Why the Coutinho transfer saga is more about Liverpool’s poor recruitment strategy.

With a pocketful of cash from the Neymar deal and Barcelona needing to re-build it was slightly inevitable that the Catalan club would be linked with Liverpool’s Coutinho.  It has been a move that has been mooted for the past year especially as Barcelona are re-building and require an attacking midfielder.

Of course there is the argument that the majority of teams are selling clubs, especially when Barcelona and Real Madrid come a knocking but regardless of whether you think it is good business or not, it has shone an awkward spotlight on the transfer and scouting under the Fenway group.

The problem has now been exasperated as Coutinho has now put in a transfer request.  This has led to a few believing that he should be sold for the highest price possible.

However the quality of the Liverpool squad is not up to scratch especially as it needs to improve despite finishing fourth and qualifying for a Champions league play-off spot. There are still problems with the defence with the lack of quality of the bench very much apparent last season as there were no options when Liverpool struggled to break down defensive teams.  There were no player who you felt could change the game or change the formation to test the opposition.

From a footballing point of view it does not make sense to sell Coutinho no matter the fee offered.  I imagine there might be a few people scoffing at that notion, after all every player has his price.  However Liverpool do not have the time to get an adequate replacement and will be to the detriment of the club’s progress this season.

It is a team that needs building for Liverpool to be challenging for the major honours.  Losing your best players is going to make that harder as well as questioning the ambition of the club.  After all it has been five years since Liverpool won a major trophy and even then that was the league club.

Although the years have been lean Liverpool due to its history and large support still has some stature in the footballing world.  It needs more than ever to start proving that the last few years have temporary or very soon be just a famous name from the past.

Liverpool’s first game of the new season away to Watford which ended 3-3 has shown the same old problems of the last year.  A poor defence and the inability to hold onto a winning lead with only a few minutes remaining on the clock.  The club is great in attack but there is always the sense that they are only a moment away from a mistake in defence which will wilt so easily.

These are problems that should have been rectified prior to the season beginning but swift action is needed otherwise it will be a groundhog season for 2017-18.  Regarding the transfer request from Coutinho it would probably be better if Liverpool could reach an agreement that they will let him go next season. This though would be on the proviso that the fee is acceptable and that Liverpool find a suitable replacement.

A club can only be successful if its recruitment and scouting is good.  Take Atletico Madrid for example.  They have consistently obtained quality players for decent fees and have been consistent challengers in La Liga and European football which has seen them win major honours.

Fenway appear to have a business strategy with regards as to how Liverpool sign players.  Namely signing young potential players who they hope will live up to their reputation and then selling them on for a vast profit whilst bringing in a new batch to keep Liverpool competitive.  The only problem with that is that you have to ensure that you have the right recruitment and scouting in place.  If that was the case then there would be no real resistance to Coutinho being sold to Barcelona.  The quality in the squad would already be there to cope with a loss.  Added to which there would be the confidence the scouting system would provide a more than adequate replacement.

Unfortunately the reality has been very different to the business theory of the Fenway group.  The likes of Downing, Carroll, Charlie Adam, Coates, Borini, Markovic, and Balotelli to name but a few have failed to live up to expectations and have been poor.  Even the likes of Jordan Henderson, Lovren, and Mignolet have been average and not been good enough to take Liverpool up to the next level.

The successes can be counted on one hand with only Suarez, Mane, and Coutinho being the players who have shown the quality required if you wish to compete at the highest level.  Fenway’s money has been spent on mediocrity.    It could be argued that when non-footballing individuals or people with self-interest are involved then problems are going to arise which has been the case with Liverpool.

It seems that the problem isn’t so much about Coutinho being sold to Barcelona it really is about Fenway’s scouting and recruitment strategy for Liverpool and the next direction that they take. 

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Is this the decline of Barcelona?

The demise of Barcelona has been greatly exaggerated over the years.  It has if anything since the 2004/05 season been one of their most successful periods in Barcelona’s history.  Four European cups, eight la liga titles, four Copa Del Rey, and three FIFA club world cups.  They have played football that at times seems to have been from another planet with the likes of football greats Ronaldinho and Messi mesmerizing fans and opposition alike.

They have of course been at the crossroads before in 2008 with critics deeming that the club had hit its peak after winning the European cup for a second time in 2006.  Rather than building on their success Rijkaard lost the discipline of the changing room with Ronaldinho and Deco to name but a few losing their hunger and seemed more intent on partying than playing football.  The joke being that Ronaldinho was in the gym was a euphuism that he was sleeping off a hangover.

Rumours abound that Jose Mourinho was to take over after Rijkaard had lost his job and that Barcelona needed an experienced winner to turn things around.  The club though probably made one of the best decisions since the club was formed by appointing former player and then current B team manager Pep Guardiola.  Eyebrows were raised as to whether he had the experience but with the aid of his assistant Tito Vilanova took the club to another level.  That team is now remembered alongside the great teams of Liverpool, AC Milan, Ajax, and their arch rivals Real Madrid who had dominated Europe.  Winning it for the fifth time in 2015 acknowledged that fact.  

Although Guardiola was unproven he knew the DNA and expectations of the club.  Furthermore he was a club legend who would be given time but more importantly he was single-minded, determined, and ruthless when needed.  It was not as some people view with hindsight an easy job.  The team had been floundering and the wrong decisions could quite easily have taken Barcelona back.  Added to which the intense pressure from the fans and media alike who scrutinised every decision from tactics to team selections only added to the pressure.

One of the first steps that Guardiola did was bring back the discipline that was sorely lacking.  Training was expected to start at the stated time with any latecomer suffering a  fine as well as a slow handclap by his teammates when he did appear on the training pitch.

Guardiola was also instrumental in bringing a sense of togetherness and working hard for the team.  Anyone who didn’t was shown the door.  Nobody could question his ruthlessness as Ronaldinho and Deco were the first to be shown the door.  The former was a signal of real intent considering he was one of the most talented players at the time despite his unprofessionalism towards the end.  Furthermore they didn’t want Ronaldinho’s behaviour to have a bad influence on a young Messi.

It was also to see a change in the tactics with Guardiola taking full advantage of the quality of his players at his disposal.  Play was to start from the back with the goalkeeper Valdes expected to be also good with his feet.  More importantly though was the intense pressing game that Guardiola wanted his team to play.

Possession was not only important but it was what you did with it that counted.  Losing the ball would see Guardiola wanting his team to put the opposition under intense pressure to regain the ball.  Preferably they would force the opposition towards the sidelines where the passing angle would be halved to increase their chances of regaining control.  Small indeed triangular groups would hound the opposition player and look to cut off their space and options in order to win back the ball.

Defence would now become attack and the Barca players were expected to move quickly and provide an option for their teammate who had the ball.  A lot of the time it would be two or three touches as they buzzed around quickly and menacingly ready to receive the ball at a moments notice.  Indeed the tempo of the game that Barcelona played and the movement was akin to a five a side match.

Every Barca player was expected to work hard and your contribution was to be for the benefit of the team rather than an individual.  With the team well-balanced from defence to attack it was no wonder that they put many teams to the sword and won plaudits for their entertaining play.

Incidentally it was to be the season that Xavi and Iniesta finally started to get the recognition that they deserved.  They suited the style perfectly and under Guardiola shone brightly.  Although Puyol may not go down as a Maldini he was an organiser and vocal leader who ensured that the defence retained its shape.

Guardiola also brought together a sense of unity as well as installing loyalty and belief in his methods.  Of course he would listen to ideas but Guardiola had a manner that is very much required in a modern coach of players not only understanding what he required but the reason why.

The season went off to a slow start in the league with a 1-0 away defeat to Numancia and drawing 1-1 in Barcelona’s first home game of the season against Racing Santander.  Many wondered if the team was still going to show the same inconsistencies that had plagued them for the last two.  However everything clicked into place after beating Sporting Gijon 6-1 away from home and won nine games in a row.

Slowly everybody started to take notice of this fast pressing game or what was termed ‘tiki taka.’  It was spell binding and enjoyable to watch for football fans.  At times Barcelona seemed to be from a different world as they raced away in the league.

In May 2009 Real Madrid the defending champions and needing a result to stay in realistic contention of retaining the title were humiliated with Barcelona thrashing Real 6-2 at the Bernabeu.  A few days later a last-minute well placed goal against Chelsea by Iniesta was enough to put Barcelona into the final against Manchester United.

Talk of a of a historic treble was now openly talked about with Barcelona winning the Copa Del Rey 4-1 against Bilbao.  With the league secured it was the chance of a third European cup title against the reigning champions Manchester United at Rome.

Despite a ropey start Barcelona asserted control after Eto’o had given Barca the lead after a well placed pass by Iniesta who hit a precision pass to Eto’o who raced on the right and put the ball past Van Der Saar.  After that there was only going to be one winner as Barcelona gave the Manchester club a footballing lesson.  A Messi header to make it two in the second half capped a fantastic season.  Indeed 2009 would see them win six titles which included the world club cup.

The following seasons saw Barcelona retain their league title (in what was to turn into the equivalent heavyweight clash of Ali V Frazier) with Real Madrid matching pound for pound but falling short by three points despite finishing the league on ninety-six points.

Inter Milan who would go on to win the European cup that year under Jose Mourinho had knocked out Barcelona in the semi-final 3-2 on aggregate.  Their defensive tactics holding well against the Catalans.

2010-11 season was to be seen as the pinnacle of Guardiola’s tenure in charge.  The pressure though was starting to show which wasn’t helped by Mourinho who Real Madrid had turned to in the hope of hauling in their nemesis Barcelona.

With the Catalan and Madrid clubs going toe to toe in every competition it was to be brutal mentally and competitively.  Mourinho’s aggressive mind games were pushed to the extreme to distract Barca but despite beating Barcelona in the Copa Del Rey it was to be the Catalan’s who would win the plaudits for winning the bigger prizes.  The league was retained for a third season in a row whilst beating Real Madrid 3-1 on aggregate in the semi-final of the Champions league.

Manchester United were comprehensively beaten 3-1 in the final of the champions leagu with Alex Ferguson describing Barcelona as the best side that he had ever faced.  With the plaudits raining down on the Catalans it particularly grated Real Madrid who considered themselves as the footballing equivalent of the Harlem globetrotter’s in terms of being renowned entertainers.

The question now was how long could Barcelona sustain this high quality football and the success it brought.  2011-12 was to be Guardiola’s last season in charge as he took a well-earned break after the pressure that came with managing Barcelona.  Madrid would wrest the league back with Barcelona having to be content with the World club cup and Copa Del Rey.

Guardiola’s successor was to be his assistant Vilanova with Barcelona hoping that they too would have a bootroom legacy like Liverpool.  Some critics even described Vilanova as Bob Paisley to Guardiola being Shankly.

Although Vilanova led Barcelona to the league title with one hundred points there was the feeling that the team was on the wane.  Losing to Madrid in the Copa Del Rey was bad enough but the footballing lesson given to them by Bayern Munich in the semi-final of the champions league rubbed salt in the wounds.  Thrashed 4-0 at the Allianz Arena and soundly beaten at the Nou Camp 3-0.  Questions were being asked especially as the club became more reliant on Lionel Messi.

Vilanova had to step down due to his cancer returning and sadly passed away in April 2014.  In his place the Argentinean Tata Martino was to take charge.  It was not to be a successful season in charge with the club not winning any trophies and blowing the chance to retain the league as they failed to beat Atletico Madrid who in turn won the title on the final day.  This was despite the fact that Neymar had been signed (incidentally his signing would cause all matter of scandal regarding the manner of the transfer deal).

Luis Enrique took charge with Luis Suarez being signed from Liverpool to provide Barcelona with a very potent attack.  It was to bring rich rewards as Barcelona won the treble yet again.  Juventus being beaten 3-1 in Berlin to be Champions of Europe for the fifth time.

Yet despite the trophy haul there had been criticism daft as it may seem directed at Luis Enrique and his team.  Indeed there were questions as to whether he would last longer than the season.  The quality of Messi, Neymar, and Suarez who scored one hundred and twenty-two goals between them though ensured that Barcelona continued to collect the trophies.

Last season saw Barcelona retain the league and Copa Del Rey but this season seem to be jaded and way off the pace.  After the first leg humiliation at the Parc des Princes as Paris St Germain put four past Barcelona questions are being asked and again whether this is the end of the line for Enrique.

It is inevitable that a team no matter how successful they have been will hit a dip.  The players that brought the success get old and either move on or retire.  When Puyol finally called it a day due to injury there was not just a defensive gap missing but that all important leader and organiser.  He was the one who ensured that everybody was in position or urging them to push themselves.

Despite the need of a centre half Barcelona seemed to be happy with Mascherano playing in that position.  Although he has done a good job and certainly does the job required of carrying the ball the Barcelona defence is not as strong as it should be.

Xavi is another big miss as he was part of the heartbeat of the team along with Iniesta.  They brought balance to the team, could move quickly but were ruthless with their passing even in the tightest of spaces.  Iniesta now is coming towards the end and the squad from the Guardiola era is getting less and less.

At present Barcelona do have the best attack in Europe with Suarez, Neymar, and Messi.  Indeed any time that has the latter is always going to be formidable but there is not that symmetry of the past where the team attacked and defended as a unit.

When Guardiola took charge there was a player that was suited to every position and in some respects were the best players in that position.  Add a few tweaks tactically that took teams by surprise it was a formidable team.

Although Messi was always seen to be the main man the team over time became more reliant on the Argentinean.  To the point that a couple of seasons ago when Barcelona played PSG they done everything to get a patched up Messi on the pitch whose presence managed to get them through.  Rewind a few years and although Messi missing would be a blow the team would cope quite comfortably now it is more reliant on Messi than ever.

Tactics is also another matter.  It is always hard to stay one step ahead and teams have learnt to play against Barcelona by restricting space and if possible forcing them further up the pitch.

The Barcelona team now is more direct than Guardiola’s and that is a case of trying to keep ahead of their rivals.  Furthermore each new coach that arrived had their own ideas and influences that they felt would get the best results for the club.  In that respect it could be argued that they have continually delivered the trophies that Barcelona fans demand and are becoming accustomed to.

No team though can keep that level of play or success up forever.  Barcelona will find the next few years tougher as their main players who helped bring them success retire.  When Messi which is a good few years away retires or moves then Barcelona will find themselves back to earth with a bump.  As it is they are now entering the earth’s atmosphere and it will be a bumpy ride when they have to start all over again.  Trophies will be hard to come by whilst their rivals could well be the ones that are ahead.  That though is the nature of football.

 

Brian Benjamin

 


 

 

Sergio Ramos – The art of defending

In the dying minutes of normal time in the 2014 UEFA Champions league final, Real’s Modric whipped in a cross with Ramos rising high up to connect to head the ball firmly into the back of Atletico Madrid’s goal to take the game into extra time.   Although it was a cruel blow for their city rivals it was Real who eventually won the game 4-1 in extra time to claim La Decima.

Like many winners Sergio Ramos showed that dogged determination to keep persevering no matter how difficult or lost the situation appeared to be to snatch victory at the death.

There is a lot more to Ramos than simply showing heart and having to consistently be playing at his best to get through the game.  He is an accomplished defender with pace, awareness, organisation, and leadership.  Furthermore Ramos is comfortable at full back, centre half and even midfield when called upon.

Real Madrid might be obsessed with signing Galacticos as they certainly were in 2005 but the twenty-seven million euros that they paid Sevilla for Ramos who had come through the youth team was money well spent.  So much so that after Casillas left for Porto he was made Captain.

Starting at right back for Real Madrid and now as centre-half Ramos shows the tactical awareness and confidence required in your defenders.  Whether it’s defending the flanks and bursting forward as required of modern full backs or having the positional and physical presence of a centre half Ramos has shown that he can do the job.

Watching Ramos in any game and you can see that he does the simple things.  There are seldom any lapses of concentration with Ramos knowing where he should be.  Communication and leadership are other qualities as Ramos will order his teammates to either track or snuff out a potential attack.  As a result it is very seldom that someone will get the better of Ramos and it might also be this awareness that contributes to his scoring rate as a defender.  After all the 2014 Champions league final was not the first time or the last as Ramos recently grabbed Real a point at the Camp Nou to ensure that Madrid still held a six point advantage.

Being comfortable on the ball means that Ramos is always an option to his team mates to who they can pass to get out of trouble.  The technique and control on the ball certainly makes him one of the most accomplished defenders of his era.  He can carry the ball easily and rarely gives the ball away in dangerous areas.

Nobody is allowed to drop their standards with Ramos on the pitch or risk a severe bollocking.  At times during a match and certainly when things are going wrong players heads can go down.  This is where Ramos comes into his own as he shows the drive and leadership to install the belief that the game can be won.

It may not sound much but it can be the difference between inspiring others to step up to the plate or collapsing like a pack of cards.  With everyone digging in deep and refusing to give in are how points are won and in essence is what makes champions.

Defending like any other position is a specialised area.  It is not about making last-ditch tackles, hoofing balls to the better players, or heading away from set pieces.  Intelligence is required in terms of being able to read the play and anticipate where the danger is.  Awareness is another attribute especially of rival players who will exploit the slightest bit of space available.  Plus there is also the ability of organisation and communication that is vital to any settled defence.  Knowing where each other is on the pitch and to keep the line and shape of the team.

This is something that Ramos has in abundance.  With a defender like Ramos you can minimise the opposition’s space on the pitch and have the ability to break up their play.  Added to which Ramos is excellent on the ball.  When he receives the ball there is almost a nonchalant response as though the football is part of his body.  Again this talent can not only help you break up your opponents attack but put them on the back foot by setting up a counter-attack.

Of course the Achilles heel of Sergio Ramos is his disciplinary record.  He holds the undistinguished record of having been the most sent off player for Real Madrid having been dismissed from the pitch twenty-one times.  Admittedly some of them have been for rash challenges and second bookable offences that could easily be avoided. However there is a cynicism that secretly supporters want.  That is fouling players as a last resort to prevent the opposition from breaking forward and scoring.

It may be a little nudge or even a trip to knock a player off-balance but Ramos doesn’t deliberately go out to injure a fellow professional even if he is wearing a rival shirt.  Some may show open outrage at such gamesmanship but for some it is the ruthlessness of a winner who wants to win at all costs.

Back in November 2010 it was believed by sceptics that Ramos deliberately earned a second yellow card for time-wasting with Real already 4-0 up.  With the remaining game a dead rubber as Real Madrid had already qualified and Ramos a booking away from a suspension some believed Ramos had looked for the sending off in order to start with a clean slate in the next round.

With the recent Spanish national side one of the best and indeed one of the most successful it speaks for itself that Ramos is a regular for the national side.  He has seldom let the side down and has scored ten goals for Spain.

Sergio Ramos is a defender who every team would want in their side.  Not only can he play but there is that determination and ruthlessness of wanting to win.  These type of players are if the truth be told are not bothered if it is Garston park or the Bernabeu they want to win.  Furthermore they expect and will make it be known that they expect their team mates to step up to the plate when necessary.  No slacking or heads going down are tolerated.

Of course there is the added bonus that Ramos is one of the best defenders of his generation.  Something that Carlo Ancelotti declared as he declared “There are defenders with extraordinary technical quality, others have unique defensive qualities – like Cannavaro – who was brilliant at marking. Others, like Baresi, can command a back line while others influence with their strong personalities. But factoring everything together to evaluate a defender then Sergio Ramos is the most complete. He’s got a little bit of everything: technical quality, strength, personality and leadership.”

This is why the likes of Real Madrid are happy to spend big money on players like Ramos as they bring success and trophies.  He is also a defender that will bring stability and organisation that makes teammates and fans alike confident that the defence will not be breached.

Brian Benjamin