Local derbies, eh?
One set of people from one city getting all riled up about another set of people from the same city who they get along perfectly well with for the other 363 days of the year. It’s magic really. Or just a bit pointless. While we’re on the subject of pointless exercises, I’ve had a look at the Liverpool and Everton squads to pick a hypothetical Merseyside XI that will never come to pass. It’s not going to happen because they can’t agree on proposals to share a stadium that actually make a lot of sense, so their highly unlikely to disband and form one team representing the entire city.
Oh yeah – apologies to Tranmere.
Let the debate and childish name-calling begin.
Goalkeeper: Tim Howard v Pepe Reina
It’s difficult not to like Tim Howard. He’s hard-working, he comes across well and there’s the lingering chance he’ll throw a swearword into the conversation. He’s turned his career around after being one of the several failures in Sir Alex Ferguson’s bid to replace Peter Schmeichel to become one of the more consistent performers in the Premier League. Sadly though, he’s up against one of the best in the world. Despite occasional bouts of madness and over-confidence, Pepe Reina is an excellent goalkeeper who has earned Liverpool far more points than he has cost them. It’s says a lot that SAF was very serious about bringing him in as a replacement for Edwin van der Sar and with the way David De Gea has started, he’s probably still on the list.
Verdict: Pepe Reina
Right Back: Tony Hibbert v Glen Johnson/Martin Kelly/Jon Flanagan
Right back is a tricky one. If Glen Johnson ever recovers his best form or ever learns how to defend, he would be the choice. Equally, Martin Kelly has shown signs of real potential during his injury-interrupted first couple of seasons with Liverpool and Jon Flanagan steeped in admirably last season in a manner that suggests a bright future ahead for him.
However, if the point of the exercise is to pick the best team for right now (and that’s what we’re aiming for), then Hibbert has to get the nod. Solid, reliable, about as exciting as a trip to the Post Office, he’s a hugely under-rated player. He has been a loyal servant to the Toffees for over a decade and any issues with defence they may have had during that period have had little to do with him. I like Tony Hibbert. There, I said it. I know the others may go on to far better than him, but for the moment, his sheer reliability has him in there.
Centre Backs: Distin, Carragher, Jagielka, Skrtel, Heitinga, Agger, Coates
Again the conflict between loyalty and current form arises for the centre-back berths. Jamie Carragher is both a great Liverpool servant and a fine example of Scouse mettle (except for that time he threw the coin back at the Arsenal fans), but not for the first time in his career, he’s going through a rough patch. I suspect this is a dip in form rather than the permanent decline pundits are so happy to announce, but there’s no doubt that at the moment, he’s not at his best. Sylvain Distin is another Premier League veteran with plenty of ability, but possibly not the greatest reputation for reliability. In his case, it has less to do with the onset of age and just the capacity for his brain to take inexplicable and sporadic breaks. Martin Skrtel looks like an extra from American History X, but doesn’t use the image to take command of defensive situations; Jonny Heitinga is used mainly a utility back who can cover a couple of positions and Sebastian Coates may well turn into the best defender on Merseyside, but he has to be given his chance first.
Right now, it’s a fairly straightforward choice. It took me years to warm to Phil Jagielka – mainly because for many of those years it was Neil Warnock singing his praises and I therefore ignored it entirely – but since joining Everton he has been improved on his already abundant natural ability. Tough, quick and generally decisive, it’s no surprise international honours have come his way and he has been monitored by Premier League teams looking to hoover up all the talent for themselves. Alongside him, I’d make the vaguely controversial call of sticking Daniel Agger in there. His career at Anfield has been blighted by injury, but when fit and with a few games under his belt, he has the potential to be a commanding defender and one that’s more than comfortable with the ball at his feet. I’m going for Jags and Aggs, not just because it Brangelinas nicely into ‘Jagger’.
Verdict: Jagielka and Agger
Left Back: Leighton Baines v Jose Enrique
This is another genuinely tough choice with little to choose between the two. Baines has become the darling of the highlights package with his TV friendly free-kicks and set-piece delivery, but there is more to his game than merely being the Scouse Ian Harte. He’s a quick, reliable defender and provides an attacking threat in open play as well as dead-ball situations. Being regarded as the best defender in Newcastle has generally been akin to being the quickest runner at fat camp, but after taking a while to settle in the Premier League, Jose Enrique has become one of the most coveted left-backs in the league. He is now a solid all rounder – combining good defensive work with an ability to get forward and play penetrating long passes to the forwards. If I was manger, I try to accommodate both in my team, but Baines gets the narrowest of nods, with Enrique being the more than able deputy.
Holding Midfielder: Phil Neville v Lucas
Normally being shown the door at Old Trafford is the beginning of the end for a player, but there must be times when Sir Alex Ferguson looks at Phil Neville, looks at his own midfield options and thinks ‘I could have done with him’. Neville has flourished at Goodison Park and although his medal collection has remained static since leaving the Red Devils, he has arguably won more in terms of plaudits and respect. After being a running joke for his first couple of years at Anfield, Lucas has made a remarkable comeback to oxymoronically become a lot of Liverpool fans’ unsung hero. He’s a tenacious tackler, a much improved passer and it’s probably no bad thing that he plays a little further away from the goal these days as a record of six goals from over 160 games probably proves. It’s another tough call, but mainly for his tireless energy and lovely hair, the Brazilian gets a narrow nod.
Centre Midfielder: Marouane Fellaini/Jack Rodwell v Steven Gerrard/Charlie Adam/Jordan Henderson
It all gets a bit murky when it comes to the other central midfield role. Talk of advanced midfielders, second strikers and free-roles come into play and that complicates matters. Your view on who gets picked will be dictated by what you expect from the role. Marouane Fellaini is a classy player, but lacks the creativity and goalscoring-threat of some of the others. Jack Rodwell has that creativity but is arguably not as strong in other areas. Charlie Adam has the range of passing and two-footedness of a good playmaker but come the second half of most games looks like he couldn’t tackle of a flight of stairs and Henderson is learning – that’s the politest way to put it. I know he’s been out for 6 months and prior to that he hadn’t been at his best, but to use the horribly vague cliché that Simon Cowell has forced upon society, Gerrard has the X-factor that means you pretty much have to have him in your side every time.
Left Midfield: Diniyar Bilyaletdinov/Royston Drenthe/Seamus Coleman v Stewart Downing
Again the picture is somewhat muddied by the flexibility of the players and the definition of exactly what a left midfielder is, but I think these players are the ones vying for the position. Everton have some talented options for the left of midfield, but ones with question marks hanging over their names. Bilyaletdinov is a very good player when he’s in the mood, but too often he’s not and has a minimal impact on games. I’ve long since been an admirer of Drenthe, but he seems touched by the brush of mental instability and he didn’t always give himself the best chance of succeeding at Real Madrid. Again though, the talent is there and if David Moyes can get the blinkers on, he could prove to be a very shrewd acquisition. I was a little surprised to see Seamus Coleman pop up on the left – mainly because Giovanni Trapattoni seems to think he’s a right back, David Moyes seems to think he’s a right midfielder and yet he has operated mainly on the left flank in the last couple games. Stewart Downing has made a strong start to his career at Anfield without necessarily getting the goals or assists his performances have deserved. He’s got to be the choice.
Right Midfield: Leon Osman/Seamus Coleman v Dirk Kuyt/Jordan Henderson
I think Leon Osman is and has been consistently under-rated for the last few seasons. So much of Everton’s better attacking play goes through him and he’s capable of scoring goals himself and providing opportunities for others. Plus he’s got the work rate of an elf at Christmas. I’d put Dirk Kuyt into a similar category of player to Osman. Maybe pace and skill aren’t strong points, but he works tirelessly for his team and the ability to do the simple things at the right time is a virtue often overlooked in favour of the more spectacular. He has every right to feel aggrieved to be missing out to Henderson so far this season, but such is the class of the man, there hasn’t been much grumblings coming from his camp – either via thinly veiled comments through the media or ill-advised tweets. I’ve got a feeling Seamus Coleman will develop into the star turn of the quartet, but I said something similar about Danny Cadamarteri so don’t hold me to that. Again, Henderson is very much the future and I’d prefer either of the other three. Somewhat counter-intuitively because he’s not even getting his game for Liverpool, I’m going to go with Kuyt, but I’d be more than happy to spring Osman from the bench.
Forward: Tim Cahill v Luis Suarez
Tim Cahill is arguably the best buy of the Moyes era and one of the most consistent Premier League players of recent seasons. His goals, work-rate and bizarrely effective aerial threat make up for occasional bouts of Scholes-esque tackling and the troublesome international calendar the Socceroos have to live by. In opposition is Luis Suarez, the immensely skilful, fiery dynamo who couldn’t be more of a South American cliché if he was the head of a cocaine smuggling empire. Taking virtually no time to settle in the Premier League, Suarez has simply been a revelation and even the most ardent supporters of the Toffees must admit he’s a pleasure to watch. His overall contribution to the team far outweighs the bouts of petulance and his ability to operate as illegal goalkeeper doesn’t hurt either. It’s unlucky for Cahill, but Suarez gets the call.
Striker: Louis Saha/Tim Cahill/Denis Stracqualursi v Andy Carroll/Craig Bellamy/Dirk Kuyt
Saha is brilliant when he’s fit and in form, but too often at least one of those things eludes him. I haven’t seen anything of Stracqualursi which pretty much rules him out of the running. Although he’s not an out and out striker, there’s something about Cahill’s doggedness that makes sticking him up front appealing. The chances are the £35 million paid for Andy Carroll will never truly feel like value for money, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be a success for Liverpool. He hasn’t found his best form for the club, but he’s fumbling around in its general vicinity and it would be no surprise if it just clicked for him in coming weeks. The pace of Craig Bellamy is a nice option to have for a switch later in the game, but I don’t think he’d start in this hypothetical exercise. Based on current form, I’d probably adopt the Moyes policy of playing Cahill as part of a more dynamic attacking unit with players swapping roles throughout the course of the game. At the moment it’s Cahill for me in a very flexible system, but Andy Carroll is gradually finding form and isn’t far behind.