My Grandad always used to say “The Runners Up in anything are just the first losers”. It is a notion that is unlikely to endear himself to the man who he refers to consistently as “Bennertez”, as Rafa Benitez wakes up today contemplating being the “first loser” of this season’s Premier League.
But, clichés and mispronunciations aside, there is more to second place than meets the eye this season. Debates have rumbled long and hard on whether this current crop of players really is Sir Alex Ferguson’s (or indeed Manchester United’s) best ever, whilst defensive records have tumbled, and finally Liverpool’s long-held record as the most successful league side in the country has been equalled. It is a sobering fact. Liverpool have fans have long basked in their “18+5” boast. Theoretically, it is just one year away from being rendered superfluous.
Nevertheless, there is still room for bullish optimism on Merseyside, and not simply because being “first loser” is an honour they have only enjoyed on three occasions in the past twenty years. Yesterday’s hard-fought 2-0 win over West Brom at The Hawthorns meant that Benitez’s current charges have recorded Liverpool’s best ever points tally for a Premier League season, and a victory over Spurs at Anfield next Sunday will ensure they will break another record, the highest points tally for a runner-up in Premier League history.
Scant consolation no doubt, Benitez’s side were seven points clear at one point of course, before a run of five draws in eight games gave United an impetus they would not relinquish, even in the face of a chastening 4-1 reverse when the sides met at Old Trafford in March. Yet still the positives to be taken from a Liverpool perspective are hard to avoid.
Benitez has been under fire from certain quarters for his perceived lack of ambition at times, yet Liverpool’s status as the league’s top goalscorers would fly in the face of such criticism. Equally, the defensive solidity which the Spaniard is famed for has not been abandoned- only a criminally under-rated Chelsea and a record breaking United have conceded fewer goals in the league. And despite the common consensus being that dropped points at home have cost Benitez’s side in the end, the Reds remain the only side in the division with an unbeaten home record, and possess comfortably the best record on their travels.
The omens are good. Benitez has signed a new contract, removing one more distraction from the Anfield table, and the imminent appointment of a new Chief Executive to replace the outgoing Rick Parry (a distraction too far in Benitez’s eyes) should yield the transfer-policy power that the Spaniard has long hankered after. This summer, it is widely agreed, is pivotal for the club.
And if Benitez desires a blueprint for how not to go about making the leap from first loser to first winner, he need look no further than the last time Liverpool occupied the former position. In 2001-2002 Gerard Houllier & Phil Thompson led the Reds to second place, seven points behind a double-winning Arsenal.
Tellingly, it is the only time Liverpool have finished above Manchester United in Premier League history. That they achieved it having been deprived of their manager for five months of the season after a heart attack in October is something for which not enough credit if offered. Houllier had always spoken of a “5 year plan” to win the league at Liverpool. In summer 2002 they were entering the fifth year.
The omens, like now, were good. In his four seasons in charge Houllier had presided over finishes of seventh, fourth, third and finally second. The natural progression could be clearly seen. The Frenchman himself had proudly boasted upon his return to the dugout in spring 2002 that his side were potentially “ten games from greatness”. Unfortunately by the end of his transfer splurge that summer, his squad were potentially ten signings away from greatness.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing of course, a place where mistakes are never made (or at least rectified immediately). Yet looking to Liverpool’s squad at the end of the 2001-2002 season, and the one which began the following campaign, it is impossible to wonder exactly what Houllier was thinking.
To refresh, this was a squad that featured England internationals in Jamie Carragher, Danny Murphy, Steven Gerrard, Michael Owen, Emile Heskey & Nick Barmby. Didi Hamann spent the summer of 2002 anchoring the Germany midfield as they reached the World Cup final, Sami Hyypia & Stephane Henchoz had established themselves as one of the best defensive pairings around, whilst in Jerzy Dudek & Chris Kirkland they had two of the best keepers in the Premier League. The rest of the squad was filled with the talented yet inconsistent- John Arne Riise, Patrik Berger, Igor Biscan, Vladimir Smicer, Milan Baros (who was yet to make his debut for the club) – and the dispensable older players- Gary McAllister & Jari Litmanen.
In short, it is easy to see where the need for strengthening lay. Owen & Heskey had forged a partnership good enough to see off fans favourite Robbie Fowler (sold to Leeds for £11m in one of Thompson’s first acts in caretaker charge), whilst in Gerrard & Hamann they possessed a midfield duo capable of starring for the club for years to come (as proven). Henchoz & Hyypia, with Carragher as cover, meant that centre half signings were unnecessary, and the same applied with the goalkeeping situation, with Kirkland seen by many as a future England keeper, and Dudek shining in his debut season.
The problems, patently, lay in the wide areas. Barmby would depart for Leeds that summer amid a string of injuries and loss of form, Berger was struggling with something similar, whilst Smicer had never reached any level of consistency since his move to Anfield in 1999. Houllier had been forced to address a problem with lack of quality from the flanks by using Murphy, Gerrard or, most sickeningly, Heskey in a wide position. It was clear that wide players were (or should have been) top of Liverpool’s shopping list.
Instead, Houllier spent a combined £20m on a defensive midfielder (Salif Diao), a physically-weak attacking central midfielder (Bruno Cheyrou), and a goal-shy centre-forward-cum-wide-midfielder with an attitude problem (El-Hadji Diouf). By the end of the year, none of them were first-choice. By the time Benitez arrived at the club he was struggling to give them away.
Diouf was, it is considered, signed at the expense of Nicolas Anelka, who had spent five months on loan at Anfield in 2002. At a cost of £10m from Lens, he had big expectations. His performances for an impressive Senegal side at the World Cup had given Reds hope that the man nicknamed “The Serial Killer” in France could be the man to add the pace and creativity that Houllier’s solid but at times prosaic side could often lack.
Two goals on his Anfield debut hinted at good times to come, but by the end of the season he had added just three more, and had sickened Liverpool fans with his spitting antics in a UEFA Cup clash with Celtic at Parkhead. The mistake made by Houllier was highlighted further by the antics of Anelka, who notched 15 league goals to fire newly-promoted Manchester City to a respectable 9th placed finish.
But if Diouf was a gamble which backfired, his international colleague Diao was simply a shocking signing. Houllier is known to have long coveted a dominant midfield force in the mould of Patrick Vieira at Arsenal, yet Diao from his first appearance at Anfield possessed neither the physical force, nor the footballing ability of his contemporary. At £4.2m, he swiftly became tagged as a liability.
Speaking of tags, Cheyrou arrived from Lille wrapped in one which read “The next Zinedine Zidane”, a danger sign at the best of times. A left footed attacking midfielder, six foot plus and with a neat touch; the Frenchman would make three appearances for his country during his spell on Merseyside, but would be exposed as criminally out of his depth when asked to feature in a Premier League midfield. Too weak for the centre of a four-man midfield, too slow for the left flank, and too inconsistent for a place in attack, he flitted around the squad for two seasons with only fleeting glimpses of his ability. It would be a further two years before Benitez could offload him for free to Rennes.
The lesson is clear, Houllier rightly believed that his side were a couple of signings away from competing for the title, yet failed to acknowledge the key weaknesses of his squad. Liverpool are known to have haggled over the price of Damien Duff- then of Blackburn and rated around the £12m bracket- during that summer, and the Irish winger would eventually move to Chelsea a season later for £17m. Ring any bells?
Duff would certainly have added plenty of purpose and quality to Liverpool’s left flank, yet Houllier opted to mould an unfit player into the role. It proved costly, Liverpool would end 2002-2003 in 5th place, outside of the Champions League places and nineteen points behind Champions Manchester United.
Benitez faces a similar situation this summer. His squad is in need of minor alterations as opposed to all-out surgery. In Fernando Torres & Steven Gerrard they possess a partnership of enough class to lead them to glory, whilst Javier Mascherano & Xabi Alonso offer a midfield duo matched by few in Europe. Pepe Reina is one of the top keepers around, whilst Jamie Carragher, Martin Skrtel & Daniel Agger possess the know-how and youth to keep Liverpool’s defence solid for plenty more seasons. And in Yossi Benayoun, Dirk Kuyt, Albert Riera & Ryan Babel, they have sufficient options in depth to ensure that their bench is always populated with a couple of game-changers.
Benitez is expected to resume his voyeuristic pursuit of Gareth Barry this summer, which again leads to question marks over the future of Xabi Alonso- wanted by Arsenal, Real Madrid & Manchester City if the red tops are to be believed. Without meaning to undermine Benitez, it is difficult to see the thinking behind such a move.
Alonso has been one of Liverpool’s key men in their most successful league campaign for nineteen years, and his passing scope far surpasses that of Barry. Listening to any of Liverpool’s current squad, it is easy to see that they rate the Spaniard as one of the game’s best. Barry may be a good player, Mr Consistent in an impressively consistent Aston Villa side, yet it is unlikely that he would prove an upgrade on Alonso.
More exciting from a Liverpool fan’s perspective are the names Diego Forlan & David Silva, both of whom have been linked in recent weeks. Forlan may well have some making up to do to the Kop following his exploits in a Manchester United shirt at Anfield, but his 27 goals for Atletico Madrid this season- the latest in a string of impressive totals since swapping the Premier League for La Liga- make him one of the hottest strikers around, and his propensity for the unexpected would add a fresh dimension to Liverpool’s squad.
Silva meanwhile is almost certain to jump ship from a club in crisis at Valencia, and can operate anywhere across the top end of the field with distinction. At 23, his best years are undoubtedly to come, and in Benitez he may well find a coach who can turn his mercurial talent into one which lights up the European stage.
At this point, such talk is purely speculation of course. Benitez is known to keep his cards close to his chest with regards to transfers- Barry aside- and there have been few words coming from the horse’s mouth in recent months with regards to specific targets. One thing is for sure though, there won’t be any Dioufs or Diaos rolling up at Melwood this summer. One hopes.