Dear Brendan Rodgers

I’m beginning to write this at 64 minutes played in Basel-Liverpool. Basel is leading 1-0, not undeservedly. Liverpool have so far been extremely poor, and deserve to have gone behind. We started well in the first ten minutes, and it seemed like an eminently winnable game, but after the tactical substitution made by Paulo Sousa, we’ve never been in it. Some pertinent observations so far.

  • I understand our need to have wanted to buy a world class striker to replace Luis Suarez. One might have thought the purchase of Mario Balotelli, no doubt a world class striker, was vindicated when Sturridge got injured. But Balotelli just doesn’t suit Liverpool. He is too slow. He just doesn’t move.

    I don’t have the statistics (football statistics are extremely hard to come by, unlike cricket), but we need to look at the number of off sides conceded between last season and this one. Balotelli gives away too many of those. Most of them come about because of his slow movement

  • Raheem Sterling was due a poor game, and we are seeing one now. His touch has been poor all day today. In his defence, he was due one bad day. Except that you had no clue how to handle that.
  • Sousa saw the weakness in Liverpool’s left back zone with Jose Enrique, and thus decided to double up on his right wingers to attack that zone. Now, this ended up pushing Raheem Sterling back, and he has had more defending to do than what he thought would have been his share. That is understandable.

    But then you need to realise that when you double up on one zone, you end up weakening yourself in another. Basel have played almost the entire night without a left back, or anyone on their left side apart from their left winger Hamoudi. They are playing a very lopsided 3-4-3. And you have done nothing so far to exploit that. Markovic has played all evening, but hasn’t been leading attacks down that wing as would be optimal. Manquillo has been leading the attacks there, with Markovic drifting inside. What we needed was Manquillo and Markovic doubling down in that unguarded zone. Haven’t seen that at all.

  • Then there is the centre of midfield. The two of Gerrard and Henderson isn’t simply working. Even when playing out from the back, they have consistently been stopped at the halfway line. Ok there is Gerrard and Henderson, but they haven’t had a forward pass to play! Coutinho has been lost in the crowd. And Balotelli, unlike Suarez doesn’t come back to pick the ball there. So how do we go forward from there?
  • Liverpool simply haven’t been picking up the second balls in the middle of the pitch today. They’ve been thoroughly outnumbered in that area – with only Gerrard and Henderson against three central midfielders of Basel. When we demolished Tottenham last December, the key was in our picking up all these second balls and keeping attacks flowing. That’s been sorely missing all day today.
  • Lallana’s introduction was good, but it should have been Sterling who should have come off. He is evidently extremely tired, and nowhere close to his best. We can see that in the two clear chances he’s missed since I started writing this post.
  • Markovic shouldn’t start. He’s not enough of a lone ranger for that. With his pace you should look to him as a super-sub. A plan B to be introduced along with Balotelli and Lambert. I just don’t see him gelling with the rest of the team. And please – someone along with Gerrard and Henderson there. I know Allen and Can are injured, but even someone like Lallana along with Gerrard and Henderson would help. The World Cup showed us how those two together in a 4-2-3-1 are ineffectual. You haven’t learnt from that.
  • It’s been a scrappy game so far, but a great tactical battle. There was one big question that Sousa posed – by putting on Gonzales for Safari, but you have thoroughly failed to answer that. After two moves by Gonzales, you went into a shell, and didn’t attack enough in the newly posed gap. I’m absolutely disappointed with you for that. I expected you of all people to be more tactically sound.
  • The best formation Liverpool has played with the available players this season was in the second half against Everton. With Gerrard-Henderson-Lallana-Coutinho-(not out of form)Sterling-Balotelli. You never even tried that in this game, while I expected you to start that way.
  • The game has ended as I finish this post. We have lost. Deservedly.
  • Maybe a you could use the services of a statistical analyst to help you figure out the gaps in play and how Liverpool should structure themselves given the available players. You can leave me a comment if you think you need one (you surely do!), and I’ll come over to help!

Liverpool FC, this season

For a Liverpool fan, this has easily been the best footballing season since 2008-09. Based on the performance so far, however, I would still rate the 2008-09 performance higher – primarily because Liverpool came back to win several games that season – something they’ve not managed this season. Here are some pertinent observations from the season so far:

  • Aly Cissokho is the new Djimi Traore (for those who don’t remember, he was Liverpool’s left back in the Champions League winning team in 2005. He’s been branded as ‘the worst player ever to win the Champions League’. Among other things he played Crespo onside twice for Milan’s second and third goals in that game)
  • Liverpool against Aston Villa two weekends back reminded me of Liverpool versus Milan in 2005. Back then, Rafa Benitez had dropped holding midfielder Dietmar Hamann and played Xabi Alonso and Steven Gerrard as central midfielders, and they got badly overrun.

    Here, Brendan Rodgers went with a midfield of Jordan Henderson (the new Gerrard, more on that later) and Gerrard (now a wannabe Alonso), and they got similarly overrun. The only time Liverpool looked threatening was when Lucas Leiva was on the pitch for 20 minutes of the second half

  • When Kenny Dalglish bought Henderson in 2011, it seemed like the Liverpool team had too many “Gerrards”. There was Gerrard himself, there was Alberto Aquilani (remember?) and there was Raul Meireles (yet another player in the traditional “Gerrard role”) when Henderson came in. And Jonjo Shelvey was coming up the ranks.

    Two and a half years hence, Henderson has established himself as the Number One Gerrard, ahead of Gerrard himself, who now plays more like the 4 he wears for his country than the 8 he wears for his club. Meireles and Aquilani were sold soon after Henderson arrived, Shelvey went last season (a mistake IMHO. He should’ve been loaned out) and Gerrard has moved back.

  • With Liverpool gifting West Brom a goal after not playing out properly from the back, one of the two monkeys on Liverpool’s back has bitten.  Simon Mignolet is nowhere as good as Pepe Reina as a distributor (though he’s much much better as a shot stopper), and the Toure-Skrtel partnership has always looked vulnerable playing out from the back. This was bound to happen and it’s good it happened. They’ll be more careful playing out from the back henceforth.
  • The other monkey on Liverpool’s back waiting to bite is Skrtel at set pieces. His natural strategy this season has been to grab the opponent’s tallest player. So far referees have overlooked it, and a penalty is waiting to be conceded. Hope that happens such that Liverpool don’t drop points on account of it
  • A big issue with Aly Cissokho at left back is that when he ventures forward (typically with little success), he doesn’t track back quickly enough and leaves Liverpool short of support in case the opponent breaks on a counterattack. Hence in the game against West Brom it was pleasing to see Daniel Sturridge having moved back into a left back position to cover when Cissokho got isolated on one of his ventures forward.
  • Once Jon Flanagan is fit enough to last 90 minutes (he isn’t yet, it seems), Cissokho should be dropped, Flanagan should go to left back and Kelly should play at right back. Cissokho is an abomination.
  • Liverpool’s injury list currently reads: Right back: Glen Johnson, Centre backs: Mamadou Sakho and Daniel Agger, Left back: Jose Enrique, Holding midfield: Lucas Leiva.  Another central midfielder Joe Allen recently came off that list. Gerrard, Sturridge and Coutinho have also been injured at some point in time this season.
  • The most joyous thing about watching Liverpool in 2008-09 was their comebacks. They came back from a goal down to beat Manchester United 2-1 at Old Trafford (I still remember that Ryan Babel strike that settled that game). Then came back from 2-0 down to beat Manchester City 3-2, and repeated that effort against Wigan. They almost repeated it against Hull but could only draw 2-2. Apart from the Villa game, such comebacks have been absent this season. And Liverpool have let leads slip way too many times.
  • I’m not saying anything about the Suarez-Sturridge partnership up front – the results are there to see. One thing I’ll say, though, is that I don’t like the “SAS” acronym – simply because the “A” stands for “and”. Now if only Iago Aspas could magically improve next season and become the A in SAS..
  • I have this tracker going all season that tries to predict where Liverpool will end up. This is based on quality of opposition faced. Liverpool have been a consistent fifth according to this tracker. Look at the MS Score here.

Trading and liquidity

Every time there is some activity in the football transfer market, you are likely to hear one of two things. Either a particular player was “a steal” or the buyer “overpaid”. You seldom hear that a player was bought or sold at a “fair price”. What drives this?

Note that the issue is not perception – if you look at the transfer dealings, you are likely to find that the general opinion of whether the transfer fee was too high or too low is in most cases fairly accurate. Even if it is not accurate at the time of the transfer, it gets borne out in the subsequent year or two after sale.

Two weeks back I took a class in introductory economics for a bunch of people who hope to get elected to the Bangalore Municipal Council (BBMP). Teaching them about demand and supply, and trade, I mentioned that in any voluntary trade, both the buyer and the seller are “winners”. For example, if Liverpool sold Fernando Torres to Chelsea for GBP 50 million, it means two things: One, the value that Liverpool placed on the future contribution of Torres to the club was less than GBP 50 million. Two, the value that Chelsea placed on the future contribution of Torres was more than GBP 50 million. If either of the above conditions were not true, the deal would not have happened.

So why is it that football transfers usually end up costing too much or too little? The answer lies in “liquidity”. Liquidity is a concept that is normally used in financial markets as a measure of the depth of the market. It measures how many people are willing to buy and sell a particular commodity at a particular point in time. The theory is that the greater the number of buyers and sellers for a particular commodity, the better is the price discovery. I’ve said this several times before – it is unfortunate that the concept of liquidity doesn’t find as much traction in mainstream economics literature.

Coming back to football – why is it that players are typically either undervalued or over valued? Because players are unique, and that makes the market illiquid. Let us go back to the deal that took Torres to Chelsea. Let us say that the value Chelsea placed on his future services was GBP 50 million, and the value that Liverpool placed on his future services was GBP 35 million (numbers pulled out of thin air). Given that Liverpool owned him, this deal could have taken place at any value between these two numbers (note that at any price between 35 and 50 million, both Liverpool and Chelsea would be willing to trade)! So why did the deal take place at one end of the spectrum?

It was a consequence of how badly the two clubs wanted to do the deal. While Torres had lost form and hadn’t been performing in the 2010-11 season, Liverpool were quite happy holding on to him – they were not desperate to do the deal. Even when offered an amount higher than their valuation of the player, they sensed Chelsea’s desperation in doing the deal. So Liverpool’s game here was to hold on long enough until they knew Chelsea had bid an amount they were unlikely to improve on, and then they sold.

Sometimes fans like to sing something like “there is only one Fernando Torres” (typically when he scores). And that is the precise reason that Liverpool was able to get a premium on his sale. There was a certain kind of player whom Chelsea desperately wanted to buy, and Torres was the one who fit the bill perfectly. Given the lack of comparables, and the desperation of the buyer, it became a seller’s market and Liverpool were able to profit from it.

So we have seen here that when the buyer is more desperate to do the deal than the seller, the deal takes place at the higher end of the “value spectrum” (I just made up that phrase at this moment). It can go the other way also. When Liverpool sold Torres, they (rather unwisely) invested most of it buying a player called Andy Carroll from Newcastle United. Carroll turned out to be a dud – he was increasingly injury prone, and when a new manager Brendan Rodgers came in, he found him to be not suitable for the style of football Liverpool wanted to play.

The presence of Carroll in the squad, however, would put pressure on the manager to play him – largely a consequence of the fee that had been paid to purchase him. To this end, Rodgers decided that it was better to cut his losses and remove Carroll from the squad, rather than play a suboptimal brand of football just so that Carroll was played. Rodgers correctly decided that the money that had been spent in buying Carroll was a “sunk cost”.

Now, in his year and a half since his arrival at Liverpool, Carroll had done much to convince people that he was overvalued. His injuries and lack of form meant that clubs were unwilling to value him highly, and given Liverpool’s determination to sell, it was a seller’s market. The GBP 15 million that Liverpool extracted from West Ham for the sale was perhaps exactly the value that Liverpool had placed on Carroll.

To summarize – you sell if the price is higher than your valuation. You buy if the price is lower than your valuation. The buyer’s and seller’s valuations together determine the “value spectrum” along which a sale can be done. Presence of comparable commodities means that people can go for substitutes, and so that shrinks the value spectrum. In case of footballers with few comparables, there are no factors compressing the value spectrum, and the full extent of it is available.

In a large number of cases, one of the buyer and seller is much more desperate to do a particular deal than the other. And that pushes the price of the deal to one of the edges of the value spectrum. Hence people end up either significantly underpaying or significantly overpaying for footballers.

Big forward, little forward

When most teams play a front two, it comprises of a small quick guy (called the Number Ten) and a big guy (called the Number Nine). The convention is that when the team is defending, one of these two stays up ahead (just beating the off-side mark, wherever the opposition defence line is), while the other tracks back in order to help out with the defence. The worldwide convention in this regard is for the Number Nine to stay up front in anticipation of an attack while the Number Ten drops back to defend.

Liverpool, of late, however, have played differently. Their Number Ten (figuratively, since he wears seven on his back) Luis Suarez is the one usually left alone upfront when the team is defending, while the number Nine Andy Carroll tracks back to help out in defence.

The logic of this policy is two-fold. One, an additional big player coming back to defend means greater ability to win defensive headers within the box (think of it in terms of winning rebounds in basketball). Secondly, Liverpool under Dalglish have preferred a pass-the-ball-out-of-defence method rather than clearances. This means that when the offence breaks and a counterattack is to be launched, the ball is more likely to be played along the ground to the forward rather than up in the air. And Suarez is the more likely of the pair of forwards more likely to make use of that.

So what is the concept behind the conventional wisdom of leaving Nine upfront with Ten dropping back into defence? The typical strategy in English football is to clear the ball out of defence rather than passing it out, and the big number nine is well positioned to receive it upfront. The big nines usually also have the ability to ‘hold up’ the ball, to allow his team-mates to join him. The number ten, being quick, is able to quickly join the number nine in attack.

The other factor behind leaving the number nine upfront is that they are usually one-dimensional players, with the only abilities being to win headers and hold up the ball. They are either no good in defence, or have big strikers’ egos that prevents from joining defence effectively. Number tens, on the other hand are more skilled all-round and are more likely to come of use in defence.

In this sense, Carroll is not bad at defence, and more importantly he is young and out of form, which makes it easy for Dalglish to force him to track back while defending. So far, it seems to be working.

Library Membership

While on a long lonely walk today (ironically, immediately after watching Liverpool play) I saw this library not too far from my house. It was called Just Books, I think, but I’m not sure of the name. With my British Council Library membership due for renewal in a couple of months, and doubts about whether I want to renew it (the library is too far, and I’ve stopped getting excited by the collection there), I’m considering membership to this library.

I took a look at the books today, and there were two major turnoffs. One was a section labeled “non-fiction” (whatever that is supposed to mean!). I don’t remember the other one right now – but I do remember having one other turn off while I was there. Apart from that, though, the collection seems good, which makes me think I should take membership there.

I found a lot of books there that I’ve read, or want to read, but wouldn’t borrow because I already own them. Now, I don’t know how to interpret this. The positive way of looking at it is that given that I like a lot of books that are there, they’re more likely to get other books of “my kind”, too. The negative way of looking at it is that I already own all the interesting books there that I want to read, so the membership wouldn’t add much value to me. The clincher, I guess, is about the frequency with which they update their collection. If they are going to buy new books on a regular basis, then I guess this will work out for me.

The other thing I liked about the library is that it has multiple copies of a lot of books. I think that is always a good thing, for you wouldn’t want to wait forever for someone to read that book that you want to read. They follow the netflix pricing model, where you pay a fixed fee (Rs 150) per month and there are no late fees. So by taking longer with a book, you are essentially denying yourself bang for the buck that you’re going to be paying them regularly (In the past I’ve “bailed out” of a library membership that followed this model. I didn’t go for a while, and then realized that the amount due was so high that I didn’t mind losing the deposit I’d placed there and I never bothered returning the books I’d “borrowed” from there).

And do any of you use Justbooks already? Do you like it? What are the odds that you go to the library and find nothing that you want to read?

Why is Ten Sports sitting on so many rights?

I wanted to stay up last night. I wanted to stay up and watch the WI-Eng match till the very end. Waking up this morning and checking the scorecard, it seems like it was a really good match. And Fidel Edwards seems to have become a last-day-shutdown specialist. This is the second time this series he’s hung on. And he’d done so once before against India at ARG.

There was another reason I wanted to stay up last night. I wanted to watch Liverpool play Real Madrid. I woke up this morning and saw that it was an amazing game, too. Looking through the Guardian Football site (btw, Advani seems to be advertising heavily on that site; it’s a pity he never advertises here on my site) I noticed that Chelski-Juve was also a strong game, despite the result. Another reason I would’ve wanted to stay up last night. For the record, I slept at 12:10. Tea-time in the Test match, and before either of the football games had started.

Ten Sports seems to have bitten off more than it can chew. It seems to own the rights to telecast too many different things. I think I have raised this point once earlier, but it pzzles me as to what Ten Sports is trying to achieve by getting rights to telecast so many things, most of which are happening at the same time. For example, over the last couple of weeks I’ve been unable to watch the first hour of WI-Eng even if I’d wanted to, because it was overlapping with the last hour of SA-Aus, which was being telecast at the same time.

The reason I slept off early last night was because I didn’t have the option to watch what I wanted. All the three games that I’d’ve been reasonably interested in were supposed to be on Ten Sports (Zee Sports doesn’t count since Tata Sky doesn’t offer that), and I  realized that I’d be forced to watch what the guys at the Taj Entertainment Network would want me to watch. Denied the option to choose what I wanted to watch, I went to bed.

It puzzles me that Ten Sports isn’t subletting its contracts. Devoid of anything decent to show, I suppose that ESPN or NEO would’ve only been too happy to acquire the rights to telecast last night’s Liv-Real game by paying a fee to Ten Sports. And it would’ve unlocked value at the hands of the remote-holder. Ten Sports need not let go of the rights to show all the games. All they need to do is to sell the “out of money options” – the rights to the game which they won’t be able to telecast anyway.

Now, the problem will be if accounting for all costs, no options are out of money. For example, you know you won’t be able to show Liv-Real. But you think that the loss of brand equity of your channel would exceed the money you’d gain by selling this option to another willing channel. The viewers are the only losers at this game, but I don’t know what can be done. After all, viewers  are way too dispersed in order for them to take any kind of action.

Extending this question, what can a sports body do to prevent a bidder from acquiring rights to telecast and then mess up the telecast (or not telecast it at all) ? After all, the sports body is out there to make as much money as possible from the TV rights, and they need to ensure significant investment into broadcasting by the broadcasters, so the “i’ll give rights to only those channels that are in the interest of the people” model won’t work.

One option would be to sell the rights to two channels in each market. But given that broadcast is a natural monopoly, the sports body will not be able to make as much by selling to two bidders as it can by selling to one bidder. Is there any other solution that you can think of? If yes, unleash.