A victim of versatility – Raul Meireles

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Player transfers were one of many things Liverpool managed poorly last summer, as Christian Purslow and Roy Hodgson oversaw some woeful signings and ludicrous sales.  The arrivals of promising prospects Jonjo Shelvey and Danny Wilson were tied up by Rafa Benitez, who also sanctioned the signing of Bosman flop Milan Jovanovic.  Following the Spaniards sacking, Hodgson and Purslow were active in the market themselves.  Joe Cole and Fabio Aurelio were signed on free transfers, but in deals that will cost the club a lot of money in the long term; wages of approximately £90,000 per week for Cole and a two year deal for the injury prone Aurelio.  The remaining signings were Paul Konchesky from Fulham for slightly more than £3m, Christian Poulsen from Juventus for £4.5m, Brad Jones from Middlesbrough for £2.3m and Raul Meireles from Porto for £10.7m.  Leaving Liverpool was a raft of former Academy and Reserve Team players, the wantaway Yossi Benayoun, Albert Riera and Javier Mascherano, but also Alberto Aquilani, after just one season of adaptation in England and the promising Argentine international Emiliano Insua, both on loan.

It would be too kind to say that the summer signings have had mixed success at Liverpool; the vast majority have flopped.  Free transfers Jovanovic, Cole and Aurelio have not been starters and are failing to earn their high wages.  Konchesky, deemed good enough to fill Liverpool’s problem position of left back and enough to allow Insua to leave on loan, was quickly found to be out of his depth and is currently on loan to Nottingham Forest.  Liverpool will be lucky to recoup half of the £3m spent on him, without considering the two promising youth players also lost in the deal.  Christian Poulsen has also proved to be a disaster and has dropped far down the pecking order under Dalglish, with the only positive being that Jay Spearing has been given more chances as a result.  The only value added by Brad Jones was that he counted as home grown as part of the Europa League squad.  At £2.3m, though and with the emergence of Peter Gulacsi, it would be difficult to argue it was money well spent.  That finally brings us to Raul Meireles, found as the replacement to the hastily loaned out Aquilani and costing £10.5m at 27 years of age.

Despite being signed by Hodgson, so presumably wanted by the manager, Meireles began his Liverpool career playing out of position on the right of a four man midfield.  In a formation craving width, Meireles was noticeably uncomfortable on the wing and continued to drift inwards towards his favoured position.  However, despite playing out of position, Meireles’ form wasn’t bad, despite the poor team performances.  The stats below show the key aspects of Meireles’ game in his league debut away to Manchester United, in a 3-2 defeat and in the midst of the team’s poor form, at home to Blackpool, a 2-1 defeat.

Debut – United away (right midfield)
Passes – 46, Successful 35, Unsuccessful 11, Assists 0
Interceptions – 1
Tackles – Won 1/1
Blocks – 0
Shots – 1 (off target)

Blackpool at home (right midfield)
Passes – 57, Successful 49, Unsuccessful 8, Assists 0
Interceptions – 3
Tackles – Won 2/3
Blocks – 0
Shots – 4 – 2 off target, 2 blocked

After a poor run of form, Roy Hodgson adapted his starting line up for the home game against Blackburn Rovers in late October.  The team performance was unconvincing again, with Liverpool spending the majority of the second half defending long balls into their box, but Meireles, playing in his preferred central midfield role, impressed.  It was Meireles’ first league win in a Liverpool shirt.

Blackburn at home (centre midfield, with Gerrard off Torres)
Passes – 58, Successful 41, Unsuccessful 17, Assists 0
Interceptions – 3
Tackles – Won 3/4
Blocks – 0
Shots – 4 – 1 off target, 3 blocked

For the next league game Meireles again partnered Lucas in central midfield, producing a 1-0 win away to Bolton; many pundits excited about the blossoming, Portuguese speaking partnership emerging.  However, Meireles was moved out wide again for the next 3 league games; the 2-0 home win against Chelsea, in which he was very impressive, the 1-1 draw away to Wigan and the pitiful 2-0 defeat away to Stoke.

Stoke away (right midfield)
Passes – 29, Successful 19, Unsuccessful 10, Assists 0
Interceptions – 0
Tackles – Won 3/3
Blocks – 1
Shots – 2 – 1 on target, 1 blocked

After poor team performances against Wigan and Stoke, Meireles was moved back into the centre of midfield for the home game against West Ham.  In one of the few good performances under Roy Hodgson, Liverpool recorded a comprehensive 3-0 win.  Meireles kept his central position in the away match to Tottenham the following week, the first big league game for which he wasn’t moved wide.  In another positive performance, Liverpool only lost due to a late lapse in concentration from Paul Konchesky.  Central again for the 3-0 home win against Aston Villa, Meireles was involved in the first two Liverpool goals.

Aston Villa home (centre midfield)
Passes – 72, Successful 63, Unsuccessful 9, Assists 0
Interceptions – 3
Tackles – Won 4/7
Blocks – 0
Shots – 1 (on target)

Meireles played in centre midfield again in the disappointing 3-1 loss away to Newcastle United, prompting a reshuffle for the next game, at home to Wolves.  The reshuffle was a disaster, as Meireles was ineffective on the right side of midfield and Dirk Kuyt looked uncomfortable playing from the left.  Liverpool slumped to possibly the worst result of Hodgson’s reign, a 1-0 defeat.  Meireles played 21 minutes in the centre of midfield in the 2-1 home win against Bolton before getting injured, meaning he would miss Hodgson’s final game in charge, the 3-1 defeat away to Blackburn.

From the start of his second spell as manager of Liverpool, Kenny Dalglish was eager to play Meireles in the centre of midfield whilst implementing a range of formations.  Meireles grabbed his first Liverpool goal from centre midfield in Dalglish’s first home match back in charge, the 2-2 draw with Everton.

Everton at home (centre midfield)
Passes – 41, S24, U17
Interceptions – 0
Tackles – Won 1/2
Blocks – 0
Shots – 3, all on target, one goal

Meireles went on to score in four of his next five league games, playing centrally in all of them, in a range of formations.  Undoubtedly, this was the best Meireles has played for Liverpool.  However, in being the longest run playing centrally, this should come as no surprise.  However, following the arrivals of Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll in January, Meireles has again found him deployed out of his favoured position.  In the 3-1 home win against Manchester United, Meireles was effective on the right side of midfield, whilst Luis Suarez ran riot in the position off the main striker where Meireles had been showing his best form. 

With both Carroll and Suarez starting the away match against Sunderland, Meireles was moved to the left of midfield.  Meanwhile, in the centre of midfield, Jay Spearing had his best ever game for Liverpool, playing alongside the mainstay Lucas. 

Sunderland away (left midfield)
Passes – 38, S24, U14
Interceptions – 4
Tackles – Won 1/1
Blocks – 0
Shots – 0

Sunderland away – Spearing (centre midfield)
Passes – 45, S34, U11
Interceptions – 0
Tackles – Won 3/7
Blocks- 0
Shots – 1 (on target)

Chances for Meireles to play off the striker will be limited in the future because of the partnership being created between Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll.  In the centre of midfield, Steven Gerrard will presumably return to play alongside Lucas when fit, whilst Jay Spearing was again preferred there against West Brom, as Meireles played on the left side.

As well as Meireles was performing off the striker, realistically this wasn’t ever going to be his long term place in the Liverpool side.  His history proves he isn’t a regular goal scorer; he scored 15 goals in 138 games for Porto and his clever movement and energy aren’t enough without goals.  These qualities are presumably why he has been pushed wide, opposed to playing as one of a two man central midfield, where he could be exposed.  For the new look Liverpool, though, Dalglish will surely be looking to add at least one quality winger to provide for his new striker force.  This will push Meireles out of the side again. 

In terms of general quality of player, Meireles is good enough to be a back up for Liverpool, but in the expected style of play, he wouldn’t offer a specialist replacement for the roles played by Lucas, Gerrard or Suarez.  Out wide, the qualities he adds are equally offered by Maxi or Dirk Kuyt.  Therefore, Meireles will soon be acting as a reserve winger and used sparingly centrally, when different formations are used.  His versatility is a great option, but will hold him back in securing a first team position.  Options are always a good thing, but if Meireles wants a steady place in his preferred position, or any other position, he may have to move on, despite a relatively impressive first season.

Twitter – @PaulBoyham

Stats provided by The Guardian and Anfield Index

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