A Case for the Defence

Posted by Garstonite on November 27, 2005, 03:14:33 PM

Benítez’s defensive record whilst at Valencia was second to none.  With Pellegrino, Ayala, Torres and Carboni, you had four men who worked hard and had a great understanding of both the game and one another. 

In his first and third years in charge, they conceded just 27 goals from 38 games.  They won the title on both occasions.  In 2001/2002, they netted just 51 times yet still won the league thanks to the defence. In 2003/2004, they scored 71 times, 20 more. Benítez, like many do, had built from the back. The defence was Valencia’s foundation of success. The rest followed. 

And now Rafa is repeating the same accomplishment here at Liverpool. Whilst winning the title in his first season here was unfeasible due to the squad's lack of depth and quality, he did land Europe’s most elite prize under the most remarkable of circumstances.  His side let in just 10 goals (three of which against Milan) in 15 games throughout the European campaign. With a more fit and focused squad, Liverpool now have better consistency and more options. Already Liverpool have recorded 9 clean sheets in the league, one more than the whole of last season and a club record this early on in the campaign. You can add another 7 clean sheets in 11 games in Europe to that total.

A large factor in this success is Jamie Carragher and Sami Hyypia. The two have fashioned an understanding reminiscent of the pairing of Stephane Henchoz and Sami Hyypia and the role they played in the magnum opus of Houllier’s tenure.  Without their knowledge of one another, it is doubtful Liverpool would have captured their treble in the 2000/2001 season. The ‘SH’ partnership saw off the likes of Barcelona, Roma and Porto in a successful UEFA Cup campaign. The two were formidable.

Jamie Carragher, during Henchoz and Hyypia’s 2001 peak, played at left back. In the past he has also slotted in comfortably on the right hand side of the defence. However the English defender has always had attributes of a centre half: in summary, defensively astute, offensively underprivileged (although that side of his game is vastly improving). 

Liverpool can look back and be proud to have recorded six consecutive clean sheets, 4 coming in the league and 2 in Europe. The most gathered last season successively were 3, in October. It is another small sign of improvement adding to the list that includes +9 points against the same opposition compared to last season, those 9 clean sheets, four consecutive domestic victories and so on.

But whilst I continue to praise the centre back twosome, I also acknowledge the work of the rest of the team. The left and right backs have been excellent in preventing crosses into the box and move forward in a line in perfect synchronicity with the centrebacks to engineer the offside trap. The midfielders and strikers are also working hard. Hamann, Sissoko and Alonso are experts in the art of protecting the back-line, whilst the others track back and do their duties well. It is Benítez’s philosophy to ‘defend as a team, attack as a team’.  To back this up, early on in his reign, Benítez said: “I'm not just talking about our defenders but the whole team - we need to have confidence in ourselves,” touching upon his side’s defensive frailties.

The win at Manchester City marked a new focused, tactically astute Liverpool. Benítez will always have his critics who claim he is a negative and cautious coach, but Liverpool’s form in the past six Premiership games is the best in the league, and yes, that includes Chelsea. What can’t speak can’t lie, as they say.  The match against Pearce’s men at the City of Manchester Stadium may not have been the most aesthetically pleasing performance, but Liverpool got the job done.  Perhaps the difference between ourselves and those who have won the Premiership crown in recent years lies in the ability to turn 0-0s into 1-0s and also be able to hold on to narrow victories (note the amount Chelsea recorded last year). We seem now to be starting to do this.

Slowly but surely Benítez is instigating the principles that made him so successful in Spain. First his side controls the game, then they go on to win it.

With the zonal-marking no longer an issue, wonderful development in the sides’ defensive approach and some excellent performances displayed from both Hyypia and Carragher, we look solid and shrewd at the back. It's no surprise that we are starting to convert the 0-0s that gave us so much stick at the start of the season into wins (despite the draw against Betis on Wednesday night).

There is one cloud on the horizon -  we need cover. With the surprising news that American youngster Zak Whitbread is off for a short spell with Championship strugglers Millwall, we will have to rely upon the likes of Djimi Traore and Josemi, two error prone defenders, to offer us cover to the ubiquitous twosome, Hyypia and Carragher.  It seems likely that Benítez will dip into his funds in order to bring another senior defender to the club, with Nemanja Vidic top of the wanted list according to the Echo. January is only four weeks away, but with the crowded fixture list, it may seem a lot longer than it actually is.

So, in a week that has provided us with three clean-sheets, doubting over whether Swiss defender Stephane Henchoz should have been sold after his great form at Wigan, the loaning out of one of our most promising youth players and talk of new blood being brought into the club, Rafael Benítez and his backline can be proud of their dramatic defensive progress.  And with statistics to prove it.

© Garstonite 2005

View Comments | Post Comment

More