Have Liverpool progressed under Brendan Rodgers?

A year ago, Liverpool appointed Brendan Rodgers as manager. The reaction to Rodgers appointment at the time was mixed. Some fans, including myself, thought it was an exciting appointment, with Rodgers having impressed at Swansea the previous season. However, many fans were not convinced. Some thought that Kenny Dalglish should’ve been allowed to remain manager, others thought that a bigger name manager should have got the job; many others were angry that Rafa Benitez wasn’t even considered.

That mixed reaction still prevails today. For every Liverpool fan who thinks Rodgers is gradually steering Liverpool on the right path, you’ll find one who still doesn’t know what to make of him, and another who is adamant that Rodgers doesn’t know what he’s doing and should be fired.

This manifests itself in the reaction to Liverpool games. Anything other than a win by a big margin provokes furious criticism from some fans. Should Liverpool fail to win, then the calls for Rodgers’ head come out, irrespective of how the team actually played (my favourite unreasonable criticism of Rodgers that I heard this season came from a fan on a local phone-in who said Rodgers’ failure to win the League Cup with Swansea last season was ‘proof’ that he’s not a good manager; and that was after a Liverpool win!).

The question is, one year on, have Liverpool made progress under Rodgers?

Progress is a difficult thing to determine, as it means something different to everybody. For some, progress is only measured in winning trophies, for others progress would’ve meant a top 4 finish. My personal definition of progress this season would have meant a better league campaign, scoring more goals, playing football to a clear tactical plan and improving the squad.

Liverpool’s final league position again isn’t good, but it is higher than last season. While Liverpool never seriously threatened to finish in the top 4, they did give themselves a chance of doing so until a 0-0 draw with 6 games to go all but ended that challenge. The positives to take from the league campaign for Liverpool fans are that they gained 9 more points than last season, and only Chelsea improved their league points total by more, and they did close the gap to the top 4 from the previous season.

It should also be noted that Liverpool’s second half of the season was pretty good. The team really seemed to adapt to Rodgers philosophy, losing only three games in the last 19 and played with far more consistency than in the first half.

Rodgers appointment seemed to suggest Liverpool would play a more attacking style of football and that’s what happened. Liverpool improved their goals tally by an impressive 24 goals this season, and improved their shooting accuracy, despite having more shots this season. Following last season’s woodwork woes, the woodwork still wasn’t Liverpool’s friend, costing them more league points than any other team. Overall Liverpool created more chances and more clear cut chances, which seems to suggest that the attacking play has improved under Rodgers.

While even the biggest critics of Rodgers accept that Liverpool have improved as an attacking force, they point the finger at Rodgers for Liverpool having a worse defence this season than last. I don’t think that’s the case. Liverpool did concede 3 more goals than last season, but they still ranked fifth in the league in terms of goals against. Liverpool also had the second most number of clean sheets in the league.

Where Liverpool’s defence did suffer was the number of individual errors that were made. That number was 36, which is 20 more than the previous season. That number of errors was the third most in the league, equalling Wigan, and cost the team 10 goals. You could possibly put some of those errors down to the players adjusting to a new system, but that many errors suggests that it was down to individual lapses in concentration rather than anything the manager is responsible for.

One of the biggest criticisms I had about Kenny Dalglish last season was the lack of a clear, defined tactical plan. Liverpool last season played a style of football which seemed to be ‘get the ball to the final third then see what happens’ and, all too often, nothing happened.

Under Rodgers, Liverpool play to a clear plan. They play an attacking style, favour short passing wherever possible and try to press the ball as quickly as they can. Whilst opinion is very much divided about whether or not this is the right plan, and many fans are vocal about their belief it is not; nobody can deny that there is a plan in place and the team play to it. Something else I like about Rodgers is that he’s not afraid to change tactics several times during a game, which has meant that I think Liverpool have been tactically more versatile than they have been in a while.

When Rodgers arrived, he inherited an expensively assembled squad that was badly underachieving. The previous summer, Kenny Dalglish and Damien Commolli spent huge sums of money on British talent such as Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing, to go with the British transfer record paid for Andy Carroll. It’s a great understatement to say that those transfers were not a success and Liverpool were stuck with them.

When Rodgers arrived, there was an immediate question mark about the future of Carroll. Andy Carroll does have his strengths as a player, but he was never going to be mobile or skilful enough to fit in with Rodgers preferred style of football. It would’ve been hard to justify leaving such an expensive signing on the bench, and Carroll was allowed to leave on loan (another decision that split the fanbase).

Last summer, Dirk Kuyt and Maxi Rodriguez moved on, which left Liverpool light up in attack. Worse for Rodgers, Craig Bellamy, who’d had a great 2011/12 season asked to return to Cardiff for family reasons just before the season started.

Worse for Rodgers, Liverpool’s backroom set up when it came to player recruitment was below par. Rodgers hired a new chief scout and head of player recruitment from Manchester City, but neither were available to start until November. This meant that Liverpool failed in their bid to bring another forward in, with a public failure to sign Clint Dempsey (who I didn’t believe Liverpool needed anyway), leaving Luis Suarez and Fabio Borini as the only recognised first-team strikers, a situation made worse by Borini sustaining an injury that kept him sidelined for a long period before he’d shown what he could do.

Borini’s injury was one of several that Liverpool sustained in a very short space of time, with Lucas and Martin Kelly being ruled out early on in the season. This meant that Liverpool had to play a lot of untested young players throughout the season. In fact Liverpool started three teenage players on six occasions in the Premier League on six occasions; no other team started three teenagers once.

While some of those young players took to the Premier League a bit quicker than others, none of them disgraced themselves, and all of a sudden Liverpool’s squad has far more depth, with Andre Wisdom, Raheem Sterling, and Suso all more than capable of slotting into the team when required.

Unlike several other managers, Rodgers didn’t leave himself beholden to his initial opinion about players, allowing himself to change his mind. Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing are good examples of this. Downing started the season as third choice left-back, and was told he could leave. Downing could’ve sulked and waited to go, but instead, when he got an opportunity to play, he took it. While Downing’s still not exactly a world-beater, considering he got as many Premier League goals and assists as I did in 2011/12, his production is much better.

Similarly, according to some reports, Henderson was offered to Fulham as part of a deal for Dempsey. The previous season, Henderson struggled with both the pressures that came from the large transfer fee Liverpool paid for him, and also Kenny Dalglish’s decision to largely use him on the right of midfield. This season, Rodgers moved him to a more central role, which allows Henderson to use his range of passing to much greater effect, and allow him to join in attacks with greater regularity. Henderson went from being unwanted to an important part of the team in a short space of time, and fans no longer groan when they see his name on the teamsheet.

When everything was in place behind the scenes for the January transfer window, Rodgers did a good job of strengthening the squad. The lack of striking options was remedied by signing Daniel Sturridge, and Philippe Coutinho is one of the most exciting players Liverpool have had in years.

All in all, I believe the Liverpool squad is better balanced, younger, has greater depth and is stronger than it was 12 months ago. There’s a lot of work still to be done, not to mention the impending need to replace Luis Suarez, but Liverpool have taken the initiative by already made a few moves to continue the rebuilding process, which makes a change from previous seasons.

While I do believe progress has been made, there are still a lot of improvements that need to be made for next season. While some of the football Liverpool have played this season has been breathtaking at times, most of it has come against teams who have been pretty open. Against teams that play a more physical game, Liverpool badly struggled. Rodgers has to come up with a way to stop teams from bullying his side into submission. There was also a tendency for Liverpool to be a bit too gung-ho at times last season, which left them susceptible for teams to counter attack too often.

Also, while Liverpool’s shooting accuracy, both individually and collectively, was much improved on last season, there’s still a lot of room for further improvement. Once again, Liverpool hit the woodwork too many times, and hitting the woodwork cost Liverpool more points than any other team this season.

Another thing that needs improving is corners. Liverpool had the most corners in the Premier League, but were one of the worst teams at converting those corners into goals. Too often, the delivery of those corners was nowhere near good enough and that needs to change.

Make no mistake about it, Liverpool still have a long way to go to get to where they want to be, but they do seem to be on the right track and there is real optimism for further improvements next season.

Special: Top 11 Most Loyal Footballers

For me, loyalty means more than just staying put at the same team for a whole career. For loyalty to be true, it has to be tested.  And I see similar lists with the likes of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, John Terry, Iker Casillas, Carles Puyol, Javier Zanetti, Paolo Maldini to name a few.  Although they are/were great players, they played for some of the biggest teams on the planet and in turn won just about everything there is to win.  They sacrificed very little at club level, it is difficult to see where each of them could’ve gone to have more stellar careers.  And, as a result of this, I won’t be including these types of players in the list as their loyalty never seemed to be truly tested.  The players I chose are the ones I believe stuck by their club despite knowing it would mean losing out on something bigger, whether that be silverware or just the chance to be seen and remembered by a wider audience.

Bülent Korkmaz

Nicknamed the Great Captain by the Galatasaray faithful and earning 29 trophies during his his entire career spent at Galatasaray, only one player in the club’s history has played more matches than him and that is Turgay Şeren.  Although he achieved glory during his playing days, he shunned big money moves to England, Germany and Italy to remain in Istanbul and as a result few remember him outside of his homeland.  His most enduring image is undoubtedly in the 2000 UEFA Cup Final against Arsenal in which Bulent dislocated his shoulder but refused to to be subbed off.  The medical staff instead had to bandage his arm and he heroically played on, with Galatasaray winning the match 4-1 on penalties.  A fearsome leader who wanted to win at any cost.

Alan Shearer

When Newcastle paid £15 million to get Shearer from Blackburn, it was the world record transfer fee at that time, and the move in doing so fulfilled a lifelong dream of Shearer’s – to play for his the club he dreamt of playing for as a boy.  Blackburn had also accepted Manchester United’s bid for Shearer at the same time and it was up to the man himself to decide where he wanted to spend the best years of his playing days.  Shearer broke all sorts of goalscoring records with Newcastle United, eclipsing Jackie Milburn’s goal record that stood for 49 years and becoming (and still remaning to this day) the player to have scored the most goals in the history of the Premier League.  Even when Newcastle’s title aspirations long faded and rumours were abound that Sir Alex Ferguson would launch another assault to lure Shearer from St. James’, everyone knew the greatest English striker of his generation wasn’t going anywhere.

Angelo Di Livio

Di Livio had carved out a very strong career for himself, becoming a cult figure at Juventus under Lippi, his willingness to work for the sake of the collective is something that perfectly embodied Lipppi’s Juventus during the 90s.  Towards the later stage of his career he joined Fiorentina, despite still being an important part of the Juventus side.  Even at the age of 36, Di Livio was selected for Trappatoni’s Italy squad for the 2002 World Cup and even played in that tournament in the still controversial match of the last 16 against South Korea, refereed by the infamous Byron Moreno.  The reason for Di Livio’s inclusion on this list came shortly after that World Cup.  Fiorentina had allowed the build-up of crippiling debts and as a result, went into administration and soon after the club was disbanded.  Diego Della Valle re-established Fiorentina as a club in August 2002 and the team had to start all over again from Serie C2.  Di Livio, despite being an Italian international only a couple of months prior to this, was the only player to remain in Florence that summer and helped guide the club back up through the lower divisions back into Serie A for the 2004-05 season at the age of 39.  A tremendous sacrifice and one La Viola fans will never forget.

Stelios Manolas

Widely considered to be the greatest Greek defender to ever play the game, and the best player ever to don the AEK shirt, Stelios Manolas led AEK Athens through the richest period of their existence.  As a player he won 6 Greek championships, captaining AEK to four of them.  Soon the rest of Europe came knocking and Manolas famously declined two offers from Porto (who would soon go on to win the Euopean Cup in 1987) and big spending Monaco.  He famously said, “I will never leave the club I love and I want to retire at AEK Athens.” And Manolas remained true to his word.  AEK was the only jersey he ever wore in his career (apart from the Greek national jersey) and he retired as a symbol of AEK and of Greek football.  His nephew, Kostas Manolas, is currently a very promising defender for Olympiakos, having previously also played for AEK himself.

Henrik Larsson

In the summer of 1997, Wim Jansen brought Henrik Larsson from Jansen’s former club Feyenoord to Celtic for a fee of £650,00, a deal which would prove to be one of the best deals in football history.  Larsson arrived at a time when Rangers had just matched Celtic’s record of nine league titles in a row, a dark era for Celtic supporters.  The 1997/98 season became a matter of pride for Celtic after several entertaining but ultimately unsuccessful seasons under the stewardship of club legend Tommy Burns.  Larsson would go on to score a decisive goal in the final matchday of that season against St. Johnstone to secure the league title for Celtic and prevent bitter rivals Rangers from winning 10 in a row.  Larsson’s time in the Green and White Hoops went from strength to strength, becoming the leading goalscorer in the club’s modern history, and winning the European Golden Boot in 2001, and earning the nickname ‘The King of Kings’.  Larsson had found a home at Celtic, and held by the fans as one of the greatest ever players to wear the famous jersey, he remained in Glasgow for seven years, giving Celtic the best years of his career.  As a result, some doubted Larsson’s ability to do it in a top league. Those doubts proved to be laughable when Larsson scored scored two goals in the 2003 UEFA Cup Final against Jose Mourinho’s Porto, an event in which Celtic took 80,000 fans all the way to Seville.  A year later, Larsson gave an emotional farewell to the Celtic support and moved to Barcelona at the age of 33, winning two league titles there and proving to be pivotal in the 2006 Champions League Final, assisting two goals for Barcelona when he came to win the game 2-1 against Arsenal, leading to this memorable quote by Thierry Henry about him from that night:

“People always talk about Ronaldinho, Eto’o and Giuly and everything, but I didn’t see them today, I saw Henrik Larsson. He came on, he changed the game, that is what killed the game. Sometimes you talk about Ronaldinho and Eto’o and people like that; you need to talk about the proper footballer who made the difference, and that was Henrik Larsson tonight.”

In a day and age when loyalty dies by the minute, Larsson stayed in Scotland, a league that is viewed as unattractive when compared to the likes of Spain, Italy, Germany and England.  In the modern age it is almost unheard of for such a world class talent to do this.

Uwe Seeler

The greatest player in Hamburg’s history, scoring over 400 goals for the club, and still to this day one of the greatest players Germany has ever produced.  Just to illiustrate just how great a player this guy was, Germany has nominated five honourary captains in its footballing history (four men and one woman).  Seeler is one of the four men to receive this honour along with Franz Beckenbauer, Lothar Matthaus and Fritz Walter.  Like many on this list he played his entire career with one club, Hamburg (aside from one guest performance for Cork Celtic six years after his retirement).  Seeler also won German Football of the Year three times throughout his career in 1960. 1964 and 1970.  Despite all of this, he only ever won two major trophies in his career – one German league championship and one DFB-Pokal (German Cup) in 1963.  Due to Seeler’s will to stay, Hamburg rejected at the time what would’ve been a world record transfer fee from Helenio Herrera’s Inter Milan in 1960.  Herrera in that decade led Inter to two European Cups.  It is said the Hamburg faithful celebrated Hamburg’s rejection of Inter’s bid as though they had just won the league.

Fritz Walter

In 2003, UEFA approached its member associations asking them to each put forward one player to be held as their Golden Player, an award they wanted to attribute to their most outstanding player of the past 50 years.  The German Football Association put forward Fritz Walter as that man, heralding his outstanding contribution to German football throughout and after his playing career.  As a Golden Player, he rested beside elite company such as Bobby Moore, Hristo Stoichkov, Johan Cruyff, Michael Laudrup, Eusebio, George Best, di Stefano, Dragan Dzajic, Lev Yashin to name but a few.  And just like Uwe Seeler mentioned above, Walter has also been nominated an honourary captain of the German national team along with Seeler, Lothar Matthaus and Franz Beckenbauer.

Fritz Walter’s football career was nearly over before it even began as the second World War broke out when he was only 19.  Walter has said how he played the game of his life not in winning the 1954 World Cup for Germany in Switzerland, but instead in a POW camp on the Hungary-Ukraine border.  As part of a group of German POWs waiting to be sent to a gulag in Siberia, some of the prisoners found a ball and started playing with it.  Walter scored two overhead kicks and one of the Soviet guards, mesmerized by his talent, remembered Walter as he had seen him play in a match staged by the Germans in Budapest during the war, being equally enthralled when watching him that day, so much so that he still recognised the bearded Walter now.  The Hungarian guard immediately went to the camp commander and told him who Walter was, this guard ended up saving the life of Fritz Walter and his brother Louis as the life expectancy for German POWs transported to Siberia averaged five years.  Walter was handed over to the French and he was back home in Germany by October 1945.  After the war Walter returned to playing for the only club of his career, Kaiserslauten, guiding them through the most successful period in their history, including two league titles.  As mentioned, he was also pivotal in leading Germany to their first ever World Cup success in 1954. He scored 380 goals in 411 apperances for Kaiserslauten, an incredible return since he wore the number 8 and was primarily used to be a creator.  Walter retired in 1959, but even after his retirement he is credited with being an important figure in attracting some world champions such as Youri Djorkaeff and Andreas Brehme to Kaiserslauten.  He passed away on 17th June 2002, during the South Korea and Japan World Cup.  In 1985, Kaiserslauten renamed their stadium to honor their greatest ever player, and to this day it remains Fritz-Walter-Stadion.

Steven Gerrard

Arguably the greatest English player of his generation and it is very hard to argue against.  A boyhood Liverpool fan who grew up to realise his dream, becoming one of the symbols of Liverpool, only King Kenny Dalglish has had a more oustanding career as a footballer at Anfield.  He is the only player to score in the FA Cup Final, League Cup Final, UEFA Cup Final and Champions League Final.  And his second half display in the 2005 Champions League Final in Istanbul will become something of folklore in years to come.  And only a year later in the dying moments of the FA Cup Final against West Ham, having sustained an injury which severely restricted his mobility and clearly caused him pain, Gerrard found it in him to unleash a 30 yard volley to take the match to extra-time, having already dragged them back into it with another volley earlier in the second half.  His personal accolades also make for some impressive reading – UEFA Club Footballer of the Year 2005, PFA Player’s Player of the Year 2006, PFA Fans’ Player of the Year twice, English Player of the Year twice, seven times in PFA Team of the Year, the list goes on and on.  And although Gerrard has won several major trophies in his career, most notably a Champions League in 2005 and UEFA cup in 2001, he has never won a Premiership title, the one remaining medal he probably craves more than anything.  Throughout his career, Liverpool have been topsy turvy.  The only period of consistent Champions League participation was under Rafa Benitez from 2004-2010.  And since the departure of Benitez, Liverpool have found themselves slip out of the Big Four as Manchester City muscled their way in there.

Gerrard is a player who could’ve walked into any line-up for the majority of his career and the most complete player of his generation.  And he himself has said there were big money offers presented to Liverpool for his services but he never felt the temptation to leave.  He was living his dream at Anfield.

Paul McStay

McStay was born to play for Celtic, the club ran in his blood – two of his Great Uncles (Jimmy and Wille) were both Celtic greats and his brothers (Willie and Raymond) were also at the club.  In his early career, McStay captained the Scotland Under 18s to win the U18 European Championship in 1982, still to this date the only major trophy the Scottish national team has won.  By 1989, McStay, nicknamed the Maestro by Celtic fans, had earned a significant trophy haul – three Scottish League championships, three Scottish Cups and one League Cup.  This was soon to end. As Rangers at the time started to spend some serious money, acquiring players such as England captain Terry Butcher and Liverpool legend Graeame Souness, they began to embark on a decade long domination of Scottish football, matching Celtic’s record of nine league titles in a row.  At this same time, Celtic had found themselves in financial difficulties, to the point of near extinction.  The club had to make do with severe budget cuts and restraints, spending minimal amounts compared to their Old Firm rival.  During this period Paul McStay became one of the only shining lights for Celtic in one of the bleakest periods of their existence.  In 1992, when strong rumours of growing interest from Italian powerhouses Inter Milan and Juventus refused to disappear along with numerous big English clubs courting McStay, it looked like his time at his boyhood club was coming to an end.  And many Celtic fans were not angry to see him leave, they thought it was a waste of his talent to be bogged down playing with mediocrity and that a move would help to only showcase his undoubted talent. In what many deemed a farewell gesture, McStay threw his shirt into the fans at the Jungle (an area of Celtic Park were the atmosphere had a reputation of being ferocious).  A strong showing at Euro 92 for Scotland served only to increase the likelyhood of his departure.

However, to almost everyone’s surprise, McStay stayed at Celtic.  The next couple of seasons, like the previous three, remained trophyless.  Then in 1995, Celtic reached the Scottish Cup Final against Airdrie and beat them 1-0 with a Pierre van Hooijdonk goal ending a six year trophy drought. van Hooijdonk later described that final:

“The moment when I really realised what it all meant was when the game finished and I saw Paul McStay and Peter Grant, two real Celtic men, crying on the pitch and hugging each other for 10 or 15 minutes, that´s when I realised what this meant.”

Celtic were the only club of McStay’s career and he retired in 1997 after succumbing to persistent long term injuries.  Only a year later would Celtic go on to win the league title under Wim Jansen, preventing Rangers from achieving ten in a row.   To illustrate just how highly Paul McStay was rated and adored by the Celtic fans, he was voted as one of the eleven to be named in their greatest ever Celtic XI, despite playing most of his career in one of the worst Celtic teams ever assembled.

Francesco Totti

The most loyal player of the modern era and one with the talent to match anyone of his generation.  Born and bred in Rome, it is said the first real offer for Totti came from AC Milan when he was still a boy, his mother however could not live with her son playing for a northern team and the family held out until Roma came knocking.  It wasn’t long before she was right.  Totti was Roma captain by the age of 21 and led them to only their third ever Scudetto in 2001 under Fabio Capello.  He was named Man of the Match in the Euro 2000 Final despite Italy losing to France, playing alongside some other great attackers at their peak – Zidane, Del Piero, Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet and Youri Djorkaeff.  Soon, whilst assembling his dream team of Galacticos, Real Madrid president Florentino Perez put Totti in his sights.  But for Perez, Totti became the impossible dream.  In 2006 came another highlight of his career, he was decisive in Italy 2006 World Cup success in Germany.  Totti had broken his ankle three months prior to the tournament and he was a major doubt for Italy.  After going through a gruelling rehabilitation process, he was included in Lippi’s squad.  Totti would end the tournament as joint top assister and scoring a vital penalty in the 94th minute against Australia in the last 16.  He admitted after the tournament he felt only 60% fit but with so many of that generation peaking, he could not bare to miss it.  Roma Director General Walter Sabatini put it beautifully when speaking about Totti a couple of years ago:

“Totti is timeless, he’s like the light over the rooftops of Rome. The light still goes on, spreads. He had been painted as tired and lame, but he goes on the pitch and weakens the opposition.”

The most lasting part of Totti’s career are his goals.  He is currently second on the all-time Serie A goalscoring list.  Think of all the legendary attackers Serie A has been home to over the years and you will find Totti has outscored them ALL!  Only Roberto Baggio of the modern era comes remotely close (22 goals behind Totti).  Only the legendary Silvio Piola (active from 1929-1954) has outscored him.  This achievement becomes even more awe-worthy when you consider Totti has never played as an out and out centre forward, often deployed behind a number 9 for the first half of his career.  Francesco has also aged beautifully as a player and remains the only forward of his generation still playing at such a high level – he was one of only five players in the Top 5 leagues to finish the 2012/13 season in double digits for both assists and goals (the other four were Theo Walcott, Lionel Messi, Marco Reus and Marek Hamsik).  His personal accolades include five times Italian Player of the Year, two times Serie A Player of the Year and one Golden Boot.  His trophy haul with Roma on the otherhand is lacking.  He can only claim to be part of one Scudetto winning side and two Coppa Italias.  The fact he won the World Cup goes a long way to appeasing this but it is still a dearth lack of silverware for such an incredible talent.  With Totti as captain, Roma have finished Serie A runners up 6 times in the past decade.

Totti’s commitment to Roma is the greatest expression of love in the modern game.  A player of his calibre remaining there is the equivalent of Wayne Rooney staying at Everton  and spending his whole career at Goodison or Fernando Torres shunning Liverpool to remain at Atletico Madrid.  And Totti’s devotion has helped to inspire the next generations of Roma stars such as Daniele De Rossi who looks as though he will follow in Totti’s footsteps.  Even the limitless funds of Florentino Perez and his team of superstars could not lure Totti away from Rome, his loyalty could not be bought.  Former Roma president Rosella Sensi spoke gracefully when she said “No player in the history of football has meant more to a club than Totti does to Roma.”

Eduard Streltsov

Little known outside of his homeland but often said to be one of the greatest outfield players Russia has ever produced by those who watched him.  Streltsov made his Torpedo Moscow debut as a 16 year old and in his second season he finished as top goalscorer in the Soviet League.   At 18 making his debut for the Soviet Union national team, Streltsov scored a first half hat-trick against Sweden (that same Sweden side would only a couple of years later get to the final of the 1958 World Cup).  In the 1956 Olympics, in one of his most famous matches, Streltsov was key in helping the Soviet Union fight back against Bulgaria in extra time at 0-1 despite only having 9 fit men on the field, with Streltsov scoring the equaliser before assisting the winner.  He received two votes for the Ballon d’Or that year.

Despite his on the field success, Streltsov was making enemies off it.  His flamboyant hair made him stand-out in a country of men with short back and sides.  He very bluntly turned down the advances of member of the Politburo Yekaterina Furtseva’s 16 year old daughter after Furtseva hinted at the idea of marriage between Streltsov and her daughter.   The Communist Party were also revelead in later documents to have distaste for Streltsov as the interest of foreign clubs interested in him grew, sparking suspicion.  Streltsov was also caught in the middle of a tug of war between KGB run side Dinamo Moscow and Army run team CSKA Moscow, both envious of Torpedo’s capture of this great Russian talent.  Streltsov’s refusal to leave Torpedo for either of these teams was seen as an act against the state itself.  Whilst on a pre-World Cup training camp in 1958, the Soviet team was given the day off from training and Streltsov and two other players decided to go to a party.  After a night of heavy drinking, Streltsov and his two team-mates were arrested for the alleged rape of a 20 year woman called Marina.  One commentator of the case against Streltsov described it as “confused and contradictory”.  Streltsov later said he was told he could avoid all of the red tape and be permitted to play in the 1958 World Cup if he pled guilty, so he did.  Instead of playing in the World Cup as he was told, Streltsov was sentenced to 12 years hard labour in a Siberian gulag.  The Soviet Union national coach at the time of his conviction revealed when Streltsov was dying that a local policeman told him influence from high up in the Communist Party dictated the player’s future, clearly pointing at the involvement of Furtseva who took anger in the player’s rejection of her daughter as a possible wife.  Streltsov would go on to serve  5 years hard labour in a gulag before being released.  Notably, the Soviet squad lost out in the quarter finals 0-2 against Sweden of the 1958 World Cup, the Sweden side they had defeated 6-0 with Streltsov on the pitch.

After his release he played amateur football, waiting until Torpedo came knocking again.  Inevitably, they did.  The fans welcomed their hero back and he helped Torpedo win the Soviet league on his first season back and soon returning to play for the national side, although his time in the gulag had robbed him of some of his physical ability.  Streltsov finished second in the award of Soviet Player of the Season that year.  He retired two years later as one of the greats of Russian football, regardless of seven of his best footballing years being robbed from him.  There is currently an active campaign underway in Russia to clear Streltsov’s name of the rape accusation, headed by Chess champion Anatoly Karpov and also heavily involved is the Mayor of Moscow.  A sad but fascinating story, you can only wonder how great Streltsov (and Torpedo Moscow and the Soviet national team) could’ve been if his career had went smoothly.

The Ten Newcomers Who Are Set to Light Up the Premier League

Here is our list of the top ten summer signings for the coming Barclays Premier League season:

10) Gary Medel

Affectionately nicknamed the Pitbull from his time at Universidad Catolica, Medel will prove to be worth his weight in gold for Cardiff this season.  A tenacious midfield battler who will aggressively protect the defence, he is equally at home at anywhere along the back-line if called upon.  The example he sets on and off the pitch will be crucial for Cardiff City’s fight to survive their debut season in the Premier League.

9) Jozy Altidore

His second spell in England after a disastrous period at Hull City, Altidore will be out to prove the doubters wrong and has never found himself in a stronger bout of form.  He rebuilt his career in the Eredivisie with AZ Alkmaar and is creating an ever more important role in the USMNT.  With all the skills to succeed at Sunderland and having already learned through failure in England, Altidore returns with a point to prove.

8) Paulinho

A pivotal part of the Corinthians side that won both the 2012 Copa Libertadores and then the subsequent World Club Championship, and more recently with Brazil in the Confederations Cup, Paulinho comes to London with hype surrounding him.  A very reliable and tactically aware and disclipined player, a perfect fit of Villas-Boas’ tactics and one who will added steel to an often fragile Spurs.  Will Paulinho be the first big name Brazilian to really shine in at the highest level in the Premier League?

7) Jesus Navas

The former Sevilla winger was notoriously reluctant to leave his hometown as he believed he would become too homesick to thrive abroad, he has eventually made the jump to Englad, much to the terror of left-backs all over the league.  A truly thrilling player and one who will provide a directness the likes of Milner just never could.

6) Etienne Capoue

A great signing by Spurs as Capoue is one of those players who brings perfect balance to a team, not only in his own game but in his direction of others.  With no real obvious weaknesses, the best phrase to describe him is ‘simple but effective’, and with the likes of Sandro and Paulinho alongside him, that is a midfield trio that will physically boss every other they come across.  The only real issue however is the lack of combined creativity they pose.

5) Stevan Jovetic

After returning from a long term lay-off due to a cruciate ligament injury, Jovetic became a real leader in Florence and last season went a long way to re-capturing the promise he showed pre-injury.  This is the move that will determine whether that potential to be a top top player is still there and with Pellegrini conducting City’s orchestra, there will be no better place for him.  Signings such as Jovetic and Navas go a long way in showing Manchester City have been very careful in selection of their attackers this time around, both are a million miles from the selfish nature Tevez and Balotelli displayed in Manchester.

4) Victor Wanyama

A player who would’ve walked into any starting team in this league and a real coup for Southampton.  Powerful but precise, Wanyama can be called upon as a midfield anchor or as a centre-back.  Smart, mobile and hungry to improve himself, it is near impossible to see him failing in the Premier League.  The Saints are quickly becoming an ambitious club and with Wanyama they have an extremely ambitious player to match that.  A good partnership and one Southampton will make only but profit from.

3) Andrea Schurrle

Devastating on the left and he will stalk the nightmares of right-backs up and down England, expect to regularly see the sight of him cutting in from the left onto his right-foot to seek out the far corner.  The decision to move to Chelsea was a brave one considering the World Cup is only a season away and with competition at that left wing position being heavily stacked a Stamford Bridge with De Bruyne and Hazard there, Schurrle will quickly have to make that role his own.

2) Wilfried Bony

Swansea stated their ambition early into the market with this signing and it will be fascinating to see how he handles England.  He was a one man army in the Eredivise for Vitesse and if he can spark a working relationship with Michu, don’t be surprised to see Daddy Cool hit 18+ goals in his debut season in England and drive Swansea into the top seven places.

1) Roberto Soldado

Exactly the striker Spurs have been begging out for in a long time.  Soldado is a world class finisher, cut throat and as cold as ice in in front of goal.  Soldado was essential in providing Valencia with Champions League football after the departures of David Silva and David Villa.  A clear upgrade over both Adebayor and Defoe, Spurs have themselves a striker entering the form of his life and one who will score just as many goals (if not more) than Gareth Bale in the upcoming season, if Bale stays of course.  With an acquisition of this quality, it is not too far-fetched to see Spurs as title contenders in 2013/14.

Arsene Knows Best?

The Premier League owes many thanks to Arsene Wenger. Wenger is largely responsible for dragging English football into the modern era. He introduced a scientific, methodical approach to coaching and training to a country where things were done by gut feeling and tradition; and when those methods proved successful, other clubs started adopting them too.

It would also be wrong to forget that Arsene Wenger didn’t just put together some highly successful teams; winning 3 Premier League titles and 4 FA Cups so far. It would be even more wrong not to point out his Arsenal teams have been some of the most exciting teams the Premier League has ever seen. He brought Thierry Henry, arguably the Premier League’s greatest ever player, to England. He took a team through a league season unbeaten.

He has also produced teams that have qualified for the Champions League for 15 seasons in a row, which, despite what his critics say, is an amazing achievement.

These teams were assembled for sums of money that, by today’s standards at least, seem ludicrously cheap. Wenger is opposed to teams spending huge amounts of money on players, calling that practise ‘financial doping’, and, while he has not been averse to spending money on players, he’s never paid top dollar.

Wenger has also been a firm believer in investing in youth players, then bringing them through to the first team. Ashley Cole, Gael Clichy and Cesc Fabregas all came through into the first team, and currently Kieran Gibbs and Jack Wilshere are current academy products playing in the first team.

However, in recent seasons, Arsenal haven’t been anywhere near the force they once were. While Arsenal are still one of the best teams in the league, and are perennially in the top 4, it’s been a while since they were talked about as legitimate title contenders.

Nobody can agree why that’s the case. Despite many of their star players leaving over the past few seasons, Arsenal are still a good team that finishes highly in the league. Last season, despite losing Robin van Persie, Arsenal still scored the third most goals in the league. Arsenal get criticised for their lack of consistency, yet finish in the top 4 every season. Arsenal’s defence is often pointed to as their weak point, yet only Manchester City conceded fewer goals last season.

My opinion is that Arsenal have lost some of the fear factor they once had. Arsenal used to be known as a fast, skilful team; but also a physically tough side. Not anymore. In the past few seasons, Arsenal have picked up the unwanted reputation for being a side that can be easily intimidated and knocked off their stride, knowledge that lesser-talented teams have used to great effect.

Over the past few seasons, Arsenal’s fans have become increasingly frustrated at the performance and direction of the team. Arsenal haven’t won a trophy since 2005, a fact that has been increasingly used to beat Wenger around the head. Wenger argues (and, for what it’s worth, I agree) that trophies are only one way to judge the success of a club, and the fact that Arsenal have qualified for the Champions League year after year, is of greater importance.

There is also a lot of frustration at Arsenal’s transfer policy. Contrary to popular belief, Wenger has never been afraid to spend money, but as transfer fees, especially for the best players, have gone up, Arsenal have steadfastly refused to pay those huge fees, with their record transfer being far below the record transfers of their Premier League rivals.

Wenger’s transfer policy has always been to sign up-and-coming players for a reasonable fee, then improve them as players, so they increase in value. This is a policy that has served Arsenal well over the years. However, it is this policy that has led to the Arsenal fans and media openly questioning the wisdom of Wenger’s perceived frugality in the transfer market.

Over the past few years, Arsenal fans have watched their team get consistently outspent in the transfer market, and have had enough. They want to see their team competing for the league title once again, and believe that the club needs to spend money to get there.

By all accounts, Arsenal do have the money to pay the large transfer fees that elite players command. The sticking point is that they also operate on a strict wage structure, which may be off-putting to potential signings, as they know they can earn more money elsewhere.

This summer, Arsenal seemed to listen to their fans. They announced that they had money in the bank (which probably wasn’t a smart move!), and they have chased a ‘marquee signing’, to excite the fans and improve the team’s chances of success in the league but, at the time of writing, they have only signed young French striker Yaya Sonogo this summer.

Arsenal missed out on Gonzalo Higuain. They then turned their attention to signing Luis Suarez, a bid which failed after a clause which Arsenal (and Suarez) believed was a release clause turned out not to be, and Arsenal weren’t willing to bid anywhere near the price Liverpool wanted. There was also a bid for Newcastle’s Yohan Cabaye that has served only to destabilise the player and annoy Newcastle.

There’s still time for Arsenal to sign some more players in this transfer window, but many people are questioning why they have not been more active this summer and why the transfers they were in for didn’t work out.

Some believe that the problem lies at executive level, with the belief being that Arsenal lack anyone with the knowledge of the international transfer market and the negotiating power to get them the player they want for the best deal.

Last week, Lady Nina Bracewell-Smith, a former part-owner of the club, expressed her displeasure at the way the club is being run. She tweeted her opinion that former Vice-Chairman David Dein, a man who does have the transfer market savvy that Arsenal need, should be brought back. She also expressed her regret at selling her shares in Arsenal to Stan Kroenke, making him the majority owner.

Some fans believe that Wenger is the problem. While most fans would agree that it is admirable that Arsenal aren’t willing to pay fees above what they believe a player is worth, fans are now wondering if the lack of signings means that Arsenal are valuing those players too low; with Arsenal’s opening bids for both Suarez and Cabaye being so low that both Liverpool and Newcastle questioning their seriousness, and the lack of bids for players such as Luiz Gustavo is being seen as a sign that Wenger may be out of touch with the modern transfer market.

Many Arsenal fans now want sweeping changes at the club. One of those requested changes seems to be a change in manager.
Last week, the Arsenal Supporters Trust, advised against offering Wenger a new contract saying:

“In recent weeks [chief executive] Ivan Gazidis has spoken of the club’s intent to offer Arsène Wenger a new contract. The AST believes this is inappropriate

“There remain important questions about the way player identification, recruitment and remuneration processes are managed at Arsenal.

“The failings we highlighted in Arsène Wenger holding too much power have only been amplified in recent weeks. These must be addressed as a matter of urgency.”

Currently, it’s easy to criticise Arsene Wenger. His perceived obstinacy in the transfer market has made him a target of Arsenal fans’ ire, and this in turn has made him an easy target for the media. However, I’d caution Arsenal fans who maybe want to see a change in manager to remember a few things.

Firstly, the current Arsenal team is still pretty good and they have a lot of young players that should get better. Secondly, Arsenal are still a very attractive proposition to players, with their location and ability to provide Champions League football. Thirdly, even though Arsenal are seemingly unwilling to pay top dollar for players, that doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t still sign some great players. Wenger has always been good at finding bargains in the transfer market. Also, there’s no guarantee that spending large amounts of money on players means they’ll be a success.

The final point I’d make to Arsenal fans is that Arsene Wenger is one of the greatest managers in Premier League history. Getting into the Champions League so many times is an amazing achievement. Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

Manchester United: A blip, not a crisis

One of the more intriguing questions going into this Premier League season was how Manchester United would cope with the managerial change that saw David Moyes replace the venerable Sir Alex Ferguson.

When it was announced that Moyes would be the new manager, opinion amongst United fans was divided. Some believed that Moyes was the perfect choice as replacement after he had completely transformed Everton from a team that perennially struggled in the lower-mid reaches of the Premier League, to a team that consistently challenged for European places. Moyes also had built a reputation for being savvy in the transfer market and enjoyed a close relationship with Ferguson while at Everton.

But there were an equal number of fans who believed that a bigger name manager, such as Jose Mourinho, should have been hired. Those fans pointed to the fact that, for all his good work during his 11 years at Everton, Moyes didn’t win a trophy. They also pointed to the fact that he had barely any experience of managing in the Champions League and only minimal experience in the Europa League.

Well, it’s fair to say that, six months on, Moyes is still dividing opinion amongst Manchester United fans. Some fans, antsy at the way the season has gone so far, believe that Moyes is horribly out of his depth, and just not cut out to manage such a big club, other argue the opposite, saying that Moyes inherited a weak squad, wasn’t given the opportunity to change things and should be given the time and support he needs to get it right.

United have had, by the high standards they have set for themselves over the past 25 years, had a disappointing league season so far. In their last league match, they lost 3-1 to Chelsea, which leaves them, at the time of writing, seventh in the table and 14 points behind current Premier League leaders Arsenal. So far this season, United have lost at home to West Brom, Everton, Spurs and Newcastle, and went out of the FA Cup after losing at home to Swansea.

The British media are smelling blood, and barely a day goes by without a story about how the next game is a ‘must-win for Moyes’, speculation about what would happen should United not make the Champions League next season, or about ‘how United are a fading force’ or ‘how the empire is falling’ etc.

The decisions taken by Moyes since he became manager have been put under a microscope. Much has been made of his decision, when he arrived, to replace the coaching staff with coaches of his own choosing, even more has been made of Moyes’ tactics and Moyes’ training methods have been put forward as a reason why United have suffered from a rash of injuries this season.

However, I’m not buying into all the talk of United being ‘in crisis’, or in terminal decline. I think that United, for all of their problems this season, are in a much stronger position that people think. I also think a lot of the criticism of David Moyes has been unfair.

Firstly, as I wrote earlier, United are 14 points behind Arsenal, which, while admittedly a tall order for United to make up that gap, is hardly beyond the realms of possibility when you consider there’s still 16 games to go; and only 6 points behind Liverpool, who currently occupy fourth position and therefore, the last of the Champions League places. So, while there’s certainly room for improvement in United’s current league form and position, they can hardly be written off in terms of qualifying for next season’s Champions League, either as league winners or one of the top 4 Premier League teams.  Add to that the possibility they might even qualify for next season’s Champions League by winning it this season.

All of this has happened with some key players being injured, so you have to figure that when United get van Persie, Rooney and Fellaini back, they will be a much tougher proposition.  The inclusion of Juan Mata should also signifcantly strengthen what has been a lifeless United attack at times.

I also don’t get why so much is being made of Moyes’ decision to replace several of the coaching staff when he took over at United with coaches he had at Everton. Most managers tend to work with the same group of coaches throughout their managerial careers, so it’s normal for a manager to bring his own staff with him when he arrives. Moyes will realise he’ll only get one chance at the United job, so will have wanted to work with a coaching staff he knows and trusts. That’s not unusual.

I don’t think you can solely blame Moyes for the patchy league form. There was always going to be a transitional period for United. The players need time to adapt to Moyes’ methods and tactics. They also have to learn to trust Moyes they way they trusted Ferguson, which doesn’t happen overnight. It was always unlikely that Moyes, or anyone else, could have seamlessly stepped into the manager’s seat at Old Trafford and started winning immediately.

Similarly, Moyes needs time to adapt to managing a club like United. At Everton, Moyes was used to working with a relatively small group of players, so never had to rotate as much as he needs to at United. Similarly, Moyes is also learning that what worked at Everton may not necessarily work at United, so he has to learn to be a bit more flexible in both his tactics and his approach with the players, which takes time.

However, it’s also not true to say that Moyes inherited a bad squad. The squad he inherited is virtually the same squad that comfortably won the title last season; albeit in a slightly more workmanlike manner than we were accustomed to seeing them play in the past. Sure, some of the key players are getting older and more injury-prone, and it’s nowhere near as strong a squad as in seasons past; but it’s still far from a weak squad. The managers of
most Premier League teams would kill to have such a ‘weak’ group of players at their disposal.

That being said though, United do need to improve their squad. In fact, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that they need to overhaul the way they operate in the transfer market. Last summer, United weren’t too active in the transfer market, with only the late signing of Marouane Fellaini from Everton, plus a few young prospects, to show for the summer transfer window.

Whereas Fellaini is a good player who did well for Moyes at Everton; he was not really the player United needed, and has struggled to make an impression since his move. United seem desperately short of creativity in midfield, but were unable to land any of their targets last summer and, at the time of writing, have not done so in January.
This isn’t Moyes’ fault. The traditional way English clubs do a transfer is the manager identifies the player he wants, the chief executive negotiates a deal and then the Chairman gives the go-ahead, or not. That seemed to be the way United operated under Ferguson, with David Gill as Chief Executive.

However, that way of doing transfers is increasingly outmoded. Reports suggest that Ferguson instructed United to hold off on any transfer activity until Moyes took up his role, seemingly to ensure United didn’t sign anyone that Moyes didn’t okay. But, as Moyes didn’t arrive until July, it meant that United were way behind the curve when it came to transfers and struggled to catch up, with new vice-Chairman Ed Woodward seemingly taken by surprise at the way the transfer market worked.

United werealways going to struggle without Rooney + RVP, no matter who the manager was.

In recent times, most Premier League clubs have started to adopt a model where the manager is part of the transfer process, but not necessarily the main part. This means that if there’s a change of manager, it doesn’t derail transfer activity. Now Alex Ferguson is no longer manager, Manchester United should revamp the way they do transfers to bring them more in line with the other teams around them and allow them to compete for the best players once again.

For all of the pressure that’s currently on David Moyes, I don’t think the United hierarchy will be even contemplating making a change in terms of manager. They gave Moyes a long contract, so they obviously believe in his abilities as manager. United also pride themselves on stability, so I doubt they’ll look to make a change at the first hint of trouble, which is what’s happening now.

They also understand that, while it’s an overstatement to say that United need to completely overhaul their squad, there’s no quick fixes either. What they need to do is finish out this season, but get plans in place for new signings next summer.

For most managers, being within striking distance of the top 4, being in the round of 16 of the Champions League and being in the semi-final of a cup would represent a very successful season. For David Moyes and Manchester United, it’s apparently a disaster.

David Moyes is a good manager. His time at Everton proved that, no matter how much revisionism is spouted by his critics. What he needs is time and support. I think he’ll get both, and in a few years time, when United are back towards the top of the table, all talk of a crisis will have long been forgotten.