Sunday, 24 May 2015

Judgment Day

I was wrong.

I’ve written a ton of stuff about Liverpool over the past few years. And most of it has been during, or has covered, the time of the regime ultimately remembered, characterised and visually embedded into our minds by the face of a Northern Irishman who had me spinning at the idea of death by football.

And I admit. I was sold. I was intrigued. I take on board the foolishness of it, lest these words I write now condemn me more than the many votes of confidence, tactical celebration and rhetoric about the Steve Peters effect. Rodgers isn’t the man for Liverpool, that much is clear.

That is not to say he is a poor coach.  That is not to say he had nothing to do with the most entertaining, exhilarating and engaging Liverpool I’ve ever watched in my near 20 years of supporting the club. On the contrary, he was pivotal to it, for both the best and the worst of its display.  @Brenzie said it best on Twitter:

But make no mistake, there is nothing quixotic about the reply that FSG must take to the future of Rodgers, the committee, coaching staff and whoever else surrounds the true reasons for the capitulation of this season, especially in context of the last.  Because as much as Liverpool over-achieved last season, there are fewer springboards better than the 2013/14 campaign that the club could have asked for from which to make a genuinely strong, stable and profound reply.

And that is why – in my mind – I need to varnish the picture of the following reasons why if the current regime remains, FSG make the wrong choice in retaining a man (and whoever else is involved) who does not lack talent, but simply, has run the last leg of his Anfield race. 

Caught between 4th and some Spurs

Before the emergence of the oil money that funded the Man City bullet train to speed past and entrench themselves financially as a big club, the top 4 in England was largely academic.  There was never a doubt that any of Liverpool, Arsenal, Man United and Chelsea would miss out on the Champions League qualification – the debate was who finished where.

Until 2009/10. When – ironically – the capitulation of a managerial Liverpool legend in the wider harmony of his influence, his squad quality and the senior leadership of the club, all combined to allow Man City and Spurs to contest 4th, the spot going to the latter, even more ironically given City’s spending already to that point.

2010/11, while Liverpool were in mutation, the new top 4 appeared. Apparently to stay.

Yet – in 2011/12, Chelsea finished 6th. Spurs with a relatively modest 69 points in 4th.  In 2012/13, the new top 4 appeared again, although Spurs once again missed out narrowly, a mere point behind Arsenal, landing 5th with 72 points. In 2013/14, Man United collapsed, and while Arsenal recorded a very high 79 points to finish 4th, Liverpool chose this particular season (when it appeared most difficult, ironically) to improve on the minimum requirements to land a top 4 position.

In 2014/15, however, there appeared to be a regression to the mean. 70 points was enough to get Man United – a poor Man United – 4th place. 

Now – while the 2009/10 Man City were still building and the 2011/12 Chelsea were in disarray, there is no doubt that the financial prowess of Man United has hardly compensated for a relative impotence of the quality of their team on the pitch in the past 2 seasons. Man United may not make the same mistakes again. Man City may not have a mid-season football aneurism. Arsenal may well finally make the next steps to become the team the need to compete for a title.

For Liverpool to win the title, they likely need under-performance from just about all 4 clubs above them, but only one needs to fail for Liverpool to get into the Champions League and use that as the springboard (consistently, of course) to develop over the long term to increase its footballing operations to compete for titles. 

For 2 seasons in a row, Man United has obliged.  They took their superior resources. They threw it comically at David Moyes. Then at a man who looks very little like the Louis Van Gaal that mentored people like Jose Mourinho.  They spent the near equivalent of Cristiano Ronaldo on Falcao and Angel Di Maria, with both players leaving little quality on the 10 months’ worth of pitches that they played upon in 2014/15. If not for David De Gea, Man United would be worth far less than the 70 points they accumulated in the season.

The 2 seasons before Man United’s collapse, the 6 year points average for 4th place of 71,5 points was nearly met both times by a club with less resources, less gross transfer spend and the complicated management of Harry Redknapp and Andre Vilas Boas compared to Liverpool. Timmy “Tactics” Sherwood was more remembered for comedic jibes in press conferences, but no-one points out that when he had the task of chasing Champions League qualification, the team finishing 4th achieved 79 points, the highest ever tally in the league’s history that the 4th placed team accumulated in a single campaign.  Spurs’ haul of 69 points in 2013/14 compares well to the previous chases for top 4.

With the understandable exception of their first (half) season in upper management, opportunity to finish top 4 has knocked for Liverpool for the entire tenure of FSG’s ownership. All Liverpool had to do was make sure they obliged in equal measure to achieve the points they needed, and to capitalise on whichever rival was allowing themselves to be overhauled in that season.

It’s not the size, it’s how you use it

One of the most important ways Liverpool were going to achieve top 4, especially under Rodgers, was through the correct player recruitment.  Naturally, this is typically a function of resources.  It’s an issue of interpretation and statistical fact, but without revealing my ignorance for the numbers involved too much, the net spend and gross spend numbers still don’t present much of a defence of the idea that Liverpool were lacking in opportunity when compared to their rivals to reach top 4 the past 3 seasons in the Rodgers regime (all figures from ):

I’ll admit I’m not a fan of net spend – not because I’m not trying to undermine the obvious relationship it has to contextualising a club’s spend relative to its total spending power – but because ultimately, gross spend gives you an indication of the club’s willed spending behaviour relative to the talent it brought in.  When Liverpool purchased Andy Carroll for £35m, it stand to reason that that was the price they were willing to pay for a striker to replace Fernando Torres.  £35m could have bought other strikers who were available who would have been perceived to be more likely successful than Carroll – but instead Liverpool ended up selling him as a tall, unwanted peg in the Rodgers system, and an opportunity lost with £35m.

I don’t cite this example to be crass about the risk of transfers. Every transfer poses a risk of failure; but for a club in Liverpool’s situation, one would usually rather not be over-paying for the big, young Geordie who’s had one good season under a very specific style of play.  There is an opportunity cost with any outlay of cash. If you’re spending £20m on Stewart Downing, you’re not spending it on Juan Mata (who ironically gave Chelsea a profit on their initial £23.5m investment).  The margin for error with Liverpool is smaller than with their richer rivals, who can afford a £60m+ checkmate like Angel Di Maria.

Yet, Liverpool has spent £215m in the Rodgers regime. Most of it came in the summer of 2014, following the sale of Luis Suarez, with Liverpool understandably wanting to cash in to address the loss of quality and squad depth. That £215m is more than Arsenal’s £191m or Spurs’ £193m in the same period. The caveat I’m driving at here is that regardless whether you have less or more cash than your immediate rivals, neither position is an excuse to spend it poorly.

And spend poorly they did.  I’m not questioning the resources – I’m questioning the strategy.  There was no sense behind spending £20m, an above average sum, for a left sided centre back worse than the current incumbent; the obvious player to improve on has always been Martin Skrtel. Regardless of Lallana’s qualities, there was no evidence this season or last that he represented a significant improvement on Coutinho or the Sterling we know before contract issues disturbed his focus. Yet the £25m that Liverpool were prepared to spend on Lallana would typically indicate that you’d expect him to be better than both those young stars.  If he wasn’t – he shouldn’t have been bought at that price.

It’s not like Liverpool weren’t capable of buying the value; Moreno hasn’t been great but even if he was to be sold, most if not all of his fee would be recovered. Emre Can and Javi Manquillo represent superb value for the money invested.  But there are question marks over all the rest. Lambert in tow with Borini presented a recipe for disaster given the context of both players beforehand. Balotelli was a risk taken – but in hindsight, applying him in tactics that don’t suit him anyway speak volumes of all the failures in player and recruitment alike.  Lazar Markovic (whom I still defend and still rate) was ultimately signed one season too early and the £20m invested in him represents an opportunity missed to buy an alternative without the need to wait for a player to develop.  And £20m is hardly a small sum of money that wouldn’t find you a player more fully formed.  Chelsea’s valuation of him should have been an indicator to Liverpool.

This is also the drum to beat about the goals. Many brood over the lack of goals in the team, but in Lambert, Borini and Balotelli, Liverpool possess £30m worth of striking talent based on how much was invested to get them. Graziano Pelle cost Southampton £9m and outscored all 3 of them by 5 league goals.  It’s a superficial comparison, but it is also a simple indicator of getting better return on a lower investment.  If Liverpool aren’t able to discern that their current crop of strikers aren’t good enough to cover for the frail legs of Daniel Sturridge, there’s a serious problem with the recruitment strategy and its execution.

The largest indictment of this is again the performance of Spurs, and to an extent Arsenal as well (who ultimately represent the club Liverpool should have been most to emulate). Both clubs have comparative or lower gross and net spends. Both clubs performed better in the past 3 years, save for the one season when a Uruguayan led Liverpool’s footballing blitzkrieg.

Death by football

But perhaps the football can compensate. After all, doesn’t that tell the real story of what fans hope to see on a pitch?  Sometimes the best part of the story of Istanbul IS the fact that Liverpool had someone like Traore in the lineup; it’s not as romantic if Liverpool had a star studded lineup.

But therein lies the challenge. When Rodgers commenced his regime, even if you considered it cheesy, snake-oil rhetoric, his words about possession and death by football at least communicated a desired identify and style. At the turning point of 2012/13, starting with the acquisition of Coutinho and Sturridge, the style changed to something which moulded by the end of 2013/14 into a powerful engine of fantastic attacking transitional football.

But 2014/15 seems to have occurred in isolation of those 2 previous years, and the damage the campaign does to the overall tenure of Rodgers over his 3 years is that while hearts and minds are tentative and tolerant in a young manager’s 1st season, they cannot be anything remotely similar in the 3rd especially after the 2nd season produces a healthy ascent from which to move.  Fans will cite the loss of Suarez but as many factors went against Liverpool, so did factors move in their favour.  Man United’s heavy investment in Falcao yielded the same number of league goals scored by Lambert, Borini and Balotelli.  Man United’s form in the business end of the season since the victory over Liverpool at Anfield yielded a paltry 11 points from 8 games – Liverpool responded to this opportunity with 8 points in 8 games, falling further behind.

Man United even obliged with a poor return of 1.88 points per game against opponents 8th and lower, but Liverpool only managed 1.73 in reply.  Ironically, Liverpool kept 12 clean sheets in these 26 games, more than the whole of last season’s 10 – but they failed to score at least 1 goal on 7 occasions. And therein lies the issue of HOW this team was used and applied.  Are we really to understand that the squad Liverpool possessed wasn’t capable of scoring at least 1 goal to achieve 3 points vs Hull (H), Sunderland (H), Everton (A) and WBA (A)? Or at least 1 goal to prevent defeat against Villa (H), Newcastle (A) and Hull (A)?

I’ve been mocked before for emphasising these results and their importance – but there aren’t too many arguments against the idea that you shouldn’t be heavily focused on getting the points you’d typically expect.  Arsenal have been doing so for years, and while their spending behaviour divides opinion, their consistency in the top 4 does not.

When Rodgers shifted the system to 3421, the extra body in defence came at the expense of another going forward. Less players to attack with. Already underperforming players. Some playing out of position. Some having too much asked of them. But instead of seeing the warning signs against Swansea and Southampton, the weaknesses of the 3421 were indulged instead of the strengths built upon. Players have been misused, or underused and the man who somehow got 30+ goals out of a want-away Uruguayan superstar seems to have been stranded in our memories instead of the Anfield dressing room.  The team’s creative drive was reduced to a tactic that was visibly “just pass it to Coutinho” so often that Swansea, Southampton, Man United and Arsenal were able to identify and counter it with ease.

The irony is the that the brief 13 game run from Arsenal to Swansea that lifted Liverpool from 10th to 5th was good enough to nearly rescue a season. Before the run, Liverpool accumulated 21 points from 16 games (1.31 points per game); after the run, 8 from 9 (0.88 points per game – relegation form). It is incredible to think that over half of Liverpool’s points came in that period – and they were a mere 9 points away from beating United to 4th having played that badly.

Three Strikes and Out

Much of my lamentations have concentrated on this season – and many would suggest it’s unfair.  That may be the case, except 2014/15 reads like a series of doors opened for Liverpool that they themselves stumbled to avoid walking through.  United collapsed, Liverpool finished 2nd, never mind 4th; but were unable to capitalise in full.  Suarez was sold for a hefty sum – but the strategic logic behind the purchases of Balotelli, Lambert, Lovren, Lallana and Markovic simply create climates of uncertainty under which none of them would ever succeed unless they played beyond their current abilities.  Liverpool got a Champions League group in which a mere 8 points was required to progress, with a draw so favourable that it would have been difficult to better it by choosing the teams. 
Finishing 4th required 71 points, and Man United once again obliged to an extent by being largely poor over the season; but Liverpool lost their ability to be flat track bullies, their ability to be inherently creative and to win the games where they had a superior team.
Why is 2014/15 important? Because for every year that Liverpool lost ground since Man United started their redefinition of the English football landscape in the early 90’s, Liverpool (ironically with a favourable rank in resources then) would lament that the following year would bring improvement, progression. Every year is critical to progress, because this league is unforgiving to teams that stand still. 

There are elements of a certain decorum the club chooses to follow when treating its managers and to that, I understand why it would be out of character to sack Rodgers early on.  But the courtship of this 3 year period has left my tolerance, at least.  His first year could be forgiven. His second divides opinion depending on how you feel about just how far the brilliance of Suarez extended.  But to me, his third represents a avoidable regression.

Many fans around me have had different cycles of this journey. Some weren’t convinced by his first season, others saw little of Rodgers’ in last season. Some gave up when Lovren was signed; some still after the poor start to the season. Some turned by the time Man United and Arsenal had inflicted defeat back to back.  Some condemned the poor show in Wembley. Some were hurt by the captain’s last home game. Some (conceivably most) needed 6 reasons from Stoke.

Whatever your personal journey, 3 seasons is a fair time to judge his regime. Tolerance levels will drop when you’ve had time in the job. They’ll drop more when resources are available.  They’ll drop more when rivals underperform (many would be a lot more forgiving if United had played well, arguably).  They’ll drop more if you didn’t use all the players you had properly.  They’ll drop more when you make comments veiled with sarcasm about defensive coaches.

I did believe in him.  I did want him to succeed. But unfortunately, there comes a time when sticking with something does more damage than starting afresh.  The Rodgers regime came with promise – but ultimately, its judgment comes at the equation of opportunity and resource with results… and the imbalance is no longer in his favour. 

Friday, 3 October 2014

Where's Them Frikkin' Lazar Beams??

It's the evening of the 25th August, 2013.  Somewhere in the red heart of Lisboa, Benfica manager Jorge Jesus can't sit for fear that his nerves will betray his confidence. His nerves are gone. The jacket's off. No tie or fashion bulletin scarf around his neck. Even the gum's being chewed with long teeth. He's feeling the pressure of the white handkerchiefs threatening to reveal themselves past the pockets of the watching Benfiquista faithful.

It's 0-1 to Gil Vicente. At home. 7 days after a demoralising opening day defeat in Madeira to Maritimo.  And his principal creators Gaitan and Salvio, bereft of form, now reside behind him on an anxious Benfica bench. It was just 2 minutes later that Viana scored the opener.

80 minutes. 0-1.
85 minutes. 0-1.
90 minutes. 0-1. Still.

This wasn't supposed to happen.
They weren't supposed to have a horrid May where a treble went up in smoke at the hands of a presumptuous display in Estoril, and being cut at the knees against Porto, Chelsea and Guimaraes.
They definitely weren't supposed to start the new season like this. No big departures? Additions of intriguing talent like Filip Djuricic and Miralem Sulejmani? A stronger team, surely! Not one that loses at home to Gil Vicente??

92 minutes, Wait. What!? Number 50's just run on a glorious defence splitting pass into the box. And scored!?  An intelligent diagonal run vs. static centre backs, and a lovely finish with his right!
1 minute later, Benfica have won through another late goal, this time from main striker Lima. 2-1 win. Snatched from the jaws of defeat.

Jorge Jesus breathes. And this number 50 kid... who the hell is he?

At the time we didn't know. Well, ok, Very few did know.  Very few understood the background of one of Serbia's most exciting young technical prospects, already rumoured to have been scouted by Chelsea while at Partizan Belgrade.

But that changed a week later.

After all, that was no ordinary Sporting team. No. This was not the Sporting of old. It had purpose. A good coach with great ideas in Leonardo Jardim. And a trio of midfielders growing in stature in William Carvalho, Adrien Silva and Andre Martins.  They were great value for their 1-0 lead after 10 minutes, even if it was at home.

But wait. Did that Serbian kid just replace the first choice Benfica winger Salvio due to injury?  And did that same Serbian punk just breeze past the Sporting midfield and inbetween the left back and centre back to calmly slot past Patricio for a critical equaliser to ultimately frame him as a temporary cult derby hero?  The ball just stuck to his feet! What the hell??

Many didn't know his name before.
They did now.
Lazar Markovic.

Lazar produced some key moments in the big games against Porto and Sporting.
(Image source -


It's the evening of the 25th August 2014. 60 minutes into what was supposed to be a close encounter between 2 title rivals from the previous season, the world has changed considerably for Lazar Markovic. He's already put the domestic treble and the disappointing Europa League final with Benfica behind him.  And the 7 goals he scored. And the assists he created, including a memorable one for Rodrigo against title rivals Porto.

Instead, this time he's replacing Philippe Coutinho, walking onto the pitch in Liverpool red, and facing an opponent the quality of which he's never faced. It's not his fault, of course. For all of their efforts, Benfica's most illustrious opponents in season 2013/14 were PSG and Juventus. Neither play in the gruelling physicality and tempo of the Premier League.

As a Benfica and Liverpool fan, I was asked (and still do get asked) several times about Lazar. His best qualities. His best position. His promise. And more recently - his price tag.

My answers have always been based on what I saw, of course. And call me biased, but there's not exactly a poor track record with certain players from Portuguese football, expensive as they normally are. His impact with Benfica had been fantastic. I had little reason to think he couldn't replicate it given time and opportunity.

After the cameo against Man City came Spurs. Then suddenly injuries to key players forced him into the spotlight against Villa, West Ham, Middlesborough, Everton and Basel.  It's not a great sample - but football is merciless to those who flatter to deceive.

And Markovic has done just that.


The main contributing factor though - is not his fault at all. It's the precedent set in recent years in Portuguese football, where Porto and Benfica have managed to produce considerable transfer cash cows (even with the issues of third party ownership) through the sale of talent too great to contain on Portuguese shores like Angel Di Maria, Axel Witsel, Hulk, Joao Moutinho and Nemanja Matic.

But Markovic has a different challenge. Yes, he illustrated his talent in Portugal. And yes, before he even began think about taking in Portuguese customs, he was already considered a special talent while at Partizan Belgrade.

It was widely considered that Chelsea were going to be the main front-runners for his signature (truth be told, that may still be the case one day).  I was convinced of this. And I constantly iterated this time and time again. Just like Nemanja Matic before him, he was inevitably London bound.

But then - he wasn't.
20m reasons later, did I discover that Liverpool had acquired him. And with my two hats, I immediately posed the 2 sides of the coin.
For Benfica - an inevitable departure, perhaps a season earlier than expected, or hoped. The destination? Irrelevant. The full price was paid - and that's all that Luis Filipe Vieira wanted, of course.

But for Liverpool? 20m for a 20 year old?

It's no coincidence that people make the comparisons now between Lazar and Stewart Downing.  I'm awaiting the comparison with Andy Carroll, because in a strange way, that may well be the most appropriate.

Did Andy want to leave Newcastle? Likely not. Did they want the cash offered? Very much so.
Did Lazar farm himself out for sale? I doubt he cared either way. Did Benfica want the cash offered? You know the answer.

The price is the same noose hanging around the neck of any player who's development, skills and assimilation into a new league, team or challenge are perceived not to be in sync with their transfer fee.  It's the reason Liverpool fans doubted Jordan Henderson initially (well, actually, some still do).  It's the reason Aquilani's flop hurt that much more.  Or Carroll and Downing, for that matter.


And of course, with the price and the failure to produce the initial reassuring signs of a good investment come the criticism. The doubt. The hate. The bestial remarks on instagram posts and Twitter comparing Lazar's abilities to that of a disabled primate (or something like that, anyway).

Yet... I struggle to recall many players with big price tags who didn't have a certain pedigree already developed behind them.  A price brings with it expectations and often, the best players dispel the nonsensical notions of "time needed to settle in" when their prices are considerably high. Mata for Chelsea or Man United. Bale to Real Madrid. Silva, or Aguero for Man City. Di Maria for Man United. Fabregas, or Costa, or even Matic for Chelsea.

That's not to say it always works like that, of course. Ozil didn't hit the ground running at Arsenal. Lamela may yet still flop completely at Spurs. Many Liverpool fans are now amenting Mario Balotelli, be it with pleas of patience or condemnation.  Adam Lallana's largest critics have a larger problem with his price tag than Adam's abilities to contribute to the team.

But a 20 year old? A kid? Because that IS what he is, of course.

There are comparisons to Sterling. And those comparisons aren't unfounded given that they are similar players in style and approach. But Sterling has a few things that Markovic doesn't have. Sterling has experience of the league, the academy, the manager's approach. The experience of team-mates around him. And most of all, the experience of having been on the fringes of the team for the sake of patience, development and above all, confidence.  A far cry from the calls suggesting to loan him after appearing as a right back in some of Rodgers' early tactical shifts in 2013-14.

Some of that may be irrelevant if you're in your mid 20s. But a kid?

Ironically, you could (theoretically) buy Sterling now for 20m and suggest that he not only represents great value for the future - but also a fantastic talent at the moment in his own right. The problem with this comparison is simple. Sterling has developed into a magnificent world class player at this tender age.  But Markovic hasn't been afforded that opportunity, and may not at Liverpool, because the price will always betray any performance he produces, be it good ("about time he justified his price!" or bad ("waste of money!").

The reality is this. Very seldom are large outlays of cash made for players this young.  It is becoming more common as teams become more determined to maximize the return on key young prospects, but there's a handful of teams that sell (or pay) top dollar for potential.  And even I'm not too hubristic to admit that Liverpool paid a premium for potential in his transfer.


However, all that being said, I am effectively a Markovic apologist, so let me try my rhetoric to suggest a notion which, while not wholly satisfying to absolve the Serbian of his role in his poor start at Liverpool, does nonetheless pose a compelling argument to defend the lad (at least, I think so).

Lazar was a key ingredient in Benfica's league and domestic cup treble in 2013/14.
(Image source -

At Benfica, his introduction into the team played to a lot of good factors. A team facing opponents of a lower overall quality, technical ability and physicality compared to Liverpool. A team that also finished 2nd in their respective competition, and ironically with even higher expectations set up on it, but a team with an established identity.  No loss of key players (Matic would only make his exit in January 2014 and by that point, the team already had a reasonable alternative to him in Ljubomir Fejsa).  No dramatic introduction of several new faces, including a near total overhaul of the back 4. In fact, the only initial change in that Benfica team other than Markovic himself was a new left back in Guilherme Siqueira.

Liverpool are in a significantly different place. They have a far more difficult league to navigate, married with the ludicrous expectations of some to challenge for large titles outright.  They have changed 3 of the back 4, retaining the only weak link in that setup (Skrtel). They've exacerbated the midfield issues with bizarre tactical applications that bind Henderson to Gerrard in a Hodgson-esque 2-man configuration which doesn't support the attack and clearly is still ineffective in protecting the defence.

Often Liverpool attack with isolation - 3 vs a swarm of defenders resting deep, in stark contrast to last season's quick attacking transitions and excellent off ball movement and rotation of the front 3, supported with 2 fullbacks and 2 central midfielders to allow ball retention, and management and creation of space.

It's Liverpool's previous season's attacking style that marries why I believe Liverpool bought Lazar, because Benfica operated very much in a similar manner, with the team's shape largely a fluid 343 in attack. And whether he played with mobile fowards like Rodrigo and Lima, or a more static big centre forward like Oscar Cardozo, Markovic didn't struggle to create or capitalise on space which he specifically needs to shine.

In short - Markovic hasn't been employed enough in the manner which plays to his strengths, and he's playing a role alien to him in a team that isn't functioning on any cylinders at times.  If people believe they've not seen anything of him to illustrate any promise or sign to justify his purchase, I would agree, albeit with a heavy heart.  If he's being reduced to taking down high diagonal balls from deep from Gerrard, and being expected to run to the corner flag, and put in a cross for the big man in the middle - most people who have seen him play will tell you he will always look worse than Stewart Downing if that's what his role is.


Lazar missed the Europa League final after being mistakenly assumed to have participated in a touchline brawl.
(Image source -

Lazar is not a traditional winger.  He's a wide forward, whose instinct when receiving the ball in wide positions (or centrally, for that matter) with space is to see the pitch in front of him, run at speed at defenders, with good off-ball movement around him to drag defenders out of position.  That, combined with his excellent touches and technique (and a bit of audacity), tends to the produce the real magic and brilliance that set Benfiquista hearts alive last season.  It's that magic that made him a critical part of a team that lost a handful of times last season, conquering the domestic competitions threefold.  It stands to reason that had it not been for a bizarre suspension from a brawl in the semifinal against Juventus, he could have made the difference in a Benfica side strapped of many of its creative resources against Sevilla in the Europa League final.

That's why ironically, my condemnation of his poor start doesn't make allowance for some of the more positive and optimistic Liverpool fans who've said they've "noticed his pace", or said things like "he looked decent against City", and "made some nice touches".

The Markovic I know and expect hasn't arrived at Anfield.  I last saw him celebrating a third trophy win in Benfica red.

I also don't believe his poor form is due only to him - there are issues larger than him affecting the team at present. But fundamentally, I hope for his sake, he is afforded the time to develop, to integrate to shine. I believe Liverpool could have a very special talent if that is the case.

But if that doesn't happen...he may become someone else's diamond to polish. And he is a diamond, of that I have little doubt.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Is it Benfica’s Title to Lose?

A special note - this blog post is dedicated to the memory of the greatest ever Benfica player that ever lived and is likely to ever kick a ball in the famous red shirt. Descansa em paz, Rei.  Obrigado, Eusebio.

Permit me a bit of fiction.

It’s the week of the Clássico.  Benfica coach, Jorge Jesus, casts a contemplative glance at the Liga table at near mid-point in the current 2013-14 season.  All the big 3 on 33 points, separated mainly by the goals of Fredy Montero and Jackson Martinez.  All 3 unbeaten at home.  One has a new coach, extremely talented and somewhat liberated by the opportunity to use a talented crop of youngsters, ready to bloom into focus as they weave up new hopes in every Sportinguista in the planet.  The defending champions also have a new coach, brooding furiously over his tactical adjustments, slightly unsettled that a failure to qualify from a Champions League group, combined with lacking performances and a sobering league campaign have brought pressure that he could have only dreamed of in his previous life at Paços de Ferreira.

Jorge Jesus ponders on the 3rd team in that trio – they are his responsibility. A team likely still recovering from 3 of the biggest gut wrenching punches a football team could ever experience.  3 trophies up in smoke in the matter of 3 weeks.  A magnificent season’s performance undermined by bad luck, bad tactics, bad form and Hungarian curses.  He casts his mind back to previous title races, like that of 2006-07, where Benfica ended 3rd, 2 points behind Porto with Sporting sandwiched in-between. Or that of 2004-05, where “boring” Trapattoni’s Benfica topped their table a mere 4 points ahead of Sporting in 3rd.

Unlike Fonseca at Porto or Jardim at Sporting, Jorge Jesus doesn’t have the “new coach forgiveness” card, (mind you, it’s debatable if Fonseca has one too).  Jorge Jesus didn’t lose the players he anticipated to lose, nor did he lack money and spending to bring in additional talent to empower a stronger squad for a title challenge (even if some of those transfers made little sense).

Jorge Jesus faces a tricky race for this season's Liga title.
(Image source -

Jorge Jesus contemplates the Liga table again. The Clássico looms. The Benfiquista crowd packs the Luz to capacity.  Their singing and passion engulf the stadium.  The old man knows.

This could be close.

The 2013-14 Liga Title Race

It’s the first time since 2007 that the traditional big 3 of Benfica, Sporting and Porto seem destined for a meaningful title race.  The teams resume their Liga fixtures this weekend with the entire top 4 in action against each other. High flyers Estoril host Sporting, while the first Clássico of the new season takes place at the Luz.

It’s not hard to see why the Clássico typically takes on such significance. Last season’s Clássico at the Dragão provided a sequence of title drama that Hollywood could never script or execute better than the real life tears of despair felt by a nation of Eagles fans, sharing in the defeated image of an old man on his knees seconds after Kelvin’s winning goal.

Yet, even though the 3 sides are locked on 33 points, each team has such a different story to tell.  Those stories already provide clues as to who could be crowned champions in May.

Sporting are a rejuvenated team this season.
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Sporting’s academy romance

After some lean years, Sporting’s resurgence looks impressive this season. There’s obvious affection for a team with young starlets, many of them expected to represent the future of the national team.  Strategically, the team has gone back to its – literally – academic roots, with academy graduates like William Carvalho, Adrien Silva and André Martins all playing a part in the most cohesive team in the Liga this season.

The key, however, remains the level headed tactical approach of new coach Leonardo Jardim.  Jardim’s setup maximizes the potential of the 3 man midfield configuration of Carvalho, Silva and Martins to dominate possession and create plenty of chances for current top scorer Fredy Montero, while rotating extensively between wing-forwards Diego Capel, André Carillo and Wilson Eduardo.  The results illustrate the effect – they’re top scorers in the Liga, and they’ve scored 3+ goals in 5 games, including a massive 5-1 win over Arouca.

Sporting are also leveraging some obvious advantages that they have over their two more celebrated rivals; the lean years have meant that Jardim is operating under significantly less pressure compared to Jesus (Benfica) and Fonseca (Porto). Sporting have not needed to spread their relatively thin squad over an additional 6 Champions League games.  And admittedly, Jardim has the other benefit of inheriting a group of academy players who are familiar with one another, as opposed to one or two starlets to integrate into the team.

Sporting’s squad is short on depth though.  Striker Slimani looks several levels below cover / additional support for Montero.  The midfield trio is hardly supported by equal talent levels beneath them, and this includes former team captain Rinaudo.

The celebrated midfield trio also can be light on physicality, which showed extensively in Porto’s 3-1 win over Sporting, and to a lesser extent in Benfica’s 4-3 win in the Taça de Portugal.

In defence, Jefferson, Maurício and Marcos Rojo, while solid, are hardly a patch on the superior defensive individual talents at both Benfica and Porto.  If not for Jardim’s tactical approach that permits the opportunity for Sporting to dominate the ball, more teams would have already taken advantage of this.

Porto are still in the race, but have been unconvincing.
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Porto’s consistent…inconsistency?

Ironically not dissimilar to the much lamented Vitor Pereira, something doesn’t seem completely right with the defending champions and their new coach Paulo Fonseca.  The former Paços coach’s squad and tactical tinkering hasn’t seemed to deliver the same effect, even though, save for the disappointment of a Champions League group stage exit, the team is still producing the majority of the results one would expect. 

But the vulnerabilities are potentially extensive when compared to the robust approach under Pereira. The difference largely seems to be a distinct lack of defensive shape, especially when the team is in defensive transition, a problem which most Benquistas would recognize fairly well under their current coach, given they suffer from similar issues.

That’s not to say that Porto is not defensively solid. At times, Fernando Reges has done substantial credit to his nickname (“Octopus”) by covering for the lacking positional sense of his teammates, especially Defour, who has been one of a couple of poor performers. In Danilo, Alex Sandro and Mangala, Porto have 3 of the most technically astute, and skilled defenders in the Liga, all catching the eye of suitors outside of Portugal.

As for the frontline, what Varela, Licá, Josué and Quintero lack in absolute quality and consistency, Lucho makes up for in experience and Jackson makes up for in raw ability.  There is little doubt though that they miss the influence of João Moutinho through the middle though.  His influence as a central foil for buildup play combined with his strong pressing in the opponent’s half is unmatched, and hasn’t been replaced, either through a signing or tactically.

It’s these issues that ultimately have made Fonseca’s reign at Porto circumspect. His tactical tinkering have already seemed to calm in the past few fixtures since the fallout of the Champions League exit (no surprise they’ve been unbeaten since) but they still appear a shade of their former selves.  With the shadow of André Villas Boas lurking over the club since his sacking at Tottenham, Fonseca could be forgiven for being somewhat apprehensive about his team’s prospects.

Benfica – creating new shades of ambivalence

Sure, Sporting are flying high and Porto have a title to defend, but the majority of the pressure and expectation rests squarely on the shoulders of everyone wearing red in the Estádio da Luz.  There are many reasons for this, not least the fact that the club strengthened over the summer, retained all their key players (including some they didn’t expect) and – above all – retained the services of Jorge Jesus as coach.

Football theorists and pundits often lament a lack of continuity as one of the key reasons why it takes time for teams to create and sustain long term success, so one can understand why Benfica harbor such expectation. Yet much of it is misplaced. The team’s playing dynamics have been very poor this season.  Too many games seem to have been decided by the wizardry of individuals coming up with their own moments of magic, as opposed to a consistent, coached and strategised plan of action on the pitch. Games like the 2-1 win at Gil Vicente. Or the equalizer away at Sporting. Some Benfiquistas feel like they’re watching the same game every week with different shades of individual escape artistry.

Yet, it’s clearly obvious that Benfica easily have the most talented and deepest squad in the country. Only Rui Patrício, Jackson Martinez, Fredy Montero, Danilo and Fernando Reges can claim to be superior players in their respective positions. Otherwise, Benfica’s first choice defensive unit, for all its tactical issues is superb, with great depth in players like Silvio and André Almeida. Jorge Jesus has stumbled on a happy accident in applying Rúben Amorim in a 3 man midfield alongside the superb workhorse Enzo Pérez and the growing superstar Nemanja Matic. Going forward, no-one else can boast a forward line deeper and more talented as a group than Markovic, Gaitán, Salvio, Sulejmani, Ola John, Djuricic and Cavaleiro. Lima, Cardozo and Rodrigo may not be the equal of Jackson or Montero, but they’ve scored the goals regardless.  And conversely, Benfica have 3 effective striker options, as opposed to one superstar and no depth.

Despite all this, one can’t help but watch Benfica and think they’re playing like they’re trying to move through several gears at once – no cohesion, no proper plan. Sometimes it comes together beautifully in performance, like Gil Vicente (5-0 in the Taca), or Olympiakos (0-1 defeat in the Champions League); most of the time, it’s been perceived as scrappy and lucky.

The “Três Grandes” by the Numbers

For all these intrinsic differences between the fundamental squad talent and tactical application of talent across the 3 teams, their Liga campaigns thus far already give some intriguing clues into where they may end up.  Using the current Liga table as a barometer of how teams will rank at the end of the season, here’s an idea of where Benfica, Porto and Sporting have earned their points this season:

Some immediate intriguing observations come out. Naturally, with the Benfica – Porto Clássico to come, the title challenger table is somewhat thin to make a meaningful comparison, although Sporting’s sole defeat of the season thus far came against Porto – make of that what you will.

The other 3 “groups” are extremely intriguing.  Benfica are perfect against the sides competing for the European places in the table, and their record includes away wins at the superbly coached Estoril and Vitória Guimarães.  Porto’s return could worsen since they still need to travel to Guimarães, Nacional and Braga.  Sporting’s return should improve against these sides, given that they still need to host Estoril, Guimarães and Braga at the Alvalade.

Against the midtable sides, the big 3 are practically neck and neck, with Benfica and Porto only having dropped points due to defeats away at Marítimo and Académica respectively.  What’s interesting here is that Benfica have only played 1 of their 5 games against these sides at home – Marítimo, Rio Ave, Setúbal and Académica all visit the Luz in the second half of the season; a critical advantage on Sporting and Porto.

It’s the relegation battler group that makes for the most confusing reading.  Benfica bizarrely dropped points against Belenenses and Arouca, at home no less, while the other 2 made the most of their games against the weakest sides in the league, especially Sporting with 14 goals in their 4 matches against the bottom 4.  Porto’s schedule is the most favourable in the remaining games against these sides, as they still get to host Belenenses, Arouca and Paços, while Sporting and Benfica have to do some travelling.  That may not be a bad thing though, as one would expect the relegation battling sides to play more expansively at home in the hope of points, allowing the excellent counter attacking qualities of both Lisbon clubs to profit from this.

Is there an obvious winner to Liga 2013-14?

As the Clássico approaches, Jorge Jesus’ record comes into further scrutiny.  The facts speak for themselves; Benfica have failed to win a Liga Clássico since the solitary 1-0 in Jorge Jesus very first game against the old enemy in 2009. In some ways, the Clássico is prophetic.  With the exception of Jorge Jesus’ first season with Benfica, where both sides enjoyed Clássico victories on their home grounds, every season since has seen a share of the points in one match and a win for the resulting league winner in the other.  Last season’s dramatic fixture was THE title decider to replace all title deciders in recent memory.

But this season is different.  It’s a close 3 horse race.  And intriguingly, history tells us that in 5 of the last 7 seasons, teams with 10 wins or more by the start of the new year tend to win the league. This year 3 teams have the same number of wins!

While Sporting have been in excellent form, and Porto inconsistent, I firmly believe IF they can get their act together, it is without doubt Benfica’s title to lose.  The season’s 2nd half schedule is favourable to Benfica.  Their squad is deeper, and it looks likely that their key players (especially Matic) may not leave in January due to interested clubs possibly not having enough appetite to pay the large sums of money demanded mid-season for transfers. Porto in particular are at risk of losing Fernando Reges in January for a tidy sum or risk losing him for free in the summer upon contract expiry. 

Benfica’s good performances can be counted on one hand. They’ve got more gears to find.  And for all their luck and poor form, they’ve still managed to accumulate an unbeaten run in domestic football since their opening day defeat to Maritimo, the longest run of its kind in the current Liga season at present.  Benfica have also taken 16 of 18 available points in their last 6 matches, vs. 11 of 18 for Porto, so the form book suggests good things for Benfica. This game is winnable.  Very winnable.

Will the eagle finally rest upon a Liga trophy this season?
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 Jorge Jesus contemplates the Liga table once more. The Clássico is nearly upon us. The Luz shakes from the beating of Benfiquista hearts so violent in their impatient chests.  The pitch awaits, poised to receive the 22 gladiators waiting to do battle. 

The old man knows.  This will be close.  But it’s his to lose.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Could the trip to Olympiakos be Benfica's most critical game of the season?

As the final whistle blew to end Wednesday night’s “swimming” encounter between the Greek league champions and the Eagles, it was difficult to look past the deluge of water on the Luz pitch and contemplate the significance of the 1-1 draw.  In understanding most football matches, perspective is symbiotic to statistics and cold hard facts, and this was no different.  Olympiakos were a weaker team (on paper, at least), choosing to bench a couple of critical players (Saviola, ironically formerly of Benfica), playing away from home.  Benfica fielded a strong side despite the injuries to recent potential quality signings Markovic and Fejsa.  The consequence of the draw is that both teams sit on 4 points, separated by mere goal difference, in the Greek side’s favour.  In 2 weeks, Benfica travel to Greece

Those 90 minutes in the Southern European nation could be the most important of Benfica’s season.

Jorge Jesus: On borrowed time?

Jorge Jesus has looked under significantly more pressure this season.
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I’m getting ahead of myself – let’s take a step back.  It’s not been a pleasant start for Benfica.  I’ve already lamented the concerns raised by their pre-season in a previous piece, yet there were many reasons to be optimistic, particularly in relation to transfers.  After the club signed Siqueira and Fejsa, the Eagles effectively ended the summer transfer window in a relatively unusual situation. No key players departed. The squad genuinely strengthened and substantially deeper in most positions. Siqueira’s signing was one of far more quality, one that turns left back in a potential strength for the first time since Fabio Ceontrão graced the Luz.  Fejsa, Markovic, Djuricic in particular all offer tactical depth and variety that is meaningful and potent. The talents of Matic, Pérez, Garay, Gaitàn and Salvio were all retained, despite some of them being heavily linked with moves away.

But from the word go, something has just looked wrong with Benfica this season.  Alfredo from the excellent TalkingToDaDoll podcast summed it nicely in a recent edition of the podcast – it’s as if the nightmarish end to last season has been seamlessly continued into this season and the damaging defeats in May are still heavy in the minds of the players.  Jorge Jesus isn’t his usual bombastic self – he’s appeared lost on the touchline, almost searching the pitch for ideas to change fortunes on it.  The team looks disjointed mentally.  Their work rates are inconsistent, only reserved for those inevitable moments of panic when the team falls behind.  Every win has had its own subtext to give Benfiquistas concern – Gil Vicente, Pacos were defensively poor and made it too easy.  Anderlecht were substantially weaker.  Guimarães and Estoril were both wasteful and unlucky not to claim a draw.

True, teams that win championships sometimes win playing poorly and are successful precisely because they grind out results when they’re needed regardless of whether they are deserved or not.  But a fair number of Benfiquistas are starting to question when the team is going to find the impressive form that drove much of the promise held last season.

And in the centre of it is the man with the flaming silver hair, who hasn’t managed to get it right.  He seems oblivious to his best formation, his best squad.  He has immense talents at his disposal, yet hasn’t been able to get the best out of most of them, the only exception arguably being Enzo Pérez.  The charismatic press conferences, the confident persona seems lost; one almost gets the impression Jorge Jesus is trying to convince himself as much as his players and the fans.

Contrasting the value of the Champions League and the Europa League

Benfica's participation in the Champions League is crucial for the club's revenues.
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Naturally, there are many routes to solving these problems, and for many fans, the decision to change the manager is considered both extreme and decisive.  Some will argue Jesus deserves the time, but he doesn’t have circumstances on his side.  Porto, Sporting and Braga have all changed managers.  All 3 still possess – arguably – weaker 1st choice XI’s than Benfica when all players are available.  All 3 have less depth in their squads.  They do have their obvious stand-out superstars, but it’s clear that the expectation and pressure sits with Jorge Jesus, given these circumstances alongside Benfica’s summer spending and retention of key players.

These expectations have been somewhat defined and amplified by the club’s European adventures.

Benfica’s (and Portugal’s) European footprint has significantly been improved in recent years.  Consistent appearances in Europe haven’t hurt the Eagles by any measure, and they’ve been somewhat unlucky to lose in recent seasons to the eventual winners of the Champions League in 2012 and Europa League in 2013.  Last season’s Europa League final brought a romance not felt by Benfica and the club’s fans for over 20 years, and even though defeat was hard to swallow, it wasn’t contextually deemed a failure by many.

However, as with many things, the heart sometimes gets the better of the head, and this is a prime example.

Last season’s Europa League performance earned Benfica a total of €5,7 million in distributions from UEFA.  It’s a figure that’s slightly understated, given that the club would have also earned gate receipts money from the 4 matches in the knockout rounds.

But in comparison to the Champions League – it’s almost laughably inferior.  Benfica’s EXIT from the group stage in the 2012/13 edition earned the club €13,8 million.  This despite a massive missed opportunity due to finishing 3rd behind Celtic and Barcelona.

Benfiquistas may choose to laugh with irony at Porto’s exit from the Champions League last season at the round of 16, but that entire campaign was worth €19,7 million – MORE than the combined figure that was earned by the Lisbon club in their adventures in both of Europe’s club competitions.

For the 2013/14 season, UEFA has confirmed that Group Stage participants will collect at the very least a fee of €8,6 million.  With 1 win and 1 draw, Benfica could lose their remaining matches (let's hope not!) and still, in theory, earn €10,1 million from their Group[ Stage campaign.  If the Eagles make it past their group, even a round of 16 exit will earn the club an additional €3,5 million.  This EXCLUDES the market pool, additional funds distributed based on the value of the TV market in each country (to give an idea, this was worth €2,2 million of Benfica’s €13,8 million earned in the Champions League last season).

For a club like Benfica – this is important money.  Not just to keep the club afloat.  But also to pay for significant transfers.  To retain key players who command the higher wages in the club.  Players who often are critical not just to competing in Europe, but getting you there in the first place.

A European exit increases the risk of domestic collapse

Benfica's failure to win in Lisbon could have far-reaching implications.
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Even in a situation where Benfica finish 3rd in their Champions League group and parachute to the Europa League, it’s hardly lucrative.  Excluding the market pool distributions, if the Eagles drop again to the 2nd tier competition, even if they repeat the feat and finish as finalists, the earnings would be a mere €4,5 million.

Benfica’s exploits in last year’s Europa League competition haven’t gone missed either.  A number of clubs across Europe are watching the club’s players, and a Champions League exit could play horridly into the hands of opportunistic clubs seeking to poach key players.  Benfica have become famous more recently for having huge release clauses, but financial strains could cause the club to becoming willing to consider lower offers for players like Matic, Pérez, Garay, Gaitàn and Salvio.  Predictably, it’s never the players you’d be happy to see the back of that often get linked with moves elsewhere.  And someone like Matic, as an example, already has the admiration of former club Chelsea and Liverpool.  Chelsea are likely to be able to offer the Serbian guaranteed Champions League football next season, while Liverpool are hopeful of their chances and could certainly afford to offer higher wages than Benfica.

Losing players like this, especially in the winter window, suddenly puts an already pressured domestic campaign into sharp perspective.  Benfica have grinded some results out largely by some good fortune, but the “<insert player name> get-us-out-of-jail-free" cards are likely going to run out sooner than later.  It looks unlikely Benfica would not be able to sustainably survive key player departures halfway through a season.  Last season’s departures of Javi Garcia and Witsel were miraculously solved by the emergence of Matic and Pérez, but there don’t seem to be the players waiting in the wings this time to step up and play at the required level should those players leave.  And those players would almost certainly be tempted by the advances of other richer admirers.

It’s not difficult to quantify the slippery slope after that.  A Champions League exit could lead to the very transfers Benfica feared during the summer window.  Those departures would all but expose the Eagles’ current flaw– if the best squad in the league (theirs) already sits 5 points adrift after nearly a quarter of the season, there isn't much hope for the progress of a weakened squad.  And with Porto being annoyingly consistent and Leonardo Jardim doing a substantially better job with Sporting, there’s a clear challenge for Benfica in reaching the all important automatic Champions League qualification spot that 2nd place in the Liga offers.  It will also be harder to attract quality replacements without the promise or likelihood of football in Europe’s elite competition.

Avoiding the Greek tragedy

Olympiakos deserved their point in Lisbon.
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Which brings us to Olympiakos.  Benfica’s trip to Greece could be season defining.  Even a draw in the match ultimately hurts Benfica’s chances of progression.  Olympiakos were good value for their 1-1 halftime score against PSG, and they have the benefit of a home game against Anderlecht in the final group game.  The situation is unfortunately reminiscent of last season’s campaign, where despite back to back wins at home to Celtic and Spartak, Benfica went into the final game away at the Nou Camp needing a heroic win to progress – which wasn’t forthcoming.

The only way this ends positively for Benfica is to protect both the points and the head to head record by winning in Greece, and then in Belgium.  It’s a fair expectation that PSG will win their next 2 matches as well.  That would ultimately paint a situation of PSG topping the group on 15 points, followed by Benfica on 10, and Olympiakos on 4, effectively making the final fixture between Benfica and PSG irrelevant.  Even if Olympiakos produce a miracle to beat PSG, a 3 point lead and the advantage in the head to head record would keep the Eagles in pole position.

If Benfica draw or lose to the Greek side, it immediately complicates the equation.  Suddenly a win against PSG is the only guaranteed way to ensure qualification, unless Benfica pulls ahead on goal difference with a massive win in Belgium.  Benfica need to be playing their best to beat the team from France… and that unfortunately looks unlikely at this point.

An exit from the Champions League may spell the end of Jorge Jesus’ reign – but it could hurt the club in the mid-term as well.  So regardless of who is manager, be it Jorge Jesus, or any appointed caretaker or permanent manager should the club choose to ultimately wave the white handkerchief – it's a must win game against Olympiakos, due to its season defining consequences.  Financially, and for the retention and attraction of quality players.

Granted, all the above comes with that typical disclaimer of theory.  The club may still somehow survive another early Champions League exit with all their key players intact, even if it is coupled with a poor domestic campaign.  However, like many Benfiquistas, I’ve gotten used to the idea of Benfica in the Champions League.  Benfica is an elite club in their home territory – they should remain in Europe’s elite contest.

If they don’t – new manager or not – the damage could be seriously hard to repair.