LFC: Not the Favourites, But Never Underdogs

Posted by Paul Tomkins on July 24, 2004, 06:16:36 PM

So the new dawn has broken, and the Benitez era is underway: one game, one win. The result was reasonably meaningless, of course (even in these days of pre-season friendlies being advertised like FA Cup finals), but it was a good start to preparations. No new faces bar Cisse, but it's interesting to see who will turn into new players under new stewardship, and with a different playing style.

First to stake a claim was Anthony Le Tallec, with two goals, playing in the hole - his favoured position, and the role he excelled in towards the end of last season for the reserves, but where he's yet to feature for the first team. His best mate, FSP, was even better - but had already been touted by Rafa as a player to feature next season. Finally, Igor Biscan may have earned the chance to prove that his pace and strong running with the ball - something knocked out of him at centre back by Phil Thompson - can be put to use in central midfield, his favoured position. After his first consistent run in English football last season behind him, he may prove he has adjusted to the pace of the Premiership, even if his education was at times rocky.

The weirdest thing about Rafa's tenure so far is that we appear even weaker in the two areas which needed strengthening: centre half, and right midfield. With Benitez preferring Igor in midfield, he has discounted the one quick centre half on the books (not that I'm arguing: Igor was excellent there at times, but made too many errors). And with El Hadji Diouf rightly excluded from the squad for repeated abuses of the privilege of being a professional footballer at Liverpool Football Club, and which nets him £40k a week (it matters not that his misdemeanours were under a different manager), we are one man short in the problem right sided berth (not that Diouf was doing enough to keep his place in the side, but he was an option).

So what else will be different? One thing that needs to change under Rafael Benitez is a swift ditching of the 'Underdog Football' that I believed Liverpool played too much under Gerard Houllier. Bill Shankly urged the Kop to suck the ball in as Liverpool attacked it; Gerard Houllier, you sensed, would rather implore they blew it out as we defended it.

While it made sense - with the team GH had assembled - to go to Old Trafford with ten men behind the ball (it always got results, providing United didn't score first), it has to be our aspiration to go there capable (even if it doesn't happen) of playing United off the park; only then will it mean we are complete enough as a side to compete with United and Arsenal. Yes, "on our day" (the most annoying phrase in football - on their day teams like Southampton beat us) we could beat the top three; but we couldn't do so by matching them at an open, expansive game. After six years in charge, it was GH's job to get us closer to Arsenal and Man U in terms of footballing ability. In that respect, he failed miserably.

If we conceded first against United - or many other teams - there appeared to be no way back; the tactical approach no longer worked, and the team didn't function well enough as a cohesive attacking unit to go on the offensive.

Whenever we did attack in numbers under GH (mainly when we were chasing games), we were often left horribly exposed at the back. Strikers excluded, there was just too much pace lacking from the side: the defence couldn't defend a high line, as not one single first-team defender (ignoring Biscan, who was never outright first choice) had speed in his armoury (contrast Campbell, Toure and Cole for Arsenal). In midfield, Gerrard aside, we also lacked that driving pace - so players couldn't get ahead of the strikers into the box, and then make it back to deal with their defensive duties. When Arsenal attack in numbers, Viera can take a chance to get forward and then, if it breaks down, get back to defend; the same can be said of Freddie Ljungberg, Robert Pires (who may not be great defensively, but still gets back) and Ashley Cole.

Our football in recent seasons most often flourished when we weren't favourites to win a game. When we were expected to win, a combination of pressure and tactical failings hindered our chances. I won't say it's easy to organise a team to defend in numbers and still have the ability to hit on the break; it's not - it requires patience on the training ground and discipline from the players. But it's easier than forming a team that can play that way and also control a game with it's passing and movement - with possession.

Ending what was a footballing season of over-achievers (see Porto and Millwall) was the success of the most remarkable of all underdogs: Greece. A group of well-organised decent pros (helped by most having played little football last season) managed to defend brilliantly and snatch victories over Portugal twice, the Czech Republic, and also dump out Spain. They didn't concede goals, and they won three consecutive games by a header from a right-wing cross. They were inspiring in their pluck, but they weren't inspiring in their football (which isn't illegal or unsporting - that's not my point). But they were helpd by being so unfancied, and not expected to make the running in games. They were allowed to sit back and defend in the way the Dutch or French would never be allowed (better teams are demanded to attack). Defending is an art; and no attacking team can flourish if they keep conceding cheap goals. But you can have a good defence without being negative, or without the entire team behind the ball. Again, Arsenal spring to mind. As do the Liverpool sides of the late 70s/early 80s.

It says it all to me that in the only game in which Greece were not radical underdogs - against Russia - they were very poor and promptly lost. It also raises the point that underdogs raise their game against better teams; we've all seen useless lower division teams dump out Premiership sides; it doesn't therefore mean the lower division team is the better side, or even particularly good. Greece will now find it twice as hard to qualify for the World Cup - teams will now go to Greece to defend and hope for what will now seem a good point if they can draw; suddenly the Greek tactics will fail. Underdogs win cups (see the correlation?), but never has an underdog won a league: it's too long a season, with too many games, for an underserving or fortunate victor. You can win a cup by drawing every game and winning on penalties; draw every league game, and you don't even reach the safety net of 40 points to avoid relegation. In a cup you may not even face the best teams (Millwall made the final without playing a top flight club); in the league, you play everyone twice: making all things more equal.

Gerard Houllier was always looking to take the pressure off his players by playing down our chances and talking up the opposition; making us the underdogs. Initially, that made sense - in his early days, we were underdogs: we'd fallen a long way from the heights of the halcion days. But once we got our name back - at home, and in Europe - after his excellent rebuilding, we suddenly seemed tame once more; our up-curve peaked in the quarter finals of the Champions League in early 2002, and the following season - in an easier qualifying group than those faced the previous year - we lost out to Benitez's awesome Valencia (fair enough) but also Basle: who were underdogs compared to the fancied Reds. The underdogs other main weapon - the element of surprise - was lost once teams cottoned on to Liverpool's style of play, and lack of variety.

Once we put ourselves up on that pedestal in that period from 2001 to 2002, we could no longer claim the advantages of the underdog. Teams suddenly began setting out to stop us play, as they did in the old days - GH became a victim of his own success, not just in terms of raising expectations on the Kop, but in changing the way teams played against us. When GH took over, Liverpool's defence of Babb and an overweight Ruddock were seen as 'easy pickings'. Games were open; teams came at us, knowing they could get something. Once professionalism and organisation were re-established under Houllier, we were firmly back among the Big Boys, a name to be reckoned with once more. Only, we couldn't maintain it; we weren't as close to greatness as imagined. The foundations in terms of preparation, diet, attitude, commitment, etc, were lain in thick concrete, but the footballing base - the style of play - was never as sturdy.

The difference in trying to overcome the very problems faced by our vintage teams was that we lacked the extra levels of quality and guile - and direction - to overcome teams packing their defence at Anfield; we didn't have a Plan B: one of expansive football that dragged teams this way and that, running them ragged and tired, until we could make that rapier thrust. There was plenty of talent; but not quite enough. And there didn't appear to be any bold directives coming from the Bunker.

My theory is backed up by evidence of our home record, where the 'onus' is always 'on us': the last two season have been two of the worst at Anfield in the past fifty years (even allowing for the greatness of many of those years, there were still plenty of poor ones). The underdog doesn't have to take the initiative; he merely needs to sit back and hope for the breaks.

Arsenal, Man U and Newcastle all play a very open, attacking game at home. Newcastle's home record last season was fantastic - they were bold and aggressive in their desire for three points; Liverpool under Houllier, meanwhile, appeared to be more concerned with avoiding defeat at Anfield. Of course, Newcastle away from St James' last year were a shambles - lacking the quality and the nous to keep things tight which becomes more important without the backing of your home fans. My main gripe under Houllier was that we never controlled games in which we took the lead; we dropped back and conceded possession with too many long hopeful punts. If you don't feel able to score more goals, and want to keep things tight at the back, by all means do so: but the best way is to keep possession. No one can score against you if they don't have the ball. Also, don't retreat so deep that you can't clear your own lines with constructive play.

There is no way we'll be favourites to win the league this coming season - and rightly so, at this stage of Rafa's tenure and with the money spent by our rivals to add to already expensively-assembled squads. But that doesn't mean we have to approach it as underdogs, as rank outsiders claiming to just be there for the ride. There is a lot of talent at Anfield, for which we must thank Gerard Houllier, even if he didn't now how best to utilise it. If Rafa can fill the few weak spots GH left in the first eleven, then we can yet be a force to be reckoned with. While I don't want to see our manager willfully bill us as underdogs, at least we won't have the pressure which Chelsea have bought themselves: if you spend £200m in just 13 months, you are failing abjectly if you fail to deliver. They have won nothing of great note for 50 years, and yet some bookies expect them to do better than a team undefeated when winning the title last year. That brings its own problems.

We have to be bold, and positive, and brave; not foolhardy (mention brave attacking football, and people throw Kevin Keegan's 'defenceless' Newcastle at you, whereas I like to think of Liverpool for twenty years, or Arsenal recently, or Man U in the late 90s). Of course, Valencia under Benitez is another fine example. That was a different team to ours: different players, different abilities, different league. But now we have their manager, we can start building towards the heights to which that side ascended.

© Paul Tomkins 2004

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