Writing for Liverpool’s successful blog: This is Anfield, Thomas McMahon took time out this week to answer 5 questions on tomorrow’s clash. For the answers to the questions posed at me, please click here.
JP: Liverpool have started the season very well, and with no clear favourite for the title, do you feel you can pose a serious challenge?
TM: I think, rose tinted spectacles aside, Liverpool will fall short of a title challenge – but hopefully challenge for the Champions League positions. The squad simply lacks depth to compete with the Man City’s and Chelsea’s of the league, with the likes of Willian, Mata, Dzeko and Jovetic all struggling for game time for their respective teams. We seriously fall short in the Midfield area too for a title-challenge, as Lucas and Gerrard lack mobility against the better teams in the league and are arguably earning their places by name as opposed to merit this season. To put it in perspective, Liverpool have finished 7/8th (with Fulham just a place below us two seasons ago?) for the past few seasons, so finishing in the top 4 would be a massive achievement for the club. Once Liverpool are back in the Champions League, we can start attracting a higher calibre player and hopefully build a title challenging team in the long-term.
JP: Apart from Suarez and Sturridge, who have taken the league by storm this year, who else in particular has impressed you?
TM: There are a few unsung heroes in the squad; Simon Mignolet has really shone so far and really highlights how poor Reina has been for the past few seasons. It was a big call from Rodgers to let Reina go out on loan – as Mignolet could easily have struggled in a ‘larger pond’ – but he has produced some outstanding saves and solid all-round performances so far.
Jordan Henderson is another, simply because of his effort and work-rate. At times I feel he lacks technique and end-product with the ball, but every successful team needs a player who is tactically astute and works hard to bring the best out of the ‘classier’ players – and that’s Jordan in a nutshell.
Kolo Toure is probably my last pick; his leadership off and on the pitch has made the team look much more mentally resilient. Many fans worried about the loss of Carragher’s ‘dressing room’ presence, but Kolo not only performs to a high standard he fills Carragher’s leadership void. He’s also much more physical than Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel, who got bullied far too much last season aerially, so he improves us in this sense also. Most importantly – he is part of one of the best chants you’ll ever hear in football!
JP: With a team made up of promising youngsters and established professionals, how do you think Liverpool will line up against Fulham this Saturday?
TM: Apart from Mignolet starting in goal, the line-up for Saturday seems hard to predict. Since Rodgers moved to a 3-5-2 formation, the team hasn’t managed to keep a single clean sheet. Rodgers has hinted that there could be a shakeup in defence, so whether he keeps this formation or switches back to his favoured 4-3-3 is key to who starts really. The only area Liverpool really excel in depth is in central defence – with Kolo Toure, Martin Skrtel, Daniel Agger and new acquisition Mamadou Sakho all fighting for a starting spot (and that’s not including promising youngsters Sebastian Coates and Tiago Ilori).
At rightback/leftback expect Johnson and Enrique to start assuming they’re fit and ready, as Cissokho/Flannagan looked poor the previous weekend against Arsenal and arguably aren’t Liverpool quality (a bit like Paul Konchesky).
The midfield could also be changed, as Liverpool have struggled to maintain possession since the start of the season. Considering that possession is supposed to be Rodgers’ main mantra and his acknowledgement in his most recent press conference, Joe Allen may find his way back into the midfield to help the team keep hold of the ball. Coutinho, if fit, will likely start in attacking midfield.
Obviously Suarez and Sturridge pick themselves – but whether one sits deeper or both play as out-and-out strikers is the main area of debate. Liverpool have struggled accommodating the partnership in other areas of the field, and that will be something Rodgers is looking to improve on.
JP: Although on paper this fixture appears to produce only one winner, are there any internal problems that could cause you worry, and who do you feel in a Fulham shirt has the potential for a good game?
TM: I’ll be honest – I haven’t been too impressed by Fulham’s squad so far this season, so there isn’t one player in particular that worries me too much. Nevertheless, on their day the likes of Berbatov, Taraabt, Ruiz etc can produce fantastic displays of technique, so combining that with our poor recent defensive record, I wouldn’t be too surprised to see great individual ‘wonder-goal’ from Fulham against the run of play.
As a general note, most of the fan-base expect Liverpool to not only win but to improve our goal difference – which could play an important factor this season when you see how close the top 7 currently are. Unfortunately this sort of confidence tends to result in banana skins; I remember the same hype and expectation last season playing against Aston Villa at home, who were also in a poor spell of form, and we got spanked 3-1. So as you said Jake, on paper it produces only one winner, but what makes the Premier League so interesting is the unpredictability of results – so I’m certainly not counting my chickens yet.
JP: Many Fulham fans are worried with our current form, with Martin Jol facing a lot of hostility from the fans. Do you feel we are in relegation trouble, and would a new man in charge make the difference?
TM: I think Fulham cannot take their Premier League place for granted, and out of the usual teams in the league, you probably are the most likely to get relegated as it stands. Martin Jol is a good manager though – you only have to look at his success both in the league with Tottenham and with Ajax in the Eredivisie to see that he can manage successful teams. However, personally I think most of your summer purchases are either too inconsistent, too lazy or simply overrated. Take Taraabt for example – a magician on the ball – but he simply creates too many internal problems to be relied on over a season (if only he combined his ability with a Henderson-like brain!). Berbatov looks even more sulky and disillusioned than usual as well, and from the odd-highlights I’ve seen of Fulham this season, he seems to get far too annoyed if a team-member messes up. Such actions aren’t great for team chemistry – which is paramount to survive in this league.
Personally, I’m a big fan of stability – just look at how Arsenal are bulldozing the opposition while the Chelsea’s of the league are struggling for consistency. Therefore I think you should stick with Martin Jol, particularly as I don’t think any other manager available would be an upgrade of what you currently have. If you’re still in the bottom 5 come March though, it might be time to hit the panic button. Fulham should have too much quality in the squad to get relegated, but you certainly need to start producing better performances (just not this weekend please!).