An Open Letter To Martin Samuel

An Open Letter To Martin Samuel
October 26, 2009 Paul Tomkins

Dear Martin,

I’ve recently become a convert to your work, and admitted as much earlier this season (you used to wind me up with your lack of foresight over Peter Crouch, who you said would never score goals for England). In particular, I really valued your assessment of Dirk Kuyt earlier in the year.

Although it appears that you disagree with me in your latest column.

While I accept that the money raised by constant qualification for the Champions League apparently makes it easier to win more league games, I suggest that you are missing the full picture. You raise some valid points, but it’s only half the story. I’d therefore suggest that you reconsider your position.

Almost every critic has argued that Liverpool have not had a strong enough team, and certainly a strong enough squad, under Benítez; a problem dating back to his predecessor and the situation he inherited, plus the lack of riches from either David Moores or the new American owners. Remember, he only has one/two players?

And yet, in being expected to challenge for the league title, Liverpool have had to have extended European runs simply to fund the purchase of any new players.

This is not true of all other top four clubs, is it? So you’ve already made one mass generalisation: that all top-four clubs are the same.

You’ve probably now realised that, of course, they are not. Chelsea have Abramovich, United a commercial machine and a 76,000 seater stadium. Oh, and no other top four club has bickering owners who admit to trying to bring in another manager (Klinsmann) at a time when you are expected to be winning league matches.

If Liverpool do not have a really top-class manager, or a strong squad, or (and this one is certainly true) men pumping loads of money into the club, how is this achieved?

The need to fight on two ultra-demanding fronts that can last the entire season means a far greater number of high-pressure games than Ferguson, in the ‘80s, or Wenger, in the ‘90s, had to face. After all, Ferguson only really had the league to focus on for most of his first five years, plus the FA Cup, which did not involve the same amount of travel, and which was not physically taxing only for the top teams (as the Champions League is for the top four in England these days). However, he was still seriously backed in the transfer market.

Men like Sam Allardyce know that the best time to play a top four team is after the midweek European games. He has stated how much it takes out of those teams, hence the need for a bigger squad; the kind Liverpool aren’t supposed to possess. (And, compared with Chelsea, City and United, certainly don’t posses, at least in terms of sheer depth.)

And Wenger, while winning league games at a rate slightly inferior to Benítez, could not do a single thing with Arsenal in Europe for the longest time. Remember, they kept crashing out early with all those failures at Wembley. But this was in the days before Chelsea, and their über-wealth, which turned Arsenal from regular challengers into a mere top-four team.

Having to do well in the Champions League merely to fund your Premiership ambitions means testing a squad to its limits, and coming back from far-flung European destinations with the need to throw in kids and reserves to stop key players from burning out.

It means having to put everything into European games, to raise money to build a better team to challenge for the league, only to make league victories harder to come by due to fatigue. Yes, the Champions League helps attract better players, but Manchester United were hardly a no-name club in the ’80s, were they?

It means picking up more injuries, and as much as Benítez rates Voronin’s cleverness and N’Gog’s potential, I don’t think he wants to be in a situation where his combined reserve strike-force cost £1.5m and, combined, is paid less than any of Manchester City’s bench warmers. I don’t think he believed that when he sold Robbie Keane, he wouldn’t get to see the money again.

Therefore I suggest that it is the quality of the managers at the big four clubs in the past five years, and not simply the fact that they are in the Champions League, that plays a key part in winning more games. Ferguson, Wenger, Benítez, Mourinho, Ancelotti, Scolari and Hiddink are amongst the top ten managers in the world. These really are most of the stellar names of management this decade. And yes, Benítez warrants his inclusion.

With all due respect to Alex Ferguson, rivals in the late ‘80s, like Graham Taylor, were not. Different era, different challenges, but you are very wrong to assume that the mere act of being in the Champions League leads to success; after all, Everton qualified in 2005. Also, Liverpool were not qualifying for the competition on a regular basis before Benítez arrived; so far, they have every single year under his stewardship, and not only that, progressed beyond the group stages in each campaign. It all raises more money, but doesn’t put Liverpool on an equal footing with the club’s rivals.

Liverpool certainly don’t have the wealthy backers that allow Chelsea to have such a deep, well-paid squad, to help fight on all fronts, nor the financial wherewithal that allowed United to break the transfer record so many times.

Indeed, in relative terms (as I’ve discussed before, in depth, in a couple of my books, using my Relative Transfer System), Ferguson’s team between 1986 and 1991 cost far more than any recent Liverpool one, with its inclusion of several very expensive and record-breaking transfers (Bryan Robson, who was a gem to inherit, plus Gary Pallister, a British record for a defender, and Mark Hughes, bought back for a massive fee at the time, along with Paul Ince and Steve Bruce, and various others.)

Ferguson got it right, eventually. But he too was wrestling with a 20-year weight of club failure in the hunt for the main domestic prize. And both teams had big problems with the squads when they arrived, be it drinking or sheer lack of quality.

Please remember that it’s even harder at clubs Liverpool and Manchester United after a period of drought. The pressure to win every single game is unbelievable, as you can well imagine. (Okay, being a West Ham fan, maybe you can’t…).

Despite Liverpool now only having the 5th-most expensive squad (by some distance from Spurs in 4th), and the 5th-highest wage bill, everyone expects Liverpool to land the league title. Is that realistic?

Liverpool’s squad cost £150m; Spurs, United, Chelsea and City have squads that range from between £200m to £270m. Three of these clubs can afford to pay big wages to keep that squad happy; Liverpool clearly cannot. And wages are a massive factor in success.

You can’t easily compare eras, but good managers should get respect for their achievements, in context, whatever the decade.

Benítez deserves respect for winning 114 of his first 200 league games, compared with 110 by Wenger and just 87 by Ferguson, especially given that Rafa is supposed to be clueless domestically.

I am not arguing that Benítez’s win rate makes him better than those managers, simply that it’s an indicator of his quality – and not, as you seem to suggest, down purely to being a member of the country’s big four. After all, Newcastle were Champions League qualifiers and on a par with Liverpool in the earlier part of this decade; I didn’t see them going from strength to strength once they good rid of a good manager and replaced him with several chumps, sustained by the success of making the top four.

Finally, you and I both know that if the internet, phone-ins, and all the extra TV and newspaper coverage, existed back in the ’80s, Ferguson would not have got to 200 games in the first place. That’s one pressure he didn’t have to deal with when trying to put his stamp on United.