“This is our year…”
That’s a common claim made by Liverpool fans such as myself. Every time a new pre-season rolls around, thousands of optimistic Scousers decide that their side has finally managed to assemble a squad that can challenge at the top of the Premier League, that they have the right blend of defensive strength, midfield creativity and firepower up front after years of imbalance, that their new signing is indeed “the final piece of the jigsaw”.
And this season was no different. The signing of Fernando Torres from Atletico Madrid was enough to convince Liverpool fans that a genuine shot at the title, a title that before the days of the Premier League used to be an almost permanent fixture in the Anfield trophy room, but since 1990 has been nothing but a dream.
Rafa Benitez, it was believed, had finally managed to build a side that could compete. No longer would the strong defence and midfield be let down by a powderpuff strike force, Torres- along with fellow newboys Ryan Babel & Yossi Benayoun- would provide an extra dimension to their play, and his goals would ensure Manchester Utd & Chelsea were glancing anxiously over their shoulder well into the second half of the season, unlike in previous years.
To be fair, the first couple of months of the season suggested the hype might just have been deserved this time round. Torres settled in nicely, his goal would have given Liverpool an early season win over fellow hopefuls Chelsea but for a dubious (well……ridiculous) penalty decision, Babel looked a livewire, Benayoun impressed where Luis Garcia had irritated in terms of ball retention and creativity, whilst the much vaunted back four and central midfield continued their solid and consistent form.
Wins over Aston Villa, Sunderland & Derby, along with that unfortunate draw with Chelsea, left Liverpool nicely poised at the top of the table, whilst Manchester Utd and Chelsea were suffering problematic starts to the season. That was when the Reds should have been able to capitalise. That was the time to lay down a marker.
But it never happened. Worries over Benitez’s rotation policy surfaced after a goalless draw, minus Torres & Gerrard, at Fratton Park- by no means a poor result in normal circumstances, but with their best two attacking players on the bench, a case of what might have been. Torres was rested again in another goalless draw at home to Birmingham, and suddenly within a week the momentum built up was lost, and in truth it has never been regained.
The rotation policy has been talked about and talked about, with most pundits unanimous in their decision that whilst resting players is at times essential, in a side with such limited attacking qualities as Liverpool it can be disastrous. The harsh truth is that beyond Gerrard, Torres and Crouch, there is no one that can be relied on to consistently do a job in terms of goals and creativity. It’s hard to pick too many holes in Benitez’s tactics defensively, but going forward……well…..
Dirk Kuyt made a promising start after his £10m move from Feyenoord last season, the Kop enjoyed his all action style and, at first, he seemed to know where the goal is. But the alarm bells had already began to ring by the end of last season, with Kuyt’s contribution gradually lessening with each passing game. Work rate is nice, but stick most average men on the streets around Anfield in a Liverpool shirt and you would more often than not get “work-rate” from them.
As a footballer, he lacks the instinctive nature of a penalty box striker, and the all round footballing ability of a support striker or winger. In short, there is no real position for him in the side. Andriy Voronin is no better, his only defence appears to be that he was on a free transfer, so hasn’t cost the club any money. That just about says it all.
They aren’t the only two. Liverpool at the moment have two wingers who, between them, have managed two goals in two seasons- Harry Kewell & Jermaine Pennant. Yeah injuries have played their part of course, especially for Kewell (who seems to be able to get injured playing football on a PlayStation) but the facts remain that whilst Manchester Utd, Arsenal and Chelsea can rely on consistent end product from the likes of Ronaldo, Hleb & Joe Cole, Liverpool simply don’t have that quality.
Pennant blows hot and, more often than not, cold. Arsene Wenger rarely makes mistakes when he allows players to leave- David Bentley excluded- and Pennant barely impressed when playing at first Leeds and then Birmingham (both of whom were relegated- coincidence surely?). Whilst Kewell still looks a shadow of the player who tore up the Premiership at Leeds, and it’s only for so long you can make the “he needs a good run of games” excuse.
Looking down the league, it’s easy to find supposedly lesser clubs with obviously better wingers- Lennon, Arteta, Downing, Milner, Petrov, Young, Utaka, Ljungberg…..I probably could even stretch to Hunt & Richardson as well if I was pushed. It’s been Liverpool’s problem since…..well…..who was the last consistently productive winger to grace Anfield? Steve McManaman? John Barnes?
Yossi Benayoun was one of Benitez’s more shrewd signings, a decent player for a decent price (£2.5m), but is he the sort of player who can help turn a good side into a title chasing one? I don’t think so. Having offloaded Luis Garcia, who provided goals but little else, surely the aim would have been to bring in a player who can consistently provide end product.
Benayoun is a tidy player, with some neat touches, but he is not world class by any stretch of the imagination. Indeed it is arguable whether he adds more on the whole than Garcia, who in his time at Liverpool chipped in with thirty league goals (as well as plenty more in Europe of course). I wouldn’t mind betting that Benayoun, Kewell & Pennant together don’t add thirty league goals between now and the end of their Liverpool careers.
Ryan Babel was the other big signing of the summer. And one that got the fans pretty excited. The comparisons with Thierry Henry were more than just aesthetic, Babel is a right footed player who operates from the left, has a ferocious shot and pace to burn.
The trouble is, it seems, consistency. That word keeps on cropping up with Liverpool. From one half to the next, never mind games, Babel can drift from exhilarating to infuriating. Some argue he should be used as a forward alongside Torres, who more often than not is left a lonely figure as Kuyt buzzes around the midfield and wings.
Babel has spent a lot of his career as a forward with both Ajax & the Dutch under 21 side, with plenty of success. Yet Benitez has seemed reluctant to try him there, limiting his forward appearances to lesser Cup games such as Cardiff & Havant & Waterlooville. On the left, he can tend to drift in and out of games. Babel is young and talented, he will undoubtedly improve and the raw materials are very much there.
The problem is, Liverpool need more than potential at the moment, and can they afford to wait another season until he explodes? They sit seventeen points adrift of Manchester Utd & Arsenal, in a worrying seventh position, at the moment out of the European places- despite a game in hand. They must face the reality that they are battling with alleged “second tier” clubs such as Everton, Aston Villa & Manchester City for the final Champions League slot, and failure to reach the top four could have far greater consequences financially, as well as surely spelling the end for Benitez.
There are positives on the horizon, a favourable FA Cup draw should see them through to the Quarter Finals, and there is a mouth watering clash with Inter Milan next month to look forward to, but in terms of the League (or the “bread and butter” as Shankly once called it), they will edge ever closer to the 26 years that Manchester United famously went without success. At the moment it is 18 and counting.
It seems that Benitez has been given the funds (reportedly £18.6m) to sign Javier Mascherano on a permanent basis. And whilst the diminutive Argentinian has been arguably one of their best performers this season, finding a level of consistency that few at the club have even approached, it seems an awful lot for yet another player who is yet to score this season (or last for that matter), and in a position which they would appear to be adequately covered, with Xabi Alonso and Lucas Leiva.
A lot of critics would argue that there are other positions in greater need of £18m worth of strengthening (to be honest 18p would probably buy Liverpool a better left back at the moment), although I believe Mascherano will in time prove a steady piece of business. But in terms of the final piece of the jigsaw?
Well, they are still struggling to find all four corner pieces, in fact I’m beginning to wonder if Benitez has got his pieces the right way up.