A Successful Summer's Rebuilding

Posted by Paul Tomkins on September 1, 2005, 01:22:44 PM

The reaction of many Liverpool fans on Wednesday 31st August confirmed my worst fears: expectations have been raised to unrealistic heights after Istanbul. Some of the moaning has been lacking all form of realism.

Frustration is understandable, but abuse of Rafa, Parry, Moores and co. seems extreme to say the least. Especially in ignorance at what's gone on behind the scenes.

Now I've started writing for the official LFC website I've been attempting to take a few weeks' rest (to which I'll hopefully return), but the events of this week were too much for me to ignore. I'm under no obligation to toe the club line on anything, for their site or this. But I do feel the need to stand up for common sense.

I'd like to have seen more quality arrive, but I'm also satisfied that the squad has been sufficiently improved, and I'm also not forgetting the return of players who were missing for large chunks of last season, and who can give us a cutting edge: Gerrard, Alonso, Cissé, Kewell, Morientes and Sinama-Pongolle. Add those to the team who finished 5th (if they are fit and in form), and you have the potential for 20 more points.

Had we bought those five this summer, everyone would be saying we could win everything in sight. Some have yet to fire, but the talent is there. In spades.

Champions of Europe

How did becoming European Champions change things? Would Rafa's job have been any different had the Reds stumbled against Chelsea, or not revived against AC Milan?

Wasn't the rebuilding task always going to be the same?

Winning the Champions League has raised the cachet of the club; but it's also added millions to the value of any player we've pursued. While the coffers are fairly full, the money the club possesses does not come remotely close to matching the riches of Chelsea. Trying to do so could result in a Leeds United scenario; over-stretch, and die.

Two key areas weren't strengthened; but other areas were. We need to assess the squad as it now stands, not how it might otherwise have been. As well as first team players, a whole raft of promising youngsters have arrived; Rafa's job is long-term, and that must not be forgotten after the European success of last season.

The defence has conceded very few goals this season, and none in the league. Juventus and Chelsea could only breach it once in four Champions League games  at the end of last season (and that goal should have been dealt with by the promising Carson). Add the hugely impressive Reina, who starred in La Liga last season, in place of the erratic Dudek and creaking Kirkland, and you already have more reliability.

The defence isn't perfect, and while cover was desired there's enough there for Rafa to work with for the time being. Anyone who thinks Sami Hyypia has lost his pace needs to watch some old videos: he never had any in the first place. Meanwhile, Carra has emerged as a real star, and Finnan an extremely solid right back. Josemi appears more comfortable at centre-half, and he can easily provide cover.

The lack of a right winger is more of a worry, but the Reds did everything to secure one: most notably let down by FIFA's absurd ranking system, whereby Gonzales' Chile were ranked beneath some of the worst teams in existence (teams who only play other meaningless teams). Figo was a close call, but opted for the glamourous life of Milan. Benfica asked too much for Simao.

But it's also a position where Luis Garcia can flourish, cutting inside on his left foot in the way Pires plays for Arsenal (opposite side, cutting in on his right foot). He won't hit the byline with pace to cross, which is a worry, but cutting inside will allow Finnan to bomb forward, and Finnan's attacking game (and crossing) is better than we've seen thus far.

Sinama-Pongolle is another whose pace, close control and trickery can prove useful on the right, and while at times Cissé appears lost there, he looks explosive and dangerous at others. It's alien to him, but he can learn. There's enough versatility in the squad to make the most of things, and let's not forget that Steven Gerrard can be the best in the world in that position, if Rafa can spare him from his central berth for a few games until January. (More likely now we have such quality in the heart of the midfield.)

Taking Stock

The squad as it stands today is what counts. Say the summer had been quiet, and Sissoko, Reina, Zenden and Crouch all arrived this week? What if Morientes was signed now, and not in January? –– wouldn't everyone be far happier, even though the squad would be exactly the same as it now is?

The squad that won the Champions League has been improved. That's right: the squad that won the Champions League. So far this season the Reds have a credible away draw and a home victory, with no goals conceded. Six games were successfully navigated on the way to the group stage of the Champions League. Hardly cause for despair.

You'd think we were Newcastle, in the relegation zone having played twice as many games, and out of Europe.

Gone from Anfield are a number of under-achievers and talented but erratic players, and in have come a collection of players who have to be given time, and the benefit of the doubt, but who will surely offer more in the long term.

Rafa has offloaded the players he didn't feel fitted into his style of play, and bought ones who might not be glamourous (such as Crouch) but who offer a better balance to the team. Let's also not forget how much better we would have been in the league last season had the side not been beset by injuries, especially those to Alonso, Gerrard and Cissé.

You may disagree, but Rafa has also bought three players who I believe will be in his strongest XI. While there will be rotation (it's his way), injuries, and a number of permutations exploited, there will also probably be an XI (4-5-1 formation) that features more often than others.

And this is how I see it: GK Reina, RB Finnan, CB Hyypia, CB Carragher, LB Traore (or Warnock, or Riise –– toss a coin on that one) –– LW Kewell, CM Alonso, CM Sissoko, Attacking CM Gerrard, RW Luis Garcia –– CF Crouch.

Hamann, Cissé, Zenden, Morientes, Pongolle and one or two others will all play a lot of games, but if everyone is fit, that looks like the team Rafa will opt for.

A sensible approach

I've read comments like: "It was just a few million extra for Simao, why didn't we just pay it?" (Perhaps I should be looking to sell copies of "Golden Past, Red Future" to these people for an extra £5, just to see if they are as casual with their own money?)

What if I told you that season ticket prices are going up by £200, after a price had been agreed? After all, that's the percentage extra (33%) that Benfica were looking for. You cannot be held to ransom. The same applied to Real Madrid's valuation of Michael Owen. The players who have arrived were bought at the right price, and that's the only way to work.

Zenden's arrival was trumpeted by many as a canny piece of business after his excellent season at Boro; a couple of anonymous displays, and he's written off as a waste of space. That's daft.

Say Sissoko turns out to be the next Vieira, as looks possible? Vieira was rated at £30m not so long ago. The 'glamour' surrounding Sissoko at the moment isn't there; in twelve months, he could be talked about as the brightest young player around. Vieira signed for Arsenal from AC Milan reserves; Wenger knew his true potential, but I doubt many Gooners did. It took time to make it look a great bit of business.

Say Reina turns out to be the next Schmeichel? After all, when Schmeichel arrived he was a mere nobody. Again, only hindsight can tell.

It's all Ifs, Buts and Maybes, but so what? Unless we sign players for £30m, what else will we get? If you sign unbridled potential, you either get them at the right age and the right price, or you pay £20m+. Rafa has had to catch them before they've fully blossomed; the same concept as signing Shaun Wright-Phillips in 2002, rather than 2005.

"People are laughing at us," I've been told.

Let them.

Invite them to have a look around our trophy room. Twenty-thousand turned up at St James' Park to see Newcastle parade their latest trophy player, and a fine one they've acquired. Liverpool, as a club, prefer to parade trophies: such as when 500,000 turned up to see the European Cup weave its way through the streets (it didn't need Owen's help either, did it?). It didn't need any 'superstar' signings last year to achieve that. Just very good players.

Call me insane, but I'd much rather have our hierarchy (responsible for six trophies in four years, plus two European Super Cups) than Newcastle's. Despite spending a comparable amount of money to the Reds, they live in Dreamland.

Listen to Freddie Shepherd: "Alan Shearer reminded Michael Owen he had this same decision a decade ago when he left Blackburn and could have gone to Manchester United. He chose Newcastle and look what it's done for him."

So that would be watch on as United won six league titles, a handful of FA Cups and the Champions League, while Newcastle won, um, err, sweet FA? I have nothing against Newcastle as such, but let's not be jealous of them. That's insane!

Newcastle have Michael Owen, but Liverpool have a manager who's achieved more in the last two years than any other.

©Paul Tomkins 2005

Book news update: the second edition of "Golden Past, Red Future" is selling extremely quickly, and there is currently an offer of free postage when ordering from www.paultomkins.com.

The book has also been labelled 'core stock' by Waterstones, which means the main 50 branches will all be stocking the book, and the others have the choice to. For an independent title, this is a great achievement, as it's not at all straightforward in doing so. We're chuffed about this.

I'd just like to end by thanking the Westport Supporters' Club, for inviting myself and my co-author over to the west of Ireland for their 10th anniversary bash, which included a large-screen viewing of the Super Cup final –– a great time was had by all, even the drunk at the bar who shouted "prick!" at Luis Garcia every time he got the ball. We met some of the friendliest people on earth, and would like to thank them all.

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