Jekyll and Hyde: Time for two Liverpools to become one

Posted by Paul Tomkins on April 24, 2005, 04:09:54 PM

Why has Liverpool's league form been the 'Mr Hyde' to the team's Champions League 'Dr Jekyll'?

   This season has been a case of the Great, the Good, the Bad, the Ugly, and the Downright Dowie. (Is it true that the more hideous the opposition manager, the more ugly Liverpool's display? Certainly performances at Crystal Palace, Birmingham, Everton and Southampton –– all managed by men too ugly even for Halloween –– have not been pretty on the eye, and as such, suggest a correlation.)

   Whatever happens now, and with everything taken into account, it has still been a good first season under Benítez. The league and the FA Cup have been disappointing –– no doubt. However, the Carling Cup (with the kids) and the Champions League have been exceptional. On the whole that balances out as a good season, especially in the face of some shocking injury problems. Of course, if the club wins the Champions League, that will make it an amazing season –– end of story. No one was complaining in 1981 when the club made the League Cup final (winning it that time) and won the European Cup, but finished 5th in the league. Unlike then, this is only the start of the project.

   The league campaign has had the lumpy consistency of curdled milk. The domestic season limps towards its conclusion, and for all the gloom about being fifth, the Reds face their most meaningful games for twenty years (in Europe at least).

   Finishing fourth has of course been even more of an issue this season, given Everton's over-achievement. (And next season will prove it to be just that, especially with the added burden of Europe –– just look at Middlesborough this season.) While it won't be easy to stomach, Everton can win this particular battle; Liverpool need to win the war, and that means the bigger picture –– this season and beyond. Ultimately, finishing above Everton should come behind the Chelsea games in Rafa's list of priorities. The semi-final matters so much more.

   That may offend some. Ideally, Rafa would not have to choose between the two, and could approach both tasks with equally strong teams, but that's not possible given the fitness issues surrounding so many of the club's key players, and the schedule of games that cup progress brings. Come next week, the club will have played 21 cup games this season, only four less than in 2001, when, for the first time in its history, it contested every game possible in a league season. The difference this time around has been a manager who hasn't been established in the job for three years, and one who has had his hands tied by having to pick a team without its best players.

   Winning the European Cup for a fifth time would be a remarkable achievement, never to be forgotten. It is what the club exists for. Finishing fourth, for all its benefits, would not mean anywhere near as much –– it would be only the most hollow of 'victories', for all the bragging rights on Merseyside. All the fuss about qualifying for next year's competition, and here the club stands, three games away from actually winning the damned thing. Outsiders, of course, but in a four-horse race where all the runners are starting off on equal terms.

   There can be no doubt, given the reaction of Rafa in the post-match interviews yesterday, that this was a man hurt by defeat, and that he felt he had put out a team capable of winning. It didn't work out, just as it didn't at Burnley, and too many other places. But they are all lessons learned; maybe the solutions are not yet at his disposal.

   Given the choice, Benítez would opt for victory at Stamford Bridge over Selhurst Park every time, but he'd still rather not have to pick one or the other. He'd rather say both. Next season the club will be better equipped to do just that, as the squad can only be improved. But of course, it might be in the UEFA Cup instead. That's tough, but that's life. Football involves all kinds of gambles, and not all pay off. Only fools think they get everything right, as they cannot see what they are doing wrong.

   Over one-third of the Reds' league campaign has been simply not good enough. Some performances have been too inept for words –– nearly all of them away from home. It's hard to pinpoint what the exact problem has been –– if indeed it has been confined to one thing –– but 'tempo' seems to be an issue. At Anfield, the pace has often been intense, and, give or take the odd blip, teams have been played off the park with a fast, fluid passing game. It is the kind of form title-contenders produce, and it should get better still. Only Chelsea have won more home games in the league, but have also played one more home fixture. In the Champions League, Anfield has been a complete fortress since the competition 'proper' began in September.

   The major problem is of course the Premiership away form. At one stage it was the away form, full-stop, but the European travels have got steadily better, and prove that, given time, Rafa can rectify things. It will just take more time as he adjusts to the English game; it remains a big problem, but not one which cannot be solved. After all, it's clear to all just how good this Liverpool team has been on many occasions. The heights can be hit, it's just doing it with more regularity.

   Inconsistency, while far from ideal, is much less of a problem than lacking a clutch of good and great players –– Liverpool clearly don't –– or being consistently average. To use an analogy, it's better to be a patchy Beatles album, with some weak tracks, than the most consistent effort the Stereophonics could wish to produce. While top-class talent undoubtedly still needs to be added, there is the spine of a great side there, and the best performances have been scintillating. Rafa needs time to make his Sgt Pepper.

   Consistency is impossible in inconsistent circumstances. Everything about the season has been inconsistent, with changes on the field and off. When one set of players gets fit, another group fall lame. On top of all this, the club lost its one proven, consistent goalscorer on the eve of the season. While Rafa had little choice but to let Michael Owen go, given the contract impasse, the boss, like us, will surely wonder how different it might have been had he stayed. Instead, Milan Baros carried the full burden for the first time, and after a superb first half of the season, has since struggled in front of goal. Benítez may also wonder what would have happened had Cissé stayed fit, or Morientes joined in the summer, when first approached. Despite all the ifs, buts and maybes, there has still been much to be grateful for.

   Like players, managers also need time to settle. They need to understand what is required, and get used to the idiosyncrasies of the English game, which is like no other. Football is universal in its main themes, but the specifics need tweaking. That the manager's tactics have worked so much better in Europe tells its own story. It is the situation he (and many of his players) knows best, but anyone who has already proved his tactical ability, like he has in Spain and in European competition, can learn. Benítez is a football obsessive, and spends hour upon hour thinking, plotting and planning. The attention to detail will start to pay off.

   If you aim to 'out-football' Premiership teams, as is the boss' intention, you need your best players. He has rarely had them.

   The summer will allow Benítez the time to study everything that went wrong –– at leisure, and in depth –– and work at addressing those issues; after all, he couldn't address them last summer, as there was no way he could know in advance what he needed to change. He swooped for two gems in Alonso and Luis Garcia, but didn't know enough about the players he inherited. The winter transfer window offered only a limited selection of available players, given most clubs are loath to sell mid-season, and contracts run July to July. If someone is available in January, it usually means they have been surplus to requirements elsewhere, and as such, likely to be lacking match fitness –– the case with Morientes. What Rafa ideally needed was the players he wanted most –– those already at the club, and who were injured.

   Morientes has suffered the same problem that beset Nicolas Anelka during his spell at Anfield in 2002: namely, arriving after half a season spent in the wilderness. Anelka's form, while okay for Liverpool, with moments of real promise, was fitful, and nothing like that he would produce for Manchester City the following two seasons, when fully fit. And he knew all about English football. Morientes has done okay, but no better. He's been average, with the exception of moments of class, and has look shell-shocked at times. In the circumstances, perhaps not much more could be expected. The bonus is that the five months he will spend acclimatising to the English game will serve him in good stead for next season; pre-season training will ensure he's far sharper next time around. A quality crosser of the ball will help him, too.

   Playing Morientes in every league game, while he attunes to the pace of proceedings, may well have proved to be counter-productive in the short-term, but it will benefit the club in the long-term. With Cissé injured, and still nowhere close to match fit, and Sinama-Pongolle and Neil Mellor out for the season, it has left Rafa with just Baros for the majority of the Champions League. Despite the clamour for two up front, playing Baros as the lone striker has seemed to suit the side better, but it's a gruelling role for any player. Baros has to be spared this in the league, in order to keep him in some kind of condition for Europe. But his individual form has slumped, and his goals are no longer rescuing results. Playing Morientes on his own leaves no pace up front, and away from home, especially, you need pace. The dilemma is getting the balance right. Two up front may prove a lot more fruitful next season, but it needs tweaking.

   Benítez' rotation policy, which worked so well in Spain, has yet to reap dividends in England. It hasn't helped that the players he has been rotating 'out' have often replaced by those who would not have been the manager's first choice 'second choices'. He is like a dealer shuffling his pack, only to discover half the cards are missing.

   It is up to players like Welsh (who should have relished the game at Selhurst Park), Le Tallec and Potter to be hungry to prove they are good enough, when they get the chance. If it is too early in their careers –– and that may well be the case –– then at least it will serve as a stepping stone in their educations. Yet more mixed blessings, with the benefits only likely to become apparent in the future. Experience, like education, relies on time.

   Rotating players, in the English game, can also be a red rag to the opposition –– especially bullish teams like Crystal Palace. It serves as their motivation: the 'insult' of trying to take them lightly. Benítez is not one to take anyone lightly, but all the same, he has at times asked reserves and youngsters –– players the opposition would often like in their ranks –– to rise to the occasion. At times they haven't.

   Meanwhile, who would have thought the day would come when fans were bemoaning Igor Biscan's omission from the starting XI? Meanwhile, the freakish run continues, whereby the team gets better results without Steven Gerrard than it does with him. Perhaps it's purely coincidental, but the longer it goes on, the more alarming it will become.

   Yet again, fitness issues have disrupted the flow. Expecting Xabi Alonso to play four games in ten days after four months out would have been asking too much. Adrenaline gets a player so far, and then fitness levels start to count. Luis Garcia picked up a knock at Portsmouth, and Milan Baros was hobbling within minutes of the start at Crystal Palace, after some fairly brutal punishment. Djibril Cissé hasn't even played a reserve game since breaking his leg. His natural pace may make him worth using as a substitute, but he's still a long way from match fitness. The brief cameos will help him, but it won't return him to his best. Every week, Rafa is patching up something, or someone.

   While you do not want to push them too hard, players like Alonso –– who play almost entirely with their brain –– can cope with a lack of sharpness more than strikers who rely on their pace. Jan Molby must have been pushing sixteen stone in the 1992 FA Cup final, and he still controlled the game. However, if he was asked to outpace a quick centre half, he'd stand no chance. Players who make the ball do the work in the midfield can still hit 50-yard passes; but a striker cannot score from 50-yards out. He has to be able to sprint, especially if pace is his greatest asset. He can do a couple of sprints, of course, but they take their toll much quicker. A lack of sharpness in our strikers, on top of them missing large chunks of the season, has proven costly. Getting the most from the attackers will be a priority, given the great goals return from midfield.

   Another problem in need of addressing is that there is not yet enough competition for places, in all positions. How much of this is down to a lack of quality in the squad, or injuries to half of the players?

   Harry Kewell remains out of the equation, with his injury problems finally being given a period of time to heal. He seems to have become a hugely unpopular figure among the fans. Benítez, however, would love the chance to field a fully-fit Kewell –– he has even said he'd be happy to field a 60%-fit Kewell, he rates him that highly. It won't happen this season, but getting the Australian fit will be one of the priorities of the summer. It really would be like a new £15m signing, as opposed to the £1.50 version we've seen at times this season.

   (The same applies to Cissé and Morientes, while Alonso, for all his brilliance, has missed half of the season, starting just 17 of the 35 league games. Luis Garcia is another who should get better still. Despite the need to improve his all-round game away from home, he has still scored a lot of goals on Liverpool's travels.)

   To be an effective winger, fitness is paramount. If you can't outpace your full-back, you lose confidence, and a vicious circle takes hold. As a clever passing player, and a great crosser of the ball, Kewell remains the kind of player who can yet make a difference, especially with Morientes to aim at, and given Benítez likes to use the full width of the pitch. Should he get fit and then fail, there will be no excuses, and no further chances. Pre-season will make or break Harry Kewell at Liverpool. Having him and Riise vying for a spot on the left –– or attacking in tandem –– remains the aim.


Help, or hindrance?

The Champions League has been a welcome distraction, but, at times, an unwelcome hindrance. The extra games, and all the associated travelling, have allowed teams to spend longer preparing to stop the Reds, as well as having fresher legs when the game kicks off. Not excuses, but 'levellers' all the same. A fit squad with strength in depth will be able to deal with them. Add international games, and you can see why a big club needs a large squad.

   Then there's the 'one eye on . . .' scenario. Players will always have one eye on the big occasion ahead of them. It may seem unprofessional, but players will always be wary of picking up an injury in weeks like this –– they may look to coast a little, and leave it up to others. It doesn't make it acceptable, but it does make it human.

   Of those eligible for this season's Champions League, none has previously experienced getting so close to the final; to most of them, it is the highlight of their careers thus far. They do not want to miss out on big nights like those the club is about to experience. Scrapping to finish fourth will not excite players in the way the semi-finals of the Champions League will. If they were going for the title, rather than to finish fourth, then the momentum would most likely propel them forward on all fronts.

   Even if Chelsea win through to the final, and the Reds finish 6th in the league, it will not mean this season has been a total failure. It will have been an education. A university student will put in a lot of hard work in the first year, but it is not in the first year that he or she earns the qualification. In order to get to the second and third years, a student has to go through those difficult initial first terms. This season will only be a failure if the club, as a whole, does not learn its lessons, or fails to implement the newly garnered knowledge in the future.

   If the club fails to qualify for next season's Champions League, attracting players should not be an problem. This season has shown how good things can be, and, for all the blips, confirm the club is heading in the right direction. Also, finding the money shouldn't be a problem either. This year's run will reap the rewards of two years spent making it through to the group stages. Further investment, should it finally occur, will only help.

   Also, if the Reds end up without Champions League football next season, it at least gives Rafa the chance to concentrate on a tilt at the title. In 2002/03 his Valencia side followed their league title with a disappointing fifth place finish, but made it through to the quarter-finals of the Champions League. (Sound familiar?) A year later, they won the league title once again, along with the UEFA Cup. Not a 'blessing in disguise' that anyone would choose, but it could yet prove to be just that.

   So the club stands three games away from next season's Champions League –– either through three in the league, or three in Europe. Even if the Reds win all three remaining Premiership fixtures, the chance's are it won't be enough. Win the three remaining Champions League games, and even fairly abject displays like those at Crystal Palace and Birmingham will be forgotten.

   Next season, Liverpool fans can expect, and demand, so much more. While the third season will be the time Benítez' plan will be nearest to fruition, next season will provide far less excuses for failure (injuries pending), and far more scope for improvement. The announcement of the dates for pre-season training has already set the agenda –– it tells the players that Benítez will not accept the shortcomings of this term. It tells them he means business.

   They will have to report back two weeks earlier than usual, and this at a time when the current season has the potential to end two weeks later, in Istanbul. Here's hoping the players don't get too much time off this summer.

© Paul Tomkins 2005


"Golden Past, Red Future" is available to pre-order at £8.99, £1 cheaper than it will when it becomes available (late May/early June, dependent on progressing to the Champions League final). Amongst many other things, the book will include:
   - A review of this season's Premiership, cup and Champions League campaigns, focusing on key games;
   - A look at what went wrong in Gérard Houllier's final seasons, and what led to the exit of Michael Owen, and the near-exit of Steven Gerrard;
   - An analysis of the Rafael Benítez, looking at how he built his success at Valencia,  his methods, and his plans for Liverpool;
   - An in-depth look at the key players in the current squad, as well as the up-and-coming prospects;
   - A look at the projected future of the club, both on and off the field.
Simply go to www.paultomkins.com for details on how to order.[/i]



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