Rebuilding the Champions of Europe

Posted by Paul Tomkins on June 6, 2005, 09:50:14 AM

So who won Liverpool the European Cup? The manager? The players? Obviously, it was a mixture of both. Rafa's tactics were crucial, but it was the players 末 many of whom were regarded as inferior to the standards Liverpool expect 末 putting them into play. So how come this side who achieved something remarkable is being broken up? Is this wise? And to what extent will this side be reshaped and remodelled?

   One maxim holds true: it's always best to sign players when in a position of strength, and, unexpectedly, after defeating AC Milan, that's certainly the case now. Liverpool's stock on the continent is the highest it's been for two decades.

   Given that 12 of the 14 who featured in Istanbul were players Rafa inherited, it stands to reason that he would rather mould his own team than continue to remould G駻ard Houllier's. That was always going to be the case. Weaknesses still exist in the side, but if the league inconsistency (partly down to the worst injury list the club has ever seen) suggests the team is nowhere near good enough, the European Cup victory tells otherwise.

   So the truth must be somewhere in between.

   The way AC Milan outplayed Liverpool in the first half highlights how far the team has to go to be considered the best footballing side around; the character it showed in the second half proves that something special exists within the squad: no other team in the Premiership came from behind at half-time to win as often as Liverpool (four times), and the Reds did it twice in the Champions League, too.

   Let's get one thing straight for starters: there was nothing fortuitous about this success. Some of the laughable attempts by Evertonians and others to discredit the achievement, and the moronic lengths they have been going to (some have said lucky), merely highlights how good it was. One Evertonian wrote to Uefa to say that Liverpool only won the competition due to a dodgy decision against Chelsea. He's on thin ice, especially as Zoo magazine's League of Justice 末 where a "real" Premiership table is constructed to reflect what would have happened had referees not made grave mistakes 末 had Manchester City above Everton, and both below Liverpool. In terms of refereeing mistakes, Liverpool were hardest hit in the league.

   This was one of the greatest European Cup wins of all time 末 not just the final, but the whole campaign. The group stages pitted the Reds against two of last season's semi-finalists (neither of whom were as good this year, but still had bags of experience), and the best team from the country which had just won Euro 2004, with many of those very same players. Having looked set for a creditable draw in Monaco, which would make progress to the knockout stages a possibility, the referee allowed Saviola to control with his hand before scoring, and suddenly Liverpool had to beat Olympiakos by two clear goals in the final game 末 and were 1-0 down at half-time. You know the rest...

   Bayer Leverkusen were finalists as recently as 2002, and were fresh from topping a group containing Real Madrid and Roma, both of whom they thrashed at home. Juventus were finalists in 2003, and Italian champions elect. Chelsea were the most bankrolled team in the competition, and confirmed as English champions between the first and second legs. They too were semi-finalists the year before. Finally, Milan, with their collection of ultra-expensive megastars: winners in 2003, reigning Italian champions, and the second-most bankrolled team in the competition.

   Let's put this in context. In order to reach the final in 1985, Liverpool played just eight games 末 four ties. The teams beaten along the way? Lech Poznan, Benfica, Austria Vienna and Panathinaikos. This year's success was a monumental effort by comparison.

   So why the restructuring? This may not be an awesome team, but it has achieved something unbelievable. And how much will be different next season merely due to having (hopefully) a fully fit squad? This summer will feel like buying Ciss, Alonso,  Kirkland, Morientes and possibly even the Leeds-version of Harry Kewell, now his troublesome groin has finally been operated on. (I may be alone in that hope.) Sinama-Pongolle, given the progress he was making and how young he is, is another who can be expected to take his game to another level. Then there is Rafa himself, who now knows what is expected.

   I include Morientes in the above list as we'd be so excited if it was only now that he was signing. As it stands, he's now had that difficult six months to settle in, and come August he will have a proper pre-season's training behind him. We saw with Steve Finnan how even a move within your own domestic league can result in a period of uncertain form. The second season is always easier for overseas players.


Targets

I touched upon the issue of Peter Crouch last week, but I want to expand on the idea of tactical flexibility.

   One thing that impressed me about Everton was the way they could throw on Duncan Ferguson to change games; Moyes gave up on the idea of him as a first choice,  opting for the quicker, more skilful Marcus Bent, and used old 'Tampon' as a successful last resort. He won them lots of points, as hard as it was on the eyes of the purist. Peter Crouch is less aggressive (and certainly far less dirty), but he is taller, and has a better touch (so you don't have to go to his head all the time).

   You need to understand the mentality of a tired back four. Sometimes something different can upset their rhythm: be it a quick striker replacing a targetman, or a super-tall forward to change the angle of attacks. Anything to knock the opposition from their comfort zone.

   Everton were getting nowhere against Liverpool at Anfield in March, until they resorted to long balls. They did so too early in the game, and from too deep at times, but late on it started to cause problems. They were totally outclassed for 70 minutes, but came close to snatching an unlikely point.

   It doesn't mean I want to see the Reds resorting to punt after punt, and I don't for one moment expect Rafa to make us 'long-ball' after he (thankfully) made us a passing side again, but it's nice to have the choice. At times last season, substituting Baros, Ciss and Sinama-Pongolle for one another was a case of swapping like-for-like. You got the freshness of the new player, but not necessarily one who posed a new problem.

   William Gallas, for example, is a supreme defender. I've seen him match Thierry Henry stride for stride, and mark him out of games. But could he, given his height, deal with Peter Crouch? That's the beauty of football: different players have different strengths, and as such, lesser talents can at times prove equally as effective as their betters. An awkward customer has his uses. We all mocked Didier Drogba as he stumbled about and missed chances, but I keep harking back to how, at times, Chelsea just lumped it forward to him, and then had their tricky midfielders pick up the pieces.

   Although they amassed 95 points, I keep hearing how Chelsea would have finished with 110 had they possessed a striker like Shevchenko. But he's a different type of player. Sheva may have scored 40 goals for himself from through balls, but the Chelsea midfield would arguably have scored far less. Chelsea's three goalscoring midfielders 末 Lampard, Robben and Duff 末 don't possess a great physical presence, so someone to hold the ball up or win headers was what they fed off. They arrived into the box as the ball fell their way. Drogba was a key part of Chelsea's tactics 末 they won the league with him, not in spite of him.

   How would Luis Garcia fare with a player like Crouch to play off? Far better than when playing with Baros (a better 'individual' footballer than Crouch), I suspect. So much of Bentez' gameplan is about getting midfielders to support the lone striker. Maybe Crouch could help in that regard. Luis Garcia scored 13 goals from open play 末 our top scorer in those terms. Take away Frank Lampard's free-kicks and penalties, and I doubt he scored many more.

   As I always said of Emile Heskey, if Liverpool had gone on to win the league with him in the side, it wouldn't have mattered if he scored just one goal a season 末 I'd say he was good enough. It's not what the individual does as an individual, it's what the team achieves with him in the side. The problem with Heskey was that without enough goalscoring midfielders, it fell upon his shoulders to score 20 a season 末 as only Owen was regularly weighing in. In leaving Owen and Heskey marooned up front with the midfield 40 yards behind, the two forwards were often the only two within striking distance of goal.

   As perverse as it sounds, I'd be no more excited by seeing Ral at Liverpool than Crouch. The Spaniard is possibly ten times the player Crouch will ever be. But other doubts exist about him. His understanding with Morientes would present the greatest reason for optimism. But a superstar who has had two poor seasons is not necessarily the way forward. Either way, I'd trust Rafa on who he buys, as only he and his staff know why he is signing someone. It's not to win a game of Championship Manager or Fantasy Football, that's one thing we can rest assured on.

   Ral's name was probably mentioned because he is Spanish, and therefore he must be destined for Liverpool. Jose Reina of Villarreal seems the most likely La Liga target, and he's clearly a very special young goalkeeper. That he faced Liverpool for Barcelona in 2001, as an 18-year-old, tells you that he has been highly regarded for some time. Is he better than Kirkland? Well, after his back operation, the young Englishman should finally be fit to take his place in goal.

   There will be a few signings from Spain, as that's the market Rafa knows best, and where his reputation holds most sway over the players. Vicente, Aimar and Ayala remain players everyone would like to see at Liverpool, but with Kluivert going to Valencia it lessens the chance of a swap deal that would see Baros going the other way. Elsewhere, Real Zaragoza defender Gabriel Milito is very highly regarded, and I can believe the reported interest there: centre back remains an area where we lack options. Meanwhile, Fernando Torres and Joaquin are Spaniards we will surely be interested in, if the price isn't too obscene.

   One name mentioned in recent weeks has been Owen Hargreaves, and he's the kind of player the squad could use. Although he's not used to the Premiership (bizarrely, for an Englishman), he has pace, stamina, commitment, a professional 'winning' attitude, and is a fine passer of the ball 末 all for 」4m or less, given he has only one year left on his contract at Bayern. Not a 'glory' player, but the kind of footballer who acts as the glue to hold a team together. Crucially, he has big game experience (Champions League final, World Cup), and has spent his entire career at a major club: I'm always happier when we buy players used to the unique pressure of playing for clubs like Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid.

   Which takes me to another Owen: Michael. I can't see him being eager to leave Madrid, having eventually proven himself in La Liga. But much depends on who Madrid sign over the summer, and where he features in the manager's plans; any further down the pecking order, and he might be packing his bags. If there's one player who we can feel 100% sure would settle at the club, it is Owen.

   Shaun Wright-Phillips is another much-coveted player, but his price tag would leave little spare cash for any other players. Matthew Upson is a talented defender, and is yet another example of a centre back who has come of age in his mid-20s, having struggled at Arsenal as a youngster. Like Ledley King and Jamie Carragher, he has emerged as a top defender upon reaching footballing maturity. He is looking to leave Birmingham, and he is well worth a look.

   Although the price is often prohibitive, I expect Rafa to sign some players from the Premiership. In cases like Upton, a contract dispute is often the route in.
   

Heading for the exit

So is it too obvious to say that with better players, Bentez can achieve better things? Of course, it doesn't have to mean better players, just players better suited to the system Rafa likes to employ. More natural talent is always welcome, and the addition of world-class flair is never to be sneezed at, but it is the manager's overall masterplan which matters most.

   Make too many changes and you risk losing continuity. If players like Igor Biscan, Jerzy Dudek and Djimi Traore need improving upon (they seem to be three of the more frequently mentioned players), then you risk losing a long-established element of the squad. Those three, for example, have been in the English game, and at Liverpool, between four and six years. In fact, you could argue that Igor Biscan has only just settled.

   I don't have the slightest problem with Rafa buying players to improve upon those, and others in the squad. But it may lead to a second transitional season (not that the first was a disaster, after Istanbul!). The new players will need to acclimatise, adjust to the pace, blend with their colleagues' games, and learn to understand the way Bentez works 末 not all will settle as quickly as Alonso. As I said, I don't have a problem with that. But others may: winning the European Cup might lead to some fans getting carried away.

   If Rafa has to rebuild, then there may be more transitional blips. One thing I feel is that even if Traore, Biscan, and one or two others, have left doubts in the manager's mind, you cannot deny that they have proved very valuable squad players. If your reserves are too good then you just end up with a collection of unhappy players rocking the boat and looking to leave at the first opportunity. If squad players still meed to have the desire and ambition to play, they also need to be patient enough to bide their time.

   So, much depends on who Rafa buys and how quickly they settle. Whatever happens, this time next year I expect to have seen a marked improvement in the league, and a Champions League place secured without too many worries. We may well end up empty-handed, though: a better team who ends up less covered in glory.

   If we finish 3rd, ten points behind the champions, will everyone be happy?

ゥ Paul Tomkins 2005

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