Thursday, December 23, 2010

Fenway Sports Group need to get the right balance between the present and the future to be successful at Liverpool

When New England Sports Ventures took over at Anfield its principle owner, John W Henry, spoke of his vision for Liverpool, a vision which would see Liverpool Football Club produce and attract some of the best young footballers in the world.

Henry is not an expert in the world of football, but his time spent with the Boston Red Sox shows his experience in sport. When NESV took control of Boston’s baseball team in 2002 it had been decades since their last World Series win, just two years later the team won the competition and repeated the feat again in 2007.

So whilst Henry may not be versed in the game his compatriots would call ‘soccer’ the Bostonian, and the others which make up the Fenway Sports Group board, knows how to make a winning team, so his strategy of investing in the future and searching for value in the transfer market should be taken seriously.

It’s certainly not a new system, indeed in modern football two shining examples of clubs focused on their youth systems are Spanish champions Barcelona and North London outfit Arsenal, who have both had considerable success with their academy systems.

Barcelona’s success with their home grown players is well publicised, with the likes of Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi being products of their academy. A team primarily made up of Catalan-based, or at least academy produced, players has won all there is to be won in the past three years, from La Liga to the European Cup.

Arsenal are ever-presents in Europe’s top competition the Champions League, with long-term manager Arsene Wenger often throwing one of the many starlets produced by the academy into the team in games in the competition, a clear sign of the boss’ faith in the products of the academy which Wenger has been building since he arrived in the capital.

Yet the system isn’t a perfect one, despite all their success Barcelona have felt the need to invest heavily in their squad in recent years. In the summer of 2008 the Catalan club spent close to 75 million Euros on players including Sevilla’s Daniel Alves and Arsenal’s Alexandre Hleb, the next year Zlatan Ibrahimovic was the big spend of the summer, coming to Barca in a deal worth 46 million and this summer the Spanish Champions secured the services of David Villa and Javier Mascherano for a combined fee of 66 million Euros.

Arsenal, on the other hand, have been reluctant to make major investments in the first team squad. Wenger is incredibly cautious with where he spends money and many of his critics have suggested that has hindered the club as of recent, with Arsenal not having won a trophy since their FA Cup victory in 2005.

It could be suggested then that in order to achieve success during his time at Anfield John W Henry and co will have to find a balance between investment in the present and investment in the future.

It has to be remembered that at current, despite the current downturn in fortune, Liverpool have a number of world-class players, most notably Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres and Pepe Reina. These players are ambitious and have a hunger to bring trophies to the club. Whilst they will be reassured by Fenway’s plans to invest in the future they will need to be sure that the owners are willing to invest the here and now before they consider their long-term future at the club.

For two decades Liverpool’s supporters have suffered because those at board level focused too much on the short-term without thinking about the future consequences of their actions. John W Henry and co need to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself, but equally they need to know that the supporters and the players want to see a successful Liverpool as soon as possible, not just in five years time.

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Monday, December 20, 2010

Political games threaten to damage Benitez's managerial reputation

With Christmas Day fast approaching, Rafael Benitez will be spending time with his family at his home in Liverpool. Outside his window he’ll see the effects of the sub-zero temperatures currently gripping the nation. In his head, however, he’ll be contemplating the even more chilling prospect of losing his second job this year. 

This time last year Benitez was faced with a similar prospect. His Liverpool side, who had been considered title contenders at the start of the season, were sat in 8th place, 14 points adrift of top of the table Chelsea and seemingly out of contention for the Premier League crown. To add to his worries, the Reds had just been knocked out of the Champions League in the group stages, with a third place finish in Group E relegating them to the Europa League, UEFA’s second-tier competition.

As 2010 progressed Liverpool’s hopes of a top four finish, and a place in the Champions League, slipped away just as their start of the season title expectations had. Former Manchester United player Diego Forlan ended any chance of a silver lining for the Reds at the end of the season when his last gasp goal in second-half of extra-time in the semi-final of the Europa League confirmed another season without a trophy at Anfield.

It was Benitez who took the fall, when in June the board decided that the Spaniards services were no longer required at Anfield, releasing a press statement stating that the Liverpool boss was leaving the club through a mutual termination of his contract.

Though Benitez popularity amongst Liverpool supporters had dropped over the course of the season it still came as a shock to a large percentage of the clubs fans who had built a strong relationship with the manager following successes in the Champions League in 2005, FA Cup in 2006 and a close run in the league in 2008/09.

Indeed, the common few among supporter was that after three years of success, culminating in a Champions League final defeat in Athens in 2007, Benitez’s ability to bring success to Liverpool was severely damaged by owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett, who were repeatedly accused by club supporters and Benitez himself of failing to invest in the squad.

For many Benitez’s departure from Anfield was one brought about by his relationship with the board of directors. Since their arrival Benitez had been at loggerheads with Tom Hicks and George Gillett and things got worse for the Spaniard when Christian Purslow was appointed as the clubs Chief Executive, with the Harvard Graduate speculated to have had a poor relationship with Benitez, which was ultimately played a key part in his removal.

Now, at Internazionale, things seem to be repeating themselves for Benitez, who since arriving at the San Siro has seen his relationship with club President Massimo Moratti deteriorate after a number of very public confrontations over the clubs progress this season.

After a poor start to their Serie A campaign Inter find themselves in seventh place, thirteen points off city-rivals AC, although Benitez’s side can boast having two games in hand to reduce the deficit.

Though Inter didn’t bolster their ageing squad in the summer and have had a torrid time with injuries, amounting over forty so far this campaign, Benitez has found himself taking the majority of the criticism for the Italian champions current form, and a win in the World Club Cup seemed integral to his future.

Whilst Benitez managed to steer his side to a win in the competition, claiming his second trophy since arriving at the club, his post-match press conference – in which he issued a ‘back me or sack me’ statement to Moratti – left many believing his time at the San Siro was up, with the Inter president claiming Benitez’s comments were "not suitable for the situation".

On paper Benitez can justify his position as manager of the Italian and European champions. His achievements as a manager include winning the Champions League, FA Cup, UEFA Super Cup and Community Shield with Liverpool whilst taking Valencia to two La Liga titles and a UEFA Cup victory, not to mention his Italian Super Cup and World Club Cup wins during his short time at Inter.

Many clubs around Europe have taken note of Benitez’s abilities. Outside of the major clubs that have hired the Inter boss many have tried to attract him, particularly during his time at Liverpool when clubs such as Real Madrid, Juventus and Bayern Munich were all linked with the 50-year-old.

Yet if Benitez was to leave Inter now he’d be walking away with his reputation amongst Europe’s biggest clubs damaged. Not because of his managerial ability, his record stands up for itself, but instead because for a board of directors hiring Benitez, with his reputation to be as astute a politician as he is a manager, is seen as too much of a gamble, as his run-ins with Moratti have proven.

(Photo provided by Daniel Porter)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Not-so-Merry Christmas present for young Reds as Liverpool draw with Utrecht

“Happy Holidays” Liverpool FC principle owner John W Henry posted on his Twitter account after announcing that kids tickets for the Reds final Europa League group stage clash with Utrecht would be free, with adult tickets being offered at a considerable discount.

It was a calculated move from Henry and business partner Tom Werner, who recently took the role of chairman at the club. It was good PR, it was clearly a move taken to raise the new owners stock amongst the still cautious Anfield faithful, but nevertheless it was a decision made with the best intentions at heart.

After the game though, those children and adults who had decided to take the owners up on their offer of free and discounted tickets may have wished they hadn’t bothered. What they witnessed at Anfield was not the no-strings attacking football that was expected, instead it was a poor, defensive display in a game in which Liverpool had nothing to lose.

Fernando Torres, who Roy Hodgson claimed in his pre-match press conference was going to start, was removed from the squad at the final hour, with the Liverpool boss claiming it was a decision made on the back of advice from the clubs medical staff – meaning thousands of young Reds, coming expecting to see their hero, were disappointed.

The players that were on show were sent out to hold their shape, rarely pressing the Dutch opposition and allowing them plenty of time and space, especially in their own half. To call it uninspiring would be an insult to other teams who have been given such a label.

Hodgson may have thought he could get away with it, after all this was a nothing game, Liverpool were already through and the players on the pitch were a second-string Liverpool side. But the Reds boss’ inability to judge the mentality of the clubs supporters once again came back to haunt him, as his stock fell even further after the final whistle blew.

This leaves Hodgson in a precarious position. Though he claims to feel completely safe in his job everything is far from cosy for him. The majority of supporters (around 80 to 90% according to most polls) no longer want him as manager of the club, the owners – in a phone in on LFC TV – branded the start of the season “unacceptable” and Fenway Sports Group are set to announce a new CEO in the new year, who may have their own ideas who should be in charge.

The rest of December seems to be a crucial month for the manager. Liverpool have four very winnable games remaining this year, against Fulham, Blackpool, Wolves and Bolton. All of these games fans would expect to see three points from, but Liverpool’s incredibly poor form on the road, coupled with some shock results against weaker sides at Anfield, suggests the run of games is anything but predictable.

It’s make or break for Hodgson. A run of four wins will see the pressure taken of his position considerably, allowing him to go in to January focused on the second-half of the season. Poor results however will see the anger towards the veteran manager among Liverpool supporters increase even more, potentially pushing the patient John W Henry and co a little too far.

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(Photo provided by Mikhail Slain)

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Supporters in agreement over Hodgson - but not who should replace him

Rafael Benitez didn’t have much to boast about during his last season at Anfield. His side finished seventh in the Premier League, were knocked out of the Champions League in the group stages, and failed to reach the latter stages of either the FA or League Cup. 

One thing the outgoing manager may have took pride in however – and knowing the mans character he likely did – is that, given the circumstances he found himself in, a large percentage of the clubs fans supported him right up until the day his ‘mutual termination’ took place.

New manager Roy Hodgson, who has suffered an even more torrid start to his domestic campaign, cannot boast of having the backing of the supporters, in fact the vast majority would suggest the former Fulham boss is out of his dept and needs to leave, preferably before the January transfer window.

One of the largest Liverpool fan websites, Empire of the Kop, which has an incredibly diversified range of readers, conducted a poll last month about the future of Liverpool’s current manager. 81.54% said they wanted Hodgson to leave with immediate effect, 12.5% said they want to wait until January, whilst just 5.96% said wait until the end of the season.

Should new owners the Fenway Sports Group decide they agree with supporters view on the current boss then, under half a season after his initial appointment, Liverpool will once again be searching for a new manager.

Whilst Hodgson’s removal would be met with a harmonious sigh of relief by nearly every Liverpool supporter – with the poll results from EOTK being rather tellingly some of the kindest on Hodgson – when it comes to bringing in a new boss things would no doubt become incredibly difficult.

On Saturday this site asked supporters, via social networking site Twitter, who they would want to replace Hodgson should he leave and why. The results were incredibly varied, from well-known continental managers to some who have yet to manage a team in a European competition.

There were two managers who collected the vast majority of votes, the first of those being Dutch manager Frank Rijkaard.

Rijkaard is a popular choice primarily because of his experience at a major club, Barcelona, and his record of winning trophies. Indeed, during his time as a manager, which started just twelve years ago, Rijkaard has won two La Liga titles and a European Cup with Barcelona and was a European Championship semi-finalist during his first management job with the Dutch national side.

But during his time at Galatasaray his record was slightly diminished, with Rijkaard having led his side to a disappointing finish to the 09/10 season, followed by four defeats in eight at the start of this campaign, leading to his contract being terminated on October 20th.

Some have suggested his failure at Galatasaray is down to him not having influential coach Ten Cate, who served as Rijkaard’s assistant during his Champions League winning campaign in 2005/06, by his side. Cate Is however currently out of work, but bringing him to Anfield to work with Rijkaard, should he want to, would mean displacing Sammy Lee.

The second popular choice for the position is on the opposite end of the scale from Rijkaard – current Bolton Wanderers manager Owen Coyle.

Coyle has much less experience than Rijkaard and, for that matter, Roy Hodgson. What puts him in contention however is the style of football he tries to make his team play, with Bolton, notoriously known for their long-ball, defensive football in the past now playing a much more fluid style of attacking game, which has took them from relegation candidates to sixth place in the league.

His lack of experience however will always be held against him. Coyle only started his management career in 2005, with St. Johnstone, and has yet to win a major trophy, with his biggest achievement being a Championship Play-Off win that took Burnley into the Premier League.

There are some other coaches who have been named. Some want former boss and Liverpool legend Kenny Dalglish to take control, though many would argue the Scot could taint his Liverpool record and reputation by taking to the hot seat so long after managing a Premier League club.

Guus Hiddink, Didier Deschamps and Martin O’Neil are all names that have been quoted by Reds supporters, but at the same time other fans have pointed out the pitfalls of such appointments –clearly Liverpool fans across the globe have very different ideas of the qualities the next manager needs.

At current their may be harmony amongst Liverpool supporters, with most wanting to see the back of Roy Hodgson. But should he leave then deciding on his replacement would be close to impossible – as almost anyone who comes in would once again split the fan base.

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Friday, December 03, 2010

European hopes on the line as Liverpool face Aston Villa

This time last year both Liverpool and Aston Villa were challenging for a place in the Champions League. This season, after much turmoil at both clubs off the pitch, the two teams are struggling to stay in the top half. 

Both sides have had their fair share of problems, the start of the season saw Liverpool with a new manager, Roy Hodgson, and facing potential financial meltdown as Tom Hicks and George Gillett held on until the twelfth hour before finally being ousted from the club by New England Sports Ventures, now the Fenway Sports Group.

Whilst Liverpool may have replaced their manager in the summer, Aston Villa were forced to start a search for a new boss in early August, when Martin O’Neil walked away from the club less than a week before their opening game of the Premier League season against West Ham United at Villa Park.

Arguably as a result of this disruption both clubs find themselves well off where they want to be in the league, with Liverpool sat in tenth – seven points away from fourth place Manchester City and just five points above the relegation zone – and Aston Villa two points behind them in fifteenth.

So whilst Gerard Houllier can expect a warm welcome from the Anfield faithful, who are forever grateful to the Frenchman for bringing the club a host of trophies during his time in charge, he’ll have to accept that’s as far as Anfield’s hospitality will extend to the visiting Villa team – this is a Liverpool side in desperate need of three points to keep their European dream alive.

Liverpool’s task has been made harder by a host of injuries to important players. Captain Steven Gerrard is unlikely to be fit for the game, whilst vice-captain Jamie Carragher will certainly miss the game following picking up a shoulder injury against Spurs which will likely rule him out until the latter part of the season.

However Villa are also missing key players, with Ashley Young being suspended for the Anfield tie and the likes of Stiliyan Petrov, Nigel Reo-Coker and Steve Sidwell all set to miss the game through injury.

Both sides have been predictably unpredictable under their current managers – which makes this game incredibly hard to call. One thing is for certain though, if one team comes out on top then they will have walked away with a significant boost to their European hopes, whilst the other will be left wondering exactly where their season is heading.

(Photo provided by Gordon Flood) 

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