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The Athletic - LFC related articles

Discussion in 'The Football Forum' started by Hass, Jun 3, 2020.

  1. Hass

    Hass Well-Known Member

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    Will Klopp’s ‘dream’ of a Liverpool team filled with Scousers ever come true?
    [​IMG]
    By Simon Hughes Aug 12, 2020[​IMG] 34 [​IMG]
    Sometimes you learn more from fringe personalities because they have clearer memories of the smaller details when it comes to describing life’s central figures.
    Imagine, then, what it must have been like for Neil Gregson as a teenager sharing a dressing room at Liverpool with Steven Gerrard before he emerged as one of the best midfielders in the world.
    Gerrard did not think this particular tale was significant enough to tell in either of his two autobiographies but Gregson — “another real character” — is mentioned in the first. And, speaking on the recently launched Straight From The Off podcast which brilliantly tells the stories of Merseyside’s finest amateur footballers, Gregson recalled the day a Liverpool youth team went to Tottenham Hotspur in the mid-to-late 1990s.
    Gregson realised only later the encounter stimulated the sort of exchange that ultimately separated Gerrard’s mindset from the rest of Liverpool’s hopefuls.
    The first thing he recalls is the thud of the door shutting behind manager Hughie McAuley and Gerrard springing up in front of the group despite being one of the junior members, knowing the rest of the coaches were out of sight.
    “Listen,” Gerrard said. “We’re winning this game. I don’t care how…” Gregson was taken aback by Gerrard’s seriousness, his determination and wondered why he was so wound up, almost “frothing at the mouth.”
    Gerrard wasn’t a particularly loud teenager, but right-back Neil Murphy knew that several Tottenham players including Ledley King had been selected ahead of him at Lilleshall trials and then for England. “Someone had rejected him; he had to show them,” Gregson interpreted.
    Even if he later won the Champions League by delivering one of the most inspirational performances ever seen in a final, what followed was the best display Gregson has ever seen from the future Liverpool captain. This was skinhead Gerrard, the occasionally out-of-control version of his later self. Yet not on this occasion.
    There was a sequence of 50-50 tackles and Gerrard launched into each one, winning them all. Gregson thought then that one of Gerrard’s greatest strengths was actually to read the play and nick possession but, in this game, he’d “ironed out three or four kids in the space of 20-odd seconds.”
    Inside 18 months, Gerrard was playing for the first team while Gregson was looking for another club. He signed for Colin Todd at Bolton Wanderers after leaving Liverpool but ultimately, he enjoyed more satisfying times in the midfields of legendary amateur sides like Waterloo Dock and Seymour.
    Gregson reconciled himself with the disappointment of his exit from Liverpool because of the standard of the players around him. The era had been a golden one for young footballers with local ties. Gerrard, Robbie Fowler and Jamie Carragher would each make 100 appearances by the age of 21, a total Steve McManaman reached by 22. Michael Owen might have been brought up in North Wales but his father Terry was from Liverpool and he developed quicker than any of them considering he reached game 100 at 19.
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    Gerrard and Fowler reached a century of Liverpool appearances by the age of 21 (Photo: Rui Vieira/PA Images via Getty Images)
    Meanwhile, Dominic Matteo, who was born in Dumfries and brought up in Birkdale, arrived at the same landmark at 24. The story of Liverpool’s youth system does not involve Birkenhead’s Jason McAteer but he made it to game 100 at 26. Mike Marsh was a year younger when he passed the milestone in 1994 — though he was signed from Kirkby Town as a teenager.
    There are other reasons that explain why Manchester United were always ahead of Liverpool throughout the decade but the significance of age seems to get forgotten when there is any discussion about the influence of each set of youngsters representing the clubs. United’s superstars-in-the-making were given more time to progress than those at Liverpool considering Paul Scholes (aged 23), Gary Neville, Nicky Butt and David Beckham (22), Phil Neville (21) and Ryan Giggs (20) were up to two years older than Fowler, McManaman, Owen, Carragher and Gerrard when they registered their 100th appearances in the professional game.
    Steve Heighway was not responsible for what happened at first-team level but his leadership of the junior ranks meant Liverpool’s board were willing to back him and that resulted the creation of an academy site in Kirkby in 1998. Gregson and Gerrard were fighting for their futures around that time and when Gregson referred to Gerrard in the podcast as “the first and last one to make it” before Trent Alexander-Arnold, you could understand what he was getting at.
    Heighway used to tell Liverpool’s kids that they couldn’t afford to consider themselves as established until they’d played 100 games for the first team and, on that basis, something has been lost at Liverpool since Kirkby opened. Consider that after Gerrard passed that point in 2001, it took another 18 years before Alexander-Arnold achieved the same feat.
    Between the separate rises of Gerrard and Alexander-Arnold, Jay Spearing and Jon Flanagan were the academy products from Merseyside with the most success. Both were 24 when Spearing made his 55th and last appearance while Flanagan made it to 51 games. Those players aside, 14 academy graduates from Liverpool made their first-team debuts between 2001 and 2019 — and the total number of appearances amounted to just 108 games.
    This should not be seen as a criticism of the academy but a reflection of the turbulence that has engulfed the club in the same period. There were five managers in the 11 years before Jurgen Klopp’s arrival in 2015 and as many academy chiefs, as well as three different sets of owners. This has made it more challenging to create a clear pathway for young players, regardless of where they are from.
    It has been detailed elsewhere on The Athletic how the mood has changed since Klopp’s appointment and perhaps this explains why he felt comfortable enough last month to reveal his big ambition for Liverpool after Curtis Jones scored his first Premier League goal. His dream “to have a team full of Scousers,” may have seemed like an unusually provincial thing to say for someone with a very global outlook on life but having secured the club’s first league title in 30 years, Klopp had no reason to play to a gallery of local supporters who already hang on his every word. Klopp went on to stress the importance of the academy, qualifying himself to some degree by reassuring those young players not born on Merseyside that they will be in his plans as well if they are good enough.
    How realistic might the “dream” be? Brexit and the likelihood of new expectations around work permits has increased the chances of it coming true and this ties in to why Klopp made his comments. Graduates from the system bring better value as well as a higher chance of loyalty, in theory making it a lot easier to sustain a culture of success. He will spend money if necessary but he would sooner work with a player with an attachment to whichever club he works for.
    With this in mind, it would be interesting to know what Adam Lewis and James Norris thought when Klopp signed off a deal for Kostas Tsimikas earlier this week. Both left-backs were outside the list of locally-born academy graduates between 2001 and 2019 because their debuts came after Alexander-Arnold reached game 100 last November. While Lewis is three months away from his 21st birthday, Norris at 17 has more time to develop into the player that coaches at Kirkby believe he is capable of becoming — yet his task in establishing himself in the first team any time soon is a considerable one, given that Andy Robertson is 26 and Tsimikas is two years younger.
    You cannot imagine Klopp fielding a team of Scousers just because it would mean him becoming the first manager to do so, unless it increased the possibilities of winning a match or a trophy. Unlike some of his predecessors, Klopp is not a point-scorer. Jack Robinson made his debut a decade ago at 16, for example, because Rafael Benitez wanted to remind Liverpool’s board that he needed a new left-back.
    With an average age of 19, Klopp may have fielded the youngest team in Liverpool’s history against Shrewsbury Town in last season’s fourth-round FA Cup replay but that decision was more or less in keeping with his selection process in the same competition throughout his time as Liverpool manager. Ultimately, if Klopp was asked to name his “most Scouse team” on the opening day of the 2020-21 season only two players would probably be ready: Alexander-Arnold and Curtis Jones.
    [​IMG]

    Liverpool’s team against Shrewsbury, with an average age of 19, was the youngest in the club’s history (Photo: John Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)
    It might be tempting to think Liverpool’s local supporter base would revel in a cultural development of this scale but it would only really matter if the event was attached to a period of success. When Liverpool beat Southampton 7-1 in early 1999 and all five of the scorers came from the academy, Gerard Houllier heralded the day as “a wonderful moment” in the club’s history. Yet only a few outside boardroom level remember the game well, because the team finished seventh at the end of the season.
    By comparison, the FA Cup final of 1986 is recalled fondly because Liverpool beat Everton 3-1. Kenny Dalglish’s team that day did not include a single Englishman and Steve McMahon — a former Everton captain from Halewood — was left on the bench.
    Across Liverpool’s entire history, 823 players have represented the club and only 17 per cent of them have been from Merseyside. From that total of 140, a quarter (37 players) have made it past 100 appearances. Sixty-nine — almost half — have played fewer than 10 games.
    These figures show that the “Scouse soul” that Klopp speaks about in Liverpool has rested on the shoulders of a relatively small number of players across different eras. The bulk of the 140, indeed, are front-loaded at the club’s beginnings.
    Should Klopp’s dream ever materialise, it would be unprecedented in Liverpool’s history, as well as the Premier League’s. If Steve McClaren had his time at Middlesbrough again, maybe he’d have gone one step further when naming his team for the final game of the 2005-06 season at Fulham. Middlesbrough’s starting XI at Craven Cottage included 10 academy players from the North East (which is a much bigger region than Merseyside), though it was all-English, also involving Malcolm Christie from Peterborough.
    The circumstances dictated that McClaren was able to go that way, given that Middlesbrough had a UEFA Cup final to play a few days later and his job certainly wasn’t at risk — he knew he was becoming England manager later that summer. “Here he was making a statement about young English, predominantly North East talent,” Michael Walker concluded in his book, Up There.
    Should Klopp ever go where McClaren did not, what would it look like? There are warnings from within Merseyside, albeit from a different level of football where the lives and perhaps the attitudes and experiences of players are not quite the same.
    John Coleman is a Kirkby-born Liverpool supporter and he began his managerial career at Ashton United in Manchester before moving to Accrington Stanley in 1999. On several occasions, he fielded teams filled entirely with Scousers but with time he would learn new lessons.
    “I think I’d only have five or six in the squad now,” he told this writer in 2018. “Because everyone has an opinion about Liverpool as a city, we tend to close ranks in an argument. In a successful dressing room, everyone has to be able to dig each other out.”
     
  2. Hass

    Hass Well-Known Member

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    O’Neil’s arrival puts spotlight on Liverpool U23s, so what do they do?
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    By Simon Hughes Aug 15, 2020[​IMG] 17 [​IMG]
    It has been a busy week over at Liverpool’s academy where Gary O’Neil’s arrival as under-23s assistant manager has seen a spike in interview requests, inviting a new level of interest in a standard of football often dismissed as not being as relevant as it was in the past.
    O’Neil said last year that he was close to signing for Liverpool when he was 24, only to end up going to Middlesbrough after the intervention of an unnamed agent. His lack of affiliation with the club made him a surprise appointment among a number of former players with coaching badges who think they could have filled the role.
    Now 37 and having retired from playing last year, O’Neil will work with Barry Lewtas, who was confirmed as Neil Critchley’s replacement in May. The process behind the hiring of O’Neil started with conversations between sporting director Michael Edwards, Jurgen Klopp and academy manager Alex Inglethorpe.
    Edwards knew O’Neil from their Portsmouth days, where Edwards started his career as a data analyst. He was assigned a small office at the training ground and players would approach him on Monday mornings ahead of match debriefings with manager Harry Redknapp, figuring it would be better to go armed with numbers that might help in critical discussions.
    Edwards operated carefully, appreciating that data was new to football and not all players would respect him – though he was young enough to relate to some of the more junior members of the squad like O’Neil who told The Athletic in June about how Edwards would play Mario Kart with other players on the bus to away games.
    As a member of staff, he did not mix with the players socially, however, and slowly, some of the sceptics came to realise that he wasn’t employed to undermine them. Rather, he was there to reinforce their presence, particularly if a coach thought that someone wasn’t running hard enough in training.
    O’Neil was one of those who could see the benefits quickly. He later came to appreciate that analysts at other clubs knew their figures but did not know quite as much about football as Edwards, who was able to interpret what he saw and apply it to his experience and knowledge of the game.
    When O’Neil married in 2006, Edwards, attended the wedding. His rise to power at Liverpool meant it was harder to maintain the relationship as the years passed but they still kept in touch. Part of Edwards’ job as sporting director is to oversee new hires at the academy and when Critchley departed in March, the first person he thought of as Lewtas’ deputy was O’Neil.
    Negotiations were conducted swiftly and had it not been for the pandemic, O’Neil’s coaching career at Liverpool would have started earlier in 2020. Now aged 37, he made it clear to Edwards that his long-term hope is to become a manager in his own right. Given the number of staff who have progressed to more senior roles at other clubs over the past few years, it is fair to assume this will not be O’Neil’s forever job.
    Critchley, who also stepped in to manage a young Liverpool side against Aston Villa in the Carabao Cup last season, spoke of the “unique demands” of under-23 football management when he moved on to League One Blackpool in March. Though he had a core group to train, his selections were heavily influenced by the interests of the first team and sometimes he would find out on the morning of games which players from the senior ranks were available to him.
    For example, Curtis Jones may have been the Premier League 2 player of the season for 2019-20 having scored nine goals from midfield for the under-23s, but he spent the entire campaign with the first team at Melwood.
    Klopp’s preference is that young players with the most potential work with his staff and those whose careers are more likely to continue away from Liverpool train at the academy under the guidance of Lewtas and, now, O’Neil.
    Yet that does not mean opinions and trajectories cannot change. Neco Williams was not included in the club’s pre-season tour of the United States last summer and spent some of the earliest parts of the campaign training with the under-23s under Critchley but since shining on his first-team debut, he has earned a full-time promotion to Melwood and a new long-term contract.
    The first team’s imminent move to a new training facility next door to the Kirkby site will make it easier for players to flit between the groups. However Klopp is understood to want to maintain a balance between a sense of exclusivity and a culture of humility, ensuring that Liverpool’s youngsters do not take their surroundings for granted when they step up and stay grounded enough to remain driven when they return to where they have come from.
    Klopp believes Jones’ progress last season will help show others with big aspirations what it takes to establish themselves in his thoughts for a first-team place. Though Liverpool’s manager was sceptical about the framework of under-23 football when he arrived in England five years ago, he has since come to appreciate that it can help a player’s development.
    The common view of under-23 football is a negative one because of comparisons made with the old reserve system, where established stars seeking fitness would regularly feature in games, making them more competitive.
    Across the last decade, the strongest starting XI to feature against Liverpool’s under-21s or under-23s was named by Everton in 2012, who included eight first-teamers at Goodison Park. Seamus Coleman, Jack Rodwell, Shane Duffy, Phil Jagielka, James McFadden, Ross Barkley, Leon Osman and Victor Anichebe all featured in a 0-0 draw, a result which prompted Raheem Sterling to tell Liverpool’s website that he’d learned “important lessons” after Coleman and Jagielka double-teamed him on marking tasks. “The intensity was a lot higher,” he admitted.
    That derby was a one-off in modern terms. Players who have been through the system at Liverpool though tend to agree that technically and tactically, under-23 football still offers crucial experiences — particularly when facing their equivalents at Manchester City or Chelsea, whose teams include potentially world-class players. While Trent Alexander-Arnold spent nearly a season playing for Liverpool’s under-23s when he was 16, Mason Mount, Reece James and Tammy Abraham have followed a similar path at Chelsea, albeit with loans involved at different stages of their young careers.
    “Even in the Pontins League days, players would have to make a huge physical jump if they wanted to become established in the old First Division,” says one agent, who has represented footballers since the 1980s. “The quality of the football at under-23 level is higher than it ever was, and it does serve Premier League clubs better than some might think — especially when they can sell players who have done well at that level and make some money, rather than simply release them. The disconnection is with the lower leagues, where many of the players end up and games are often defined by strength.”
    A former Liverpool under-21 player who has since represented clubs only outside of the Championship thinks that increasingly, teams below the top two tiers are attempting to play more technical and tactical football. The most important difference, he believes, is the pressure to win. “The value of three points in the Football League is enormous,” he says. “Everyone feels it because if you go on a losing run, the manager might get sacked then players leave. The fight for your future is a lot more real once you are outside the bubble of the youth systems.”
    O’Neil spent his entire playing career at Premier League and Championship clubs. Though a slight, technical footballer, he was considered developed enough to make his debut for a Tony Pulis side at Portsmouth when he was 16.
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    O’Neil playing for Middlesbrough against Liverpool (Photo: Andrew Yates/AFP via Getty Images)
    It was Pulis who made O’Neil realise that he could push ahead of others by using the gym to make himself fitter and stronger. “People go on about technique and strength especially,” he said in 2008 when he was asked to think back about the early days at Fratton Park. “Mindset contributes to both and I think that’s what sets apart the ones that make it and the ones that don’t.”
    Now he will have a role in shaping those who do and those who don’t at Liverpool.
     
  3. Hass

    Hass Well-Known Member

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    The Comeback, No. 14: Liverpool deepen Barcelona’s Champions League trauma
    Dermot Corrigan Aug 25, 2020[​IMG] 88 [​IMG]
    Editor’s note: This story is part of a series counting down the 40 greatest comebacks in sports.
    This series has so far focused mostly on the teams and athletes who have somehow, from somewhere, found a way to overcome the longest of odds and achieve the most difficult feats.
    But what about the other side of a comeback? What happens when you are so close to achieving something great, only to have it snatched away just when you seemed to have it in your hands? How do the biggest clubs and the highest-profile stars react to such difficult and painful reverses?
    Achieving a comeback tends to catapult a team or an athlete forward towards even more success and higher achievement. Yet being on the other end can be so painful and difficult that it becomes almost impossible to move on.
    Heading into their 2018-19 Champions League semi-final second leg at Liverpool, Barcelona had good reason for imagining themselves in the final. They were 3-0 ahead from the first leg at the Nou Camp and had the world’s best player Lionel Messi bang in form and leading a team motivated to regain the trophy for the first time in five seasons.
    Yet Barca’s worst fears came to pass over those 90 minutes on Merseyside on May 7, 2019. More than a year later, the trauma came back to haunt them in a way that was even more scarring. The word “Anfield” is now seared into the Barcelona collective consciousness, and all those involved can never really forget it.

    “Last season was really good as we did the double, but we all felt bad about how it went in the Champions League,” said Lionel Messi as he made a rare public speech at the Nou Camp on August 15, 2018. “We promise that this season we will do all we can to bring that beautiful trophy back here.”
    Messi is never comfortable talking in public, but it was his duty to address the fans before the Gamper Trophy, a traditional curtain-raising match for the new season, against Boca Juniors. This was the Argentinian’s first such address, as he was replacing his long-serving team-mate Andres Iniesta as Barca’s new club captain. The speech namechecked predecessors Carles Puyol and Xavi Hernandez, who had both captained the side to Champions League success.
    But since a treble in 2015, Barcelona had not made it past the quarter-finals, losing to Atletico Madrid, Juventus and, most embarrassingly, the previous season at Roma. Barca had beaten the Italians 4-1 at the Nou Camp in the first leg, dominating the game completely. Yet they lost the return game 3-0 away and were eliminated from the competition on away goals. Ending that run of increasingly painful failure was the main objective for Messi’s first season as captain, and the theme of his speech was that the hurt would drive them on.
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    Messi and his team-mates digest conceding a third goal against Roma at the Stadio Olimpico in April 2018 (Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images)
    Domestically, Barca rolled all before them. Even with Messi suffering injury issues they still took control of the La Liga title race, helped by a 5-1 clasico hammering of Real Madrid in October. By the end of April, they had secured their eighth title in the last 11 years. Ernesto Valverde’s team had also reached the Copa del Rey final, beating Madrid 4-1 on aggregate to reach the final, where they were odds-on to win a fifth consecutive cup trophy against rank outsiders Valencia.
    So the decks were cleared domestically to focus on the main objective of the season: winning the Champions League. Progress in Europe had also been smooth and, after swiping away Manchester United 4-0 over the two quarter-final legs, Barcelona drew Liverpool in the last four. Jurgen Klopp’s side had been finalists the season before but were not really a scary proposition for Barca. Everything seemed to be clicking nicely into place, especially with the likes of Madrid, Bayern Munich and Manchester City already out of the competition.
    So the vast majority of the 98,299 in attendance at the Nou Camp were feeling positive before kick-off of the first leg on May 1. Luis Suarez put Barcelona ahead, Messi added a killer second and then made it 3-0 with an unstoppable free kick to the top corner from 30 yards out for his 600th career goal for the club. Liverpool kept hunting for an away goal but Mo Salah hit a post and frantic scrambling from a defence led by Gerard Pique kept them out. It should really have been 4-0 late on as Messi set up a simple chance for substitute Ousmane Dembele and then fell to the ground in disbelief as his young team-mate missed the goal.
    Liverpool had given Barca their biggest challenge, both tactically and physically, that season so far but Messi and his colleagues had withstood everything thrown at them. They already had one foot in the final, in which they would have been massive favourites given the other semi-finalists were Tottenham Hotspur and Ajax.
    Barca were in touching distance of the trophy they had missed so much since 2015. For Messi, it would push him back ahead of nemesis Cristiano Ronaldo, whose Madrid team had won the trophy in each of the three intervening years. Other senior pros such as Pique, Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba and Suarez could show they were all still at the top of their games. Coach Valverde could answer the critics who claimed that anybody could lead a Barca team with Messi to the La Liga title, so only a European success counted. President Josep Maria Bartomeu could step out of the shadow of disgraced predecessor Sandro Rosell and have his own era-defining success.

    Confidence levels continued to grow in the six days before the return leg. Injuries to Liverpool’s key attackers Salah and Roberto Firmino were a boost. The message was sent out that Barca had learned from their previous big second-leg defeats, especially at Roma the year before, and knew exactly how to approach the game at Anfield.
    “The first leg changes nothing for us,” Valverde said on the eve of the game. “We cannot think we are already in the final. Thinking about defending our lead would be a mistake. We want to go out and win this game, we must attack. Trying to play the situation, and control things, would be absurd, a mistake.”
    Once the game kicked off, there was not much control about the helter-skelter opening minutes. Messi was angered by what he deemed a disrespectful pat on the back of the head from Liverpool left-back Andy Robertson, while the Anfield fans roared when the Argentinian attempted a trademark solo run towards goal but was halted by the home defence. They were quieter when Alba’s pull-back found Messi on the edge of the penalty area, and his clipped shot was tipped over by Liverpool’s Alisson — who had been in goal for Roma 12 months earlier.
    On seven minutes, Alba’s dreadfully weak header gave the ball away and Jordan Henderson broke into the Barca area, getting past Pique way too easily. Marc-Andre ter Stegen saved the first shot but the rebound fell to Divock Origi, and the Belgian — who was only playing due to Firmino’s injury — tucked the ball away without even having time to think. Anfield began to believe the comeback was on, while Barca started to wonder if this could really be happening to them again.
    Barca were defending shakily but kept following Valverde’s plan and looked to attack as much as they could. Chances kept coming, with Messi, Philippe Coutinho and Alba coming close. It was a superbly entertaining battle, which saw players on both sides booked for crossing the physical line. But, at half-time, Barca had been just unable to find the away goal that would have been so crucial. If they managed it, Liverpool would then need to score another four goals.
    The 15-minute break seemed to give Barca too much time to think again about their situation. Soon after the restart, Alba made another mistake in possession. Seconds later, Trent Alexander-Arnold’s clever cross found the fast-arriving Georginio Wijnaldum near the Barca penalty spot, and his first-time shot had too much power for Ter Stegen. The canny TV director immediately cut to Messi, whose eyes were closed as if to shut out what was happening. Suarez shook his head in disbelief. On the sideline, Valverde was also staring into the middle distance. Barca were still 3-2 up on aggregate, but their players on the pitch, and their fans watching all around the world, sensed that they were in deep trouble. Meanwhile, Anfield was buzzing.
    Messi tried to wrestle the momentum back for his team but it was Liverpool who scored again. Xherdan Shaqiri’s cross was met by Wijnaldum’s flying header — after Pique, Busquets and Ivan Rakitic failed to track the run — and the ball flew into Ter Stegen’s top corner for a third Liverpool goal.
    [​IMG]

    Liverpool’s Wijnaldum (left) is mobbed by Henderson and Alexander-Arnold (Photo: Rich Linley/CameraSport via Getty Images)
    Messi now stood with his hands on his hips, a blank stare on his face. Barcelona’s No 10 had another chance to score what would have been a huge away goal, but the angle was tight and Alisson saved with his legs. There was also a free kick from a similar distance to the one he had scored so confidently in the first leg the previous week. This time it was smashed into the defensive wall.
    The tie was still level, 3-3 on aggregate, but it did not feel like the two teams were evenly matched now. Liverpool were pushing at an open door. With 78 minutes gone, Barca needlessly conceded a corner. Alexander-Arnold placed the ball but appeared to be leaving it for a team-mate to take. In the centre, Barca’s defenders and Ter Stegen took a moment to organise how they would defend the set-piece. It was a moment they did not have. The quick-thinking defender immediately doubled back and fired the ball across to Origi, who was somehow unmarked six yards out, free to sweep it untroubled to the net.
    Messi ruffled his hand through his hair, glaring at the ground. His team-mates stared at each other, wondering what the hell had just happened. Barca had 10 players in their own penalty box as Alexander-Arnold had struck the corner, and not one of them was even looking at Origi, who was one of just two Liverpool players in the area. Switching off completely like that at any moment of the game, for any professional team, was just unthinkable. To do so at that moment was inexplicable.
    There was still plenty of time left for Barca to find a goal but Liverpool saw them out easily. The shocked visitors could not even get the ball into the opposition box to make a half-chance. Messi and his team were already beaten, and they accepted their fate. On the final whistle, Liverpool’s players and staff celebrated in front of the ecstatic Kop, while Barca’s just trudged silently to the dressing room. It was one of the most spectacular comebacks, and biggest surprises, in 70 years of UEFA club competition.
    [​IMG]

    (Photo: Jan Kruger/UEFA via Getty Images)

    While Messi was darting for the Anfield dressing rooms, avoiding eye contact with anyone, Busquets did the post-game interview for Spanish TV from the pitch. “After Roma, that this could happen again… there’s nothing really I can say,” he said.
    Against Roma, Barca had been the first team in Champions League history to blow a three-goal first-leg advantage in the knock-out stages. Now they had just done it again.
    Half an hour later, deep inside the stadium, Valverde also struggled to understand how history was repeating itself.
    “The most painful thing is that it’s Roma all over again,” he said. “This is the second year this has happened to us, it is painful for our fans. This is the first game we have lost in the Champions League all season, and we are eliminated from the competition.”
    The following day’s coverage of the game in the Catalan sports press was predictably angry, along with the words “debacle”, “soulless”, “humiliation” and “biggest disgrace in history”. Club president Bartomeu called for calm and for no immediate decisions to be made as the team still had to prepare for the Copa del Rey final against Valencia in Seville in three weeks.
    “Anfield was a very tough blow and it was very difficult to get back up,” Bartomeu said on the eve of that game. “But tomorrow is a final, and we have a chance to do a double. To end the season on a high, with a trophy.”
    Most observers also expected that to happen, even with Barca on a downer. They had won the previous five Copa del Rey finals, while Valencia had not won any trophy at all since the Copa in 2008. Valencia coach Marcelino had a plan though, and his players carried it out perfectly. Barcelona lost 2-1.
    It was widely expected that Valverde would immediately be fired as coach, despite having signed a new contract three months previously, but the indecisive Barca board were unable to agree on a successor. Having alienated most of the team’s most successful former players, including Pep Guardiola and Xavi Hernandez, they considered less-qualified options Thierry Henry and Roberto Martinez before deciding to stick with their man.
    Instead, the team was to be shaken up by spending more money on new playing stars such as French World Cup-winning forward Antoine Griezmann and young Ajax playmaker Frenkie de Jong. Anfield had been a setback, for sure, but was not to lead to deep changes at the club.

    “It is difficult to say something today after last season, which ended up a bit bitterly as things went,” Messi said in his pre-season speech at August 2019’s Trofeo Gamper. “But I am not sorry for anything. I will say again what I said then. I trust in this squad, in these players, in this coaching team. I do not doubt that together we are going to fight to win everything.”
    That did not turn out to be the case. After Anfield, nothing was the same again. Barcelona lost their first competitive game of the season, 1-0 at Athletic Bilbao, and also suffered embarrassing domestic defeats against relative minnows like Granada and Levante.
    After they let another lead slip in the Spanish Supercopa semi-final against Atletico Madrid and lost 3-2, Bartomeu and his directors decide that something needed to be done. Valverde was out. But it did not help: replacement Quique Setien came in promising to make sure the team played better, by returning his Johan Cruyff-inspired philosophy, but he had neither the experience nor the personality to overcome the deep structural problems in the squad. In February, they were eliminated from the Copa del Rey by Athletic Bilbao. Following the COVID-19 enforced break, they fell away badly and allowed Madrid to stroll to the La Liga title.
    All that was left now to save their season was the Champions League and maybe the new shortened format in this strangest of seasons would suit Barca. Most obviously they would not have to play any second legs away from home, so would not be in danger of blowing any big first-leg advantages. Then came the 8-2 defeat quarter-final defeat by Bayern Munich, the most humiliating display in Barcelona history.
    It was barely believable, but again it had been coming. As Pique said in his post-game interview on Spanish TV, it was “not the first, or the second, or the third time” that they had gone out of the Champions League in this manner. As Pique also said, Barca had now “hit rock bottom” and a complete overhaul of everything was required, with the proud Catalan himself offering to be first out the door if that was what was best for the club.

    Who knows what might have happened had Barca not lost at Anfield last year, had they not been the victims of one of the most stunning comebacks in professional sports history.
    There were so many potential turning points that might have gone Barca’s way. Yet rewatching the 90 minutes on Merseyside gives the impression that, no matter what Barca tried, they would have been unable to avoid giving up their lead. You can argue that fate does not decide football matches, but it can if the players on the pitch themselves feel incapable of stopping something that to them appears destined to happen. After Roma, there was Anfield. And there was nothing they could have done to stop it. And then came Bayern.
    “Anfield” should have led to a deep, root-and-branch reform of everything at the Nou Camp. Barca as a club should have come together and decided that this could not go on. But the only big name to pay any price for what happened against Liverpool was Coutinho, who was next seen by Barca fans entering the game in Lisbon as a Bayern player to set up the German team’s sixth goal, then score their seventh and eighth.
    “We can see now that after Anfield was the moment to renew the squad,” Bartomeu has since admitted, following that Bayern defeat.
    Being on the other end of the comeback was so painful and traumatising that it froze everyone at Barca and they just could not react. The club’s most important figures — Bartomeu, Valverde and even Messi himself — were able to kid themselves that not that much was wrong. Through some sort of psychological protection mechanism, perhaps, they persuaded themselves not to dwell on it. By deflecting criticism and rallying around and protecting each other, they just stored up even more disaster for the following season.
    Such unwillingness to react to Anfield led directly to the first season in which Barca have won zero trophies since 2007-08. It remains to be seen whether Bartomeu now really has the status or ability to light the “cleansing fire” he has now called for to help the club to be reborn. The president himself remains under serious pressure to step down and has just 12 months left on his mandate. That is probably not enough time to fix all the deeper structural issues at a club which has drifted so far both on and off the pitch from its golden era almost a decade ago.
    Such is the power of the comeback. For the winning side, it is in the springboard to further success — Liverpool quickly followed victory against Barcelona by beating Tottenham in the Champions League final, then this year finally ended their 30-year wait for a Premier League trophy. Yet the path forward is never so clear for the team on the other end of the turnaround.
    In Barcelona’s case, Anfield was so traumatic that all involved just refused to learn any lessons. And in doing so, just stored up even more pain and suffering for the future.
    The shadow of “Anfield” has hung over Barca ever since that night on May 7, 2019. More than 12 months later, it is still not clear whether Barca as a club have learned the lessons of that defeat, or will ever manage to put it behind them.
     
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  4. Hass

    Hass Well-Known Member

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    How do Leeds avoid a Norwich-style thrashing at Anfield on the opening day?
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    By Phil Hay Aug 20, 2020[​IMG] 74 [​IMG]
    For Liverpool and Jurgen Klopp, Leeds United at home is the first day of last season revisited. They are hosting the Championship’s title-winners. They are playing a team who intend to bring an unaltered style from that division. They have the chance to show a newly-promoted manager what Premier League champions are like in the flesh.
    This time last year, it was Norwich City at Anfield, an away trip to beat most others on the opening weekend. When the fixture list for the 2020-21 season dropped yesterday, it fell the same way: Leeds, a few weeks on from lifting the Championship trophy, off to Liverpool for their first top-flight game in 16 years.
    There is a buzz around Elland Road and Bielsa as the Premier League gets ready to embrace him. Klopp versus Bielsa is the sort of narrative the start of the season was looking for.
    Leeds and Norwich are different teams, just as Bielsa and Daniel Farke are different managers. Their formations contrast, as do their methods of attacking in possession, but they reached the Premier League in much the same way.
    Both squads were laden with players who were taking their first steps into the division. Neither coach saw promotion as a reason to dispense with or significantly adjust their tactics. Norwich went to Anfield and played as they had played in the Championship. “They’re very brave,” said Liverpool striker Divock Origi afterwards.
    They lost 4-1, having conceded four times in the first half. Klopp commended Norwich for “staying cheeky” and “enjoying their football” but those comments implied that Liverpool had brushed aside a minor nuisance; a team of whom they knew they had the beating. Anfield is a graveyard for visiting squads and Liverpool are virtually unbeatable there but Norwich’s defeat exposed two issues that would conspire to relegate them: 1) too blunt up front and 2) fatally holed by a concession from every three shots on target.
    Where Leeds are concerned, Liverpool away is not the sort of fixture upon which a successful season depends. There are spells around Christmas and in the final weeks when Leeds will avoid most of the likely top-six clubs. Those will be the periods when points may be most attainable.
    But what can they learn from Norwich’s experience of Anfield on day one? What can Bielsa do to ensure that however the result goes, Leeds’ return to the Premier League does not leave his players feeling like Emiliano Buendia, who feared last season that “this could be eight or even 10” as Liverpool turned it on?
    Buendia was a factor in the result and in the way that Liverpool punished Norwich. It was not, despite the scoreline, a wholly one-sided contest. Norwich had chances, three shots fewer than Liverpool’s 15 and let Klopp’s side in for some easy finishes but they were harried throughout by one of Liverpool’s core strengths — the energy and movement of their wing-backs.
    Andy Robertson, on the left flank, touched the ball 96 times and made 70 passes, with a completion rate of 91 per cent. Trent Alexander-Arnold was slightly less busy down the right but active and effective nonetheless. Liverpool’s width is no secret and Bielsa’s analysts will inevitably look closely at it (Robertson and Alexander-Arnold shared 25 league assists last season) but Norwich were lax in attempting to manage it.
    In Farke’s 4-2-3-1 system, Buendia played on the right of the three. Too often, Buendia was drawn into central areas, creating space for Robertson and making Norwich right-back Max Aarons vulnerable, even with a midfield two ahead of him. Liverpool’s opening goal (below) came via that route, with Robertson breaking forward unopposed from his own half and putting Origi one-on-one with Aarons. Origi’s low cross was turned into the net by Norwich centre-back Grant Hanley.
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    It was a recurring theme in the first half. A few minutes after Hanley’s own goal, Robertson was presented with an identical situation, able to sprint away as five Norwich players were sucked towards the opposite wing. Any attempt at a high press by City was instantly negated. Robertson’s delivery was a good one but it was wasted by a loose touch from Roberto Firmino. Better control would have left Firmino with only Tim Krul to beat from 12 yards.
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    Again, in the 16th minute, Aarons was exposed after Alexander-Arnold broke down the right and sent a deep cross towards Origi at the back post. Robertson appeared in space and drilled a shot inches over the crossbar, with Buendia trailing behind him and Aarons — left with two players to deal with himself — attempting a lunging block. Norwich were lucky that Robertson’s aim was marginally out.
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    Robertson’s touch map shows the extent of his involvement.
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    The pressure created by him and Alexander-Arnold brought Firmino and Mohamed Salah into play constantly, giving Liverpool their usual purpose. Salah scored Liverpool’s second goal after Alexander-Arnold forced Norwich to backpedal with an overlapping run. Van Dijk headed in from a corner after 28 minutes.
    Then Origi dispatched a simple chance before half-time as City stood off Alexander-Arnold, allowing him to cross, and lose track of Origi in their box.
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    There were basic errors in Norwich’s defending but Liverpool found their rhythm quickly and, pushed on by their full-backs, turned the screw in a typically ruthless way. Leeds will encounter that same threat next month but Bielsa’s system is designed to make sure his wide midfielders cover or double up with the defenders behind them.
    If Kalvin Phillips is fit after a knee injury, he will add an extra layer of protection as an out-and-out defensive midfielder. Norwich were peppered with 32 crosses at Anfield. They were able to conjure only two. Despite their chances and a reasonable share of possession (42 per cent at full-time), they did not reply until the 64th minute when Teemu Pukki stroked in a consolation by nipping in behind a dog-legged defence.
    Nonetheless, Norwich’s attempts to fight fire threw up opportunities that might have changed the game. Marco Stiepermann saw the best of them a few minutes after Liverpool’s goal, set up by a flick off Pukki’s heel, but he was unable to do anything more than lash a shot wide from inside the box (indicative of a side who fell 11 goals short of an expected goals ratio of 37 across their 38 games).
    Regardless of Liverpool’s intimidating record at Anfield, Bielsa will take his team there with instructions to press, to dominate the ball and to attack like they attacked every team in the Championship. Very few sides in the EFL’s top tier have been more certain of their identity or more confident about it than Bielsa’s Leeds. At Elland Road, they are trusting in the continuity that served Chris Wilder and Sheffield United so well last season.
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    Norwich’s defeat 12 months ago threw up some of football’s most basic lessons: take your opportunities, avoid soft errors and make life as easy as it can be against a team who won the Premier League by 18 points from Manchester City. But the devil in the detail shows what Leeds should be wary of, what Bielsa needs to counter and what Liverpool will do if the tactical scrap goes Klopp’s way from the outset.
    This is exactly the type of fixture Leeds have been craving for years: the best test of the machine Bielsa has built. It is asking a lot to win on a ground where Liverpool last lost a league game more than 1,200 days ago. But it will set the tone nicely if Leeds can emerge with their poise and their skin intact.
     
  5. Hass

    Hass Well-Known Member

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    Liverpool, Thiago and the waiting game
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    By Simon Hughes Aug 26, 2020[​IMG] 107 [​IMG]
    In Munich, they expect Thiago Alcantara to join Liverpool. Multiple sources have told The Athletic that he is waiting for Michael Edwards to make his move. Officially, Liverpool are interested but have made no offer. Figures with close links to the central characters in the deal react similarly whenever they are asked about its progress — there is an emoji for the shrugging of shoulders, it turns out.
    So what is going on? Thiago’s links to Anfield started at the beginning of June and the timeframe is significant: this summer, Georginio Wijnaldum entered the final year of his contract, a player whose talent would need to be replaced if Liverpool were to decide to sell and avoid the risk of losing him in the summer of 2021 for nothing.
    Given Liverpool pride themselves on their sensible financial operation, surely they cannot afford a repetition of what happened with Emre Can, a player who may have cost less than £10 million but left on a free transfer at the age of just 24. In 2016, Wijnaldum was worth £25 million.
    Last season, Jurgen Klopp had 10 central midfield options and the Dutchman played more games than any of them, both in the league and across all competitions. This contributed towards his running stats exceeding those competing for a place with him, not only in total but on average. He never seems to stop. He is dependable.
    His influence cannot be overstated both on and off the pitch. When Klopp decided to apply an official chain of command among players in 2018, Wijnaldum was voted in by teammates as fourth captain. He is a spokesman for the squad. Beside Virgil van Dijk and Andy Robertson, you can rely on him to explain bad results as well as good ones.
    Yet the clock on his Liverpool career is ticking. His contract is a tricky one to negotiate, primarily because of his age. It is fair to say the player’s agent Humphrey Nijman appreciates his client’s value and is determined to secure a deal that ensures this is reflected. At 29, Wijnaldum is a leader in this team but will he still be in three years’ time? Liverpool’s economic model requires smart and decisive trading and Klopp should be wary of the consequences if too many of his key players get old at once.
    Captain Jordan Henderson turned 30 in June. Mohamed Salah will be 29 next June. Sadio Mane will be 29 in April. Roberto Firmino will be 29 in October. Next July, Van Dijk enters his thirties. Thiago will go the same way even before Liverpool’s record signing.
    Age means any analysis of numbers comes with a caveat, especially as one of Klopp’s primary considerations is endurance. Wijnaldum played in 37 out of 38 league games last season and has not featured in fewer than 33 games across any of the past four campaigns — making 141 league appearances in total (an average of 35 games). A mixture of injuries and Bayern’s dominance affording greater rest have meant Thiago’s appearances in the Bundesliga have been restricted over the same period. He has played 94 times (average: 23.5). Since the summer of 2016, indeed, Thiago is 30 appearances behind Wijnaldum across all competitions.
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    Wijnaldum’s future may well define Thiago’s (Photo: Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images)
    So what might Thiago offer that Wijnaldum doesn’t? The challenge for Liverpool — and what they will need from their players — does not necessarily change because they are champions. They are used to being a scalp because of their record in Europe, as well as at Anfield, where they have not lost in the league for more than three and a half years. Every game brings enormous pressure and this is a team accustomed to dealing with negative tactics.
    It will nevertheless be fascinating to see how Arsenal approach the Community Shield on Saturday because in July, their victory over Liverpool, as well as their extreme defensive approach, gave warning to the future. Like Everton before them, would Arsenal have been able to park the bus in front of a packed Emirates where there is a natural expectation for the home team to have a go?
    Liverpool were already champions by then and there was nothing riding on the result but that was not the case at Goodison Park a few weeks earlier. It may sound excessive but in the midst of a pandemic and with the voices of players and managers echoing around stadiums, perhaps this is where Thiago could help the most.
    Not all midfields are really engine rooms but Liverpool’s is. Thiago understands the pressing game yet his final-third pass completion rate exceeds any of the options Klopp currently has at his disposal. He is the one who finds the space which allows others to deliver assists and the goals.
    Any prospective deal may appear to be dragging, given Edwards has helped to shift Liverpool’s reputation in the transfer market. For so long, the club seemed to get caught behind. For the past three or four years, Edwards has been ahead of it. That does not mean, however, he has always been able to get deals done quickly. This would ignore what happened with two of the club’s most significant modern signings.
    While Van Dijk arrived because he knew how much Klopp wanted him, he did not do so until six months after Liverpool’s aborted first attempt to sign him. Similarly, Alisson became convinced that his future lay on Merseyside after Roma’s 5-2 thrashing at Anfield in a Champions League semi-final first leg in April but he did not join the club until late July, which in turn was almost eight weeks after Loris Karius’ calamitous appearance in the final.
    Some leading figures in the game think there is a chance Thiago might end up at Manchester City, even though the player’s relationship with Pep Guardiola suffered when they worked together in Munich. Thiago is more attracted to the idea of Liverpool, says one source, because “they are the best team on the planet aside from Bayern”. Like Alisson, he remembers the force of Liverpool’s midfield, having been a part of a visiting side that drew at Anfield in February 2019 before Bayern were devoured in Munich three weeks later when Sadio Mane really turned it on.
    For the situation to move along, Liverpool will surely need to secure guarantees of revenues from outgoings. Even though Adam Lallana has departed, Klopp’s midfield options remain at 10 because of the return of Marko Grujic from Hertha Berlin. The sales of the Serbian, Xherdan Shaqiri and Harry Wilson were expected to raise a minimum of £60 million this summer but those estimates were made before the pandemic.
    A perception remains that because Liverpool broke transfer records for Van Dijk and Alisson, they have spent their way to success. Each signing, however, was possible because of major outgoings in Philippe Coutinho and seemingly less significant ones like Dominic Solanke, as well as unexpected appearances in finals of European competition. For Edwards, the game remains a quest for financial balance.
    In Munich, the wait continues. On Monday, Bayern staff held a party after their victory in the Champions League final. “Thiago’s family was there and it looked like he has decided to say goodbye,” Karl-Heinz Rummenigge admitted. “We have read a lot about Liverpool but they have not contacted us yet.”
     
  6. Hass

    Hass Well-Known Member

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    Play him or loan him out? The Rhian Brewster conundrum
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    By Stuart James and James Pearce Aug 27, 2020[​IMG] 100 [​IMG]
    Keep him at Liverpool as a back-up striker? Loan him to another Premier League club to get more game time at the highest level? Let him loose in the Championship for a full season?
    That there are more questions than answers right now when it comes to Rhian Brewster says everything about the burgeoning reputation of one of English football’s most exciting young strikers. Aged 20, Brewster is fast emerging as not only the most sought-after loan player in this transfer window but also a credible attacking option for the Premier League champions next season.
    After impressing while on loan at Swansea in the Championship, where he scored 11 goals in 22 matches, Brewster has returned to Liverpool with a spring in his step. With three pre-season goals across two substitute appearances and only 72 minutes of football, it feels as though the narrative around Brewster is changing. Forget all the talk about being one for the future at Liverpool — Brewster could be one for now.
    Nobody is suggesting that a player who has yet to make a Premier League appearance should go into Liverpool’s starting XI and take Roberto Firmino’s shirt. But at what point does Brewster, who was described as a “natural goalscorer” by Jurgen Klopp this week, become a better alternative from the bench than Divock Origi?
    Although Brewster is still learning the game, as Klopp was quick to point out, he is certainly not learning how to score goals. Brewster mastered that art years ago. “In the decisive moments, he’s 100 per cent there,” Klopp said after Brewster took his pre-season tally to three with a couple of exceptional strikes against Salzburg.
    Brewster’s first pre-season goal, against Stuttgart, was a tap-in — right place, right time. The second, against Salzburg, was brilliantly steered into the top corner; one touch to control, a second to pick his spot as a defender lunged at his feet. The third, against the same opponents, said as much about Brewster’s confidence as his finishing ability and prompted a sharp intake of breath from John Aldridge, who was summarising for Liverpool TV at the time.
    With the Salzburg keeper out of his goal, Brewster dispatched a bouncing ball from 22 yards that sailed over the head of a lone defender and into the net. From a technical point of view, it was outstanding. To get precision, power and just the right elevation, Brewster punched the ball with the inside of his right boot and, leaning back slightly, landed on the same foot that he scored with. Freeze the frame and his non-kicking leg is almost horizontal a split-second after he shoots.

    “Oof,” said Aldridge. “That is tremendous.” The former Liverpool striker then repeated himself, almost as if he was shaking his head in disbelief at what he had just seen. “What an outstanding young forward Liverpool have on their hands,” added the commentator.
    Plenty would like to take him off their hands. In fact, a long list of clubs that includes Sheffield United, Aston Villa, Newcastle, Burnley, Brighton, Crystal Palace and Fulham in the Premier League, and Norwich, Bournemouth, Watford and Swansea in the Championship, have registered their interest in signing Brewster on a season-long loan this summer.
    It is easy to see why. Brewster is hungry, full of self-belief, quick, blessed with a fantastic leap and scores with either foot. His speciality is the one-touch finish — nine of his 11 goals for Swansea last season fell into that category — and that says everything about Brewster’s predatory instincts in the penalty area. He often takes shots early, before a defender or goalkeeper has time to react. The terrific goal Brewster scored against Nottingham Forest in July is a perfect example.
    Klopp is clearly a big fan and has been for some time but it also felt telling to hear him talk about the need for Brewster, on the back of his goals against Salzburg, to make a wider contribution. “He has to be more involved in games,” Klopp said.
    The centre-forward role has evolved so much over the last decade or so and Klopp looks for much more than clinical finishing from his No 9. For some context, the Liverpool manager describes Firmino as “the engine” of the team because of the way the Brazilian not only sets the tone with his pressing but also intelligently drops into pockets of space to link up play with his team-mates.
    That, right now, is not Brewster’s style. At Swansea, where he bought into every aspect of the club and quickly became a popular figure with staff and supporters, Brewster could drift in and out of games at times before producing something superb out of nothing. On average, he touched the ball once every three minutes for Swansea. Firmino, in contrast, is involved every two minutes for Liverpool. Brewster also prefers to play on the shoulder of defenders rather than coming deep to bring others into the game.
    That is not to say that Liverpool can’t develop that side of his play or that Klopp’s team wouldn’t benefit next season from having a striker with Brewster’s attributes and eye for goal on the bench. Who wouldn’t want to be able to call on a poacher? “He can learn a lot of things but he’s a natural goalscorer,” Klopp said in Austria.
    While Klopp is in no rush to make a decision about where Brewster will play his football next season, it is clear that he now has a genuine dilemma. Although he had always planned to assess Brewster’s progress during pre-season, the expectation was that the striker would go out on loan again unless Origi was sold.
    Now, however, there is an argument for keeping Brewster irrespective of what happens with Origi — even clubs that had been pursuing a loan deal with a reasonable amount of optimism accept that increasingly looks like being the case. With every goal that Brewster scores for Liverpool, he’s making it harder to ignore him. On top of that, the word is that Brewster has been hugely impressive in pre-season training, too.
    “What I like about Rhian is that he scores different types of goals,” Emile Heskey says. “He’s a clinical finisher. He will have taken great confidence from what he contributed down at Swansea. He showed that he has the ability to possibly shine a bit higher up.”
    For those wondering how keeping Brewster as a back-up striker to Firmino could impact on his development and game time, it is worth bearing in mind that Origi made 42 appearances for Liverpool last season in all competitions, including 14 starts. Not bad for the fourth member of what many consider to be a three-man band.
    The Belgian, who scored only six goals last season, has yet to feature in Liverpool’s pre-season friendlies amid increased speculation over his future, although senior sources at Anfield insist that both he and Xherdan Shaqiri, who has also been omitted so far, are nursing minor injuries and that nothing else should be read into their absence.
    Either way, Klopp has plenty to weigh up when it comes to Brewster and the support cast for Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Firmino. A condensed season and relentless schedule will make squad depth even more important for Liverpool and although Takumi Minamino is another central striking option that Klopp could consider if he needed to change things around, Brewster offers something a bit different.
    “Rhian went away and answered a lot of questions with his time at Swansea,” Robbie Fowler says. “He scored goals in the Championship and proved that he’s a good player. But what we’ve got to remember is that he’s still a young lad. We have to let him develop a bit more. It’s a tall order for him to command a regular starting place in this team at the moment. It’s nigh on impossible to oust the world-class front three who are already in there. But he’s certainly in the best possible place to continue learning.
    “Working with excellent players every day on the training field will bring him on and really push him further. You only have to look at Trent (Alexander-Arnold) and how he’s benefited from the advice he’s had from the likes of Virgil van Dijk, James Milner and Jordan Henderson.”
    From Brewster’s point of view, everything is fairly straightforward. “Ultimately, I want to be at Liverpool next season,” he recently told The Beautiful Game podcast. “I want to be fighting for a spot to play. Who is not going to want to play at the home of the champions? I don’t really want to go on loan but if that’s the best thing for me to do, to go away and get more game time, then that’s what I’m going to do.
    “Realistically, I want to play for Liverpool. I want to be the striker. I’ll go to the training camp, work hard and then whatever the boss says to do, I will accept, whether that’s to stay or whether that’s to go back on loan.”
    Game time is a big factor with Brewster. He has always been a player in a hurry; chasing a pathway to bigger and better things rather than waiting for them to come to him. That played a part in his decision to leave Chelsea for Liverpool in 2015. It also led to an impasse at Anfield a little over two years ago when Brewster rejected Liverpool’s offer of a first professional contract.
    At the time, Liverpool had Daniel Sturridge, Dominic Solanke and Danny Ings, as well as Firmino and Origi. It was hard to see how Brewster, who was recovering from a serious injury, could navigate a way through. On top of that, he was attracting interest from the Bundesliga, where his former England Under-17 team-mate Jadon Sancho was already blazing a trail. Liverpool were genuinely concerned that they could lose Brewster and it took assurances from Klopp before the player signed a five-year contract.
    There is no suggestion that what happens now will be make-or-break for Brewster — he is happy at Liverpool and sees his long-term future at the club. But everybody — player, club, manager — will understand the importance of Brewster playing plenty of football next season after his positive experience at Swansea.
    Can Liverpool give Brewster plenty of football, though? If not, can Liverpool trust another Premier League club to do that? Would Brewster, realistically, be a first choice at Villa, Newcastle, Burnley, Brighton, Crystal Palace or Fulham? Is he even ready to lead the line at that level?
    Those who know Brewster well believe that he is more than capable of playing in the Premier League now. His all-round game needs refining, as Klopp has identified, but the one thing that nobody ever questions about Brewster is his almost innate ability to score goals.
    “I think he could easily play in the Premier League,” says somebody who has worked closely with Brewster over the years. “But if he stays at Liverpool (this season), there’s no way he’s going to amass a large amount of games and I don’t see the bottom half of the Premier League guaranteeing he’ll be their No 1 striker, and that’s the dilemma he faces.
    “At the minute, and this is what is difficult for Rhian — you’ve got to be in a team that is really prepared to play the way that suits him because he isn’t going to pin people and hold the ball up and bring players into play. So he’s going to be off the shoulder and there are only so many teams who are going to play balls sliding you in. But I do think he’d score goals in the Premier League if you had the balls to play him and he got a run of games.”
    Tammy Abraham feels like an interesting case study for Brewster. Abraham, like Brewster, scored prolifically in the Championship during his first loan spell, for Bristol City in the 2016-17 season.
    The following season, Abraham stepped up a rung on the ladder and joined Swansea on loan in the Premier League. After a bright start that led to an England call-up, Abraham lost his place in a Swansea team that struggled to create chances.
    Aged 19 when he signed, he didn’t look ready to play up front on his own, ended up with only five league goals and, ultimately, spent more time on the bench than he did on the pitch. Swansea were relegated that season and it turned into a regressive experience for Abraham, too — his next loan took him back to the Championship with Aston Villa.
    That is not to say that the same thing would happen with Brewster if he joins a Premier League club but Abraham’s experience does serve as a lesson as to how important it is to get the timing, club, playing style and level absolutely right when sending a young player out on loan. Maybe all the more so with a striker, who will be heavily dependent on service.
    Essentially, Liverpool need to know that another club can give Brewster something that they can’t — otherwise, there seems to be little point in letting him go out on loan. In the Championship, Brewster would be a mandatory pick and, injuries permitting, play 46 games next season and score a bucketload of goals. That was certainly Swansea’s plan when they looked at re-signing him and hoped that they might be at the front of the queue. Now, though, Brewster, feels too good for that level.
    Whatever happens, Brewster is not the sort of person to waste any energy thinking about ifs, buts and maybes. It is all about the here and now and in that respect, the Community Shield against Arsenal at Wembley will present Brewster with another chance to audition for a place in Liverpool’s squad next season before joining up with the England Under-21s.
    After that, Liverpool plan to hold discussions about Brewster’s future and make a decision as to where the best place is for his development next season. The way things are going, that could easily be Anfield.
     
  7. Hass

    Hass Well-Known Member

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    Another Wembley defeat – can Liverpool kick on without investment this season?
    [​IMG]
    By James Pearce Aug 30, 2020[​IMG] 232 [​IMG]
    Defeat on penalties in the Community Shield. A section of the fanbase increasingly twitchy about the lack of transfer activity with the new Premier League season on the horizon. We’ve been here before.
    Liverpool made a mockery of those concerns after losing to Manchester City in the curtain-raiser at Wembley a year ago.
    A summer of modest recruitment when the club only added Harvey Elliott, Adrian, Sepp van den Berg and Andy Lonergan to their ranks was followed by Jurgen Klopp’s side blowing their rivals away to end a 30-year wait for the top-flight title.
    The improvement came from within — Klopp developing the array of talent at his disposal rather than relying on a statement of intent in the transfer market.
    The burning question is can he repeat the trick? As Chelsea embark on a spending spree and City work on trying to sign Lionel Messi from Barcelona, can Liverpool kick on again without an injection of proven quality?
    A sense of perspective is important after Klopp’s men lost the Community Shield on spot-kicks for the second successive season.
    This was Liverpool without Jordan Henderson, their inspirational captain, and Trent Alexander-Arnold, the most complete right-back in world football. And it showed.
    Both are close to returning to action with Alexander-Arnold given the green to resume full training on Sunday after shaking off a calf problem. Squad depth has also been dented in pre-season by the absence of the injured Joel Matip, Divock Origi, Xherdan Shaqiri and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
    Liverpool paid the price for a horribly slow start against Arsenal and a failure to make their second-half dominance count before Rhian Brewster’s penalty miss proved decisive. The lack of sharpness in the frontline was understandable given that Liverpool headed to Wembley off the back of an energy-sapping training camp in Austria.
    The one major positive was the sight of Takumi Minamino getting off the mark for the club with a cool finish to restore parity — seven months after his arrival from Salzburg. Virgil van Dijk spoke after the game about the “fantastic” Japan international “coming out of his shell”.
    Having barely featured in the second half of 2019-20, Minamino is fully adjusted to Klopp’s way of working and has impressed the coaching staff with his impact in pre-season. He will certainly have a bigger role to play in the coming months.
    The same goes for Naby Keita, who improved the Premier League champions after coming off the bench. He gave Klopp’s midfield the creative spark which had been lacking.
    Yet calls for further reinforcements are understandable. The clamour to firm up interest in Bayern Munich midfielder Thiago Alcantara continues to intensify.
    The Spain international, who is on holiday after winning the Champions League, is understood to be keen on a move to Anfield.
    However, Liverpool have yet to open talks with Bayern, who will demand around £30 million for a player who will be a free agent next summer.
    Klopp is well-stocked in central midfield but that could change with Georginio Wijnaldum’s future uncertain. The Dutchman has entered the final year of his contract and talks over an extension reached an impasse last season.
    Liverpool aren’t actively looking to sell him this summer and Wijnaldum hasn’t indicated he wants to move but new Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman is a big admirer.
    For all the chatter about the midfield, signing a centre-back is arguably a much bigger priority. That was further emphasised by the sight of Fabinho playing there for the final half-hour at Wembley after Joe Gomez was moved to right-back following the substitution of Neco Williams.
    The £10.9 million sale of Dejan Lovren to Zenit St Petersburg — coupled with the exits of Adam Lallana and Nathaniel Clyne as free agents — effectively paid for the £11.7 million signing of Kostas Tsimikas from Olympiakos.
    Liverpool have a quality back-up for Andy Robertson, which given the attacking influence of the full-backs in Klopp’s formation is crucial.
    However, they still have to replace Lovren, who made 15 appearances in 2019-20. The need for a fourth senior centre-back is more acute given Matip’s injury record. The former Cameroon international only made 11 starts last season and hasn’t featured since limping off against Everton when the Premier League restarted in late June.
    Gomez suffered with injuries too earlier in his career but clocked up 43 appearances en route to nailing down the spot alongside Virgil van Dijk in the title-winning campaign.
    Fabinho can deputise there but Liverpool are then denied his expert ability to dictate play from the holding midfield role.
    Young French centre-back Billy Koumetio, 17, has massively enhanced his reputation since being promoted to the first-team squad for pre-season. It was telling that he was picked ahead of Nathaniel Phillips, Van den Berg and Ki-Jana Hoever as he made the bench at Wembley.
    But the plan is for Koumetio to continue his development with the under-23s and potentially feature in the domestic cups. He can’t be regarded as the fourth choice centre-back. Phillips is set to leave after returning from a loan spell at Stuttgart.
    One issue for Liverpool’s recruitment staff is what they regard as a dearth of top-class centre-backs available at reasonable fees.
    Brighton’s Ben White and Norwich City’s Ben Godfrey have been considered but their price tags have proved prohibitive.
    The COVID-19 pandemic forced Liverpool to rethink their summer plans. For a club which is self-sustaining and has an annual wage bill of around £320 million, the massive hit in revenues has cut deep.
    It’s the reason why they didn’t pursue a deal for long-term target Timo Werner, who ended up moving to Chelsea. Elite back-up for the front three is another area that has still to be addressed.
    It remains to be seen how much cash can be generated from selling fringe players if suitable offers are tabled for Harry Wilson, Marko Grujic and Shaqiri, who are each valued at around £20 million. Sporting director Michael Edwards needs to shift the likes of Loris Karius, Sheyi Ojo and Yasser Larouci.
    Klopp has a close relationship with Fenway Sports Group president Mike Gordon and fully accepts the financial reality. There’s no friction. “I will never say ‘that’s the money I need and without that we cannot survive’. It’s about the club. I am clear enough about our situation,” said Klopp.
    “There are other clubs that have different policies, obviously, and you have to expect that. But that was the same last year and the year before. Our way didn’t harm us. We are in a good place. We have a good team. I don’t think I ever bought enough players in a transfer window to satisfy everybody. It was always ‘aaargh, we need another one’. But so far it worked out.”
    As a number of Liverpool players went to disappear down the tunnel on Saturday evening, Klopp called them back to stand and applaud Arsenal receiving the Community Shield. He did exactly the same a year ago when they gathered in the same spot to watch City’s presentation.
    Klopp must hope that another defeat at Wembley elicits the same response and that worries about squad depth are once again dispelled.
    (Photo: Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)
     
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  8. Hass

    Hass Well-Known Member

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    Liverpool hope to allow 12,500 into Anfield for Sheffield United game in October
    [​IMG]
    By James Pearce Sep 3, 2020[​IMG] 20 [​IMG]
    Liverpool are hoping to partially reopen Anfield with a capacity of around 12,500 for next month’s Premier League fixture against Sheffield United.
    Discussions are ongoing but the visit of Chris Wilder’s side, currently scheduled for October 24, has been pencilled in as the first home game to be played in front of fans since the club’s Champions League exit at the hands of Atletico Madrid on March 11.
    The Athletic understands the plan is to use all four stands and implement social distancing measures so Anfield will be operating at around 23 per cent of its usual 54,000 capacity.
    Liverpool have held ongoing talks with supporters’ groups since the initial lockdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in March and recent fans’ forums have discussed plans to reopen the stadium with club officials taking feedback on board.
    Billy Hogan declared that getting fans back into Anfield was his “immediate priority” after officially starting work as the club’s new CEO this week. “There is a lot of work going on to figure out how we do that and most importantly how we do it safely,” he said. “An amazing team of people are working behind the scenes to look at what those challenges present.”
    Every home game played behind closed doors costs Liverpool more than £3 million in lost revenue.
    The big dilemma is how to go about distributing those 12,500 tickets. Liverpool have around 27,000 season ticket holders and around 11,000 members who have all the relevant credits to be eligible for a seat.
    Fans will likely have to opt into a ballot. Tickets cannot be transferred, either, as Liverpool need to know exactly who is inside the ground and exactly where they are sitting to comply with NHS Test and Trace measures.
    Liverpool say they are still working on the finer details and will continue to take advice from both the government and the Premier League.
    “There’s nothing concrete in terms of proposals at this stage but the dialogue with the club has been very positive,” a source from one of the fans’ groups involved in the discussions with Liverpool told The Athletic. “Some Premier League clubs have just said, ‘This is what we’re doing, end of story’. But to their credit, Liverpool have sought to engage with the fans.
    “They’ve been in listening mode and 12,500 is the kind of figure they are talking about. They are having to make big changes to the concourses and the areas outside the ground, which still form part of the club’s footprint.
    “The ratio of season ticket holders in the ground should be roughly the same to what it usually is for games. Depending on demand, a season ticket holder could be looking at only being able to attend one in every four matches until the capacity can increase. Not everyone is going to be satisfied but it’s not an easy situation for anyone.
    “There could be up to 500 away fans allowed in too but that’s going to come down to a Premier League-wide decision based on government advice on things such as travelling to and from games.”
    With the ongoing uncertainty and reluctance to take money up front that could have to be refunded, Liverpool have decided to suspend the season ticket renewal process and their “Auto Cup Scheme”, which allows season ticket holders and members to secure tickets for cup competitions. Instead, they will sell tickets to fans on a match-by-match basis.
    No credits will be accrued for future seasons because the club do not want to penalise supporters who, for a variety of reasons, may decide they don’t wish to attend games in the current climate.
    Hundreds of Anfield stewards took part in a Zoom call with club officials on Tuesday night to learn more about the reopening.
    They were informed that fans will have to wear face masks and the plan is to use the large exit gates rather than turnstiles when it comes to supporters entering the ground to avoid confined spaces. Despite the heavily reduced capacity, Liverpool will still operate with around 670 stewards on match days.
     
  9. Hass

    Hass Well-Known Member

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    Rebuilding Sean Highdale
    James Pearce Sep 5, 2020[​IMG] 41 [​IMG]
    Sean Highdale should be in his prime as a footballer. At the age of 29 he should be fulfilling the rich potential that lit up the fields of Liverpool’s Kirkby academy during his formative years.
    But rather than preparing for the new season, he’s working on his next property deal. These days, he’s a successful businessman and an Anfield season-ticket holder. He hung up his boots a few years ago after a spell with Aigburth People’s Hall in the Liverpool County Premier League.
    His story is an extraordinary one. The fact he’s even alive to tell it is nothing short of miraculous.
    Highdale, who grew up in the Halewood area of Liverpool, was a combative midfielder and captain of Liverpool under-18s. He was part of the squad who won the FA Youth Cup in 2007 and a highly-rated England youth international, where he shone alongside Jack Wilshere. He dreamed of following in the footsteps of his hero, Steven Gerrard.
    He signed professionally for Liverpool when he turned 17 in March 2008 and the following month he was informed that he was being promoted from Kirkby to Melwood to train with Gary Ablett’s reserve squad ahead of the 2008-09 season.
    “I was buzzing. I felt like I was on top of the world,” he tells The Athletic.
    Within 24 hours he had come tumbling down.
    A horrific car crash, in which two of his close friends died, left him in a coma and with life-changing injuries.
    “I had a bleed on my brain, I broke my ankle, I broke my neck, I had to have a kidney removed and I dislocated my right knee, snapping three of the four main ligaments. I was in a bad way,” he says, matter-of-factly.
    [​IMG]

    Highdale in hospital after the horrific crash in which two of his friends died
    Medical staff told him to forget about ever playing football again. What followed is testament to the power of human resilience.

    “As a little kid, I was always a mad Red. It runs in the family,” Highdale tells me as he sips a cappuccino in the Milo Lounge cafe on Lark Lane in south Liverpool.
    Over the course of an hour and a half. he’s engaging company. Lean and tanned following a recent holiday in Spain, he looks like a footballer in his jeans and designer T-shirt.
    “I grew up just off Macket’s Lane, between Halewood and Hunts Cross. I only ever wanted to play for Liverpool. I remember jumping up and down on the couch at home when I was told that I had a trial. I was seven and I was so made up,” he smiles.
    “I played for Huntswood on Saturdays and Country Park (Trent Alexander-Arnold’s former junior club) on Sundays. I trained with Liverpool through to the age of nine, when we all found out whether we were getting signed or not.
    “Initially, I didn’t get taken on but then a few months later Liverpool got in touch with my family to say they had made a mistake and asked me to come back. I signed straight away. I was there from then right up through to the under-18s.
    “Back then, when you signed as a pro, the scout who spotted you initially got a bit of money. There was a bit of conflict with a few people trying to claim me but it was definitely Arthur Edwards, who sadly passed away earlier this year. He was a legend in the area in terms of scouting.”
    Highdale wasn’t short of positive influences. Kop icon Steve Heighway was running Liverpool’s academy and was assisted by coaches of the calibre of Hughie McAuley and Dave Shannon. They had helped develop the likes of Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen, David Thompson, Dominic Matteo and Steve McManaman.
    His dad Derek, a hod carrier in the building industry, was always on his case — ensuring Sean applied himself and made the most of the opportunities that came his way.
    “He’s been the biggest influence on my whole life,” Highdale says. “‘Degsy’, as people know him, was a good footballer himself. He played in the Welsh Premier League for Bangor City. He knows his stuff.
    “When it was freezing cold, he was the one getting me out on that field and motivating me, making sure I was fit and raring to go. My dad can’t drive, so it was my mum who was always taking me to training and back home again. She couldn’t drive herself until I was 10 or 11, so we used to get the bus together. They made a lot of sacrifices for me.
    “At the end of every season at the academy we’d get the chance to play on the pitch at Anfield, and one year Steven Gerrard was there to give out the certificates. He was always my hero and he still is. He’s the only person in this world who I’m kind of in awe of.
    “As a kid, I used to play a lot in the No 10 position. I wasn’t a big tackler, I had little twinkle toes and would create chances for others. That was my game until I was about 14.
    “Then we played Man City away and I was up against Kieran Trippier in centre midfield. Me and him used to have some good battles. This one got a bit feisty. I went in for this big tackle, won the ball and the Liverpool fans there watching loved it. I got the bug for getting stuck in after that.
    “My position changed. I dropped deeper and became a lot more physical. I loved getting on the ball and dictating play. Lads like Nathan Eccleston, David Amoo and Alex Kacaniklic were in my age group. Sometimes I’d play up a year or two with players like Martin Kelly and Jay Spearing.
    “When I was about 15, I missed a season due to a stress fracture in my back. I played with it for a while. The kind of player I was, I didn’t want to tell anyone I was struggling but gradually it got worse and worse. I came back strong from that.”
    So strong in fact that he was picked to play for Kenny Swain’s England Under-16s in the Victory Shield in the autumn of 2006. The following April he would have become the first Liverpool player to grace the pitch at the new Wembley Stadium but missed the international against Spain because it clashed with the FA Youth Cup final against Manchester United.
    [​IMG]

    Highdale relished his youth battles with players such as current England international Trippier (Photo: Barrington Coombs – PA Images via Getty Images)
    “We won the Victory Shield by beating Scotland in our final game and I got the assist for Nathan Delfouneso’s winner with a mis-hit volley,” he laughs. “We had a decent team, with Jack Wilshere, Jack Rodwell and Oliver Norwood in there too. In training, Wilshere was just on another level to everyone else. He was quality.
    “I was in the England squad to face Spain just after Wembley reopened but the following day it was the FA Youth Cup final. Steve Heighway called me into his office and said, ‘You’ve got a massive part to play with me.’
    “I understood, as it was Man United in the second leg at Old Trafford. But in the end I was an unused sub as we won on penalties, so that was a bit gutting. I was only 16, so I was young to be involved in the FA Youth Cup squad at that stage.”
    An overhaul at Kirkby in the summer of 2007 saw Heighway depart and Dutchman Piet Hamberg brought in as academy technical director. Over the course of 2007-08, Highdale flourished and was given the under-18s captaincy by McAuley.
    He came up against current Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson in the fifth round of the FA Youth Cup in February 2008. Henderson’s Sunderland triumphed 5-3, after extra time, at the Stadium of Light.
    “I’ve still got the DVDs of all the games that season,” Highdale says. “I remember Henderson was playing on the right of midfield. That turned out to be the last time I ever played in the Youth Cup.
    “We’d have team meetings after training when the coaches would run through what we’d done right and wrong. I’d always ask Hughie if I could take a copy of the DVD home so I could analyse it myself.
    “I’m glad I did that as they’re nice to have. A while back I walked into the house and my dad was sat there watching one of my old games. It was pretty sad in a way. I know what it would have meant to him if things had turned out differently for me. Just before the accident, that was the best football I ever played. Every game, I felt like the best player on the pitch.”
    Then came Sunday, April 6, 2008, the fateful day that changed his life forever.

     
  10. Hass

    Hass Well-Known Member

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    Part 2

    On the Saturday, Highdale had played with a swagger for Liverpool Under-18s against Derby County’s at Kirkby. His future looked incredibly bright.
    “Before we played Derby, Hughie called me in, along with Nathan Eccleston and Steven Irwin, and told us that we would be moving up to the reserves at Melwood for the following season,” he says.
    “I was so happy. It was a big step forward. It was what I’d been working towards. Back then, you usually did a two-year YTS and then you turned pro, but after the first year Liverpool said they wanted me to sign professionally when I turned 17. The timing of that turned out to be very lucky for me. The contract meant I had the security of getting paid.”
    The players were given the Sunday off and Highdale decided to go to the cinema with his mates.
    “We were going to get the train from Hunts Cross into town but when we went around to the station all the trains were on strike so we walked back,” he recalls.
    “My mate Kalam had passed his test a few weeks before, so he said he would drive us instead. From that moment I got into the car, I can’t remember anything. The next thing I remember is waking up in hospital. A total blackout.”
    Highdale was one of five teenagers travelling in a Vauxhall Astra along Speke Boulevard at around 10.30pm when it collided with a Volkswagen Beetle. The impact sent the Astra spinning across the carriageway before it was catapulted through trees, ending up resting on its roof in nearby woodland. Kalam Wooding and Tom Benn, both 17, died in the accident, while Danny Moran, who was on Tranmere Rovers’ books, was left in a critical condition. Twelve years on, Moran still requires round-the-clock care. The driver of the Beetle fortunately escaped with only whiplash.
    “I only know what people at the scene have told my family and what the crash investigators believe happened,” Highdale says. “A fella who was driving behind us seems to think that when we went to join the dual carriageway there was another car on our right already on it. Apparently we tried to get ahead of it, clipped it and that flipped our car over.
    “They reckon I was sat in the passenger seat and then, when the car started tumbling, I must have put my foot up on the dashboard to try to protect myself. They think it was the force from that which pushed my foot back and shattered the bones in my ankle.
    “My mum and dad were actually among the first on the scene. A girl I knew growing up happened to be driving by, so she’d rung my dad to tell him I’d been involved in a crash. I was in a coma for five days so it was a while before I knew what had happened to the other lads. It was devastating.”
    His mum, Lindzi, broke the news to him as he lay in his hospital bed.
    “We had our little group of mates and we were very close. Tom and Danny were the real jokers of the group,” he says. “Kalam lived just around the corner from us when we were kids. Danny was my closest friend. He was at Liverpool when we were younger and then he went to Tranmere.
    “Danny went into a coma and he hasn’t ever properly woken up. He’s got a low state of awareness. If you clap your hands, he blinks, so he reacts to certain things. It’s so sad. He lives in south Liverpool. I need to go and visit him again as it’s been a while. It’s just so hard seeing him like that.
    “The fifth lad in the car was Ricky. I didn’t really know him that well. He was more Kalam’s mate. He wasn’t seriously hurt.
    “I remember I tried to get out of bed to go to one of the funerals as I was desperate to be there, but I blacked out again.
    “It feels like a blessing that I can’t remember the accident or what happened in the aftermath. It makes it easier to live with. You hear of people coming home from the army who suffer from flashbacks and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). They just can’t get stuff out of their heads. I know it would affect me massively if I had those images in my head.”

    Liverpool Football Club rallied in support of Highdale.
    They had him transferred from Whiston Hospital to the private Sefton Suite in Fazakerley. Carragher was among those to pay him a visit, while Gerrard rang and invited him down to Melwood with his family for a meal when he was well enough.
    “That was a massive boost — sitting there with my hero for a few hours,” he says. “You think he’s a superstar but when you actually meet him, you realise he’s just one of us.
    “Looking at the pic I had taken with Stevie at Melwood (below), I couldn’t have been any more than seven stone. I’d lost a lot of weight. I was 10 and a half stone before the accident. I look ill.
    [​IMG]
    “Liverpool were playing Arsenal in the quarter-finals of the Champions League a few days after the accident and my agent, Peter McIntosh from Stella Group, took my dad to that game with Joe Hart, who Peter looked after as well. Everyone we knew rallied round. That’s what Halewood is like — it’s only a small place but people look out for each other.
    “I was in hospital for about six weeks and Liverpool really looked after me. I kept saying to the staff how sore my neck was but they said it was just whiplash. The club physio insisted they did an X-ray and it turned out I’d fractured my neck in two different places. I had to have an operation for it to be pinned and plated.
    “At that stage, I didn’t know how bad my knee was. I’d lost a kidney but I still thought I’d be back in training before too long.”
    Liverpool sent Highdale to London to see top knee surgeon Andy Williams, who has operated on a host of elite sports stars. The severity of the damage was soon laid bare.
    “Andy said to me from the start, ‘Don’t ever think about playing football again. What I’m here for is to get you back to living your everyday life — that’s what matters to me’.
    “Barry Ferguson (the Rangers and Scotland midfielder) came out as I was waiting to go in to see him. The second time, I saw Shaun Wright-Phillips there. I had an operation where Andy took part of the hamstring out of my left leg and used it to create a ligament in my right knee. He did an unbelievable job. What a man.
    “I went back to the academy and all I could do initially was some upper-body weights. Then I was on the bike in the gym. I kept smashing every target they gave me. My mindset was I wasn’t going to let anyone tell me that I couldn’t do something. If I really can’t do something then I’ll only accept that once I’ve given it everything I’ve got.”
    The rehab went on for two years. Highdale was a spectator when Liverpool lost the final of the FA Youth Cup to Arsenal 6-2 on aggregate in May 2009.
    “That was my team, and we got battered,” he adds. “Jack Wilshere ran the show. By then, he was flying with the first team. I wondered if he would recognise me but he was straight over for a chat after. Staying down a year at the academy was how I got to know Jon Flanagan. We clicked and we’ve been good friends ever since.”
    In the spring of 2010, Highdale finally made his Liverpool comeback, but his joy proved to be shortlived.
    “We were playing Crewe in a friendly at Kirkby and my name was up there on the teamsheet. It was really emotional. I got on for the last 25 minutes and did OK,” he says. “By then Frankie (McParland) was the academy director and one day I had a meeting with him and Dave Galley, the physio. I was fit and loving playing again.
    “Frankie asked Dave where I was at and Dave said, ‘He’s not going to be able to do it’. I wasn’t happy at the time but Dave explained, ‘It’s not about now, it’s about five to 10 years time, your knee is that knackered’.
    “Frankie told me to forget about football. He said they’d provide a reference for how good I was before the accident when it came to the compensation. Me being me, I still didn’t want to give up.”
    Highdale had loan spells at Oldham Athletic and Welsh outfit Newtown and various trials at EFL clubs before officially leaving Liverpool in 2011. He then signed for Cheshire-based non-League club Vauxhall Motors.
    “After Oldham, I went to MK Dons for a bit, where Paul Ince was the manager. I knew him from playing with his son, Tom, at Liverpool. I went to Huddersfield Town under Lee Clark and then Accrington Stanley,” he says.
    “But I couldn’t keep up with them. Everything was just too fast. It was frustrating, because I couldn’t do things that I used to be able to do. I just didn’t have the same kind of mobility in my knee. I was never the fastest player but I was always fit. I lost a yard of pace and I just couldn’t get it back.
    “I decided to call it a day in terms of professional football. I played a couple of seasons for Vauxhall and then went to Burscough (another local non-League club). Then I kind of lost interest. I just couldn’t be bothered with all the travelling for £70 per game.
    “I decided I’d rather just play amateur football with my mates. I went to Old Xavs and then finished with Aigburth People’s Hall. I gave up a few years ago. I couldn’t see the point in it anymore. Sometimes playing against lads who just want to kick you. What do you get out of that?
    “I could get through games pain-free and make tackles, no problem. It was the day after (matches) when I had issues. I miss playing but I only really miss the standard I used to play at. Being in that environment — the buzz, the immaculate pitches.
    “What I enjoy now is kicking a ball around with my sister Jess’s little boy. My nephew Ethan is only six, but he’s just got a trial at Liverpool and I’m giving him advice.”

    Once Highdale had belatedly accepted that his hopes of a professional career were over, he was able to pursue compensation.
    Solicitor Catherine Leech from Manchester law firm Pannone took on the case and called on more than 30 witnesses, including Gerrard, Carragher, Wilshere, Heighway, Ablett, Ince, Spearing and Kelly. They all described him as being one of the biggest talents of his generation and on course to break into the first-team squad.
    The insurers of the car he was travelling in at the time of the accident paid out £4 million in 2013. The first thing he did was clear the family debts accrued over a difficult five-year period and bought his parents a new house and car.
    “The things my former team-mates and coaches wrote about me helped a lot. It was nice to know that I was pretty well respected in the football world and not a bad player,” he says.
    “When the money came through, I didn’t go out and buy myself a Lamborghini, which I could have easily done. I never rubbed it in anyone’s face or became big time. I’d been used to earning £50 per day labouring for my grandad’s landscaping business. I’d done a year working in the factory on the new Land Rovers.
    “My mum and dad had taken out loans and credit cards just for me to live, so sorting things out for them was my priority. They had been through a lot.
    “I knew it wouldn’t last forever, so that’s why I opened up by own business. I’ve gone into property development with a business partner and I’ve got a stake in five kids’ day nurseries.”
    In 2016, there was another life-changing experience. Out of the blue, he was asked if he would be interested in potentially joining England’s cerebral palsy football team. A trip to St George’s Park ultimately led to him being picked to represent Great Britain at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
    “I had to be assessed by the doctors to see if I qualified,” he says. “They knew I’d had a bleed on the brain. When I was getting back fit with Liverpool, when I did weights with my left hand my right hand would curl. My physio would always ask me why I was doing it and I didn’t know. It turns out that’s cerebral palsy in your brain. When you get tired, your hand starts to curl.
    “I went down for these tests. He’d have his finger out in front of me and I’d have to touch my nose and then touch his finger. Then he’d move his finger and I couldn’t find it to touch it.
    “He said I was showing signs of it, so I started training with England. To get classified for Rio, I had to go to an international assessment in Portugal. They class you from five to eight, eight being the least impaired. It was touch and go whether I’d qualify but I got an eight, so I could go to the Paralympics.
    [​IMG]

    Highdale poses for his team photo before the 2016 Paralympics (Photo: Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images)
    “The first game, against Brazil, was a 15,000 sell-out. We didn’t win a medal but the whole trip was a massive eye-opener. It was amazing to see how people improvise with their lives. I saw a guy playing PlayStation who had no arms, he was just playing with his stumps.
    “The people there were so happy, getting up every day and making the absolute best of the difficulties they’ve had to face in life. Something like that gives you a different perspective and outlook. You think to yourself, ‘What am I moaning for?’”

    Happy and settled with girlfriend Sarah, Highdale is in a good place. His love for Liverpool FC is undimmed. He’s a season-ticket holder in block 202 of the Kop. He’s not consumed by feelings of bitterness or anger about what might have been.
    “I’m just a fan like everyone else,” he says. “Winning the title after so many years was brilliant. Jurgen Klopp has done a fantastic job.
    “When Jordan Henderson lifted the trophy, I was in my mum’s, shouting and celebrating with my dad. It’s great to see what Jordan has gone on to achieve. He deserved to be Footballer of the Year. It’s not just his performances, it’s captaining a squad full of superstars. You can tell they all respect him massively.
    “Over the years, I’ve seen players go on to do really well at the highest level who I knew I was better than. There’s a bit of disappointment, but it also makes me happy to think I would have done it. I’m not saying I definitely would have played for Liverpool but I know I would have made a decent living out of the game.
    “I’ve never had any feelings of jealousy towards anyone. If feelings like that were ever going to affect me, it would have happened when Jon Flanagan, my best mate, was playing for Liverpool. I was always made up for him.
    “These days, we play golf together. Flanno plays off 11 and I’m off 18 at the minute. I shot 87 the other day, which is my best yet. I feel good. I go to the gym regularly and see a personal trainer. I lost a lot of movement in my ankle, so every morning I walk on my tiptoes for five minutes until it warms up and I can put my heel down. Apart from that, I’m fine.”
    [​IMG]

    Highdale with his dad, Derek
    Highdale has been warned he’s likely to suffer from arthritis in his neck and ankle in later life. But he has long since learnt not to waste time worrying about what might happen.
    “There’s so much I want to do,” he adds. “I want to travel the world and build up the business a lot more before starting a family of my own.
    “I’m hoping for a big return on the investments I’ve made so that, in the next three to four years, I can say to my parents, ‘Don’t work, buy a place abroad and potter about between here and Spain’, or wherever.
    “I’m a great believer that things happen for a reason. Football wasn’t meant to be for me. I had to dust myself off and go down a different path.
    “What I’ve been through has taught me to never take anything for granted. I had the world at my feet at one stage. Suddenly, it was gone. It makes you realise how much you have to appreciate what you’ve got in life because it can get taken away from you so fast. You have to enjoy every single moment.”
     
  11. Hass

    Hass Well-Known Member

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    Michael Cox: How to beat Liverpool
    [​IMG]
    By Michael Cox Sep 6, 2020[​IMG] 104 [​IMG]
    Over the past couple of seasons, there have evidently been two hugely dominant sides in the Premier League — Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City and Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.
    The standard approach for beating City is relatively obvious: play on the counter-attack and exploit a perceived weakness at set pieces. It’s considerably more difficult on the pitch than on paper, of course — but there is an established game plan.
    Klopp’s Liverpool are a different proposition. They’re a stronger, more physical side than City and less liable to being bullied. There’s no particular issue with defending set pieces. They aren’t so insistent on dominating possession and therefore, aren’t so prone to counter-attacks.
    So how do you beat them?
    This is a difficult question to answer because, of course, there aren’t many actual defeats to examine for clues.
    From the opening day of the 2018-19 season to the penultimate day of February this year — 65 Premier League games — Liverpool lost just once, the narrow 2-1 defeat away to Manchester City in January 2019 that effectively cost them that season’s title. The defeat in Watford on February 29 was their first Premier League loss of last season and they only lost twice more in the top flight — at Manchester City and away to Arsenal, both after they’d already been confirmed as champions.
    But, crucially, this isn’t an assessment of their actual defeats. It’s an assessment of where they’ve been “beaten” in terms of expected goals by a decent margin.
    In other words, the opposition might not have won the match — but they did create better chances.
    During the last two seasons, Liverpool have lost just four times in the Premier League but their xG has been more than 0.5 worse than that of the opposition on eight occasions.
    MATCHOPPONENTSCORELINEXGXGAXGD
    Oct 7, 2018Man City (H)0-00.351.05-0.70
    Jan 30, 2019Leicester (H)1-10.581.12-0.54
    Aug 17, 2019Southampton (A)2-11.291.94-0.65
    Sep 22, 2019Chelsea (A)2-10.571.29-0.72
    Dec 29, 2019Wolves (H)1-01.161.82-0.66
    Feb 29, 2020Watford (A)0-30.292.34-2.05
    July 2, 2020Man City (A)0-41.042.43-1.39
    July 22, 2020Chelsea (H)5-31.692.41-0.72
    Looking at those eight matches, a few themes appear, offering hints for future opponents about how they might cause Klopp’s champions some problems.
    1) Attack Liverpool’s weaker centre-back
    This isn’t exactly breaking news: Virgil van Dijk is the world’s best defender and his centre-back colleague isn’t as reliable but the extent to which the Dutchman’s defensive partner has suffered when Liverpool have been outplayed is interesting.
    In the 0-0 draw with City at Anfield early in the 2018-19 season, Dejan Lovren endured a very difficult game and was slightly fortunate to survive a couple of penalty appeals (although it was, ironically, Van Dijk who did actually concede a penalty for a clumsy, unnecessary tackle on Leroy Sane).
    Lovren was again culpable in February’s comprehensive 3-0 defeat to Watford, letting the ball bounce when marking Troy Deeney from a throw-in for the opening goal, then allowing Abdoulaye Doucoure to sneak in ahead of him and cross for Ismaila Sarr to score.
    [​IMG]
    Lovren moved on this summer to Zenit Saint Petersburg. But while the alternatives are upgrades on the Croatia international, they’re hardly watertight. In Liverpool’s somewhat fortunate 2-1 victory away to Southampton last August, Joel Matip had a poor game, twice nearly putting the ball into his own net.
    Furthermore, while Joe Gomez is considered Van Dijk’s first-choice partner, he was dreadful in the first half of the 4-0 defeat to Manchester City late last season, fouling his old foe Raheem Sterling to concede a penalty for the opener, at fault for the second, and hauled off at half-time before he could inflict any further damage.
    [​IMG]
     
  12. Hass

    Hass Well-Known Member

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    Part 2

    In other words, in three of the eight matches where Liverpool have been outplayed, their second centre-back has struggled badly.
    With Van Dijk almost unbeatable on the ground and in the air, strikers clearly need to focus more on working his central defensive sidekick.
    2) Play passes in behind Andy Robertson
    Well, perhaps opponents shouldn’t entirely give up on attacking the left side of Liverpool’s defence…
    Common consensus has it that left-back Robertson is a solid, no-nonsense defender, whereas right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold is younger, less experienced and a touch naive positionally. But looking through Liverpool’s list of poor performances, it’s more often Robertson who has been found wanting of the two.
    That goalless draw against City, which could well have been a 1-0 loss had Riyad Mahrez not skied his 86th-minute penalty, was a good example. Mahrez seemingly insisted on taking the spot kick (against his manager’s orders and despite a poor personal track record on penalties) because he had led City’s charge throughout the second half, almost single-handedly launching attacks in behind Robertson. That’s not generally an obvious part of City’s game plan, so it appears Guardiola specifically asked his side to focus on long balls towards that flank.
    Robertson was also poor in a 1-1 home draw with Leicester City three months later — in particular, he committed a silly foul on Marc Albrighton, conceding a free kick which led to Harry Maguire’s equaliser on the stroke of half-time. This was a mixture of positional and individual problems — on one hand, Robertson simply got caught up the pitch at a turnover, which allowed Albrighton to swap passes with James Maddison…
    [​IMG]
    …and push forward into space with support from Ricardo Pereira.
    [​IMG]
    But Georginio Wijnaldum had moved across and covered well for Robertson, who then made a hugely unnecessary tackle on Albrighton when there was minimal danger. That effectively cost Liverpool two points in a season where they ended up finishing one behind champions City.
    Robertson was also vulnerable in an unconvincing 1-0 win over Wolves last Christmas, while in the thrashing at Watford two months later, Nigel Pearson’s side constantly prospered with quick balls into Liverpool’s left-back zone for Sarr to run onto. That 3-0 defeat is arguably the most convincing Klopp’s Liverpool have suffered in the past two seasons and is worth future opponents studying in greater depth.
    Robertson was another constantly torn apart in July’s 4-0 defeat by Manchester City — granted, a game that was Liverpool’s first, since they might have overexerted themselves in title victory celebrations. But in four of these eight matches, the Scotland international has looked vulnerable. He was also guilty of conceding a penalty when bringing down Napoli’s Jose Callejon in a rare loss in the Champions League last September.
    In contrast — and this might be pure coincidence — Alexander-Arnold’s wobbles have come in matches Liverpool have won handsomely.
    Indeed, the only two occasions they were outplayed in 2018-19 came when Alexander-Arnold was out absent, with Gomez or Jordan Henderson filling in at right-back.
    3) Press Alisson
    In that 1-1 draw at a snowy Anfield in January of last year, Leicester caused problems in the first half by shutting down Alisson quickly.
    First, Claude Puel’s men pressed four-against-four in this situation…
    [​IMG]
    …with Albrighton closing down Alisson, who tried to pass out to makeshift right-back Henderson, but instead played the ball straight to Maddison.
    [​IMG]
    He went down under Henderson’s challenge but referee Martin Atkinson wasn’t interested.
    The same thing happened later in the half — Jamie Vardy pressed Alisson suddenly, and charged down his attempted kick downfield…
    [​IMG]
    …the ball fell to Albrighton…
    [​IMG]
    …who crossed to the penalty spot, where three of his team-mates were overloading Matip. Maddison headed disappointingly wide from what was Leicester’s best chance of the night.
    [​IMG]
    In the 2-1 win at Southampton in the first away match of last season, Liverpool also struggled with their goalkeeper’s distribution.
    On this occasion, it was Adrian rather than the injured Alisson, and therefore probably not as applicable as a general weakness, but Liverpool’s back-up keeper conceded a ridiculous goal by dallying on the ball, then striking a clearance straight against Danny Ings, which rebounded into the net.
    [​IMG]
    Adrian won’t be used unless there’s an emergency but the point stands — Liverpool are so difficult to break down that winning the ball without having to play through them is a particularly attractive approach.
    4) Exploit the space behind the wide forwards
    Klopp’s approach out wide is a calculated, risk-versus-reward gamble.
    Rather than tracking the opposition full-backs and forming a midfield five without the ball, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah generally maintain Liverpool’s 4-3-3 system by remaining in counter-attacking positions between the opposition full-backs and centre-backs.
    This is primarily beneficial: both have scored enough counter-attack goals to justify this boldness. Nevertheless, it means opponents can find space behind them.
    Of the eight sides to have effectively outplayed Liverpool in our two-season sample, it is Chelsea who did this best — in their 2-1 loss to Klopp’s side at Stamford Bridge last September. The first example of this came midway through the first half when Liverpool were attempting to “box in” Chelsea at a throw. Mane was therefore towards the right flank, trying to increase the pressure, and gesturing for his team-mates to remain tight…
    [​IMG]
    …but after Marcos Alonso threw the ball to Mateo Kovacic, who responded with a neat shimmy to step away from Henderson and Roberto Firmino…
    [​IMG]
    …Mane wasn’t in a position to stop Cesar Azpilicueta charging into space.
    [​IMG]
    This is a factor in open play, too.
    Chelsea’s goal in that match came when Kovacic was able to launch the ball out to Azpilicueta, who was in oceans of space on the right flank. As Liverpool’s midfield three were forced to shuffle across to close him down, Azpilicueta passed inside to N’Golo Kante, who dribbled through an unusually open midfield trio to score from the edge of the penalty area.
    [​IMG]
    On the opposite flank, meanwhile, Salah’s lack of tracking back meant Alonso could overlap aggressively into space and in the final stages, as they chased an equaliser, Chelsea constantly had an overload down that flank. Here, Willian switches the ball out to Alonso, who crossed for substitute Michy Batshuayi, who was completely unmarked but headed the chance wide.
    [​IMG]
    This almost identical situation a minute later resulted in Willian again finding Alonso, whose low cross was met by Mason Mount, who blasted over.
    [​IMG]
    These chances didn’t result in Liverpool losing on the scoreboard that day but they did result in them “losing” in terms of xG.
    Klopp, incidentally, realised the problem unfolding in front of him and sent Gomez on for Salah to give extra defensive protection down that flank in stoppage time.
    That wasn’t the only match where this was an issue — Liverpool were fortunate not to concede a late equaliser in the 2-1 win at Southampton the previous month when a quick ball was played out to right-back Yan Valery, with Divock Origi (on as a substitute to play down the left) not in a position to pressure him.
    [​IMG]
    Valery’s perfect cross somehow produced an air-shot from former Liverpool striker Ings six yards from goal.
    [​IMG]
    Sometimes, a side’s strength is also their weakness — and while Klopp is happy to give Mane and Salah the freedom to attack, Liverpool can be vulnerable in behind them.
    5) Beat the xG
    This analysis is all based around expected goals, rather than actual goals. The alternative is obvious: “beat” the xG.
    Manchester City’s crucial, effectively title-winning, defeat of Liverpool in January 2019 came despite the visitors creating better chances on the night: 1.5 to 1.1 in xG terms. Arsenal’s 2-1 win over them in July was even less likely — it was 0.8 to 2.1, coming just days after Burnley forced a 1-1 draw at Anfield despite being outperformed 1.7 to 0.4 in the same metric. Good last-ditch defending and goalkeeping, combined with clinical finishing at the other end of the pitch, mean you don’t need to outplay Liverpool — or any opponent — to actually win.
    But the most realistic way of framing this is the other way around — Liverpool are unlikely to continue outperforming their xG so significantly.
    Statistics from the last two seasons suggest Liverpool could have reasonably expected a total goal difference of +76 from the chances created at either end, rather than the +119 they actually recorded. That’s partly because of the excellence of Alisson, and partly because of fine finishing by Salah and Mane.
    But such huge overperformance surely can’t last — at least not enough for Klopp’s side to manage points totals of 97 and 99, as they have in the last two seasons. More sides might find themselves getting a result against Liverpool this season, without doing too much differently.
     
  13. Hass

    Hass Well-Known Member

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    ames Milner – the Leeds United fan who was destined to star at Elland Road
    Phil Hay Sep 6, 2020[​IMG] 49 [​IMG]
    In James Milner’s day, there were unwritten rules for academy players who found themselves in a first-team training session. You knew your place and when it came to the grind of long-distance running, you stuck at the pace of the seniors around you. The last thing they wanted was the embarrassment of an enthusiastic kid driving them into the ground.
    Nick Gray, the midfielder son of Leeds United legend Eddie, took note of the etiquette as he went through the transition at Thorp Arch. The orders were strict and stricter again in pre-season. “There was a balance to find between pushing yourself and not going too hard,” he says. “The older lads would say to us young boys, ‘Don’t be going out in front and making us all look bad’. Most of us listened. We did what we were told, if that’s the right way of putting it.
    “Then you had James. He paid no attention. Telling him to ease off was water off a duck’s back.”
    Nick’s father has the same memories. Now 72, Eddie has given his life with Leeds as a player, a coach, a manager and an ambassador, and in all that time, he cannot think of anyone with a focus like Milner’s. “It wasn’t arrogance or over-confidence,” Eddie says. “He wasn’t a ‘showy’ kid but put him on those cross-country runs and he was leading the way from the start. You’d have the old pros telling him to slow down. He’d go faster. He was single-minded and unfazed, doing what was good for him.”
    Milner’s old team-mates and coaches always make a point of talking about his talent. The “Steady Eddie” persona, as Nick Gray puts it, can detract from the skill people identified in Milner as a primary school pupil that made him the Premier League’s youngest goalscorer for a few years. But the stories about the running sessions, the picture they draw of Milner’s attitude and athleticism, are the best way of explaining why, next weekend, Leeds will find him at the very top of the sport: a Premier League title-holder, a Champions League winner and a pillar of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.
    Milner had ability in spades but when it came to shaping a career as a footballer, he wanted it and worked for it like very few in the business.
    [​IMG]

    Milner celebrates scoring as a 16-year-old with Robbie Fowler and Gary Kelly, right (Photo: PA Images via Getty Images)
    As a youngster, he had the advantage of being multi-talented, a dab hand at almost any sport he turned his mind to. Golf, cricket, cross-country, football; Milner was one of those boys who made them look as easy as each other. Duncan Jacques, a teacher at Calverley Church of England School, helped to run the Airedale and Wharfedale district team while Milner was part of the squad. Jon Moss, the Premier League referee who, in a former life, taught Milner at nearby Westbrook Primary, also coached the team. There was only one team, the under-11s, but Milner played for them for three seasons, underage in his first two.
    “He was the best player we’d ever seen,” Jacques says. “I mean, to have someone like that in a local representative team such as ours was such a gift.
    “I’d like to say I had a part in his development but it would be absolute baloney. I don’t kid myself. I had nothing to do with where he went. The kid was properly talented and he was so good that we were able to play him anywhere. A lot of the time, we used him as a wing-back because he was such an athlete. Everyone knows the stories about him being a cross-country champion. Well, he could run all day and he did. He was incredibly powerful, even back then.”
    Milner’s parents, Peter and Lesley, were supportive but realistic, hitting the sweet spot between encouragement and interference. “They pushed him without ever being pushy, or without being pushy with any of us,” Jacques says. “It’s not a secret that some parents can be a problem in junior football but they were genuinely good people.” Eddie Gray remembers them as “a great couple, who backed him to the hilt in the right way”. Whether it was taught or ingrained, Milner cut a model professional from the start. He is held up these days as the example for aspiring footballers who want a personality to emulate but Leeds thought no differently about Milner the teenager.
    “On the social side, you never saw much of him,” says Michael Duberry, the ex-Leeds defender. “If he ever did come on a night out, we’d be getting stuck into a few pints and joking about buying him Ribena Toothkind. He was his own man, even as a kid. Football was the only thing on his mind.”
    Nick Gray grew up with Milner in Leeds’ academy, which both of them joined before the start of secondary school in the mid-1990s. Nick says that by 11 or 12, it was “blatantly obvious” that Milner was “going to be very, very good and far better than most of us”. Simon Johnson, an academy forward who went on to play a handful of times for Leeds’ first team, describes Milner as “streets ahead”. “His first day of training with the first team always stuck in my head,” Johnson says. “I can’t be sure what everyone else thought of him exactly but I was part of that session and I came away thinking he was the best player on the pitch.
    “I could see a few of the older players thinking, ‘Who is this kid?’. He was a baby, really, no more than that, but it all came so easily. Right from the start, he had the blueprint. The only things that mattered to him were training, working, learning and getting better. Even now, I’d love to sit down with him and pick his brain because I’ve never come across anyone so switched on or so sure about where they were going. It wasn’t as if he was an arrogant git who got ahead of himself. He was obsessed about football but not the extra things that came with it.
    “I was never that guy. I can’t pretend otherwise. I wanted to enjoy some of what football gave you: the money, the fancy clothes, a bit of a drink, all of that. James would rock up in a tracksuit day after day, nothing fancy and nothing flash. He never touched alcohol, as far as I saw. If you want to know why he’s been at the very highest level for 20 years, that’s why. From an athlete’s point of view, he understood what was important. More so than quite a lot of other players.”
    When Milner first broke through, Dominic Matteo was a leading player in Leeds’ squad and he carried the armband in the midfielder’s last season at Elland Road, the 2003-04 campaign. He echoes Johnson’s comments about Milner’s work ethic. “If you told me James was still teetotal, I wouldn’t be surprised,” Matteo says (Milner promised himself as a teenager that he would avoid alcohol until his career was finished). “He had the discipline to stick to that and when I look at him at Liverpool, it’s like he hasn’t aged at all.
    “He’s had very good habits from the start and I have to be honest, I was much older than him when I started to think more carefully about trying to look after my body. I concentrated on my body because I was getting on a bit and having some problems with it. He seemed to know that if he was ultra-disciplined from a young age, he’d reap the benefits when time started catching up on him. That’s the difference.
    “Eddie Gray used to speak a lot about players having football intelligence. It was Eddie’s big thing: players with a footballing brain. James probably fits the bill as well as anyone. He was clever on the pitch but he was clever off it, too. When he started with the first team at Leeds, he didn’t care about names or reputations. I don’t mean he was disrespectful. He just went at it with this relentless endurance. You know what it’s like as a senior pro. You’ve got a lad who won’t stop running at you and you’re thinking, ‘Fucking hell!’ I could have told you then that he was going to go far.”
    As Milner’s reputation spread around, Leeds moved to fast-track him rapidly. Like most of Leeds’ academy prospects back then, he left home and moved to Thorp Arch after finishing school and roomed with goalkeeper Scott Carson. They had all the usual duties and responsibilities (in Nick Gray’s case, it fell to him to clean the boots of Matteo and Olivier Dacourt) but Milner’s game developed at a quick pace.
    “He missed the under-17s completely,” Nick says. “He never really played at that level because he was too good. The under-19s and the reserves were better for him. We were all quite surprised by how quickly his debut for the first team came but you knew he was going to get there soon enough. It was just a question of when.”
    Eddie Gray, Leeds’ first-team coach under David O’Leary and Terry Venables, would watch Milner play in matches alongside Nick. Milner, in his eyes, was “going to be a player, no doubt about that”. Eddie nurtured him with one-on-one training drills, working on Milner’s thought process as much as anything.
    “All I tried to get him to do was take a bit more time to think,” Eddie says. “He was a winger back then, very fast, and he did everything at 100 miles an hour. I gave him little bits of advice: ‘Get your head up more. Don’t try and rush everything. Just calm down a touch’. But he was so easy to work with and I mean this: his career and his talent is nothing to do with me. He didn’t need any of my guidance to make it. He was always going to make it. I compare him to Harry Kewell and Jonathan Woodgate in that respect.”
    Milner says otherwise about Eddie’s influence on him and Nick saw it differently, too. “My dad’s got a history of working with the younger kids at Leeds,” Nick says. “He was a young kid at Leeds himself and it’s a passion of his. When it came to things like being at the front of the group in the running drills, my dad would have been the first to say to James, ‘Don’t listen to anybody else. If you want to lead the way, you lead the way’. He’d have encouraged James to think like that.”
    [​IMG]

    Milner fends of Wolves defender Denis Irwin (Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
    To the other players at Leeds, Milner pitched his attitude perfectly. He was serious but humble, with a good sense of humour. “He came across as quiet and refined,” says Duberry. “Sometimes you get a bit of over-confidence with young lads coming through but it would have been a mistake for someone like him to act like that.
    “We’re talking about a dressing room with big characters in it: Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell, Robbie Fowler, David Batty, Gary Kelly, myself. You can’t be loud or full of it with people like that around you. He was a huge Leeds fan as well and I’m sure that helped to make him respectful but he was that way inclined anyway. His attitude, his personality, was part of his DNA.
    “What it all comes down to, though, is what happens on the pitch. From the start, he looked very good technically and more than up to it. So straight away, the lads are thinking, ‘Yeah, we’re having him’. You’ve got no worries. That was the thing about him making his debut at 16. It wasn’t like we were sat there saying, ‘Oh God, he’s playing’. It was, ‘Milner, he’ll be fine’. He was a boy with a man’s physique and he was never out of place.”
    Over the years, Milner was characterised as a bland individual, the subject of the parody Twitter account @BoringMilner (656,000 followers and counting). More recently, he has played up to that reputation with funny and self-deprecating posts on his own official feed. “People get him wrong,” says former Leeds right-back Danny Mills. “The videos he makes of him cutting the grass with scissors or counting tea bags; that’s his sense of humour. He was dry, with some very good one-liners. He reminds me of Gareth Southgate. People see Gareth as sensible and serious but actually, he’s a really funny guy, too. You need to get to know him away from the sport to find out what he’s like.
    “Back when he appeared as this spotty teenager at Leeds, he was very quiet but that was just him being sensible. There were guys in that squad who he must have idolised, like David Batty, and things about him remind me of Batty. I know it’s a bit stereotypical but they’re proper Yorkshiremen. They’re not interested in fame or attention and outside of football, they like the quiet life. They’re down to earth but in their moments, they can be hysterical.
    “James was so young, you almost had to look twice at him. We had this UEFA Cup game once when I was on the bench with Batts, Jason Wilcox and a few others like us. This little fan wanted some autographs, so we told him to come and sit with us while we signed his programme for him. Terry Venables turned around, saw this boy and did a double-take. Batts said, ‘Don’t worry, gaffer, it’s just James Milner’. That’s how it felt. I was only in my 20s but seeing Milner made you feel like you were getting on.”
    One of the few things Venables earned credit for at Leeds was his willingness to blood Milner. The midfielder made his debut as a substitute against West Ham United in November 2002 and a month later, on Boxing Day, he became the youngest Premier League goalscorer at 16 years and 356 days after coming off the bench to replace Alan Smith in a 2-1 win over Sunderland (Everton’s James Vaughan would break his record three years later). At the time, the only English prospect with more of a buzz around him was Wayne Rooney, whose record Milner had broken against Sunderland. Milner’s finish at the Stadium of Light made national headlines but two days later, he struck again in a 2-0 win over Chelsea, dancing around Marcel Desailly and beating Ed de Goey from 20 yards. “As you do,” Johnson jokes.
    Johnson and most of Leeds’ other academy players were at home for Christmas, with their fixture list momentarily paused. “James scoring at Sunderland was amazing but the Chelsea goal was just ridiculous,” Johnson says. “I sat in my living room and watched it on Match of the Day. I couldn’t stop laughing. When I got back to Thorp Arch and saw him in the dressing room, I said to him, ‘Seriously, you’re an absolute joke!’ He’s 16 and he does that to Desailly. The whole thing was funny.” Eddie Gray and Venables looked on from the bench, thrilled by Milner’s impact. “I don’t think Terry was remotely afraid of playing him,” Eddie says. “It takes courage to use a young boy but James never felt like a gamble.”
    Leeds, though, was not an environment where Milner could hope to peak. They were a club in decline and a club with punishing, unmanageable debt. Milner’s first taste of professional football, his experience of the club he supported avidly, consisted of relegation battles and constant infighting. If it unsettled him unduly, he was able to maintain a poker face as Leeds dropped out of the Premier League in 2004.
    “I don’t want to name names or dig anyone out but the club had big issues in that season,” Matteo says. “I was captain and it was a tough dressing room to handle. There were factions and it wasn’t as tight as it needed to be but James was the last player I needed to worry about. Even at his age, and he only turned 18 halfway through the relegation season, you knew you could rely on him and trust him to do his job. He wasn’t a problem. I had him down as Mr Reliable any day of the week.”
    Milner was, without fail, an easy footballer to manage, a player born with a first in, last out spirit. “With England, I never got the impression he was big on Fabio Capello,” Mills says, “and it seemed like it was a bit the same with Roberto Mancini at Manchester City. But did you ever hear him complain about them? Not a chance. He’ll play anywhere. He’s good enough to play almost anywhere and whatever his opinion, he applies himself with total dedication. Ask him to do something a little bit leftfield and he’ll do it with vigour.”
    The little tales say a lot about Milner’s personality. When Leeds sold him to Newcastle in 2004, part of a thorough post-relegation fire sale, the deal went through smoothly and amicably. “James was a dream to deal with,” a former Elland Road board member told The Athletic. “With Alan Smith, it got quite bitter and twisted, and selling him (to Manchester United) was more difficult but Milner was straightforward, never any hassle.” When Nick Gray ran the London Marathon six years ago, Milner sent him a signed Manchester City shirt to auction for charity. And Mills sums up Milner by recalling a chance encounter with him and his family in the Nike store on Oxford Street, London.
    “We got chatting and I was a bit bemused because James was sponsored by Nike,” Mills says. “I asked him, ‘Why don’t you just give them a call and get some extra gear?’ He laughed and said, ‘The kids need some kit and anyway. Nike can do without me hassling them. They pay me money as it is’. That’s him to a tee. A polite, ordinary guy who’s never let football change him. Genuinely, has anyone ever said a bad word about him?”
    Certainly not at Elland Road, where his exit 16 years ago was accepted as an inevitable consequence of boardroom mismanagement. Leeds were to blame for that transfer, not Milner. “I was pleased that he went,” says Eddie Gray, Leeds’ caretaker manager towards the end of the season in which they went down from the Premier League. “Our club was in trouble and it wouldn’t have been right to have someone like James playing in the Championship.
    “It’s sad to think that his club, Leeds United, never got to see him at his best but players are entitled to have ambition. They have to want to go as far as they can. He’s won the title with Man City and Liverpool. He’s a European Cup winner, too. That’s what someone like James should be.”
    The romantics in West Yorkshire wondered if Leeds’ promotion from the EFL in July might bring the club and 34-year-old Milner back together, reunited after 16 seasons apart. Perhaps one day but as it stands, Milner is still what Liverpool need: the high-quality, dependable character who consistently makes a difference. Klopp was once told that there is no one quite like his No 7. “Exceptional, exceptional,” Klopp replied. “That’s why he has, like, 7,680 Premier League games.”
    “I doubt many people will have been happier about Leeds getting promoted,” Matteo says. “I know James and I know how big a fan he is. He’ll have loved that. And I bet he’s been in Klopp’s ear, asking to play against Leeds on Saturday.” The teenager’s appetite is still there, that old desire to be at the front of the pack, playing hard and running hard. It has brought Matteo round to a certain way of thinking when it comes to passing on advice to younger footballers — don’t try to be Messi. Try to be Milner.
     
  14. Hass

    Hass Well-Known Member

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    For so long the hunters, Liverpool are the hunted – Klopp says more is to come
    [​IMG]
    By James Pearce Sep 6, 2020[​IMG] 61 [​IMG]
    The narrative has changed. No more talk of title droughts. No longer will the seemingly perennial question be asked on the eve of a season: Is this finally Liverpool’s year?
    A 30-year wait was ended emphatically when captain Jordan Henderson lifted the Premier League trophy on July 22. Jurgen Klopp elevated his name into Anfield’s pantheon of greats by adding the top-flight crown to the European Cup he won the previous season.
    It wasn’t a title race: it was a procession. A club-record 99 points were accumulated as they finished 18 points clear of runners-up Manchester City. No team had won it with so many games (seven) to spare. The only spanner in the works came from a global pandemic which delayed the celebrations and has denied them the victory parade they merited.
    Now the challenge is going to be different. For so long the hunters, now Liverpool are the hunted.
    “We will not defend the title, we will attack it,” vows their manager.
    Klopp is adamant Liverpool’s hunger and desire won’t dip.
    “People will be afraid that these boys will get lazy but it’s just not in their nature,” he insists. “We will not stop. This team will not stop wanting it. I think there is a lot to come.”
    [​IMG]
    While their rivals have splashed the cash in an attempt to bridge that huge gap — Manchester United and Chelsea in third and fourth had 33 fewer points — there has been no major statement of intent in the transfer market at Anfield.
    The pulling power of the club has arguably never been greater but for the second successive year, the changes to Klopp’s squad have been modest. Dejan Lovren was sold to Zenit Saint Petersburg for £10.9 million and Ovie Ejaria went to Reading for £3.5 million, with Adam Lallana and Nathaniel Clyne departing as free agents. The only arrival so far has been full-back Kostas Tsimikas, who cost £11.75 million from Olympiakos.
    [​IMG]

    Tsimikas will provide back-up for Andy Robertson at left-back (Photo: John Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)
    The financial impact of COVID-19 on revenues forced Klopp and sporting director Michael Edwards to rethink their summer plans. The decision was taken not to pursue a deal for Germany forward Timo Werner, who left RB Leipzig for Chelsea.
    Whereas some clubs have gambled and taken advantage of the easing of financial fair play rules, Liverpool’s owners Fenway Sports Group continue to insist that the club be self-sustaining and live within their means.
    The signing of Tsimikas has solved one key weakness in the squad as the Greece international finally gives them decent cover for left-back Andy Robertson but other areas have yet to be addressed. Lovren hasn’t been replaced and that means Liverpool only have three senior specialist centre-backs. Ideally, they also need a left-sided attacker to give Klopp another elite option in the front line and ease the burden on Sadio Mane.
    Rumours of a deal for Bayern Munich’s Thiago Alcantara have rumbled on, with the Spain midfielder understood to be keen on a move to Anfield. However, much depends on the future of Georginio Wijnaldum, who has failed to agree a new contract and is wanted by Barcelona.
    If a suitable bid is forthcoming for the popular Dutchman, then Thiago would be the perfect replacement. There is much to sort out over the window’s final month.
    Traditionally, Klopp has got his business done early but it simply wasn’t possible this time around. “Due to COVID-19, you have to think five times about what you can and what you can’t do,” he said recently.
    Selling fringe players such as Harry Wilson, Marko Grujic and Loris Karius over the coming weeks should generate cash that can be reinvested in the squad before the October 5 deadline.
    With so much chatter about transfers, or more precisely the lack of them, it’s easy to forget what Klopp already has at his disposal. Most members of the title-winning side he built over the course of five years with a net spend of just over £100 million have yet to reach their prime.
    Brazil’s No 1 Alisson is in a class of his own and in Virgil van Dijk, Klopp boasts the most complete, commanding centre-back in world football. Joe Gomez and the fit-again Joel Matip will compete for the right to partner him.
    Once again, Liverpool will be energised by swashbuckling full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Robertson.
    Whatever happens with Wijnaldum and Thiago, they will have the calming presence of Fabinho in the centre of the park and the inspirational leadership of Footballer of the Year Henderson. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and James Milner will play their parts.
    The front three of Mohamed Salah, Mane and Roberto Firmino will once again set about tormenting top-flight defenders.
    This promises to be a huge season for both Naby Keita and Takumi Minamino. Keita finally looks ready to light up the Premier League after a stop-start first two years at Anfield. When he is on song, he is a thrilling creative force.
    Minamino needed time to adjust to life under Klopp after his arrival from Red Bull Salzburg in January and during pre-season he has showcased his impressive progress. He is settled now and looks like he belongs at Liverpool.
    Then, there are the young guns who will have greater roles to play. Attacking midfielder Curtis Jones looks the part and Klopp has the likes of Harvey Elliott, Neco Williams and Billy Koumetio to call upon.
    Bowing out of the Champions League’s last 16 to Atletico Madrid just before the lockdown in March cut deep,but it should help Liverpool over this season.
    Their absence from the competition’s delayed final stages in Lisbon last month meant Klopp was able to give his players three weeks off before embarking on a four-week pre-season, only interrupted by the first batch of Nations League internationals. In testing circumstances, preparations have been as smooth as possible.
    It is unrealistic to believe Liverpool will dominate to the same degree this time around. The Manchester clubs and Chelsea will surely put up more of a fight.
    The intense and gruelling nature of 2020-21 will ask serious questions about the depth of the squad. If they stumble, critics will point to the lack of transfer activity this summer as a squandered opportunity to buy from a position of strength.
    Klopp’s mood has remained bullish. He is convinced his champions can move up another gear even in the absence of further reinforcements and he has not got much wrong so far in his Anfield reign.
    If key personnel stay fit and firing, Liverpool are going to take some stopping.
     
  15. the count

    the count SCM's least favourite muppet Honorary Member

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    For anyone interested there is a special offer on subscibing at the moment.
    £1 per month for the first 12 months. You can cancel after that before it goes back to £7.99 if you want
    Not sure how long the deal will last.
    https://theathletic.com/checkout2/intro1/introperiod12
     
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  16. FoxForceFive

    FoxForceFive Administrator Administrator

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    For a quid a month I'm not saying no. It's rare I have to time to read the monolithic essays, but when I do I'm always impressed, so well worth a paltry quid.
     
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  17. the count

    the count SCM's least favourite muppet Honorary Member

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    I'd be the same as I have the attention of a goldfi
    Signed up at that price though.
     
  18. Hass

    Hass Well-Known Member

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    You can start posting the lfc articles mate, my subscription runs out in a month. They won't to double the price. Wonder if i can be sneaky and pay just the quid a month
     
  19. the count

    the count SCM's least favourite muppet Honorary Member

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    i have read that others did with a different email address.
    Just sign out on any device first before you make the purchase
     
  20. FoxForceFive

    FoxForceFive Administrator Administrator

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    If gmail just add a full stop anywhere in the first part of the address & it'll still come to your normal Gmail account.

    Or end the first part with '+something' & it will too.

    Eg 'hassemail@gmail.com' becomes

    Hass.email@gmail.com or

    Hassemail+athletic@gmail.com

    All would come through to your normal inbox.
     

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