Exercising My Right to Remain Positive

Posted by Paul Tomkins on October 23, 2005, 07:25:56 PM

Happy bunnies: they are an endangered species. And understandably so. There's not a lot to be happy about with regard to this season's domestic form.

But while I'm not exactly happy, I still don't see a lot to panic about, and as for those doubting Rafa: oh ye of little faith.

I choose to stay positive. Sure, I'm not expecting great things in the league this year, but I do believe that this team can gel in time for another Champions League qualification, and that's all I was expecting at the outset.

(For a while we were desperate to qualify for that competition; now we've won it, and are doing well once again, but it's not enough.)

Did we forget the work that was needed? And are we not going to give those changes time to come to fruition?

The teams currently doing well in the Premiership are mostly the kind of early pace setters who hit a wall by January. If it's true to say that a game isn't lost simply by going a goal down in the first ten minutes, then a season isn't over after a disappointing start. It makes things harder, of course; but nothing is decided.

I had been saying this season that if we continued to improve on last season's equivalent fixtures, then we'd end up with a lot more points. It's logical. However, I also said last week that if the Reds drop points at Fulham, then it leaves us back at square one, and that's where it feels like we've ended up. It is imperative that games like that at Craven Cottage are won.

It's a kick in the teeth, but it's not a disaster. It's still early days. There are still 87 points to play for. Panic in sport gets you nowhere.

It was strange that Rafa went into this game with two up front, what lots of people have been crying out for, and the team was lacklustre and created little. When Cissé switched to the right wing, in a formation that was closer to 4-5-1, suddenly the chances arrived. But yet again, they weren't taken (partly down to Tony Warner's fine cameo).

I was happy at what looked an attacking line-up before the game. I have no problem with 4-4-2, just as I don't mind 4-5-1. Both of these formations have been used to win major trophies in recent years, unlike something like 3-5-2, with its wingbacks, which never led to any major trophies, and which teams only revert to in desperation. But 4-5-1 gets all the unfair press.

The Premiership has changed from the days of blanket 4-4-2 in the mid-90s. Man United fans chanting for 4-4-2 strikes me more a cry to be the best side again, and looking for any reason to explain their recent failure. To me, they no longer have the best players. Living in the past is not the answer. Do Blackpool fans chant for 2-3-5 formations?

So many teams play five in midfield, including Fulham, that it's an area where you need to win the battle in order to have any say in the match. When Liverpool play with five midfielders the chances are arriving, just not being taken by players who can score goals.

Form is transitory. If 'class' isn't seeping from every pore of the current side, I can at least see that there are some 'permanent' examples of quality at the club.

I wouldn't have been able to write anything in the last two years of Gérard Houllier's reign, as the football was directionless and torturous to watch, and positives were nearly impossible to find. The crucial difference was that Houllier was well into his tenure. 

He had built his team over the previous four seasons - got things precisely the way he wanted them - and as such, once the rot set in things were only likely to get worse, not better. He had a good stab at things, came fairly close to the league title, but ultimately fell short, despite the rewards of 2001.

There is a saying in life: guests are like fish – they start to smell on the third day. Managers are similar: they start to lose their freshness after the third year. If a manager at a top club like Liverpool hasn't won one of the top two prizes in his first three years, his players will question his leadership. But good managers usually get better, year on year, in their first three seasons.

Houllier never landed one of the 'big two' at Anfield, and it got ever harder to convince his players that he could. Unlike Benítez, I never felt Houllier could land one of the top prizes, for all the beneficial things he did for the club.

Benítez took just ten months, just as he had with Valencia when winning the league. I don't see these as accidents, or in any way coincidental, especially as neither side was in perfect shape upon his arrival. Only the very best can work such wonders.

If anyone thinks Benítez won the Champions League in May with a great side, they are wrong. Liverpool were fully deserving of the title, as they earned it. But it was from a team playing out of its skin, and using all the manager's tactical tricks; a team that no one – no one! – would have believed capable of such achievements six months earlier.

Again: any manager who can achieve such remarkable things has to be trusted and given time. If it means backwards steps along the way, so be it. Overhauling any squad leads to lots of new faces, and a lack of understanding. You might get lucky; otherwise it takes time to gel. Especially if you are taking over a team that was struggling, and lacking quality in depth (so unlike Wenger in 1996, and Mourinho in 2004).

Problem solving

Does it all feel like a backwards step at present? Sure. Are we struggling to score goals? Sure. Are key components still missing? Sure. But that's being addressed ahead of January, even if it has taken a few months longer than was ideal.

If last season had been a disaster on all fronts, many would have shrugged their shoulders and blamed Houllier's legacy. The task would have remained the same this season: Rafa would have had 2004/05 to assess what he inherited, and begin building his team.

But by winning the Champions League, Benítez has made his own millstone. Where I look at it as proof that the man can work miracles, others now see only decline this season.

The domestic form remains a worry. But it's not a problem Rafa cannot solve. English football is different to that on the continent; but not so different that it resembles another sport. Football men understand football; and what they don't at first understand, they learn.

But how much of it is to do with the difficulties of playing two fixtures every week, when most of our opponents only play one? This weekend, Manchester United and Chelsea could only draw games they were expected to win, and Arsenal limped to victory at Highbury.

Last season, many of the teams in Europe saw their form radically affected by the extra midweek games; Boro were terrible until they went out of the Uefa Cup, at which point they finally found some form. This season, Boro are once again struggling, while Everton are having the mother of all nightmare starts to the season, and lost all four of their fixtures following their brief European campaign.

With so many teams playing five man midfields, they aim to stifle and overpower tired teams after their extra midweek exertions, and to make the most of extra time to prepare tactically.

When Liverpool have had a full week to prepare for domestic games, the results have tended to be far better, if not exactly perfect. Does that tell you that Rafa doesn't understand English football, or that the players are struggling for freshness and that extra bit of spark? Perhaps rotating some of the players isn't helping, but then if you didn't you might have eleven tired pairs of legs, instead of seven. It's swings and roundabouts.

However fit footballers are, it's always easier if you haven't just played a game and travelled long distances in the previous 72 hours. That will always be the case, until we pay to watch androids.

But it's a problem the other top teams face, and one that needs solving. So far this season, only Chelsea are dealing with it to the level that is expected, and they are the only club with the money to buy the kind of strength in depth that others can only dream about. Bolton, meanwhile, continue to punch above their weight, but are behind where they were last season.

In Liverpool's case, it's a mixture of problems: the poor form of certain individuals, mixed with a couple of key injuries and the rusty return from lay-offs of others, added to the handful of new players trying to settle in (and the players adapt to their strengths), plus the areas where strengthening never materialised, is all contributing to the domestic struggles of the team.

There are no major, unsolvable problems in any of these areas; but enough minor ones that are adding up to something more.

Crisis? What crisis?

In "Golden Past, Red Future" I ridiculed the 'Liverpool in Crisis' stories from January, after the FA Cup defeat at Burnley. If anyone thinks I was being wise after the event, given that the Reds went on to be crowned be European Champions, it was an extension of an internet article written at the time.

I don't see the point in panicking. In the book I also talk about Newcastle United, using them as an example of big-spending panic-mongers with passionate and vociferous support (constantly restless and impatient fans), who chop and change managers at the first hint of trouble. 

What have they won in the last 50 years? Each manager they appoint is the diametric opposite of his predecessor as they lurch from one extreme to the other. It leads nowhere.

So while I'm not exactly happy with the way the season is unfolding, I will remain positive, and patient. I see no alternative.

©Paul Tomkins 2005

There are only a limited number of copies of 'Golden Past, Red Future' remaining, and there will not be a further reprint. The price for all final copies is £6.99. For details, go to www.paultomkins.com

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