How Liverpool will replace Luis Suarez
Nothing like a laboured opening-day win to prompt some soul-searching and self-criticism. And perhaps a spot of overreaction, too.
The stock script ahead of Liverpool vs. Southampton was that the home side would stomp all over the opposition because the Saints had lost Luke Shaw, Dejan Lovren, Rickie Lambert and Adam Lallana (and Morgan Schneiderlin is reportedly pulling faces at not being allowed to leave, too) and replaced them with a bunch of guys who were hardly household names -- no disrespect, Dusan Tadic and Graziano Pelle.
So when that didn't happen and Liverpool huffed and puffed their way to a 2-1 win, the knee-jerk reaction was that they miss Luis Suarez and they need to sign another centre-forward to go with Daniel Sturridge and Lambert.
"If you want to play in the Champions League, you need at least three or four quality centre-forwards," said Phil Neville, now a pundit for the BBC.
Leaving aside the fact that the likes of Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund and Atletico Madrid (and arguably Chelsea) all reached the quarterfinals of the Champions League without "at least three or four quality centre-forwards" last season, the statement speaks to a common pitfall in football thinking: When you lose a star, you need to get a like-for-like replacement and keep playing the same way.
True, Liverpool finished second in the Premier League last season playing with two strikers: Sturridge and Suarez. Throw in Iago Aspas and they had three in their squad, which is the bare minimum for a team with two up top. They got away with it because there was no European football at Anfield and they played only 43 games, but does it follow that now that they're in the Champions League they automatically need more?
The answer is no. Or, rather, it depends on what formation manager Brendan Rodgers wants to play. If it's a two-striker system, then yes, but is that what he wants to do?
Prior to landing Sturridge 18 months ago -- and having him go on a scoring binge -- he had almost exclusively played 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, with a lone front man. Sturridge's goals forced Rodgers to accommodate him alongside Suarez, and it worked out brilliantly. But that doesn't mean the Liverpool boss is wedded to a two-striker formation.
Besides, it's one thing to play with Sturridge and Suarez, quite another to play with Sturridge and simply any old generic striker. Suarez had a certain skill set and it complemented Sturridge well. You're not going to find another Suarez in the last two weeks of the transfer window.
Even if you break the bank and buy someone who might be in the same ballpark as Suarez in terms of quality -- Liverpool have been linked to Radamel Falcao, Edinson Cavani and Son Heung-Min -- they won't be Suarez clones. You will probably end up with a better side, but you'll have to rejigger and tweak everything to find the right balance.
Rodgers knew in early June that Suarez was leaving. If his plan was to find a replacement with a comparable skill set, he had some nine weeks to do it. Instead, he went out and bought more attacking midfielders: Lallana and Lazar Markovic, for a combined fee of 45 million pounds. You don't make that kind of investment for benchwarmers and remember, Liverpool already have Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling on the books.
What this suggests is that, unless he's had a change of heart in the past week, Rodgers' vision for Liverpool involves a lone striker (Sturridge), with creative wingers and attacking midfielders in support.
Bottom line? Maybe Liverpool will sign another centre-forward, particularly if they shift Fabio Borini back to Sunderland, freeing up a salary slot.
But it's unlikely to be the kind of pricey, big-name striker being bandied about in the media. If you believe in what Rodgers is doing, it would simply be a waste of money, compared to a more humble (and cheaper) front man who accepts his role as a squad player.
It's always tricky to play pop psychologist with professional athletes. Tricky and thankless, because some of these guys are just so tough to figure out.
Take Bastia striker Brandao. He has had a long-running feud with Paris Saint-Germain's Thiago Motta and sparks flew on the pitch during PSG's 2-0 win over Bastia Saturday. And after the game, he did this:
Now, you can imagine an angry player choosing to wait for his opponent in the tunnel. Maybe he wants to talk things out, maybe he wants to direct some choice words his way, maybe he wants to intimidate him and, if necessary, slug it out.
But you'll note Brandao just stands there waiting for Motta, and when he walks by, Brandao simply head-butts him in classic sucker-punch fashion.
This wasn't a heat-of-the-moment thing. This was an ambush. Brandao had all of the time in the world to prepare for this. He also is a fool for not realising there are cameras in the tunnel of every Ligue 1 game. (Maybe he doesn't own a TV. Or maybe he didn't know what that large, black camera-shaped object was.)
Having head-butted Motta, Brandao runs away to the safety of the dressing room. It's easy to giggle when looking at it. It becomes less funny when you realise he broke Motta's nose and could have done far more damage.
PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi has called for Brandao to receive a lifetime ban. That probably won't happen. But given that he's 34, even a year out -- which seems reasonable -- likely would end his career.
So, by all means, have a giggle at the way he runs off like a coward. But remember, too, there's a guy who suffered serious facial injuries as a result. And all that matters here is the head-butt, not Brandao's gutless scaredy-cat reaction.
Van Gaal's three-man defence
Manchester United's back three may have looked reasonable in preseason friendlies -- the operative words there being "preseason" and "friendlies" -- but it flopped badly in the first half against Swansea, so much so that Louis van Gaal switched to a back four at halftime in Manchester United's 2-1 defeat.
It's tough to understand why Van Gaal persists with three at the back, given that:
A. He built most of his reputation with some variant of 4-3-3 and has played three central defenders only out of necessity (like at the World Cup with the Netherlands).
B. Very few English players (and none of his United defenders) are schooled in playing in a back three, which means they need to learn the scheme from scratch.
C. He's already short-handed, given that only three of the central defenders (Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Jonny Evans) in his squad had played even a single minute of top-flight football before Saturday. Beyond that, he's in the realm of Tyler Blackett and Michael Keane -- promising footballers, but a gamble you don't want to be forced to take.
Still, he's the boss. If he believes this is best, so be it. It does look, however, that there isn't too much coordination between Van Gaal and Ed Woodward, the man charged with making transfers.
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They knew months ago that Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand would be leaving. Van Gaal knew in May he was coming in. Surely at some point the thought that he may want to play three at the back -- and therefore require some more bodies -- must have crossed his mind. So why, with two weeks to go in the transfer window, are they still short at centre-back?
Were last year's lessons not learned? That dawdling until the last possible minute only weakens your negotiating position, meaning you either overpay (Marouane Fellaini) or miss out on your target (Ander Herrera a year ago). Not to mention the fact that if you're going to introduce a new defensive scheme with new players, it might be a good idea to give them time to practise together and build chemistry rather than throwing them together after the start of the season, when games actually matter.
Bayern hunt for defenders
Bayern are looking to sign a replacement for Javi Martinez, who will be sidelined most of the rest of the season after his ACL injury in the German Super Cup last week.
"We have to react and there are candidates," Bayern boss Pep Guardiola said. "There are many options out there but only a few who fit our needs. It's a special situation and we need to act."
It's simple math. Last year, Bayern had four options at centre-back: Martinez, Jerome Boateng, Daniel van Buyten and Dante. With Van Buyten gone and Martinez out, they're down to two, plus Holger Badstuber, who is gingerly making a return after nearly 19 months out with a torn ACL.
Early suggestions are that Bayern will look for a veteran happy with a short-term deal, and failing that, maybe persuade Van Buyten to return. Yet in a year or two, they'll probably need to replace Dante -- who turns 31 in October -- as well. So perhaps if the opportunity arises to get a guy who can offer long-term answers, it may be wise to splash the cash now.
That's the luxury Bayern have, given their dominant financial position.
Mourinho and his history
Jose Mourinho is already in midseason form when it comes to poking rival managers.
"Some [managers], they have 10 years to win something, I have only two," he said. No prizes for catching the allusion there.
"I like to work, I like to build, I don't like easy jobs," he added, moving the crosshairs further north. "I don't like to get clubs worked by other managers before me. I don't like to arrive in time to collect the fruits off their trees."
Again, fairly obvious reference.
Whether Arsene Wenger and Manuel Pellegrini -- in case you hadn't figure it out -- choose to fire back remains to be seen. They may want to remind him, though, that while you're entitled to your own opinion, you're not entitled to your own facts.
"The season before I went to Porto, they had been fifth," Mourinho said.
Actually, no. The season before he went to Porto, they finished second. They were in fifth place when he took over in January 2002. He guided them to third that season.
"Remember when I came here [Chelsea, the first time]?"
Yes, he took over a Chelsea team that had finished second in the Premier League, reached the Champions League semifinal and been the beneficiary of the biggest transfer spend in history at the time.
"Where was Inter before I went there?"
They had won two consecutive Serie A titles on the pitch, plus another following the Calciopoli scandal.
"When I went to Madrid, where was Madrid?"
They had finished second, which is exactly where they finished under Mourinho in his first year. And they had again benefited from one of the biggest spending sprees in history.
Mourinho has been one of the most successful managers in the world for more than a decade. That's why he gets rewarded with prestigious jobs, big transfer budgets and huge wage bills. There's nothing wrong with that. But that doesn't mean he needs to make it seem as if all his success has come from building teams from scratch. Or that the clubs he managed and his predecessors had achieved nothing.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC, The Times and Corriere dello Sport. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.