Thursday, 28 April 2011

Why Liverpool Are Forcing Outdated Critics To Reassess Their Opinions

There are certain beliefs surrounding Liverpool Football Club in recent times that are very difficult to shift.

Two years ago, very few people would have accepted that Lucas and Jay Spearing could form a successful midfield partnership in the Premier League. As Northampton Town celebrated their shock Carling Cup victory, you would have been hard-pressed to find anybody who believed that Liverpool’s Academy was anywhere near producing players who could add depth to the current squad. Furthermore, many would have been keen to tell you that Liverpool have become a club who would rather play a fading senior player than give a youngster the chance to impress.

At the end of a week in which Liverpool have taken four points from games against Manchester City and Arsenal, there are strong signs that each of these widespread theories will need to be rewritten.

Whilst Lucas’ improvement has been significant over the past two seasons, there is still a myth that he should not be a part of Liverpool’s future. For his outstanding performances against Chelsea (twice), Manchester United, Manchester City and now Arsenal, there is a knee-jerk reaction to place blame on the Brazilian after a defeat with willing disregard of everything that has gone before. Fortunately, Lucas has won over many fans since a troublesome start to his career at Anfield. As such, those who understand his contribution have greeted a new contract with approval.

One thing that no fan can criticise Lucas for is a lack of resilience. The frequent public tantrums of professional footballers on Twitter has highlighted the delicate nature of some who view themselves as beyond criticism, Danny Gabbidon being the latest example. By no means should abuse of players be accepted, but Liverpool’s own serial ‘Tweeter’ has put up with more than his share of keyboard critics. The determination shown by Lucas to overcome his detractors on the pitch is reflected in his game. Whereby the now established Brazil international used to look like a boy amongst men, his work-rate and destructive qualities have annoyed many top quality midfielders over the past two seasons.

If Lucas’ rise has been gradual and seen adversity, Jay Spearing’s progression has been the total opposite. Liverpool fans have known about Spearing for a long time and to a man, have been willing him to succeed. It has been alleged that Rafael Benitez believed the Wirral youngster to be a Championship quality player, but kept Spearing at the club to maintain the view that local youngsters were a part of the squad. It is difficult to suggest the true accuracy of this story, but the diminutive midfielder has certainly proved people wrong since being given his opportunity by Kenny Dalglish in the Merseyside Derby at Anfield.

You can not fail to be impressed by Spearing’s application whenever he takes to the field. Whatever he lacks in build, he more than makes up for in energy and a fierce determination. Liverpool’s improved tempo in recent weeks has been in no small part down to the frantic work-rate of their new midfield duo and the ability to win the ball further up the pitch has allowed the likes of Carroll, Suarez and Kuyt to thrive.

Dalglish’s faith in his younger players has been fully justified in the last week. John Flanagan’s superb debut against Manchester City provided the youth system with a boost and showed the talented youngsters in the Academy that they can not only play in the first team, but impress there too.

I was fortunate enough to play a football match at Manchester City’s Academy last season. I managed to walk into the wrong reception area and as I was being informed that the changing rooms in question were for ‘elite players’ (I still can’t understand why I was asked to leave), a six-foot something ‘boy’ strolled past. Whilst my immediate attention was taken by his diamond earrings, incorrectly placed baseball cap and outrageously coloured trainers, on reflection I was taken aback by the sheer size of the player.

I am certain that this partly explains why Flanagan and Jack Robinson were able to settle into first team football so quickly. As football has become more reliant upon physical fine-tuning and science, the nature of the youth team has changed significantly. Whereas it used to be a league populated by boys learning their trade, six-foot walls of muscle now challenge defenders from an earlier stage in their development. Anybody who has seen Michael Ngoo play for Liverpool’s youth team will understand that young footballers are getting bigger and as such, defenders are more adept at dealing with the physical challenges posed by first team football.

Dalglish’s confidence in his youngsters was shown by the manner in which he dealt with the loss of Fabio Aurelio towards the end of the first half. It would have been easy for the manager to shift Jamie Carragher to full-back, whilst bringing Kyrgiakos into the middle of defence. Dalglish deserves credit for this. Placing Jamie Carragher on Theo Walcott would have been a suicidal mismatch of pace and the combination of Skrtel and Kyrgiakos has been weak throughout the season. Rather than taking this risk, Dalglish backed his youngster to match Walcott, whilst leaving Carragher to marshal the back four.

Robinson’s performance repaid every bit of his manager’s faith. Far more experienced players have struggled to contain Walcott’s pace over the past few seasons and Robinson gave him few opportunities to threaten the Liverpool box. He matched him for pace and whenever the England international thought he had got half a yard, Robinson would be recover to block his cross. There were one or two errors within Robinson’s performance, but Walcott’s desire to pass the ball early rather than running at his man was testament to the youngster’s efforts. The sight of Walcott leaving the field early without inflicting serious damage should be the first achievement of many for the Warrington born left-back.

Another string to the Dalglish bow is man-management. If you ever needed an example of this, it was clear in the Glaswegian’s handling of two difficult moments for his young full-backs on Sunday.

As Robinson approached the touchline for a moment he would not have been expecting at kick-off, the nervous expression was replaced by a grin as his manager chuckled. We do not know what Dalglish said to Robinson as he contemplated a full-back combination with three senior appearances between them, but it clearly relaxed the 17 year old ahead of his most daunting challenge to date.

This calming presence was replaced by a reassuring one later in the game when Flanagan collided with Carragher. Having knocked your captain and fans’ hero out cold in only your second appearance, it would be easy to lose focus and worry about what you had done. Dalglish immediately called Flanagan over and eased his concerns. Not only are Liverpool’s youngsters being trusted to play for the first team, they are doing it in the knowledge that their manager has their best interests at heart.

Every Liverpool player on the Emirates pitch put everything into helping the club gain a point, but the younger members of the squad were particularly impressive in their approach. Robinson and Flanagan kept the flanks reasonably quiet, Spearing tore around the midfield biting at Arsenal heels all afternoon and Jonjo Shelvey played a key role in winning the crucial free-kick at the end of the game. None of Liverpool’s youngsters showed any fear in the match and made the most of the opportunities given to them. The latest of late equalisers was celebrated wildly by the younger players and was a deserved reward for their performances. This no fear approach must now feed through to the youth and reserve teams, both of whom must now know that their performances will be rewarded with faith from those at the top of the club.

The disappointment from the Arsenal game must be the lack of cohesion in attack for large periods of the match. However, the Manchester City performance showed that a threat does exist and strengthening work in the summer, as well as developing on-field relationships, will only enhance this. It is much easier to add flair to an ethos of work-rate and organisation than it is to instil the mentality into players that don’t possess those qualities. This Liverpool squad have developed a strong bond under Dalglish, Lee and Clarke’s stewardship and any player coming into the club will know that this is the minimum requirement if they are to succeed at the club.

Rather than being meaningless fixtures, the past week has shown that the foundations are very much in place for a successful future. The club has an ethos of commitment and endeavour starting from the top, the first team is no longer an unreachable target and the mentality of looking after Liverpool’s business before worrying about others has been reinstalled.

Those who have criticised individuals, structures and beliefs within the club need to reassess their criticisms. As we approach a key summer in Liverpool’s future, the club is very much working as one.

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