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Article: Anelka, Owen and Heskey

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Paul Tomkins:
Anelka, Owen and Heskey - the Three Muskekeers

Ah, happy days again at Anfield. Having to endure several home performances that were just like watching Grimsby, I was privileged (or relieved) to be at Anfield to see us play like Brazil. (Or perhaps France, as Brazil are a bit crap these days). As soon as I saw the line up I was glad I made the trip (although the floodlight failure reminded me of August 31st 1997, when I travelled up from London and got to the ground only to find that the game was called off due to Princess Diana dying). I remarked to friends before the match that even if we lost I would be proud, providing the effort was there, because we were clearly going all out for the win. At times during the match we had no defensive cover as everyone poured forward  (in a tribute to Keegan, perhaps - that giant of both clubs) but Newcastle were too busy wondering what the hell had hit them to be able to do anything about it. In amongst it all, central to everything good and offering a new dimension to our game was a player we simply have to sign on a permanent basis.

Nicloas Anelka's all-round play was quite exceptional. I saw a Gooner on The Premiership in the week saying that however good Anelka is, he's no Thierry Henry (filmed on the day before Anelka did a convincing impression of Henry). What he was forgetting (and so many other pundits, too) is that they are comparing the 24-year-old Henry with the 18-year-old Anelka who shot them to the double; Anelka has always been two years behind Henry (funny that!), and Henry was 22 before he looked like fulfilling his potential. People will soon sit up and take note of the new Anelka - older, wiser, more experienced, and still five years short of his peak. A player who gave the crowd back ache from constantly shifting from a sitting to standing position, and neck ache from the whiplash due to trying to keep up with him.

I don't think Anelka is as 'natural' a finisher as Owen (or Fowler, who he effectively replaces in the number nine shirt, and whose name unfortunately cannot be re-arranged into anything even remotely resembling ‘Anelka’ with the letters on the back of my shirt), but he will score lots of goals due to his exceptionally clever (and implausibly quick) movement and his sharp footballing brain. He has a quite ferocious shot, and how Given managed to tip that 'effort out of nothing' onto the bar I'll never know. And despite being one of Robbie's biggest fans, it's hard to recall him taking a defence apart in the manner Anelka did here (at least not since a mercurial display against Arsenal at the start of the 1999/2000 season).

Different styles of player, of course, but there can be no doubting the Anelka fits more with Houllier's style of play than Robbie ever did. Anelka is so exceptional in tight spaces, like Robbie, but unlike Robbie he's also exceptional with 70 yards of grass ahead of him in which to sprint like a, um, very fast thing. (Like a cheetah, perhaps - yeah, like a cheetah - except a cheetah with close control of a football and an eye for goal). Houllier remarked a while back that Anelka is almost unique in that he is as fast with the ball at his feet (under control - not hoofing it and chasing it) as he is without it. The last Liverpool player this applied to was Paul Stewart, although the lack of differentiation in speed in his case was more like the change between 'cumbersome' with the ball at his feet and 'lumbering' without.

Anelka has exceeded my expectations in so many ways. First, he smiles. I never saw that coming! His workrate is nothing short of phenomenal - not always defensively, but the AMOUNT of forward runs he makes is staggering, but he has also made a few tackles and knocked a few defenders off the ball (and the more forward runs he makes, the more he occupies the opposition, the less easy they can rest and the more pressure they are under). Having watched the Newcastle match again on video, I was surprised to hear Andy Gray say he was shocked that Nic was winning so many flick-ons - he is quite exceptional in this area, and again, I never expected that. He doesn't just flick it on aimlessly, but jumps so well that he can angle his head to control the direction and pace on the ball. Every game he makes several good flick-ons, so it's no fluke. Once Mickey learns to read these (and the rest of Anelka’s game) we will have a quite awesome pairing.

Perhaps most impressive is Anelka’s link up play. I've not seen a Red since John Barnes who could kill every ball dead with one touch and with the second already have moved the ball past a defender. But against Newcastle he also turned out, stopped, and played 50 yard passes; or held it up and laid it back; or looked for flicks, drag backs and canny balls through the gaps, the kind I thought only Steven Gerrard and Jari Litmanen were capable of on a regular basis. With so many strings to his bow, he reminds me of Denis Bergkamp in his pomp, with an added change of gear (or two!). And Bergkamp was 27 when he came to this country, as the finished article in his prime. Nic is just a youngster, just 22, but one with all his rough edges smoothing away game by game. He has already played some brilliant passes in to Mickey, and if those two can overcome their strikers' egos (always wanting to be the one to score the goals) they can be a quite awesome duo. Both have laid each other in for chances, but it's about getting the balance between being selfish enough to take the responsibility to shoot to score goals (essential) and laying your teammate in when he has a better chance of scoring.

We have the option to buy a 'problem player' who has made his mistakes and learnt from them. He now knows that the Premiership is the style of play which suits him. He knows that any more mistakes and his time could be at an end. He knows that changing club all the time is problematic. Now he wants to fulfil the potential that GH saw in him all those years ago; Le Boss predicted in 1998 that the Frenchman would be the European Footballer of the Year one day (funny that Mickey should win that particular award so promptly!). Now we have two strikers capable of winning that award on a regular basis!

Houllier said four years ago that Anelka has “a very high opinion of himself as a player, something that is essential for strikers”. You can say the same of Michael Owen, but not so much of Emile Heskey. Confidence comes and goes - it’s transitory. But self-belief should be unshakable - the foundations on which a players game is based, so that a lack of confidence doesn’t result in a lack of attempting to try things. It is noticeable that GH has to constantly build up Emile’s self-belief. Even last season, during the goal-fest, GH said that if Emile BELIEVED he was as good as he actually is, he’d be 50% better! That self-belief would lead him to impose himself more, being the thought behind the statement. Anelka’s problems in the past were that he had too high an opinion of himself - paranoia that no-one was passing to him (although getting a pass off Overmars has been noted to only happen during leap years), and a desire to move to greener grass that turned out to be, in philosophical terms at least, nothing better than Astroturf (or that green plastic stuff that greengrocers lay their fruit out on). Of course, he did win the European Cup with Real Madrid, but they somehow thought they could have won it without him.

The goals will come for Nic (two in three ain't bad!). He did everything but score against the Geordies: two ferocious efforts, one saved, one blocked; inches away from connecting with two headers that would have been certain goals even if he miss-headed them; and three shots wide, one of which wasn't far from the angle of post and crossbar. I like strikers who, if they don't score, you can at least say that they LOOKED like scoring; who get into the right positions constantly, and can say that they tried everything - and either had an off-day in front of goal or lost out to the keeper on the day, as can happen from time to time.

When Anelka came on against Ipswich, he created a goal, had a good effort well saved and controlled two difficult long passes like he was Zidane's more skillful twin brother. From that moment I knew we had some player. (I had a good feeling about the season when my son was born and then, within a matter of hours, we won 6-0 at Portman Road! - as if life couldn’t get much better at that precise point). Then against Everton Nic was a constant thorn in their side, even when strangely isolated on his own up front, when a more positive-looking team selection might have helped both him and us to greater glory.

We need to remember that he was lacking any kind of match fitness when he arrived, and getting 10 minutes here and there were never going to get him into the groove; or being thrown into the starting line up when the team was not playing well, and being asked to win us the game away at Arsenal, West Ham or Soton was never going to be easy for a player still settling in and a yard short of pace. Effectively he needed the treatment Robbie Fowler was afforded at Leeds - a guaranteed run of 12 consecutive games, effectively writing the first few games off as fitness-building (any goals being a bonus) but expecting more four or five games in. But that's never easy to guarantee at a club like Liverpool, and we couldn't build a team around Anelka’s talents given that he was ineligible for the Champs League.

I'm just so glad that we are at last finding starting berths for all three of our jet-heeled strikers. None of them deserve to be left out on current form (although Mickey wasn’t quite at his best before the latest niggle, but he did some brilliant running at the Newcastle defence), but you can't play with three upfront in the modern game - not unless you want to concede a man in midfield, which is always where games are won and lost. (No point having three strikers if you've not got anyone to supply the ammunition, which is why when managers throw on all their strikers in desperation at the end of a match they suddenly stop having any chances to put away!).

So we've done the most sensible thing - moved the effervescently in-form Heskey to the wing, to get all three strikers on the pitch at once BUT in a sensible formation which suits each of their strengths. And you still get to behold the sight of a defender crapping his jock-strap as Heskey, Owen and Anelka simultaneously charge at them.

Of the three, Heskey is both the least natural finisher (he's certainly the least likely to shoot from anywhere, unprompted, and that, to me, became a problem when he was off-form - how the hell areyou going to get out of a dry spell if you’re not even shooting?). But he’s the most likely to succeed as a winger. He spent two years at Leicester as a wing-back, so he knows how to play on the flank. We paid £11m for him as a striker, and it’s great that he can do such a good job up there, but he could still obviate the need for us spending £15m on a winger.

He has everything needed for the role of a winger: pace (and pace over 70 yards, not 30 yards of explosion, like the shorter-legged Mickey, which is best used in and around the box), skill, bulk (ask players how hard it was to knock John Barnes off the ball, although Heskey is more pure muscle), a good cross, and the determination to happily undertake any defensive duties required (although if I had my way, I'd make sure he didn't defend too much, as he often tends to; with his attributes, he should have two opponents marking him, and not the other way around. I felt that when he had played wide midfield earlier in the season he spent too much time worrying about their players and not enough making them worry about him - just as you'd want Marc Overmars to occupy two defenders and keep them on their toes, and not him mark them).  I wrote an article for Shankly Gates over the summer saying that Emile could be a sensation out wide, and at last that's proving as good in practice. Until recently it only ever worked in theory.

You also still get to utilise his constant aerial pressure in the opposition box when we have long throws (the extraordinarily long throws of Xavier and Riise on either flank) and corners. You also get a great defender when the opposition have the same situations. And when Jerzy has the ball, he still has the option to kick long to Emile's head on the wing, or Nic in the centre.

It's no coincidence that Arsenal have done well since moving Wiltord to the wing. The stocky Frenchman has been a revelation out there, scoring a steady stream of goals, and creating a few as well. But let's face it, he's no Heskey in terms of pace and power. In fact, Wiltord is more of a penalty box predator, so if he can flourish out wide, it shows the potential for Emile. With Anelka constantly pulling to the right (dragging two or three defenders with him), and Emile stationed on the left, it stretches their back line, and on Wednesday left oceans of space for Mickey against a team determined to mark him out of the match. Unfortunately, Jeff Winter allowed Newcastle to kick lumps out of him all game whenever they got close enough. But the more space you can create for Mickey, the more chances he will get. Of the three, he is the one who is the most cold-eyed clinical in front of goal.

The side on which Emmo plays alters what you get from him. Naturally right footed, he's stationed on the left at the moment. This means that he will be able to cut inside at will and shoot, or go outside and hope to get some kind of cross in. Play him the other side, and he will be able to cross more accurately but less likely to score himself. Either way, you should get a good performance from the big man.

Gus Poyet, the same height as Emile, was a 15+ goal a season man at Chelsea, playing wide midfield. Lee Bowyer is the same (when he's behaving well enough to be allowed onto the pitch). Kewell, Ljungberg and Pires also score lots from that position. Goals are possible if you approach the role correctly.

If the ball is on his side of the pitch, you can expect Emile to run at defenders with the ball, going either inside or outside the full-back, and play like a 'winger'. (I'd define a winger as a Kewell or a Giggs, and a wide midfielder as a Parlour or Bowyer - players who don't try to cross from the byline and who don't really take players on, but have more of an all-round game, like Barmby and Murphy). When the ball is central he can stay out wide, to open the play up - so the man on the ball can use either flank, or utilise the space in the centre of the park.

But when the ball is on the other side of the pitch it is Emile's job to get into the box. In football, when the ball is on the opposite flank the entire game moves over by one 'step' (if you hug to touchline on the other side of the pitch from the ball, you are effectively playing yourself out of the game, as it would need to be some pass to find you). A full-back should move to where a centre back was (as the centre backs have moved closer to where the ball is). It doesn’t mean everyone following the ball schoolboy-fashion, just redistributing your strength to where the danger is.

So a wide-man should become a third striker, and so to have a striker in that role means that you should be quids-in. And the more Anelka pulls to the right flank (drawing the full-back, their wide midfielder, and even one of the centre backs out there - Dabizas, on Wednesday’s evidence), the more Emile can get on the end of the crosses, with the added bonus that instead of being up against a colossal centre back (Adams, Elliot, Desailly, Ferdinand, Campbell et al), he should be going up for a header with a Le Saux, Dixon, Winterburn, Alan Wright, Irwin, Neville, Lauren, Kelly, Harte, Bridge, Bjornebye, Curtis, Carr, Brevet, Finnan, Aaron Hughes, et al. The reason Poyet scored so many goals with his head for Chelsea is because he was usually up against the smallest breed of defender (the full-back). They are usually less physically powerful than centre backs, too, so it should be a miss-match.

Emile scored the sixth goal at Ipswich when switched to the wing, and the goal he scored against Gala, from Riise's long throw, would be the kind of goal he could have scored had he been playing at centre back and gone up for the set piece. He will always be able to score those type of goals, as he’ll always be in the box for them. But he has to continue to ‘gamble’ in general play, something that still isn't 100% natural to him - scoring goals from midfield is all about leaving your position and taking a chance. In the first half against Newcastle, Anelka pulled a ball back to the edge of the box and Danny Murphy hadn't gambled; Thommo gave him a bollocking, and the result was two well-taken goals soon after due to joining the attack and to hell with the consequences. If you are too concerned with marking your man, and scared to go forward in case the team loses the ball and you're left out of position, you will never score goals. Make the opposition mark you, and not vice versa. Away from home is different, but at home the onus is on you.

Sometimes you have to be prepared to make two runs - hard forward, and fast back again - instead of none (simply holding your position). But that's why Didi Hamann is in the team - to fill in for others. Hamann only becomes a waste of a player if no-one is attacking the opposition. If none of the midfield bombs forward, you are left with a stalemate, especially at Anfield, and that leaves Didi Hamann effectively redundant, like the old three centre back system, where at times you had three players (Babb, Ruddock and Harkness, for example, standing around) marking one striker which (even one of the dubious calibre of Mikkel Beck), at Anfield, was often ludicrous.

So everything went to plan against the Geordies. And while Emile's wing play wasn't quite as accomplished and explosive as in that superb 30 minute cameo against the bluesh*te, it was in the role of becoming the third striker that he excelled, and filled me with hope. When Mickey crossed in the first half, Emile was at the back post to nod across the goal. When Smicer put in the best Liverpool cross of the season (since Gerrard's in Kiev) and Anelka missed it by a fraction, Emile was there to scoop the ball narrowly over after it bounced wickedly in front of him. He was up with play, and he hadn't stayed out wide; he had got into dangerous positions, and nearly scored.

This is the way forward. What happens when Mickey is injured (as now), who knows? What happens when Emile's confidence drains away again and he stops running at defenders, who knows (but at least there's less pressure and expectation on him scoring when starting in midfield).

But from next season, when Milan Baros can fill one of the striking berths when others are missing (with Henchoz no longer needing a work permit as of June), we can maintain this formation (assuming Baros is as good as people say he is, and GH is rarely wrong). It also means that Jari can get introduced earlier into games when we need his creativity, too. It is ESSENTIAL that we play this way against the crud at Anfield - taking the game to teams who have no ambition to try and score against us, who just want to get 11 men behind the ball.

"He who dares wins", apparently.

Whether I'd expect us to line up like this away at Old Trafford or Highbury, or in the top European arenas, where our containment ploy generally works so well, I'm not sure. But a midfield containing Riise (or Murphy or Barmby if Riise remains at full-back), Gerrard, Hamann and Heskey is hardly lightweight, is it? Each one of those can provide industry, so it's not like we're talking fantasy football selections. You can even put either Smicer or Berger in and still look quite robust. One thing that has become clear in the Champions League is that mere containment is not going to win you much. Our lack of goals has cost us. Even if we continue to contain away from home, we need to be a bit more positive at Anfield in order to cash in.

One rip-roaring home display against Newcastle (to follow several good-to-brilliant away ones), and suddenly I'm like an eight-year-old child on Christmas Eve. Long may it continue! If we keep this home form up (i.e. maintain this attitude), I have no doubts that we can win the league; if we don't then we're out of the race.

But with most of our remaining games at Anfield, and with only Chelsea from the top six still to face (and they rarely do well at Anfield), and with Arsenal and the Mancs having to face each other again and possibly both drop two points in that one fixture (and the Mancs yet to go to Stamford Bridge, a bogey ground, and Elland Road - hardly a welcoming place for them) it's there for the taking - if we are positive. The Mancs have the worst record in all the games versus the top six (lost twice to us, lost at Newcastle, lost at home to Chelsea, lost at Arsenal and drew the home games with Leeds), whereas we've done the double over both them and Newcastle, drawn at Highbury and stuffed Leeds at their place, so the Manc’s three difficult games could yet unhinge them. Our problem of late has been home ties against the lesser sides, hence the need to impose our quality onto the game and go for the throat.

With perfect timing, GH is back on Merseyside, rallying the troops ahead of a full-time return within weeks, so motivation shouldn't be a problem. He can lift the whole place, and it's no coincidence that his two main pep talks from behind the scenes produced a 4-0 away win at Leeds and a 3-0 (going on 10-0) at home to Newcastle (and a massive lift in the games of  Heskey and Murphy). GH’s return could be the lift we need, to get that extra momentum.

We're still being written off by all the pundits, so the pressure is off to some extent. With the Champs League campaign (from which we've earnt a guaranteed £20m and gained a lot of useful experience along the way, and certainly not shamed ourselves) looking all but over after an extremely tough draw in the Group of Death, we can concentrate solely on the league as the top two fight on in different competitions. (Play the kids in Barcelona I say... of course, until we do and get heavily beat, from which point my stance will change to 'why the hell did we play the kids?'). Time to forget about Europe and concentrate on what's realistically attainable. Of the two games next week, of course I’d want us to win both, but if I had to choose I'd rather we beat Boro.

We can wait another year or two before going for number five. But it’s high time to sneak in on the blindside and claim number nineteen!

Hey Paul once again quality post -- well said mate.

I think this formation could work, so as the formation consist of Riise / Hamann / Gerrard and Litmanen in midfield.  The key there is if we are to play a creative midfielder like Jari we need to have enough steel in the middle of the park.

BTW how's William Boy doing? :D

Brilliant article Paul.  Absolutely brilliant.  Words can't describe it (mainly coz you have used them all in the article  ::) )

Bloody hell that was long!Good though ;)

Yep, they look a nightmare trio to mark when all on form, and Ged's influence on giving Emile that confidence he needs could make all the difference on the run-in.

I'd forgotten how fast Paul Stewart was with the ball at his feet until you compared him to nic!  ;D

Agree with your point about getting midfield forward more when we are at home. Barcelona had looked at our games last season and this time pinged the ball around at the back ,just waiting for us to come out. They have not played very well since that win, another defeat last night, so I think that  tactics will decide the game on Wed. more than anything. Its a pity we cant play the Newcastle formation.


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