Benitez' Permutations: Variety, the Spice of Anfield

Posted by Paul Tomkins on July 20, 2005, 10:22:47 AM

Using the word 'spice' in conjunction with Liverpool, and it not being an insult: whatever is the world coming to? Well, one thing's for certain: Peter Crouch won't miss any training sessions on account of prior-arranged Armani modelling assignments.

Crouch is the latest addition to a squad which is extremely rich on variety. Benítez is an ideas man, and there's nothing worse, as fans, than seeing a team which has run out of ideas. Radically disparate options will see that it's one problem the Reds won't encounter.

In every area of the pitch the manager can now shuffle his pack, and not just change the players from game to game, but totally alter the problems he presents the opposition during a game. Cover is still needed at the back, but defence is the one area where you may occasionally rest a player, but not look to rotate from game to game.

In midfield, there are all sorts of permutations, with ten top-class players vying for positions, and with nearly all of them versatile enough to assume different roles.

Benítez is still looking for a right-sided wide man who can beat a player and get a cross in, and that's not really Luis Garcia's game (he prefers to drift inside to find space in the box, more like Freddie Ljungberg). Garcia will still start games out wide on the right, as he has proved his effectiveness there, but Rafa wants the option of  someone like Figo, to run with the ball and make telling deliveries either from deep, or from the byline.

But it is in the striking permutations where most variety can be found. There's so many alternatives, and only one of the players will feature solely as an out-and-out frontman, and that's Crouch. The others will either play just off of him, or in wide positions.

Morientes and Crouch

To me, Morientes appears a cross between John Aldridge and Peter Beardsley. Like Aldridge, he's not a giant but is great at attacking crosses, and is a far-from-fast poacher of goals; however, he is also like Beardsley in the way he drops deep, twists and turns and looks to feed passes through (the role he played at Monaco).

I believe we will see these two lining up together with Crouch the targetman, and Morientes the floating, roaming schemer. And that will suit El Moro, as he's not a physical player, despite his misleading reputation. He's more clever than he is strong.

The difference between Crouch and Morientes is that Morientes, even though he's technically as good a header of the ball as there is, needs a near-perfect cross to attack, from which point he is devastating. He is not great targetman. Crouch can turn even a poor cross into meat and drink.

What Crouch will do is occupy the thoughts of defenders, so when a cross comes in from Zenden, Gerrard, Gonzales, Alonso, Kewell (if...) and hopefully Figo, defenders will panic. It is then that Morientes can find a little more time and space to arrive into the box and attack the cross, rather than be stationary around the penalty spot and muscled off the ball.

If you don't believe me, or understand what I am getting at, go and watch the winning goal from Fratton Park last season: taller striker (Morientes) marked tightly, cross comes in, smaller striker (Garcia) arrives late to power home header while the defenders are focusing on Morientes. If it works for a midget not famed for his heading alongside a far-from gigantic striker, you can imagine the effect if Crouch is the one being marked and holding the defenders' concentration and Morientes the one arriving into the box.

The difference is that Crouch, even if tightly marked, can win flick-ons from most kinds of ball into the box –– long ball, diagonal ball, hopeful cross, sublime whipped delivery from out wide –– and that's when you'll see Morientes, Cissé, and the midfielders like Gerrard, Garcia and Zenden following in to strike at goal.

Chelsea played some lovely football last season, but one of their most successful tactics was the long ball to Drogba, from which point their tricky and attacking midfielders (Duff, Cole, Robben, Lampard) picked up the loose ends, and either played intricate passes on the edge of the area to work an opening, or had a pop at goal.

Gerrard, already on fire, will love playing with Crouch. While Milan Baros is a great individual, Gerrard's runs were often ignored by the Czech, as he received the ball and instead of laying off the easy pass, he turned and ran into what were often blind alleys. The penalty that arose from these two in Istanbul was more of the exception to the rule. But it's something Crouch is very good at: laying the ball back to the onrushing midfielder.

Crouch has a great touch full stop, be it for a big man or a midget. Again, get the season DVD out and look at his cushioned pass for Prutton to score the first goal against us at St Mary's: back to goal, and a Bergkamp-esque steering of the ball.

Interestingly, Crouch averages a phenomenal goal every two games under Harry Redknapp, both at Pompey in the old First Division, and in the Premiership at their south coast neighbours. Redknapp is a canny man-manager, who likes his teams to play passing football. It was only Graham Taylor, purveyor of non-stop direct football, who could not get the best out of Crouch.

The beanpole striker (who must despise the word beanpole) is often best with the ball played into his body, where he can use his long legs to hook a pass into space. Being an awkward customer, he can use his body to good effect, even though he has less meat on him than an anorexic supermodel. As a result he also gets fouled a lot, so that should mean lots of freekicks in and around the box, but like Heskey at his best, some referees foolishly have no sympathy for a big player being kicked to pieces.
 
Anyone still doubting the quality of Crouch's touch need only look at his side-footed volleyed goals against Boro and Norwich: not wishing to compare him with the best, but Robbie Fowler in his pomp would not have finished them with any more style.


The long and the short of it

For Morientes playing off of Crouch, you can also read Luis Garcia. The diminutive Spaniard will not be arriving late to head home many chances like that one at Pompey, but he will have the perfect partner in Crouch. Either El Moro or Luis Garcia can play behind Crouch, and use the time and space that clever players find in the 'hole' to make things happen.

Luis Garcia can score goals, as we saw last season; and as we saw last night against TNS, play a delightful pass for someone to tuck home.


Cissé and Crouch

The quickest, and the tallest. Do you defend on the halfway line to keep Crouch well out of the area, but risk leaving 50 yards of space for Cissé (or even Sinama-Pongolle) to devour?

Or, fearing Cissé's turbocharger, do you defend so deep that you allow Crouch carte blanche in the area? If you split the difference, then that still leaves enough space for Cissé to run into, and Crouch is close enough to goal to make a nuisance of himself.

Crouch and Cissé both possess one of the two things defenders hate most: freakish height that makes winning headers a near-impossibility, and searing pace that scares the living crap out of them.

For Crouch to succeed, he's going to need to find his confidence pretty quickly, to win over the sceptics, and to avoid a vicious circle of poor showings only deepening the resentment from those who consider him too weak, leading to booing, and destroying any chance of the player feeling wanted. But he's used to being laughed at, and written off. The older he gets, the easier he will find it to cope with. He's never been under more pressure, but he's never had such a great manager, and such talented teammates.


Cissé and Le Tallec

Cissé also seems to be developing a good understanding with Le Tallec, who is another who is happiest behind the front man. For the French youth team, Le Tallec's skill was the first-time 'Dalglish' pass to his 'Rush' –– Sinama-Pongolle (who seems to have been forgotten, given his injury).

In the last two games, Le Tallec has reprised the role with another speedy Frenchman, and played some superb first-time passes for Cissé to run onto; on two of the three occasions Cissé scored, and on the third only a decent save by the keeper with his feet denied him.

We are starting to see signs of Le Tallec's class, but it might be a year or two before he feels at home in the first team. We are starting to see signs of him growing into his role, and now Benítez is using him in his best position, he can only improve –– but 20 is still very young for first-team player who does not have great pace to mask any deficiencies in his (still developing) understanding of the game.

The arrival of Crouch means there should never be a dull moment at Anfield this season. Whoever starts any given game for the Reds, the opposition defence can be disturbed from their rhythm by the arrival, from the bench, of radical alternatives.

Variety really is the spice of football.

© Paul Tomkins, 2005

Critical acclaim for "Golden Past, Red Future", July's #1 selling football book on www.amazon.co.uk

Next month's FourFourTwo magazine gives "Golden Past, Red Future" 4/5, a very generous mark for a magazine that rarely awards five stars. (Would have tied in nicely with the book's cover design, if they had, mind!).

The editor of the book section told me yesterday: "I still often pick it up myself, and although I'm not a Liverpool fan I found myself agreeing with a lot of things you wrote." In his brief review he describes the book as "An enjoyable and amusing account of the highs and lows of an incredible season, even by Liverpool FC's standards."

I'm in the process of redesigning www.paultomkins.com, with lots of addition original content in the pipeline. The book is still available to order from the site, with a link to a deal that saves £2-4 with free worldwide postage.

As word-of-mouth spreads, more and more outlets are stocking the book, and we are about to go ahead with a 2nd edition print.




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