Robbie Keane is a fine footballer. So why didn’t it work out at Liverpool?
Well, first of all, perhaps Keane couldn’t deal with the pressure. Leeds were flying when he was there, but he failed to really shine. He also failed to make an impression at Inter Milan, but was young and barely there for long.
At Spurs he took a while to get going. While they are a big club, they are not up there with the giants; a UEFA Cup side, never a Champions League outfit.
Over the years he settled in at Spurs and gradually improved, but at Liverpool he was never going to get that luxury. If Fernando Morientes, after years at Real Madrid, found the pressure at Liverpool tough, it can affect anyone.
Second, it seemed that he couldn’t handle rotation or substitution. For me, he took it all far too personally. If you get 70 minutes week after week, as he was earlier in the season, that’s plenty of time to make an impact. The manager likes to change things around at that point; accept it. Look disappointed by all means, but don’t get a persecution complex.
No-one likes being left out, particularly when in form, but he should have been able to handle sitting out one game in four in a hectic fixture list (Newcastle away) without his form crumbling. That was a huge concern. Carlos Tevez was left out at Manchester United after scoring four in a game, and was sat on the bench for weeks on end, but he didn’t crumble.
(Edit: If United won't tie up a deal for him and Rafa still wants a second-striker, Tevez has to be an option for next season, if the price can be met. With Mascherano and Insua already at Anfield he'd feel at home. And while Gerrard is outstanding in the role, someone like Tevez could provide a great alternative. I don't usually covet United players, but he isn't officially theirs, so it wouldn't mean negotiating with them. He has a great attitude and work ethic, and no little ability. If Gerrard dropped back into midfield, Tevez would get more football at Liverpool than at United when Rooney and Berbatov are fit. Anyway, just a thought at this stage.)
Guaranteed of a place in the team at Spurs, Keane found that such a luxury is reserved for world-class or super-consistent talents at Liverpool. Reina, Carragher, Gerrard and Torres are shoo-ins for 90% of the matches, and all of the key ones. Players as good as Mascherano, Agger, Skrtel, Hyypia and Alonso have to content themselves with time on the sidelines. I haven’t seen any of them looking as long-faced or taking it as personally.
(The one exception in terms of the regulars being world-class is Dirk Kuyt, but he is a bit like a metronome in terms of setting the Reds’ tempo with their fast-pressing game. He’s also someone who never seems to tire. That said, he’s had to come to terms with being deployed in a role that is not the one he was bought for, but he hasn’t complained.)
Third, the transfer fee only added extra pressure. Keane could not easily be the player he was at Spurs, because he was now under the spotlight as a £20m signing, as opposed to a £7m player. His every touch was analysed; there was almost World War III when he played a few minutes on the wing. As at Leeds, where the price tag was high, he was under more pressure.
Had he got off to a flying start for the Reds, it might have been different. Instead, he was indifferent: some very good games, but also some where it was hard to know he was even on the pitch. How he could complain at being taken off against Everton is beyond me; he was just not involved in the play.
Fourth, there was Torres’ injury. The partnership never got a chance to get going, and with Gerrard pushed forward to play behind Keane or Kuyt, Xabi Alonso came back into the fold and excelled. So fate intervened. The plans Rafa had for the summer were superseded. Gerrard was returned to the role in which he has often been sublime.
Finally, and perhaps something that few people have picked up on as a valid reason to fail, Keane is a Liverpool fan. The paradox of this is that he may have tried too hard; been too desperate to please. It certainly looked that way at the start.
There’s enough pressure being a Liverpool player, but if you’re a fan too, you can have an extra psychological burden when you arrive. Perhaps it’s one of the reasons why, with the exception of Gerrard, dyed-in-the-wool Evertonians have actually had far more impact for the Reds in the last 30 years, going back through Rush, Fowler, McManaman, Owen and Carragher. (Although their quality clearly helped!)
Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice when players are boyhood Reds, in that we know they’ll care. But was Souness? No. Was Dalglish? No. Were Hughes, Hansen and Clemence? No. Barnes, Beardsley, Nicol, Whelan? No. And so on. Meanwhile, Leonhardsen, McAteer, Bellamy, Heskey, Kewell and now Keane were all big Liverpool fans as kids. I’m not sure it helped them in the slightest. Have Liverpool had success when signing a Liverpool fan since John Aldridge in 1987? (I think Rob Jones may also have been a Red before he signed in 1991.)
The most important thing is to find top players with a top-class temperament who can handle the pressure, which, in the modern age, with the millstone of 19-years weighing ultra-heavy, is even greater than in the halcyon days. It might be easier if you don’t support the Reds, because it can bring extra baggage.
So it was a brave move by Benítez to cut his losses at this stage; but providing the Reds don’t suffer an injury crisis, better than losing £14m, as United did on Veron, or almost £30m, as Chelsea did on Shevchenko. Once players near 30, their value drops rapidly. If it’s not working, move quickly.
Although quoted at £12m, the £15m limit (which Spurs have to be prepared to pay) is a good amount for a player who turns 29 this year; an overpayment, just as the Reds overpaid for his services in the summer. Needs must, and Spurs have great needs. If Keane had hit it off at Liverpool, he’d have been worth every penny, but that’s the gamble you take.
I don’t know if Rafa feels the same, but there were a few moments that raised massive alarm bells for me. In particular, the bizarre misses against Atletico and Bolton, and how he reacted to being rested at Newcastle (when Liverpool scored five without him) by missing some gilt-edged chances at Preston just a few days later. All players have confidence issues, but it spoke of a little too much fragility, mixed with a strange need to over-egg the mix.
The miss away at Atletico infuriated me. Having notched his second Liverpool goal when opening the scoring, the game was still very tight at 1-0 as the first-half wore on. Inexplicably, he tried an audacious flick when the ball was on a plate to just smash it in from a few yards. At 4-0 up, or even 2-0 in the last minute, it’s almost forgivable.
With the game in the balance and his confidence still not set in stone after just two goals in all those games, it was bizarre. I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it. (Riera’s flick at the weekend was similar, but he’s not noted as a natural goalscorer, and it wasn’t quite as much on a plate: he wasn’t facing the goal like Keane was.)
One thing I have never liked about Keane was his celebrations, and I said so when we signed him. But perhaps they were also a warning: that he is a show-off. The cartwheeling, gun-slinging, arrow-firing nonsense is perhaps connected to that miss in Spain. I still prefer a player who puts the ball in the net without complicating things, and celebrates with simple joy.
While he only got five months to impress Benítez, he also wasn’t lacking in time on the pitch. He played two-thirds of Liverpool’s league minutes before being left out against Chelsea (presumably due to the deal being struck). He wasn’t always in his favoured position, but his finishing let him down when the chances came his way.
Regular readers know that I think all players need to be given time by the fans and the media.
But if the manager doesn’t see something worth persevering with, or feels that the mix isn’t right, it’s better for all concerned to cut their losses. Ultimately, he gets to judge from close-up several hours a day, and watch countless hours of video footage. He’s the one who knows what he wants.
The great thing about Benítez is that if he doesn’t think it’s working out, he moves his own signings on extremely quickly, and then tries the next option; it’s helped him trade up in almost every position: bringing in Arbeloa, Torres, Riera and Mascherano in the process of replacing earlier captures.
While selling Keane leaves Liverpool light on numbers (and it is a concern), there are still plenty of attacking permutations. Kuyt and Gerrard excelled at St James’ Park, even though the former has lost his goal touch again; at least he’s a good buffer for the captain, even if it’s not a dream pairing.
Yossi Benayoun is similar to Keane in that his preferred role is off the main striker, and he’s in good form right now. He’s actually looked a better footballer than Keane of late, despite a lot of time on the bench.
David Ngog, while young and looking too raw for this season, should not be written off; 19, he has only had a few cameos, and done well in a couple of them. People say ‘give the kids a chance’, but then write off a rookie after a few minutes of football. As someone new to English football, and at such a young age, he’s got a lot more adjusting to do than someone like Keane.
Then there’s the young reserves, with Nemeth likely to knock on the door when his cheekbone has healed (get that Gazza mask ready pronto). It’s a shame he missed the first half of the season injured, as he is a real gem.
Pacheco is another who will be getting closer all the time, while Lauri Dalla Valle is an absolutely superb finisher for a 17-year-old. No wonder Chelsea offered to double what we were prepared to pay for him after he left Inter Milan because of homesickness. Thankfully, he still opted for Anfield. No-one is ever a sure-fire hit, but he has that something special that marks youngsters out.
So if this season sees the Reds a little light on numbers, there is genuine quality coming through the ranks.
I’d also be just as happy with Ryan Babel playing off Torres as Keane based on their form this season. If Babel can get back some confidence, he could finally get some games in his favoured role. It’s another option.
Finally, I would question Jamie Redknapp’s role in the transfer. A good friend of Keane’s, he criticised the Liverpool manager when his own dad was eager to re-sign the player. It may have been entirely innocent, but it does concern me a little. Was it designed to bring about a transfer at a reduced price? As I wrote the other day, Jamie hasn’t criticised his dad’s handling of the expensive strikers at his own club.
Anyway, time to move on.
Hopefully fate will be kind and Robbie Keane will return to Anfield on the last day of the season with Spurs and collect his Premiership winners’ medal. He certainly contributed to the good first half of the season, but in the final judgement, maybe not quite enough. An own goal on May 24th might just help.
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