • If we have 65% of the ball then I do not want a large proportion of this to be in our own half. You see this where teams dominate possession but never hurt the opposition. To get our best attacking players on the ball in areas where they can hurt the opposition, they need to be receiving in the block and not in front of it. When teams focus too much on playing from the back then game-changing players begin to drop deeper to get on the ball as the game progresses. There is nothing more frustrating than seeing players like Hazard, Sánchez or Coutinho dropping in front of the midfield block and looking up at two lines ahead.
  • The players who change the game need to be receiving within 35m of the opposition’s goal and ideally in the spaces in between the lines. To do this, we need the opposition closer to their goal and in a low block. Therefore the idea of playing out from the back should be to progress the opposition’s block up the pitch where they are sitting in front of their own goal as opposed to allowing them to press us 25m from our goal. Playing out from the back is imperative to getting the opposition just in front of their goal, however it is not only naive but dangerous to solely focus on this philosophy. There are specific movements, rotations and actions required to progress a philosophy from playing from the back to getting the opposition defending in their own half. The difference is huge.
  • Once we have got the opposition defending deep, we will automatically now have a lot of the ball and most of the time will achieve the 65% domination. If the opposition are in a low block sitting in front of their own goal then this is physically and mentally very demanding to do for long periods. It saps their energy, it drains their concentration and they give up on trying to even have the ball because they are so far from our goal when they regain. If we are in this position then they are 80-90m from our goal. If we focus on playing from the back and bouncing midfielders for long periods then not only are we more open to counters but we are now 25m from our goal.
  • Once we can get the opposition to a point where their striker is detached from the midfield and defensive line then their only option on the turnover is to go long to a sole player. At this point several things are vital in order to retain the philosophy. On the turnover of possession, the five second press is imperative to keep them deep. Players must close the net quickly and get pressure on the ball, centre-backs must engage and double up on their striker and not allow the opposition to get comfortable possession. Again, there are specific movements and actions required depending on the system employed.
  • Once we regain possession, we need to quickly shift it out of the pressure zone and to a spare player. Guardiola works off a simple principle which was influenced by Cruyff; the player who has pressed the ball has focused all his energy on regaining the ball therefore he has the worst ‘map’ of the pitch. He has no idea on our positional slots or shape therefore his only focus should be to offload the ball as fast as possible to anybody. The second pass out of the press should be focused on shifting the ball out of the pressure zone and to find the space on the pitch. Whilst these two passes are happening, on the third pass our shape should now be one with width and depth again. The cycle now begins again where we circulate the ball, show patience in possession and keep the opposition in front of their goal.

“This is my philosophy as a simple structure. The actual system has to be built around the players that are in the squad. The system has two functions – to bring out the best in the best players whilst being setup to give them the best chance of achieving the above philosophy.”

Did any teams or coaches influence your philosophy?

“From the age of eight I was brought up watching a philosophy that was different to the one I was part of in this country. My dad bought me old video tapes of Brazil in the 70s and Barcelona with Cruyff pulling the strings. In Euro 96 when all my friends were cheering England, my dad sat me down watching Hierro playing from the back for Spain so this culture was built into me from very young. From a philosophy point of view, my main influences are obvious.

“Roberto inspired me so much at Wigan and I was fortunate enough to manage his camp in Catalonia for him. From an educational point of view, I developed lots working with Alex Inglethorpe, Pep Lljinders, and Mick Beale at Liverpool. My first job in coaching was given to me by Nick Cox at Watford – he took a chance on me when no one else would and he provided me with a great foundation. I am hugely influenced by Bielsa particularly with his intensity, attention to detail and the tactical flexibility that he constantly possesses. And lastly, Guardiola’s effective reinvention of the game is my biggest influence.”

Does your philosophy influence the type of player you look to recruit?

“Hugely. If I was recruiting from a first team point of view then I would recruit specific profiles that I need to achieve the above philosophy, not to suit a specific system. I know that for the philosophy to work I need very specific profiles – these would be completely different if I wanted my team to drop to a low block and counter. Recruitment of players is more important than any coaching session, idea or principle. And it’s not as simple as buying a game changer to hurt teams 1v1 in the block or finding a passer to sit in front of the back four and pull the strings.

“For example, I know that if I want to dominate the ball for 65% of the time then I need a centre-back who can stop turns on the transition and defend 1v1 – in order to keep the opposition in their half. I don’t necessarily need a centre back with pace or mobility if he can see danger early and prevents strikers turning on the transition. But then, he needs someone next to him who can defend the spaces in behind should we not press the ball quick enough.

“The recruitment of first team players for a specific function is different to that of youth players. In academies, you are looking for one thing: long-term potential. And this looks different in every player and position. We don’t care if we lose the game this Sunday 6-0 because the first team manager will want to know if a player can technically compete at the elite level at 19. When he breaks into the first team the manager isn’t going to ask him what score he won away at Burnley six years earlier. Therefore, coaches in youth football have to sacrifice their ego and ‘status’ for the long term gain of the players – this is easier said than done.”

During your time at Liverpool you would’ve worked alongside Pepijn Lijnders; as a highly regarded youth coach, what is he like to work with?

“There are lots of charlatans in the professional game who are in high profile positions because of who they know but Pep is the best coach I have ever worked with. His intensity, energy and passion is unparalleled and his knowledge both tactically and how to develop players from an individual point of view is incredible. I have no doubt he will manage one day in the Premier League and I feel fortunate to have worked side-by-side with him for a prolonged period. He’s a great guy off the field too.”

Do you think set pieces are under-utilised in the modern game?

“It is becoming harder to score from set pieces because teams are set up so well to not concede from them. Often teams have 11 players behind the ball and sacrifice trying to counter from them for fear of conceding. Personally, I like to control the opposition so I take risks from defending set pieces leaving lots of players out for the counter. If I am defending a set piece and I leave three players high – with relevant profiles to counter and poor profiles to defend aerially – then the opposition have no option than to leave a minimum of three back. If they do this, we now have less players to focus on defensively and our goalkeeper has more space to attack and claim (he has the highest aerial reach than any player therefore needs more space).

“I trust the players whose job it is to defend through a part zonal/man marking system and take out the players who would never defend properly anyway. From an attacking point of view, I think a lot of managers neglect the principles and philosophy and focus more on how to score from set pieces. I have been in team talks as a player where managers spend every minute of their pre match giving instructions on set pieces.”

You’ve been fortunate enough to work with both Roberto Martínez and Brendan Rodgers. Tell us about the experience of working with two highly-rated, young Premier League managers.

“I feel extremely fortunate to have worked in a managerial development capacity under both managers’ philosophies. I had to present the academy philosophy to Roberto and he was extremely specific about his ideas on how to develop players long term. The detail he goes into is forensic; people wouldn’t believe the level he goes into. Ironically, I used to travel the country to watch Swansea under Brendan and Wigan under Roberto.

“I loved the way Rodgers dominated the ball against bigger teams, playing from the back constantly with a very fluid and interchangeable 4-3-3. Watching Wigan under Roberto was incredible as they were the only team in the Premier League playing a back three and dominated opponents continually staying in the Premier League when they had no right to. One of my best moments in football was being at the FA Cup final when Wigan outclassed Man City as 10-1 underdogs. When you understand the tactics Roberto used to manage that game, you realise what level he really is at.”

What’s your long term goal?

“My long term goal is to manage at the highest level possible. At the moment I am learning continually and have specific areas I need to develop in order to reach my goals. I underachieved as a player and am determined to not do so as a coach. This is my driving force and motivation on a daily basis. I have worked with some of the best coaches in the world and it burns me inside that I don’t have their knowledge. You only know how much you don’t know when you see the best people operate, whatever your occupation is. People may read stuff online or watch Gary Neville on Monday nights and think they could do it but they don’t understand the complexities of the very elite level.”

I’ve had the pleasure of reading your book, for those that haven’t why should they buy it?

“Since I started coaching at 16, I have a black box which I record every session I either saw or took part in as a player. Two years ago I sat down and pulled out all of the best ones and put them into a book which turned into Developing An Elite Coaching Philosophy In Possession. The book is for coaches who are working with good players and want some detail to use in sessions or when building their philosophy. The first section is the beginning of the theory as to why you want to create a specific philosophy with the second half being dozens of sessions to use with coaching points that I would personally highlight. The sessions that I have put in the book are ones that I have personally seen delivered by Premier League coaches. I received emails from people asking for specific ideas on sessions therefore I thought it would be good to release a book containing them.”

Finally, away from football what do you do to relax? People have an impression coaches just live for football.

“For years I lived for the game and would be working from 9am to 3am the next morning. At Wigan I was responsible for the whole academy therefore I was the last one to leave at 10pm. When I got home from sessions late at night, I would be editing the clips from the games/sessions to show the players what they needed. I would be downloading games that I had just seen on Sky to clip out a two second receiving clip that one of my players needed to see. I would be searching for Chile games under Bielsa or trying to find Ajax from the 90s to see if there was anything tactical that was different.

“Although this working pattern is extreme, I think you have to put those hours in to get to where you want to. All of the best coaches I have worked with are exactly the same. There are no shortcuts. As Floyd Mayweather says, ‘hard work and dedication’. Nowadays I try to switch off when I come home and forget about football. I have learned to do this as it drains your passion if you are not careful and you start counting the days down until May. Away from football I manage a business which I have to look after, I love good food, spend time with friends and family and have just bought a saxophone to learn.”

Modern Day Wonderkids

THE TERM ‘WONDERKID’ IS OFTEN USED when referring to a talented young footballer. A player that shows great promise or stands out amongst players older than him. Like a drop of blood falling into piranha-infested waters, saying ‘wonderkid’ to a fan base has the same effect.

It’s very cliché but it’s also hard to ignore – times are changing. Gone are the days if you spent £20 million on a player they’d play week in and week out for you barring injury; this is where the break in reality appears between clubs and fans. Clubs have accepted the inflation of fees. You don’t always get what you pay for but instead you eventually get what you pay for. It’s not always instant success.

However this message hasn’t been passed down to the fans. They still believe if you pay £20 million they’re a guaranteed starter who should have an instant impact and if they don’t it’s because they aren’t good enough. They ignore key factors such as playing time, the age of the player and of course the bedding in period. These three things should be common sense but for varying reasons they are now viewed as luxuries.

I’m sure many people, myself included, are avid fans of the Football Manager series. I became familiar with the wonderkid term because of it. People will argue it’s unrealistic – and it probably is – but there is some truth certain aspects of the game. The tip it gives you for a player labelled as a wonderkid is something along the lines of ‘if managed properly and given minutes then this player could turn into a world class player’.

The instructions are fairly obvious yet many seem to overlook the basics. A young footballer needs game time to improve, that’s a given. They also needs to have their games managed and then be used effectively and efficiently. Do as stated and they’ll fulfil their promise.

There is no better example of this than Raheem Sterling. The new Manchester Citynumber 7 cost them £49 million, which is a far cry from when only 18 months prior fans and media alike all thought he needed to drop down a division and go on loan after putting in a forgettable performance away as Liverpool lost 3-1 to Hull at the beginning of December 2013. At that stage the England international had made sporadic appearances for the Reds and filled in a number of positions from the right side of the three in a 4-2-3-1 to a left wing back in a 5-3-2. He didn’t really have a place in the side and his immediate future at the club was in doubt.

Fast-forward a mere four months and the same player was integral to Liverpool being three wins away from winning the Premier League. Brendan Rodgers tweaked the formation and started to use the 4-diamond-2 to suit Luis Suárez and Daniel Sturridge, and this helped Raheem Sterling thrive in the role off them. Sterling was instrumental in both 3-2 wins against Manchester City and Norwich; as many of the more experienced players felt the pressure, he seemed to play with as much freedom as he had when plying his trade in the academy.

The benefits of giving a talented youngster the chance to express themselves can’t be measured, but here he was, a 19-year-old outperforming players ten years his senior. There was always something special about him, the only difference between pre and post Christmas was the fact he was playing regularly and in a position he could be effective.

It’s a similar story for Gareth Bale. The Welshman is considered a world-class player now but in the summer of 2008, only a year after signing for Tottenham Hotspur, he was nearly sold to Hamburg for £5 million which would have been a £2 million loss on what they’d paid for him. This is a £75 million difference in price for what they eventually sold Bale for.

Highly thought of during his days at Southampton he appeared in 38 league games before he’d turned 18. The exposure to first team football led to many Premier League sides showing an interest, before Spurs eventually signed him.

Injuries, inconsistent performances and an upturn in form for Benoît Assou-Ekotto meant for his first three seasons at Spurs Bale never made over 25 league appearances. It was only towards the latter half of the 2009-10 season that Harry Redknapp decided to use the pace of Bale as a left winger in a 4-3-3. The following season, Bale announced himself to the world by scoring a hat-trick against Inter Milan at the San Siro. He finished that season with 11 goals in all competitions. The following season he was used exclusively as a left-winger and ended up with 12 goals before hitting an astonishing 26 in 44 appearances in his final season at Spurs. Persistence with the players and patience eventually paid off for Spurs both on and off the pitch.

There are similar stories for the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Eden Hazard, Lionel Messi and Neymar, All of these players were exposed to first team football at a young age and their clubs persisted with them because their talent was obvious. All of those players will have had forgettable matches but it’s about the long term, not the short term.

I spoke to Jeremy Dow a football agent and scout for INsoccer. He had this to say on young talents:

“It’s easy to spot talent at a young age. Others will often say they tend to drift off as the level of competition increases but if that’s not the case. If they’re good enough they’ll make it. What usually happens is as soon as the level of competition increases managers tend to go with tried and tested players instead of these youngsters and their development stalls a little.

“I’ve been given briefs in the past on what a club wants and the players they’re keen on and I’ve watched them and thought ‘this player doesn’t meet the brief but he’s still good enough’ so I report that back to the club and I make it known they aren’t what they’re looking for but this is a potentially good player.

“I’ll never try to fit a square peg into a round hole, but sometimes clubs think these players can be changed so meet the brief. They then buy these players and realise they aren’t what they hoped for and their development stalls in the short term. ”

After speaking to Jeremy three players immediately sprung to mind: Lazar Marković, Erik Lamela and Mario Götze.

Lazar Marković arrived at Liverpool via Benfica with a £20 million price tag around his neck. It’s that magic number yet again. Fans expected an instant success. The Serbian winger made 19 league appearances for Liverpool last season but only seven of these came in an attacking position, the rest all came from a wing-back role.

The number of appearances can be misleading so if you look at minutes played it gives you a better idea. Marković played 932 league minutes last season, the equivalent of ten full games and three minutes added time on each. Compare that to Raheem Sterling who had 3047 minutes to his name. He appeared 31 times for Liverpool in all competitions, which is quite the drop off when you consider he made 49 appearances for Benfica the season before. Now at Fenerbahçe on loan, he’s hoping to resurrect the promise surrounding his career.

Erik Lamela featured in 35 games for Spurs, two more than Raheem Sterling for Liverpool, last season yet only appeared for 2300 minutes. The season prior to this he only appeared in nine league games when in the two seasons before that – at Roma – he started 49 games and appeared in another 14 league games from the bench. He was able to play himself into the form that led to Spurs spending a large chunk of the Gareth Bale money on him.

Mario Götze is another player who has suffered from a big money move. He went from playing nearly every game at Dortmund to being a bit part player at Bayern Munich. He appeared in more games for Bayern last season than he did any time during his time at Dortmund yet minutes played was his second worst during his five-year career, a mere 2230.

These players may, in some quarters, be labelled as big money flops. Disappointments. A waste of money. However they’ve shown if given game time they perform. If these players made 20 league starts in the coming season in positions they’re allowed to be effective in I’m sure people’s opinions would change and their fees wouldn’t look like such an issue. Consider the fact that Championship sides are paying north of £10 million for players and £20 million for a player that performs for a top seven Premier League club is surely worth it.

If a young player is inconsistent but plays games it’s very rare they’ll depreciate in value. Furthermore there’s more chance they’ll play themselves into form. If, however, they aren’t playing games they’ll inevitably lose value and the club loses patience quicker. Teams need to balance this: paying £30 million for a player that needs game time to develop properly with having to pay what looks to be over the top prices now to safeguard themselves from paying £50 million plus in a few years time.

(First published on These Football Times)

South American Attacking Midfielders vs Their European Counterparts

Coutinho--253x300

A Brazilian attacking midfielder is a player youngsters try to copy. Their flair, their confidence on the ball and of course their undoubted talent, many want to replicate this style of Samba inspired magic. It’s easy to see why, as a child you may not have a pitch to regularly practice on, but that’s the beauty of it, it’s street football. In years gone by the Brazilian national side has been spoilt for choice; Zico, Ronaldinho, Rivaldo, Socrates to name but a few, all these players make fans of the game gasp with their extraordinary talents.

I’m sure many remember Ronaldinho dancing through the Madrid defence at the Bernabeau before placing the ball past Iker Casillas like he was playing with his friends, only to get a round of applause from the home fans. Likewise, Rivaldo scoring those bicycle kicks vs Valencia and Man United. There’s a video on YouTube of Robinho during his Santos days, he does a rainbow flick over an opponent’s head, whilst in their area, drops a shoulder and sells a dummy to two defenders. He’s now on the byline almost with the ‘keeper guarding his near post. Robinho feints to shoot before deliciously rolling the ball, the ‘keeper is now lost at this point and the Santos number 10 drags the ball back and places the ball into the goal at the near post.

That’s what the Brazilian attacking players are capable of. It’s not disrespectful as many would have you believe, it’s just genius.

Then you had the ugly side.

ronaldinho_by_fungila-d5hgqct

For every successful flick there was a time they lost the ball and showed no intent to win it back. They had an attitude, rightly or wrongly, that it wasn’t their job to get the ball back. You had Robinho running down the wing with an overlap from the fullback on the outside, instead of passing it he’d try something special and if it didn’t work it left the team exposed. This sort of wastefulness lead to criticism.

A media painted picture has Brazilian flair players, especially with Ronaldinho, Robinho and Rivaldo, as lazy luxuries not suited for the team games in modern football. Their wastefulness at times was looked upon as the reason the ‘water carrier’ position was so integral to a team, they did the dirty work before passing the ball to these mercurial talents. Within their respected teams it was often a player from Europe in the water carrier role, their solid no nonsense nature made them just as, if not more, important than the flair players mentioned above.

In comparison, European attacking midfielders don’t have as much ancestry. Many of these players in Europe, in the 90’s, started as strikers before dropping slightly. The likes of Roberto Baggio, Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Totti all started as a striker before finding that they were just as influential in a withdrawn position. They wanted more of the ball and were more often than not the star player so managers afforded them that luxury of dictating play from deep. Less flashy than the Brazilians on the ball but *just* as effective in my opinion. Sometimes just as lazy but fans seemed to allow them this, could it be because many of these were National icons in their countries? Whereas Brazilians were coming from their home countries and not showing the effort fans expected?

The European teams often made their star player the number 10 in their team which just so happened to be the attacking midfielder role. Who were the managers, at this period in time, to argue when there wasn’t that many talented players who could play that role, which would enable the strikers to stay as strikers. It is afterall an integral part to any system, the position that’s expected to bring the magic. You have to remember, during this period attacking, majestic midfielders weren’t the norm. Influential ones were rare to come by so managers, and players, had to adapt with that they had to stay relevant. It was easy to push Del Piero a little deeper when you had Pippo Inzaghi or Christian Vieri coming in to play as a striker. Francesco Totti slightly withdrawn as he had Gabriel Batistuta ahead of him.

As with everything, evolution is integral to progression. Players started coming through in European teams, those that could finally rival the ones that their Brazilian counterparts had been producing for years. The shift in what’s asked of the team has lead to many managers having to tweak systems to fit these attacking players in. The 4231 formation had a period in the late 2000’s in which many teams deployed that system. It meant the player in the central position behind the striker was given a license to attack with very little defensive work put on their shoulders, almost as if he was part of a 2 man strike partnership fully in the knowledge the 2 man midfield behind could cover the space. He was chief instigator in all attacks. However, just because they didn’t have to defend doesn’t mean they didn’t, many dropped to make up the extra man in midfield. This change saw the likes of Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney deployed there, both have workman like qualities and demanded the ball. Their ability to influence the game from deep lead the next evolution. The rise of the inside forwards.

On paper it’s wide position but many teams have taken this kind of player and made them pivotal to their team. With the overlapping fullback, the inside forward is tasked with cutting infield and creating whilst scoring. As mentioned before, the likes of Robinho played this role and excelled in, for a time.

Then came a shift in the qualities a Brazilian attacking midfielder adds to the team in years gone by. Kaka started it off, he worked hard off the ball but didn’t have the bit of grit necessary to really be able to play as a central midfielder effectively. In certain games he’d fade when played a little deeper but his work rate was lauded by many who hadn’t seen a Brazilian of such quality do so much for the game. The new breed of Brazilians, such as Oscar, Coutinho and Willian, all offer more than just an attacking threat, and it’s why they’re becoming far more influential in a team instead of as an individual.

All three are attacking midfielders, yet you see how multifaceted they really are when you watch them grace the pitch in various positions. Not only do they influence the game offensively you also see their work rate and their strengths in the defensive third. It’d be naive of me to say money can’t buy you that. because it blatantly can. What I mean is this mentality is installed in them from a young age. The street mentality, there are plenty of players in Brazil who can do the tricks but to stand out you need the ball, to get that ball you have to win it and earn it. This is what these players understand. If they lose it, they work to get it back and have the right to show off.

Oscar often plays as the number 10 for Chelsea yet unlike his predecessors of years gone by he tracks back and often becomes part of a three in the Chelsea midfield with Matic dropping into a defensive midfielder role and Oscar beside Cesc Fabregas. Depsite getting through this amount of work he still has that Brazilian flair in the final third scoring a numerous amount of goals in Brazilian-esque fashion.

Willian, another player labelled as a luxury by the media before his move to England, has showed his worth in defence under Jose Mourinho. A manager that doesn’t accept players who don’t pull their weight defensively, even if they’re brilliant offensively he has no qualms in selling quality players if their defensive work rate isn’t up to scratch. Willian is the perfect foil in this Chelsea set up, he can play many positions and has even played in the 10 in certain games, switching with Oscar and doing just as much defensive work. If Branislav Ivanovic commits himself forward and gets caught out you see Willian busting his gut to cover the space vacated.

Then we come to Phillipe Coutinho. This little magician is in the form of his life. He offers so much offensively he’d probably be forgiven for not tracking back but he shows his value to the team in all areas. He averages most tackles per league game for Liverpool, he’s always amongst the top 5 for pressed actions in a game and you often see him filling in as left wing back when Alberto Moreno advances. This slight framed Brazilian looks like a gust of wind would blow him over yet during the 2013/2014 season he played an integral part as a centre midfielder. The flair aspects of his game weren’t nullified, he took it upon himself to withdraw it for the time being and add a gritty side to his game, getting in and around players far bigger than him and coming out on top. He seemed to relish the challenge.

In comparison, you look at the European attacking midfielders, the likes of Juan Mata, Mesut Ozil, David Silva, Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas and you see a completely different work ethic. These much praised players are now the luxury midfielders, ones the Brazilians were once famed for. The talent is now on par with the Brazilians but they don’t bring a defensive side to their game.

David Silva and Samir Nasri are both brilliant offensively, but when you look at their defensive work it’s very poor and leaves Manchester City exposed many times throughout games. It puts pressure on their defensive midfielders and is leading to the media calling these players, the defensive midfielders, the problem. On the flip side of this you see Nemanja Matic getting all the plaudits at Chelsea, when if you watch the games you’ll see Cesc Fabregas lacking defensuvely and it’s the Brazilian duo Oscar and Willian working back to assist the Serbian destroyer.

Mesut Ozil had the microscope cast over him during his time at Arsenal. His fee was a talking point, at Madrid he was often subbed late on in games because he didn’t have the fitness. Arsenal don’t have the luxury to be able to sub off their record signing on a regular basis, but when he’s playing on the left of an attacking three the opposition knows they’ll always be able to overload that side when attacking Gibbs because they know Ozil won’t track back.

Juan Mata, undoubtedly talented, was forced out of Chelsea by the tyrannical Jose Mourinho. However, Jose, yet again, seem to be right. Really influential in the final third, but when he loses the ball then it’s lost. There was no hunger or desire to get the ball back. He’s a luxury that top teams don’t want these days. They want players capable of being a flair player but have the tenacity to get the ball back after he’s lost it. Mourinho has been proven correct by letting Mata go and using Oscar, Hazard and Willian instead. Has Juan Mata ever showed any defensive intent? Could you see him tracking back in the same way Willian does?

All these talented European attackers who are aesthetically pleasing if examined properly still seem lacking on the Brazilians of old. Many don’t score enough, or even assist. In such an attacking era you’d expect them to dominate but many had the sporadic good game. Are these types of players inutile in todays current teams?  It’s as though they tried to reinvent the wheel and forgot the spokes whilst their South American friends had mastered the wheel and were tuning up an engine.

In the days in which teams defend from the front, whether it be pressing or in compact lines, you need the eleven players to be willing to work for the team, not just for the individual plaudits. It comes back to the old age saying – “There’s no I in team”.

Brazilian’s with the water carrier mentality. They know to succeed they can’t just offer a threat in the attacking third, they need to be a team player. They may be the most skillful but that doesn’t mean they’re the best player within the team.

What is the next stage in the evolution of these types of players? The South Americans are innovators and yet again the Europeans just follow. With Europe playing catch up will the Brazilians evolve and add a different type of player to their arsenal? Whatever the case, Brazilians come with a hefty price tag, but with the attributes they bring to a team these days they’re worth every penny.

A statistical look at the Liverpool FC defence

A statistical review of goals.

A disappointing season came to an abrupt end against Stoke with a defensive performance that made my Sunday league side look as solid as Chelsea.

Yet in the aftermath of the defeat it seems the popular consensus is the attack is the main reason we didn’t finish top 4 this season. The idea seems to be if Daniel Sturridge was fit we’d have finished top 4 with ease. We’ll never know this for sure but it’s a nice thought in terms of easing our concerns about the state of this season. It’s easy, and lazy, just to associate the lack of success to the lack of Daniel Sturridge wriggly arms time.

Last season was an anomaly in terms of having two strikers playing to the best of their ability. It’s very rare these days you get a strike partnership that’s so prolific, so in sync and willing to play for a team out of the Champions League. We were also lucky in terms of having no European football so the Premier League had our full attention. This season we’ve been ‘*unlucky’ in terms of having injuries and having European football.

*Playing in Europe should NEVER been seen as unlucky.

Now don’t get me wrong, I do openly admit we need to improve in the final third in terms of output. However, you’re forever swimming against the tide whilst you can’t actually defend. I don’t buy into the belief we should spend all our money on goals. To add some context to my claim that Liverpool can’t defend I’ve put together a few tables.

2 or more goals

Team 2 or more scored 2 or more conceded Points won when 2 or more conceded % of the time 2 or more conceded but didn’t lose
Chelsea 23 6 9 50
Man City 24 12 15 41
Arsenal 23 9 4 22
Man Utd 21 6 4 30
Spurs 21 13 11 38
Liverpool 16 13 8 30
Southampton 14 8 1 12

I put together this table to actually see if the claims of “Liverpool haven’t been prolific or scored enough goals” are actually true. Now as you can see, Liverpool scored 2 or more goals on 16 occasions, which amongst the top 7 sides is the 6th best. So the claims of Liverpool haven’t scored enough have some credence. However, Liverpool failed to score in 8 games so that means in 14 games this season Liverpool scored 1 goal.

Next up, games in which the top 7 sides have conceded two or more and what it meant in terms of undefeated percentages.  So let me explain by using Chelsea as an example. They conceded 2 or more in 6 games of which they didn’t lose in 3 of these games. So their undefeated % in games they conceded 2 or more in would be 50%.

As you can see from the table Liverpool fall short in comparison to City, Chelsea, United and Spurs but are ahead of Arsenal. However you have to note the fact Arsenal conceded 2 or more in 4 less games than Liverpool. So Arsenal, from 27 available points took 4 which is a -23 points loss, which is far better than Liverpool, who had 39 points up for grabs and took 8 points, a -31 points loss. This -31 points lost when conceding 2 or more is the worst out of the top 7.

Interestingly, United only conceded 2 or more on 5 occasions and all season we’ve heard about them having a poor defence and a poor squad and it’s all down to De Gea but that can’t be the only factor. They kept 11 clean sheets so in 22 games United managed to concede only 1 goal. That’s pretty much their base for finishing top 4 right there; a good defensive set up even with academy players.

3 or more goals

Team 3 or more scored 3 or more conceded Points won when 3+C
Chelsea 9 3 3
Man City 14 1 0
Arsenal 9 1 0
Man Utd 9 2 0
Spurs 6 5 6
Liverpool 5 7 0
Southampton 6 1 0

The table above shows how many times the top 7 sides scored and conceded 3 or more. Once again the goals scored column indicates we do fall short in that department when compared to the rest. Both Southampton and Spurs scored 3 or more in one more game than we did whereas 3 of the other 4 nearly doubled our tally and Manchester City nearly tripled it.

The more worrying part in my opinion is the 3 or more conceded stats. 53% of the time when Liverpool concede 2 they go on to concede 3. This wouldn’t be *as* bad if you were only conceding 2 in 6 games, like Chelsea. We aren’t though. We’re conceding 3 or more on more occasions than Chelsea concede 2. This season we’ve conceded 3 or more in 18% of the games.

This isn’t a one off. There is a problem here that when Liverpool concede we more or less crumble. Of course you could say you’re open to conceding more when you’re chasing a game which we have tended to be doing an awful lot this season BUT, and this is a big but, Spurs conceded more goals than Liverpool but conceded 3 or more less times. The 6-1 thrashing at Stoke could’ve happened against Arsenal, or even Palace at Anfield. These aren’t just one off games you can sweep under the rug and ignore, there is something seriously wrong with the set up of the Liverpool defence.

Two of the 7 times Liverpool conceded 3 or more were at the hands of Crystal Palace, whom have scored 3 or more on 7 occasions this season. Their other victims; Newcastle, Burnley, Everton, West Ham and QPR.

Another fun fact – Arsenal scored 4 or more past 4 teams this season; West Brom, Villa, Newcastle and Liverpool.

Liverpool and Newcastle are teams who appear both times. Newcastle, a relegation threatened side that conceded 63 goals all season, and Liverpool. That gauges how poor the defence can be at times when it’s alongside the likes of relegation fodder.

*Have a little break now, maybe a brew and give your eyes a rest*

Clean sheet factor

Not so long ago I wrote an article about clean sheets not kidding anyone into thinking the defence is fixed, even despite what Brendan Rodgers would have you believe.

The response to that article was kind of like “Yeah, but what does it all mean. You can’t disregard clean sheets.”. It got me thinking and I decided to totally disregard every clean sheet of every club this season and then look at goals scored and conceded.  Why? Well any team can keep a clean sheets, I’m more intrigued to see how teams perform when they do concede. To see their character. Afterall, it’s no good keeping 15 clean sheets if on average you concede 2 or more in every other game now is it?

I’ll explain how I arrived at the table above. I went through every clean sheet game the clubs kept and removed the goals they scored in that game from their overall total. For example, Arsenal scored 23 goals in the games they kept a clean sheet in so I removed 23 from their final goals total for the season. I then divided the amount of goals by the amount of games (38- however many games with a clean sheet) to get the average number of goals scored and conceded per game.

Obviously this differs for every club as not all of them will keep the same amount of clean sheets. However this table alludes to the amount of games they don’t keep a clean sheet. As you’ll see clean sheets aren’t indicative of a good defence – West Brom kept 15 clean sheets but conceded 2.21 goals per game when they didn’t, which is 23 games. So despite keeping 15 clean sheets they still conceded over 50 goals.

In terms of Liverpool’s goals. They rank 6th in this table for goals scored behind Arsenal, City, Chelsea, United and Spurs. The 1.45 goals per game isn’t a bad figure. United, Chelsea and Spurs only average 0.13/0.14 higher than we do. However, you then compare it to goals conceded and you see the trouble.

Goals Conceded.

There are only 6 teams in the table above that concede 2 or more goals and they are as follows;

QPR 2.28 – 20th

West Brom 2.21 – 13th

Sunderland 2.12 – 16th

Newcastle 2.1 – 15th

Aston Villa 2.03 – 17th

Liverpool 2 – 6th

Five of the six teams were are midtable or relegation threatened teams, then you have Liverpool. They’re once again in a list with teams who have no right to be spoken of in the same breath as them, yet there they are.

There is a 0.55 negative difference in goals scored and conceded. The only team to average over 2 goals scored without the clean sheet games is Man CIty so it shows how hitting over 2 isn’t really feasible. So this falls back to the buying goals argument. You’d need to be hitting the levels of 2013/2014 to make up for the broken defence.  Based on these figures you’re looking at 3 goals per game in the 24 games (38 – 14 clean sheets) to win. That’s 72 goals in 24 games. Chelsea won the league scoring 73 goals.

This isn’t a one off either. Rodgers’ reign at Liverpool has seen him mastermind 40 clean sheets spread over 3 seasons whilst conceding 141 goals. Removing clean sheets from the equation as I did above it works out that Liverpool under Rodgers concede 1.90 goals per game. The average amount of goals he concedes over a season is 47. The average amount of goals they score per season is grossly inflated with last season’s amount, however it works out at 74 goals scored per season.

*I hope you’re all still with me here. Next section has colours to brighten the mood a little*

Trends

I looked at the results this season to see if Liverpool had any ‘bogey’ styles. A style of play which teams use and it seems to beat Liverpool.

This was tricky, nailing down a style of play each Premier League side uses as it’s so open to interpretation. Not only that but with the nature of football and teams making in game changes their style changes frequently during games. I’ve done my best with a little help from friends in giving them a general style as to work off. If you don’t agree then that’s fine, don’t take my description as gospel.

The teams in red are those we’ve taken 0 points off this season – United, Arsenal and Palace. They all have similar styles in terms of being really direct – whether that be long ball or quick counters. Both Arsenal and United couple possession football with these direct transitions. Similarly, Palace are very quick in transition. Their team is full of pace and the majority of their players are direct. In the 6 games against these teams Liverpool have been turned over on the counter. With the exception of Stoke, these three sides are the only teams to really damage our defence and goal difference.  In the 6 games against them we scored 7 and conceded 17.

Green

The teams in green are those we’ve done the double over this season. Swansea, Southampton and Spurs have all had decent seasons yet we’ve managed to beat them both home and away. Interestingly, all three of these teams play a possession based game with slow transitions. Yes we were very lucky in some of these wins but ignoring that it seem teams who play a similar style to Rodgers’ ideology (possession based, slow transitions) don’t tend to beat us unless they have pace in their team (Arsenal and United). The other two teams here are QPR and Burnley, neither of which were comfortable wins as you’d expect but we got the job done.

Light Blue

The teams in light blue are those we’ve taken 4 points off.  Leicester, Sunderland and WBA. In my opinion these are teams we should be taking 6 points off. Leicester switched to a direct style towards the end of the season with a more attacking variation of a 343 that we played and had great success. Had they played that against us we may have struggled. They played a slower pace when we faced them with a more defensive tactic. Both Sunderland and WBA play a sit deep and counter tactic. They aren’t so good at the latter but they defend doggedly and make it difficult for teams to get in behind. These are the types of teams Liverpool struggle against as seen in goal scored against these sides. 3 in 4 games.

Yellow

Yellow are teams we’ve beaten once this season. It includes Villa, West Ham, Man City, Newcastle and Stoke. In the games we lost there was a theme in three of them. Man City, West Ham and Stoke were all very direct and counter attacking almost. The pace, power and direct nature blew us away and in the 3 games we lost against them we conceded 12 goals. Now again this touches upon the games we lost to Palace, Arsenal and United. A bit of power and pace and Liverpool struggle.

The other losses here are against Newcastle and Villa. Both were scrappy games decided by the single goal. Villa pretty much sat deep and we just couldn’t break them down and Newcastle were solid defensively (only time that’s been said all season).

Purple

These are sides we only took a point off. Chelsea and Hull. Opposite ends of the spectrum. League champions and a team that was relegated. Yet there are similarities in how they play. Both sit deep and try to absorb pressure. Both use their wings as an attacking outlet, both are a threat from set pieces and both try to counter. Obviously Chelsea are better at it but Liverpool struggled against both sides. Liverpool fell into the trap of dominating possession, losing the ball, getting countered and then losing a goal to a set piece that arrived from the counter attack. It’s a very much ‘break us down but watch us counter you’ ideology that we just couldn’t get to grips with. Hull got relegated and in our two games we scored 0 goals.

Everton is the outlier. We defended well, they defended well. Only 1 goal scored by both clubs and both were worldies in their own right. However Liverpool went into the Goodison game in a rich vein of form against an Everton side that’d only won 1 in 9. They sat deep and Liverpool really didn’t create anything other than a speculative Ibe strike.

 

Conclusion

This probably doesn’t shock many people. We always seem to struggle against sides that sit deep. We always seem to struggle against sides with pace but what surprised me is the fact we seemingly have a handle of teams that play in a similar style to us.

There are times bad luck and misfortune play a part in these games and you can’t really factor in that but there must be a way that Liverpool can stop the bleeding against these direct, pacey sides. As these seem to be our Achilles heel. The sides that really put our midfield and defence to the sword on a regular basis. Aggressively press our midfield and defence and it’s like the parting of the red sea.  I’ll say that word again. Defensive midfielder.

You can buy as many strikers with goals in them as you like but whilst the defence is still porous you’re fighting a losing battle. It’s also worth noting had we had attackers we probably wouldn’t have gone into safe mode (defensive 343) and we’d have been a little more open. We may have scored more goals but we may have conceded more goals.  There isn’t a simple fix but if Liverpool are serious about top 4 then another defensive shake up is necessary.

The Fall of the British Empire

CIty sbssports    chelsea espn

The myth that the Premier League is the best league in the world is fuelled by money and the media. This myth is beginning to be tested, with many starting to ask; is this fact or fiction? Both go hand in hand as the English sports channels try to convince the viewer that they’re getting to watch the most exciting, the most compelling and the most eagerly anticipated matches in the world on a weekly basis. Sky even renamed a day after these must watch games; Super Sunday. When in reality the likes of Hull vs Stoke should never be tagged as a Super Sunday, not when the likes of Juventus, Roma, Bayern Munich and Lyon could all be playing at the same time. This all began with the inception of the Premier League and Sky being able to broadcast games. They marketed the product and thousands, if not millions, jumped on it.

Money really does make the world go around in football. The new TV deal means Premier League clubs have more spending power than ever before, even the middle of the table clubs can potentially splash north of £20 million on a single player whilst around the world that option is only afforded to certain clubs whom can challenge for the Champions League. To me it’s as though the media companies know England is their cash cow and to keep people watching they’re effectively funding the clubs so they can bring the ‘stars’ of the world into the Premier League,  but you have to ask; just how true is this?

I have this image of a Roman wrestling arena; the cheering fans are those of the Premier League and calling the shots are the media. They nod their heads towards a gate and out comes a star their TV money has helped fund. They bask in the frenzy such a signing creates and give the fans more of the same. Players who come with a reputation. You’re buying a brand, not a name.

The Players

These so called big stars within the Premier League are all players the elite clubs have deemed not good enough for them anymore. The likes of Angel Di Maria, Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil were all at the best clubs in world football. All sold because those clubs found better players and all ended up in England because of the point alluded to earlier: the money. Had Juventus had the money for Alexis Sanchez it’s a safe bet he’d have gone back to Italy. Had PSG had the money for Di Maria he’d have probably ended up there and Ozil, well, not many people would’ve paid over £40 million for him in this day and age. Not with the scope of the flair players changing from luxury to team player. He was signed for star value.

If you look at the players who have been sold within the last few years and moved away from the Premier League you’d see the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Xabi Alonso, Luis Suarez, Thierry Henry and Gareth Bale to name but a few. All of these players were excelling at their respected clubs and yet a foreign club came along and signed them with relative ease. Yes, it was Barcelona and Madrid that came calling, but if you’re playing in the best league in the world why is it so easy for these clubs to cherry pick whatever and whomever they want?

You don’t see English clubs, even the likes of Chelsea and CIty backed by rich owners, going to the likes of Bayern, Barcelona and Madrid and having a pick of the players they desire. This leaves the Premier League short of actual world class stars. Even the likes of Lucas Moura and Javier Pastore shunned interest from England to sign for PSG. Isco decided to miss out the inevitable middle man in Man City by moving straight to Real Madrid even though he knew he wouldn’t play as often. They’ll get labelled as money grabbers but English clubs offer just as much, yet aren’t as appealing.

Clubs are thrusting good players into the limelight and the English media are backed with pushing these types of players as ‘World Class’. If you look at the squads of the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea how many would you consider to be world class? Granted it’s open to interpretation, but off the top of my head I’d say Sergio Aguero (earmarked by Real Madrid for years) Eden Hazard and David Silva fall in that category.That’s just my opinion though, but for all the money both teams have spent over the years you’d expect them to be riddled with stars?

Even more evidence of this was in the papers a few weeks back when a certain paper published an article saying the marquee signing for Liverpool this summer would be Alvaro Morata. A decent enough player, lots of potential, but a marquee? Never.

It’s this type of attitude which is meaning the standard in England is dropping. Gone are the days home grown players are kept out by real stars, now they’re missing out to media hyped stars. The English national team has never been prolific at producing quality youngsters but this dip in quality of the imported buys must surely be stunting the growth of certain players.

The League is faltering and the players know it.

In my opinion the Premier League was the best in the world for a short period, between 2005-2009 to be exact. The poster boys for that period were the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Thierry Henry, Didier Drogba, Dennis Bergkamp, Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres, Xabi Alonso, Carlos Tevez and Frank Lampard. All excelling within their respected clubs it made this time an exciting period to watch. These are the players who helped established the Premier League as the best, these are the foundations of the English Empire that invaded European competition. With every star leaving you’re replacing them with an inferior one, it was only a matter of time before the empire started to crumble.

During this spell England had a representative in the Champions League Final every season, with an English team winning it on two occasions. That spell of dominance in Europe showed that English clubs not only had the money, but they had the players and more importantly the managers to compete with Europe’s finest at the time.

Managers

Managers played a big part in building an English Empire in Europe, the likes of Rafa Benitez, Jose Mourinho, Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger had to be at their best week in and week out on a regular basis to challenge for the league and this was replicated on the European stage.

The rivalry for so long was Wenger against Ferguson, so the introduction of Rafa and Jose was a refreshing change. Jose knew how to win and when given a war chest at Chelsea he was bound to challenge for the title. Rafa on the other hand was a master tactician, knock out competitions were like a game of chess to him and he was a chess master. These two added to the mixing pot meant Ferguson and Wenger had to take it up a level so to not fall behind.

They built better squads, bought better players and this in turn meant the English Premier League took a more tactical twist.

You can’t help look back with envy at those days when you look at the standard these days.

Jose is of course back at Chelsea and has a squad many would envy, but the Portuguese manager is his own worst enemy.  He has players at his disposal that should mean Chelsea walk the league but instead he deploys them in a formation to not lose the game. There aren’t managers in the league that can tactically out think ‘The Special One’ like there used to be. He’s stuck in his ways and doesn’t have anybody good enough to make him second guess himself like how Ferguson and Rafa used to. His primary object, rightly or wrongly, is to defend, and because he does that so well he doesn’t often have to chase a game so in that sense whatever his offensive boundaries may be aren’t exploited. With the money spent and players within their squad there is no reason Chelsea should be getting knocked out of the Champions League to a ten man PSG side.

Wenger is still at Arsenal but his expectations are slightly different to what they used to be. Gone are the days of a title challenge, now their main aim seems to be finishing in the top 4. Even cup wins are considered a bonus. Arsenal have fallen behind, despite having a good enough squad to compete it’s as though they have a mental block and simply do the minimum of what’s expected from them. The Wenger of old wouldn’t have splurged so much in the transfer market, but the pressure of not winning a trophy for so long must have played a part when signing Mesut Ozil, dare I say it was done to appease fans? Despite such an outlay in terms of spending do they look any closer to winning the Champions League than they did years prior? The answer to that is no as they bowed out to a Monaco side that’s only 4th in Ligue .

Man City. The current Champions of England, employ a manager who isn’t tactically astute enough to have them competing in Europe and they seem to get by in the Premier League due to the players they have at their disposal. Manchester City, with all the money in the world, went after a manager whom was with Malaga at the time. With all the money why do they find it difficult to lure the best managers?

Then you have Louis Van Gaal at United, who spent an extraordinary amount on players and now has a team of individuals as opposed to a cohesive team. Despite this they’re still in with a chance of Champions League football next season. He certainly has the CV that many would envy, but is the task at United too big for even him?

Liverpool, Everton and Spurs all appointed managers with very little winning experience but all have potential. This season isn’t going very well for Martinez at Everton but the media was touting him as future Barcelona coach in the summer. Hyping up once again the allure of the Premier League.

“Europe’s elite want the manager of Everton, a team who couldn’t get into the top 4. Our league must be good!”

Brendan Rodgers excelled last season and has put together a superb run of form post Christmas with the innovative 3421 formation, and more recently the 343 diamond formation. A big moment in his career could be his first trophy, and if that’s sooner rather than later then Jose could finally have someone capable of testing him.

Like the players though, the Premier League is suffering from the quality of Managers. In years gone by the Premier League clubs had the pull to be able to appoint the manager of the current UEFA Cup holders, the manager of the then Champions League winners. Could you see Chelsea, City or United being able to convince the likes of Pep Guardiola, Diego Simeone or Carlo Ancelotti to leave their current clubs and manage them?

The tactical battles aren’t as fierce, the experience isn’t there and now to win the league you have to be the best of a bad bunch.

Not only that though, the media starting pushing the importance of finishing in the Top 4. This achievement gets you Champions League football and a handsome payday. This now takes precedent and the end goal of many teams. Anything higher than 4th is a bonus and if a cup run hinders your chance it’s not worthwhile. That is why the likes of the FA Cup has diminished appeal these days, and why the media give next to no coverage on the Europa League. Why would they give precedence to a competition that may belittle their ‘Race for the top 4’ promo’s and adverts?

Champions League Failures

liverpool independant arsenal

Clubs spend a whole season trying to finish in the top 4 for Champions League only to realise they aren’t equipped for it and bow out at the early stages these days.

Obviously the standard of player was mentioned earlier, as was the experience some managers don’t have. Liverpool for example showed why this season was probably a season too early in their plan for Champions League. That, coupled with the loss of both Suarez and Sturridge meant they bowed out in the group stages of Brendan Rodger’ maiden voyage in the competition.

Manuel Pellegrini have City going to the Nou Camp in a position of weakness due to poor tactics in the first leg of the game. An experienced manager who showed so much naivety it affectively knocked Man City out in that home leg when he played Yaya Toure in a midfield two. The player was coincidentally a big money signing from Barcelona.

Arsenal got taken apart by an average Monaco side it has to be said. The French league runners up are hardly prolific in Ligue 1 yet managed to scored 3 crucial away goals and once again Arsenal struggled to overcome the deficit and went out on away goals. This to a side who lost James Rodriguez and Falcao this summer whereas Arsenal strengthened their squad. They lost to a manager who masterminded Sporting Lisbon’s rise up the table once again in Portugal last season, finishing second. Many may consider it a poor league but he managed to break the Porto/Benfica hold on the league with his tactical innovations. Something Wenger hasn’t done for a while. You could argue Jardim had the hunger to succeed.

Chelsea, England’s best hope in the Champions League were knocked out by French Champions PSG, who played 90 minutes with 10 men. Despite the man advantage Chelsea played as though they had a man down and defended deeply, almost inviting PSG to attack them. Mourinho had them playing as ‘The Underdog’ when they were in fact strong favourites and PSG got what they deserved.

In all 4 instances it’s tactics and defences that let the English sides down and this is because the Premier League has such a poor standard of defences that when faced by decent opposition they crumble. In England many teams go to the big clubs and expect to lose so field a defensive line up when in reality every single team in the league has a poor defence and is beatable. You see it in the European leagues, yes you should respect your opponent but no matter how good they are they aren’t invincible.

Not only this, but English clubs and the English media seem to push the narrative that the Europa League is beneath them. It shouldn’t be. If they’re involved in the tournament they should use it as a chance to pit their wits against some of the best in Europe so they’re in a better position when they eventually get back into the Champions League. Thursday night football shouldn’t be frowned upon. Look at the talent left in that competition if you need evidence of that.

Atletico Madrid renowned for being superb defensively conceded 3 to Barcelona on two occasions. Barcelona conceded 3 to Real Madrid. Atletico Madrid hit 4 past Real Madrid and more recently Wolfsburg beat the great Bayern side 4-1. The Wolfsburg game was ran by Kevin De Bruyne, a player deemed not good enough by Jose Mourinho in his defensive minded side. Given the freedom to express himself he orchestrated and starred in a win against arguably the best side in Europe.

Jose Mourinho added fuel to the fire of a winter break recently by declaring English clubs are at a disadvantage because the majority of European clubs get a break. Is this just not an excuse, and a poor one at that? English clubs coped during their spell of dominance without a winter break, what’s changed?

You’ve also to remember why a winter break in England wouldn’t occur. It’s a money making period for the media with games being played on average every other day. Lose that schedule and the Premier League suddenly looks less more attractive to the likes of Sky and BT Sport.

Empires inevitably crumble, the challenge is rebuilding them.

England lived up the Sky billing for that brief spell but has since fallen. For that small window England conquered Europe and staved off plenty attacks from abroad. When you start losing stars to other leagues it’s as though you’re losing mini battles within a war. How is an Empire supposed to hold strong when the strongest members are weakened on a yearly basis.

The only difference between this decline and the decline of the Italian league, which was arguably the best league for a decade, is the fact TV companies continuously pump money into the English clubs. How long before that 4th Champions League spot is taken away from England though due to poor showings in Europe? If that were to happen could the media continue to promote England as the best around and continue to fund such lavish ways?

English clubs have are seen from a mile off. The new TV deals just make them even more of a target for foreign clubs. Instead of asking for £30 Million they know they can ask for £40 Million and prices will be continuously on the rise once the precedent is set. The true state of English football won’t be realised until media money is restricted and clubs can’t overspend like they have been,  only then will England be able to start to rebuild from the bottom up. When this happens, then is the prime time for English clubs to give English youngsters a proper chance. It’s paid dividends in the likes of Spain, Germany and France who aren’t reliant on the expensive foreign stars as much as the likes of England are.

Pictures:

Luis Suarez picture sourced from cbssports

Liverpool picture sourced from The Independant 

Chelsea picture sourced from ESPN

Arsenal picture sourced from Eurosport

The Myth about Goal Scoring Midfielders

gerrard

Goal scoring midfielders, a rare breed.

The stress of the modern game puts alot of emphasise on the midfield. Different roles within the midfield means the positions of certain players vary. One week a midfielder could be tasked with being a box to box, the next game he’s the man expected to shield the back four. Yet the media and fans ignore these subtle changes and judge midfielders on two things usually; assists and goals.

The chess like tactical battles are ignored when a midfielder fluffs a chance, it leads to fans and commentators to reminisce about players gone by who would’ve scored that, or at least they get a mention in passing.

“Scholes would’ve scored that”

“If that’s Gerrard then it’s a goal”

“Lampard would have a hattrick in this game”

For all their goals, just how prolific were they? What role did they have in their team and most importantly, how was the set up? Those are the questions that should be being asked when looking at these successful goal scoring midfielders.

Arturo Vidal is a complete midfielder, whether he’s tasked with anchoring the midfielder or being the box to box midfielder he excels. Despite his visible poor start to the 2014/2015 season he’s still managed to score 6 goals in 18 Serie A games, a goal every 3 games. That’s some record for the Chilean, and is a scoring rate he’s been at for 3 of the last 4 seasons.  He’s also hit double figures in the same amount of seasons, and this in a famously defensive league.

Why is he so productive? At Juventus plays within a 352 formation, meaning he is tasked with doing less defensive word and can afford to get into the box on a more regular basis because of the strong defensive set up behind him. The wing backs often put balls into the box and with Vidal backing up play he finishes off team moves. He has the knack of being in the right place at the right time, which is helped due to the fact he can finish with either foot. It is worth noting however the fact he also regularly takes penalties.

His club colleague Paul Pogba is quickly becoming the midfielder all clubs want. Like Vidal he can play a variety of midfield positions but he has the power Vidal sometimes lacks. The Frenchman, who left Manchester United for first team football set out to show the world why he deserved it from the off by scoring 5 in 27 during his first campaign at Juventus. He followed that up with 7 in 33 in the 2013/2014 season and in this current season he has 6 in 16, having scored 4 in the last 4. Many have called Pogba THE midfielder, not A midfielder,  and the 21 year old has a right to that accolade.

Comfortable on either foot, strong in the tackle, the close control of a playmaker and the positional awareness of someone far more experienced than him, it’s easy to see why world record fees are being mentioned in the same sentence as him. His talent is immeasurable, just look at his performance against Chievo. He nutmegged an onrushing player before lashing the ball home from 20 yards on his, weaker, left foot. His next chance was extraordinaire, Bergkamp like as makes a run into the air, deftly brings the ball down whilst in mid air before showing some great technique in getting a shot away, and all this with 4 Chievo players in close proximity.  As spoken about before, the Juventus number 6 has an almost impenetrable backline which affords him a little more freedom in attack, and with so much talent, that’s where you’d want him.

Michael Ballack, famed for his goal scoring exploits during his time in Germany, for Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern, averaged 1 goal every 4 games for his career. In both teams the onus wasn’t on him to primarily defend and he was allowed to join attacks from deep, he timed the late run and header to perfection.

Paul Scholes, a stalwart in the Man United midfield and renown for his goals, like Ballack, averaged 1 in 4. It is an interesting stat that he only scored more than 10 Premier League goals on two occasions, and both happened to be in the seasons that Roy Keane stayed injury free. This one of the greatest Premier League goalscoring midfielders of all time and 10 goals a season was a success.

Steven Gerrard has over 100 Premier League goals, for many young midfielders he is an idol. His driving runs into the box finished off with unerring accuracy are eclipsed due to his many, many goals from outside of the box. Yet throughout his illustrious career he has only hit double figures in the Premier League on 4 occasions, last season being one of them when he scored an absurd amount of penalties. He too averages 1 in 4, and didn’t really start to flourish offensively until he was pushed further up, to the right side of a 4231 during the first season of Rafa Benitez, when the pairing of Xabi Alonso and Didi Hamann meant Gerrard had less defensive jobs to do.

Frank Lampard. The ultimate goalscoring midfielder in the modern game. During his 13 seasons at Chelsea he managed to hit double figures in the league an amazing 10 times. However, once again it is worth noting he takes penalties, and he didn’t has his first big goalscoring season until Chelsea signed Claude Makelele. The security of such a specialist defensive midfielder meant Lampard was safe in the knowledge he could make those late runs into the box as and when he wanted as though it was a luxury. The man averaged 1 goal ever 3 games, a ratio many strikers would be proud of, and he’s continued this streak since joining Man City. Being used more so as an attacking midfielder, or at times a false 9 he has scored 5 in 17 games.

Kevin Nolan and Yaya Toure, not often used within the same sentence but both deserve an honourable mention. Commentators and fakes alike use these two players as examples of goal scoring midfielders, yet their goals to game ratio, on average, is 1 in 7 throughout their career. So that’s 5/6 goals per season, there or thereabouts. Yaya Toure obviously had his first 20 goal season in the 2013/2014 season when he was afforded the luxury of being able to get forward and influence the game now Manchester City had signed Fernandinho.

If that’s what it takes to be considered a goal scoring midfielder in the modern game, just how far off are England’s three current midfielders; Jordan Henderson, Jack Wilshere and Fabian Delph.

Jack Wilshere, part of Arsenal’s talented midfield has played various roles during his spells inbtween injuries. From anchorman, to box to box, to even as an attacking wide midfielder. During this various roles he has made 109 Premier League appearances and scored 6 goals. That’s a ratio of one every 18 games meaning Wilshere is currently on for 2 goals a season. This, in a free scoring Arsenal side in which his midfielder partner, Aaron Ramsey, a man thought to be inferior to Jack until recently, has scored 3 in 15 this season so far, and 10 in 23 last season. Whereas the Welshman takes his chances in the area, gambles and gets amongst the goals with selfish finishing, the Englishman looks to pass the chances off. Injuries have of course interrupted the careers of both, but for all the nice touches Wilshere may do during a game, he doesn’t get the assists or goals of a player in his position should.

Next up we look at Fabian Delph. Having recently signed a new deal at Aston Villa it looks as though he may be core to their team and the development for the near future. Many injuries have plagued his career, and at 25 he has only made 78 appearances for Villa. In those 78 games he has scored on 3 occasions, that’s 1 goals every 25 games on average. This of course in a struggling Villa side that find it hard to score and create. Having said that, for a midfielder, not even a defensive midfielder, to score on goal a season and still be considered international quality goes to show how standards are slipping.

The captain in waiting at Liverpool, Jordan Henderson. During his time at Liverpool he’s played various positions which may have hampered his ability to score goals, that may be why the Teeside native averages 1 goal every 9 games. Take into account who he is partnering on many occasions and it’s safe to say goals would be the last thing on his mind, he is in there primarily to do the leg work and chip in with assists. Liverpool will be looking at him to add that attribute to his game though when Steven Gerrard leaves, and there are already signs he is looking to do that. The late runs into the box are very reminiscent of Frank Lampard, but his finishing is more on par with Frank Skinner. In Liverpool’s defeat to Chelsea in the Capital One cup semi final, Henderson had a great chance to equalise in extra time and he headed his opportunity well wide.

In the game geared towards getting the best out of attacking players it is easy to see why midfielders are scoring less and less these days, but the public perception hasn’t changed on what’s wanted. Fans and media want 30 goal a season strikers and 15 goal a season midfielders which won’t be the case. With so many attacking talents on show it’s easy to forget what may go through a midfielders mind when they have a chance to shoot or square it. If they shoot and miss you see the strikers have a tantrum about being ignored. If they pass instead they’re highlighted as being indecisive in front of goal and lambasted for not being the new Lampard. Goals rule games, and because of this narrative a balanced view is conceded by many. This is why coaches need to let their midfielders know they aren’t expected to hit double figures, obviously you’d push them to be their best but if those double figure targets can be a stress that shows when they’re playing.

The Importance of a sniper.

pjannic

The link to Miralem Pjanic is a welcomed one. No doubt it’s just a rumour but to be linked to someone of that quality is refreshing. I’m not convinced the numbers being quoted are that accurate, they seem steep but what’d you expect when the story is made up.

However, there is sense in making a move for Pjanic, and not just in the obvious way. He’s undoubtedly in close proximity to being in the top tier of European midfielders. One of his strengths is his ability to shoot from long distance, this is something the Liverpool squad currently has a lack of.

Liverpool currently average 16 shots per game, of these 16 shots 5.2 of them are on target. A big factor in this average of 1 shot hitting the target every 3 is the fact Liverpool take an astonishing 49% of their shots from outside of the area. To add some context to this, Liverpool are ranked third in Europe for most shots this season with 398, behind only Real Madrid and Manchester CIty. Yet for shots outside of the area The Reds are ranked third behind, 2 shots behind Fiorentina and 1 behind Spurs.

Of course the perception of Mario Balotelli is he shoots from distance and wastes possession, but he hasn’t played in that many games and the number is still so high. Why such a high percentage of shots without a long distance shooter within their ranks? Could frustration play a part in all? Teams have been coming to Anfield and defending deep which in turn means Liverpool are forced to play in front of them. They then get frustrated and “buy a raffle ticket” as the commentators like to say. Sometimes it’s wiser to keep your money in your pocket and not buy a ticket.

This theory is backed up when you isolate League home games Liverpool have had the most shots in Europe with 236, 116 of those shots have been from outside of the area. From these 116 shots Liverpool have scored 3 goals, that’s a poor return for the amount of shots effectively wasted.

Then when you look at away stats you find Liverpool have had 162 shots, 68 of which have been from outside of the area with a return of 0 goals. There is a decrease in the percentage of shots taken from distance compared to how many shots are taken, but that’s still fairly high and when you consider Liverpool have scored 0 goals from outside the area away from home it’s a woeful sign. Especially when you’re away you supposedly get more freedom when attacking.

Opposing teams can sit back, defend deep, and know Liverpool will eventually get frustrated and have a shot from distance. Wasting the good play that comes before the shot. With a little more patience, or a play that has the long range shooting ability, it could well be a game changer for The Reds.

Last season Liverpool had a certain Mr Suarez who had the ability to shoot from distance, it certainly gave the opposition something to consider which afforded Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling some freedom in the area. Teams started to second guess what the mercurial Uruguayan would do, it was pointless as they couldn’t stop him, but his long distance shooting was a string to his bow.

You also have to take into consideration how poor Liverpool were in the opening few months of the season,  and of course the fact their main striker has been injured for large parts. They even went through a spell of playing with a false 9 so shots from distance were inevitable, no bodies in the box meant players were taking pop shots without any commitment.

This is why a link to Pjanic is a positive. He’d be a great addition to the side and would certainly help with the shooting from distance conundrum we currently have. Another player to look at would be Jordy Clasie. Both players would fit snug into the Liverpool set up, brilliantly proactive on the ball but both have strengths our current midfield don’t have. Current being the key word, because as soon as Emre Can is pushed into midfield they have a threat from distance. Either footed, he showed his talent against Bolton with a rasping left footed drive from distance that rattled the bar. This a few months after he scored against Chelsea with a right footed shot from distance.

There are plenty of talented midfielders in world football, but not many have the ability to shoot from distance to such devastating effect.  Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard are both coming to the end of their careers. Juventus seem to stockpile those players with the likes of Vidal, Pirlo, Marchisio and Pogba. The successor to Emre Can at Leverkusen, Hakan Calhanoglu, is one of the best from 40 yards to name but a few.

As mentioned above, Juventus have an abundance of these types of players. 45% of their shots come from outside of the area, of their 17 shots per game 7.7 of them come from outside of the box. Not too dissimilar to Liverpool, but they’ve scored 14 goals from outside of the area this season. That’s the difference in class that those type of players can bring to your team.

With such slim pickings Liverpool should act swiftly to improve this aspect of the team. Not only will their midfield benefit, but the attacking players will be able to make more of the space created for them when midfielders/defenders push to close down the talented long distance striker.