Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Robbie Earle talks Man City, Liverpool ahead of massive match

Leave a comment

Prior to Liverpool’s trip to the Etihad Stadium to take on Manchester City this Sunday, ProSoccerTalk spoke with Robbie Earle about the makeup of each side.

Q: How would you compare Manchester City’s and Liverpool’s goalkeeping situations?

Robbie Earle: It’s probably an area where I think both teams could and should do better and probably need to strengthen. If you look at City, it’s Claudio Bravo or more likely [Willy] Caballero will start, but it seems like City are starting their second-string goalkeeper. There was the high-profile exit of Joe Hart out of the club and then they bring in Claudio Bravo who is having a tough time with things. Then you have to go to the second string, but I think Caballero has provided a little bit of stability back there.

For Liverpool obviously we have the high-profile omission of [Simon] Mignolet and [Loris] Karius got in. Then Karius dropped and Mignolet regained the spot. In an ideal world I’d say for both clubs to be as successful as they want to be, they might need to upgrade in both those departments. It’s almost a draw in the goalkeeping departments.

Q: What are your thoughts on the backlines of the two clubs?

RE: The two clubs in some ways are very similar and I think the high-profile managers are both better attacking than defending in the way they play. You know on any given good day they can tear anyone apart in the Premier League, but it’s that consistency in defending. Again you look at City, there have been so many changes with a back four, back three, different partnerships. I feel a bit sorry for John Stones. He made a big-money move to Man City, there’s a lot expected and he’s had so many partners: [Pablo] Zabaleta, [Bacary] Sagna, [Aleksandar] Kolarov, [Nicolas] Otamendi, Fernandinho’s played there. You know the one guy they probably wanted to get him next to in terms of learning and where they saw their first choice center backs would have been Vincent Kompany. He’s spent very little time on the pitch so I feel a little bit sorry for John Stones. He’s had to grow up really quickly and become at times the focal point of a defense where he’s still at the stage of his career when he is learning the game and understanding about his decision-making. City, I think over the next 18 months, will see a few big changes in their defensive setup and personnel.

Liverpool are similar. No disrespect to James Milner but they’ve gotten away with playing a midfield player at left back. [Joel] Matip is the John Stones of Liverpool in that he hasn’t had a regular partner. It’s been a very changeable thing that back four and it’s an area of the pitch I think that’s very important. I’m still not sure Liverpool have got it quite right in terms of the personnel. I still feel that they’re going to need to go spend and buy a top draw center back and left back. We’re at the stage where Lucas Leiva, a player that probably couldn’t get into Liverpool’s midfield, is playing in the back four. That tells you where they are really.

Q: How do you think the midfields of Man City and Liverpool match up?

I’d say Liverpool are probably a little more athletic, certainly if [Jordan] Henderson is playing. It looks like [Emre] Can might play against Man City, but when you think of [Georginio] Wijnaldum and [Adam] Lallana both have started to show that they can score goals and have more productivity. Lallana has dropped off a bit, he was on a really hot run a few weeks ago, but they come with an energy and a vibrancy that if you don’t match it, if you’re not prepared to go toe-to-toe, they run all over teams from that area of the pitch. I think you have to at least match that.

[ MORE: Liverpool embracing underdog role v. Man City ]

City will try to do that more with technique and ability. It’ll probably be Fernandinho holding. At the moment it looks like they’ve played Yaya [Toure] next to him or [Kevin] De Bruyne and David Silva slightly advanced of the holding midfielder playing. De Bruyne and Silva both are great technicians, will keep the ball and that’s where they can keep it away from Liverpool. Liverpool’s midfield are all better with the ball than they are without it, but you can probably say the same thing about Man City, so possession and who has control of the game in that central area is probably going to be the key to the game.

Q: Which group of forwards do you trust more?

RE: You’d probably say as we are talking now, City are more in form with [Sergio] Aguero who’s a proven master marksman in the Premier League. His goal record stands for itself. And then in the wide areas [Leroy] Sane is getting better and better. We did a little piece on him a couple of weeks ago in terms of his positioning, his ability to create goals, to score goals from the left hand side. Then you have Raheem Sterling on the other side. Those three probably right now are in slightly better form than [Roberto] Firmino, [Philippe] Coutinho and [Sadio] Mane who are very different in the way they play.

It’s more about movement, it’s about clever, front-foot play between those three, but what I would say with those three is generally on the big days, their record against the top six is five wins and four draws. Those front three have come good on those days when they’ve needed them to. The front three are excellent in creating chances for each other and lots of interchanging. Mane will come from the wide positions, Firmino drops deep and Coutinho finds those seams inside. Their movement and intelligence is what will threaten the defense and it could be a game where, although both teams’ defenses are the weaker part of their game, who defends better on the day will win.

Q: Do you have a preference between Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola?

RE: They are very different. Klopp is much more open, in your face, heart on his sleeve, emotional on the sideline. He’s the driving force at Liverpool. I think he’s the most important member of the Liverpool squad. If Liverpool are going to finish in the top four, Jurgen Klopp is going to have to be outstanding in his coaching.

[ MORE: Joe Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks]

Pep Guardiola has to get a better understanding of the Premier League and what it requires week in and week out and I think it’s coming. It’s not just the big games which you know they are probably up for, but days when they play Burnley and Bournemouth and those places that sometimes they can have a banana skin. He’s a lot more considerate in the way he behaves and acts on the training field. In terms of who’d you have, it’s a difficult one. Pep’s a little bit more on the intellect and intelligence but I like Klopp. If I was a player, I’d have to say Klopp.

Q: Who wins this weekend’s match?

RE: It’s a tough one. For no other reason than form and their record against the top six teams, I just don’t think Liverpool will get beat. I think at worst Liverpool come with a draw. They’re good against the best teams and they’ll have a week of preparation whereas City have played in the Champions League. I just think Liverpool will at least get a draw, if not a win. So, I’ll slightly favor Liverpool, but with no real certainty. City could end up winning three-nil and I wouldn’t be surprised.

Gold Cup Final preview: USMNT needs a trophy vs. Jamaica

AP Photo/Jeffrey McWhorter
Leave a comment

The major selling point of Bruce Arena’s hire, aside from his being the anti-Jurgen Klinsmann, was that the United States men’s national team would not be out-foxed tactically (or at least not be caught without a game plan).

Thirteen games into the tenure, the jury is out on whether the American boss’ second stint is on the path to World Cup success — those assumed goal posts will likely be moved depending on the group draw in Russia — but he has brought stability to the team and engineered a positive change in mentality.

[ MORE: How will USMNT line up? ] 

I have a great deal of respect for Joe Prince-Wright’s view of the national team, and ProSoccerTalk’s editor wrote today that U.S. Soccer would be proven right in its hiring of Arena if the Yanks won the Gold Cup with a Wednesday win over Jamaica.

But it doesn’t take a devil’s advocate to ask if it is quite that simple?

As much as I’m sure the removal of Klinsmann became necessary due to the morale of the USMNT and its players’ opinions of the German manager, I’m far from certain we’ve learned much about the hiring of Arena. Frankly, I can’t imagine any of the results being much worse under Peter Vermes, or Caleb Porter, or Ben Olsen.

The best win of Arena’s second tenure so far was probably the semifinal defeat of Costa Rica this weekend, and the best moment was the 1-1 draw at Azteca against Mexico. There’s no denying he’s righted the World Cup ship —  and that’s paramount — but it’s hard to imagine just qualifying for Russia should give Arena some sort of status, 0-2 hole or not. Any coach needs to be judged by his tournament, and Arena knows this. He’s helped author the best World Cup performance in modern U.S. men’s history, and he’s also presided over a train wreck (Imagine pulling that performance with that roster into the 2018 supporters’ climate. I’m shuddering on behalf of social media).

Which brings us to the import of Wednesday in Santa Clara. The United States lineup is experienced in big games and superior to Jamaica, which is coming off one day less rest. Yes, Jamaica’s squad features an incredible goalkeeper in Andre Blake and a half-dozen MLS players, but the rest are largely players who ply their trade in the U.S. second tier or Jamaica’s top flight.

Again, against Michael Bradley, Tim Howard, Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, et cetera, et cetera.

The bookmakers say a Jamaica win would pay off 8:1. Just getting to penalty kicks would pay 3:1.

(Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

The U.S. should win the 9:30 p.m. ET start, and put one foot in the 2021 Confederations Cup in Qatar. If it doesn’t, it’ll be because the side couldn’t sort out its wobbly back line or find its way past Blake. The latter would be more forgivable than the former, but really only in a “Tim Howard vs. Belgium but unblemished” fashion.

And it could be wrong to call Arena’s tournament a failure if the Yanks lose, depending on how it happens, but this is a man who helped a much lesser U.S. side to a 1-0 home friendly win over Jamaica just a few months ago (a Jamaica side who’s only missing player of consequence was Darren Mattocks). Arena trotted out Luis Robles, Graham Zusi, Steve Birnbaum, Walker Zimmerman, Jorge Villafana, Dax McCarty, Chris Pontius, Benny Feilhaber, Sebastian Lletget, Jordan Morris, and Juan Agudelo. The team he’ll start on Wednesday will be miles better.

Mattocks and his Reggae Boyz are true to their country’s national reputation of electrifying speed, and it’s imperative that Arena sets his backs to handle that. That means true outside backs — sorry, Graham Zusi — and center backs who won’t be forced to foul too often. That is, after all, the only way Jamaica found its way past Mexico via a free kick from a dangerous spot.

Mexico attempted 200 more passes, converting 150 more than Jamaica in the semifinal. It’ll be on Arena’s enterprising attackers to find a way past a stacked defense without opening up the midfield too much to counter attacks. Jamaica also played a borderline perfect game when it did have the ball, missing on just 16 of 143 passes and, again, scoring on a free kick.

Frankly, if the U.S. loses to Jamaica in the same way as Mexico did, it probably wouldn’t be proper to lay it on Arena. It would mean another batch of American players had failed to find a way to goal. But what we’re counting on is a better organized team than the baffled bunch that fell 2-1 to Jamaica under Klinsmann in the 2015 Gold Cup.

In that way, yeah, we can count on Arena being a relative success. But winning this tournament, especially given who Mexico called up, needs to be treated the same way you’d view it under any other manager: expectation. Anything less wouldn’t make Arena a failure, but would certainly qualify as a failure for the U.S. program.

PSG, Barca quizzed on Neymar rumors; Pique blasts Ligue 1

Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images
Leave a comment

We don’t have a ton of sympathy for them, but credit to Barcelona stars Javier Mascherano and Gerard Pique for giving actual answers when put in the awkward position of hearing the media’s Neymar-to-PSG questions on Tuesday night.

PSG boss Unai Emery was far less interested in doing that.

Emery has refused to comment on speculation linking Neymar to big move to the Parc des Princes.

[ MORE: Van Dijk to Liverpool after all? ]

Speaking ahead of Wednesday’s International Champions Cup match against Juventus, Emery had nothing of substance to say to the idea of Brazil’s captain heading to his stable.

“Our focus is to talk about the game tomorrow and a season to get ready for. I prefer to focus on the present moment and the preparation with the team.”

As for Edinson Cavani?

On the Barca side of things, Mascherano said he thinks Neymar will stay because he’s very important to the team, while Pique backed off a little after causing a stir by posting a photo of the defender with Neymar captioned, “He stays.”

“The post was nothing official, it was a gut thing, it doesn’t depend on me. Only (Neymar) can say what will happen, but I hope he stays. I tried to explain to Neymar, as a team-mate and a friend, the situation he’s in. I would say don’t go to a league which, with all due respect, is not as good.”

Boom, roasted (Though there’s some pot-kettle-black here, as there’s a fairly precipitous drop-off further down La Liga’s table, too).

Spanish report claims Coutinho (not Liverpool) agrees deal with Barca

Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images
Leave a comment

According to Sky Sports’ transfer centre, Spanish radio station RAC1 reports that Barcelona has agreed a deal with Liverpool midfielder Philippe Coutinho.

The report comes on the heels of the half-hour delay of Barca’s nightly press conference, though that could be coincidental.

It also states that the agreement is between Barcelona and Coutinho, and that no fee has been agreed between Liverpool and the La Liga giants. That’s a huge obstacle, with Liverpool maintaining that no offer will work this summer, so the idea of a transfer being imminent could be beyond the pale.

[ MORE: Van Dijk to Liverpool after all? ]

A sale like this risks overturning Jurgen Klopp‘s apple cart, as the Reds boss was quoted this week as saying, “The very important message is that we are not a selling club and that’s how it is.”

Mohamed Salah is good, but he’s no Coutinho. Meanwhile, Coutinho has the potential to be as close to a like-for-like replacement for Neymar — one of the Top Five players in the world — as there is on the market.

The two clubs have done business before, and in more trying circumstances; Barcelona bought Luis Suarez from Liverpool within a month of the Uruguayan striker being banned for a biting incident at the 2014 World Cup.

A spectacular deal, Liverpool would have to make such a move this early in the summer when it can invest what would have to be a wild amount of money given the fees splashed about this transfer window.

Source close to Van Dijk expects Liverpool move within window

Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images
Leave a comment

It wasn’t too long ago that Liverpool apologized for its pursuit of Southampton center back Virgil Van Dijk, ending its quest for the big Dutchman.

Is it apology accepted and then some at St. Mary’s? Sky Sports reporter Kaveh Solhekol says not much has changed since the big sorry toward Anfield, but that a source close to Van Dijk expects Van Dijk will be a Red “by the end of the window.”

[ MORE: JPW’s take on the Van Dijk saga ]

That said, Sky’s report makes it unclear what’s changed to lead to such a proclamation.

There is no suggestion that Liverpool have done anything wrong since they apologised and ended their interest. Southampton’s position remains that Van Dijk is not for sale but Chelsea and Manchester City are also interested.

So… it’s happening then? Money does talk, and a massive fee from Liverpool could make Southampton’s life easier in explaining the sale to its fans. It would also mean Saints sold Van Dijk and Jose Fonte within a year. For more on the possible transfer, here’s JPW’s take.

Van Dijk averaged 1.9 tackles, 2.6 interceptions, 6.8 clearances, and 4.7 aerials won per Premier League matches last season, his second since a Summer 2015 move from Celtic.

[ MORE: Milan talk to Costa, Falcao agent ]