The Dossier: Where Liverpool – Manchester City was won and lost

The Reds’ widemen were given freedom to roam the City half at Anfield on Sunday, and their incisive runs and clever link-up play inhibited the visitors and proved to be decisive

By Tom Maston

If Liverpool’s previous nine Premier League victories had allowed them to dream of glory, then their 10th on the bounce, against arguably their biggest title rivals, may well have their supporters expecting a first league title for 24 years.

Full of the pacey counterattacks that have become a signature of Brendan Rodgers’ side this season, they tore Manchester City apart for long stages, and if not for a David Silva-inspired comeback from the Citizens they could have secured a fairly routine victory.

As it was, Philippe Coutinho’s fine finish after Vincent Kompany’s error proved enough to secure the points for the Reds, but despite a typically breathtaking start they did not have it all their own way.

Goals, and lots of them, have been a feature of Liverpool’s play this season, with the three on Sunday taking them to 93 for the campaign. They have regularly struck early on in games, finding the net 56 times in the opening 45 minutes of league games so far this term. That stat is made even more impressive by the fact that no other team has scored more than 37 in the opening period of matches.

Against Manchester City, they were set to come up against one of the league’s meanest defences, and one which were yet to concede a goal inside the opening 15 minutes this season.

So for Raheem Sterling to open the scoring in front of the Kop after just six minutes will have sent shockwaves running through the City defence. With Kompany not fully fit and a backline that looked susceptible to any kind of pace, they never recovered.

Though as a team they made 23 interceptions –  with Pablo Zabaleta making 10 on his own at right-back – they were only able to make 65 per cent of their tackles successfully.

The fact that they were unable to keep the ball in their own half also inhibited them; they surrendered possession 20 times in that area, inviting more pressure. Only once this season has their passing accuracy in their own half been lower than the 86% they mustered on Sunday.

The confidence of the away side was largely hit by their inability to pick up the runs of Sterling and Coutinho as the wide men ran riot.

To call the Liverpool pair wingers would be to do them a disservice. Rodgers sets them up to start out wide but in truth they are given the freedom to pop up wherever they best see fit.

Coutinho’s touch map clearly shows his starting position on the right-hand side, but the sheer number of times he picked up the ball in a central role shows just how difficult a task Pellegrini’s defenders had in keeping tabs on him. Even when he was moved to the left he continued to probe centrally.

It is impossible to tell from Sterling’s map where exactly the youngster was supposed to be playing, but far from the anarchy it suggests in isolation, as part of this Liverpool system it just seems to work. Like Coutinho, he swapped wings in the second half but continued to drive through the middle in tandem with Suarez.

When you compare those two with those of City’s widemen, Jesus Navas and Samir Nasri, it is clear to see why they failed to have the same impact. Both were glued to their respective touchlines and were largely anonymous because of it.

Rodgers’ tactics of allowing his creative players freedom to express themselves has paid dividends in recent weeks and especially here. It helped swamp City, restricting everybody in their defensive roles and blunted the wingers’ impact.

But the players are not just handed free roles, attacking at will; Coutinho made a season-high total of five successful tackles – more than anyone else in red on the day.

Fortunately for the visitors, they did have one man who was allowed to roam in the guise of the mercurial Silva. A goal and an assist from the Spaniard almost stole the City a point, and though he missed a gilt-edged chance to complete a remarkable comeback and possibly seal the title, his performance cannot be overlooked.

No player attempted more passes than his 65 during the crucial encounter, with his accuracy an impressive 85% in such a high-pressure (and high-pressing) setting. Though he wasn’t able to make as many successful dribbles as he would have liked, with just one run leading to anything of note, he was certainly the pick of the City side as they stretched their number of second-half goals this season to a Premier League high of 49.

He truly thrived following the appearance of James Milner from the bench. The game turned in City’s favour almost as soon as the England man replaced Navas, as he created Silva’s goal and contributed to a number of attacks as well as providing a more workmanlike presence in the middle. Milner is regularly overlooked by club and country in terms of starting on a consistent basis, but his showing at Anfield gave another example of his importance to England with the World Cup on the horizon.

Navas could barely take his eyes off the Kop during the pre-match Hillsborough tributes, and whether he was caught up in the emotion of the day is unclear, but Milner certainly improved his team after his introduction. As an example, he was successful with 79% of his passes in the Liverpool half, a clear improvement on the 64% that Navas managed.

As it was, the showings of both Silva and Milner were not enough to salvage anything from the game for City. The two proved to be the exception rather than the norm. Liverpool were able to call upon a number of individuals at the top of their game as they grabbed a 10th consecutive league victory.

Of all Coutinho’s touches on the day, his sweet strike following Kompany’s hashed clearance proved decisive. The Brazilian was pushed further forward – and over to the left – following Daniel Sturridge’s withdrawal, but he popped up in the middle once again to keep up Liverpool’s fine record against the top teams.

In their five home meetings with top seven sides they have scored 17 goals and conceded just three. If they can maintain that record against Chelsea in their next home match then the title will be almost within their grasp.

If they are to secure that first league trophy since 1990, Liverpool’s performances will have to match the irresistibly high level that they have set since the turn of the year, but if we have learnt anything from Rodgers’ firebrands this season it is that can turn their hand to practically anything.

Stats and graphics provided by Opta

Coutinho: More pressure on Manchester City than Liverpool

The Reds midfielder is keen to take things “one game at a time” but acknowledges that Sunday’s encounter will be a crucial one in determining who wins the championship

Liverpool midfielder Philippe Coutinho says that his side will face Manchester City without pressure as they chase a crucial victory in their Premier League title challenge.

First and third go head-to-head at Anfield with four points separating the two teams, though Manuel Pellegrini’s men have played two fewer games.

Many believe that Sunday’s clash will decide the title with five matches remaining and the Brazilian understands what is at stake.

“There might be more pressure on City but the Liverpool players are not thinking about pressure or external factors in these last five matches,” Coutinho remarked to the media.

“We know that City were considered one of the favourites from the start and that they have a couple of games in hand but we are just trying to focus on one game at a time.

“The players know that these final five matches are very important and will be decisive matches for us. We will fight and do our best on the pitch to achieve the objective of winning the league. Sunday is a very important game.”

Liverpool are within touching distance of their first league title in 24 years but City are still the bookmakers’ favourites to win the title with two games remaining. Nevertheless, Coutinho is counting on the likes of Steven Gerrard, Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge to lead the team to glory.

The 21-year-old continued: “I know that City are a very nice side and they have really good players, especially from the middle going forward, but we have very good players as well.

“It will be very equal match between us and we will be pushing all the time with our fans right behind us.

“Everyone is happy at the club. We are all looking forward to these matches, we are all proud of what we are doing at the moment.”

Sturridge among five Liverpool stars to be offered new deals

Philippe Coutinho, Jordan Henderson, Glen Johnson and Jon Flanagan will also be invited by the Merseyside club to hold talks on improved contracts

By Wayne Veysey

Liverpool are set to reward five star players with new contract offers this summer.

Daniel Sturridge is among the first-team quintet who will be invited to hold talks on improved deals at the end of the season.

Philippe Coutinho, Jordan Henderson, Glen Johnson and Jon Flanagan will also sit down with club chiefs to discuss fresh agreements.

As a general rule, Fenway Sports Group, Liverpool’s America-based owners, do not hold contract talks mid-season although they made an exception in the case of Luis Suarez before Christmas, when the club’s prize asset swiftly committed to a new four-and-a-half-year contract amid concern he would be targeted in the January window.

Brendan Rodgers, whose own contract expires in 2015, has said he will discuss fresh terms with the club at the end of the season and the Anfield manager is keen for his key young players to also be tied down to lengthy agreements.

Sturridge only joined in January 2013 but the February Premier League Player of the Month has been a resounding success on Merseyside, scoring 23 goals in 27 matches this season and an incredible 34 times in 43 games since his €14 million switch from Chelsea.

Liverpool fear the 24-year-old will be targeted by Europe’s elite clubs, particularly if he shines at the World Cup, and are expected to offer him a substantial rise on his current €70,000-a-week deal and extend it beyond 2018.

Like Sturridge, Coutinho, 21, joined on a five-and-a-half-year deal 13 months ago but the Brazilian’s wage is believed to be €47,000-a-week and he is also in line for an improved salary.

Henderson has started all 31 of Liverpool’s league matches this season and his improvement will be reflected in an offer to keep him at Anfield beyond his current agreement, which expires in 2016.

Johnson, 29, will have only a year remaining on his deal by the summer and Rodgers has spoken of his desire to keep the England right-back.

Flanagan, 21, a revelation at left-back in recent months, will also be offered a deal to keep him at Anfield beyond 2015, when his current agreement expires.

“Jon will be given a new contract. Come the summer he’s got another year so he will definitely be given a new deal, no question,” said Rodgers in the wake of Liverpool’s recent 3-0 win at Manchester United.

“He has been outstanding. He reminded me of Steve Nicol against Manchester United – a right-footed player on the left side, steady, aggressive, no fear; he’s been a revelation, and particularly in the big games. It’s great when you see a young player develop like that. You can see the confidence he has now. He has made himself an important member of the squad.”

Liverpool 2-2 Aston Villa

Andreas Weimann and Christian Benteke gave the visitors a shock lead but the England striker’s cool finish and the captain’s spot kick rescued a point for Brendan Rodgers’ men. Steven Gerrard and Daniel Sturridge rescued a point for Liverpool as they came from two goals behind to earn a 2-2 draw with Aston Villa.

Paul Lambert’s side had taken the lead at Anfield as Andreas Weimann netted his third goal of the season after excellent work from Gabriel Agbonlahor.

Agbonlahor was on hand again in the 36th minute to create Villa’s second, his cross evading Simon Mignolet to allow Christian Benteke to head into an open net from six yards out.

However, Sturridge latched onto a Jordan Henderson flick to half the deficit with his 11th league goal of the season and Gerrard levelled the scores from the penalty spot seven minutes after the interval.

Despite failing to win, a point for Villa moves them into 10th place in the Premier League while Liverpool remain fourth.

Sturridge was fit to start his first game since November after recovering from an ankle injury, while the visitors gave a debut to loan signing Ryan Bertrand and recalled Weimann to the starting line-up.

Villa started brightly and wasted chances from Agbonlahor, Ashley Westwood and Ciaran Clark to break the deadlock, but when Weimann was presented his opportunity he made no mistake.

Agbonlahor was released behind the Liverpool defence on the left and delivered a low cross into the six-yard box where Weimann, who nipped in front of Gerrard, was placed to turn the ball home from close range.

Villa doubled their lead nine minutes later as Benteke made it two goals in as many games, the striker having the simple task of heading into an empty goal after Mignolet misjudged an Agbonlahor cross from the right.

Sturridge halved the deficit in the closing seconds of the half as he latched on to a neat flick from Jordan Henderson before firing beyond Brad Guzan to give the hosts hope.

With the extra momentum Liverpool levelled soon after the half-time break as Luis Suarez was brought down by Guzan inside the penalty area, referee Jon Moss pointing to the spot.

Gerrard assumed the responsibility and made no mistake for his fifth league goal of the season, and his 12th against Villa – more than he has put past any other side.

Fabian Delph went close to putting Villa back ahead on the hour with a curling effort from 20 yards, while Henderson brought out a fantastic save from Guzan five minutes later from the edge of the penalty area.

Suarez went agonisingly close to sealing all three points for Liverpool in the 77th minute, but his free kick was inches wide of Guzan’s right-hand post.

The Uruguay international was central to Liverpool’s late efforts to snatch a win but they ultimately had to settle for a draw, which leaves them trailing league leaders Arsenal by nine points.

VIEW FROM ANFIELD (By Tom Maston): “If Brendan Rodgers does harbour title aspirations this season, then he needs to learn not to underestimate teams like Aston Villa. The Liverpool manager selected an overly attacking line-up, only to see his side get blown away by the pace and power of Villa’s attacks.”

“A dubious Steven Gerrard penalty may have rescued a point for the hosts, but the first-half showing from the Reds will have left many of their supporters very concerned with just over a week left of the transfer window.”

“For Paul Lambert, he must now concentrate on making performances like this the norm, especially at Villa Park.”

Coutinho keen to improve Liverpool goal return

The Brazilian is celebrating a year at Anfield in January having left Inter during the 2013 winter transfer window, but has netted just twice so far this season

Liverpool midfielder Philippe Coutinho has targeted an improvement to his goal return to help the club clinch a place in the Champions League.

The Brazil international is approaching his one-year anniversary at the club, having made the switch from Inter for a reported €10.25 million in the previous January transfer window.

Coutinho has become a firm favourite among the Anfield faithful for his direct attacking style of play, but the 21-year-old has only scored two league goals this season and is keen to add to his tally in the second half of the campaign.

When asked by the club’s official website where he can improve, he said: “My goalscoring, for sure. Sometimes my positioning is not the best and I need to improve that to score more goals.

“I want to continue improving and look forward to working harder and harder on what I need to do to be considered a great player.

“We are quite confident. Our thought is to win every match and start every match doing our best in this battle, and we have to carry on this way.

“Our aim is to be within the first four places at the end of the season and we will try our best to keep ourselves up there.”

Coutinho also praised his team-mates for making his transition to the Premier League easy.

He added: “It’s a year that went very quickly, and I am living in a very happy moment.

“What surprised me most was the way the players are made to feel at home, and I am grateful to the city, my team-mates and the club for the way I was received.”

Coutinho: It is an honour to play with Suarez

The Brazilian believes his in-form team-mate is capable of firing Liverpool to their first league title of the Premier League era and still hopes to go to the World Cup

Liverpool star Coutinho admits it is an “honour” to be in the same team as Luis Suarez.

Suarez has lit up the Premier League since his return from a 10-game suspension for biting Branislav Ivanovic, topping the Premier League scoring charts with 15 goals in just 10 appearances.

And Coutinho believes the brilliant Uruguayan is capable of firing the Merseysiders to their first league title of the Premier League era.

“Playing alongside Luis is an honour because he is such a fantastic player,” he told the Guardian. “He makes life for someone in my position easier because of how good he is.

“He is always trying to nutmeg you in training. He hasn’t succeeded on me yet. I try my best not to let it happen because he talks about it a lot afterwards!”

“It is our dream to win the title. That is what we are working towards but the competition is still at an early stage. There are a few more games to play before we can make such a statement.”

The Brazilian also spoke of his hope of impressing national team boss Luiz Felipe Scolari before next summer’s World Cup in his homeland, despite not currently being in favour.

“I see football as a bit like a stairway and you have to climb it bit by bit,” he added.

“First you have to play good football so that you get to play for a good team. Then hopefully you achieve such a level that you are invited to play for your national side, in time for a World Cup, if possible.

“Then, obviously, play a good World Cup. That’s my dream.”

The Dossier: How Liverpool can adapt without Sturridge

The England international’s partnership with Luis Suarez has brought the vast majority of the Reds’ goals this season but Brendan Rodgers has few options while he is injured

By George Ankers

Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers is right to see the absence of Daniel Sturridge until at least mid-January as “a big blow”. Sunday’s shock defeat at Hull City served as an uncomfortable reminder of how influential the England forward has been this season.

As has been discussed at length before, his partnership with Luis Suarez has been the most devastating combination in the Premier League thus far this season and Rodgers’ switch to deploying the pair through the middle in 2013-14 has liberated the Uruguayan as well as Sturridge.

Since Suarez’s return to action from suspension, Liverpool have scored 20 goals. Their partnership accounted for 14 of those, with the other six all coming from set-pieces; meaning the pressure on the Uruguayan will now be intense.

Options are needed, both to keep Suarez firing as he has done and to open up new avenues of attack in Sturridge’s absence.

Against Hull, Rodgers reverted to a formation similar to that which he employed up to 12 months ago, before he signed his new talisman from Chelsea. Raheem Sterling and Victor Moses took up wide positions either side of Suarez, with Jordan Henderson the furthest forward of three central midfielders.

It did not work. For one thing, Hull – as they often have this season – fielded a back five, which meant three centre-backs all fully focused on shutting down Suarez, while still having cover on the flanks to keep Liverpool’s wingers quiet.

This will not be the case against every team – the Reds themselves are one of few other clubs who dally in odd-numbered back lines – but, as long as the Uruguayan is on his own in the centre, he will have to work harder to find space.

The fact that both Sterling and Moses have been struggling for form also played its part. The trip to the KC Stadium was a chance for both to take their seasons by the lapels and stake a claim but both were low on momentum and, as a result, penetration.

Liverpool’s problem is that they do not have a great many other options. Their biggest plus is that Philippe Coutinho added a dash of quality when he came off the bench and his return from injury is a vital fillip to counter Sturridge’s absence.

The Brazilian, pushed into a more advanced central position than Henderson, was understandably a little rusty but has the movement and drive to either draw defenders out or take them on. He could be employed in the middle of a 4-2-3-1 or even as the nominal second striker in the formation that has suited Sturridge and Suarez so well.

The latter might represent a move too far from his position of greatest effect, however. In an ideal world, to most closely replicate his best team until Sturridge returns, Rodgers would prefer to have Coutinho in the hole behind Suarez and another out-and-out centre forward.

This was surely the role for which Fabio Borini would have been best suited – but, loaned out to Sunderland, he will not be able to seize the chance. Instead, it must be seen as the golden opportunity for Iago Aspas to finally make his mark on English football.

Since Liverpool spent over €8 million on his signature from Celta Vigo, the 26-year-old has rarely been seen, thanks in part to a thigh injury picked up in October. He was on the bench at Hull, though was not brought on, not trusted enough to make a difference for a risky run-out to be worth it after an inauspicious first six outings.

Aspas is not a ready-made substitute for Sturridge – quick but not electrically so, with more of a propensity to pass rather than a poacher’s selfish streak – but if his signing is to mean something, then this is the situation in which to use him.

Another summer signing, Luis Alberto, may be worth a try, especially given the travails of Sterling and Moses. The wide forward is far from the finished article but could have featured at least sparingly in Barcelona’s first team this season before his move to Anfield and could do with the minutes.

The only definite is that Coutinho will play if fit. That will most likely be in the No.10 position but, given the paucity of in-form forward options, Rodgers could yet decide to shunt him a little wider and continue to play three in midfield. The Reds would be a little more stifled as a result but, with fewer risks taken up front, might simply target solidity over the busy festive period.

That, though, is the extent of the choices available to Rodgers. Short of trying out even younger players such as Samed Yesil or repositioning those already out of form – the possibility of Moses being moved more centrally to deputise, for example – he can only tweak with what he has.

It should say a lot about his summer transfer business, either way. The activity of Aspas and Alberto, particularly compared to Borini, will be closely watched. If Rodgers cannot trust them now, then when?

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Coutinho fit for Liverpool to face Norwich

Reds manager Brendan Rodgers expects the playmaker to be available after playing part of Sunday’s defeat to Hull City and is also hopeful of a swift recovery by Kolo Toure

Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers expects Philippe Coutinho to be fit to face Norwich City on Wednesday.

The Brazilian suffered a high ankle strain in the Merseyside derby on November 23 and was unable to train before Sunday’s 3-1 defeat at Hull City.

Coutinho came on as a 66th-minute replacement for Raheem Sterling at the KC Stadium and Rodgers said on Monday that the 21-year-old came through the game unscathed.

“Philippe will be fine,” the Liverpool boss told reporters. “He has had no further reaction from the game yesterday. He’s trained this morning so, all being well, he’ll be fit.

“We’ll assess [Kolo Toure] in the next 24 hours,” he added after the Ivorian picked up a hip injury at Hull, “but hopefully he should be available.”

With his side set to go without striker Daniel Sturridge until the end of January, the Northern Irishman is confident that he will be backed to sign players in the winter transfer window, providing that they are of a sufficient calibre to improve the side.

“I always look at the bigger picture and the bigger picture is pretty bright. I’m really only focused on where we are at this moment,” he added.

“Every window will be exactly the same. If there’s a player we think we can improve our squad and, in particular, our team, we will be in a position to go out and try to get that player.”

No regrets for Coutinho over swapping Inter for Liverpool

The attacking midfielder was forced to play a bit-part role at San Siro and says that he “didn’t think twice” about the chance to move to Anfield in January

Liverpool midfielder Philippe Coutinho says that he does not regret his move to the Premier League after a troubled stint at Inter.

The 21-year-old spent three seasons at San Siro, with his arrival in Milan coinciding with the club’s fall from grace after five consecutive Serie A titles and a Champions League crown.

Coutinho concedes that it did not work out for him at Inter but argues that the depth of the Nerazzurri’s strength in depth made it tough for him to get regular game time.

“Jose Mourinho was the coach when I was preparing to join them but he left before I moved to Italy,” the Brazilian told The Daily Telegraph.

“It was a difficult period, strangely, because they had won the national championship five times and just won the Champions League, but the club was preparing for change.

“Benitez had just become the coach and he was prepared to give me opportunities straight away as a younger player but there were good players there who won a lot at the club – really good players – and things were not settled and it turned out not so good.

“I had a good relationship with Rafa; he was always very considerate towards me and gave me a lot of confidence. He cared a lot about all the younger players at Inter.”

Coutinho “didn’t think twice” about a switch to Anfield when the opportunity presented itself in January and he has since flourished with the Reds.

“Sometimes you can be a good player at a good club and for some reason it just does not work out,” he remarked.

“There is no explanation for it. Then you move to another club and it fits perfectly straight away and you feel comfortable.

“I had some chances at Inter but, after a few years – certainly by the time Liverpool were interested – I was not getting many chances.

“As a footballer, all you ever want is the chance to play and show people how well you can play. I knew at Liverpool I would get that opportunity so I didn’t think twice.

“You look at a club and you see a top European team, with top players and top ambitions to win every major trophy, even if it will take time. I didn’t even have to think about the decision.”

Suarez happy as ever at Liverpool, insists Rodgers

The Reds boss indicated the forward is once again settled at Anfield after a “difficult summer”, suggesting the “genuine” prospect of Champions League football has helped

Liverpool star Luis Suarez is happier than he has ever been at the club, according to manager Brendan Rodgers.

The Uruguayan was at the centre of constant transfer speculation during the off-season, with Arsenal and Real Madrid among those reportedly interested, but the Premier League club refused to sell.
Club captain Steven Gerrard had voiced concerns that the 26-year-old forward may leave the club if they failed to qualify for the UEFA Champions League.

But after keeping hold of the forward this summer Rodgers insists he has never seen Suarez, who has scored six league goals this season, look happier.

“Luis, looking and speaking to him over the last couple of days, he’s happy as he’s ever been,” Rodgers said on Thursday.

“He recognises that we have a real genuine chance this year of breaking in there (the top four). Last year was about transition and the second part of the season was about improvement, he’s seen that.

“Obviously we had a difficult summer but he’s come back and is more mature and his performance level’s been really high and he sees a genuine chance for us to make that so he’s very happy here.”

Despite losing to league leaders Arsenal last time out, Liverpool sit third in the Premier League after a solid start to the campaign.

Their form has Rodgers confident they can qualify for Europe’s top club competition, which could be enough to keep Suarez at Anfield.

“If you look at where we’re at, if you’re averaging two points in your games then you would like to think that you’re getting into the Champions League,” Rodgers said.

“Certainly that’s something come Saturday (against Fulham) if we can do that, get another three points, which we’ll be fighting hard for, then that would take us above that.

“We’re just treating every game as a really important game for us in our quest this year, as I said we need to just keep focusing and keep our concentration.”

Rodgers is likely to welcome back defender Glen Johnson and attacker Philippe Coutinho to the starting line-up for the visit of Fulham.