Monday, 26 September 2011

Stewart Downing: The First Six Games

Stewart Downing came to Liverpool with many fans feeling that we had settled for second best after United had signed Ashley Young. Some even intimated that, in replacing Downing with N’Zogbia, Villa had improved their first team for a fraction of the price. Dalglish has always insisted that Downing was his first choice, and a look at his first six games for Liverpool helps to show why this was the case.
Downing made his debut against Sunderland on the opening game of the season. He played the first half on the left. A look at his heat map from the first half shows that he was regularly getting down the wing to the touchline, where he is at his most dangerous:

He played many penetrating balls into the danger area in the first half and linked up well with Enrique down the left hand side.
A turning point for his performance was when he switched to the right for one move in the first half, cutting inside in the 33rd minute and sending a thundering drive onto the crossbar. Had this move led to the debut goal his effort deserved, Liverpool would have gone in at half time 2-0 up, well on the way to a comfortable win.
This one successful move led to an experiment, with Downing playing on the right for the rest of the game. From this side of the pitch, he was much less effective, getting less of the ball and failing to make as many penetrating runs to the touchline. His second half heat map shows this clearly:

Against Arsenal, this experiment of switching Downing to the right continued. It was an extremely positive performance by him, with 55% of his possession taking place in Arsenal’s final third. His heat map shows that he spent almost as much time on the right hand side as he did on the left.

Henderson was again much more effective down the left hand side, and his partnership with fellow new boy Jose Enrique continued to flourish. Arsenal’s young full back, Jenkinson, was left chasing shadows as the two passed the ball around him down the left flank:

The partnership between Downing and Enrique has been one of the highlights of the season so far. Both players are naturally left footed, very attack minded and they both possess the ability to pass and move quickly and accurately. Much of our good work so far this season has come from their link up play.
The importance of playing Downing on the left hand side is evident when looking at the heat map for the away defeat against Stoke. For the first time, he actually played more of the match on the right than he did on the left:

His partnership with Martin Skrtel did not bear fruit. Skrtel does not have Enrique’s ability to drive into the final third on the overlap, and Downing does not have the ability with his right foot to get penetrating crosses into the box. This led to a situation where the interplay between Skrtel and Downing was completely ineffective. It personified the performance: Liverpool dominated possession but could not find a way through the Stoke defence.
The Tottenham game again exposed Downing’s ineffectiveness on the right, although he is in no way to blame for the 4-0 defeat.
Based on the heat map in his sixth game against Wolves, the experiment of “Downing on the Right” is over:

For the first time this season, Downing did not get a touch of the ball on the right hand side of the pitch. He spent an astonishing 60% of his time in the left hand corner of Wolves’ half, where he is at his most dangerous. At times, he and Enrique were playing keep ball down the left so effectively that even their Liverpool team mates must have felt left out. The following chalkboard shows just how well this partnership is developing:

Looking at the above chalkboard in more detail, it is also clear that Suarez and Carroll were benefiting from Downing’s dominance down the left, with each of them collecting the ball from him on the edge of the six yard box twice. Given the finishing ability of both strikers, if Downing is able to provide an average of four balls into this area each game we are in for some very high score lines.
Overall, Downing’s start to the season has been very consistent. The highlight has been the partnership with Enrique whilst the low light has been the largely unsuccessful experiment down the right. He has been a great asset to the team and is an early contender to be runner-up to Suarez for player of the season.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Jamie Carragher: Certain Starter?

At the age of 33, time is against Jamie Carragher. This season more than ever, his status as a first choice starter is under intense scrutiny. Big questions are starting to be asked openly by Liverpool fans about whether Carragher still warrants a place in Liverpool’s First XI. So, why are the murmurings of discontent growing louder by the week?
One part of his game that is heavily under the microscope is his passing. Indeed, season on season, Carragher’s pass success rate for Liverpool is dropping at an alarming rate. In 2008/9 it was 84.1%, in 2009/10 it dropped to 76.5% and last season it fell again to 72.4%. These stats show clearly why the criticism of his passing game has intensified in recent years.
This season is no different. A quick scan over his passing chalkboards clearly highlights an issue:

Carragher’s overall pass success rate this season is 80%, about average for the Liverpool team, but his long ball statistics tell a different story. Carragher has been responsible for 41 of Liverpool’s 180 long passes this season. Of these, only 17 have found their intended target, a 41% success rate. To put this into context, Daniel Agger has only attempted 15 long passes, with an impressive 66% success rate. The only Liverpool player who has played more long passes than Carragher is Jose Reina, who has a 53% success rate from his 54 long passes.
Passing is therefore a weakness in Carragher’s game, and in chronic decline.
Pace & Defensive Frailties
Carragher has always been slow, but with age he has slowed even more. Liverpool’s line is getting deeper and deeper to make up for this lack of pace and this invites the opposition forward. For most of this season, our attacking play has disguised this issue. However, against teams like Manchester United and Manchester City we risk being left seriously exposed.
There have been two key warning signs already this season. Against Bolton, Carragher’s howler in the penalty area resulted in their consolation goal. At the time it was lost within the glory of our 3-1 win. His mistake against Stoke, however, cost us the game. Carragher was unable to respond to Walters’ turn of pace in the penalty area and an arm across the chest was enough to gift Stoke a penalty. Walters went down very easily, but Carragher’s defensive lapse gifted him the opportunity to do so.
2 of the 3 league goals conceded by Liverpool this season have been caused by a defensive lapse by Carragher. However, his organisational and leadership qualities are amongst the best in the league. Also in his favour is the fact that Skrtel has his own defensive frailties whilst Coates’ is young and inexperienced.
Had we signed Dann, Cahill or Phil Jones in the summer, Carragher’s place in the first team would be in greater jeopardy than it already is. As it stands, he is holding on to a starting place by the skin of his teeth.

Friday, 9 September 2011

In Bed With The Ultras: FSG’s Stealth Raid on Italy

The recent purchase of AS Roma by a Boston based investment group did not set the back pages on fire. The deal was reported in the business pages, with the main focus being on Roma becoming the first Italian club to fall into foreign hands. The newsworthy element of the deal for Liverpool FC is that the consortium’s leader, Thomas DiBenedetto, represents 1/13th of Fenway Sports Group.

Thomas DiBenedetto, Co-Owner of the Boston Red Sox

DiBenedetto bought the club using a separate investment company, “DiBenedetto AS Roma LLC”. There cannot be a direct link between FSG and Roma due to strict ownership rules preventing groups from controlling more than one club participating in a UEFA competition. It is safe to assume, however, that the new relationship between the boardrooms could hardly be closer.
It is both ironic and intriguing that the two football clubs who contested the European Cup Final in 1984 are now so closely tied, especially given the violence of the past three decades. The final in Rome is nostalgically remembered for Bruce Grobbelaar’s antics on the goal line, but many of the fans who were there have far more disturbing memories.
Following Liverpool’s win, large gangs of Roma’s “Ultrà Curva Sud” roamed the streets looking for victims to exert their revenge on. The Ultras showed no mercy, targeting families and children. A 13 year old boy was attacked with a machete and required over 200 stitches. Dozens of English fans were stabbed and the police were heavily criticised for offering no protection. It can be argued that the events in Rome acted as a catalyst for what happened at Heysel the following year.
The violence did not end there. In early 2001 Liverpool played Roma in a UEFA cup match and 14 fans were stabbed. Later that year the two clubs met in the Champions League and a further 5 Liverpool fans were stabbed. Over the next few years, fans of Real Madrid, Middlesbrough, Man United and Arsenal all visited Rome and experienced the gratuitous violence of the Ultras.

The Ultrà Curva Sud are massively influential. During the 2004 derby with Lazio, 3 leaders of the group walked onto the pitch, approached Francesco Totti and threatened to kill him if the game continued. Totti spoke to the referee and the game was abandoned. Soon after, the stadium was set on fire and a huge riot erupted outside.
These events do not show up on balance sheets or annual reports, but they are major issues that DiBenedetto will face as he attempts to return the club to its former glory.
It will be interesting to see how the business relationship with Liverpool develops, but one thing is for sure: However close the two clubs become at boardroom level, the relationship between the fans is broken beyond repair.
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