Liverpool FC: 2014 vs 2019

Last night I watched the first half of the Champions League semifinal between FC Barcelona and Liverpool FC, going off to bed when the score was 1-0 in favour of Barcelona. I woke up this morning to much dismay to see that Liverpool lost 3-0, but I’d constructed this post in my head when Liverpool was trailing 1-0, and so executing now.

It’s about the difference between the title-challenging Liverpool of 2014 and the title-challenging Liverpool of this season. Luis Suarez, in a brilliant interview with Sid Lowe, had mentioned that the current team is much better than the 2014 team, but last night’s Champions League game suggests that the two teams five years apart are simply two very different teams.

Last night Barcelona went ahead with a goal from Suarez in the 25th minute. It wasn’t an easy goal. There was a cross from the left by Jordi Alba, and Suarez got ahead, and managed to get the precise touch required to put it past Alisson into Liverpool’s goal. Liverpool had dominated the game until then, but with that one little half chance Suarez had converted.

Ten minutes later Sadio Mane got a chance to equalise, from a broadly similar chance. It was another ball above the defence from Mo Salah, but Mane hit it to the sky. And that was representative of Liverpool this season – both Mane and Salah have required lots of chances to score.

In that sense, Liverpool’s defence and midfield this season is far superior to the title-challenging side of 2014, when Suarez led the line. Back then few chances were created, but Suarez and an in-form Daniel Sturridge would take most of them, meaning that even with the midfield creating few chances and the defence leaking lots of goals, Liverpool could mount a challenge.

One could only imagine how this season’s team would have performed with someone of Suarez’s finishing ability leading the line. Salah, Mane and Firmino are no doubt a brilliant front three, but their conversion rate is low. If only one of them had a higher conversion rate, we wouldn’t have been struggling in both the League and the Champions League this season.

 

1/13: Leaving home

Tomorrow, Pinky turns 30. I set out wanting to write 30 blogposts about her on the occasion. As it has happened, I managed 13 before I ran out of ideas and time. Anyway, I hope she likes them! 

Sometimes it’s hard to understand what some people are going through. When they put up a brave face and tell you that everything is okay, and they don’t crib, you simply assume that all is right with them. You don’t once try to understand that there might be some struggles going on within, and that the brave face is a result of being able to somehow deal with all of that.

Pinky hasn’t had the last three years easy. In August 2014, she moved to Barcelona to live by herself for the first time ever (she used to live with her parents until she moved in with me in 2010). The small matters of living alone for the first time, and in a new country, were compounded by lack of funds. We’d purchased an apartment in Bangalore earlier that year, and had exhausted a lot of our savings for that.

Unsure of how much she had to spend, Pinky economised. She would write a long email to me every day (and I’d wake up every morning looking forward to that mail), and while she seemed to be having a good time meeting new people and partying late into the night (on many days I’d be awake in Bangalore by the time she got home in Barcelona), she was also careful about conserving money.

There were times when she’d go out with new-found friends and not eat anything because the restaurant was too expensive. She’d ask for tap water, or the cheapest drinks, on nights out so that she didn’t blow away the savings. For breakfast she had buns and croissants bought in bulk at supermarkets – that came at a big discount.

She told me she looked forward to my visits to Barcelona in the hope that she could “spend normally”. In her last term when I lived with her in Barcelona, our monthly spending was three times what she normally spent when living alone!

And Barcelona was hardly the toughest part of her MBA. Her focus on e-commerce and operations had taken her for an internship to Jakarta, where she landed right in the middle of Ramzan. With her office being in an out-of-the-way warehouse, there were no lunch options available nearby, and she spent nearly the entire month without lunch, going all day hungry. Also a delay in her pay and reimbursement had led to a working capital crunch, which nearly left her homeless (it ultimately didn’t get THAT bad).

It was similar later that year when she was in U. Michigan as an exchange student. She survived an entire term without a lamp in her room (it was an unfurnished house), and slept on the floor on a mattress another student had donated to her. Food was also a struggle, as being the only woman among a bunch of Indians left her as the “resident cook” of her apartment. And the US sprawl meant she couldn’t get nutritious ingredients, which were only available at far-off supermarkets.

Yet, whenever we spoke, she was mostly positive and seldom cried. Irrespective of the difficulties she went through, she was focussed on her academics and career. It was only much later, after she had graduated that she had told me how she’d gone through really tough times.

And even amidst the toughness, she remained resourceful. She found that her US Visa allowed her to work on campus, and managed to make some money as a teaching assistant. Back “home” in Barcelona, she wrote cases and made more money. And despite some setbacks, she kept her job-hunt going, graduating with a much sought-after job with Amazon.

I’m proud to be married to her! And you might wonder why I’m suddenly writing all this – she turns 30 tomorrow, and this is as good a time as ever to express my gratitude to her!

Payment systems

I had lunch today at a rather fancy Japanese restaurant here in Barcelona (I’ve forgotten if I wrote that blog post last year on how you get fantastic East Asian food of all kinds here). I didn’t pay a fancy price – this concept called “Menu del dia” (menu of the day), one of the very few good things instituted by General Francisco Franco meant that you can get cheap weekday lunches at most restaurants in Spain.

The above (Katsudon and beer), along with some noodle soup and two sushis and a cup of coffee, set me back by €13, which isn’t too bad by Barcelona standards (most weekday lunch platters at restaurants cost ~€10).

While eating I noticed that other patrons at the restaurant were walking up to the bar to pay the owner directly, rather than asking for the bill at the table.

So once I was done with eating and drinking, I went up to the bar to pay. The owner had seen me coming and had prepared my bill, which he presented to me. As I reached into my pocket, he got out the card swiping machine.

It might have been a shock to him when I presented a €20 bill instead, and he had to scramble to produce the change from somewhere inside the kitchen (the other patrons before me had all paid by card).

While this is one data point, it’s interesting how the economy here has moved to a situation where the default method of payment is through credit/debit card, rather than by cash (though my favourite bakery refuses to accept card for payments less than €5). The ease of card payments (most debit cards nowadays come enabled with NFC, though a fair number of merchants still insert the card to read the chip) combined with ubiquity of cards has meant that card usage has started trumping cash.

It will be interesting to see how the payments ecosystem will develop in India, which is still largely a cash economy. My belief (and hope) is that India will leapfrog credit/debit cards (as it has leapfrogged landline telephones and big box retail, moving directly to mobile phones and e-commerce) and take up electronic payments in a big way.

IMPS (immediate payment service) is already a fantastic protocol for bank-to-bank transfers, and the costs are extremely low. In April, the Unified Payment Interface (UPI) will be rolled out, which makes transfers to hitherto unknown people even easier! If our banks do a good job of implementation, there is a good chance it might get adopted widely (long back I’d made a case for the RBI to subsidise such payments).

Parks and public safety

I spent the last hour and a half working from a park near my house in Barcelona. It helped that I wasn’t using my laptop – I was mostly working with a notebook and pen. The incredible thing was that never once did I feel unsafe working in that park, and it has to do with the park’s design.

I got accosted by a human only once – by this guy asking me if I had a cigarette lighter and who walked away when I said no, and by dogs (of all shapes and sizes) multiple times. Despite the fact that I was in a park, and people don’t go to parks at 10 am on a weekday morning, there was a constant flow of people in front of me. There were, to put it in other words, sufficient “eyes on the street” which contributed to the place’s safety.

I’ve ranted sufficiently on this blog about the design (or lack of it) of Bangalore’s public parks (one with a name sufficiently similar to that of this post). The problem with the parks, in my opinion, is that they are exclusive closed spaces which are hard to access.

The sprawling Krishna Rao Park in the middle of Basavanagudi, for example, has only two or three entrances, and the number of trees in the park means that large parts of it are hardly visible, providing a refuge to unsavoury elements. This phenomenon of few entrances to parks is prevalent in other city parks as well, with the consequence that the BBMP (city administration) closes off the parks during the day when few people want to go in.

The park I was sitting in this morning, on the other hand, had no such safety issues. It helped that there weren’t too many trees (not always a positive thing about parks), which improved visibility, but most importantly, it was open on all sides, providing a nice thoroughfare for people walking across the area. This meant that a large number of people in the vicinity, even if they didn’t want to “go to a park” ended up passing through the park, because of which there was a constant flow of human traffic and “eyes on the park street”, making it a significantly safer space.

There might be (maintenance-related ) reasons for having limited entrances to parks in Bangalore, but the administration should seriously consider opening up parks on all sides and encouraging people to walk through them (after all, walking paths are an important part of Bangalore parks). Maintenance costs might go up, but safety of parks will be enhanced significantly, and it will be possible to keep parks open at all times, which will enhance their utility to the public.

Maybe Krishna Rao park, with roads on all sides and in the middle of Basavanagudi, might serve as a good pilot case for this.

Watching the Clasico in a bar

No, this post doesn’t have to do with the current El Clasico between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. When I’d watched the previous Clasico on March 22nd I’d formed a blog post in my head but I never got down to writing it (combination of travel and NED and enjoying my holiday) so I thought this is a good time to put it down.

On that occasion I was in Barcelona and briefly toyed with the idea of going to watch the game at the Camp Nou. That idea was quickly shelved given that tickets were going for about €500 each. Then there was hope that the game would be telecast on local TV (like the Barcelona-Ajax game I had watched at the Camp Nou was), but that wasn’t to be. The only option was to watch it at a pub.

While there were several bouts of NED due to which I had decided I won’t see that game, when Maxime, my wife’s flatmate, went out, I couldn’t help but join him. The first task was to find a suitable pub, especially given that it was a Sunday.

There is an interesting hierarchy of local businesses in Barcelona. Most Spanish-run supermarkets, for example, are closed on that day, though the Pakistani-run places (which are interestingly plentiful in the city) are open 24×7. A large number of Spanish-run bars are closed on Sundays, too, while the Chinese bars (again plentiful) are open all day.

Given that it was the Clasico and it was not broadcast on terrestrial television, there was no surprise that bars were full. Seating-only bars were thus out of question. And some of the standing-allowed places were choc-a-bloc. Finally it was this Chinese bar near the Entença station that Maxime and I went to.

The place was full, like most other bars in Barcelona that night, but there was some standing room with a view of one of the televisions. A sign at the entrance greeted us saying that each person was expected to order at least one beer for €2 (normal price for a beer in such a bar is €1,80). Estrella thus Dammed, it was time for the game.

I don’t remember much of that game, but the atmosphere in the bar was far from the kind I’d seen elsewhere. The crowd was partisan, of course, with anyone who wanted to support Real Madrid doing so silently (remember that this is a politically charged fixture, especially given renewed calls for Catalan secession). Loud cheers accompanied the Barcelona goals. The Madrid goal was met with silence, as you might expect (and people stepping out for a smoke). People stepping in and out created another problem – it was a rather cold spring evening, and every time the door opened it let in rather cold wind and disturbed the thermal balance of the bar!

There were a couple of other noteworthy sidelines on the evening. The first was how hard the bar staff worked. Expecting it to be a big night, they had pressed in extra staff, with possibly the entire family of the people who ran the bar involved. Children who looked as young as ten or twelve hurriedly ferried dishes from the kitchen to the tables (there were a few tables, which I’m assuming were pre-booked). Service was overall top notch, with our €2 beers arriving within two minutes despite the massive crowd at the bar. Considering that some bars were shut (given it was a Sunday), it was incredible how hard this one worked to make most of a good Barcelona night.

 

And then there were these guys at the slot machines. Like most other cheap bars in Europe, this one too had a couple of slot machines and they were all occupied, by people who couldn’t care less about what was going on around them, and whose only worry in life was to bet against the house. It could have been yet another night at the bar for them, except that the beer cost them twenty cents extra.

PS: I got distracted by the Manchester City – Liverpool game and hence took much longer to finish this post. I started writing it as soon as El Clasico started.

Barcelona Harbour and Montjuic

Last evening I decided to trek up Montjuic, a hill that is in the middle of Barcelona. I remember reading a long time back (probably on my last visit here) that there was a nice hiking path up Montjuic, and decided to go, without any plan. I conveniently forgot to look up the hiking path, and instead consulted google maps on the phone.

After a while the route got boring (this was after I had passed Placa Espanya). At around the same time I had started climbing the hill, and the combination of the elevation and lack of interesting things around (there were no shops or people or anything of interest on that road) made me want to turn back. I had almost turned back when I hit a bus stop, and bus number 55 came there. And off I climbed and went.

The bus dropped me at the bottom of the Montjuic Funicular, and I thought I’ll take that. But the steep price (EUR 11 for both ways) put me off, and a helpful tourist office nearby told me that the peak was 20 minutes walk away. I did the walk in 10, only to be confronted by another queue – for tickets to go into the castle. I decided to have a look around before I went in.

Going around the castle towards the side that faced the sea, this is what I saw:

barcaport

 

And I sat there, stunned. There were other people sitting or standing in the same area, most of them couples. And most of them seemed like they were looking out at the sea as they sat there. The sea held no interest to me, however, though my object of interest had something to do with the sea. It was the Barcelona harbour!

I had never before seen a container terminal in operation, and here was one, right under where I was standing, in full flow. There were three ships docked, each of a different size. Containers had been stacked up all over the terminal, as if they were lego blocks. You had these machines that were roaming all over the place, which would pick up containers and place them elsewhere. And then you had these forklifts  stackers with orange claws which would place load and unload containers to/from ships.

Just to stand there and watch this operation was mindblowing, and I stood hence for about half an hour. I noticed some nooks in the Montjuic castle where some couples were cuddled up. These nooks gave a great view of the container terminal. So I harboured visions of cosying up in one of these nooks with the wife, watching the operations of the Barcelona container terminal, analysing the operational effectiveness of the place and the algorithms involved. But then the wife was at school, and so I moved on.

On my way back I “got lost” again, as I wandered on some hiking paths past some of the infrastructure that I understand had been built for the 1992 Olympic games. Once again I got “bailed out” by a bus stop, and a bus that dropped me at a point in town that I had been to earlier. “Problem reduced to known problem”, I exclaimed and walked home from there.

For visitors to Barcelona I would highly recommend going up Montjuic. I have no clue what the castle is like, for I didn’t go in. The hiking paths are supposed to be good but I didn’t explore much of that. Yet, it is a fantastic place to go to and watch global commerce in action, as trucks roll in and out of the container terminal, only to be divested of their containers by these machines that place them aside and then transport them on to the ships. It has to be seen to be believed!

The Steven Davis Role

The first encounter between Liverpool and Southampton in the 2013-14 English Premier League season happened at Anfield in September, and Southampton won 1-0 with a Dejan Lovren goal from a set piece. So when the two sides met again at St. Mary’s in the latter half of the season, with Liverpool chasing the title, it was known that it would be a tough game for Liverpool.

Southampton dominated the first half, playing a front four of Steven Davis, Adam Lallana, Jay Rodrigues and Rickie Lambert. However, it was Liverpool who scored in that half, and led 1-0 at the break. Here is a picture I found on twitter that was uploaded at half time:

Southampton manager Mauricio Pochettino decided to change things for the second half. He took off his most unspectacular forward player Steven Davis and replaced him with Gaston Ramirez, the promising Uruguayan. Soon, Southampton unravelled and Liverpool completely dominated the second half as they won 3-0.

Now, there is no doubt that Ramirez is more talented than Davis and is definitely a better player in general. However, in the context of the rest of Southampton’s team, Ramirez’s introduction proved to be a disaster and there was little cohesion in their attacking play from the time he came on. Southampton became a disjointed team and went out of the game.

This has led me to define what I have come to call the “Steven Davis role”. It is basically a player who is not individually the best, but provides some kind of a glue that holds the team together. The player’s key skill, rather than looking at it from traditional axes such as passing or shooting or tackling or intercepting, is to change position, and to make sure that the team holds its shape at all times. It is to make sure that any players who are out of position are covered for, and that the attack retains its shape and focus.

Now, it must be remembered that last season Southampton’s attacking play was primarily based on strong movement and interplay between their front four. They had nominal positions defined, but they hardly stuck to those as they moved around in attack. Thus, Lambert who would start upfront would sometimes appear on the wing, with the nominal “number ten” Lallana going forward, for example.

And key to this system was Davis, who wasn’t particularly talented, but who would move in a way that would balance the attack. If the other three would move left to attack, he would take up a position slightly to the right – not too far away from the attack but providing a kind of counterbalance. He never led attacks himself, but he was always available to support the others’ attacks. And this is what made Southampton dangerous.

Once Davis had gone off, Southampton had no one to play this role. The kind of interplay they had in the first half disappeared. And their attacks became toothless and each attack had only one dimension which was easy to cover even for Liverpool’s normally shaky defence, as they kept a clean sheet.

It was a similar case I saw last night at the Camp Nou, with Barcelona’s Pedro Rodriguez playing in a “Steven Davis” role. Messi started in the middle and Neymar wide on the left. Pedro nominally started on the right. But soon it became clear that he was a kind of a “wide support striker” – his job was to appear in positions that complemented the rest of the attack rather than being in positions where he led the attack (though he did lead one glorious counterattack where he hit the post). It was like a kind of balance that he offered the team, and ensured their attacks had coherence (of course this being Barcelona they had Iniesta and Rakitic just behind to offer more “focal points”).

Last night was the last game of Luis Suarez’s ban, and it will be interesting what Barcelona do with him when he gets back this weekend. The instinct will be to remove Pedro in his favour, but it is not clear if an attack of Messi-Neymar-Suarez will be able to offer the same kind of coherence as an attack of Messi-Neymar-Pedro. That said, Suarez is an extremely intelligent player and showed in his Liverpool days that he is capable of being a “fighter”, so he might as well be played. But that will mean that Neymar will have to occasionally play the Davis/Pedro role, and it is not clear if he is capable of doing that.

We are in for interesting times.

The post has so far focussed on football but it is evident that his kind of a role is necessary in other team situations, including corporate teamwork, also. Sometimes you need that one guy who need not be individually spectacular, but is versatile and mobile enough that he can do several things, fill in for different people and make sure that any team he is part of will be “complete”. And in the absence of one such guy, the team can lose coherence and fail in its task.