End of Year Review: Are We Really a One-Man Team?

Posted by Paul Tomkins on December 22, 2004, 10:21:52 AM

If you had told me at the end of 2003 that within six months we'd have come a hair's-breadth from losing both Owen and Gerrard, I'd have feared the worse (as it is, Benitez appears to be stabilizing a sinking ship). Owen going was bad enough, as (of course) we were just a two-man team - which means our team sheet now can contain only the name of Steven Gerrard. Fielding just one player is a dangerous tactic. Luckily he's pretty good. But is Gerrard carrying us, or overshadowing us?

Against Pompey ex-Blue Tony Cottee, the inarticulate co-commentator, kept praising Xabi Alonso's enduring excellence. Then later on he said Liverpool were a one-man team: Steven Gerrard being that man. This season, Sami Hyypia, the odd mare aside, has been his usual assured self, and alongside him we have the best new central defender in England: Jamie Carragher. Houllier wasn't mistaken when he said, back in 1999, that in the future Carra would make a centre half to rival Marcel Dessaily. It never happened under his tenure, but thankfully the prescience is correct all the same.

Until injured against Monaco, Djimi Traore was looking immense at left-back - since then he's been patchy. And that's been the story of our season: losing players when they are in form. It happened with Gerrard, who was our top scorer at the time. Cisse had just started to make waves (and sonic booms) on the right side of the attack when his leg snapped. Luis Garcia's hamstring went twang after settling very quickly, and Milan Baros had not-long since completed his first Liverpool hat-trick when his hamstring popped on international duty. Even Igor Biscan was looking like the complete midfielder when he fell into the crowd at Spurs, and hasn't been seen since.

Gerard Houllier also had terrible luck with injuries last season, but the difference was that he had a squad he'd assembled over five years; the reserves should have been exactly what he wanted, as he'd signed or groomed them all, without exception. Rafa hasn't had the time to buy squad players and develop the youngsters. He has to work with what he has been left. Over twice as many players exited Anfield this summer as arrived.

Cottee, on a roll with his perspicacious insights, then said against Newcastle that while Baros had ten goals this season (before the half-way point), there was no-one at Liverpool who get close to Owen's 19 last season. Not a Rhodes Scholar, is our Tony. Within half an hour, Milan had eleven goals: and this despite missing a large chunk of the season, and starting the season sitting on the bench as the less-favoured striker. Once he got his first-ever run of regular starts in the Liverpool team, he plundered goals. Despite his feats in front of goal, he doesn't - along with all the other notable performers - deserve inclusion in the side in the eyes of the media: we are still a one-man team.

Neil Mellor, with five (crucial) goals in eight starts, doesn't make that one-man line-up either. Luis Garcia, who is a creative livewire, is again not allowed to be mentioned.

Gerrard has been very special this season. But so has Xabi Alonso, and he's been getting many plaudits for his passing and reading of the game (and this week another Real Madrid legend - Redondo - said the club should have snapped him up this summer). With Alonso pulling the strings, Gerrard has managed to score six goals already - despite having only played a quarter of 2004/05. In the whole of 2003/04 he managed that exact total. We need him, obviously, but Everton are an example of how a one-man team, once you sell that man, become an eleven-man team once again. If they can do that with journeymen, what can we do with quality internationals?

If anyone had lingering doubts over the quality of the club's name (others would say 'brand' - yuk), it was there in the ability to attract Rafa Benitez as manager. Maybe he'll never get the credit he deserves, as a non-flashy leader; it was interesting to see Frank Rijkaard finish higher in European Manager of the Year: Rijkaard awakening a sleeping giant with millions of pounds, but winning nothing. People must have forgotten Rafa's La Liga title and Uefa Cup.

Going into the Newcastle game, our record this season was identical to last - same number of wins, draws and losses. (Sharp mathematicians out there will realize that means the same number of points, too). This, people stated, was therefore a clear indication that no improvement has occurred. To that I say: bullshit.

But even if we regressed this season, the aim is long-term, not short-term. Of course, who is to say that the regression wouldn't have been more pronounced under Houllier? I have a lot of respect for the good he did, but once a club stops improving each season, and starts to record successively worse campaigns, there is not a lot a manager can do to arrest that decline - he has used up all his trump cards, and possibly lost the faith of his playing staff. Like Evans before him, once the rot sets in, things could only get worse the longer the manager remains in charge.

Under Benitez the basics of good football are being instilled into these players. It will take time for that to become a fully-formed realization. Transitional seasons - and this is one, given the problems Rafa inherited - are supposed to be difficult and patchy. Houllier was the same, when he tried to eradicate the problems he inherited. His first season was poor. Then we gradually improved, before it all clicked into place in 2000/01. If Houllier - who was a very fine but, as we saw, ultimately flawed manager - can do as much as he did, then Benitez, with his more impressive CV, should surely be able to do more? But it will take time.

Mourinho keeps saying that his Chelsea project is only six months old. But he was fortunate to inherit a side on the up, not in decline (this stage last season they had almost as many points). It was Chelsea's best season for fifty years. He also had £100m of new talent to add - but only if he wanted to, as he could easily keep them on the bench. He added £40m of talent to an already great defence. They didn't lose their world-class striker. It was all looking rather stale for Jose until Drogba got injured: suddenly he was 'lucky' that his problems solved themselves, and with a new formation they had to put in place suddenly clicked into gear. Would Mourinho have done any better with this Liverpool set up than Benitez has? I doubt it.

We can't let the off-the-field activities overshadow the main vision and interfere with performances on the pitch. Priorities are now as follows: sort out the investment issue, so we can build a team of eleven great players and top quality in reserve, and avoid the temptation to sell Gerrard to fund rebuilding. New players arriving can only appease Stevie G. But if the speculation surrounding his departure starts to destabilize the club, we may be best to cash in; first, however, we have to try and build a side around him.

Milan Baros needs a new contract, with only 18 months to run on his existing one. We also need to find him a strike partner, and Morientes appears to be the man on his way. In many ways he is the perfect foil for Milan: a perfect target man who can win headers and hold the ball up. Morientes would be the man to work the centre of the pitch: dropping deep, but never wide. Milan would then be free to make those darts into either channel, where he runs at defenders so brilliantly. Morientes is a natural goalscorer who will offer different options: both he and Baros both have 20+ international goals. Anelka returning would be nice, but so long as we get either of these then the first eleven will be significantly improved. It's then up to Neil Mellor to prove he is better than whoever arrives; at the very least, we now have a substitute who has started to prove he can score goals at the very highest level.

We have a lot of players who, through injury or rotation, will be fit and fresh for the second half of the season - vital as players like Gerrard, Baros and Alonso were at Euro 2004. And Arsenal aside, all of the top eight have to come to Anfield. Despite news of our demise, we are in the semi-finals of the Carling Cup and the last sixteen of the Champions League. We have finally found the character and composure to come from behind to win games. There are plenty of very positive signs, but of course no-one can be happy until we're above Everton in the top four. It will happen - rest easy.

All that remains is for me to wish you all a very happy Christmas, and a points-filled New Year.

© Paul Tomkins 2004

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