(Irony alert.) It was great this weekend to see so many teams defending set-pieces perfectly with man-marking. Blackburn’s Christopher Samba did a brilliant job against Torres, who is five inches shorter; Newcastle dealt brilliantly with Stoke; and Bolton, Chelsea, Arsenal, Hull and Aston Villa all defended corners and free-kicks to perfection. Over the weekend, not one single goal was scored as a result of the man-marking system.
Apart, of course, from all the goals scored as a result of the man-marking system.
How good was Emiliano Insua against Blackburn? Everything he did was spot-on: from his defending, to breaking upfield with skill and delivering some lovely crosses, as well as some sweet first-time passes.
While he impressed in the reserves, he has shown that sometimes very good players look even better when surrounded by top talent. Even though the opposition is stronger and the pace of the game far higher, they have team-mates who can read their intentions.
I have a feeling the same will be true of Nemeth and Pacheco, given that their movement and vision will work better with those clever enough to be on the same wavelength.
I’ve seen enough little signs to start believing that David Ngog has really turned a corner. Against Sunderland, and in his brief cameo yesterday, he showed the strength that was absent from his early displays (which, in fairness, was to be expected, as a skinny teenager fresh from France).
Toughening up is a natural process, and the way he’s started shielding the ball gives me great hope.
He has skill, pace, and his youth record shows that he has an eye for goal. A lot of strikers start their senior careers slowly in terms of goals: players like Shearer, Henry and Saha took a long time before they became prolific, despite, like Ngog, having good youth records.
This season has been a great education for the young striker. Now he appears to have mastered the physical side of the game, his confidence can blossom, and he can express himself. Next season should see him make a far bigger impact, and show why he’s one of France’s most highly-treasured young assets.
Also, his three goals have come at a rate of one every 184 minutes of football (or one every two full games), which is only 19 minutes more than Torres is averaging this season. For the record, Robbie Keane scored once every 255 minutes in a Liverpool shirt.
Defensive Liverpool (Not)
Another thing that irks me about Andy Gray and his ilk is how Liverpool are seen as negative for bringing everyone back for corners. Leave a few players up, they say. But they just don’t get it.
I’ve never seen Liverpool break quicker, or better. If you have players up the field, you look long to them; they then have a 50-50 battle with defenders (more of whom have been kept back), but it’s actually more like 70-30 because it favours the player who isn’t facing his own goal, and who only needs to make a decisive clearing contact, rather than a controlled contact.
If Torres or whoever does win it, they need to hold it up and pass back, to oncoming players.
Instead, what Liverpool do is break in great numbers, springing forward into oceans of space, with the pass from the back hit ahead of them. Everyone is facing the opposition goal, and they play forward passes into open areas. Five, six, seven runners swarm forward.
By bringing everyone back, the space is created to attack once the ball is won. Go back and look at how many Liverpool goals, and near misses, have come from the Reds defending a set-piece, and how quickly the ball is worked from front to back.
Even Mascherano nearly scored yesterday, from such a break. The little Argentine, who was like a man possessed, sprang into space created from initially getting numbers back.
Fergie Vs Rafa, round 13,239
I found it interesting that the journalists on Sky’s Sunday Supplement all portrayed Rafa as the man stoking the fires, and that Ferguson is not really getting involved. While they admitted that the newspapers make a bigger deal out of it all, and ask the leading questions, I do find their selective memories on this issue highly amusing.
Both managers appear to be responding to questions asked, which are then put back to the other man in the next press conference. But I can’t believe that they totally overlooked Ferguson turning up for a press conference armed with his wayward figures on Liverpool’s spending. This act, which was on a par with Rafa’s ‘fact’ list, seems to have been swept under the carpet.
They kept bringing up Rafa’s fact sheet, but what about Ferguson getting his sport technology department to source information that had nothing to do with his club, having been humped 4-1 at home to Liverpool, only to lose 2-0 at Fulham shortly after?
As ever, there’s an inequality in the reporting. Part of it is staying onside with Ferguson, because he just refuses to speak to any media outlet that upsets him. That’s part of his intimidatory tactic of threatening to take his ball away.
I do honestly think that Ferguson is scared. It might not be giving him restless nights, particularly as United still have the advantage, but he has made it clear enough times that dethroning Liverpool has been his aim at Old Trafford; so by that token he has to fear a role reversal.
If Chelsea were putting the most pressure on United, it would be a totally different story. That it is Liverpool adds an extra edge; there’s more for United to lose, clearly, because as well as the title, it would mean that they threw away an ‘unassailable’ lead to the one team they’d chew off their own legs to stop winning another title.
That’s what rivalry does. By contrast, Liverpool have never been expected to win the title this season, merely challenge for it, just as United began to do in Ferguson’s sixth season (when United finished 2nd, but learnt how to handle a title chase).
I still think this title is United’s. Liverpool have the league form and momentum, but United have the point extra and game in hand, with time running out. Whoever wins it will deserve it, but despite playing far worse than Liverpool for the past month, United have again started doing enough to eek out victories.
However, whatever happens, Liverpool have set down a marker ahead of next season. Interestingly, both Chelsea and Arsenal have also shown signs of great improvement in recent months. So next season could promise to be tighter still.
Chelsea’s main problem is a squad getting old, and more managerial uncertainty on the horizon; Guus Hiddink seems to be a perfect fit, but insists he’s not staying. Arsenal’s problem is the complete opposite: total managerial security, but perhaps not enough experience.
As for the ‘war of words’ between Rafa and Fergie, I’m tired of it all: “he’s talking about me…” “no, he’s talking about me”. Maybe they should just ‘get a room’?
But it’s nice to see Liverpool in a position in the league where such contretemps are possible in the first place; you only tend to get tension between managers when they are neck-and-neck.
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