Where Did It All Go Wrong – Part II

Where Did It All Go Wrong – Part II
December 13, 2014 Chris Rowland

By TTT Subscriber Dave Cronin.

There was a lot of talk in the summer about us potentially ‘doing a Spurs’ (i.e. selling our best player for a big fee, buying a number of new players with the money and disappointing in the following campaign). I was more concerned about us ‘doing a Liverpool’ (i.e. peaking under a manager with a 2nd placed finish before capitulating, replacing the manager and starting again).

In the summer, I wrote a piece called ‘Where did it all go wrong?’ in which I looked back on the two seasons following our previous 2nd place Premier League finishes plus the season we contrived to finish 4th in a two-horse  title race (but joint 2nd on points) under Roy Evans. As part of that piece, I looked for common factors heralding or bringing about our declines in each following campaign.

After our disappointing start to this season, I thought it would be interesting to revisit my conclusions to see if any of those factors are applicable here or if there are any new trends emerging.

Conclusion One: Evolution; not revolution – Fine tune the areas that can be improved but retain the key qualities that have brought the team so close to winning the title.This means avoiding radical changes to core personnel, tactics and playing style.

Any chance of avoiding a ‘revolution’ went the second Luis Suarez’s move to Barcelona was agreed. That threw up the dilemma as to whether to consciously change tactics/playing style rather than attempting to recreate what was brilliant about us last season without the key player behind that brilliance or to try to find as close a like-for-like replacement as possible.

In 2009 we faced a similar dilemma when selling Xabi Alonso to Real Madrid. On that occasion, we signed a like-for-like replacement – and by ‘like-for-like’, I mean a player who plays the same position who was intended to replace the outgoing player as a regular first XI player and with some similar qualities but not necessarily a carbon copy of the outgoing player. In Aquilani we bought badly. Without an Alonso-type player, Benitez was forced into changing his team’s playing style, regularly fielding Lucas alongside Mascherano and losing the midfield play-maker. The Aquilani example highlights the risk in selling a known quantity and gambling the bulk of the profit on a single unknown quantity (as all transfers are unknown quantities). Get it wrong and you lose both the player and the proceeds from the sale. For another example, see Houllier spending the fee from selling Robbie Fowler on El Hadji Diouf ahead of his post-2nd place hangover season.

This summer, we faced a more challenging predicament as Suarez was more obviously our key player than Alonso (who wasn’t even named in our so-called ‘two-man team’ that had narrowly missed out on the title the previous year). This time we didn’t gamble on a single like-for-like replacement. We instead opted to take a spread-betting approach gambling smaller portions of the fee received on several players.

As a consequence, we lost the key qualities Suarez brought without replacing them at all and have gone from a team averaging 2.9 goals scored per League game when he played last season to a team averaging 1.3 goals scored per League game without him.

So can we conclude anything over the decision to gamble on one expensive player or to gamble on multiple less expensive players when selling a key player? I’d say (1) Don’t sell your key player (though people will argue that both Suarez and Alonso before him had to be sold for different reasons) and (2) If you must, however you spend the money you have to get it right. Alonso wasn’t adequately replaced; nor has Suarez been. Signing Balotelli to ‘replace’ Suarez in the team was akin to replacing Alonso with Lucas – same position on the pitch but totally different playing styles and consequently forcing a change to the whole team’s style.

Perhaps a pertinent question would be whether, given the enforced ‘revolution’, we actually changed enough quickly enough. Without the movement up front and with opposing teams aggressively targeting Gerrard, we can ask why it took Brendan Rodgers so long to move Gerrard out of the deep-lying playmaker’s position and replace him with a defensive midfielder. Was Rodgers banking on Sturridge’s return from injury restoring that movement up front and therefore justifying the Gerrard role?

Conclusion Two: Value experience and leadership – Consider what qualities you may lose when directing players towards the exit door.

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