How Far Can Benitez Realistically Take Liverpool FC?

Posted by Paul Tomkins on June 11, 2004, 05:45:32 PM

Gone are the days when Liverpool could realistically hope to regain its old standing and once again dominate English football and Europe; that empire crumpled, and with the passing years the opportunity to resurrect it has grown increasingly slim – the football landscape has changed.

Rafael Benitez (if he is ever appointed, and all this isn't just a figment of my imagination) faces a slightly different challenge to that he faced in Spain; if his task is to take a top side with some great players - but one which last won the league too long ago - and overthrow the current superpowers (so far, so Valencia), there are reasons he won't find it quite so easy to achieve.

You got the sense with his old rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid - the two Spanish superpowers - that they were never sensibly run clubs. Instead of Madrid buying the top centre half (such as Walter Samuel, now belatedly purchased) that would have made them virtually unbeatable last season, they opted for more "Galacticos" (the most irritating word in modern football) and sold their defensive midfielder to Chelsea - meaning the glorious attacking players didn't have the ball half as much as they would if someone could win it back for them; concede sloppy goals, and you double the pressure on your best creative players. At Barcelona, you sensed until recently that they were a rabble of superstar egos looking to fight with each other, rather than for each other (that's what you get for mixing Spanish hotheadedness with the Dutch footballers' ability to pick an argument in an empty room). The Latin blood in the boardrooms seemed to pump too fast, and they made decisions with their hearts not their heads; and they chose glamour players to buy to win presidential elections, not to solve weaknesses in the set-up.

At Valencia, Benitez fashioned a side with a nucleus of superb players, but got them - and this is the crux - playing as a team, with a proper formation, a balanced nature to the side, and a good mixture of quality from the back through to up front. Benitez did what Wenger did at Arsenal - made his side champions with a certain unfaltering approach, and did so without spending as much money as the teams finishing below them in the table. One of the problems here will be that Arsenal have already performed that trick.

With the top English sides, you feel there is a lot more common sense in their approach. Chelsea had the capacity to implode like Real Madrid, but they've appointed a manager who will avoid falling into the same traps - proving Ambramovich allows him to; and Peter Kenyon has (surprisingly) been talking a good game about how to do things properly. They have a lot of good ideas, but the pressure the money brings, and the impatience to achieve things quickly, could yet be their undoing. Chelsea have all the money in the world (literally, I'm led to believe), and a hungry, arrogant manager who will have some amazing talent at his disposal by the time the chequebook closes, but who will need to fashion a balanced side and dampen some egos. You have to fear that while money alone cannot make a great team, they can afford to throw money at whatever problems arise until a solution sticks; the dramatic improvements they made in just one season attests to that. I'm not convinced they can overtake Arsenal, but they will still be a force to be reckoned with.

Man U are in a state of flux, and with Ferguson nearing the end of his days, in two or three years they could be vulnerable, even if they recover their confidence and cohesion in the meantime. It's hard to say which way they are going to go next season: Van Nistelroy and Saha look a potent strikeforce, with Smith an interesting alternative, but the midfield behind them is not what it was in the late 90s, so they were being overrun. However, Ronaldo has started to look the part, and they will have their best defender back from suspension (assuming he remembers to turn up) and have signed a highly-rated player to partner him in Heinze. They will always have money to spend, and can still attract top players, so it would be foolish to write them off, even if it is enjoyable seeing them look so shaky.

Arsenal, meanwhile, just look like a supremely well-run club, from top to bottom. Wenger is building an empire, and you just never got the sense with GH that he was as in control; both men bought duffers, but Wenger bought superbly as well. Wenger seems to have cohesive plans and beliefs, whereas GH never seemed to know whether to stick or twist. Even if Benitez is closer to Wenger in terms of talent to fashion a cohesive side, is it too late to bridge the gap? - for all our improvements, surely Arsenal's team, with it's good average age (not too young, but not to old either), will gel even more in the coming years? Their stadium costs could yet cripple the club, but Wenger has shown he doesn't need an enormous transfer budget.

So the top four will be hugely competitive. I don't think the rest of the league has got worse; I think the top three have got better, and it's our job to make sure we leave teams like Newcastle in our slipstream to become part of a breakaway top four; regular CL qualification could help us continue to grow in strength.


How Will Benitez Go About Making Improvements?

I keep reading that Benitez favours certain formations, but shouldn't the best managers be adaptable? Doesn't a lot depend on the team you inherit, and who you have at your disposal? - after all, you cannot rebuild a team from scratch; at least not initially, that kind of thing takes three or four years (and even then, that will only account for half a side). Also, I keep hearing that he will bring Ayala and Aimar - as if "bringing" them was a really easy thing to do, like popping them in his suitcase and smuggling them through customs (I know Aimar is diminutive, but that's stretching things).

They are players under contract, with huge price tags, and other top (and more financially well-endowed) clubs will be in any hunt for them. They may rate their former manager, but do they desire to leave the champions of the world's best league? Maybe... but as South Americans, the Spanish climate is far more to their liking, surely? - as is the style of football. And so far, Spanish footballers have not adapted as well to English football as the French, where their preparation seems more suited to our game. It would of course be extremely exciting for us, but is it realistic? And consider this: how many players ever actually follow their managers? Not many I can think of, although they may occasionally buy them again at a much later date when they become available.

Could Benitez instead look to someone like Czech playmaker Thomas Rosicky in the hope he could perform the Aimar role (and again, I'm just speculating; Rosicky doesn't exactly look tailor-made for English football, but he is a player of the Aimar ilk who seems is available, and who seems to like the idea of a move to Anfield).

So - do you look to fit players into a system, or suit the system to the players? Or perhaps a bit of both?

I still believe that the team which fields the best players (not just the best going forward, in the Real Madrid mode, but at the back too) - with a decent amount of organisation, and sent out to win games as opposed to avoid losing them - wins the league. Look at Arsenal: man-for-man, they are the best; their teamwork and unity then takes them to an extra level of brilliance. How can you compete with Thierry Henry? Meanwhile, not many forwards got past Campbell and Toure. Or look at the Man U midfield before Beckham left and Keane sagged. The best players, and also playing in a balanced formation, with everyone in their favoured (or optimum) position; you also had the perfect range of skills: the up-and-down ball-winner (Keane), the mazy dribbler (Giggs), the goalscorer (Scholes) and the crosser (Beckham); each could also score goals. Their skills told you where they were best suited playing; there was no need for round pegs in square holes, but their versatility meant they could also momentarily interchange to give the team fluidity.

The best players can play in numerous roles (Gerrard has had great games for LFC in central midfield, of course, but also on both flanks, once or twice at right back, plus at Villa Park, emergency left back). But even the best players have positions where they are most effective. I'm not too bothered where Harry Kewell plays (providing he's fit), as he can offer crosses from the left wing, or on the right wing he can cut inside (just as Pires does, playing on the side opposite to his best foot) and shoot, or up front he can link play and still score goals. But it depends what Benitez sees as his crucial function. He appears to favour width, and while Harry prefers being more infield, he's as good a winger as there is around.

It all comes back to having the best players. You can make all the alterations to the formation, give a thousand different directions from the bench, but if Player X can't control the ball, or beat his marker, or deliver a cross, it counts for nothing. I'm a great believer in players capable of thinking for themselves; it was always the Liverpool way in the 1970s and 1980s: they were bought to do a job, and left alone to do it. They were intelligent footballers, and they had that winning mentality.

That 1982-84 team was as modern a football side as Arsenal, in my eyes. The most tedious argument against comparisons is "but they are so much more fit and professional now" - any comparison would be made on the assumption of a level playing field: the same preparation, diet, etc. Back then, Paisley never used to bother with "tactics", just sending the team out, in formation, to play their natural games. That Liverpool team could still be successful if transposed into the modern game, even without modern tactical interventions, because Dalglish was a genius who could find time and space, and use it to devastating effect; Hansen read the game better than anyone else and Lawrenson was immensely quick and so able to recover from any mistakes; Souness could pass AND destroy; Rush was quick and could finish; McDermott had skill, fantastic stamina and could score goals.

"Modern" players, with pace, aggression, skill, and a wonderful temperament (and as I've mentioned before, a good amount of experience).

Of course, it's not easy getting the best players these days, as there are the best players from France and many other countries here now, not just the best Brits. But as I have said before, GH bought Heskey the same season as Wenger bought Henry, both players costing the same fee. Are you telling me that if Wenger had signed Heskey and GH Henry, that there'd have been a 30 point gap last season? Now it's done, we can't undo it: Henry remains at Arsenal, while Cisse - the next best thing - arrives a season too late to save GH. Even allowing for the different approaches of those two managers, good players win you games. Do you think Wenger has to draw intricate diagrams to Thierry as to where to run, what to do when he gets there? No - because Henry instinctively knows how to best utilise his talents. Wenger's job is to make sure the rest of the team is balanced around Henry, and again it's made all the more easy by other good players: Pires and Viera don't need their hands held when they cross the white line; so Wenger has to work on Ashley Cole's positional play, or who would be a good partner for Viera in the centre – less crucial problems when you have world class match winners.

The problems facing Benitez are: how do you get more great players into your side than Arsenal have in theirs? How do you match Arsenal's team-ethic? And how do you assemble a new team that can compete with a ready-made, already-gelled one? We have half a side who can clearly already compete with Arsenal (Kirkland, Hyypia, Gerrard, Kewell, Owen, Cisse); the trick will be in assembling the other half, as currently they don't come close enough. So Benitez has to make the most of those he already has, and only then consider who to bring in.

So my hunch is that even if Benitez favours the lone striker, he should play Michael Owen and Djibril Cisse together, because they are top quality and you simply don't ignore such talents. The blend might not be ideal initially, and it may need some tweaking, but two such match-winners in your side should be potent, and to my mind it's a manager's job to achieve that. If you cannot play two such prolific strikers in the modern game and make a success of it, then I'd be worried; of course, if your five best players are all strikers, you cannot go down the route of unbalancing your side by playing them all. But 4-4-2 is hardly reverting to Ossie Ardiles' famous five at Spurs. You play those two, and in my eyes, you have two world-class strikers. Cisse, as the bigger and quicker player, plays furthest forward and starts centrally, Owen slightly behind and therefore able to not be so easily marked; balls into the left or right channel are chased by Cisse, and Owen arrives into the box for the cross, or Cisse simply goes alone with his turbo charge burning brightly.

Now you simply need to balance your midfield to have them be both robust and creative. Kewell and Gerrard pick themselves. Didi, if you want to play a diamond formation, is the perfect base.

Any good system should be fluid; teams defend with one shape, attack with another. I only see problems when you throw too many men in at either end of the pitch; 3-5-2, with its dreaded wingbacks, can quite easily end up as 5-3-2, and you have a redundant centre back. 4-3-3 can end up top-heavy; but if two of the wide strikers drop into midfield, you have 4-5-1. For all the speculation, I'm more concerned with the quality of Benitez's purchases, than the formation he prefers.

I think GH tried to buy versatile players: all-round footballers who could fulfill numerous roles; but too many were lacking in the basics of the game.

Control. Composure. The ability to find time on the ball, and space on the pitch. The ability to pass the ball - and that also means judging the speed of a teammate running so you lay it nicely into their path, not five yards behind. Our great sides were built around players with these all-round strengths.

Both Heskey and Diouf - GH's two main investments - failed in the roles they were purchased for. That is arguably their fault for not playing well enough, and GH's fault for buying players either not good enough, or failing to get the best out of them; and then playing them in another position when, put simply, they were arguably never going to be good enough (by Liverpool standards) for ANY position. I still believe good players adapt; after all, football is mostly employing "transferable skills" to different roles: you pass, you control the ball, you run with the ball, you tackle, head the ball, you shoot, you cross. A centre back will do all of those things - even shoot - except probably cross the ball. Otherwise, it's all part of football. Good players can do all those things; average players some; bad players too few.

Of course, you couldn't buy a tiny, skinny flair player like Thomas Rosicky (six stone when ringing wet) and play him at centre half. Every player will have his optimum position. But those whose job it is to attack, should be able to attack from any position across the front or midfield, or even full-back. Diouf has half the skills to be a wide-midfielder - trickery and energy. But he cannot finish, and he cannot cross. He has no composure. Where on the pitch can you succeed without composure?

Look at John Barnes: up to 1990 he was the total flair winger - as good as this country has seen in league football, and he wins Football Writers' Player of the Year; then adapts to centre forward in 1990 and scores 28 goals and wins Football Writers' Player of the Year again; then in 1991 suffers serious injury which removes his pace, so he plays centre midfield in later years under Roy Evans, and while not everyone's cup of tea, still scores a few goals and doesn't misplace a pass for an entire four entire seasons. That's a footballer for you, not a ball-juggler or circus sideshow. Players of that calibre are rare, but Wenger has unearthed a few. It can be done. Although we've not seen the best of Harry Kewell, he is closer to Barnes as an all-round footballer than to El Hadji Diouf.

So while Benitez will inherit the nucleus of a quality side, with some top young talent, and great facilities, he will have his work cut out winning the league at Liverpool; and it will be wrong to expect he will do so. However, we want to believe we might just be able to do it...  And if we do win the title, it might be a one-off, with the next a few years away, as our rivals spend big once more. But after the wait, I'd be more than happy with that.

© Paul Tomkins 2004

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