Jordan Henderson is headless and two other things learned from Liverpool's draw with Sevilla

Alex Rea 14/09/2017
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Liverpool’s defensive frailties reared their ugly head once more as they opened their Champions League campaign with a 2-2 draw against Sevilla at Anfield.

The Reds went behind within five minutes as Wissam Ben Yedder was afforded a simple tap in after a catalogue of errors at the back.

Roberto Firmino finished off a slick Liverpool move to equalise just over 15 minutes later and then they went ahead in the 37th minute through Mohamed Salah’s viciously deflected strike.

Firmino should have made it 3-1 before the break as he slammed a penalty against the post and it ultimately proved costly as the Spanish visitors equalised through the impressive Joaquin Correa in the 72nd minute.

Here are three things learned from an entertaining night at Anfield…

FIRMINO HAS EVOLVED INTO A PROPER NO9

The Brazilian took on the cursed No9 shirt this season and is quickly dispelling the hex created by flops Andy Carroll, Christian Benteke, Iago Apas and Rickie Lambert.

Indeed, from false nine to genuine nine, Firmino is flourishing in the role and against Sevilla he displayed all the characteristics of the position.

He plundered his fourth goal in six games, won balls in the air, pressed relentlessly, held the ball up superbly and his link-up play with Salah and Joe Gomez on the right was slick.

Alongside Sadio Mane and Salah, he did the damage but unfortunately for the Reds the ramifications of his missed penalty in the end proved equally as harmful.

Still, with the reintroduction of his countryman Philippe Coutinho, the best is yet to come from Firmino this season.

Roberto Firmino in action against Sevilla

Roberto Firmino in action against Sevilla

SET-PIECE PROBLEMS INCLUDE THROW INS

Liverpool’s almost stubborn inability to defend set-pieces is well documented and well crticised.

But the systemic problem stretches further than just corners and free-kicks because you can add throw-ins to the rap sheet.

In the 3-3 draw with Watford earlier this season Abdoulaye Doucoure’s second goal stemmed from delicate defending from a throw-in and Sevilla’s equaliser reiterated the issue.

Emre Can and Jordan Henderson were immediately out of position with the ball behind them as Sergio Escudero quickly resumed play.

The rest of the backline were caught completely static as well with simple man marking non-existent.

Credit to Correa for a sublime first touch and cool finish but it seems like Liverpool’s frenetic pace going forward means when breaks in play occur they just shut down and fall asleep.

It’s baffling and vexing in equal measure a team could cause such panic in attack but then panic at the back.

Joaquin Correa celebrates his equaliser

Joaquin Correa celebrates his equaliser

HENDERSON IS HEADLESS

The captain needed a strong performance after his meek surrender in the shattering defeat to Manchester City last weekend. It never arrived, though.

In truth, he was awful in a game when the battle of the midfield trios was always going to be crucial.

One wonders when Naby Keita arrives next season whether his position in the team will be so certain because the performances of late really call that into question.

He pressed into Sevilla players headlessly and it meant the back four was very often left exposed and without cover.

The England international hit a 75 percent pass success rate and for a No6 that’s simply unacceptable.

Granted his pass to Alberto Moreno in Firmino’s equaliser was exquisite but the positive plays are being outweighed by the negative at the moment.

Jordan Henderson puts pressure on Steven N'Zonzi

Jordan Henderson puts pressure on Steven N’Zonzi

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Will Arsene Wenger take the Europa League seriously and other Arsenal key questions

David Cooper 13/09/2017
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Arsenal embark on a Europa League campaign when Cologne visit the Emirates on Thursday night.

Here, we look at some key talking points ahead of the clash.

WILL ARSENE WENGER TAKE IT SERIOUSLY?

Arsenal boss Wenger has already said the Premier League is the priority for the Gunners this season.

The Frenchman is also not a fan of the Europa League winners earning a slot in the following year’s Champions League – as Manchester United did last season – and would rather get there by breaking back into the top four.

Wenger has always played a changed team during Arsenal’s League Cup ties and it is likely to be a similar story when Bundesliga side Cologne visit London.

Wenger is not a fan of Europa League winner's passage into the Champions League

Wenger is not a fan of Europa League winner’s passage into the Champions League

SO, WHO WILL BE IN THE TEAM?

Seven of Arsenal’s first-choice players will be rested completely from the game with Petr Cech, Laurent Koscielny, Alexandre Lacazette, Granit Xhaka, Aaron Ramsey, Danny Welbeck and Mesut Ozil all sitting this one out.

That does not necessarily mean it will be a team of inexperienced youngsters as Jack Wilshere could make a long-awaited comeback while Alexis Sanchez may feature as he strives for match sharpness.

Back-up David Ospina is likely to come in, while the likes of Shkodran Mustafi, Per Mertesacker, Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud are also in contention.

Jack Wilshere was sent off in a Premier League 2 fixture earlier this season

Jack Wilshere was sent off in a Premier League 2 fixture earlier this season

SHOULD THEY BEAT COLOGNE NO MATTER WHO PLAYS?

Peter Stoger’s side finished a strong fifth in the Bundesliga last season, albeit 13 points behind fourth-placed Hoffenheim.

This campaign has started badly for the Billy Goats, who have lost their opening three league games to sit bottom of the table – they are the only top-flight German side without a point so far.

Like Arsenal, who lost the 2000 UEFA Cup final to Galatasaray, they have history in this competition and finished as runners-up in 1986, losing the final 5-3 to Real Madrid over two legs.

Peter Stoeger

Peter Stoeger

DO COLOGNE HAVE ANY RECOGNISABLE TALENT?

No star names jump out of the Cologne squad, but they have some good players nonetheless.

Their talisman from last season, Anthony Modeste, is currently out on loan in the Chinese Super League having hit 25 goals for Stoger’s men last season.

Forward Yuya Osako is a Japan international, while experienced skipper Matthias Lehmann has been around the block.

New signing Jhon Cordoba has been likened to Didier Drogba in the past while a host of former Germany international youth talents make up much of the squad.

New signing Jhon Cordoba in action this season

New signing Jhon Cordoba in action this season

WILL IT BE A SELL-OUT?

Arsenal have slashed ticket prices for their Europa League group games, with the most expensive ticket for Thursday’s match a modest £23.50, but the game is not sold out.

The club never announce their attendances but instead work on a ‘tickets sold’ basis – although Thursday is likely to be well down on the 59,000+ that pack into the Emirates Stadium for Premier League matches and Champions League evenings.

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Ernesto Valverde has been bold with Lionel Messi but also quiet and rational to bring Barcelona stability

Andy West 13/09/2017
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The season is still young and there’s an awfully long way to go before any celebration, but it already appears that Ernesto Valverde is exactly the manager Barcelona needed.

It was clear they needed something. The team was on the verge of falling apart under previous boss Luis Enrique, whose combative personal manner and inability to instil a clear tactical vision left the team a long way from reaching their potential in the last 18 months of his reign.

All sorts of names were touted as potential replacements for Enrique, and former Athletic Bilbao coach Valverde, who enjoyed his greatest successes with Olympiakos in Greece, appeared to be a rather conservative choice.

He’s certainly a serene personality. Unlike the abrasive Enrique, you won’t find Barcelona’s new manager making enemies within the media by rolling his eyes at unwelcome questions and snapping back terse one-liners.

Neither will you see him, unlike Pep Guardiola or Jorge Sampaoli, attempting to unleash some kind of tactical masterclass upon his players and dazzle the watching world with a wild new playing formation.

Rather than grabbing headlines with ostentatious public displays, Valverde just gets on with his job, quietly and calmly, making rationally thought-out decisions and communicating clearly with his players to keep them on the same page.

That’s not to say he doesn’t make bold decisions, and Valverde has already come up with a significant solution after wrestling with his single biggest dilemma: where to play Lionel Messi.

After being positioned on the right wing for much of the last three years, Messi has been returned to his old ‘false nine’ deep-lying centre forward role, allowing him to perform as a playmaker and a striker at the same time, and the results have been hugely positive with Messi rattling home seven goals in his last three games.

Messi celebrates the first of two goals against Juventus

Messi celebrates the first of two goals against Juventus

Messi’s repositioning, naturally, has had a knock-on effect within the rest of the team, and the midfield in particular has benefitted from the Argentine being placed as the free-roaming tip of a diamond ahead of Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic and Andres Iniesta.

Although Messi has obviously grabbed the headlines, his midfield teammates also caught the eye in this week’s victories over Espanyol and Juventus, with Rakitic’s return to top form an especially welcome sight after a tough final year under Enrique for the Croatian.

The team’s defensive efforts have also been excellent, as Barca have not conceded a single goal in their last four games and shown few of the frailties that were almost always apparent last season, with summer signing Nelson Semedo settling quickly and Jordi Alba back to his best.

Not everything is perfect. In particular, the shape of the attack in front of Messi looks lopsided, with Ousmane Dembele or Gerard Deulofeu pinned to the right touchline while Luis Suarez meanders around an inside left position which neither allows him to play as a centre forward nor a winger.

Both Dembele and Suarez were poor against Juventus, with the record signing Frenchman at times looking completely out of place in a team which doesn’t yet know how to play to his strengths.

These are issues for Valverde to address, along with the question of squad depth when his big hitters are missing. But so far, the new boss couldn’t have done much better.

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