Benitez, and Getting the Balance Right

Posted by Paul Tomkins on September 15, 2004, 11:51:01 AM

Rafael Benitez has admitted he still needs to work out his best side, and perhaps the most crucial element of that: his best midfield. At present, a case could be made for either Baros or Cisse up front, and both will get their fair share of playing time (although the latter, to me, offers the best hope of being the main man). But midfield is where games are controlled, and a five-man midfield (or 4-4-2 with Garcia dropping into the 'hole') gives you a lot of strength in the middle of the park.

It was interesting to hear Rafa say he went with his best players at Bolton, and changed things for West Brom; the inference that Finnan is less-gifted than Alonso, but it was about getting the shape right. It also won't hurt Alonso to be eased into his English football career. It will be interesting to see how things develop in the centre of midfield, and whether it will be long before Xabi replaces Didi. What seems clear is that Didi will not be blindly discarded, and that can only be a good thing. There may be other reasons behind the selection of Didi, which I will come to.

What Rafa needs to find is balance. The team needs balance between defending and attacking: he has told us this, quite clearly. But also, he will need to find a balance in playing ability and styles, and - one that gets overlooked - a balance in age. Under Houllier, you could argue that there were too many players of a similar ilk (certainly we'd been crying out for someone to link the midfield and attack - we had players who could do this, but they were either overlooked - Litmanen - or not given a long-term run in that role: Smicer). There has also been the issue of the age of the side, and this is something that could be said to still remain an issue.

If you have a young side, you can give them a couple of years to mature together, and the average age of the side will rise quite naturally, as the team bonds together and grows in its understandings. I remember commenting in the year 2000 that Houllier's young side (average age 24) would be an awesome prospect in three or four years' time. But it seemed every faltering or untrusted component was replaced by a young prospect from European football (Gary Mac the one exception that proves the rule, and also made the crucial cool-headed contributions to the trophies we did win).

The result was that the team was as young when Houllier ran out of time as it had been at the start of his rebuilding. It was hard to argue the case that, given another four years, the team would finally have matured. Four more years of what had become failing leadership were not an option. As an example, every season it seemed a younger forward would replace an older one. Fowler became Anelka who became Diouf, and Diouf ended up being removed from the striking equation with Sinama-Pongolle taking his place.

The England side reminds me of this same phenomenon. Germany 2006 was supposed to be the time the national side would peak. That was based on the maturity of the Golden Generation (1993 European youth title winners), but Paul Scholes has retired, Fowler (he was the star man of that generation) has faded from view, Michael Owen (who will still be only 26 in two years' time) will no doubt have been consigned to the bin in the furore to play Defoe, and Gary Neville's spot may have been taken by Glenn Johnson. Heaven forbid that I am making a case for that Manc Scouser-hater - my point is that when 2006 comes and goes at the quarter-final stages, people will end up saying "Ah, but this generation - Rooney, Defoe, Johnson, Milner et al - will peak in 2010". When planning for the future, you need to remain aware that tomorrow may never arrive.

Houllier's Liverpool always remained two or three years away from challenging for the title, according to the man himself. The difference now is that, unlike Houllier - who had used all of his up - Benitez has time on his side.

I am of the firm belief that the best teams - the champions in all the major competitions - have an average age of 27-30: the same age as an individual players' prime. (Some players will peak earlier, others later in their careers, but that is the age when, all being well, a player should have a fit body and an experienced mind - any younger, and the maturity or experience is lacking, any older and the legs or hunger are often on the wane).

The average age of the Arsenal team that last season won the league (I counted all first team players and five first-choice reserves) was 27.5. If you look at the Man U side which won the league with 'kids' in 1996, there was a whole host of late 20s and early-30-somethings to balance things out. If you look at the experience and maturity of our great sides from the mid-70s to mid-80s, it was rife with players in their prime. In the early 80s, Rush and Whelan were added to the team, but to play alongside Dalglish, Souness, Hansen, Neal et al. Arsenal have experience all through the spine of their side, too: Campbell, Vieira, Henry and Bergkamp.

Who has left Liverpool this summer? Owen, Heskey, Murphy, Diouf, Babbel, Cheyrou (Le Tallec's loan is more developmental). That's an average age of 26. The five new arrivals have an average age of just 24. Which, incidentally, remains the average age of our first team squad (based on the 16 players most likely to be involved, and including Warnock, another young player to enter the equation this season).

The first three names on that list are very experienced players, with approaching 1000 career games between them, including internationals. That's a lot of experience, and all of the league experience was in English football. Babbel, meanwhile, was a hugely experienced player, but it's hard to gauge how close he was to the wonderful player of 2001.

Of the players released by choice of the club (therefore excluding Owen), I don't think there was anyone who will be sorely missed. All of the 'flops' had a fair crack of the whip, and all of those who failed to rise above mediocrity for the majority of their Anfield careers, can have no complaints.

Of those arriving, Alonso is a very mature 22-year-old, and plays in a calming, assured manner. Garcia brings a much needed spark of creativity. Cisse only has to settle in - he is more than mere potential, after scoring so many goals in a major league over the last three seasons, and was unlucky not to have a brace of goals against West Brom. And Josemi, one 'skinning' by Pedersen of Bolton aside, has looked extremely solid and strong. (Nunez remains an unknown quantity at this stage). I think if you replace weaker older players with better younger ones, it's hard to complain. But you cannot field an entire team of 'young' players. Experience is so telling, especially when it comes to avoiding silly mistakes, and controlling a match.

It seems to be the experienced players whose places are under most scrutiny, and who most fans want to see rid dropped. Dudek, you will hear, needs replacing by Kirkland; Hyypia by a quick centre half (the names people propose are rarely older than 25); Hamann by Alonso. Henchoz, another 30-something player, has rightly been removed from the equation - for all his tenacity and defensive nous, his lack of pace and tendency to retreat too deep have been irritating me for a long time now.

Despite all they have to offer, there are valid cases - i.e. younger players with greater potential - for dropping Hamann and Dudek; although I'd never drop Hyypia in place of a quick centre back, as his reading of the game and his aerial ability are essential (if we lose the latter, we get bombarded with long balls again, and it's back to the bad days under Evans, when we conceded so many goals via this route), but would instead find another role for Carragher (although of course it would be preferable if this season proved we could get away without needing reinforcements). There may be more to the surprise selection of Steve Finnan on the right, and of Hamann over Alonso, against West Brom - apart from balancing the side, it also increased the average age. If all the older heads were replaced with their younger equivalents, then the average age would dip to around the 23 mark - at that rate, we'd be close to fielding an U-21 team.

As fans, I think we like to see young players in the side, including youth team graduates - they offer potential, and the ability to show us something new. Of course, it doesn't mean that they are any better than the older players, who we've perhaps become tired of seeing (familiarity does indeed breed some contempt). If a young player tidied up play like Didi Hamann, we'd all be purring, but it's the least we expect of the German. If Alonso can do the same, and add extra dimensions once the ball is won, it's natural to want to see him play (not least because he should improve yet further in the fullness of time). But for all Alonso's precocious maturity, he's only played one full game in English football. In that sense, he's a total rookie.

Benitez has decisions to make at the heart of his midfield, although I expect to see all three of Gerrard, Hamann and Alonso utilised in tough Premiership away games, and in all away European ties. There may be occasions at Anfield, too, but that would mean altering Garcia's role, and having showed such potential there, it's perhaps not something to alter at this stage.

But there are still experiments Rafa needs to make, in order to learn about his team. He has inherited a selection of players he will still be getting to know - he cannot possibly be aware of everything about them, and the full range of their talents and deficiencies, so soon. Training tells you some things, but only matches tell you the whole story (for instance, the players who freeze on the big occasion, or wilt under the pressure of expectant fans at Anfield, or how they react to adversity).

Rafa has bought Spaniards he perhaps knows better, but who do not know English football. None of the players introduced to each other this summer will know his teammates particularly well at this stage. When a manager puts all these elements together, he has no exact idea how it will all work out. He is mixing ingredients never before combined. He knows what he's trying to achieve, and the kind of players needed to fit a system, but there will always be surprises thrown up, and chemistry between players cannot be pre-judged. So much of assembling a side is trial and error; which is why it takes time.

So far there are steady signs of progress, with some very good passing football interspersed with welcome examples of individual brilliance. In the meantime, while Rafa addresses the balance of different areas of the team, we the fans need to stay balanced in our opinions, too. It's early days, but I've seen nothing yet to make me think we've got anything but the right man in charge.

© Paul Tomkins 2004

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