This has been a season of ups and downs for Liverpool supporters everywhere, from the tumultuous tenure of Roy Hodgson to the rosey reign of Sir Kenny Dalglish. There have been many positives and negatives this season, one of the biggest positives has been the emergence of a group of local lads that have burst onto the scene since the turn of the year: Jay Spearing, John Flanagan, Jack Robinson and Martin Kelly.
Making Massive Strides
Martin Kelly was promoted into the reserves back in 2007 after missing roughly two years of football due to an on-going back injury. Kelly made his debut at centre back for the reserves against Newcastle where he effectively marshalled Shola Ameobi to a bit part role. Continuing to impress at centre back, while also filling in the two full back positions when necessary, Kelly received his current number 34 jersey in the summer of 2008 after starring for Gary Ablett’s title-winning side. It wasn’t long before we saw Kelly make his debut coming on for Jamie Carragher as an 81st minute sub in the 3-1 win over PSV Eindhoven that December.
The current incarnation at right back that we’ve all come to love (with his wicked crosses, massive strides and closing the channels) first appeared in the 2-1 loss to Lyon in October 2009. Kelly’s crossing and cavalier runs caused problems for Lyon all night but the night did end on a sour note as he was ushered off with an injury after 75 minutes.
The young man from Whiston was only filling in for the injured Glen Johnson but you would have been hard pressed to guess who the first choice player really was. The injury was deemed to be only a minor one but set back after set back kept Kelly to the physio room for the vast majority of the season. This could be interpreted as a contributing factor to his form this season. After the Lyon game hype and expectation from the fans was sky-high as they called for more from the impressive local lad but the long-term injury ensured a return to anonymity, a quenching of expectations and relieving the pressure surrounding him.
Since then Kelly has, in the eyes of many fans, displaced Glen Johnson as first choice right back whilst being touted as potentially one of the best in England (by fellow comrades Martin Skrtel and Jamie Carragher). Kelly’s form has also raised some questions regarding Liverpool’s problem at left back, would a suitable solution be Johnson playing there? With right back under Kelly’s guard, fellow full back Glen Johnson, who Kelly attributes a large portion of his development to, has had to play on the opposite flank where he has been more impressive than on his natural right side.
A hamstring injury at West Ham ruled Kelly out for the rest of the season, shortly afterwards Fabio Aurelio would be ruled out for the remainder as well. This left Kenny with a selection dilemma on the flanks, would Jamie Carragher or Danny Wilson get the nod to play in the fullback slots with Glen Johnson?
Cue 18-year-old John Flanagan. Flanagan had only made his debut for the reserves a year beforehand and had shown great maturity and a keen eye for a tackle. Flanagan’s maturity was evident from a young age: In Liverpool v Everton U-18 derby, Flanagan had found himself on the wrong end of a stray elbow from one of his opponents. Clearly incensed, Flanagan didn’t lash out as would be expected from a kid his age instead he steeled himself and let the football do the talking.
Through a Brick Wall
Flanagan’s tough tackling and commitment to the cause was evident from the get go and it was believed to be only a matter of time before he took a player out. No one was expecting it to be fellow scouser Jamie Carrager! In the 1-1 draw v Arsenal, Flanagan and stand-in captain Carragher both went up for a high ball at the same time, it was lights out for Carragher on impact.
Flanagan enjoyed a 5 match unbeaten run, including a BBC Team of The Week performance in the 5-0 drubbing of Birmingham City, until the visit of Tottenham Hotspurs to Anfield. Liverpool lost the match 2-0 with Flanagan giving away a controversial penalty for , what appeared to be, a 50/50 tackle outside the box with Spurs’ Steven Pienaar. Another loss to Aston Villa quickly followed but a dampening of expectations is never out-of-place and the summer break will give Flanagan a break from the fan driven pressure pushed onto local youths.
Messrs Flanagan and Kelly could not be further apart in terms of defensive style, Flanagan likes to hit opponents hard and be first to the ball all the time while Kelly likes to shadow the opponent and shut down the channels. (Stats courtesy of Who Scored.com).
As we can see both players get stuck in but they’re tackling style is poles apart. Kelly’s jockeying and composure in the tackle gives him a lower foul:tackle ratio (14%) to Flanagan’s blood and thunder tackles (76%). It’s quite obvious that Flanagan needs to learn some composure in the tackle and this season a few quid on a yellow card against a tricky/direct winger wouldn’t have gone to waste. Flanagan has been booked in 3 of his 7 games, his opponents: Nasri, Gutierrez and Rose.
Jamie Carragher might not feel so bad if he saw this graph, Flanagan’s aerial duel success rate of 86% puts him above the likes of Chelsea’s John Terry (71%), Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany (70%) and Manchester United’s Nemanja Vidic (67%) albeit playing far fewer matches.
Stay tuned for the second installment where I’ll cover Jay Spearing and Jack Robinson.