Have We Solved The Six Year Problem?

Posted by Mark_P on August 7, 2006, 10:04:28 PM

Jermaine Pennant’s inclusion in the Liverpool squad for the coming season will signify the first time in over six years that Liverpool have boasted a genuine right winger of any real talent on their books.

Numerous players have filled in that role in that time; Murphy, Smicer, Gerrard, Diouf, Pongolle and Garcia to name a few; but each one wasn’t playing in their favoured position, merely doing a job for a temporary period of time.  When Rafa Benítez came to Liverpool in the Summer of 2004, a right winger was high on his list of priorities, and the versatile Luis Garcia seemed to be the answer to his problems on the right.  We started Benítez's debut season with Steve Finnan as a makeshift winger, before he replaced Josemi at right back a few months into the season.

Garcia filled the role for the rest of season, but like those before him, it was another case of a square peg in a round hole.  Antonio Nunez was about as natural a winger as you could find, but he was never of the quality to make an impact in the Premiership, although the difference in the side when the midfield had the balance of two wingers was certainly evident.

The Summer of 2005 saw numerous names crop up to fill the troublesome role, and Simao Sambrosa looked likely to sign on deadline day, the deal being scuppered by a last minute change of heart by Benfica.  The long running saga of Daniel Alves was well documented this summer, and it seemed our quest for a real right winger would never end, until the Reds unveiled Jermaine Pennant on Wednesday.

Before last season, Pennant was, like Bellamy, a player I would never associate as a Liverpool player.  By that I mean I always saw him in the "Kieron Dyer" mould – undoubted talent, but not as much as people make out, with an attitude problem no club would want.  While Pennant obviously had enough talent for Arsene Wenger to splash out £2m to Notts County in 1999, the only time he was ever really noticed by anyone was for his ability to get himself into the gossip columns of Fleet Street, rather than the sports pages for his performances on the pitch.

It wasn’t until last season at St Andrews that I stopped to re-asses my opinion on Pennant.  Stephen Warnock has taken a lot of flak over the year, but I believe he is a solid defender, and had just marked Christiano Ronaldo out of the game a week before we faced Birmingham.  Warnock was ripped apart that day, not totally through his own poor performance, but from Pennant’s ability to take him on, use his pace, and deliver a superb cross when it seemed impossible.  Although Birmingham had looked ordinary all day, and the Reds should have won convincingly, it was Pennant who added spark into an otherwise lacklustre game.

I kept an eye out for Pennant after this game, and he impressed every time.  While his chequered past certainly bears all the hallmarks of the typical arrogant footballer who had just signed a multi-million pound deal, his on field displays for Birmingham were now giving him the headlines.  Even a chorus of “You’re supposed to be in jail” from the jester hat-clad Road Enders didn’t bother Pennant, who gave a smile and wave to the jibes.  In this game he again impressed me, dragging Birmingham through the match as their only real attacking threat like he had the previous September.

The now infamous summer of 2002 had a lot of similarities to this summer.  Gerard Houllier went on his summer break that year looking to try and put a few finishing touches on what was already a potential title winning side.  We needed a winger and a striker mainly to tweak a few weaknesses and then we looked ready to finally get, to quote a certain Premiership manager, “back on our fucking perch.”  Houllier got it drastically wrong that summer, preferring to pay big money in France rather than taking the low risk option and buying players who were proven in the Premiership.

Rafa went on his summer holiday this year with a similar aim to Houllier's four years previously.  Whilst there were undoubted weaknesses in the side, the spine of the side is one that any other club would envy and the progress in the last two seasons has been excellent.  Unlike Houllier though, Benitez has coupled foreign imports with proven Premiership class.  Whilst the purchases of Mssrs Aurelio, Gonzales and Paletta have a risk of taking time to settle into the English game, it’s unlikely Bellamy and Pennant will need any time to settle, having played in the league for the majority of their careers. This should ensure that two problem positions we've had for at least five years should see two new signings there hitting the ground running come August.

The sight of a right winger taking on players and whipping in crosses will be a welcome sight to both the Anfield crowd and Liverpool strikers; the only problem to many is his past record.  Pennant’s recent clean record and form seem to show a reformed character – but it is the fact that this is, at the ripe old age of 23, probably his last chance to make the big time, that should give motivation to even the biggest big time Charlie.

And as the signings roll in, each problem position seems solved – we’ve been here before of course, so no wonder many are cautious, but it seems that under Rafa history looks highly unlikely to repeat itself.

We'll even forgive a 5-0 loss here and there ;)

© Mark Piercy 2006

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