Thursday, 28 April 2011

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Joe Cole?

Following the defeat against West Ham, the growing expectations of Liverpool fans have been hit with a dose of reality.

The improvement under Kenny Dalglish has, in the most part, been considerable. However, the previous two fixtures have reinforced the belief that key aspects of the squad will need strengthening in the summer. Whilst this team is not as bad as was claimed in the first half of the season, the development has perhaps been less substantial than victory at Stamford Bridge had suggested.

The immediate challenge for Dalglish remains getting the most from the players at his disposal. One of the greatest challenges in this squad is the enigmatic Joe Cole.

Although Cole’s arrival was greeted with optimism, the subsequent months have been a struggle for the former Chelsea and West Ham midfielder. Early suspension and injury – as well as a less than enthusiastic mentor – ruined the first part of Cole’s career in a red shirt.

However, Dalglish’s arrival signaled a new opportunity for the summer signing. With the Europa League acting as a foothold for Cole to show what he has to offer, the door is far from closed. As has been the story of Cole’s recent seasons, the key question remains where he should be played in order to obtain maximum results.

Cole’s finest seasons in a Chelsea shirt came early in his time at Stamford Bridge, before a serious knee injury away to Southend stopped him in his tracks. In this period, Cole was offered a roving role in a balanced Chelsea side, offered the freedom to search for space between the lines.

Problematically for Cole, this is an area in which Liverpool have strength in depth. Raul Meireles’ increasing goal threat has justified his selection as the most advanced midfielder in Dalglish’s 5-3-2 formation. We also know that Steven Gerrard is capable of filling the role, although his presence is more urgently required in the middle of the pitch.

With Cole at the back of the line for his preferred position, he has found himself deployed from the left side of midfield – a position that he has previously expressed his displeasure towards. Whatever his starting position, he is naturally inclined to move inside with the ball.

Joe Cole is not the kind of winger to hug the touchline before beating his marker for pace to reach the byline on his weaker foot. Nobody expects Cole to play the role of a Gareth Bale but his desire to move centrally leaves Liverpool lacking width on that side of the field, especially without a natural left back. When both Cole and Glen Johnson are attempting to cut inside, the pitch becomes narrower and Liverpool are forced to attack a congested central third. The return to fitness of Andy Carroll should help to an extent, allowing Luis Suarez to roam the flanks before attacking isolated defenders one against one.

Joe Cole’s greatest problem is that he remains a man without a clearly defined role in the team. At present, he is a bit-part utility man who slots into the side when he is needed. Wherever Dalglish chooses to play Cole, he must stick by his decision and allow his player to develop an understanding of how he contributes to the team’s strategy rather than changing his job from week to week.

There is a myth that has appeared in several national newspapers that Joe Cole will struggle at Liverpool due to the fact that he is a Londoner. Whilst a simplistic few may hold this against him, from my own experiences it is clear that the vast majority of Liverpool fans would love to see Cole do well. Furthermore, it is clear that the player is desperate to live up to their expectations.

If the Europa League game against Sparta Prague revealed anything, it was that Cole is giving his all to succeed, putting his hands to his head after misplacing a pass and busting a gut to get on the end of last minute counter attacks. If anything, Cole is guilty of trying a little too hard and allowing himself to be overwhelmed by the expectations placed upon him.

Joe Cole’s game relies upon natural instinct and ability. It is when the player tries to force the issue that his performance becomes erratic. Although Cole’s early years at Chelsea were hugely successful, we should not imagine that he was a lone-ranger winning matches left, right and centre. At Chelsea, Cole was one important cog in a highly efficient machine.

This is a player that is not judged on his overall involvement in the game, but his key contributions. Whilst many of his actions will be unspectacular, it is the goals, assists and interplay in the final third that have defined his career. This can be seen by looking at the chalkboards below (click to see in full-size), contrasting Cole at Liverpool and Chelsea.

In Chelsea’s fixture against Derby County in 2008, all six of the home side’s goals came during Cole’s 74 minutes on the pitch. However, over the entire game, Cole’s pass completion rate (76%) was only one percent superior to that against West Ham on Sunday. It is the arrows in and around the opposition penalty area that determine how successful Cole’s performance was. Despite a somewhat erratic end product in the Derby County fixture, Cole contributed heavily with two assists and six successful passes to teammates in the final third of the field, allowing his team to attack the area. Unfortunately, against West Ham Cole failed to complete a single pass into the penalty area. Furthermore, the area around the penalty area is fairly empty; illustrating Cole’s failure to get into the game in the areas where Liverpool needed him most.

So what do all these arrows and percentages tell us about Joe Cole’s future in a Liverpool shirt?

Despite being a free signing, Cole’s large wage packet dictates that we should not be dismissing him as an immediate failure. While Joe Cole remains a Liverpool player, there is no point in giving up and ultimately writing him off as a hugely expensive mistake. The only way Dalglish will get any value for money is by finding a way to rediscover and utilise Cole’s talents. Fortunately for Cole, Dalglish is not the kind of man to shirk a challenge.

If Cole’s audition is to be in the Europa League, initially at least, his teammates must learn how to get him into the game. Primarily, this means discovering where Cole wants to receive the ball. As we can see, Cole struggles to force the play from deep. The vast majority of his passes in the central third maintain possession by moving short distances from side to side. Furthermore, any attempts to hit more direct passes tend to fail to reach their intended target.

Cole is not the sort of player who will provide a 100% pass completion rate so it is important to make sure that the passes that are completed make a difference. He needs to be looking for space in and around the area where his natural instincts can dictate how he plays the game. It is when Cole has to force the play through two organised lines of defence that he will struggle.

Although his form has dipped significantly, we must assume that Cole still knows how to unlock a defence. Unless Liverpool can get him into areas where he can create opportunities for like-minded players like Suarez and Meireles, we will be left remembering Joe Cole as a player that tried hard but never managed to make a difference. Liverpool have a squad full of players that will work hard. It is the players with a streak of quality that are needed to step forward. Potentially, Cole is one of these.

We can’t portray Cole as a victim and nobody will be keener than the player to stress that he hasn’t performed to his maximum this season. In terms of his performance, a lot of improvement is needed on Cole’s part. However, if Liverpool and Cole can’t learn how to work as a cohesive combination, it is inevitable that the former England international will continue to live life at Anfield on the periphery.

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