Monday, 27 February 2012

Stage One of Liverpool’s rebuilding process or just a minor triumph?

Jordon Florit tells the Football Front why Liverpool's League Cup success could be a sign of further success.

Fittingly, after six years without a trophy, it was nearly Dirk Kuyt, who joined six years ago, that won the Carling Cup for Liverpool: firstly, with his 108th-minute goal that fired Liverpool into an extra-time lead and then with his goal line clearance before Cardiff’s eventual equaliser. Unfortunately, Dirk Kuyt wasn’t the hero, which would’ve been an apt reward for the tireless Dutchman, but Liverpool did get the victory.

It came little over 18-months since Kenny Dalglish’s homecoming at Liverpool, 20 years after leaving the Anfield club, and his return of a trophy in his first full season in charge befits his title as King on Merseyside. Seemingly his presence in the dugout once more has guided Liverpool off the rocky road on which they were driving down and things have been running much smoother. However, his second reign hasn’t been without its own potholes.

Since their last trophy, the FA Cup in 2006 – or the Community Shield if you prefer, Liverpool have seen their number of top flight victories trumped by Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United, something he promised to do when he took charge at Old Trafford; go without Champions League football, failing to qualify for the 2010/11 edition, and witnessed a power struggle between George Gillett and Tom Hicks, resulting in unrest amongst the fans, before the club was eventually sold to Fenway Sports Group.

Yet, even with King Kenny at the helm and John W. Henry’s ownership providing fewer talking points and more stability than the previous regime, there have still been a few obstacles for Liverpool to overcome. Some threatened to tarnish their reputation more than others.

But, after the Luis Suarez affair that has provided a subplot to Liverpool’s entire season to date, the money invested in a promising transition under Dalglish – currently totalling at over £110m, and Andy Carroll finally appearing to settle in a year after his record breaking move, few would begrudge Liverpool’s Carling Cup final success.

It had been six years since a trophy had been added to the cabinet; they’re still in the F.A. Cup, having knocked out Manchester United with Dirk Kuyt succeeding in being the hero that day, and European football next season is guaranteed, having missed out altogether this campaign.

But in the long run, what does it mean for The Reds: is it stage one of Liverpool’s rebuilding process or just a minor triumph?

The victory itself, a 3-2 win on penalties, was symptomatic of Liverpool’s recent history – a dogged battle in which previous Liverpool sides may’ve bottled it. However, the calming figure of Kenny Dalglish on the touchline, symbolised by his palliative state at half-time of extra-time, was enough to get Liverpool across the line as lady luck smiled upon Liverpool in the shootout. But, as the saying goes, “you make your own luck”

It would be feeble to say Liverpool were lucky to have such favourable circumstances present to win the Carling Cup and it would do Cardiff an injustice, in what was an admirable performance orchestrated typically by Malky Mackay, to do so. To get to the final, Liverpool had to overcome three lots of Premier League opposition, having beaten Exeter City and a resurgent Brighton & Hove Albion outfit: a Stoke City side at the formidable Britannia Stadium, before two of last season’s top four sides in Chelsea and Manchester City. They determined their own luck.

Before the game, Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard stated that “[Liverpool fans] deserve a trophy,” whilst ex-Kop favourite Robbie Fowler issued a rallying cry to the current fan’s favourite, Luis Suarez: “I’d like to think that I repaid [the Liverpool fans] by doing the business (scoring in the League Cup final against Birmingham in 2001) for Liverpool on the pitch – and that’s what I’d love to see Luis doing for Kenny.” Whilst Luis Suarez didn’t grab a goal in the final, it was the first trophy that the new bought-in generation of Liverpool players have collected at Anfield.

The purchases of Luis Suarez, Andy Carroll, Jordan Henderson, Stewart Downing, Charlie Adam, Jose Enrique and Sebastian Coates, all since Dalglish took over, have reaped their first trophy in their first full season together and calling it a minor triumph would discredit Cardiff, but as it is the League Cup, seen as secondary by most, I imagine some will do so. However, is it right to call it a minor triumph or is it indicative of the progress Liverpool are making?

If this is all the current Liverpool team achieve, then yes it is a minor triumph: however, Kenny Dalglish has made a marked improvement on the successes of Liverpool. When he took over from Roy Hodgson, a man whom he helped Liverpool to appoint, their league position was abysmal by their standards: they were 12th, below Everton, they’d conceded more than they’d scored, lost more than they’d won and after 20 games, they were already 19 points away from the top.

Kenny came in and things dramatically changed: Liverpool were hoisted up to a 6th place finish, 22 points adrift of league champions Manchester United, meaning – bar their first game under Kenny – Liverpool matched the Champions point for point; Liverpool’s concession rate dropped by 33% and all the while, their goal-scoring exploits increased by more than half at an increase of 62%, from 24 goals in 20 games under Hodgson to 35 in 18 with Dalglish.

Liverpool are on the up: a return to a top four finish, something which has alluded them since the 2008/09 campaign in which they finished second pushing Manchester United all the way finishing just four points adrift, looks out of the question this season. However, it was always going to be a tall order considering the number of new personnel in through the doors at Anfield and therefore the success of the League Cup, with the F.A. Cup still to play for, deems this season a success already, providing Liverpool go on to perform how they’ve done to date.

The Cup win can only serve Liverpool well. Under other managers, Liverpool may have crumbled as the game progressed and Cardiff were still leading – although their cup successes in similar circumstances against Birmingham and West Ham show an undying trait of determination lives long in the veins of Liverpool. Yet the win will galvanise them and with an impressive defensive record in the league, with only Manchester City conceded fewer, Liverpool continue to go from strength to strength in the second coming of King Kenny and with a transition underway, success with delicate changes and altercations in playing staff is a credible effort.

The Carling Cup final wasn’t just a minor victory – it’s a sign of things to come.

This article was written by Jordan Florit. For more of Jordan’s work, take a look at his website: Jordan is also on Twitter: @JordanFlorit

Friday, 24 February 2012

Objectiveness is key

Reuben Lewis explains to The Football Front why objectiveness is crucial when considering whether Arsene Wenger should stay at Arsenal.

Over the course of this season, where many have been quick to jump on the bandwagon, I have tended to take a more objective approach, perhaps instilled by my father. When hearing fierce criticism about the manager, from Arsenal fans in particular, I react defensively. This is simply because I love the man. His successes far outweigh his failures and despite the obvious lack of trophies (I was 9 years old the last time we won something), he has done an incomparably good job.

By creating this 'self-sufficient model', The Arsenal are almost guaranteed a consistent, sustainable future in the Premiership. One that in the next decade or two, teams around us at the moment will envy. In ten, fifteen years, we will still be in the upper quartile of the league. Will Chelsea? Will Liverpool? Will Tottenham? Dare I say the Manchester clubs?

Our objective of financial fair play and self-sustainability means the boss is reluctant to spend £20 million on a wonderkid. Sign Hazard! Sign Gotze! Instead, we have to settle for some unknown two-bob teenagers like Oxlade-Chamberlain. What a load of bollocks he's been.

In life, there is always a trade-off. This may sound a bit rich coming from a sixteen year old, and by the fact I learnt this term in my economics class, but the fact is, Arsene's deep lying love for this club has been his biggest downfall. He has opted to ensure future sustainability as a business and, perhaps more importantly, as a Football Club.

But at what expense? "TROPHIES!" I hear you cry, and yes, you are spot on. But in the grand scheme of things, what would you rather; an instant piece of silverware or a club that in 10 years will be stable, free of excessive debt? Perhaps the fans more in it for the trophies will choose the former, but the real Gooners - the ones who want what's best for the future of the club - will choose the latter. Well that's how I feel, although I'm sure some will disagree. But seriously, all teams go through transitional periods. Look at Liverpool for Bergkamp's sake! The best team of the '80s have not won a league title for twenty odd years, despite spending obscene sums of money, especially over the past year or two. Back to our club though.

To those who don't know, in the 1980s, Spurs finished above us about 5 years out of 7. Sincearriving in 1996, Arsene Wenger's Arsenal have never finished below Spurs in the league. Although St Totteringham day may have to be put on hold this year - unless 'Operation Dodgy Lasagne II' is launched - you can hardly say the boss has let us down in terms of bragging rights. Moreover, just to add a little more perspective, in 1995, the year I was introduced into the world, we finished 12th (TWELTH!). No, not 5th, 12th! Things must have been pretty bollocks back then. Thankfully for me, I was more or less born into the glory years.

I am by no means an 'Arsene Knows Best' - a term many fans mindlessly direct towards those who don't vociferously criticise the boss. I acknowledge his shortcomings - and there have been many - but my appreciation of what he has done overall - and the fact we are still there or there about's - mean I am reserving my judgements, and keeping the faith, until the end of the season at least. Even if we succumb to 5th place this year, and have a season in the mickey mouse prestigious Europa League (provided we qualify!), I will not be calling for Arsene's head. I'll let him decide when it's time to call it a day, and providing his adoration of the club, I'm sure he will decide accordingly. I will still follow my team over land and sea, as will many of the Arsenal fans I've come across - even if it means a summer holiday in Rubin Kazan! One thing's for sure- we'll soon find out who the real supporters are.

This Article was written by Reuben Lewis, you can find more of his work at The Wonder of Wenger. Reuben is on Twitter too: @Rlewisafc.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Arsenal and Chelsea’s fight for fourth will be settled in defence

Jordon Florit explains why Chelsea and Arsenal's race for the top four will be determined by who can stay the most solid in defence.

If it wasn’t for Andre Villas-Boas’ failure to make an immediate impact at Chelsea, something that he undoubtedly intended to do given his insistence that “there is no calling this a year of transition,” earlier in the season, despite evidently being in a year of transition - something that has become painstakingly obvious to the rest of the world who hadn’t already realised it was underway, thanks to Villas-Boas all but admitting the transition by stating, “we have a three-year project to change, not only the team but, the culture and structure of the club” - Arsenal’s season would be dead right now. Luckily for Arsene Wenger, they still have the much-coveted “trophy” of fourth place to cling on to.

Meanwhile, Arsenal’s season has taken a rather different path to Chelsea’s, yet both teams are still going into the last thirteen games on level points (43) with the same goal difference (13). The only thing that currently keeps Arsenal in the top four over Chelsea, a position Arsene Wenger has never finished below during his Arsenal career, is the goal machine Robin van Persie, rather than a 3 Premier League goals Fernando Torres.

Chelsea’s defence has been marginally tighter than Arsenal’s (I emphasize marginally) and whilst both teams have suffered defensively this season, with Chelsea’s Mourinho-instilled focus on strong foundations at the back finally all but fading out as Villas-Boas adopts a risk-taking and attacking defence, and Arsenal’s back four providing all but stability or consistency, with a total of eleven plays being used across the back, if The Blues were going to pip The Gunners to fourth place, it will be won at the back.

However, news that John Terry - who was set to be risked by the Portuguese boss against Napoli, (a clear indication of just how important Terry is to Chelsea, despite not being quite the player he was a few years ago) - is out for two months. This could scupper Villas-Boas’ chances of Chelsea finishing in a Champions League spot and mount further pressure on the 34-year old.

John Terry suffered a blow to his knee in a collision with the goalpost in Chelsea’s F.A. Cup victory over Championship Portsmouth on January 7th: an injury he played through for two more games. Since then, The Blues have failed to keep a clean sheet and have slipped from 4th place and just four points off of 3rd and six clear of seventh, to 5th place, where 3rd seems unreachable at 10 points away and 7thplaced Liverpool have closed the gap by two.

The reading doesn’t get much better for Chelsea fans as not only are Chelsea without a clean sheet in a Terry-less side so far this season, but in addition, last season Chelsea kept just one of their 15 clean sheets without Terry, in a season in which the centre-back missed 5 games. Last campaign, Chelsea kept a clean sheet with Terry 42% of the time and without him, just 20% of the time. This season, Chelsea have kept a clean sheet 27% of the time in which John Terry has played and without him, it currently stands at 0%.

Chelsea’s defensive woes are further encapsulated by the fact that they’ve only won two of their last ten games, one of them against relegation zone dwellers Wolves. And whilst they may’ve only lost two, both were bottom half at the time and their six draws have been score draws five times, with their only goalless draw coming against Norwich, a game fans would’ve hoped Chelsea would’ve won. Their 3-0 lead against Manchester United could’ve galvanised Chelsea’s season, but even that was carelessly thrown away, to add to their other two score draws that saw Chelsea lead.

Chelsea fans may take some hope from January signing Gary Cahill: however, the centre-back is stepping into the shoes of a Chelsea hero in an extremely frail Chelsea team that, simply put, is lacking leadership, belief and confidence. He’s stepped out of the fire, in the form of Bolton, who have only kept one clean sheet since the opening fixture, and into the fire at Chelsea.

So, can Chelsea turn to last season’s Player of the Year Petr Cech for help? Seemingly not. This season, you could make a claim for Petr Cech being the worst shot stopper in the league, although much blame should be put down to a defence lacking in organisation, something further hindered with the absence of Terry: this season, Cech’s saves-to-shots ratio in the Premier League is 65% and therefore the worst in the league.

Now turn to Arsenal and in a season in which the Premier League’s top four has been more hotly-contested than Miss Universe and saw The Gunners seventeenth after an embarrassing 8-2 defeat at the hands of a ruthless Manchester United, their current position of fourth place is rather admirable. Yet, the past ten days has seen The Gunners lose everything they were fighting for but fourth place, crashing out of the F.A. Cup in a 2-0 defeat to Sunderland and their Champions League adventure all but over after a 4-0 first leg loss at the San Siro.

Yet, news that Laurent Koscielny should be back for Arsenal’s next Premier League game – the North London derby with Tottenham – has given a cloudy Arsenal week a much-welcomed silver lining. With Bacary Sagna firing on all cylinders again and Thomas Vermaelen at the heart of defence with the Frenchman, Arsenal fans have the right to celebrate.

The ever-changing back line, eluded to in the opening of this article, has finally mustered up some strength and stability: a blend of leadership, provided by Vermaelen, experience, courtesy of Sagna and ability, supplied in heaps from the much-improved Koscileny, may well prove to secure fourth place in a season where defence has been far from Arsenal’s strong point.

It would be careless to rule out Newcastle or Liverpool sneaking in and snatching the last Champions League spot, especially with the momentum Liverpool are gathering and the focus Alan Pardew has on the league campaign: but, ultimately, if Arsenal or Chelsea do indeed finish fourth, the fight will be settled in defence.

This article was written by Jordan Florit. For more of Jordan’s work, take a look at his website: Jordan is also on Twitter: @JordanFlorit

Friday, 17 February 2012

Fabio Capello Departs from England, But Did He Leave for the Right Reasons?

Fabio Capello starts his retirement a little earlier than we all expected.

The former England manager may well be relaxing in his luxurious pad in Switzerland, but England will hardly be doing that from now on until the Euros. The Italian’s uncanny departure from England has left the nation on a huge lurch.

But was the FA decision to strip John Terry as captain that bad for Fabio Capello to throw in his towel?

I don’t believe the decision was that bad for a second.

Capello, is a manager who is known for his principled outlook, his rational and disciplined mentality. Regrettably, those characteristics did not come to the fore when he came to the decision to leave England.

The reality is, the Italian left his job, as his employers did not feel Capello’s captain was suitable to the lead the nation while a serious allegation of racism surrounding him.

To me and to most of you, stripping John Terry of the captaincy made entire logical sense. Given the scale and seriousness of the charge. Not only this, allowing John Terry to lead England would portray England and their FA as huge hypocrites.

After all, England for a number of years have had a dominant and active stance on the fight against racism. Allowing John Terry to lead the nation would have been a huge own goal for the FA.

On a side note, the FA for the first time in what seems an age, have maintained a consistent stance. In 2000, Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate were charged with assault. But the FA made both players unavailable for selection until the charge and been dealt with. No one can deny this decision was entirely logical, given the circumstances.

But for Capello, John Terry is viewed by him as the ultimate lion. But the talented manager's reign at England will sadly be remembered not only for an embarrassing World Cup display, but this obsession with John Terry.

Indeed, it was Sven Goran Erickson who was heavily criticised by the British press for showing too much respect towards David Beckham. Fast forward a few years and history has repeated itself. As Fabio Capello’s unmoveable and obsessionable defence of John Terry was the underlying reason why he left the highest ever paid international management job in football.

Given the huge contract England so eagerly handed to Capello, England expected a return under the leadership of the former Juventus manager. But Capello seemed to be uninterested in dealing with the expectations his job came with. What’s more frustrating is that he leaves as a manager who failed England in a World Cup and then didn’t have the respect, guts or commitment to rectify from his past mistakes as manager.Perhaps some of the players will feel utterly betrayed by him. After all, they’ve worked hard in preparing for a major competition and their manager just buggers off. Fabio Capello has potentially damaged the confidence, the belief and desire of some of the England players towards international duty and the Euros.

On the other hand, there are murmurs some of the England players are quietly pleased Fabio Capello has departed. It’s a well known fact Capello struggled to connect and develop a relationship with his players.

But this sudden departure, regardless of whether the players liked him or not will have a severe effect on the players preparations ahead of the Euros. Capello is a meticulous manager, who has casually left ,leaving behind him an array of disorganisation for the FA and the other England coaches to pick up.

And if the FA appoint a new manager before the Euros, it goes without saying, England’s cohesion and understanding as a team is more likely to decline ahead of the tournament. After all, the new manager, whether it’s Redknapp or anyone else, they will want to implement their own style onto the side, meaning new players will join and leave the England squad. Also questions will be raised for the manager at what is his best starting 11 for example. The new manager has many great challenges on his footstep, which he instantly has to solve.

But, Fabio Capello is a man of great integrity, this integrity, is a key reason why he’s so respected within the game. However, this integrity seemed to be discarded when he left England. His exit was reality TV esque. It was dramatic, pathetic and utterly egocentric.

However, Capello should have opposed and rejected this dramatic exit from England. After all, he, kept reinstating his desire to leave England. I feel Capello should have just bitten his tongue and accepted the FA’s decision over John Terry. This would have been the mature, respectable thing to do, rather than undermine the FA’s decision to the press and give the FA an ultimatum which was clearly unrealistic for the FA to adhere to.

One thing remains very clear from Capello’s premature exit from England. It seems the Italian, was looking for a means to jump the ship early. He was looking for a way out well before the expected date after the Euro’s. Let’s put this into context. he has worked at some of the most hostile clubs in the world. He’s managed at Juventus, Real Madrid and AC Milan. The directors at these clubs have actively taken decisions into their own hands without consulting the manager, so Capello has probably had to learn how to deal and work through these climates.

Regrettably, England have paid the bitter price for making Fabio Capello the highest paid expensive international coach in the world. The FA made it so easy for him to walk out. Let’s face it, he was earning £6million a year, so quitting a few months early in a 4 year reign, and considering how wealthy and how successful he's been as a manager he is, it makes it so easy for him to exit with minimal consequences for himself economically and to his reputation globally.

The FA must learn from their relationship with Capello. After all, it has and will continue to leave scaring marks on a generation of English footballers and supporters.

Fabio Capello came to England and created an image of himself as powerful, disciplined tactician and a manager who is befit to lead out the three lions.

Instead, he left England, as a man who fell out of the love with the job. He left as a man who was uncommitted to the job and a man who didn’t share the dreams of a nation.
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