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"No, don't set that on fire, Mario!" An interview with The Liverpool Offiside

Let's have a gab with the fine folk at the SB Nation Liverpool blog. No, the other one.

Claudio Villa

I don't like Liverpool. There, I said it, and I'm not sorry. But I love, love, LOVE the guys (and women) down the hall at The Liverpool Offside, SB Nation's Liverpool blog. So it's a strange feeling whenever Spurs play the Reds because I find myself always greatly looking forward to speaking with Noel C at the TLO, since our interviews tend to encompass both the sublime and the ridiculous. He's an awful lot of fun to interview.

We're at it again ahead of Sunday's match at White Hart Lane. Noel and I met this time at the Mayfair Lounge in New Orleans: I had a Sazerac, he had a Vieux Carré. We discussed everything from burning things to "doing a Spurs." In exchange, I answered questions for him. And we promised to hug it out after the match regardless of the final score.


Uncle Menno: The similarities between Spurs in summer 2013 and Liverpool in summer 2014 are a bit uncanny: both sold their best player for a king's ransom to Spain, and both used the proceeds to finance the purchase of a significant number new players in the same offseason. (The difference is that Tottenham weren't coming off of nearly winning the Premier League, but let's just ignore that for now.) As we Spurs fans know, that's a lot of fresh meat to acclimate to the side in one offseason. On a scale of Roberto Soldado to Erik Lamela, how confident are you that Liverpool have avoided "doing a Spurs" this offseason, and why do you feel that way?

We would be content to "do a Spurs." -Noel C, The Liverpool Offside

Noel C: We, and I think most Liverpool supporters, would be content to "do a Spurs." It's not the goal, but as most Tottenham fans have grumbled every time the supposed failure to replace Gareth Bale was brought up, the actual result was three fewer points and one position lower in the final table. While we certainly wouldn't turn our noses up at another title challenge, given the strength of both Chelsea and Manchester City, there are worse potential fates than 81 points and a third place finish while bedding in eight new players and getting reacquainted with the Champions League.

Taking "doing a Spurs" less literally, we've got one of Europe's brightest young managers-one who's proven he can work with the core of the squad, proven he'll change his approach, and who has the full support of the owners. Spurs had a stubborn Andre Villas-Boas and an inept Tim Sherwood being overseen by an impatient Daniel Levy. Then there's the existing squad-minus Suarez, Liverpool could conceivably start an eleven made up entirely of last season's regulars on Sunday. Where Tottenham took the Bale money and tried to build a new squad, Liverpool have used the Suarez money to build out an existing one.

Menno: What is it with Liverpool? Just when they go and do something like sell Suarez that makes me want to like them, they go and do something like sign Mario Balotelli that makes me lose all faith in humanity once again. Based on the available evidence, can we make the logical assumption that Brendan Rodgers is The D!#&head WhispererTM, or is there something hard-coded in the club's DNA that requires that there be at least one cartoon villain at the club at all times? As a follow-up, should we expect John Terry and Antonio Cassano signings before the window closes?

Noel: To be fair to Super Mario, he mostly seems a self-destructive mess. Suarez could be counted on to set fire to a lot of things, but those things tended to not be Liverpool's. Sometimes they were sitting near enough to Liverpool's things that Liverpool's things got singed, but his destructive instincts were almost wholly outwardly directed. If Balotelli sets something on fire, it's almost certain to be Liverpool. Or himself. Which from a Liverpool point of view makes it even more important that Rodgers finds a way to make this gamble work.

Menno: Speaking of Balotelli, he'll be an impact player for Liverpool and at £16m he's undoubtably a bargain, but this signing has just a whiff of an "impulse purchase" smell to it, like you grabbed him in the check-out line at Food Lion in between the copies of the Enquirer and the packs of Hubba Bubba. With an already loaded offense (Sturridge, Markovic, Borini, Lambert, Sterling, etc.), how do you see Super Mario fitting into Liverpool's attack? Can he play alongside Sturridge? Do you WANT him there? Can you keep him away from the darts in the Anfield break room?

If Balotelli sets something on fire, it's almost certain to be Liverpool. -Noel C, The Liverpool Offside

Noel: If anything it's closer to panic than impulse. Before he arrived, Liverpool had an injury-prone Daniel Sturridge and a top quality impact sub in Rickie Lambert. And that was pretty much it. There was also Fabio Borini, who seems like a really nice guy and who works really hard and who Liverpool accepted a transfer offer for from Sunderland like a month ago. That's two and a half-ish strikers. One who's great but will likely miss a month or two at some point and one who's really good but is probably up to 60 minutes once a week at this stage in his career and one who might still end up at Sunderland.

Throw in that all signs point to the 4-4-2 diamond being here to stay, and bringing in another starting-calibre striker was always on the cards. And the club have been trying to get one really, really hard. They thought they had a deal for Loic Remy only for him to fail his medical, and they tried to get a deal done for Wilfried Bony only to have him demand well over £100k a week as his base salary, and according to well briefed journos they even tried for Gonzalo Higuain and Karim Benzema and Edinson Cavani and Radamel Falcao-who said he thinks we're swell and all but oh hey there Real Madrid.

They also asked about Balotelli early on and were told £30M or go away. When they got back around to him, Milan had gotten desperate and only wanted £16M and the choice was either to take a gamble on Balotelli finally coming good or to wait until deadline day in the hopes Madrid didn't come to rescue Falcao from his diamond-encrusted exile.

Menno: Of the signings you've made with the Suarez fund, which non-Balotelli player do you think makes you a materially better side than last season, and can any of them fill the void for Team Cannibal? Because that appears to be a clear hole in the side.

Noel: It's hard to say what players are from the Suarez fund, strictly speaking, as most of the non-Balotelli ones would have been bought even if he'd stayed. Having sat January out and with the new television deal, Liverpool went into the summer planning to spend £60-80M. And they needed to, given the squad was barely deep enough to handle just the league last season. In any case, the most important new players will likely be Adam Lallana, who will be asked to make up for some of the side's lost creativity, and Alberto Moreno, who is a left back. We haven't had one of those since 1973.

Menno: It's early days, but I'm starting to hear grumbling emerging from the Kop regarding Steven Gerrard and his performances thus far. It's hard when a club legend starts to decline (see: Ledley King, 2012.) What do you think of the criticism Stevie G is starting to get, and does Brendan Rodgers have the courage to drop Gerrard if it becomes necessary?

Noel: His performances thus far have been the same as his performances in the second half of last season in that he isn't a holding midfielder. His defensive positioning is atrocious, his stamina is fading, and he's prone to lapses in concentration. Steven Gerrard is what Steven Gerrard is, though, and we've largely made peace with the fact that he's going to play more often than not and that it's going to look terrible at times but can help Liverpool to score five goals every game. Speaking of which, welcome to Liverpool, Mario Balotelli, please set the other guys on fire not us.

Menno: Spurs are, obviously, playing a bit better now under Mauricio Pochettino than they did last season under Andre Villas-Boas or Tim Sherwood, and with more or less the same team. Who on the Spurs squad are you most wary of ahead of Sunday's match, and how do you think Rodgers will set up the squad tactically to counteract Spurs' threat?

Noel: Erik Lamela, Erik Lamela, and Erik Lamela. Mostly because he's going to cut inside and Steven Gerrard isn't going to bother with even trying to track him half the time. And the other half it probably won't matter that he's trying to track him. The hope for Liverpool will be that Emre Can is fit so that he and Henderson can flank Gerrard and do the heavy lifting. If they are, and if Balotelli is ready to start, I expect the diamond with Sterling at its tip behind the two strikers as Rodgers tries to clog the middle and spring the attacking trio on the counter.

Menno: Finally, if you're at a pub close to your house and you're going home early, but all your friends are going to keep drinking, do you waste money on a cab because You'll Never Walk Alone?

Noel: I'm confused, why would I want to stop drinking?


Thanks a million to Noel for the interview and for the flowers, d'awwwww, that's so sweet, thanks, and hey wait a minute, where are my hubcaps?! You should do yourself a favor and check out The Liverpool Offside for all your Red Merseyside footballing needs.  Also, follow Noel on Twitter: @LFCOffside