Final of Contempt, Season of Discontent

Final of Contempt, Season of Discontent
May 7, 2012 Paul Tomkins

Familiarity breeds contempt, and since 2004, Liverpool seem to have played Chelsea four or five times a season. The epic – if not exactly attractive – Champions League games have given way to equally combative domestic cup encounters.

Before, particularly between 2004 and 2007, it seemed that Chelsea, with all their expensive players, would win the league games, but Liverpool triumphed in the killer cup ties, such as in the Champions League and FA Cup semi-finals.

But then, in more recent times, Liverpool started finally winning league games at Stamford Bridge, and did so again this season; but twice went out of the Champions League in West London (2008 and 2009), and now have lost this year’s FA Cup final.

So much seemed to be riding on this game. Lose, and Liverpool’s season would be labelled a polish-resistant turd, with the Carling Cup a mere consolation, and the FA Cup Final providing nothing to show for a fine run of knockout results. But win, and there would be a lot to celebrate; the focus could legitimately be shifted from the league form, because two proper trophies in one season is still a rarity.

In the league, even if you don’t win the title, everything good you do up until the last game stays on the record; but lose a cup final and what went before vanishes. Too many of Liverpool’s best results have disappeared into the ether.

A season shouldn’t be defined by one game at the end of 50+ matches, but so below-par have the Reds’ Premier League results been, particularly in the second half of the season, it needed a second cup in the trophy cabinet to legitimise that failure; after all, Chelsea themselves could win two cups and still finish well off the pace in 6th. You can’t have two cup runs and maintain excellent league form unless you really are a top-rate side, and even then, plenty can’t juggle it all. (And Chelsea’s season, with their costly squad and monumental wages, needs the Champions League to legitimise it; the FA Cup alone won’t suffice, unless they finish in the top four. Ironically, they now need to win at Anfield tomorrow night to achieve that.)

In the domestic cups, Liverpool beat Manchester United at home, Chelsea away, Manchester City away, Stoke home and away, and Everton in a neutral setting. Results like those would have transformed the league season; instead, beating United and Stoke at home, and Everton at Wembley, resulted in nothing concrete – just a day out.

And even at Wembley on Saturday, to highlight the Jekyll and Hyde season, the bad fought with the good, with the bad winning for two-thirds of the match, only for the good to make a late case for itself; 60 minutes of nothingness turned on its head by a riveting final 30, by which time it proved too little too late (and, having spent the season hitting the post, the Reds were ‘denied’ by another fine-margin issue).

Liverpool were strong for only a third of the game, just as they’ve won roughly a third of league games. Those good 30 minutes were ultimately meaningless; in keeping with how plenty of good 90 minutes in the league – particularly at Anfield – have counted for nothing because getting that white ball over the whole line has been beyond them. Trying to make sense of it all can lead a writer to substance abuse.

Of course, just to further confuse things, Andy Carroll – who was playing poorly when the team was playing well – is now playing like someone worth building a team around. But would you dare do so? It’s been the season that refuses to make sense.

Confusion

The more time that passes, the more confusing things get. Is Carroll part of the problem, or now part of the solution?

The big man in the white boots has been superb of late. But how does he dovetail with Suarez, and does their partnership limit the tactical permutations? Can we play consistently well with him in the side, and not revert to long-ball football at the first sign of trouble? Can he stay consistently fit and prove that he has grown up, and is now a dedicated athlete? Will the incredible hunger he has shown for the past month or two remain in place?

I honestly have no idea. I’d like to think he is coming into his own, rather than just playing out of his skin, but I don’t feel that I know so.

And Carroll’s luck could do with changing, too. He should be the hero of a cup comeback, but instead he is only credited with one goal. With Chelsea killing off Spurs in the semi-final with a goal that didn’t even reach the line, you have to feel for Carroll, whose career at Liverpool could have finally gone from bubbling along to champagne explosion had the linesman given the goal.

It shouldn’t come down to official’s decisions, and I don’t blame the linesman, but for me, the whole of the ball looked over the line, once the iffy camera angle was taken into account. And even though I got a lot of Liverpool fans on Twitter saying “so what?/get over it”, it’s moments like that which change games and destinies. The futures of Dalglish and Carroll would have looked far more secure had it been given, even if it was a matter of mere millimetres either way.

That ‘goal’ would have made the score 2-2, and if momentum doesn’t exist from game to game – when players have had a chance to cool off and for their mood to change (as also happens at half-time) – it surely shifts within one; and in this case, it was with the men in red.

Chelsea were backing off, and perhaps there for the taking (although often, when a game is returned to draw status from a two or three goal deficit, the team that were behind tend to then stick on what they have, and the team that threw away the lead suddenly have to fight; in Istanbul, for example, as soon as it went 3-3, Milan took charge again – as if Liverpool knew they had got back into the game on spirit alone, but could not continue to tear into the more-talented and experienced Italians. So Carroll’s ‘goal’ wouldn’t have won the cup, but being so close to the end, it could have brought about extra-time.)

(Either the broadcast camera is not in line or the goalposts were not fully upright)

The officials’ failure to signal a goal left me feeling worse than had the team not created another chance at 2-1. While Carroll’s header could have been directed lower, it was such a good contact that he had no right to expect Cech to pull off such a remarkable save, whether the ball was over the line or not. It reminded me of Shevchenko versus Dudek in extra-time in Istanbul – the striker had the whole goal to aim at, but just hitting the target with power in those situations usually suffices.

The incredible thing about Carroll is that even when he tries the right thing, it somehow fails to work. If he aims for the corners – even the top corners – it goes narrowly wide, or hits the post, or somehow the keeper pulls off a remarkable save (Cech at Wembley, Hart at Anfield). If he just closes his eyes and powers it on target, it hits the keeper. He’s not had one go in when he’s got the contact totally wrong, in the way that so many players benefit from the occasional scuffed effort bobbling in.

He’s looking lean, fit, sharp and his feet look ‘light’; as opposed to looking like he was playing in lead boots when he arrived. His foot movements are now so nimble, even if, as a player, he isn’t the quickest off the mark; he’s got light feet, but still has to shift a big unit around. Perhaps he should have had more of a chance in the side during Suarez’s suspension, but Bellamy was sensational at that time. And maybe he’s not making enough of his own luck, but he hasn’t exactly been fortunate since £35m was associated with his name.

Whether or not Carroll and Suarez can form a sufficiently effective partnership – they’ve had some good games together, but it’s not been a roaring success (or produced tons of goals) – they can certainly offer good options as individuals. The problem as a pair is that, with the exception of Suarez in certain situations, they can’t really get in behind teams, and a striker who can do that seems vital, even if only as an alternative (assuming that Bellamy is not going to be reliable enough).

The defence is less problematic. Three of the back four that played at Wembley are first-rate; only Enrique is worrying me, after an excellent first five months. His form has dipped alarmingly, and maybe we’re seeing why Spain didn’t get carried away with his strong displays – he’s possibly too limited on the ball. He’s quick, he’s strong, but at times looks fairly clueless as he twists and turns his way down a blind alley. For five months, no-one beat him for pace, but even that’s now occurring.

And of course, Pepe Reina is having a poor season by his standards, but for me, it’s a case of form is temporary, class is permanent (although the return of a top goalkeeping coach might help).

Mid-table midfield

However, as a unit, it’s the midfield that’s worrying me most. I wouldn’t object to any of Spearing, Adam, Henderson and Downing in the squad, but all of them together leave me underwhelmed. Maxi and Kuyt have perhaps lost confidence by being behind some of these players in the pecking order, but then they are in their 30s and slowing down; and like Bellamy and Gerrard, they do not present long-term solutions.

Spearing has his qualities as a shuttler, but he’s certainly nothing special; even his best games are merely ‘solid’. Henderson is young, and talented, but (as yet) unable to impose himself. Downing is almost 28, and is still unable to impose himself. And Adam is a big bundle of frustration. You can add the exciting but raw Shelvey to the list of those who just don’t seem good enough right now.

Although I expect a couple to develop very nicely – namely Henderson and Shelvey – I wouldn’t be devastated if we sold any or all of them, or loaned out the younger ones. (By contrast, Andy Carroll is showing lately what a lot of them lack: the ability to impose themselves. Henderson seemed to find that authority and aggression against Blackburn, but then lost it again.)

Of course, Bellamy, who has spent a lot of his playing time in midfield, has a lot of what we’re looking for, but has not played well since returning from injury, and is ‘unreliable’ in terms of fitness. He’s a mere squad player, due to his age and inability to play too frequently.

(Thinking about it, getting everyone in form at the same time has been a problem: Enrique was brilliant at the start of the season, Bellamy in the middle and Carroll at the end. How many have been on their game most weeks from August to May? Have more than a couple of players been on top form for even two-thirds of the season?)

And the worry is that the only midfielder who is definitely good enough right now – and under 31 – is Lucas Leiva. And we can only cross our fingers and hope that he recovers fully from his serious cruciate injury, and does so in time for August. All teams have injuries, but some hit you harder than others.

For me, the strange lack of excitement I sometimes feel about this team stems solely from the midfield, and in particular the players purchased last summer. The defence can defend and attack, and the attack can attack and defend. But I’m not convinced about Liverpool across the middle.

As the most expensive – and as a winger – Downing should be doing more. He’s neither a strong wide midfielder (like Kuyt) who works hard and can chip in with goals; nor a winger who goes past men, like the John Barnes of old. Perhaps it wouldn’t be a problem if the other flank was our main focus of attack, and Downing was the steadier alternative to balance things out; but he’s our ‘star’ wide creator, with Henderson often the counterbalance. That’s what worries me. Downing’s a good Premier League player, but continues to look a mediocre ‘big time’ player. Liverpool bought these players from mid-table teams, and now, Liverpool themselves are edging that way.

Goodbyes?

More detailed examinations of what needs improving in the summer will appear on the site in the coming weeks, as the season is sliced open and dissected as part of a systematic autopsy, but for now, a few of the (t)issues can be put under the microscope, in this preliminary examination.

I’d be very sad to lose Kuyt and Maxi, as I like the style of both (particularly Dirk’s work-rate and Maxi’s ability to ghost in at the far post for a tap-in). They can give the team goals. But neither is irreplaceable, and I accept that we can’t be sentimental.

Coming back to Carroll and Suarez, and the issue of goals, it would just need them to get 12-15 apiece if the midfield was weighing in; it doesn’t necessarily need that sought-after poacher with ice in his veins if everyone is chipping in. But as things stand, persevering with this midfield demands it. The team just doesn’t have enough goalscorers, and failing that, it does not possess one man who can get a crazy amount to compensate.

In many ways, when judging Henderson and Shelvey we’re in stasis, awaiting their metamorphoses. Ditto Carroll, although it feels like it might just be happening. (One swallow doesn’t make a summer; half a dozen, however, and we start to wonder.)

And we await the development of other young players; despite still being good for his age, Flanagan has gone backwards this season; Robinson has been injured and only featured in the League Cup; Conor Coady has not yet pushed on to make his debut, and neither has Andre Wisdom. Have they been deemed not yet good enough, or has the type of season made it harder to blood them? (Although going for the title, or for the top four, hardly makes it any easier.)

Raheem Sterling, who is edging into the frame, is precisely the type of player we could use in midfield, but of course, he’s only 17 and lacking in the kind of game intelligence Maxi and Kuyt could bring; but at least in his case it’s because he’s a mere lad who is still learning the game. Hopefully that will come with experience.

He has the pace, verve, skill and directness – plus an eye for goal – that this team is so lacking from wide midfield areas. But we can’t play the 21-year-old version of the winger in 2012. All we can expect to see is a very raw teenager eager to impress, but who will almost certainly experience some peaks and troughs with his form next season as he comes to terms with the step up.

The return of Lucas will help the centre-backs, and if the team concede fewer goals – as it was when he was playing – that puts less pressure on the others to score them. But Lucas himself obviously won’t offer goals; the team will be better balanced, and more able to retain possession, but putting the ball in the back of the net cannot be allowed to remain a problem.

And if Kuyt and Maxi leave, they take away 20 goals a (full) season between them. Then we need successful signings just to replace what we’ve lost, before even thinking of moving us forward. To improve, the Reds probably have to find someone pretty special: a creative tour de force, or someone who could score more than 15 – if not a Ronaldo, then a Robben; or make two or three signings who can share the goals around.

Personally, although he has his uses as a squad player, I’d look to get £10-12m back on Downing, and given his age and that he can do a job for mid-table sides, all of the money back on Adam. That could raise almost £20m; pretty essential if Kuyt and Maxi are allowed to leave for a measly £1m (Maxi free, Kuyt on a contract clause). Those two 30-somethings will however free up large wages, but the new players will surely cost a decent fee plus reasonably high wages.

Carragher is another whose release could free up a third big wage. There is of course a risk to losing his experience, on top of that of Kuyt and Maxi, particularly when it comes to big games; by contrast, Downing and Adam will be no great loss in that sense. Fabio Aurelio, possibly the most technically gifted (but injury-prone) left-back the club has ever seen, is another almost-33-year-old heading for the exit. His wages since Roy Hodgson brought him back to the club have been money down the drain.

Having said that, maybe Liverpool can bring back the almost 31-year-old Joe Cole, as an option, now that he’s rediscovered his Jo(i)e de vivre; but of course, he’s another ageing player on big wages. (Then again, as things transpired, this season Liverpool have been paying him to play well in France.) Ditto Alberto Aquilani: for the sake of a mere £5m, which will now not be triggered by AC Milan, there has to be a case for keeping him. At ‘just’ 27 (28 in July), he’s a young man compared with Maxi, Gerrard, Kuyt, Aurelio and Carragher, and he can spot a killer pass. I prefer Aquilani to Adam, because of his ability to keep the ball, but neither seems a perfect solution, and the Italian’s injuries will always be a worry.

Deja vu?

While it’s still a fairly young squad overall, age is actually a major problem: what were the best big-game players are now on the wrong side of 30. Such a strong squad three years ago is now strangely reminiscent of where the club was in 2003/04, when starting the season as reigning League Cup holders, and ending it 30 points adrift of the leaders.

The best players then, aside from home-grown lads, were the older ones: Hamann and Hyypia stand out. The recent big young signings – in Houllier’s case, from the French league as opposed to these shores – were overpriced and subsequently under-delivered. Salif Diao, El Hadji Diouf, Antony Le Tallec, Bruno Cheyrou and, as Houllier’s leaving present, Djibril Cissé, were all at a great age. But like Carroll, Henderson and Adam, they failed to make a big enough impact.

Contrast this with Reina, Agger, Lucas, Sissoko, Mascherano and Alonso, all signed when 22 or younger, and Torres and Skrtel, aged 23. So far, only Suarez of the new guard has proved he has the character for handling the expectations, although we don’t have the benefit of hindsight here (and in time, others may be seen as similarly successful).

The football was less enjoyable in 2003/04 than it is now, but of course, Michael Owen – the one type of player we currently lack – was on hand to do little but snaffle a few goals on the counter-attack to scrape the team up to 4th place, 30 points behind the champions.

There was one perfectly-aged mercurial talent, to create the openings: then it was Gerrard, now it’s Suarez. And there was one big English centre-forward with a massive price tag (in today’s money, Heskey cost roughly £30m), who couldn’t score enough goals, but who, on his day, could be unplayable.

There are differences, of course, not least in how Houllier was a manager entering his sixth season, and this is a new project. But the mess that the Frenchman let accrue is not too dissimilar to now, with the shameful scaling down of Gillett and Hicks, the below-par final couple of signings of Benítez (excluding Shelvey and Sterling), the moronic fantasy manager sales of Christian Purslow, the zero-ambition purchases of Roy Hodgson, and the messy Dalglish/Damien Comolli-led Brit-based policy of the past 18 months.

Making a mark

It took Benítez a year to sort out the squad he inherited following Houllier’s final campaign, in a season that saw a disappointing league showing overshadowed by two cup finals. A year later, Liverpool were able to win 25 of the 38 league games, finishing with 82 points (and the FA Cup). As good as Benítez was, the club was in a virtuous circle, with the Champions League income helping the club to remain in the Champions League, and attract Champions League players; although of course, the extra games meant the Reds needed a bigger squad than they could afford, and away league games were harder after a long midweek trip.

While several players were merely in-and-out of the side (such as Peter Crouch), it arguably took just three inspired signings to make such a difference: Xabi Alonso, Luis Garcia and Pepe Reina; all of them easily within the club’s current budget, even with inflation taken into account. Momo Sissoko was also very effective in that time.

Daniel Agger arrived in January 2006, but with just four appearances, didn’t make an impact until the next season. Agger, Reina, Alonso, Sissoko and Garcia were all signed in Rafa’s first 18 months, and all looked the part within those 18 months. In the last 18 months, only Luis Suarez has been of that calibre. Liverpool have spent some Champions League fees, but not handed out Champions League wages.

It’s actually five years since the last clutch of successful signings was made. Five years. Fees aside, there have been some excellent buys – Suarez and Johnson; some good buys – Meireles, Bellamy, and, I had thought, Enrique; and some potentially good buys – Coates, Henderson, Carroll.

But it now needs a 1987 (Aldridge, Houghton, Barnes, Beardsley), or a 1999 (Hyypia, Hamann, Henchoz, Westerveld), or a 2007 (Torres, Lucas, Mascherano, Benayoun), to turn it around. Another 1992, or 2002, or 2011, and unless some hitherto underachievers radically transform, then it will be hard to feel too confident right now; especially if Kuyt, Maxi and Carragher will need replacing, and the dressing room loses even more character.

Before summing up, it’s worth noting that in 2003/04, Liverpool won just 41.8% (18 from 43) of their games against Premier League teams (when also including cup games), and just 42% of league games when finishing 4th. Under Roy Hodgson, it was just 35% (seven wins from 20).

Right now, it’s 43.1% (19 wins from 44), with six of the eight cup games coming against Premier League top seven sides, plus two versus Stoke. It puts some context to the otherwise Hodgsonesque 36.1% win percentage, but it’s still not great – and doesn’t explain why Liverpool can win six and draw one out of eight cup games (75% win rate) against very strong opposition, but then do far worse, on average, against the division as a whole.

Inconclusive conclusion

As ever of late, I’m heading off in tangents, trying to take everything in and leave no stone unturned. But some of it just won’t make sense, no matter how much I prod at it, and there are hundreds of aspects still left unexamined. Time will provide most of the answers about players being good enough, but by then, it might be too late; the damage might have been done.

Or, in two years’ time, we might be drinking to the 30-goal Geordie striker and the young Wearside midfielder who overcame slow starts to become national treasures. Stranger things have happened (many of them this season).

Several specific issues will be addressed in subscriber-only pieces in the coming weeks. Subscription costs £3.50 a month


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