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Tuesday, 27 August 2013

A Tactical Analysis of Manchester United vs. Chelsea

The much-anticipated clash between Chelsea and Manchester United at Old Trafford last night signaled the return of big match football to the Premier League this season. Jose Mourinho arrived with a three-point lead in the table courtesy of a narrow victory over Villa in mid-week and the psychological advantage of never having lost to David Moyes in his previous stint with Chelsea. Moyes had seen his side get off to the best possible start at Swansea on the opening day of the season and was hoping to follow that up with a win in his first competitive game in charge at Old Trafford.

Chelsea set up in the same shape as they did against Hull and Villa in a narrow 4-2-3-1 formation with Oscar, Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne hoping to support surprise selection, Andre Schurrle, up front. In their earlier game against Hull, Chelsea moved the ball brilliantly between their front four, with the interplay between Hazard, Oscar and de Bruyne a particular highlight. The intelligence in their movement between the Hull midfield and defense and their ability to find space in such a congested area was excellent, highlighted by Chelsea’s particularly well-worked first goal.

The starting positions of the two sides. Oscar and Rooney are the only two players without a natural marker and it is no surprise that they had the most influence on the game.

This area ‘between the lines’ is certainly an area that Chelsea would look to target in any game given their strength in that position.[1] However, having watched United’s display against Swansea, it was speculated that Chelsea would have specifically targeted this area as one to exploit. Despite the excellent 4-1 score line, United owed their good result more to the quality of their finishing than their defense. Time and again United were undone by Swansea with Michu, Wayne Routledge and Nathan Dyer repeatedly finding space in behind Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverly in midfield. With Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic unsure whether to step out and close Swansea down, Swansea were able to create some quality goal scoring opportunities.

If Hazard doesn't cover Jones, it leaves Valencia and Jones
two on one vs. Cole. Ditto on the other side.
By contrast United would attempt to exploit Chelsea’s lack of natural width. All of Chelsea’s wide players like to drift inside with the ball and United were hoping to exploit this tendency by getting the ball wide as quickly as possible. If Hazard or de Bruyne were to shirk his defensive responsibilities then United would be able to use their overlapping fullbacks to double up out wide on the exposed Ivanovic and Cole to create crossing opportunities for United’s potent strike force of Rooney and Van Persie to exploit.

Utd squeeze the play with their two banks of 4, not allowing Chelsea to
play between them. Chelsea respond by trying to play Schurrle in behind
their high line.
The game got off to a hectic start with little pattern to the play to begin with and few of the creative players able to get onto the ball. Slowly however a few things did begin to emerge. Chelsea knew that, to compensate for their weakness between the lines, United would try to keep the gap between them to a minimum by playing a high defensive line. 4 or 5 times in this early period Chelsea attempted to exploit United’s high defensive line by attempting long through balls for Schurrle to run on to. These passes were mostly unsuccessful however, well read and covered by the excellent Vidic and Ferdinand, culminating in Chelsea surrendering possession too easily in the early stages. United’s own attacking efforts in the wide areas were thwarted by the high energy and work rate displayed by Hazard and de Bruyne in the early stages.

With the wide players on both sides under strict instructions, on and off the ball, the only players on either side with any tactical flexibility were Oscar and Rooney. Oscar was to be found all over Chelsea’s midfield, sometimes dropping deeper than Lampard and Ramires to pick up the ball and at other times playing up along side Schurrle in attack. It was no surprise then that the first real chance of the game fell to Oscar after 20 minutes but his shot skewed wide. 

By staying wide in attack it allows the midfield pairing of Carrick and
Cleverly to play the ball into the feet of the strikers.
After 25 minutes of the game United’s width began to create dividends up front. By keeping their wingers wide, Chelsea’s fullbacks were unable to cover their centre halves allowing United to isolate Rooney and van Persie one-on-one with Cahill and Terry. As the half went on Cleverly and Carrick began to feed the ball into the strikers’ feet, giving them the chance to create opportunities. First Rooney spun Cahill but couldn’t generate much power on his shot, then a flick round the corner nearly put Van Persie through. When Chelsea did narrow their defense to prevent the pass into the strikers, United moved the ball wide and Cleverly fired over following a headed clearance from Terry. 

On the counter Chelsea were still dangerous. Stealing the ball in midfield, Oscar was able to set up de Bruyne to cross and after a blocked clearance it fell kindly to Oscar but De Gea comfortably saved his snap shot.

After half time the game opened up a fraction as the players tired but chances were still extremely rare. United were beginning to make most of the running with Chelsea happy to sit back on the counter, hoping to pounce on a mistake. Welbeck began to cut inside, rotating positions with Van Persie and Rooney with good effect, eventually working a couple of wasted shooting chances. 

Schurrle catches Evra too high up the field but can't take
advantage as he is called offside.
Schurrle had been ineffective for much of the game, partially due to a lack of striker’s instinct, but mostly because of the excellent work of Ferdinand and Vidic. When Schurrle drifted wide into his more natural right-sided berth it almost gave Chelsea their best moment of the match. Schurrle snuck in behind the unaware Evra and fired against the bar but the play was brought back for offside.

Both teams changed personnel throughout the half in an effort to trigger a moment of inspiration but neither side was willing risk changing tactically to go after the win. The late introduction of Torres did give Chelsea more of a target up front than Schurrle had, allowing Chelsea to start their attacks from higher up the pitch but overall little was to change tactically for the remainder of the game. Interestingly most of the substitutions came in the wide areas highlighting the high work rate required for the tactical discipline demanded by the managers (de Bruyne, Hazard, Welbeck and Valencia were all substituted). 

Rooney continued to be the heart and soul of United’s performance, an incredible effort given the speculation about his future. A particular highlight was his track back and tackle on Ramires down by his own corner flag, followed by a fantastic outlet pass to Van Persie to change defense into attack. However despite this, and despite a number of long-range efforts that only mildly troubled Cech, Rooney was unable to provide the moment of magic this game needed to spark a goal.

In summary both sides played a conservative game based on tactical rigidity, hoping to exploit the frailty of the opponent without exposing their own. Neither manager picked a negative lineup with plenty of attacking talent on display but there was too much respect between both sides for either side to risk throwing caution to the wind. United were perhaps the more adventurous but in truth there was little to choose between the two sides. By the end both sides were happy to settle for a point, unwilling to lose to such a close rival at this early stage of the season. John Terry, man of the match as voted for by Sky, expressed as much in the post match interview.

This stalemate was in truth to be expected with Mourinho and Moyes at the helm. Though Moyes likes to play attacking football, it was always highly unlikely that he would gamble and risk losing his first home game in charge. By contrast Mourinho has always been a defensive coach, preferring to operate from a strong defensive base initially to ensure that his sides don’t lose before trying to engineer a win. You didn’t think that just because Mourinho is the league’s most entertaining manager that his teams played the most entertaining football did you?  

[1] New signing Willian, Juan Mata and Schurrle all prefer to play in-between the lines as well creating somewhat of a logjam at the position leading to speculation that Mata, 2 time Chelsea player of the year, may be moved on to fund the signing of a striker to Jose’s liking. It was certainly a damning indictment of Chelsea’s striking options that Jose chose to pick Schurrle, a natural winger, over more established striking options (Torres, Ba and Lukaku) for the biggest game of this young season.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Can the Newly Promoted Teams Stay Up?

After a tough opening weekend for the promoted teams, can any of them survive this season or is their goose well and truly cooked?

First a quick recap. On Saturday afternoon Cardiff were the first promoted side offered up at the Premier League’s feast of football. A comfortable starter for West Ham, Cardiff were (welsh) lambs to the slaughter. A rejuvenated Joe Cole opened the scoring with a quality low finish on the turn and an excellent team goal saw Kevin Nolan double their lead. Cardiff ended up easily stuffed, two goals to nil.

Great work from the Palace faithful. Lets just hope no-one's
foot gets sawn off in a trade off to save
 Palace from relegation...
Unfortunately for the promoted sides their plight was to get worse as the main meal was yet to come. First Crystal Palace, then Hull City were spit roasted for Sunday lunch by London’s big boys (I am purely using cooking terminology here, not implying that there were any extra curricular activities after the game…). Palace were egged on by a partisan crowd whipped into Saw style frenzy by their return to the Premiership. Scrambled by the pace and trickery of Lennon and Chadli and the movement of the supreme poacher, Roberto Soldado, Palace were eventually beaten into submission by a dodgy penalty leaving manager Ian Holloway to stew in his mildly unhinged juices. 

This was followed by the main event at Stamford Bridge, Jose Mourinho’s return to Chelsea. The sacrificial bull at the Bridge was the hefty Steve Bruce and his tiger striped Hull side. Blitzed early on into surrendering a two goal deficit by the excellent movement and interplay of Chelsea’s midfield, Hull were slow cooked for the rest of the game as Chelsea allowed their intensity and pressing to dissipate, sparing themselves the energy. The feast was done, each promoted side offered up to the slaughter with barely a whimper in response. All in all it was a horrible return for the promoted sides as they crumbled in the pressure cooker of the Premier League but do any of them have what it takes to stay up?
A casual afternoon's work and a sweet return for Jose. 

One of the major downsides of watching large amounts of football is listening to lowest common denominator punditry. They either state the obvious (what else are pundits for?!?) or spout popular wisdom that is mostly either wrong or chronically out of date. As most pundits are ex-players from an era before sport science and technology it is very rare that any of them actually do any analysis at all based on statistics of any kind. Sky’s coverage of ‘Soccer Sunday’ was fronted by two such ‘veteran pundits’ in the form of Graeme Souness and Glen Hoddle. Both agreed that the main key to survival for promoted sides is scoring plenty of goals. Both thoughtfully pointed out, with the insight of a blind Andy Townsend, that none of the promoted teams have ‘goals in the team.’ Effective translation, “I have never seen any of theses guys play so couldn’t tell you if they are any good.” The perceived wisdom, repeated every season by inane talking heads, is that if you have goal scorers in the team you will stay up. The problem here is that the perceived wisdom is a load of bollocks.

Since the 2002-03 season 30 teams have been promoted. All of those teams, barring possibly Newcastle in 2010-11, were tipped to go straight back down.  Though this is considered a safe bet for pundits willing to do little to no analysis, a basic glance at the figures will tell you that only 13/30 have gone straight back down, a rather small percentage given the regularity with which they are backed to fail. Statistically, as only 43% of teams of teams are relegated the season after they are promoted, only one or two of the three clubs should go back down. What then is the most reliable indicator of success in the Premier League?

If you take a look back at the results of the newly promoted teams over the last 10 years in their first season in the top flight it becomes very clear that simply scoring plenty of goals, contrary to Hoddle and Souness’ speculation, is not the most important element to staying in the top flight. An excellent example of this is Blackpool’s campaign for survival under Ian Holloway in 2010-11. Blackpool scored a barnstorming 55 goals in that season, a total that made them the 8= highest scorers in the premiership tied with Spurs who finished fifth. Despite their goal scoring exploits, their gung ho attitude going forward led to holes at the back large enough that you could fit Holloway’s ego through (though only just). This chronic defending left them with a goal difference of -23 and got them relegated.

Similarly, Southampton scored a total of 49 goals last season, ending up in 14th. The Saints scored 14 goals in their opening 9 fixtures, roughly 33% of their total goals in just 23% of their games. `You would suspect this was a profitable period of the season for them if you followed the logic that merely scoring plenty of goals will keep you up. Instead this fruitful period in front of goal yielded a mere 4 points in total and a goal difference of -12. The Saints finally got their act together defensively with the return of Jack Cork from injury and the introduction of Luke Shaw, allowing them to record a goal difference of 1 for the remaining 28 games. It wasn’t scoring goals that Southampton and Blackpool found difficult, it was preventing them. The difference was that Southampton solved their defensive problems and Blackpool didn’t.

The numbers back up this anecdotal evidence. Promoted teams that were relegated in their first season in the last 10 years scored an average of 38.31 goals per season. Sides that have stayed up, as you would expect, have scored an average of 44.71 goals per season, an increase of 17%. While this is a fair increase, it pales into significance when measured against the goals conceded per season. Teams that stayed up conceded a respectable average of 50.35 goals per season whereas teams that were relegated conceded a whopping 70.38 goals per season, an increase of 40%. It is clear then that a solid defense rather than a potent attack is a far better indicator of Premier League survival. With that in mind, whilst not forgetting to point out any other indicators, let us look at this season’s candidates.

A. Cardiff changed their shirt colour from blue to red.
B. Their nickname is still the bluebirds.
C. These two things are incongruous.
Cardiff have wisely added the talented young centre back Steven Caulker from Spurs for a club record £8m.[1] This should help to improve a largely inexperienced (in premier league terms) back line. As noted with Southampton previously, it can take a number of games for players to get up to speed in the Premier League if they have not experienced its intensity and quality before. Luckily for Mackay, Cardiff do have the raw materials to field a decent Premiership defense. Cardiff defended well in the Championship last season, conceding 45 goals in 46 games, a total that left them 2nd overall in goals conceded. This previous defensive solidity bodes well for this season and their playing style may help them too.

Stylistically Cardiff will be looking to follow in the footsteps of their archrivals, Swansea. Swansea’s attractive short passing and possession based style has won many plaudits, and more importantly, points in the last two years and Cardiff seem to be looking to replicate that. As my father always used to say to me, if your team has the ball the other team can’t score. Cardiff will be hoping to alleviate the general lack of premier league experience in their squad through keeping as much possession as they can, in the hope that this will prevent the build up of too much defensive pressure. Despite the score line, to some extent this worked against West Ham with Cardiff keeping hold of 56% of possession, an excellent figure away from home. (One major caveat here would be that West Ham’s rather direct playing style means that they concede possession far more regularly than most sides in the Premier League, suggesting that the figure of 56% may not be sustainable.)

One problem for Cardiff when you look at last season in the Championship is the lack of Premier League experience. Only Caulker and the aging Craig Bellamy have played significant games in the Premiership, a problem that will be difficult to overcome. Coupled with a difficult opening fixture list, this may signal a tough start for Malky Mackay’s men. Winning is a habit and Cardiff won a great deal last year as they cantered to the Championsheep. If they can take their lumps early and learn from them, there is no reason the drop cannot be avoided, but if morale nosedives and their lack of experience cannot be overcome then they could be in trouble. On balance, in a rarebit of positivity, I think Cardiff will succeed in staying up.

Hull are the hardest of the three to read. Of the three promoted managers,  Bruce has by far the most Premiership experience as a manager having taken charge of nearly 450 games in previous stints managed at Birmingham, Wigan and Sunderland. Bruce will not have been expecting to get anything away at Chelsea but the ease with which they were shredded in the first half will have worried him. (It must be noted that better teams than Hull would have been taken apart by Chelsea’s opening salvo. The 2-0 final score belies the utter dominance Chelsea showed in this game.) Bruce will have to use all his experience and contacts in the league to keep Hull up this season.

Hull finished last season with the fourth best defensive record in the Championship but with a goal difference of only +9. This goal difference was the worst in the top 6 with goal scoring an obvious issue. Unusually Hull did not have a single player that surpassed 10 goals in the season with their highest scorer being Captain Robert Koren from midfield with 9. Hull compensated for this weakness with a stout defense and a competitive spirit in tight games where they were able to grind out positive results. This spirit may be vital to Hull this season, as it will help them stay in games and allow a chance of stealing some unlikely points.

One major positive is that, of the three promoted sides, Hull have the most experienced defense. Paul McShane, Liam Rosenior, Ahmed Elmohamady and Abdoulaye Faye have all got Premier League experience and this will very important in keeping solid at the back. If they can establish some defensive solidity, (a regular feature of Bruce’s sides, especially at Birmingham), it may allow Hull to grind their way to safety. 

Can Huddlestone keep Hull up? Fro sure...
Bruce may have designs on something more expansive than grinding though. Bruce has made some interesting signings to help his side in midfield with Jake Livermore (on loan) and the cultured Tom Huddlestone both signed from Spurs. Danny Graham has been brought in up front to provide the goals and Bruce will hope that he can return to the form he showed at Swansea rather than the anemic performances he displayed at Sunderland. Sone Aluko, brother of England Women’s Eni Aluko, looks to be a lively winger and George Boyd has been destroying lower league defenses for years. If Bruce can mould these players into a side capable of scoring 40 goals and the defense can keep things tight then Hull have a chance of staying up.

For Crystal Palace however the prognosis is much bleaker. Defensively Palace were a shambles at times last season conceding 62 goals, the highest in the top 11 teams. Little has changed since then with Danny Gabbidon, hardly a world-beater in his time in the Premiership with West Ham and QPR the only member of the back four with any premiership experience at all. It would be very difficult to see Palace showing much improvement this year without a massive commitment to their defensive responsibilities, something unlikely for a Holloway managed side. To give credit where it is due, Palace were defensively stout against a talented Spurs side but they invited pressure on themselves, as they were unable to hold onto the ball for any kind of extended period. Spurs will make mugs of much better teams than Palace this season but what was worrying for the Eagles was how uncomfortable on the ball they looked, only managing a 41.7% share of possession.

In typical Holloway style, Palace relied on their goals to fire them into the Premiership scoring 73, the highest total in the Championship. However much of that firepower is now unavailable to Holloway with top goal scorer Glenn Murray out with a long-term injury and Wilfried Zaha sold to Manchester United. This really showed on Sunday as, despite playing at home, they struggled to penetrate Spurs defense or even hold the ball for an extended period. In replacement for Zaha and Murray, Palace have signed the inexperienced Dwight Gale, a raw talent who was playing non-league football last year. It will be a massive ask for Gayle to be expected to carry the weight of the goal-scoring burden this season.

A further problem is that Palace are playing a 4-3-3 with the three central midfielders all specializing in breaking up play. Whilst Jedinak, Dikacoi and Garvan were impressive in their roles, creativity will be at a premium if Holloway persists in picking all three of them. Huff and puff may not save these little pigs. A lack of premier league and experience, especially in defense will really cost Palace this season. If no other investment were forth coming, either at the back or in creative midfield, I would expect Palace to really struggle this season.

Despite what I have written it is quite possible that any of the three promoted teams will go down. It is just incredibly unlikely statistically that all of them will go down together. Pundits that previously predicted the demise of the surviving team(s) will praise their spirit, the manager and whoever scored the most goals. So when this inevitably happens at the end of the season, spare a thought for the defense whose efforts will have done much more to ensure Premier League survival than anyone gives them credit for. It’s all food for thought anyway.

[1] You could argue that Caulker was the best signing of the summer in the entire premier league. Given the statistical importance of defense in staying up, the serious upgrade in quality that Caulker represents and the money that Cardiff will make if they stay in the premier league, Caulker could easily repay the £8m Cardiff spent on him with one good season. 

Friday, 16 August 2013

Preview of the Season: Manchester City

Neo: What are you trying to tell me? That I can dodge bullets?

Morpheus: No, Neo. I'm trying to tell you that when you're ready, you won't have to.

In this scene Morpheus is trying to explain to Neo that he can bend the rules of time and space in the matrix because it isn’t real, just part of a computer program. Neo can ignore the usual way of things if he can just tap into his power within. This season it is time for Manchester City to reach inside themselves and turn the talent that they have into a title.

If the league were decided purely on total talent level then it would be hard not to argue that City would be champions every year. City have such a rich abundance of talent that their bench is often valued at more than the oppositions squad in entirety. What this team has lacked for a long time is an identity, a guiding hand on ideology and player selection that will mould a coherent and complimentary group. Last week I accused QPR and Mark Hughes of signing players in the same way. QPR have learnt their lesson and shipped out the riff raff, including Hughes, and now things are beginning to change in the blue half of Manchester.

Heeey, How you doin'?
Two factors will help City to be successful this season, their appointment of Manuel Pellegrini to replace Roberto Mancini and the rising influence of Txiki Begiristain in his role as Director of Football. Chilean born, Pellegrini is a consummate tactician who has excelled previously in Spanish football at Real Madrid, Villareal and Malaga. Villareal and Malaga also performed brilliantly on the European stage under his guidance despite their relative lack of resources, reaching the semifinals and quarterfinals respectively. The Champions League is an area that City will be targeting for improvement following their terrible performances under Mancini in the last two seasons. Last season’s displays, albeit in a tough group containing Madrid, Dortmund and Ajax, where so abject that they failed to secure a single win in the group stages. Mancini’s autocratic style alienated him from the senior management and players last season, particularly Ballotelli and Tevez, and I expect that the urbane and jocular Pellegrini will be a vast improvement at creating the necessary squad harmony required in title winning sides. The City management certainly think so as they described Pellegrini's approach as 'holistic.'

This harmony has extended to the boardroom where he is working hand in hand with Begiristain. In the past City have signed players like a five year-old choosing toys by stamping their feet and screaming, “I don’t care how much it costs, I want that one!” This year some method has been applied to the madness. Begiristain has a history of success, especially at Barcelona where he was one of those who helped run La Masia, Barcelona’s famed youth academy. These roots in Barcelona’s tiki taka ideology and footballing
Txiki Begiristain - Did his parents just throw
letters at a wall to come up with that name?
philosophy can be seen in City’s confident early dealings in the transfer market this season. Two attacking maestro’s from Seville, Negredo and Navas, certainly fit the Spanish style that Begiristain is trying to replicate. Both have long been part of the Spanish squads, dominated as they are by Barcelona players, which have replicated the flair and style of the Catalans. Both should have little trouble adapting to what their coach will want from them and I would expect their connection and understanding with David Silva to help ease their transition into the side.

Another attacking forward brought in to replace the loss of Tevez and Ballotelli from last year is Stevan Jovetic. A creative forward with instinctive finishing skills, Jovetic has been coveted by many of the top clubs in Europe for some time. Capable of leading the line but most comfortable in the role of deep lying striker, (look how often he picks up the ball in deep positions in this video), Jovetic plays in a similar way to Dennis Bergkamp. Jovetic, being of Eastern European stock, should have little trouble with the physicality of the Premier League but may initially struggle with the pace of the game given that he has come from the glacially paced Serie A.  

For those of you who have never seen this mystery £30m man!
Along side these signings is Brazilian centre midfielder Fernandinho. Surprisingly ignored in the media, despite being the Premier League’s most expensive signing this summer, Fernandinho is a key component of City’s new vision. As a box-to-box midfielder, Fernandinho’s energy and ability to transfer the team quickly from defense to attack will be a massive improvement the on the aging and increasingly static Gareth Barry. Fernandinho’s excellent motor, especially his ability to cover the back four, will have the added bonus of allowing Yaya Toure to release forward much more regularly, often a sign of when City are at their most dangerous.

Don't try this at home kids...
Pellegrini has all of the options, all of the tools. Pellegrini himself said that, “I think we have the best squad in England. We already had a very good team and, with these four players, we improved." It is all down to Pellegrini to get it right tactically and acclimatize to the League quickly. They start with Newcastle at home, a team they cremated twice last season, and follow it up with games against relegation candidates Cardiff, Hull and Stoke. If they can get off to a flying start confidence will flood into the side and then anything is possible. I would be incredibly surprised if City were not challenging for the title on the final day of the season. Pellegrini shouldn't need to dodge bullets, his squad is so talented he shouldn't have to.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Preview of the Season: Liverpool

Neo: Mr. Wizard. Get me the hell out of here!

By contrast Liverpool are about as far away from Stoke’s direct style as it is possible to get in the premier league. Managed by Brendan Rodgers, very much the man with a plan, Liverpool have a clear and concise passing style and philosophy. The fans at Liverpool appreciate good football and bought into that style last season giving Rodgers much more of a chance than Hodgson got before the appointment of Dalglish.

Last summer was spent installing Rodgers’ new passing style and system. The tiki taka style system, though at times seeming to lack penetration, gave Liverpool the 3rd highest possession statistics in the league at 57%. Liverpool also took the most shots in the league per game, both home and away, scoring the second highest amount of goals from open play in the league. The addition of Daniel Sturridge for the second half of last season and his burgeoning partnership up front with Luis Suarez finally gives Liverpool the potent strike force that the Kop has been yearning for since Fowler was sniffing lines and Owen was still a baby faced assassin. Given these statistics, it is little wonder that the Anfield faithful are keeping faith with the Rodgers experiment.

Coutinho - A star in the making.
This season the system should be ingrained in the players allowing Rodgers to focus on the minor tactical adjustments necessary to win matches in the Premier League. The supremely talented Coutinho, a player who supplied 5 assists in a mere 12 games, will supplement Steven Gerrard in his role as the creative driving force. In defensive midfield it will be hoped that Lucas has fully recovered from last season’s chronic knee injury to the fans-player-of-the-year level he was in 2011-’12. It is hoped Jordan Henderson will begin to justify his exorbitant £25m transfer fee. In addition to the £20m spent on new recruits, (ex-Sunderland keeper Mignolet to replace Pepe Reina, experienced centre half Kolo Toure replacing Jamie Carragher and Spanish starlets Iago Aspas and Luis Alberto to strengthen the forward areas) Liverpool’s policy of playing and developing young players is also really beginning to pay off. With the likes of Raheem Stirling, Suso, Nathan Wisdom and Martin Kelly emerging through the youth system all should be sweetness and light at Anfield. Except it isn’t.

"What big teeth you have"
"All the better to bite you with..."

Despite all of the team philosophies brought in by Rodgers, darkness reigns. Liverpool are dependent on one man, Luis Suarez, and he wants to get the hell out of there, thank you Mr Wizard. With Suarez Liverpool are lively, buzzing, always a threat. Without his guile and invention, Liverpool are static and lifeless, unsure how to progress. Suarez scored 23 league goals last season and contributed 5 assists. Despite his serious misdemeanors on the pitch, he is Liverpool’s only world-class player and Liverpool would be in serious trouble without him, especially if he were to go to one of their rivals. Arsenal are flashing their Champions League status like a Bugs Bunny toting a carrot and Suarez’s is desperate to have a bite. It’s true that a player of Suarez’s quality is too good not to be playing European football, food tastes better abroad they say, but he seriously owes Liverpool for the way that they stood by him when he darkened Patrice Evra’s name. 

Last week Arsenal bid £40m and a pound to trigger a clause in Suarez's contract allowing Arsenal to talk to the striker and it scared the bejeezus out of Liverpool. This can be seen in the rush of talking heads appearing on Sky Sports News from the Liverpool hierarchy decrying Arsenal's perfectly legitimate pursuit of the player. Rodgers has even accused Arsenal of 'lacking class' for 'playing games' over their bid. It has become clear that Liverpool need Suarez more than Suarez needs Liverpool. 

If Suarez can be appeased and kept, a massive if given his recent comments and desire to be transferred, Liverpool have an outside chance at Champions League football, (stranger things have happened, say, um, a player getting sent off for biting someone…). If not Liverpool will be struggling once again with Everton for that final European spot. These days ‘this is Anfield’ and it is reliant on the febrile mind of Luis Suarez. 

Preview of the Season: Stoke

Switch: Not like this. Not like this.

In this scene Switch, a minor character, is about to be killed in the matrix by having her connection severed between her mind and body by Cypher, a traitorous crewmember back in the ‘real’ world. Knowing she is about to die, and having already seen her boyfriend Apoc die, Switch is disconsolate with despair. I would imagine most Stoke fans are in a similar state of mind looking ahead at the coming season.

Sitting in the garden at a mate’s house having some BBQ, I was shown three predictions of the final table for this year’s Premier League that had been made earlier. There was little overall consensus but one thing stood out: the importance of the manager in their final league position. They all thought Chelsea would win the league with the experience of Mourinho. They also thought that Mark Hughes would take Stoke down.

Long time manager Tony Pulis, overseer of the most sustained period of success in Stoke’s history, has been let go. There are a number of good reasons why Stoke may have wanted to move on from him at this stage, the major one being his inability or unwillingness to change his overly direct style of play. Rumours abounded last season that Pulis was fighting an internal war against his chief scout and former ally, Lindsay Parsons, over playing style. This is said to have severely damaged Pulis’s support from owner Peter Coates and may well be a contributing factor to his dismissal.
The tallest man in the Premier League
plays for Stoke. Coincidence?  

Secondly, Coates may have decided that whilst Pulis’s direct style was effective in keeping Stoke in a lower mid-table berth, that was the its limit. This is reflected in their finishes since their return to the top flight in the ’08-’09 season. Stoke have finished 12th, 11th, 13th and 13th showing little to no improvement in aesthetic style or results despite Coates’ substantial investment in the team. A miserable run of 5 points in 13 games towards the end of last season contributed heavily to the mutual termination of Tony Pulis’s contract.

Following his dismal efforts with QPR last season most fans would have avoided Hughes like sensible people avoid cholera. Not so, the management at Stoke. Despite having the whole footballing world to choose from at the start of this summer, Stoke quickly plumbed for English football’s pariah, Mark Hughes, in what looked to be a panicked appointment. It appeared from the speed at which the appointment was made that Coates feared being left, like Wolves were when they sacked Mick McCarthy, with nobody wanting the job.

The Premier League's most dominant aerial threats go,
ahem, head to head...
Nobody wanting the job could have been a serious possibility given the make up of the squad and the lack of spending money apparently available this summer. Stoke were by far and away the most direct/long ball side in the division averaging a mere 43.3% possession. Stoke also has the lowest pass success rate (70.2%) in the league, another key indicator of their passing game resembling a spot the ball competition. The final statistic that shows their reliance on the long ball and set pieces is that Stoke won 28.9 aerial duals per match, 7.8 higher than West Ham the placed second team, whilst contesting 1853 aerial duals in the season, 50% more than the average. This style is often defended as being a ‘percentages game’ but the stats don’t add up to that. Stoke had the least shots in the Premier League last season, averaging a measly 10.2 per game and a chronic 8.7 away from home. It will be difficult to remove this entrenched style and encourage a more aesthetically pleasing (and more effective in an attacking sense) short passing style on this squad.

If the goal at the Britannia Stadium was to replace Pulis’s direct style with a more aesthetically pleasing passing game then why did they appoint Hughes, a coach with no fixed style or ideological beliefs in how football should be played? That Hughes has no abiding concept of how he wants football to be played is shown by his haphazard signings at QPR last season. Like a Fifa player indiscriminately signing players based entirely on individual talent rather than their suitability for his system, Hughes created one of the least motivated and coherent teams the Premier League has ever seen. There was no shortage of individual talent in the likes of Djibril Cisse, Park Ji Sung, Adel Taarabt, Estaban Granero and Shaun Wright-Phillips but there was no cohesion or guiding tactical principal in their acquisition. A mish mash of disparate parts, QPR played like a group of perfect strangers for the majority
A tough job for Sparky. Can he he put a charge into his
new team and ignite a push for mid-table?
of the season, ending up regularly getting beaten like a red headed stepchild.

Some managers make up for a lack of tactical skill with excellent motivational and man-management skills. Sir Alex Ferguson, though an under-rated tactical mind, never brought any tactical innovation or distinctive style to the league. His strength was to be able to consistently motivate his players to win. The motivational aspect will have to be Hughes’s strong point this season. Stoke, unlike most of the other mid-table clubs, have not made significant investments so far this transfer window. Hughes will have to mould the existing squad, a squad entirely fashioned to play direct football, with care and diligence. Stoke were the only team last season to score more goals from set pieces than open play. If Hughes tries to change things too fast it may have a disastrous effect of removing the element of their play that made them competitive without replacing it with any effective substitute.

Hughes has had a tough time as a manager recently and this season will be his biggest yet. Hughes won’t have a lot of rope to play with and changing the style won’t be easy. A teething period is to be expected but given his recent track record his honeymoon period will be shorter than Peter Crouch’s list of conquests. A mid-table finish, with this Stoke side, could see a form of redemption for Hughes. Failure and relegation, or maybe even the threat of relegation, will almost certainly see him forced to renew his career as a manager in the lower tiers of English Football.