One step beyond

Posted by Don Vito Corleone on September 4, 2006, 08:48:28 PM

Everyone loves a bit of Madness, but none more so than a couple of hundred pissed up Reds in the City Arms the night before a cup final, and if you didn’t want to get caught in a Baggy trousers induced Stella Tsunami, as I found to my cost, it was best to stand back, way, way back. Anyway, that’s enough of Anfield South for now.

Twas the Summer of 2002, Liverpool had just finished the season in second with 80 points, their highest ever “Premiership” finish, and 7 points behind the double-winning Arsenal.

We had the best goals against column that season, conceding only 30, compared to Arsenal who had leaked 37 and third placed Manchester United who finished up with 45 against.

The back four that year was immense. We had Jamie Carragher deputising for the ill Markus Babbel at right back, the best centre back partnership in Hyypia and Henchoz, with left back duty being shared between the Ginger Prince John Arne Riise and the odd Carra appearence. Add to that the goalkeeper Dudek who had a fantastic first season on joining from Feyenoord. There was also Stephen Wright who impressed when deputising at right back and the platinum-coiffed Portuguese Abel Xavier, who had managed to find the net on his debut for the Tricky Reds, filling at either right back and centre half.

In midfield, we had the prodigious and fast maturing Steven Gerrard who was now free of niggling injuries and was beginning to show glimpses of what would soon become the norm, battering teams into submission single-handedly, alongside the neat, tidy and calming influence of Didi Hamman, we also had the player who splits opinion more than any other still to this day, step forward, Danny “The Manc Slayer” Murphy

The one glaring weakness that we had that season was a threat down the flanks, left and right midfield duties were split between pretty much everyone, Murphy, Gerrard, Riise, Heskey, Anelka all had a go as well as Igor, who’s confidence was so shot come the end of the year, it nearly destroyed his career.

Let's not forget, when the likeable Croat first arrived he was involved in victories against United and Arsenal, playing in his favoured central midfield berth, and had been chased by many the who’s who of European Football.

Rumoured sightings of world cup winning left winger answering to the name of Bernard have since been dismissed as mere speculation.

What was obvious was that if Michael Owen was lacking in either form or fitness we were toothless. Despite initially having a decent first season, it was becoming apparent that Emile just wasn’t good enough, either as a striker or a partner for Owen, which considering the mans ability, size and speed, was incredibly frustrating. Unfortunately, he just didn’t look like he had the heart for the fight.

It was also becoming more and more apparent how predictable our game plan was, sit deep and hit them on the break with Owen or ping/hoof long balls up to Emile for him to flick to no one in particular. Teams would come to Anfield and sit deep knowing that we didn’t have the guile or ability to play through them, or the pace or crossing ability from wide positions to stretch the game.

Having disposed of both Jari and Robbie earlier in the year, and letting Nico Anelka go back to PSG at the end of the season, despite impressing, the only other option we had at the time was the incredibly raw Milan Baros.
Come the end of the season we finished with 67 goals (11 of them against Ipswich) in the goals for column, 12 less than Arsenal and 20 less than United.

But despite all this, there was incredible optimism, with flaws that were so obvious, we still managed to finish second. Surely they would be addressed? It almost too obvious that all we needed was a consistent threat down the flanks (Damien Duff anyone?), a decent partner for Owen, and maybe another central midfielder who could give Didi or Gerrard a rest every now and then, with Le Boss seemingly having a case of the Per Koldrups over Igor.

It was absolutely imperative for Moores and Parry to give Gerard the funds to take us up a level, the players we so short of were available, all’s it needed was for the board to show us the money. The foundations were in place and were rock solid, all’s we need was a little flair and creativity, be a little more dynamic and we’d be there. Right?

Hindsight , marvelous thing, but looking back, it was a train wreck of a summer as far as transfers went, not that it was clear from the off.
 
 
Bruno Cheyrou
Having staved off interest from Lyon and Manchester United, we secured the signature of the highly rated Bruno Cheyrou from Lille for around the 4 million pound mark. 

The transfer itself was secured in the January, but was kept under wraps until the end of the season, but once announced was well received, with Bruno having had an impressive Champions League campaign with Lille and managing to score against United in the process.

The “New Zidane” did little to dampen expectation on his home debut, playing fantastically well in a pre-season defeat to Lazio, gliding through midfield with seemingly sublime technique and poise. Another highlight from that particular pre-season was during the tour of Madrid, where he ‘megged the man he was bought to emulate with a back-heel.

After starting the season on the bench or in the stand, which according to Houllier was so he could observe the pace of the league,  Cheyrou sank into obscurity through a combination of poor form and niggling injuries. When he did manage to get a game it was often out of position on the left of midfield, which considering he had no pace at all, beggared belief.
 
He has spent most of his time since on loan at various French sides, including Marseille and Bordeaux. He did enjoy a brief renaissance in Gerard’s last season, where between the 7th and 24th of January he managed to score twice against Newcastle in the Cup, get the equaliser against Wolves and grab a dramatic winner for a rare win away at Stamford Bridge. It was a game that Emile Heskey also excelled in - it was a match that would’ve made for a decent episode of the Twilight Zone had it not been so far fetched.

Probably spending more time with in The Living Room with his brother in law, Manu Petit, than he did on the pitch for Liverpool, his time at Anfield can only ever be looked at as an unmitigated disaster. Despite arriving back at Anfield having just been released by Bordeaux, the likelihood of him improving his minutes in the Liverpool first team were virtually non-existant, and he was snapped up by Rennes during the last transfer window.

Salif Diao
As well as the “New Zidane”, Gerard also brought in the “Senegalese Vieira” in Salif Diao (the fact Vieira was actually Senegalese anyway seemed to be lost on most people). He arrived from French club Sedan in a deal which mirrored that of compatriot El Hadj Diouf, in that it was finalised before the start of the World Cup.

Salif, an absolute giant of a man, arrived on a 5 year contract after scoring one of the goals of the 2002 World Cup. He was fierce in the tackle, could pass, spoke perfect English, and had a “good engine”, which was just as well as he had the first touch of a baby elephant and as a result spent most of the time chasing the ball after controlling it further than most can pass it, and in the chase and harry of the Premiership, it showed. After failing to establish himself at Liverpool as a fetch and carry type midfielder, he was loaned out initially to Birmingham and then Portsmouth with a view to a permanent transfer. These never materialised , and he's still at Melwood 12 months left on his deal.

Rumours of a loan deal to an Island somewhere in the Pacific cannot be confirmed, though pictures have emerged of a Diao look-a-like carrying a big stick, and answering to the name of Mr Eko.

El Hadji Diouf
The final and most expensive signing of the 2002 close season was twice African Player of the Year El Hadji Diouf, “The Serial Killer” as he was known in France (and no, I’ve no fucking idea why either). He arrived from Lens for £10 million pounds as a bit of an unknown entity going into the World Cup, but that was to change after Senegal’s first game of the tournament. They surprisingly but deservedly turned over the then reigning world champions 1-0, with Diouf  putting in a man of the match display, causing all kinds of problems for the famed but aging French back four, twisting Desailly inside out with alarming regularity.

That promising glimpse of Diouf's ability was followed by another two eye catching performances against Sweden and Denmark, and the more he played, the more he looked every inch the world class forward we had lacked. He ended the World Cup by getting into the “Team of the Tournament”. 

Despite not being prolific in front of goal for either club or country, it was obvious the lad had talent, and in turning down overtures from Rafa Benitez’s Valencia to sign for the Reds, it seemed his attitude was also what we were looking for and the decision to release Nicolas Anelka seemed justified.

It was his attitude more so than his lack of ability that would prove to be the undoing of the volatile Senegalese, managing to wind up opposition players and fans. He also in the end made an enemy of himself among his own dressing room, and even his most loyal supporters began to lose patience after the spitting episode in the UEFA cup away to Celtic.

Ultimately his poor goal return, lack of final ball and impact on team morale outweighed his obvious skill on the ball and willingness to cover a lot of ground, and saw him initially shipped out to Bolton on loan; after impressing the tactical genius that is Sam Allardyce the move was made permanent for a rumored £4 million pounds.
 
Season 2002-2003
The season that would prove to be the beginning of the end for Gerard Houllier began in the searing heat of the Millennium Stadium in the Charity Shield against Arsenal. A mainly tepid and listless Liverpool resplendent in a new black kit, lost to a debut goal from Gilberto Silva, a bone crunching tackle on Vieira from Gerrard which resulted in a booking, and an uncharacteristic dive from El Hadji Diouf being the only incidents of note from that day.

The season “proper” began more positively with a 1-0 victory away at Villa Park, John Riise scoring early on in the second half in a game which also saw Owen miss a penalty, Diouf miss a sitter and Peter Crouch go close with an overhead kick for Villa.

That result was followed up with a 3-0 demolition of an embarrassingly poor Southampton side at Anfield, Diouf scoring twice from close range and a late penno from Murphy, who converted after the new Zidane was brought down in the box.

We then contrived to draw the next three games 2-2, away at Blackburn, having lead 2-1 with ten minutes to go and then conceding to Corrado Grabbi of all people. And then again at home against Newcastle and Birmingham City, throwing away a 2-0 leads in both games despite playing some fantastic football.

Drawing the two home games would see Houllier abandon his new free flowing game plan and withdraw back into his cagey defensive style that served us so well during the previous season, despite being somewhat tedious to watch at times.

This switch back seemed to remedy the situation and went into a great run of form, winning the next seven league games on the spin, conceding 4 goals (2 of them away at the Reebok), and scoring 12, the most notable results being a 1-0 last minute Owen strike against Chelsea and 3-0 win away at Manchester City, thanks again to Michael Owen who bagged a hat trick.

But it was to all go horribly wrong within the space of 3 days in early November. We travelled up to The Riverside and lost to solitary Gareth Southgate strike as a result of a mix up from a set piece, with “Big Em” missing his obligatory sitter late on in the game.

Three days later things got considerably worse. Needing a win away to Basle to avoid exit from the European Cup, an absolutely shocking Liverpool contrived to be 3-0 down at half time. The second half did see a comeback of monumental proportions as Liverpool pulled it back to 3-3, but unlike THAT game, it wasn’t going to be enough, and Liverpool crashed out. The impact of those two results would have a massive impact on the rest of the season, with Liverpool not winning again in the league until the 18th of January.

Suddenly Liverpool’s expensively assembled squad looked decidedly thin on quality, certain players didn’t look interested, the new lads were struggling to settle and we lacked the character to drag ourselves out of the situation until it was too late.

Liverpool were to finish that season outside the Champions League places, losing to the only team who could overtake us Chelsea on the last day at the Bridge despite taking an early lead.

It was becoming increasingly obvious as the season progressed that change needed to be made, as it appeared that its wasn’t just the fans losing patience with the management. The players, the same group that had performed with such dedication and focus in the previous two seasons looked lost, and in need of direction.

We lacked fight, unable to come back from a goal down, we still lacked width, we looked lightweight in attack and we also lacked belief.

The Liverpool side that looked so full of promise and started the season so well appeared to be a fading memory, instead of taking that one step forward, we had contrived to take about 6 steps back.

Summer 2006
Twas the Summer of 2006, Liverpool had just finished the season in second with 82 points, their highest ever “Premiership” points total, and 9 points behind the still European Cup-less Chelsea. We had more clean sheets in the league last year (20) than any other side, compared to United (18) and Chelsea (17), our back 4 was about as tight as you could get, and ably assisted in his debut season by young Spanish keeper, Jose Manuel Reina.

(You can see where this is going already can't you?)

The back 4 last year contained 3 veterans of the 2002 season, with Carragher now having proved himself to be on of Europe’s finest central defenders, John Riise playing the majority of games at left back, and Sammi again defying suggestions that he is getting past it. Backup in the centre was provided by Dan Agger who arrived in January, with Djimi Traore and Stephen Warnock vying to provide left sided cover. The only change in first choice personnel was at right back with Steve Finnan, another Houllier signing, making the position his own after seeing off the Mighty Josemi and quiet Dutchman Jan Kromkamp.

The midfield though, had changed beyond all recognition, boasting possibly the best collective triumvate of central midfielders in England (all for the price of Michael Carrick, nice). We had a bit of everything: the influence, energy and strength of Gerrard; the intelligence, vision and passing ability of Xabi; we also had the beast that is Momo, in the first season in England cementing himself in every Kopite's affections with his enthusiasm, determination, endless running, and his keenness for a tackle. Sissoko was for me one of the highlights of last season, and he knocked back Everton an' all. Bonus.

What we still didn’t have was a consistent threat down the flanks. Riise can be a bit one dimensional, Zenden got injured just as we starting to come into form and Kewell suffering from niggling injuries and not really being able to get a run going himself, no one managed to stamp their name on the wide positions.

Attacking wise was another area where we probably lacked a little, with the boss obviously not really fancying Djib, Morientes struggling, Kewell frustrating and getting injured in equal measure. With Baros gone it was left to new signing Peter Crouch to try and score the goals.

Despite not netting for however many games, it was at the start of the season Crouchy had impressed with his willingness to do the donkey work, and get involved in the play away from the area, either dropping into midfield or even hitting the corners as an outlet and bringing others into the game. Luis was still Luis, sitting between the lines, giving the ball away, making passes to no one in particular and imaginative flicks in equal measure, missing sitters, scoring screamers and semi-final winners, never hiding. Yup, Luis hadn’t changed a bit.

Fowler returned in January to much fanfare, form and fitness and improved as the season went on, eventually playing himself into the side after showing that he still had that spark in the box that maybe others lacked.

What we also lacked was pace. Sometimes we looked a bit slow getting the ball forward unless Steven was breaking past the centre forwards, and we tried to pass the ball into the net as we were unable to get in behind opposition defences.

So armed with a sizeable transfer kitty, Rafa went shopping in the summer sales ...

Craig Bellamy
Narky, fiery, mouthy and slighty ginger, Bellamy was a slightly controversial signing, in so much that he didn’t fit some people's idealistic view of what a Liverpool player should be about. Personally as long as they can play and they aren’t called Lee Bowyer I'm not that arsed.

Bellamy, a childhood Liverpool fan, had been angling for the move as soon as he knew there was a slight interest, Three old boys, John Toshack, Ian Rush and Roy Evans spoke in glowing terms publicly about Craig in the local press, and how he would be fantastic for Liverpool, and how it would make him as a player.

Searing pace, intelligence and a bad temper make Bellamy what he is. I would imagine he’s a fucking nightmare to play against, always in your ear, or at your heels. The 27 year old offers plenty to Liverpool, despite not being the most prolific striker in the world and as long as he doesn’t forget where he is and keeps his ego in check, he may very well turn out to be a fantastic acquisition.

Although how he could act the big man in a squad like ours as suggested by many baffles me. It's not like he’s at a small club, with no history and no chance of any silverware, although I hear the women are lovely in Newcastle.

One of the lads who I go the game with hit the nail on the head for me when he said “I like him, but still want to chin him”, and he was spot on. Someone else also commented that , in the past, when you saw him winding up one of ours you’d want to kill him, but when he walked up to Roy Carroll and was trying to get a rise, the Kop loved it.

Mark Gonzalez
Officially signed last season but with his arrival delayed due to some jobsworth at the Home Office, this is the first season Mark Dennis Gonzalez Hoffman will spend with Liverpool. The half-Chilean, half-South African is renowned for his pace and skill on the ball, and having a left foot like a claw hammer.

Signed from Albacete, and then loaned back to Sociedad, the young winger was one of the major reasons why Xabi’s old club survived relegation, scoring in a win against Madrid in the process as well as a 38 yard rocket against Getafe.

I think a lot will depend on how quickly the lad settles, but it's obvious that Rafa rates him highly, having turned down offers from Spain to buy him at a profit before he has even pulled a Liverpool shirt on. If Kewell continues to struggle, Mark could make the left wing position his own before long.

Jermaine Pennant
Once Britain’s most expensive youngster in 1998, when Wenger paid over £2million for the then 15 year old to prise him away from Fat Sam's Notts County.

Maybe Arsene didn’t fancy the young lad, who knows, but for one reason or another despite scoring a hat-trick on his debut, Jermaine never really settled at Highbury. He was loaned out, initially to Leeds, where not for the last time he gave JAR a very tough game, and then to Birmingham where after a successful loan period he signed permanent forms.

Despite their relegation Jermaine excelled at St. Andrews, consistently hitting the by-line and getting crosses over (apparently he got over 21,456 crosses in last year, more than any other player, ever, honest). His close control and ability to bring the ball inside are also impressive facets of his game.

Question marks remain over the lads attitude, as with Bellamy, the lad apparently has a bit of an ego. This again is no great problem as long as it's kept in check, and there is the issue with his “criminal” history. Pennant was forced to wear a tag whilst playing football after being convicted for driving offences, but typically the offence was overlooked and the fact a footballer was wearing a tag was held up by a few of the Tory rags as an example as to how far British Society had fallen, and how all footballers are greedy and evil. Well fucking boo hoo, go back and watch your fucking rugby you middle class twats.

Whilst not Rafa’s first choice for the position, he was suitably impressed enough to spend £6.5 million on him which could rise to £8 million. Considering how stubborn Rafa has been with his transfer kitty, this should tell you enough about what Rafa may think of him.

Dirk Kuyt
After a long and drawn out transfer saga (aren’t they all), Rafa finally got the man he has been chasing for over 12 months, finally convincing Feyenoord to part with their hero, captain and talisman.

Kuyt (apparently pronounced kowt rhyming with gout) arrives with a big reputation, and an astonishing goal record at Feyenoord; 83 goals in 122 games. There is more to the big man's game than just goals, with his biggest strength being his willingness to work for the team and, like Crouchy, bring others into play.

Standing at around 6ft, the powerfully built Dutchman had a poor World Cup, mainly as a result of being played on the left wing. This may have perversely worked in Liverpool’s favour, as his price was kept relatively low and scared off those who hadn't done as extensive a scouting job as Rafa's. Those that watch Dutch football say he’s strong, enthusiastic, can shoot with both feet, and enjoys the physical side of the game, and whilst not being the fastest, is no slouch

Another factor in his move from Feyenoord was his insistence that he only wanted to move to Liverpool, otherwise he would have stayed in Holland. This prohibited Feyenoord from trying to start a bidding war for the player, as he already had his heart set on one destination and it is a testament to his bond with the Feyenoord fans that he left with their best wishes and hundreds of good luck messages.

He also left with the blessing and encouragement of his seriously ill father, who reportedly pushed him into the move. Dirk had previously been reluctant to leave his ill father, who only last week presented Dirk with the Dutch player of the year award.

Fabio Aurelio
Signed on a free from Valencia, the Brazilian/Italian left back may well prove to be one of the bargains of the summer.

The set piece specialist arrives after falling out with the Valencia board over his contract, and obviously Rafa knew enough about him to swoop straight in and make an offer. He should provide decent competition for the left back slot and he can also play left midfield. Whether or not Fabio will need a period of adjustment coming from La Liga is yet to be seen, but he's well worth a gamble on a Bosman free transfer.

The 26 year old is known not only for his set pieces, but for his passing ability and is a solid tackler.

Conclusion
Whilst it is yet to be seen whether this summer's spending is judicious or not, I can't help feeling that there is a far greater chance of success than last time around. Rafa has bought players for positions that we are so desperately lacking, as opposed to buying good players and trying to fit them in, hoping they will adapt as Gerard did 4 years ago. Round pegs for round holes. You only have to look at how many times players were played out of position to see that we frequently didn’t have the right cover under Houllier.

But rather than think of this as the next and final step, I’d like to think that it is a constant process of improvement. Rather than saying, well ok, we have the right back, we have the defender, all we need is X and we’ll be laughing, we need to be looking all the time to improve, to be better today than we were yesterday. Most of the time it only comes down to small details, but they all make a difference, one of them being Rafa’s ability to accept defeat when a transfer doesn’t work out. He will, unlike the previous regime, correct it before it impacts on other areas of the team, rather than doggedly stick with someone who clearly isn’t suited for Liverpool Football Club.

Also I would like to give a bit of credit to Rick Parry and the board, as they, Rick especially, take a lot of flak. Some of it is justified, some of it not, but this summer they have backed Rafa all the way, as they said they would do.

And it is now time for the team to prove Rafa and his staff right, and make us all proud.

Again.

© Don Vito Corleone 2006

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