Sunday, April 15, 2012

What's Wrong with Liverpool?

Sure, it might seem odd to write a post about the demise of Liverpool FC after they booked their place in the FA Cup final, but the win at Wembley and their Carling Cup victory mask how far the once mighty club from Merseyside has fallen.

Currently 8th in the table, one point behind cross-town rivals Everton and 13 points adrift of 4th place Tottenham, Liverpool are staring at their third consecutive season without the lifeblood of modern European soccer clubs - the Champions League.  Once perennial contenders for the Premier League title (though they still haven't won one) and a place in Europe, the past three seasons have been calamitous for scarlet wearing Liverpudlians.  Anything remotely qualifying as success in the league last came in 2008-2009 when Liverpool finished 4 points behind Manchester United and qualified directly for the group stages of the Champions League. Each season since has seen the Reds finish further from the title.  So what has gone wrong for a team that has 18 League titles, 7 FA Cups, 8 Carling Cups and 5 European/Champions League titles in its trophy case?  

Liverpool's problems can be traced to three related areas: 1) Transfer strategy, 2) Management; and 3) Ownership.

1) Transfer strategy - Liverpool haven't done much right in this department for the past several seasons.  Sure there have been some shrewd pieces of business.  Luis Suarez was brought in from Ajax for £22.8 million.  Jose Enrique was purchased from Newcastle for around £6 million. Fernando Torres was sold, right around the time he forgot how to score, to Chelsea for £50 million.  However, there have been more misses than hits.

Liverpool's transfer strategy in recent seasons can be summed up simply - overpay for English talent. Andy Carroll cost £35 million, Jordan Henderson nearly £16 million, and Stewart Downing moved from Aston Villa for roughly £20 million.  That's a combined £71 million for 126 appearances, but just 12 goals. By comparison, Carroll's former club - Newcastle - spent £10 million on Papiss Demba Cissé who has already scored the same number of goals (10 in 9 appearances) this season than Carroll has in his entire time at Liverpool (10 in 50 appearances).  Throw in Demba Ba, who moved to the Sports Direct Arena on a free transfer from West Ham, and Newcastle have more than replaced Carroll's scoring for less than 1/3 of the price paid by Liverpool.

Beyond overpaying for English talent Liverpool's recent transfer strategy lacks coherence.  The Reds splashed out £19.3 million for Robbie Keane in the summer of 2008 only to send him back to Tottenham during the winter transfer window at a £7 million loss.  Italian midfielder Alberto Aquilani has cost roughly £800,000 per appearance in a Liverpool kit (£22.1 million fee, 28 games), and spent the last two seasons in Italy on loan. Christian Poulsen and Paul Konchesky were both brought in for relatively small amounts of money, but neither had the quality Liverpool needed and both were given just one season at Anfield.

Jamie Carragher's poor defense allowed Robin van Persie
to score his first in Arsenal's 2-1 win at Anfield.  Clive Mason/Getty Images   
Why is it so important to have a good transfer strategy for Liverpool? Their core talent is aging and needs to be supplemented or replaced.  Steven Gerrard is 31 and oft injured. Jamie Carragher is 34 and has seemingly forgotten how to defend, and though still continuously running, Dirk Kuyt is on the wrong side of 30.  Quality needs to be added if the team wants to compete for a Champions League spot.

2) Management - Liverpool will never be able to keep up with the free-spending ways of the Premier League's nouveau riche, but the great equalizer will always be a top-class talent in the dugout.  Teams like Arsenal, Tottenham and Everton put competitive teams on the pitch thanks to gaffers that have mastered blending smart transfers with the talent at hand (to be fair, Arsenal and Tottenham spend a good amount).  Manchester United is blessed by a genius on the touchline and the cash to supplement their squad. 

King Kenny hasn't been the answer at Anfield
The past three seasons have seen three different managers in charge of the Reds.  Despite a rather successful tenure with the club (including winning the Champions League in 2005), Rafael Benítez left by mutual consent at the end 09-10 season.  The Spaniard was replaced by Roy Hodgson, who never seemed comfortable at Liverpool, the team floundered and he was sacked after just 31 games.  Anfield legend Kenny Dalglish was promoted from youth coach to replace Hodgson but has fared little better. Sure Dalglish had previously led the Reds during one the most successful periods in club history; however, the honeymoon is over. Liverpool look certain to finish no better than 7th, which would tie their second worst performance since the inception of the Premier League.

It remains to be seen who will be stalking the touchline next season, though one thing is certain if Liverpool wants to remain part of the 'Big Four" (or the emerging "Big Six" - throwing in Spurs and City) they need a top-class boss.

3) Ownership - Ownership is a sore subject for Liverpool fans.  The demise of the club can be traced to 2007, the year George Gillett and Tom Hicks, both owners of American sports teams, purchased the Reds. Gillett and Hicks seemed out of their depth from the beginning.  Neither had the financial clout to run a club with European dreams.  Consequently, large debts were run up, though there was little to show for it on the pitch.  Things were so bad for Gillett and Hicks that the duo nearly sold the club to Dubai International Capital just a year after their takeover.  Following the failed takeover, Liverpool sank deeper into debt and came just 20 minutes from being placed into administration.  It's pretty difficult to succeed with a financial cloud hanging over a club.

It won't take much for the new owners, New England Sports Ventures, to be better than Gillett and Hicks.  NESV purchased the club for around £300 million in 2010, erasing the club's debt and promising to invest in Liverpool's future.  NESV have been successful at turning around ailing sports teams in the past. Prior to their purchase of the Red Sox, the venerable Boston baseball club hadn't won a title in over 80 years.  They've won 2 in the 10 years NESV has owned the team. Time will tell if NESV can work the same magic on Merseyside.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Three Up, Three Down: Ides of March

Three Up

1) Arsenal F.C. - Sure Arsenal will not win a trophy for the seventh consecutive year, but the Gunners are on a high.  Arsenal have won their last 4 games in the Premier League via the comeback, the first time in the twenty year history of the league. Their last loss came nearly a month ago, and they have seen Spurs' lead in the race for the last automatic Champions League position shrink from 10 to just 1. Arsenal's next three matches (away to Everton, at home to Villa, and away to QPR) are winnable. If the Gunners can win 7 on the trot, they would enter what could be a pivotal match with Manchester City on April 8 with the kind of confidence that will erase two earlier defeats at the hands of the Sky Blues.

 2)  Chelsea F.C. - The Blues have played themselves out of Three Down and into Three Up. Since sacking André Villas-Boas, Chelsea has done nothing but win. A 2-nil win over Birmingham in the FA Cup and a 1-nil win at Stamford Bridge over Stoke set the Blues up for a dramatic comeback against Napoli.  The West London side came into their Round of 16, second leg match down 3-1, but were able to overturn that deficit.  The old guard of Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard and John Terry led the Blues as they charged to a 4-1 extra-time victory.  Despite the victory, Chelsea are a volatile team.  While they have shown more life under Roberto Di Matteo, the team has been a bit like Jekyll and Hyde this season.  Which personality will prevail?

3)  Real MadridLos Merengues do nothing but win. With just 1 loss this season to a team not named Barcelona (high-flying Valencian side Levante beat Madrid 1-nil back in September), Madrid have built up a seemingly insurmountable 10 point lead at the top of the La Liga table. In Europe, Madrid's form has been equally impressive.  A 4-1 drubbing of CSKA Moscow ensured their progression in the Champions League, and the draw fell in their favor with APOEL as their quarterfinal opponents.  All signs point to a potential Clásico match against Barça in the Champions League final.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Three Up, Three Down: First Take

Welcome to the first post in what will be a weekly series highlighting those teams/players/ideas whose fortunes are on the rise or fall based on events during the week.

Three Up

1) APOEL F.C. - Everyone loves a Cinderella story, and the 2011-2012 Champions League has one, APOEL F.C.  The first Cypriot side to make it to the group stage of the Champions League (their first visit was in 2009-10), APOEL continue to be trailblazers for the Cypriot First Division. Marching its way through qualifying, APOEL knocked out 3 league champions along the way (Skënderbeu Korçë from Albania, Slovak champ Slovan Bratislava, and Wisła Kraków out of Poland).  Once in the group stages, APOEL took care of three more league champions (FC Porto from Portugal, Russian side Zenit St. Petersburg, and Ukrainian club Shakhtar Donetsk). The plucky Cypriots haven't looked back, defeating Olympique Lyonnais 4-3 on penalties.  APOEL will likely face a much tougher draw in the quarterfinals, but don't count them out.

 2) Arsenal F.C. - This might look a bit like a homer call, as I make no attempt to hide my love of the north London side, but Arsenal have been trending upward for the last several weeks.  Following two embarrassing defeats (4-0 away to AC Milan and 2-0 against Sunderland at the Stadium of Light) in the span of a week, the Gunners seem to have found the form and luck they had been missing for much of the early part of the season.  A 5-2 drubbing of rivals Spurs was followed by a last gasp winner against Liverpool at Anfield and a comprehensive 3-nil victory over Milan in the return leg of their Champions League round of 16 match.  In the last two weeks, the Gunners have closed the gap on Spurs for 3rd in the Premier League table to 4 points from 10.  Beyond matches on the pitch, it was announced that Arsenal will sign German international forward, Lukas Podolski, in the offseason.  Not bad for a side that looked like it might miss out on Champions League football for the first time in 15 seasons.

3)  F.C. Barcelona/Lionel Messi - It might seem odd to put the defending European champions and three-time defending Ballon d'Ors winner on this list, but did you see the highlights of their 7-1 dismantling of Bayer Leverkusen?  Messi scored a Champions League record 5 goals in the match. While Barça sit 10 points adrift of Real Madrid in La Liga, they look every bit the favorites to repeat as winners of the Champions League.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Goal Line Technology Long Overdue

Exciting news out of England as the International Football Association Board (IFAB), the body responsible for the laws of the game of soccer, announced that two goal-line technology systems will move forward with testing.  The two systems, Hawkeye (already used in tennis and cricket) and GoalRef, will undergo further testing with the goal of introducing the technology no later than the 2014 World Cup.

The topic of goal-line technology has been a hot one in the soccer world in recent years, though the IFAB has seemed reluctant to move on the issue.  It wasn't until the 2010 World Cup that the need for goal-line technology jumped to the fore, with this missed call:

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Thoughts on the Champions League

The Champions League Round of 16 draw
NOTE: Due to a technical snafu, this post wasn't published yesterday morning (despite my scheduling it).  The post below was written on Sunday, prior to any of the Champions League games.  I must say, I hope I predict the outcomes of today's (Wednesday's) games as well as I did Tuesday's.

Embarrassing.  It has to be the first word that comes to the mind of any Arsenal fan or player after the Gunners' poor showing against Milan.

Impressive.  The only word that can describe Barcelona's run of dominance in Europe's most prestigious club competition.  Winning 3-1 on the road against an opponent (Bayer Leverkusen) from one of the top 5 leagues proves the Catalans' pedigree.

Hope. APOEL and Benfica have it despite narrow losses away from home.  The Cypriot side is down just 1-0 to perennial French powerhouse, Lyon, heading back to Nicosia. The Portuguese leaders may be in the driver's seat despite a narrow 3-2 loss to Zenit in St. Petersburg.  With two away goals in their pocket, much will be expected of the Eagles when the teams face off in Lisbon on March 6.

Looking ahead, there are 4 games on tap this week: CSKA Moscow hosting Real Madrid and Chelsea at Napoli on Tuesday; Basel at home against Bayern Munich and Inter travelling to Marseille on Wednesday.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The FA Cup Explained

The FA Cup trophy

A near constant in my conversations with casual soccer fans and non-fans alike is the confusion cup competitions cause when trying to understand international soccer.  To most American sports fans, a cup competition is an alien concept.  Most sports (baseball, football, basketball and ice hockey) in America compete against teams in their league for the league title and that's it.  Other than during the preseason, when was the last time the Red Sox played the Yankees with anything other than a trip to the World Series on the line?  Matches like the recent clash between Manchester United and Liverpool (check out the highlights here), or Arsenal'sstunning comeback against Aston Villa just wouldn't happen outside of the league in US sports.

In an effort to help the uninitiated begin to understand the craziness that is the soccer fixture list in other parts of the world (and America's domestic soccer scene for that matter), here's a brief history/explanation of the FA Cup:

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Kick Off

Hey everbody, welcome to my new blog, FC Blacklabel.  I'm rejoining forces with my buddy over at Blacklabel Tennis to create what I will modestly call a sports network.  He focuses on tennis, I focus on all things soccer (football, fútbol, calcio or whatever you call it in your part of the world).

For quick thoughts, follow me on Twitter at @fcblacklabel.  If you enjoy the writing, join our Facebook fan page.  Ideally, this blog will focus on informing fans and non-fans about the beautiful game.  There will opinions presented, history discussed, predictions made, information shared and hopefully some surprises along the way.

To lay the groundwork for the launch, I've imported my old soccer posts from my former blog, The Rally Cap.  Check them out; I'd like to think I wrote some interesting pieces.  If you have any thoughts or comments feel free to post them here or send an email to

Get read for kick off.