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The worst league start for 18 years*, and an undeserved (but very welcome) equaliser away from it being the worst for 56 years. Add to that the most humbling cup exit since 1959. So, whose fault is it?
Some already have their prime candidate.
Yes, the manager.
…Of Inter Milan.
Rafa Benítez has been in the news more this past week than when he was actually working here. First, Alex Ferguson blamed him solely for Liverpool’s decline. Next, Sam Allardyce said he missed having him here to wind up (something that must be keeping Rafa awake at night as he looks down on the rest of Serie A, nervous of Big Sam following him to Italy, or even taking his job.)
Then Benítez pointed out that Massimo Moratti, who has run Inter for 15 years, knew more about football than his Liverpool counterparts: cue more back-page headlines. (A fair comment, however, given that Gillett and Hicks didn’t know the sport before 2007, and still don’t appear to; and that both the MD and Chairman, while claiming to have followed the game for years, had never been involved in the running of a club before 2009. Experience at the top is not exactly something Liverpool is blessed with right now.)
Next up, Jan Molby was on Radio Five Live saying Liverpool’s defeat to Northampton was “all Rafa’s fault” (echoed by Adrian Durham on Talksport), and a few days later, Steve Bruce – another of the Ferguson/Allardyce cartel – again stated that claim. The words “it’s all Rafa’s fault” could almost have been read from a prompt card. (Apparently Rafa had tried to sign one of Bruce’s players last season; I mean, just how dare he?)
Of course, any time I mention the Spaniard’s name I get told to “get over him/move on”. Well, clearly the media at large and the LMA clique aren’t doing so, are they? It’s been non-stop blame put at his door, to a quite extraordinary degree.
So let’s be clear: it’s not all Rafa’s fault. Equally, it’s not all Roy’s fault. To suggest as much is only shielding the blame from the true culprits.
Most of that blame has to lie with the despicable owners. That is a given. While Kenny Dalglish is right to say that once players cross the line they shouldn’t be thinking about who is running the club, Gillett and Hicks have affected the quality of player purchased. With the internationals on the field, the Reds still should be beating Northampton Town, though; that is down to the players and the current manager. It’s hard to excuse that, beyond noting that freakish results do happen from time to time.
To compound the mess created by the awful Americans, Rafa’s purchases in the last two years weren’t universally successful, and Roy’s methods, on the early evidence, don’t seem appear suited to the personnel, and possibly, to a big club (or one with big expectations). But it’s complex.
He neither has the personnel for his more simplistic 4-4-2, which can be relatively effective; nor does he seem to be able to get 4-2-3-1 (or variations thereof) to work. Equally, he hasn’t had the money to buy the ideal striker to dovetail with Torres in his version of 4-4-2, so right now we are getting neither the best of Roy’s Fulham approach (which in itself may not transfer to Liverpool), nor the best of Rafa’s more fluid, modern approach.
Thankfully, reality is setting in (in most quarters) about the financial situation. Liverpool’s squad, in current money (TPI), cost just £128m to assemble.
Contrast that with: Chelsea, £309m; Man City, £306m; Man United, £298m; and Spurs, £186m.
Now, all managers make bad purchases. But if they sell those players for what is still good money (as in the case of Robbie Keane, for example), they can usually expect to reinvest that money; otherwise the squad gets cheaper, and the money disappears into thin air.
This summer, Liverpool managed to sell a handful of Rafa’s signings – both good and bad – for a very nice sum of money: Mascherano, £20m; Benayoun, £6m; Albert Riera for up to £5m; San Jose, £2.6m; Cavalieri for around £1.5m; and youngsters Nemeth, Dalle Valle and Kacaniklic for around £3m in total. And back in January, when no money was spent, Voronin and Dossena went for about £6m combined.
Whose fault is that if much of that cash wasn’t available in full to reinvest in the team? Not Rafa’s, and not Roy’s.
In total, less than the combined fees received for Mascherano and Benayoun has been invested back into the squad in 2010. All the other money? And the Robbie Keane money? Nowhere to be seen.
So it’s not simply a case of Rafa leaving some dross, or Roy getting the tactics all wrong, or the players not performing. Perhaps all of these are true to varying degrees, but the main concern is that the squad depth is just withering away.
Perhaps harder to understand is why Aquilani was loaned out, when finally fit and, within reason, raring to go. Insua was loaned out, too.
These were two of the more technically gifted players in their respective roles, with the potential to improve (Insua as he’s still a kid, Aquilani as he adapts and recovers from injury). Unless Roy actually wants a small squad, then it’s hard to see why they were sent away; if saving a couple of players’ fairly moderate wages is that important, then that says a lot.
To compound matters, Daniel Agger, the best ball-playing centre-back since Alan Hansen, has been relegated to reserve left-back. Is it any wonder the Reds are struggling to build from the back? And did Roy really need to pay almost £5m for an aging defensive midfielder who, on the evidence so far, is making even the most ardent Lucas-basher a convert?
(Perhaps he did, and time will tell; but that’s part of the problem with employing a new manager who adopts very different tactics: the necessary turnover of players to fit his style. When you don’t have the funds, it can get messy.)
As for the accusations that Rafa left too little to work with, the overall collection of players he bequeathed his successor was still worth a lot more than what he paid for them.
The trouble was, it was mostly tied up in the first team. He only had a couple of ‘squad players’ (albeit originally intended as first-teamers) who cost more than £10m; most cost considerably less. Indeed, Maxi, Jovanovich, Ngog and Kyrgiakos cost just £3m in total. Add Lucas and Insua and you’re still only at £10m, and for that you can throw in Aurelio too.
And it’s a fact of football life that, at any point in time, there will be fringe players and ‘deadwood’ at any club; often players who then burst into life and change perceptions further down the line.
If someone had taken over Manchester United at the end of this summer, they’d be looking at Anderson, £18m and rarely seen, and Owen Hargreaves, £20m, and even more rarely seen. You could add Michael Owen, who these days seems fit purely for the Carling Cup and the bench, but must earn £50,000 a week, and the £7.4m youngster Bebé, who Ferguson hadn’t watched play even on video.
Meanwhile, record signing Dimitar Berbatov had yet to realise that he had a second gear (now duly discovered). And had someone replaced Ferguson in 2009, people would have said “Nani … why?”.
That doesn’t mean it’s a bad squad; most of it was in place when winning the league 16 months ago. It’s just that you can’t have 25 players all ‘in fashion’ at the same time. Suddenly Berbatov looks fantastic. But he had two years of shuffling about on the periphery to get used to things. Nani needed Ronaldo to disappear in order to emerge from his shadow.
For me, Roy definitely did the right thing with his team selection for the Northampton debacle (with the possible exception of including Agger, who should surely be saved as a first-choice centre-back and not ‘wasted’ in games like this.)
But again, the hypocrisy in the apportion of blame for that result is not easy for me to stomach. I believed in Benítez, and therefore I am biased; but that doesn’t make me wrong when it comes to stuff like this:
When Liverpool lost away at Championship Burnley in 2005, it wasn’t blamed on the squad Rafa inherited. It was because “he didn’t respect the FA Cup”. When Liverpool finished 5th that season, with just 58 points (only a little less than in the previous two seasons), it was because “he didn’t understand English football”, not because he inherited Diao, Cheyrou, Diouf, Le Tallec, Traore, Biscan, Medjani, et al, or was given Cissé as a replacement to peak-years Owen.
When he won the European Cup, however, it became fashionable to say it was because of Gérard Houllier’s players. And of course, as Rafa could only get 58 points in the league that season, with a fairly threadbare squad for the money it cost Houllier to assemble, it was only really the league that mattered. Yet once Liverpool were winning 82-86 points in the league, it was “oh, they’ve not won any trophies, and winning trophies is all that counts”.
(What about Rafa’s impressive start in Milan? All down to Mourinho. Except any time they lose, it’s suddenly all down to the Spaniard.)
You get the narrative by now.
Of course, Rafa’s best Liverpool team was between 2007 (by then good enough to be the better team in the Champions League Final, but not as fortunate on the night) and 2009 (86 points, 2nd in the league). And that was very much his team; not Houllier’s. It won nothing, but it was clearly a very strong side indeed.
The wheels came off in part with the sale of Xabi Alonso (his own signing, lest we forget, but a player who has clearly been missed), but there was also the newly-found need to break-even; indeed, make a profit on deals.
My main problem with the appointment of Hodgson was connected to his age. There’s nothing wrong with older managers per se, but at 63 he’s not necessarily going to be in it for the long haul. He’s not a club builder, but a Steady Eddie type. How many times were we told he’d steady the ship? But right now, it’s sinking like a stone. It’s not all his fault, as I’ve made clear; but he has to take his share of responsibility.
Already he’s bought several players aged 27-30, with the two youngsters, Shelvey and Wilson, lined up during Rafa’s watch; meanwhile, out have gone a lot of younger players (admittedly, some were not good enough). On the whole, it’s a bit short-termist. Of Roy’s 1st-team signings, only Meireles looks capable of being around for more than two or three years.
There’s also the issue of his tactics, which seem a little archaic and more suited to racking up draws; perfect for nicking a point (or with a bit of luck, all three) while at Fulham – where, of course, he did that to very good effect.
Of course, drawing too many games was an accusation leveled at Rafa, too, but he actually won a large percentage of his fixtures, especially at Anfield.
Now, we have to remind ourselves that the squad isn’t as strong as it was in 2008/09. So we cannot keep comparing things with that peak. But even then, Rafa was criticised for not winning the league – even though it was a case of punching well above our financial weight.
“Drew too many games”, people said; yet with only two defeats, those draws were often the bonus points from the 4-8 defeats most top-four teams suffer. If you win 25 games out of 38, and lose very few, you’ve done a great job. Rafa did that in two different league seasons. Right now, one win out of six doesn’t read well at all.
Now, as Roy is 63 and supposed to be ‘steadying the ship’, it makes me a little less happy to say ‘give him time’. He clearly needs a lot more than he’s had so far; I don’t like seeing calls for his head this early.
But equally, when Houllier and Benítez arrived, I could see their ideas for ‘club building’, even if they didn’t always succeed in certain areas.
My choice was always someone like Manuel Pellegrini, who was a bit younger than Hodgson, and a bit more modern. But what I will say is that had he been given the job, and the Reds made this kind of start, it would have all been blamed on the ‘foreigner’ not understanding what it takes to succeed here. He’d have been crucified, and we know it. “Another Juande Ramos”.
For me, Roy had to hit the ground running; or at the very least, walking rather than crawling. After all, that was part of the rationale for appointing an English elder-statesman used to the Premier League. Nothing about him – given his age and turnover of jobs in his CV – said ‘I’m here for a number of years’. He was here to cheer up some of the English players, and stop mucking around with those crazy ideas like rotation and zonal marking.
So while expecting instant dividends was not fair on Roy, he always had to get things right sooner rather than later. In the summer, Christian Purslow and Martin Broughton said that the club has to get straight back into the top four, “where it belongs”.
Well, it’s simply not financed to do so. And has it employed the right man to over-perform? (Or as Dion Fanning of the Irish Independent hinted at, paper over the cracks?) After all, it’s far different from doing so at a club where expectations are modest. Every last thing at a major club is scrutinised. It’s tough on a manager’s mental health. Even if Liverpool were bankrupt and in administration, and forced to play the U-11s, some would still say “should be challenging for the title”.
Liverpool currently have the 5th-most expensive squad, but as shown earlier, are a long way adrift of the four that are more costly. Plus there’s Arsenal, who are immaculately run and managed (and rather than pay big transfer fees opt for large wages). So 5th or 6th should be where we are aiming for, based on the resources.
The trouble is, when that was roughly the case last season, it was seen as a total disaster, and the manager was sacked. The trouble now is that even top six looks a tall order, as the Reds languish in 16th (although there’s plenty of time to alter that perception).
History doesn’t ease my fears either. Roy did okay in his first season at Blackburn. But in his second, he won only one of the first 14 games, and was sacked. That was with the 2nd-most expensive squad in the league at the time, and despite Rovers improving a little after he left, to rise from 20th to 19th, they were still relegated.
It is the ‘worst’ relegation in those terms in the 18 years of the Premier League. More money, relatively speaking, than he has at Liverpool, and less pressure; and still failure.
Right now, he’s only won one of six, although three were real toughies.
Can he handle the pressure? Well, maybe he can. But it’s not something we can rest assured on. He needs the chance to prove he has what it takes, of course, but equally, we can’t turn a blind eye to a failure to organise and inspire the team to even basic levels. The Reds continue to allow roughly twice as many attempts at their goal as in the corresponding fixtures last season; Sunderland hadn’t even scored at Anfield for a decade. I sincerely hope that this is just a case of teething problems, which could well be a possibility. But if it’s something else, it could be an ongoing problem.
I feel very uneasy being critical of a new manager, but I feel what could be fundamental problems with Roy’s approach have to be broached; he has to adapt to make it work if it doesn’t click soon. And even the relative chaos does not totally exempt him.
After all, he’s not yet had to do his job while his bosses offer it to someone else. Equally, he’s not yet had an injury crisis like the one that affected the start of last season. Right now, I dare not imagine a season with Torres missing half the games (and unfit in some of those he starts) and Gerrard carrying a muscle injury (and a long face) all campaign; or being down to relying on teenage centre-backs and full-backs.
So in some ways it’s not even been as tough as Benítez had it. But in others – overall squad cost, for example – it’s marginally worse than the Spaniard experienced last season.
(It’s harder to assess the ‘time in the job’ factor; what you lose by having less time to mould your team you often gain in initial matches with the injection of new purpose and ideas. Perhaps the toughest time can be a few months in, when the initial boost has worn off; but without having had that boost, maybe Liverpool can experience their crisis now, and then, later on, doing well in a few games will seem like winning the World Cup, and bring a sense of “we’re on the up”. Perhaps that’s clutching at straws, but that’s the best I’ve got. The worst thing would to be dragged into the mire at the bottom of the table; highly unlikely, but not impossible, if a negative spiral takes hold.)
Perhaps the mention of 1959 at the start of this article is very apt. If that was the birth of modern Liverpool, this could well be its death throes in terms of the club we loved. But perhaps, using science fiction terminology, this could provide the chance to regenerate; shed the parasites infecting the host body and start afresh.
It may not ever again be quite what it was, but it could be a hell of a lot better than what it currently is.
- – -
*From Graeme Riley, co-author of ‘Pay As You Play‘, and TTT statto:
It’s actually worse than 1992-93. With the same points total as that season, the goal difference is worse. You’ve actually got to go back to 1954-55 to find a worse start.
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