Piece submitted to .tv 23.2.09, but wanted to use it here too, just in case it's not seen as appropriate.
I want to pose what I hope is an interesting philosophical question.
It involves something bordering on a parallel universe, but only in the loose sense; I’m obviously no astrophysicist (although I did once nearly disappear up my own black hole).
It is the summer of 2004. Alex Ferguson has just taken over as Liverpool boss. Down the M62, Alex Ferguson is also still in charge of Manchester United.
It is not one man managing both clubs (the chance for sabotage that would be huge!), but two different versions of the same man. An identical clone, if you will, albeit one of whom we’ll call Scouse Alec.
My question would be, would Scouse Alec have overtaken Actual Alex at United? Or even got close?
This question arose in my mind after I heard a Liverpool fan asking if someone like Alex Ferguson would have succeeded by now in bringing the title to Liverpool; in other words, could he have done better than Rafa Benítez?
But, of course, whoever took over Liverpool in 2004 had to deal with the reality of Ferguson still being at United, where, just a year earlier, his team had yet again won the Premiership. Hence the two Fergusons for this hypothetical.
Actual Alex was already almost two decades into the job at United, and already knighted. He cut a powerful figure. And he has spent roughly £30m more than Benítez since that summer, when the Reds finished 15 points behind United, who were 3rd.
For the sake of this debate we’ll say that Scouse Alec is given the same resources as Benítez (even though Rafa earned Liverpool a lot of that money in annual Champions League qualifications and progress, which another manager may not have done).
So with Houllier gone, Scouse Alec instantly has major problems.
Liverpool’s squad is pretty average, as its league showing for the previous two years confirms. There are a handful of top-class talents, like Gerrard, Carragher, Hamann and Hyypia, but plenty of players already in their 30s. Henchoz, Hamann and Smicer are not long-term options, and Hyypia, for all his talent, cannot remain a regular forever.
Michael Owen, around whom the tactics have been based for years, has already decided to try his luck abroad, and Harry Kewell’s fitness record effectively writes him out of regular plans.
Back up the East Lancs Road, Actual Alex has instantly moved for Wayne Rooney; but even at his most persuasive, his doppelgänger could not have enticed the player to Liverpool, or forced Everton to sell across Stanley Park. To this day the fee remains more than Liverpool have paid for any single player, but only the 4th-most expensive Ferguson has purchased.
United’s ethos hasn’t changed in years, in the way it has to at Liverpool in 2004; there have been tweaks and evolutions at Old Trafford, but not the total sea-change that any new manager brings, particularly when things aren’t going well.
So Scouse Alec is instantly behind the 8-ball. His counterpart has already spent £30m on Ferdinand, £13m on Ronaldo, £13m on Saha (who was very effective up until last season), and is still utilising Giggs, Scholes and Neville (not to mention Brown, O’Shea and Fletcher, all of whom, despite their doubters, go on to be effective players). Ruud Van Nistelrooy is still banging in the goals up front, to keep United ticking over, until the next wave matures.
Of course, Actual Alex spent badly or had flops on a number of occasions in the years leading up to 2004/05: Veron, Forlan, Kleberson, Djemba Djemba, Bellion, Dong Fangzhuo, Alan Smith, Liam Miller, Laurent Blanc (plus that awful bald French guy who played just four games), and at least five keepers who could make even a blind octogenarian look like Peter Schmiechel.
But by 2004, despite a number of wayward purchases, Actual Alex is at least generally on the right lines. It will still take a further two years for Ronaldo to blossom from fancy show-pony to devastating match-winner, Rooney to look the full part, and for Ferdinand to cast off his inconsistency, but the key components are in place. And once they win the league in 2006/07, they are awash with a self-belief that is only increased by last season’s success. How can you match that psychological boost?
Of the squad that won the league in 2007 and 2008, and are favourites in 2009, a total of 14 were already in place in 2004. With Saha, Heinze, Richardson, Solskjaer and Silvestre (who all played parts in that vital 2007 title) moved on, nine remain in the squad now.
Could you find nine players from 2004 who you’d still want at Liverpool, excluding Owen (who wanted away), and who would be key squad members in a title charge in 2009? Could you name 14 who’d have helped Liverpool win the league in 2007?
(And remember, someone like Sinama-Pongolle, for example, only did well after leaving as an every-game regular at Recreativo, something he wouldn’t really get to do at Anfield; at Atletico he’s again struggling to impose himself.)
Still missing for Actual Alex in 2004 was one vital ingredient: a top-class keeper. Finally, Van der Sar solves the problem. In 2005/06, Vidic and Evra arrive, and neither even slightly impresses. But by the following season, they are settled, and lauded.
So what can Scouse Alec do? He has lost his main striker, and has to have a tactical overhaul. At United, Actual Alex has around 70% of a successful squad already in place; at Liverpool, Scouse Alec has around 30% who are of sufficient standard. So he clearly needs to buy a greater number of players.
That means more transfers, and a greater number of failures, too, given that no manager gets close to making a great signing every time. (Look at a ‘genius’ like Mourinho’s signings: Malouda, Kalou, Kezman, Shevchenko, Wright-Phillips, Del Horno, Ben-Haim, et al. But having inherited a great squad, and with players like Cech and Robben already on their way, it was the three he got spot-on – Drogba, Essien and Carvalho – who made all the difference.)
Liverpool did not have as much money as United between 2004 and 2009, so expensive fees on single players present more of a risk. What if Scouse Alec spends £28m on another Veron, and loses £14m on him in two years?
To start with, Liverpool need a top-class keeper, with Dudek’s nerves shredded by a bad run dating back two years, and with Kirkland’s limbs held together by Elastoplast (and his confidence by sellotape).
Get it wrong, and Liverpool are in big trouble. Would Scouse Alec have signed a better keeper than Pepe Reina? I don’t see how it’s possible. What if his keeper turned out to be another Bosnich, Howard, Tiabi or Carroll?
There’s less room for manoeuvre; Liverpool are right on the edge of Champions League qualification, and any failure could see them fall like Newcastle did once excluded from the top four, just as teams fall like stones once relegated.
Chairman David Moores is struggling to get anywhere close to matching the Glazers in terms of financial clout, and with Old Trafford a 70,000+ seater stadium, the chasm is widening. When Liverpool do finally have secure a few big-money signings, United go out and buy even more expensive ones.
All the same, could Scouse Alec have signed a better passer and schemer than Xabi Alonso? Michael Carrick is having an excellent season, but at almost twice the price he is still not, to my mind, in Alonso’s class; and at the time, in 2004, Alonso is on Actual Alex’s radar, having spoken of considering a £20m bid to Real Sociedad a year earlier.
Could Scouse Alec have bought Liverpool a better midfield shielder than Mascherano? I don’t see how. A better striker than Torres? No chance. Because currently there is none.
Better centre-backs than Agger and Skrtel? Well, Vidic, a hot tip for Player of the Year, was a Liverpool target too, but he chose United, who bid more money.
Indeed, Ferguson coveted or was linked to almost all of these stellar Reds, and Benítez was interested in some of those stars who ended up at United; so even at his best, Scouse Alec could only really have matched Rafa in terms of key signings. To have bettered Benítez, Scouse Alec would have needed to do what Actual Alex never could: make no mistakes, and shop exclusively in the mid-price range (where his record is very patchy).
You could argue that Scouse Alec would have adopted different tactics to Rafa. Obviously they have different approaches. But he would not have been able to call upon wingers like Ronaldo and Giggs, because they were already at United.
The wingers Actual Alex has signed since 2004, like Nani and Park, haven’t impressed on a regular basis, and with wide flops over the decades, like Karel Poborsky, you could argue that Ferguson has only signed two successful wingers in 23 years: Kanchelskis and Ronaldo.
Of course, those two were spot-on, and Giggs’ presence lessened the need to buy more. But it’s not like Scouse Alex would have pitched up at Anfield and bought thrilling wide-men; what if he’d purchased a Nani rather than a Ronaldo? He’d also have had the same Kewell Conundrum: at the time, up there with the best wingers in the English game, but just never fit. Too good to ditch, too unfit to play regularly.
In the real world, Liverpool appeared to have caught United in 2005/06. But United, at the time eclipsed by an even bigger-spending rival, were a young team awaiting its moment to explode into maturity. The same could be said of Liverpool now. The core remains fairly young, and has massive potential.
Actual Alex is rightly held up as the benchmark, because his record is there for all to see, and his team is top of the table; hence why I have again chosen to use him for comparison (if Everton were top, then I’d be discussing Moyes; they are not).
But even Ferguson at his very best, if at Liverpool between 2004 and today, would not, to my mind, have done a better job than Benítez.
After all, the ‘Professor’, Arsene Wenger – an expert in English football – has gone from regular title challenges and successes to now battling for 5th spot since 2004. The only man to eclipse Ferguson since 2004 was the only man who spent more money. Coincidence?
The fact is, Ferguson, having inherited his own similar situation at United in 1986 (a team used to finishing in the top four but without a title for two decades and in need of a serious overhaul), could not make even the remotest impression during his first five league seasons. So when people say it doesn’t matter that Ferguson took seven years to win the title, and that it’s not relevant now, I ask why? Surely it’s even harder now, with United the best team in Europe?
However, my key point in this comparison has always been less the fact that Ferguson couldn’t win the league, and more that he didn’t even get close until 1992.
Ferguson’s league ‘win %’ in his first five seasons was a little over 40%; roughly the same as Graeme Souness’ during his ill-fated stint at Liverpool. Yes, that bad!
By contrast, Rafa Benítez has won 55% of his league games in his first five seasons so far. Times have changed, but it’s 3% higher than Shankly’s and only 1% lower than Paisley’s. And even with 10 (and perhaps almost 11) league titles, Ferguson's overall league win % is 'only' 58%.
And yet Rafa's still portrayed in the media as someone who doesn’t understand the English game and who prioritises Europe, while Ferguson, who arrived with no language issues and who, as a Scot, will have had a natural knowledge of English football, is excused his fairly awful first five seasons.
So, with United riding high ever since Benítez got to grips with the league (in 2005/06), all Rafa has had to do is far outperform the man most neutrals hold up to be the best there is, and who has also had more money to spend and more time to construct his squad.
A doddle, surely?
[Edit: of course, add the behind-the-scenes situation, with the two owners at loggerheads, and one of them apparently against the manager, and it only gets even harder. I don't see how Alex Ferguson would have put up with it or managed it that differently. Whoever is to blame for the discord, it is not an ideal situation for any manager, no matter how 'political' he is. You need unity at a club at all levels, and until that is achieved, Liverpool will always be in danger of being undermined.]
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