The Midweek Maxi #5: Drugged Up Officials, Dickheads, Defensive Targets & Darlings of the Kop
Our new Liverpool FC weekly compendium. News. Stats. Views. Debate. Links. Data. Insights. Delights.
To read about why we’ve replaced Free Friday with The Midweek Maxi, see the intro to the first edition.
So far the bumper weekly roundup is going down extremely well with paying subscribers:
Excerpts and links to the different pieces we've published across the TTT Substack network, prior to the paywall kicking in;
Andrew Beasley’s Weekly Stats Analysis on the value of experience or need for a youthful, high energy team to get results.
Then, some of the best comments from the site this past week;
Next, Daniel Zambartas’ bumper LFC News, Media & Transfer Round-Up;
And then finally, bit of Midweek Moby (the TTT stalwart, not the beautiful bald middle-aged man), for the third mini-article of new writing within this week’s Maxi.
Job done! (Oh, and it’s also a discussion thread for the issues raised.)
Note: the Maxi may exceed the email size limit on Substack, but the whole piece can be read online by paying subscribers.
TTT Network Roundup
Links and excerpts to articles on the various TTT sites, which are run by different people and require separate subscriptions to this, the TTT Main Hub.
TTT Main Hub
First up by Chris is a tribute to James Milner and Roberto Firmino as they both played their final minutes at Anfield versus Aston Villa.
Firmino wasn't necessarily signed as a replacement for the departed flawed genius that was Luis Suarez, but we certainly had a vacancy for a high class creator and goalscorer, as Rodgers' 2014 almost-champions team lost its strike force of Suarez and Sterling, with Sturridge beset with injury and Coutinho soon to depart too. Bobby turned out be as much creator as scorer, though he bagged his share.
Firmino started slowly at Liverpool, struggling to live up to the price tag, but the arrival of Jürgen Klopp as manager transformed him. His praise for the Brazilian enthusiastic:
“He is a very important player, a connecting player, a finisher, a fighter, a defender, the first defender – that is important. A lot of things he is good at are very important for us. He’s still a good listener and a good trainer. He likes to train, he likes to learn, so that is excellent, a nice package.”
A player blessed with acute almost Kenny-esque vision for the killer through-pass, a ferocious presser and an expert in linking the play and knitting the attack together, Firmino was the lynchpin of a deadly trident, with Sadio Mane to his left and Mo Salah to his right. It was as potent and fearsome an attacking combination as any in world football at the time, and many fans would still name him as their favourite of the three.
Paul reacts to the draw against Villa, but more so the inept officiating and VAR that cost Liverpool.
A patchy display, but yet more "I'm on drugs" officiating via the PGMOL's motley crew (ref and VAR), with terrible decisions and basically allowing Villa to turn the game into a dog-turd – game-vandalism, not the merely half-true "time-wasting" – before adding 10 minutes that Villa could also turn into a dog-turd.
Thankfully Bobby Firmino gained a point with his last-ever shot at the Kop end just before that added time was added, but his farewell was ruined by the plague of the Premier League, which is the worst of the big leagues for ball-in-play time; a league becoming duller to watch because of duller teams with duller tactics and dullard officials, as well as all the financial dopers. It's making Italian football look fast and all-above-board.
And, if diving forwards with six studs into someone's chest isn't a red card, it's hard to know what is; unlike Diogo Jota's high boot against Spurs where people said it should be a red (it shouldn't have as he was trying to cushion a dropping ball), this was a forceful action; more forceful even than Sadio Mané at City. This was full body-weight into Gakpo's chest, for fuck's sake.
Mings is 6'5", weighs a ton. Dangerous, reckless, and an obvious red card fudged. And while Villa got a legitimate penalty, Liverpool were also denied one for a clip on a turning Jordan Henderson, and then had a goal ruled out for offside for the kind of goal that would stand most other weeks, with the bizarre sight of the ref viewing the monitor to judge interference with play.
The fifth instalment of this major new series on Dynasty covers the period of Liverpool’s radical but ultimately unsuccessful experiment of having two managers, with Gérard Houllier joining the incumbent Roy Evans.
Originally a series of articles covering the period 1992 to Klopp’s arrival in 2017, it was written by TTT Subscriber Anthony Stanley, serialised on The Tomkins Times and then published by TTT as a book called A BANQUET WITHOUT WINE - A Quarter-Century of Liverpool FC in the Premier League Era.
So, as the sands of football were again shifting during the tumultuous Nineties, Evans accepted that he needed some help. But he was, in fact, under the impression that, as he put it: “There was a need for something different. The game was turning very European. We spoke to John Toshack…about the idea of appointing a director of football.”
Was the then sole incumbent of the Liverpool manager’s job actually unaware of the nature of the job the board had envisioned for the incoming Houllier? Speaking in Simon Hughes’ Men in White Suits, Roy Evans is adamant and claims that he let his heart rule his head:
“(O)n the football side, we got on. At the end of the meeting, it came to roles, responsibilities and titles. I said something about not having an ego and that I’d do whatever was better for the club. It was a massive mistake. I should have been sharper and brighter…I wasn’t strong enough to insist that he would only be a director of football…the board should have known that (two men can’t do the same job). It had been tried at other clubs and it hadn’t worked.”
There’s a discernible sense here of something that could perhaps have been Roy Evans’ fatal flaw: a lack of ruthlessness and a desire to accommodate the club he loved so much. His tenure had, after all, hardly been a disaster. But he probably knew his limitations and, typically for such a good and honest human being, wanted what was best for the club. Moreover, he probably knew which way the wind was blowing and that his time was running out. But the appointment of Houllier fatally undermined the Bootle-born boss; there can be no doubt about that and if things went wrong, there could only be one fall guy.
However, despite Evans’ misgivings, the new season kicked off with Liverpool in superb form. After defeating Southampton and getting a credible draw against the champions, the Reds travelled to St. James’ Park and absolutely destroyed Newcastle. As a beaming Evans and Houllier looked on (together with a grim-faced, newly arrived Ruud Gullit, apparent purveyor – or so he had declared – of sexy football), Michael Owen – fresh from his exploits at the French World Cup and now one of the hottest names on the planet – scored a sizzling hat trick inside the first fifteen minutes. The image of Owen and Paul Ince, rubbing their hands in metaphorical anticipation of what was in store for the coming season will long live in the memory as the travelling Reds chanted with glee, advising a bemused Gullit what he could do with his ‘sexy football’. Liverpool were, according to a Press Association report: ‘playing a brand of football that could well become the benchmark for the season.’
This Red Planet
This week was a free chapter from the book of the same name as this substack, and one of the best as Paul looked at Dickheads and Lost Boys, Old Dogs and Egotists, Smart Buys and Starmen…
Dele Alli’s Brother
In mid-January, before Dele Alli moved to Everton for a fee that ranged from £0 to £40m, Jonathan Northcroft wrote about the player’s strange decline in the Sunday Times.
“[Mauricio] Pochettino voiced fears about the pitfalls the player faced as early as in 2017, in his book Brave New World. ‘Dele is experiencing a new situation. Praise can create confusion,’ Pochettino wrote. The Argentine also observed that Dele ‘needs to be surrounded by the right people’ and in the agency world they wonder whether his representative is the best-placed person to gee him up and push him on. Dele’s previous agent was the experienced Rob Segal, who has a reputation for being able to challenge his clients, but since 2017 he has been managed by his best friend and adoptive brother, Harry Hickford, who is part of a group of mates with whom he enjoys socialising.
“Another lives with him, and anyone who has met Dele will attest to a laidback, fairly shy, polite and gentle nature.”
So, he’s not some nasty lunatic, but the warning signs had been there since 2017, with the alarming change of agent and the best recent-years Spurs’ manager’s warning; and 2016/17 marked the player’s peak, with 2017/18 seeing a halving of his league goals, from 18 to nine. Between 2020 and 2022, he scored just once – for Spurs and in his first five months at Everton. Indeed, he didn’t even start a league game for the Toffees until the final game of the season: a 5-1 defeat at Arsenal, where he departed after 67 minutes with the score 4-1. Maybe his talent will shine through again, but it needs hard work and dedication.
Relating to another sport, but with parallels of the pitfalls, in May 2022, Owen Slot in the Times wrote about how one of Britain’s greatest-ever boxers saw his career derailed on the back of family interference.
“Some would argue that it was Hamed’s family who removed him. The great soap opera of ‘Prince Naseem’ was the family takeover; the Hamed brothers took over the management from Frank Warren and took Naseem away from the [Brendan] Ingle gym and overseas.
“‘They ruined him,’ is how Warren reflects on it now. ‘I mean, if Naz played for Man United, does that mean they could manage Man Utd?’”
[As an aside, here, could they have done much worse than the actual managers United chose?]
“Maybe this is a side of the story still to be told because one of the few Hamed siblings left in Sheffield is Ali, four years Naseem’s younger, now a personal trainer, who is trying to sell a TV documentary about how boxing’s millions detonated an everyday Asian working-class family.
“‘Unfortunately the family has eroded,’ is how he puts it. He alleges that the considerable estate left behind by their late parents, which is a consequence of Naseem’s success, is now being scrapped over by the kids.
“This is a family that always appeared so tight. “That is what it looked like,’ he says, ‘but internally, it was an absolute free-for-all with the younger ones not having the maturity or the intelligence to be able to grasp the millions on the table.’”
Too much too young, as the two-toned poet Terence Edward Hall put it in 1979. Occasionally a family member or friend can offer a wise guiding hand, but too often it now seems to be about spreading out the wealth within an entourage at the expense of proper guidance and long-term career planning. Friends and family do not tend to offer dispassionate advice, especially in an age where ‘home truths’ are no longer fashionable, and there’s a culture of just telling people how brilliant they are; that they are perfect, just as they are. That’s an invitation to stagnate.
(The French midfielder Adrien Rabiot’s mother, Veronique, who acts as his agent, is famously overprotective, to the point where dealing with her, and her son, sounds difficult in the extreme; even if family difficulties led to the decision to ‘helicopter parent’ his career. Chaos seems to follow the player, wherever he goes.)
After moving clubs, and with a lot to prove after two years of decline, Dele Alli arrived at his first training session in a £300,000 Rolls-Royce. While people may not want to be judged by the cars they drive – and clearly it does not sum up everything about a person – the choice of a vehicle is a conscious decision, that displays something.
Zlatan Ibrahimović wrote of his time with Pep Guardiola in 2009/10: “At Barça, players were banned from driving their sports cars to training. I thought this was ridiculous – it was no one’s business what car I drive – so in April, before a match with Almeria, I drove my Ferrari Enzo to work. It caused a scene.”
Yet as great as an individual player Ibrahimović was, he did not fit in at Barcelona, the best team he played for. Barcelona got better without him. He got better without them, too, but no team he played for got close to the Barça team he was essentially booted out of. And even then, you could argue that if anyone had the right to drive a Ferrari Enzo to work it was Zlatan. But did it help anyone? Did it help him? Did it help Barcelona?
The more ostentatious the car, the greater the sense of attention it will draw; unless perhaps a beaten-up old Volkswagen, in which case, attention is drawn by a different kind of shock. People may be outraged at a footballer driving a £300,000 car (playing for a club whose stadium is situated in an area where the average house price is one-third that amount); and then a kind of backlash arises, where people say, “why can’t they drive a £300,000 car if they want?” and find reasons why the criticism might be sinister. But none of that really matters.
Mizgan’s analysis is on the clubs potential defensive targets this summer, profiling a number of players linked with the club in recent months.
Jurriën Timber is a versatile defender who plays for Ajax. The Dutch international can play as a centre-back in a back four, as a right-sided centre-back in a back three and a right-back, if required. He is good on the ball, can progress it well, is quick along the ground but has low aerial duels won per 90 count. At 179cm, the 21-year-old does not have a natural height for consistently competing in the air and winning those duels.
Hence, as per FBRef, he has 14 percentile in aerial duels won among centre-backs in Europe over the last 365 days. It is all 90+ when it comes to passing, progressive carries, touches in the opposition box and shot-creating actions.
Perr Schuurs is a Dutch centre-back currently plying his trade for Italian side Torino. The Fortuna youth product who moved to Italy last summer, is a centre-back who has played as a defensive midfielder in the past. At Torino, he has mostly been used as the middle centre-back in a back three system.
The 23-year-old is excellent in passing, tackles and overall reading of the game. He does not possess the pace of a Timber, hence plays the sweeper role in a back three. At 191cm, the Dutchman is a natural at dealing with aerial bombardments from the opposition.
If we look at Schuurs’ FBRef percentile, the aerial duels won is at 68, while the passing accuracy surpasses 70. He loves a tackle or two as well.
Gonçalo Inácio is a young Portuguese defender who plays for Sporting Lisbon. The Sporting youth product made his debut for the senior team in 2020 and has been a consistent starter this season. Ruben Amorim has used him chiefly as a wide centre-back on both sides of the field in a back three system. The left-footed player has operated as a left-back at times too.
The 21-year-old possesses attributes similar to Timber when it comes to passing, tackling and progressive running with the ball. Although his aerial duel win percentile is only 54 as per FBRef, it is better than Timber. He is, after all, six centimetres taller than the Dutchman as well.
Gonçalo Inácio has 90+ percentile in passing, progressive carries, shot-creating actions and assists (0.12 per 90). He is pretty good at interceptions and tackling.
The Zen Den
As one departs, another takes over as Paul ponders whether Gakpo could offer the team more than Firmino.
As I noted months ago, the team rebuild began in January, when Cody Gakpo and Stefan Bajcetic brought attributes hitherto missing in 2022/23 (in part due to many players absent with injuries, and others being too old), as younger versions of great players the Reds had had in the recent past.
Gakpo can be Firmino+. He won't score no-look goals, or cause nuclear fusion when he smiles. But he already does almost everything peak Firmino did, and does more, too.
We bid a very fond farewell to Firmino in a season when he proved unusually prolific, but also unusually brittle (just 13 '90s' in the league), and so he hasn't had as much impact – but Gakpo is already matching all the good things he brought to the Reds' game.
Firmino is currently at +4.8 xG over-performance in 2022/23, meaning 10 league goals from chances (in less than 13 90s) worth about five.
But this after a season of +0.3 (par) in 2021/22, and going back in reverse chronological order, -2.3 (fairly poor), -5.0 (really poor), -1.8 (fairly poor) and +4.1 (really good, and the first season for which such data is available).
The -5.0 was the title season, which was also Mo Salah's worst for actual goals, and his worst against xG, albeit not too bad at -0.6 (this is Salah's only other negative season, at -0.3, albeit he had only one really positive season, his debut, at a stonking +8.4).
(All xG is non-penalty xG, and league only, unless otherwise stated.)
It was Sadio Mané in 2019/20 with +4.8 who made up for the misses of others, albeit the defence was vital that season, as part of a brilliantly balanced team.
But Mané's last three seasons have all been in minus numbers against expected goals, including with Bayern.
By contrast, Luis Díaz has outperformed xG in every season since 2019/20; and every half season before and after a move, with his last 28 goals coming at a rate of +5.4 across just over 60 90s. That said, he looks rusty right now, after six months out.
But as I've noted before, Gakpo is a superstar against xG.
Plus, he's becoming more like Firmino in his general play.
It's there in the general data; data which has gradually transformed over the course of five months at Liverpool where his profile went from prolific winger to do-it-all false nine.
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