February 2011

Liverpool’s Resurgence, Moyes’ Future at Everton, Dempsey’s Heroics and Other Musings

Dalglish has the Fighting Spirit and the Flexibility to Turn Things around at the Kop.

By Neil W. Blackmon

Monday was a travel day for your Editor-In-Chief and he ran into a computer crisis this weekend (story too long and absolutely irrelevant to your life to tell), so I thought I’d link a few pieces and provide some commentary on the weekend that was and the “what’s to come” during a week of internationals. Let’s just dive right in:

First, a resurgent Liverpool begs the question: When’s the last time Fernando Torres Won At Stamford Bridge?

I jest, I jest. But the Kenny Dalglish led Reds looked a great deal like the defensive fortresses that challenged deep in European championships in the earlier part of this century on Sunday at Stamford Bridge, and if you felt it was boring—well—you were right, and no one on the Red Side of Merseyside cares. Before the match was even played, I was struck by this quote from Dalglish’s midweek press conference: “The most important people are the people at this football club. We’ll just play against any player they put on the pitch. We’re more important than any player they’ve got.” It told me he felt confident in the spirit of a club that for so long was mired in one of the bleakest campaigns at the Kop in memory. That spirit was in full color Sunday, as the Reds put to rest doubts about the initial team sheet (again five in the midfield and three in the back) from the start, playing suffocating defensive (yet attack-minded football given how quick the eye to counter was) that frustrated Chelsea and at least in the view of this writer produced the opening half’s best goal-scoring opportunity—the open net post Maxi hit mind-bogglingly just after the 32nd minute. How Maxi missed is not really what was impressive, it was as these things tend to be a question of build-up—here Liverpool undressed Chelsea’s defense with a Glen Johnson ball to the Gerrard who then hit a patented slicing cross over the defense that fell to the Argentine who had timed his run perfectly. With Lucas marking Anelka hawkishly for the first half and the Frenchmen looking the part of the only comfortable Chelsea forward in the opening half—this was as close as either side was to come to scoring.

As well as the fighting spirit of Dalglish’s men served Liverpool in the opening half—I was more impressed with the manner in which they weathered the Chelsea onslaught that opened the second half. This was easily the most entertaining segment of the match as a viewer and for twenty minutes play seemed to never leave Liverpool’s final third. The Reds’ defenses never broke, however, and the winner, a lunging left-footed piece of brilliance by Raul Meireles, was as “we want it more” a goal as you’ll ever see and richly deserved. Meireles continues to shine in his advanced role and full credit must go to Dalglish for putting him there—which leads me to my final thought…

How close is Dalglish to keeping the gig permanently. Jen Chang thinks it’s almost becoming a silly question—Dalglish has reinvigorated Liverpool with fighting spirit, tactical flexibility, and according to Chang, a new training regime thanks to former West Ham Academy guru Steve Clarke that has the Reds not only avoiding the early season late-game flameouts but actually winning games. Coupled with John Henry’s baseball money-ball background and something positive may finally be brewing again on Merseyside after a couple of disappointing seasons. Stay tuned but things are certainly looking up…

Evertonians Can Calm Down for a moment-- Win over Blackpool should ease Jeff Fisher fears about Moyes.

Meanwhile, on the other side of Merseyside—Everton avoids life support, what Jeff Fisher and David Moyes may have in common…

I had suggested on Twitter a week or so ago that the Blackpool match this past weekend was a make-or-break match for Everton and perhaps for David Moyes in more ways than most Evertonians wanted to admit. It has been a mystifying, miserable season at Finch Farm and three points from the drop zone headed into the weekend, Everton could hardly afford to concede points to a deeply struggling Blackpool side. In this writer’s view, full points was more essential than one match, as I mentioned.

The recent resignation of the Tennessee Titans Jeff Fisher in the NFL after sixteen sometimes wonderful, sometimes boring, but always tremendously consistent and mostly winning seasons in Nashville hit home, especially with an American sportswriter. As in the EPL, the NFL certainly has more notorious, famous and yes even successful head coaches (Bill Belichick, Mike Tomlin come to mind), but Fisher and Moyes are standard-bearers for the value of consistency in the pursuit of competitive excellence. Fisher’s departure made any Evertonian fan with a rudimentary knowledge of American professional football nervous—because one could easily see this season’s frustrations producing (as it likely did with Fisher, even if he’s not admitting it out loud) in Moyes a feeling that “he’d come as far as he could” with the Toffees and was ready for either rest or a new challenge. Moyes is no quitter, but Bill Kenwright hasn’t made it easy at Finch Farm. Selling Steven Pienaar was understandable, but as per usual the Toffees were mostly motionless in the transfer window and this year there was no Landon Donovan to firestart a late European charge.

As such, this writer at least felt the Blackpool match was a turning point. Most the match, Everton were failing the test but the current insane run of form Louis Saha has found was not to be denied. Saha’s four goals (could have been five save a questionable official’s ruling) lifted Everton from 3-2 down and produced five goals (about as common at Goodison as seeing snow in Florida in August) that delivered three points. An FA Cup replay with Chelsea is around the corner and Tim Cahill is back from (a mostly miserable and underachieving, personally) the Asian Cup—so it is possible Everton could make a late European surge. More likely is a comfortable finish around 10th or 11th, but one that if Everton can keep budding star Marouane Fellaini around in the summer could create an atmosphere for a much-improved side in 2011-12, particularly if Landon Donovan returns to Goodison Park. Fellaini is by no means perfect—he is a card-heavy player for a mid and his combinational play with Mikel Arteta has been troubling at times (a reason to suggest Arteta may be in decline, at least in this writer’s view), but he is essential to Everton’s future. Moyes himself has expressed concern over losing the prospering Belgian—Chelsea are hovering–another reason to think the Blackpool match could have been a tipping point.

Another week, another Dempsey to the Rescue Moment for Fulham.

Third, Clint Dempsey on the Street of London….

Okay, relatively poor Smiths reference, sure—but Avi Creditor’s piece questioning…wrong word…emphasizing…Deuce’s worth to Fulham is spot on. The man likes scoring crucial goals. The man did it again at Villa Park this weekend, firing home a 78th minute equalizer against the Villains in match where the Cottagers truly found themselves out-classed and undeserving of the point they left Birmingham with. Mark Hughes can praise the collective’s “resiliency” all he wants—he’s the manager after all and he should—but without Dempsey Fulham would most certainly be sunk instead of comfortably mid-table. As Creditor points out—the Texan’s goals have resulted in thirteen points for Fulham, without which they would find themselves hopelessly behind even hapless West Ham—and as such, it is time to stop talking about Dempsey as simply a very good American player and instead lavish on him the praise he truly merits—that of outstanding player among the most elite in the world. Tapping the brakes just slightly—let’s emphasize 2010 and the early months of 2011 have been the finest run by Dempsey as a professional—so the question will be whether he can sustain the success—but it is at least time to begin those discussions. And maybe you don’t want to begin those discussions, because you aren’t ready to admit Duece is the best American field player in the world—well—fine—go check out this “getting to know you” piece about Dempsey from the good folks at Five Four.

Finally, the USMNT isn’t playing Egypt in a 2009 Confederations Cup rematch tomorrow—that was THE RIGHT CALL WITHOUT QUESTION but BEGS OTHER QUESTIONS:

To be clear, it was right when the US Soccer Federation decided not to send the boys to Egypt this past week to play tomorrow and it is still right today and any thought otherwise is foolish. That said, it does create two interesting questions. First, how important are the March friendlies now? In a word: essential. The Americans won’t get another opportunity, in all likelihood, to play a side whose style resembles Mexico again before the Gold Cup and who have better or comparable talents. In Paraguay and Argentina, the Yanks get a bit of both and likely get it with “A-TEAM” regulars. The Egypt cancellation means Bob Bradley must watch with vigor to see which combinations he thinks can weather the grueling and short Gold Cup tournament schedule, especially because he has less matches to figure that out. Experimentation takes a backseat to efficiency—and the short-training camp before the fixtures make that an unenviable task for the manager.

Second, what is the new starting 11? The Egypt match would have given us a chance to see what Bradley thought the new “A Team” starting 11 should be post the World Cup for the first time. Will Bradley go with a 4-2-3-1 or stick with the World Cup 4-4-2? Will he bump Dempsey forward and pair him with Altidore? Is Altidore even a starter at this point? I think it will be a 4-2-3-1, and my best guess on the STARTING 11, not the BEST 11, is below, but I’m open to suggestion and healthy debate.

G: Howard (no contest)

D: Cherundolo, Ream, Goodson, Bocanegra (C) – obviously area up for most debate and Boca BARELY for Bornstein at this point. No really.

CDM: Jones, MB 90 (no contest)

M: Donovan, Holden, Dempsey (pretty predictable)

F: Altidore (Agudelo, Bunbury just need more time, plus no one has any idea how they’d function with the regulars and/or by themselves, which Jozy is sadly used to doing).

Thanks for reading.

Neil W. Blackmon is Editor-In-Chief and Co-Founder of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at nwblackmon@gmail.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.

Neil W. Blackmon