From Owen to Crouch in 12 months: disastrous for Liverpool?

Posted by Paul Tomkins on June 10, 2005, 10:00:27 AM

Clearly there were a number of factors at work in the Premiership 'failure' last season: a new overseas coach inheriting a mixed collection of players and struggling to find a balance suitable for the hurly-burly of the English game; the unprecedented injury list that derailed many of his best efforts; the litany of appalling refereeing decisions in the first half of the season (and they were bad), and so on.

   The sale of 'steady-but-unspectacular' players like Heskey and Murphy added to the problems, as I've suggested before: instead of the steadiness of those two seasoned pros, there were overseas players trying to settle in. It turned out that Fernando Morientes settling into the English game wasn't even as effective as Emile Heskey in an average season –– but of course, once settled, we should see Morientes prove why he's one of the best strikers around, and a far better option than the big Leicester-born man. That's the nature of transitional seasons.

   But I can't help drawing the conclusion that it was the absence of one player who cost Liverpool between 10-20 points: Michael Owen. A great goalkeeper and a great goalscorer can each be worth that many points if they are at the top of their game.

    The football, and the approach play, was far better last season than it had been since 2002 (and arguably before then, too). Often there just wasn't a striker capable of putting the chances away –– although at times there were not fit strikers, full stop.

   The Reds suffered 14 league defeats, but 11 were by just a single goal. A further seven games were drawn. Turning those defeats into draws, and those draws into victories, required just a single goal each time.

   That's 18 goals that could have won Liverpool a further 25 points. Of course, as hypothetical as it all is, even Owen wouldn't have been able to score in all of those games. And his style is more suited to two up front, whereas Rafa prefers the 4-2-3-1 formation. But Owen's reliability over the course of a season would have been very beneficial to Benítez.

   Michael Owen was the man who, for a number of years, had turned poor team performances into points, and good team performances into comfortable victories. Djibril Cissé had been the very same man for Auxerre –– a 30-goal-a-season finisher –– but he was struggling to adapt to English football when his leg broke; his performance against Aston Villa in May suggested he had finally come to terms with how the game works over here. But his season was a virtual write-off.

   As a self-confessed Milan Baros fan, I have to admit defeat on the argument of his effectiveness. I really felt that when given a regular start he'd provide 25-goals. By December he was nearly halfway there. When Cissé was suddenly injured, and it was just down to Milan, he delivered.

   But then two things happened. First, Baros picked up an Owenesque hamstring injury. He did so immediately after scoring his first hat-trick for the Reds, and suddenly his building momentum had the rug pulled from underneath it. He came back too soon, rushed back into action by a desperate Benítez, and struggled in games; his confidence quickly evanesced.

   Next, Fernando Morientes arrived. Given the Czech's goalscoring record from then onwards, it must have undermined Baros, and on top of this, the two failed to strike up an understanding. (No shame in that, as these things rarely click instantaneously.) Baros' place in the side wasn't assured, and then he got sent off against Everton. While Owen had barren runs, two goals in six months –– the tally Baros managed in the second half of the season (albeit with six weeks out injured) –– wasn't a statistic associated with the ex-No.10. Owen might go seven or eight games without a goal, then get nine in his next nine.

   Baros is a great individual striker, but he is clearly difficult to play alongside. I remain a big fan, and his clever running off the ball led to the crucial Champions League goals against Chelsea and AC Milan (the third was the result of his delicate flick to Gerrard). But after two seasons as a bit-part player, his third –– with Owen in Madrid –– left as many nagging doubts as the two when he was under-utilised. I expected conclusive proof that he was the right man. Nine league goals from open play was not good enough.


Depressing?

It may depress many that the Reds may be going from Owen to Baros to Crouch in just two summers. But it's the bigger picture that counts.

   The reaction to the possible signing of Crouch has astounded me –– to the point where I am still defending the concept of signing such a player.

   A year ago I would have felt the same as the naysayers. But some players come of age a little later than others, and Crouch appears to be doing that. Often it's down to finally finding a manager who knows how to use him (so not Graham Taylor at Aston Villa, when Crouch was just 21), and who puts his faith in him. Crouch is one of those players who sticks out like a sore thumb if he does something wrong. He's easy to mock, so opposing fans do so.

   Benítez is a canny operator. He knows what he needs. For starters, Peter Crouch is able to hold the ball up. As a tall striker, he's difficult to mark –– his ungainly style actually works in his favour, as he's not easy for a defender to 'read'. He has excellent control and quick feet. Holding the ball up is very important if you have a selection of attacking midfielders, or a second striker, all hoping to join play. All of these things have been noted by Rafa's scouts, Sven Goran Eriksson's scouts, and the scouts at many other clubs. Just not by Joe Public.

   I'd be very surprised if Crouch ever had a 25-goal season, or managed to get close to 20 on a regular basis –– although his league record of 51 goals from 132 starts is very respectable. But to me he looks like the kind of player who others will thrive around, especially quick players like Cissé, small players like Luis Garcia and Sinama-Pongolle, and attacking midfielders like Gerrard. I could even see Cissé or Sinama-Pongolle playing in a role as a right-winger-cum-striker, as one of the three players playing just off of the target man.

   Crouch may not be a truly outstanding header of the ball –– like Morientes –– but he's still good in the air, and being so tall, that can count for a lot. He is very dangerous in the air –– let's not start arguing otherwise. Especially as a target man.

   Morientes is a superb attacker of crosses, but I now realise that he's not a target man –– as we were warned. El Moro drops deep to link play, and isn't actually the greatest at playing as the furthest player forward and winning flick-ons against taller defenders. His strength is timing headers by attacking the ball played in from the flanks. A giant alongside him, for instance, would take care of the opposition's tallest centre back. More freedom for Morientes to get headers on goal.

   Crouch is not particularly quick, but he's not slow either. He can dribble past players, as he showed against Everton last season, when he went on a mazy run. He is not the player he is caricatured to be. Reds need to start trusting their manager on this one.

   Benítez likes his 'possibilities', his options. Crouch gives him that. With forwards like Cissé, Morientes, Crouch, Luis Garcia and Sinama-Pongolle (plus Kewell, if he gets fit and finally proves himself), you have every base covered, to use baseball parlance. You can set your team out to play in about 15 different ways by mixing and matching that lot. From those you have extreme pace, strength, skill, unprecedented height, holding-up skills and heading ability, plus proven goalscorers.
   
   Remember: at Valencia last season, the defence asked their new boss, Claudio Ranieri, how he wanted them to defend. "As you did last year under Benítez", said the Italian. The reply came, "But we had five different ways of defending, depending on how the opposition set out their stall." Quick-witted and thinking on his feet, the Italian said "Oh...".

   Possibilities. Options. Alternatives. It gives your team the chance to exceed the sum of its parts. As a random example, Jermaine Defoe might be a better player than Crouch, but he wouldn't provide an alternative to a fit Cissé.


Not good enough

I keep hearing that Crouch is 'not good enough to play in a title-winning side'. Frankly, this is an illogical argument. It's the sum of eleven parts that matters; not one individual. Rafa is clearly in the belief that Crouch would help others –– such as Luis Garcia –– exceed their previous levels.

   Crouch's fee does sound a little excessive given what he has thus far achieved in the game, but sometimes it's worth paying twice or even three times the going rate for a player if what he can add to your team is indefinable in monetary terms. For example, I give you two players I was very excited about when they signed for Liverpool in 2000: Christian Ziege and Gary McAllister.

   One ended up costing £8m –– I was wrong to believe he would be a raging success. The other was a free transfer. While many at the time expressed dismay at the signing of McAllister, I felt it was a very clever piece of business. But I had higher hopes of Ziege.

   Had McAllister cost £8m, everyone would have been up in arms. Outraged! Ziege –– a sure-fire hit if ever there was one after his superb season in the Premiership with Boro and his 50+ German caps –– ended up being worth next-to-nothing to Liverpool. For a short while, McAllister was a truly 'priceless' gem. If you now asked Gérard Houllier if he would have paid £8m for McAllister in the summer of 2000 if he had known then what would follow in 2001 and 2002, he'd say "of course".

   A player is only worth what he adds to your team. The time to judge what he is worth to you is not when he signs, on the basis of what he's done at another club (and all the failings that may be associated with that club), but what he has given over the course of his contract at your club. If you have no money to spare, then of course it counts at the time of the transfer; but if a manager has a vision, then he has the right to run with it and show people the results over time; not be prejudged.

   I don't care about the Crouch who was at Aston Villa as a youngster playing under Graham Taylor; I am interested in him playing for a genius like Benítez: a man who has won the Uefa Cup, Spanish League title and Champions League with two different clubs and little cash in thirteen months. Try telling me he doesn't know what he's doing?
   
   I am still confused at the notion that 'you can't win the league with a player like Crouch', or 'X team wouldn't buy him'. It's horses for courses. Look at Ruud van Nistelrooy (no pun intended) –– great striker, everyone agrees (bit of a cheat, though).

   Now compare him to Andy Cole, that joke figure at Man United in the 90s.

   In the four years since RvN arrived at United, he has been incredibly prolific (with the exception of last season, when he managed 'just' 16 in 27 games). But whereas United, with Cole as their main striker, won the league most seasons and won the Champions League in 1999 (the very trophy now permanently on display at Anfield, as we now all know), since RvN arrived they have finished 3rd, 1st, 3rd and 3rd, and won just one further trophy: the FA Cup.

   You cannot attach all (or even much) of the blame to RvN for United's recent failings: there are a myriad reasons. But while the Dutchman outshines Cole on an individual basis, Cole was the more successful player. Maybe Cole had better players around him. Maybe the balance of the team was better. But Cole, for all his faults, proved more than good enough. In terms of trophies-per-season, RvN hasn't. Everyone said 'imagine what United will be like once they add a world-class striker'. They did, and they've had their worst four years for over a decade.

   Then there's that other over-priced, overrated 'joke' player from a couple of years ago: 'Fat' Frankie Lampard. The Fatty to Crouch's Skinny, he was a plodding midfielder who was never marked out for greatness; even his cousin, Jamie Redknapp, felt he'd just make an average top division player. Lampard was at Crouch's age –– 24 –– when his game clicked into gear. Now he's the Footballer of the Year. Who saw that coming?

   Chelsea provide another comparison. In half a season in a very poor Southampton side –– who finished bottom –– Crouch scored as many goals as Didier Drogba managed all season –– for the clear winners of the Premiership title. Drogba cost £24m, nearly five times what we offered for Crouch, and four times what it is believed it will take to land Crouch (£6m).

   Was Drogba worth £24m? As Chelsea count their medals this season, clearly he was. You can argue until you are blue in the face (no pun intended) about how good an 'individual' Drogba is. But he was key to Chelsea's tactics. He played in the games –– and they won the games. Add them up, and they won the league. End of story.

   Djimi Traore is a Champions League-winning left-back. He may not be as good as Ashley Cole, but Ashley Cole is not a Champions League-winning left-back. Neil Mellor isn't remotely as good as Michael Owen, but only one of them contributed to Liverpool winning the Champions League. Igor Biscan has a Champions League-winners' medal. Patrick Vieira doesn't. While you need a core of world-class players –– and hopefully Rafa will sign some more this summer –– you also need those who can contribute in their own idiosyncratic way. Real Madrid are the proof that signing world-class players who do not fit into the grand scheme of things is counterproductive.

   Liverpool could play Ringo Starr up front and if the Reds won the league, he'd be good enough. If over a series of two or more seasons a striker isn't cutting it at Anfield, then you can draw conclusions. Before he's signed is not the time.


Gamble[/i]   

Signing someone like Crouch is always a gamble. Can he handle the pressure at a big club? Can he keep his form and rhythm when being rotated?

   Who knows? You can wonder, but you can't say either way for sure. You could argue that alongside better players he'd actually look much more accomplished –– it can't be easy shining in an awful Southampton side under severe pressure in a relegation dogfight, after all. A player signing for Liverpool can either think "I'm not good enough to be here" and crumble, or say to himself "I must be good, I'm at Liverpool". You only know that once he's there.

   If other mocked players –– such as Biscan and Traore –– can improve beyond recognition under Rafael Benítez, then so too can Crouch, and Crouch has just had a great season. Of course, it could go either way, like any signing. But I'd call it a calculated gamble, not a blind one.

© Paul Tomkins 2005


Important "Golden Past, Red Future" update: price to increase from £9.99 to £12.99 on its release date of June 20th.
 

£12.99 is what we had announced some time ago as the R.R.P, and it is what we will be selling the book for at www.paultomkins.com once the book is released. As previously mentioned, we are currently speaking to a number of book retailers and online stores, and selling it ourselves at £9.99 is confusing issues a little, and causing some logistical problems which could make it difficult for us to use a couple of these outlets. Obviously we want to be able to reach as many Reds as possible.

Instead of just immediately bumping up the price to its R.R.P. now, we'll wait until the book is officially released on 20th June. That gives everyone fair warning. People who were really keen and have already ordered should of course be perfectly happy at this news, and hopefully everyone will now have the option to buy at the current  cheaper price, or wait until it's released knowing full well that it will then cost the R.R.P..


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