So why has it all gone wrong in the Premiership, after the best start in donkey’s years? I’ve tried to think of all the reasons I see as valid. Some fans will see a number of these as excuses, but for me it’s the context: the extenuating circumstances, the unique difficulties, and in some cases, the mistakes made.
So why are Liverpool now effectively out of the title race? Well:
• They weren’t quite good enough to start with. Lack experience of the cutting edge of league football stems back almost two decades. And once it became clear that the New Year’s advantage had been lost, a sense of resignation may have set in. The own goal by Alonso having dominated up to that point at Boro may have been the final straw for the team’s belief.
I honestly don’t feel that the Reds were lucky in the first half of the season – scoring late goals, coming from behind to win, etc, is what good teams do – but Liverpool have been inconsistent since the turn of the year. And United have hit a winning run that has heaped pressure on the Reds. Fair play to them in that respect, even if they were only really convincing in three or four of the dozen games.
Beating United, Chelsea twice and Real Madrid shows that Liverpool can perform on the big occasions. But something has often been missing against the smaller teams. It’s fair to say that a fit Torres would have made a big difference in at least a fair few of the draws and the two league defeats. At times it’s been finishing that’s let the Reds down, although a little extra creativity never goes amiss.
• Bad luck with injuries. You can cope without your major players on occasions, but the more you play without them the more their absence will be felt. Torres has missed just too many games, and Gerrard has also had three or four periods of absence. Both of these, but particularly Torres, have also played too much league football in search of fitness and sharpness. Liverpool have actually tended to be better without them rather than when they’ve played at 70%, perhaps because the rest of the team rises to the occasion without them. But you need to play them to get them fit again.
Add Skrtel getting injured when at his best and Agger coming in when rusty, then getting injured again, and there have been some obvious extenuating circumstances. United have also had some defensive injuries to deal with, but if they’d missed Ronaldo for 16 of 27 league games, and had him barely fit for some of the others, while Torres had played almost all season long, it’s not hard to assume that there’s be a significant swing in the opposite direction. Whether it would be enough I don’t know, but it would surely register to some degree.
• The Olympics and Euro 2008. Neither of these have helped, and Liverpool were the English team most affected by both. Given the slightly lower rotation in the first half of the season, which lots of pundits said was essential, it was always on the cards that some tiring may take place; although the rotation was only about a 25% drop. But I just can’t believe it’s coincidental that two of the players to suffer the biggest dips in form have been Babel and Mascherano, while Torres’ injury problems could be attributed to a long season in English football followed immediately by a summer of high-pressure games; a massively tiring schedule, both physically and mentally. To compound it, and I may be wrong, but I can’t think of another team who lost a player who was becoming a regular (Insua) to the South American U20 Championships. It wasn’t a hammer blow, but it didn’t help.
• Gerrard’s court case. I don’t see how this could not have affected things. I can’t think of one Liverpool fan who didn’t groan at the news that he’d been arrested, in terms of the timing, with him in the form of his life and the Reds’ top of the league. While Rafa’s criticism of Ferguson is seen by many as the problem, the timing of Gerrard’s arrest could not have been worse. The captain has put in some good displays since, but has not been as good as he was before the incident.
• Rafa’s ‘rant’. Whether or not people feel that the content was ill-advised, the furore it caused and the way it backfired have only harmed the Reds’ cause, and given United fans something to unite over. Much of what he said was valid, but it was twisted by the media – it was not a rant, but a carefully worded statement – and as such, the unhelpfully sensationalistic coverage of it (as much as anything) turned it into a big own goal. Perhaps Rafa was trying to deflect attention away from Gerrard; if so, it was a noble idea, but one that didn’t work.
The continued behind-the-scenes shenanigans. It’s hard to say exactly where and precisely how these have contributed to the slump, but it’s clear that a lack of unity can only hinder rather than help a team in a season-long quest for honours. This week has seen bookmakers refuse any more wagers on Benítez resigning, followed by Rick Parry walking.
• Squad depth. Overall the depth of the squad isn’t as bad as many make out, as seen with how someone like Benayoun can come in and find great form, Insua’s emergence at left-back, and Hyypia’s continued career at the top, but the squad lacks the depth of United and Chelsea’s. Understandable to a large degree, given the expense of those squads and, in United’s case, how long it’s taken to assemble.
Players like Ngog, Lucas and El Zhar are still learning. They are not going to get good enough by not playing, but some of the stick directed at them as they step into the side here or there is insane, and hugely counterproductive.
The call always goes up to play the kids, but any kids who do play get slaughtered if they’re not like Lionel Messi. Ngog is a young lad who looks some way from getting to grips with English football, but Thierry Henry, who was far more experienced, didn’t look much better in his first five months in England, and that was with regular football; Ngog may never be another Henry, but he is one of the most talented young strikers to emerge from France in the last couple of years and must have talent. El Zhar has impressed as a sub, and that’s about all we can hope for at this stage. But after his start against Boro, he was slaughtered and written off on some forums, and that’s daft.
• The summer’s transfers. Dossena, a current Italian international and someone who impressed in Serie A in recent seasons, just hasn’t settled. (Then again, I never had the problem with Riise at left-back that so many others did, and he was given too much abuse in his final season.) Aurelio has really come good in the last 18 months, but cannot play too many games in a row. Insua has come back tired from a hectic schedule in South America. Personally, I don’t buy that Dossena is ‘rubbish’, but he has not done anywhere near as well as hoped.
On the wing, Riera was excellent for several months, but has run out of steam in the second half of the season; understandable, given he has to get used to the constant grind and high intensity of English football (his stint at City was just a few months, and didn’t involve European football, too). Degen is a write-off (this season at least, and beyond that who knows), and Keane, well…
• Robbie Keane. It was probably either a mistake to sign him, or a mistake to let him go. Signing him made sense at the time, but he did not shine when given the opportunity (and I feel he was given enough chances to do a lot better than he did, as an experienced Premiership striker). He then became a sideshow, as too much focus was put on whether or not he was playing, and he himself began to mope. His unhappiness could well have become destabilising to the team as a whole. Some credit has to be given to the manager for recouping a good fee by acting quickly and decisively, but had the summer signing worked out, that would have been the ideal scenario; now there’s one senior striker missing, even if Keane in the form he’d been in would not have been a massive help.
If Liverpool could have gone to £30m, a better player could probably have been scouted, but Liverpool’s limit appears to be only 70% of what Chelsea and United can afford to pay for one player, before wages are even taken into account. Arsenal also struggle to go to £30m for individuals, and they are having a much worse season than Liverpool. Even with their great attacking play, they’ve drawn their last four league home games 0-0 and are fighting to avoid the UEFA Cup.
• The fact that United were nearing #18. It only ramped up the pressure, something Liverpool – and that includes a majority of fans – have not been able to handle. Had United been on #15 this year, or even #25, it would have felt very different. This season has felt like ‘win it at all costs’, and it has proved a step too far.
• There is a widespread and overwhelming sense of impatience. Too many fans want Benítez out for it to be helpful to the overall mood, and it can easily become a case of a self-fulfilling prophecy. His name is sung less now, and that means less songs are sung in general, which means less atmosphere. Liverpool remain about where they should be in the league in relation to money spent on squad, but as the recently confirmed status of being ranked #1 team in Europe (based on the five seasons Benítez has been in charge) proves, the overachievement in the Champions League is incredibly dramatic. Alas, that overachievement only makes the league showings look worse by comparison.
The crowd at Anfield is apathetic in anything other than the biggest fixtures. I honestly expected games against minor teams at the time when leading the league to have a major feel, but the crowd did not seem to lift its game in line with the importance of the fixtures.
This is not to blame those individuals who go every week and try to sign their hearts out, but an overall damnation of the situation, whatever you think are the reasons behind it. (Speaking from experience, I was never a song-starter, as you’d expect from an OOT sat in the Lower Centenary, but always joined in, unlike many of those around me. I educated myself on the game and the club. I never once left a game before full-time, either, in over 200 matches, and was always in my seat for the start of the second half, unlike so many who wander back ten minutes in. I’m no ‘superfan’, but when I was able to go regularly I did my bit.)
• The cup games with Everton. When the majority of Reds were celebrating the draw, I was telling people it was a potential disaster. The two games were gruelling and the timing was awful. Liverpool are far better than Everton, but the derby is a great leveller, and the Reds had more to lose.
Liverpool cannot keep good strikers in reserve; perhaps due to Manchester United already being champions, they have been able to have a player as talented as Carlos Tevez on the fringes.
Peter Crouch was an excellent squad player, and a brilliant alternative from the bench. But Torres was the spearhead striker, and Crouch, who is not a natural partner for Torres, refused to sign a new deal to play second fiddle. You can’t blame Crouch for wanting regular football, but he is the kind of player who can make an impact and who was already settled at the club. Sod’s Law dictates that as soon as he goes, Torres has an injury-blighted season.
Similarly, Bellamy and Keane were unhappy at being benched and preferred to be regulars at smaller clubs. Meanwhile, Andrei Voronin, who was a decent squad player, was turned into a whipping boy; ludicrous, given he banged in a few goals, and had games like the one against Besiktas, when he created five of the eight scored on the night. He’s not great, but he is an extra body.
Had Torres and Gerrard been fit all season, none of these would be issues. Meanwhile, the serious injury to Nemeth ruled out the best young striker on the books for the first half of the season, when this should have been his time to push for a breakthrough.
• Too many realistic transfer targets have slipped through the net since 2005; as a result, this is not the manager’s full vision, but a compromised version.
Gareth Barry may not have been everyone’s cup of tea, but remains an extremely reliable and competitive Premiership player (although at least Alonso has responded brilliantly to the situation, and shown his old form).
Florent Malouda appears to be a bullet well dodged, but Simao, Alves and Vidic were all priced out of Liverpool’s limited range, as were others. There’s nothing to say that these would have settled in England (or at Liverpool, in Vidic’s case), as it’s always a gamble, but their subsequent careers show that the price quoted at the time was actually a bargain, and that they have real talent.
Part of the failure was clearly financial, and unavoidable; if the funds weren’t there, they weren’t there – although in my opinion a manager should be given a budget and be allowed to divide it how he sees fit.
By contrast, I felt someone like Jermaine Pennant could have been a success, but he, like some others, were the cheaper alternative to better players.
But it’s not just finding £30m to spend on a player; if that was enough to tempt Valencia to part with David Villa, for example, there’s the fact that Chelsea and United can also afford to pay far higher wages. Liverpool FC has an amazing history, but it doesn’t have the financial power of some rivals. Of course, it’s easy to think that our history should entitle us to greater success now. But it doesn’t.
• Players contracts not sorted quickly enough. Peter Crouch should have been tied to a longer deal, and likewise Daniel Agger. This is one area where I definitely share Benítez’s frustration. If a player is under a long contract, it’s easier to keep them on the fringes until they get their chance in the team, although, of course, still not a formality. It’s symptomatic of some of the communication breakdowns that appear to have emerged over recent years, and an area where action was taken quick enough.
So, there are some reasons. I may have missed some out, and no doubt people will have different ideas on certain issues. But above all, I’ve focused on some of the bigger problems.
I honestly don’t have a major problem with the tactics. I think Liverpool are well balanced, rather than especially negative or positive.
I also don’t mind the substitutions Rafa makes; a lot of late goals, including those by subs, suggests this isn’t a major problem. It’s always easy to say this or that change would have won the game, or this or that selection was wrong, but it can never be proved. And as such, I don’t like to concentrate too much on those judgement calls. Arsenal are a hugely positive team, yet they can’t score goals at home for love nor money.
I’ve never said that Rafa gets it right every time. But I’ve moved beyond micro-managing and knowing it all with hindsight (in America it’s called “playing Monday morning quarterback”; an expression we can’t match), and instead try to constantly gauge the bigger picture. It may seem repetitive, but it’s designed to fight the weekly, even daily assault on our senses to the contrary.
Because there will always be players to moan about. No squad will ever be perfect. Some United fans now moan about Nani, while a few months ago it was Johnny Evans, and before that it was Darren Fletcher. And there will always be decisions to moan about.
So where does it leave Liverpool?
The hysteria surrounding Benítez’s methods is getting way out of control, escalating beyond levels I thought possible, and I’m half wishing he’s replaced, just to end this constant, unrelenting criticism. But until the hierarchy are on speaking terms and unified in their vision, it’s almost pointless having any top-class manager at all. If the two men in control can’t appear to agree on a vision, what chance do those below them stand?
Someone told me that Mourinho should be given the job, but also given lots of money, as he had at Chelsea. Well, that doesn’t exist at Liverpool, does it? And he spent a lot of his Chelsea money rather badly; he inherited Cech, Terry, Lampard, Duff, Robben, Joe Cole, Gudjohnsen, Makelele, Bridge and a few others, and that was the basis of his success.
Part of me is seduced by the idea of Mourinho’s utter arrogance and self-belief injected into what I believe is, on the whole, a very good squad at Liverpool, and a particularly excellent spine that Rafa has assembled. Maybe it needs that swagger, that cleverness with words. But Mourinho fell out with Roman Abramovich over arguably less than Rafa has had to contend with in terms of back-room tension. Would he work for two versions of Abramovich who don’t even seem to agree with each other?
Then I think of how Mourinho’s tactics can often be crude and basic (Robert Huth up front?), and he certainly wasn’t an entertainer in terms of football played (a criticism levelled at Rafa). But he could be very positive, such as making all three subs at half-time, and seeing it work. Of course, one injury and you’re stuffed, and in then looks impetuous.
It’s all swings and roundabouts, pros and cons. There was pressure at Chelsea, but not a 20-year millstone. So I’d rather everyone got behind Benítez, as he’s easily as good as Mourinho (and any alternative I can think of), even if he has a different skill set. But, alas, no matter what I or others say, people are too set in beliefs that Benítez will not deliver. And that just makes it harder.
Part of me thinks that any talented manager who the fans can get behind will be a help. But changing a manager, while it can have a big initial impact for 8-10 games irrespective of his quality, also comes with its drawbacks. Different ideas can mean different players, and starting to build all over again.
The way forward? Who the fuck knows.
www.paultomkins.com – support my writing by buying my books. Compendium is available only from my website, while Dynasty and others are available through Amazon and other retail outlets.
"Tomkins not only shows why he is a prolific, talented writer but also cements his status as very knowledgeable and passionate Red. In my opinion this is Tomkins' best work to date; a thoroughly excellent read."
Vic Gill, Shanks' son-in-law and former LFC trainee
“The project that Tomkins has taken on here is highly ambitious: assessing each of Liverpool’s managers since Bill Shankly. He does this in his own irrepressible style of analyzing in detail every area that falls within a manager’s remit. And whilst Tomkins has a talent for such a task, where he excels here is in approaching each manager without any apparent pre-conceived ideas.”
Paul Grech, Squarefootball.net
"A unique analysis of the club's managers, which is no mean feat given the extensive bibliography of the club… informative … another perspective on the last 50 years at Liverpool."
Programme & Football Collectable Monthly