Make this torment end! Which striker will it be?

Posted by Paul Tomkins on January 7, 2005, 03:40:47 PM

Will there ever be an end to the infernal striker speculation? It is like 1999 all over again, when we were linked to approximately 3,456 centre backs, when at the time there were only 3,455 centre backs in world professional football, and some of those were the ones we were trying to offload. (And "professional" wasn't a term you could aim at some of them).

Fortunately there are only three weeks left before January ends. A conclusion should be reached by then, and if not, we will at least have the luxury of less-intense conjecture and pontification until the summer, when it will all commence once again. (Oh joy of joys). We all love a good gossip, but it's the turning of this gossip (unless it's Robbie Savage we're being linked with) into the real thing that tests the patience. What's holding things up?

Why do we need a striker? After all, I have little doubt that Djibril Cisse will prove a massive hit next season, presuming he makes a full recovery; his record in France was (unlike Diouf and many others) simply sensational. The pressure will be off somewhat. But Cisse was always intended to add to a squad that also contained Michael Owen; once Owen joined the inconsistent Heskey (the man Cisse was bought to replace) in leaving Liverpool, we were always one striker short.

Cisse's injury in itself doesn't mean we need to bolster the attack - that need was already present. But it does make it a pressing issue. (Maybe now Emile is having his customary prolific month of the season, maybe we'll read he's rejoining us?).

In the interim, Mellor looks like a fairly average player who, happily, can mask this by plundering goals if given chances, and Pongolle looks like a wonderful talent who, at last, is making the most of goalscoring positions (including at Carrow Road, where his shot led to the winning goal). Our stand-ins are standing proud. But with all due respect to them (and in football, you must always talk of giving 'all due respect' before dismissing something or somebody) they are not the finished articles yet, and unless Rafa is going to be given an infinite amount of time to bring success to Anfield, he needs to start adding proven quality ASAP.

Put simply, it is like the first week of May: either we wait to grow our own flowers for Mother's Day, or we go to the shop and buy some. Only one way will be a success on time; if we grow our own, it'll be next year before they flower.

With timing typical of the luck Rafa is experiencing of late, Real Madrid change their coach (sacking the old one so they didn't have to provide him with a long-service award following his ten games in charge) at the precise moment we are closing in on Fernando Morientes - after the striker has said that, given his demotion at Real, he wishes to join Liverpool.

Nicolas Anelka's name has also been mentioned by Benitez. Andy Johnson has been linked on several occasions; smoke without fire? Pablo Aimar apparently threw his big hat into the ring (it needs to be a big hat to go over his big hair); even if we wanted him, I doubt we could afford him (still, we got one Argentinian from Valencia). Dean Ashton remained an interesting option given our Crewe link-up, although he is too raw for the role of leading man, and likely to join a struggling Premiership side (although if he wants to play in the Premiership, I'm not sure why he's considering doomed Norwich; to me it seems like wanting to go to Australia your whole life, and then making it only to an airport in Sydney before it's time to head home again - surely you want to go somewhere you can stay?).

Beyond that, it's spurious speculation and straw-clutching. Names as diverse as Darren 'Headless' Huckerby and Robbie Fowler (for those fond of time travel) have been mentioned. Even Michael Owen's situation in Madrid has been thrown into the equation once again – he has already had more managers in Madrid in five months than he played under during his eight years at Anfield (oh how he must wish for the stability of yore). Having been clear third choice ahead of Morientes, he could now possibly have fallen behind the Spaniard in the pecking order once again. (Hard on Owen, given he has the best goals-per-minute ratio in La Liga, but there you go: you make your bed, you lie in it, although with his money I expect he has a maid to make his bed for him). At least Owen knows that the odds are, come March, he'll have a manager who rates him in charge once again. Until April, that is.

While I'd prefer Owen over Morientes every time in a player-versus-player debate, it could be argued that Morientes would give us better balance than a returning Owen ever could. In recent seasons, Owen was the goalscorer partnered by a goal-shy target man. Morientes is that rarity - a goal-scoring target man - so Baros (small, nippy, natural finisher, in the Owen mould) would have a perfect foil. Baros and Morientes would (in theory - and that's all it is at present) offer more than Owen and Heskey.

Morientes looks perfect for someone like Baros to play off. Baros is never static, always running into the channels, either with the ball or without. He doesn't drop deep, but works the width of the pitch. Morientes would be the opposite: working only the centre of the pitch; dropping deep to link the play, or advanced as a target man, to hold the ball up or head down for others.

But is the new Madrid manager, Luxemburgo, going to block Morientes exit by promising games (in other words, lying) and then, when Morientes is back on the bench in February, know that he still has four top-quality strikers to choose from? I know I would, if I were Real boss. (With a bit of luck, I might be come May; like jury service, it comes to us all).

Morientes is at a good age: experienced, but with years left on the clock (although he'd be worth nothing at the end of any long contract we might award him). He's a good all-round player, great in the air, and knows where the goal is (like Baros, he has an amazing international record). If you want proven winners, this guy has more medals than a veteran of the Somme. Is it five Champions League finals he has played in, having won four?

The other main player in the frame is Nicolas Anelka; Rafa saying he knows all about him, and that he's a good player. Too right - I am a huge admirer of Anelka's. To me, in the Premiership only Thierry Henry is a more complete striker. Anelka is proven quality in this league. The fact is he has been a one-goal-in-every-two league games striker at Arsenal and at Man City.

Anelka wasn't match fit when he arrived at Liverpool in late 2001, having been frozen out at PSG. When here he didn't start many games consecutively, as Houllier used him as third choice, behind Heskey. We saw in the past, with Baros (and indeed Fowler in later years), how being in for one game, out for two or three, affects a striker's confidence and rhythm. Houllier must have had his reasons for ditching Anelka, as he'd said (circa 1999) that Anelka would win the European Footballer of the Year at some stage. It is a fact that the French national academy rated him more highly than Henry when both were teenagers.

Whether or not Benitez wants to take a small gamble with him, who knows? But it is a fact that at Valencia Benitez had some problem players, with certain members of that team hating him, and yet he managed to subvert their egos and make a team of them. The trouble with players who don't have egos is that the tend to not have a lot of talent, or a lot of personality (and confidence) on the pitch. A bit of arrogance - in a striker, especially - is to be welcomed. (Also, it would stop Anelka scoring goals against us.)

To my mind Anelka is as ideal as Morientes, but in a slightly different way. He has blistering pace (unlike El Moro), and so can play as the front-runner (yes, he's offside a lot, but often mistakenly flagged), but he is also exceptional at dropping deep and bringing others into play, working the channels, or running at players with the ball. In his spell with the club, I was most impressed with his all-round play, and the goals - along with the fitness - were just starting to arrive when the season ended. Those three Boro defenders he sent the wrong way at the Riverside in 2002 are still searching for him.

He gets a bad press, but not too many managers or teammates have a bad word to say about him; he made mistakes as a youngster, but compared to El Hadji Diouf appears to be a saint. He's at a great age (still only 25), fit as a fiddle (rarely injured), with bags of experience (at four great clubs, and Manchester City) and still has eight or nine years left; if City have to sell on the cheap, he'd be an investment if only in sell-on terms. Of course, he's not the cleverest bloke alive. (Clearly - the great Stephen Hawking, for one, is much more intelligent; but Anelka, I am guessing, would be quicker around the pitch than Hawking).

Time will tell which striker we procure. Let's just hope that time is nigh...

On another subject, I am currently working on a book about Liverpool Football Club (the recent history, latest developments, issues surrounding LFC in the 21st Century, and a full review of Rafa's first season in charge), with publisher negotiations underway for a release this summer. Anyone interested in purchasing a copy (purely provisionally at this point, no obligation to buy), please email me at the following address (so that I may gauge potential demand), and nearer the time of publication I will contact you with more details, in advance of it hitting the shops:  tomkins_lfcbook@btinternet.com

By the time of publication it would nice to be talking about a cup success (a final at least), progress in the Champions League, and qualifying for 2005/06. It will be nice to see key players fit once again, and new faces in place, as the "Rafalution" gathers pace. Oh, and a certain player still captaining the side. Here's hoping...

© Paul Tomkins 2005  

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