A Quarter of the Season Gone, and Starting to Look Good

Posted by Paul Tomkins on October 26, 2004, 04:33:30 PM

We are now a quarter of the way through the league season, and the last month has seen things starting to come together. (It's also nice for a couple of weeks without the mention of zonal marking).

How good this Liverpool team currently is, and how good it can become in the next year or two, are two totally different questions. The first involves Rafa working mostly with what he inherited and demands a level of realism with regard to fixing something that was clearly broken; the second cannot take into account all the imponderables, such as new signings, injuries, player development, and the retention of the club's best players. The first is limited; the second could appear as limitless as the sky. If he can make such dramatic (and fundamental) improvements in such a short space of time, then what can he do in two years?

I still don't see enough about us - at the moment - to usurp last season's top three; and understandably so given the standing of all four teams at the end of last season. There's a bit too much experience in amongst our rival's ranks, and more depth to their squads. We don't seem as physically dominant - as tough and robust - as Arsenal and Man U, who appear more battle-hardened, and we lack the pace they possess in every area. But, thankfully, where last year there was a chasm I now see only a gap. In two of the three cases, much of that gap is to do with finances.

Where we can compete - joyously - is in the passing of a football. Only Arsenal have played better passing football than us this season. It makes a nice change from being derided for 'hoofing' every ten seconds. It is not beautiful and entertaining football for the sake of it; is the brand of football that wins the biggest trophies.

We're passing teams off the park at Anfield, and creating chance after chance. Not just against the less-glamourous Premiership sides we've sent packing without a single point to their names, but Monaco and Deportivo la Coruna: two of the top four teams in last season's Champions League, and we deserved to win both games by at least a two-goal margin. Seeing us outplay, with great pass-and-move, top Spanish opposition at Anfield (at long last, after the previous two 'humblings') was a big indicator of the team's potential. We looked the technically superior side - that was the surprise. At times in recent seasons we'd seemed incapable of stringing two passes together.

I'd be surprised if we dismantled last year's top three in a similar fashion, but at least we look more than capable of beating them on our own pitch. It may take longer to find some consistency away from home, but the confidence breeding throughout the first-team squad will only help; as will being able to field our strongest team.

The momentum is building. Players from whom little was expected are suddenly looking more than capable of doing a job. Rafa is going some way to getting the best out of them. (Okay, I'm still puzzled as to how Salif Diao fits into this, but I'll give Rafa the benefit of the doubt over that one).

One of the best pointers for a bright future is Benitez's record in the transfer market. He has thus far picked out four players, and with the exception of Nunez, who has yet to play any kind of match for Liverpool due to injury, all have made a positive impression, and in the case of Alonso and Luis Garcia, unexpected heights have been hit. All managers - even the best - make mistakes in the transfer market; but if Benitez spends as wisely (and the combined fees for those four players didn't amount to much more than Adrian Mutu) then a title challenge won't be far away. 

Josemi may or may not make the grade - he seems a little rash in the tackle and lacks the kind of blistering pace you could always use at full-back - but there's no way he's a bad buy. There's no gamble at £2m. He looks decent value for money, and while not exactly looking out of his depth, we can but hope he improves gradually as he comes to terms with the game in England. At the very least, he is solid.

One massive upshot of Josemi's arrival has been the form (and hunger) of Steve Finnan, who, in the right back role against Charlton, looked like the player I was always led to believe we were buying. I've been impressed with him at right midfield - steadily improving as the season progresses - but the suspicion remains that he'll never be outstanding in that position. But getting into that area of the pitch as an over-lapping full-back offers so many more options, especially if Luis Garcia, as is his wont, drifts infield to look for goalscoring opportunities. Finnan can whip in a fine cross with either foot, and finally he's proving that. (Luis Garcia and Finnan must be the most two-footed combination on any flank in English football; unfortunately, Riise and Traore are possibly the most one-footed combination - not that either is playing at all badly, or letting the side down).

Finnan's looked stronger, and more tenacious in the tackle, and suddenly looks good both defensively and when moving forward. He could be one of those originally earmarked for the exit door who plays his way into Rafa's long-term plans. He's certainly a valuable squad member at the moment. His stock has risen, as has Djimi Traore's. Salif Diao has yet to show any signs of improvement, but perhaps he will.

No one has scored against us at Anfield since the first week of the season. The best thing about it is that it has been achieved not by playing a defensive-minded midfield, but by being open and attacking - and by not letting the opposition have the ball. Attack really has proven to be the best form of defence.

It is possession football, but possession with an edge, a purpose; and all the while lacking our most potent midfielder, Steven Gerrard: the man who bridges the space between midfield and attack, the man who gets in behind the opposition defence to score goals, and who can dissect a back four with one brilliant pass. The papers will continue to speculate that he will be leaving (once that can of worms was opened, no lid was ever going prove strong enough to contain the rumours), but are you telling me Stevie G would not have watched the recent home games and thought "I'd love to be out there, playing in this side"? He will believe in Benitez, as he is seeing his methods first-hand.

Didi Hamann is doing a fine job ahead of Alonso, with the Spaniard 'sweeping' in front of the back four (ending opposition moves, starting our new ones), but Didi, in his new role, has none of Gerrard's dynamism. Our midfield will be so much stronger when our captain returns. Also a benefit will be a fit and sharp Harry Kewell - as a sub against Charlton he finally appeared to have that extra yard of pace that injury had been denying him.

People are getting hung-up on our players missing chances, but the key thing is that we're creating plenty. Gerard Houllier often quoted stats about our missed chances under his regime (certainly in the last two seasons), but now you can sense 'proper' chances are being created, not scrappy half-chances from loose balls and knock-downs. The strikers deserve credit for getting into the positions to miss - Michael Owen missed plenty (for which fools lambasted him), but he never hid, and Baros and Cisse are the same.

The day strikers start bottling it, and staying out of the area, is the day you need to worry. Luis Garcia another fine example - he misses some sitters, but always seems to get one or two brilliant efforts on target every match. Those three attackers have ten goals between them, and none has taken a penalty to bolster his tally (not that we've been awarded one). Had Cisse taken and scored three penalties this season, no one would be questioning his contribution. Baros has been both brilliant and frustrating in equal measure, but his work-rate and commitment have been exceptional.

It's strange seeing us score so many goals from outside the area: two against Norwich, three against Fulham, and now two against Charlton. But that's all part of the mindset of the team - drag defenders around, work some space, and get a strike away. It's not like the players are shooting for the hell of it, or out of frustration at not being able to create 'proper' chances. They are shooting when earning the opportunity to do so.

It's been encouraging to see Cisse doing well out wide, as Rafa makes the tactical switch halfway through games, where Djibril swaps places with Luis Garcia. Against Depor the Frenchman had some good strikes at goal, and then against Charlton he hit the post - unlucky to not already be ahead of Riise in the "how did you score that goal" from rolled-and-struck free-kicks in their respective Liverpool careers. The goals will come. But in the meantime it's reassuring to see Cisse can offer a different dimension to our play on the right hand side.

In that role he displays few tricks, and doesn't have a single defender second guessing "is he going to cut inside?" - he just knocks the ball into space on the outside of the full-back and, defying the laws of time and space, appears to collect the ball at the byline before he has even released it in the first place. The determination he shows in making lost causes winnable positions will endear him to the doubters. Had his run in the last minute of the first half resulted in a goal for Luis Garcia, his 'assist' would have been one of the season's best.

Every area of this side is contributing something: front, middle and back, left and right.

So while there is still a long way to travel in terms of the Rafalution, it's nice to feel that we are at last on the right road.

© Paul Tomkins 2004

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