LIVERPOOL ENGLAND - JANUARY 16: The Kop display a banner honouring Liverpool Manager Kenny Dalglish prior to the Barclays Premier League match between Liverpool and Everton at Anfield on January 16 2011 in Liverpool England. (Photo by Alex Livesey /Getty Images)
It feels good to be back, it really does. We can begin to talk about games that matter instead of mind-numbing friendlies as anticipation of that first kick grows around the country.
So of course that means the return of all things "Matchday" on Roker Report, and back for another season is Fan Focus, where we speak to a fan of the opposition to get their views on the forthcoming game.
A few changes from last year however, we're not going to be speaking to them after the game any more. Nice as it was, too many where a bit unresponsive following a bad result for their team, plus it was sheer torture during those losing streaks.
So how can we balance it out? By getting some of the best in the business to give us their views, and we're off to a cracking start with this weeks Liverpool representative, from home of Liverpool based opinion, The Tomkins Times, it's Paul Tomkins!
Paul was kind enough to give us his thoughts on Liverpool's summer, what the future has in store for his side, and of course the game itself on Saturday...
Hi Paul, pleasure to speak with you. How’s the pre-season gone for Liverpool, on and off the field?
Paul: On the field, pretty poorly. But many of the games have involved players who wouldn’t even make the reserves, with lots of experimentation. Loads of goals have been conceded, but without Reina, Agger, Johnson, Skrtel, Gerrard, Lucas, Meireles and Suarez for most games, it’s nothing to worry about. Players are now returning from injury, hopefully just in time to be fit, if not necessarily sharp, for the weekend.
Off the pitch, it’s a million miles better than last season, when we had Gillett and Hicks penny pinching and Roy Hodgson trying to turn the likes of Paul Konchesky and Christian Poulsen into Liverpool players.
What’s your view on the signing of Jordan Henderson, and what are Liverpool fans expecting from him this season?
Paul: I think it’s a positive signing. You’ll know him much better than I do, but from what I’ve seen he seems a good passer with a great engine, who, like Steven Gerrard, took a while to start scoring goals in first team football.
That said, he reminds me more of Frank Lampard in his style and stamina. I used to think Lampard was overrated as a younger player, but what a career he’s had – he’s not in Gerrard’s class as a natural footballer, but hard work has seen him flourish. Hopefully Henderson can do the same. His main problem will be the fact that more is expected at Liverpool, and he now has a big price tag to justify. He seems a well-adjusted young man, but it may take time to adapt.
Another of our boys you were after, well sort of anyway, was Connor Wickham. Any disappointment at missing out there or dodged a bullet?
Paul: Liverpool wanted Wickham, but not badly enough. Dalglish, Comolli and the new owners have shown that they’ll stretch to meet steep fees if they think it’s still good business, but they wouldn’t go beyond £8m for Wickham. A shame, as he looks a great prospect, but he’ll get more football at Sunderland.
Money was spent however on Henderson of course, but also Charlie Adam and Stewart Downing arrived for big money. Is there any added pressure on Kenny Dalglish to do big things this year?
Paul: Expectations are rising, clearly. Then again, plenty of Liverpool fans live in the past – I argued last summer with some delusional souls who felt it was only Benítez holding us back, and Hodgson would win us the league in 2011. Liverpool still don’t have a squad that costs anywhere near as much as those of City, Chelsea and United, so 4th spot is a realistic ambition, if Spurs and Arsenal don’t overperform.
Dalglish has got us back on track again, and if we can get anywhere close to where we were in 2008/09 I’d be delighted.
Moving on to the game itself, what sort of game are you expecting? Early season games can be difficult to judge when there’s been much upheaval on both sides.
Paul: I actually used the Sunderland home games in 2010 as an example of our tactics in this recent piece: http://tomkinstimes.com/2011/07/do-liverpool-possess-enough-magic/
We won’t be at full-strength, and as you say, it’s hard to predict early season games. At home, I have to say that I expect us to win, but I fear a draw is quite likely in the circumstances.
As touched on earlier, we’ve made a lot of signings too. Do you consider any of our squad cause for concern on Saturday?
Paul: Sunderland seemed to have some weird spells last season, with lots of wins, then lots of games without a win. Of course, you’re a bit too ex-Man Utd for my liking, with five or six players, as well as Steve Bruce! Not sure what all your new signings have done to your wage bill, but there seems to be more depth now, rather than the introduction of any clear stars. Obviously Gyan looks your main threat to an outsider.
Wes Brown and John O’Shea will bring experience, and are good signings – I think United may miss their ability to drop into the side and do a steady job – although they appear to be on incredibly long contracts for their age. We made that mistake last summer with Konchesky, Poulsen and Joe Cole.
What’s the score going to be on Saturday then?
Paul: I’ll say 1-1 or 2-1 to us. But predicting football scores is not my forte, as, of course, anything can happen on the day, including beach ball interventions and bizarre free-kick situations.
Finally, every year I hear from Liverpool fans "this is the year"... Is THIS the year?
Paul: No, not at all. Part of my motivation for writing ‘Pay As You Play: The True Price of Success in the Premier League Era’ (for which Jonathan Wilson contributed observations to the Sunderland chapter) was to work out where clubs should finish; not where fans think they should.
My co-authors and I worked out that league position closely correlates with what we called the £XI – the average cost of the starting XI over 38 games but with ‘football inflation’ taken into account (so that older transfers, from a time when the market was different, are viewed in current day money. For instance, the average price of a Premier League transfer in 2004 was £2m, but in 2010 it was £5m).
On average, teams finish within just 2 places of their £XI rank, and for the top seven last season, teams finished an average of just 1 place away. All of this contrasts with the early years of the Premier League, when the league average was four places, and where teams with very inexpensive £XIs, like Norwich and QPR, could finish in the top three.
For example, Sunderland’s 2010/11 £XI – £46m – ranked 9th. Therefore, we’d expect them to finish very close to 9th. Sunderland finished 10th.
Indeed, in the last seven seasons in the Premier League, you’ve finished below where expected – underperforming – but never by too much. Between 1999 and 2001, Sunderland massively overachieved.
In Liverpool’s case, we ranked 4th last season and finished 6th – although as we were 19th in October and 12th when Dalglish took over, that shows the improvement made from January onwards. Under Dalglish the average cost of our XI still ranked 4th, but based purely on his results we would have finished 3rd. Even with the new spending, Liverpool’s £XI this season, if everyone is fit, should still only rank 4th. Last season’s top three can keep a far more expensive XI from game to game because of bigger squads.
No team is ever limited by such numbers – you can still overachieve – but it’s a realistic indicator of ambitions for a campaign.
Thanks very much Paul, we'll catch-up again soon.
Now in that last little section you'll notice some fascinating stuff about performance in the league vs money spent, so for more on that, I'd highly recommend you pick up a copy of the book it comes from - Pay As You Play: The True Price Of Success In The Premier League Era, by Paul Tomkins himself! Go get yourself a copy today!