The Future of LFC: part 2 by Paul Tomkins

Posted by Paul Tomkins on May 20, 2004, 04:30:13 PM

The Future of LFC, in Two Parts

Part Two: The Future On The Field

For me, supporting Liverpool is not about hoping for success *right now*, but I need to feel that the club is moving in the right direction - like the supporters of any other club, I guess (apart from Man U and Arsenal, where they expect the title every season; it's been a while since we were at that level). There has to be improvement to look forward to, even if those hopes dissipate by mid-October. Despite the 80 points of 2001/02 - a great tally - there were signs that we were actually regressing in some areas (victories were clawed out, rather than earned with room to spare). Since then we've fallen away in numerous other ways.

Providing Gerard Houllier (or whoever replaces him) can allow them the full freedom to express themselves, and set in place a tactical system that suits their abilities, there remains a wealth of talent at Liverpool: the words-fail-me magnificence of Gerrard (they don't fail me, I have many superlatives, but this article is long enough already); the ever-reliable Owen (who remains a gem and keeps scoring, season after season, at a rate of one-in-two); Kewell (when fully fit); Hyypia; the incoming Cisse; and in terms of defensive reliability, Jamie Carragher. We have two keepers with problems: one physical (Kirkland's brittle bones to go with his bad luck), and after the torrid time Jerzy suffered in 2002/03, his problems remain mental. But both are still huge talents. Hamann remains the best in the league at what he does. Riise, when he plays like he has recently, could still be the best left back in the country (hard running, scores goals; just needs to stop shooting from 50 yards and hitting needless Norwegian-style long punts upfield, while the defensive side of his game should improve with experience - hopefully he's come through his poor spells as a better player).

The first team squad also contains three great young attacking talents who can only improve: Baros, Pongolle and Le Tallec. At Crewe, Neil Mellor will show us if he can translate his natural ability into evenly-matched games, instead of having ten international teammates set him up in the reserves.

The raw material is there. There remains a lot to work with. Owen will stay (even if only on a short-term contract with a get-out clause - but great that he's promised to avoid a Bosman), and if £50m can't buy Henry from Arsenal (who aren't exactly rolling in money), then £50m couldn't buy Steven Gerrard from Liverpool. He is the club captain, and Liverpool through-and-through; if things aren't any better in two or three years, then he may look elsewhere (and who could argue?), but he knows these are exciting times at LFC - a crucial summer of rebuilding. He'll want to be a central part of that.

The problem, as I mentioned in Part One yesterday, is that too many of the squad players aren't up to the task at hand - but with all the soul searching by both GH and the board, their days are surely numbered anyway, one way or another. While a player like John Welsh may not quite be ready for the first team, we could do well to follow Arsenal's more pared-down squad; if Diao has proven incompetent, then why not sell him on and let Welsh develop? This is should be obvious to all and sundry, and it's a shame injury robbed Welsh of the chance to go to Sunderland on loan. But it might take a new man to be totally ruthless; it was easy for GH to quickly bin Ince, Leonhardsen and McAteer and promote Steven Gerrard from the Academy, but it's less easy for him to bin players he's spent fortunes on himself. A new manager would surely find it easier to opt for Welsh over Diao. (Although I don't believe GH has been avoiding playing youth team players on purpose - I don't think any manager would fail to choose what he feels to be his best team; but maybe he could become blinkered on certain issues).

Debates about adding decent talent like Joey Barton to the squad are valid enough, and I can think of several other players who'd serve as useful back-up - but are probably not yet ready for the first team (Forest's Dawson - a wonderful prospect - being one). Alan Smith remains an interesting player, whose goal tally is questionable but whose desire is not, but would surely only join to compete with Baros as third choice? (Anyway, he favours Man U - I bet the Leeds fans love that!). All of these players would be welcome in my eyes, but none would advance us as a team, initially at least (and we're at the stage - certainly if GH stays - of needing instant rewards; a new man will get longer to build a team than GH from this point in time, and rightly so. GH has had plenty of time to get things right - and these were supposed to be the "pay off" years according to his five year plan).

A player I like, who could be an interesting signing, is Jermaine Pennant, if he decides he can't displace Pires at Arsenal and wants a new challenge. It's no shame not being as good as Robert Pires, after all! Pennant has pace, skill, can cross and is capable of scoring goals; he's young - perhaps too young, at 20, given we could use more experience - but is another player with proven Premiership experience after a season shining in a very poor side on loan at Leeds. But he's not someone to get the fans salivating, I'll grant you. But I could see him flourishing on the right of our midfield, dribbling like Diouf but delivering crosses into the 18-yard box, not the Director's box. Owen Hargreaves is another quality act, but again, he's not the kind of signing to sell thousands of season tickets. But he's quick, hard-working and very decent on the ball. Gaizka Mendieta is a class act, but perhaps now tied to Boro, and Rothen of Monaco has looked very good in their run to the Champions League final.

Malbranque is another really talented player who we've been linked to, with good experience in the Premiership in an average side, but has yet to prove he can play for a big club; but he looks worthy  f pursuing. Thomas Rosicky is another clever, tricky player, but my German spies (okay, the bloke I know who watches German football on Sky) says he's too lightweight. The last thing we need is more talented but lightweight players.

Young up-and-coming talent would normally be the way forward - players on the brink of greatness, the world class stars of tomorrow - but GH has gone down that route before, and already "wasted" two years waiting for Diouf and Cheyrou to deliver what he believed they promised. Whoever we sign needs to hit the ground running; be ready TODAY. That brings additional pressure, and perhaps only the year's grace a new manager would be granted would allow new signings time to settle. Any player joining a new club should be given a year to fully find his feet; two years without producing at all, though, is too long. Man U suffered this season following a series of sub-standard signings - Saha and Howard excepted - but only next season will they be able to tell for sure how good their new players are; alas, Ronaldo seems to have finally found the end product that totally eluded El Hadji Diouf.

At present, I can think of only very good potential signings, not great ones (in terms of instant fan approval); with the very best established players - the world class talent that may become available - likely to head to richer clubs like Chelsea, or clubs with a more established Champions League pedigree over recent seasons (and we're still not in the group stages, let's not forget). Others, like Ronaldinho, are only available for £60m+, and not even worth fantasising about. We will have a lot of money if someone buys into our club (and could raise another £20m in combined sales, with a bit of luck! - we've already recouped £6.25m), but the very best players will still be beyond our reach for numerous reasons... unless someone like Hitzfeld was in charge: a man who has won half a dozen league titles and the European Cup with two different sides. I feel top players might sign for him ahead of the respected - but now doubted - Houllier.

So I just don't see any "instant miracle" signings on the horizon; but with Cisse, we've got someone with the physical attributes to become a huge success. I don't think opposing fans are prepared for just how quick he is. So far, Cisse for Heskey is a massive improvement - in theory, at least.

When thinking of potential signings, though, we cannot imagine the chemistry that may take place between an incoming player and the existing team members; sometimes a very good player will be far more effective than a "great" player who doesn't fit the plan (certainly that was Liverpool's strength under Paisley - he had the most wonderful spine to his team, but augmented it with some underrated players who suddenly came to life within the Liverpool system). But can we, as supporters, crave merely "very good" players? Of course not. We want ready-made superstars. The teams us fans pick work only on paper, exist only in theory. But a very good player like Malbranque might be a better signing than an aging superstar like Luis Figo, who might upset the dressing room harmony (not that we've been linked to Figo). Who knows? Not me! (But I hope we employ someone who does).

Of the first team, I can find three positions that need urgent addressing - Cisse's immenent arrival (all being well, and reports say it is a done deal, irrespective of GH's future) reducing that to two. That leaves the right hand side of midfield, and centre back (where Boumsong seemed to fit the bill, until he inexplicably went to play for a big club in the world's least competitive league).

A much-maligned player has been Igor Biscan, and centre back - alongside the magnificent Sami (re-born once spared the burden of captaincy) - is one area that needs addressing. Funnily enough (and I imagine some will indeed laugh), I think Igor was excellent 75% of the time, but he just made too many high profile errors (some comically bad), and that's what people remember. His errors were very visible, whereas other players let the side down in more subtle ways, through hiding, or not tracking back, or taking up the wrong positions. Or in Diouf's case, by a total lack of professionalism. We certainly kept plenty of clean sheets with Igor in the side. But his inexperience in the position told at times, and we haven't got the luxury of time to wait for him to mature.

It may be purely coincidental, but I believe our best attacking performances have nearly all come with Igor in the side in place of Henchoz (a great stopper, and a player whose commitment I very much admire, but who cost us plenty of goals as well, but in a less visible manner). Igor's pace allowed us to defend higher up, and therefore it goes without saying that the midfield is inevitably further advanced and in touching distance of the strikers, and you have a compact side who can pop the ball about nicely, with a red shirt within reach at all times; Stephane's main crime is the tendency to drop unbelievably deep, leaving three distinctly separate units of defence, midfield and attack, so the only option became to hit the 70-yard hopeful punt, or for Gerrard to come back and pick the ball up from Didi, who is forced to sit equally deep, so you end up with half the team stuck just in front of their own 18-yard line, doing nothing. That leaves your forwards totally isolated.

Two goals by beloved ex-Reds highlight the major Henchoz weakness. Berger's goal at Fratton Park was a disgrace from our point of view: Berger unmarked on the penalty spot from a pull-back, and THREE Liverpool defenders, with Henchoz the deepest, doing nothing but get in the keeper's way in the six yard box. At the City of Manchester stadium, Fowler scored his late equaliser because yet again Henchoz was standing deeper than his teammates, playing Robbie onside from all of four yards out! It was noticeable that when we won at Old Trafford, GH had insisted very publicly that we defend higher up - but it's new tricks for old dogs, and Henchoz's lack of pace meant that had Saha got through on goal that day, no-one could have recovered. Alongside the snail-slow but brilliant and extremely tall Sami (who can go on for another five years - he has no pace to lose!), we need the insurance policy of the kind of pace Biscan offered, but with the wonderful defensive nous of Henchoz. Finding someone who combines those two attributes will be tough.

(Just as with Danny Murphy, it's hard not to wish that Henchoz had pace: how much better both players would be with a bit of acceleration - Danny would be light years ahead of someone like Kieran Dyer if he had the Newcastle man's pace).

No More Excuses

"On our day" should be banned from football excuses, and thankfully Steven Gerrard went some way to doing that with some recent comments. "On our day" is not good enough; on "their" day, Southampton beat us twice. Does that make them better than us? No! So beating Man United and Chelsea does not mean we are as good as them; only finishing the season with more points or, failing that, trophies, counts.

Harry Kewell hasn't had a great season; but he still managed eleven goals from open play, and I'm stumped to think of the last midfielder we had to break double figures without the inclusion of penalties and free-kicks - possibly Paul Ince the season he scored ten? The two times Danny hit double figures he would not have done from open play goals alone. We all expect more from Harry, but most crucially, despite their existence (settling into a new side, a niggling injury that refused to clear up), he has said he has no excuses: he hasn't been up to the standards he sets himself. He takes the blame - not the manager, not his colleagues. Him: Harry Kewell. It was the same when Gerrard was below par last season. The best players take it upon their own shoulders, and look within for a solution. (Contrast with Emile Heskey, who, upon parting ways with LFC, quoted not playing as an out-and-out striker in the last two seasons as the reason he wasn't a total success; funny, I thought he played there fairly frequently, and did well at times, but the problem with Emile was incurable: an unbelievable lack of self-belief to go with his strength and speed, and when it came to eradicating the faults from his game, a lack of self-awareness, as backed-up by his parting statement).

Harry has been very self-critical, and that takes bravery, as it makes your faults even more public. But look at how Steven Gerrard responded this season; we can but hope Harry, with a good pre-season behind him, does the same next season. At least he can put his feet up this summer, unlike most of our key players.

Pace To Burn Should Be a Blessing, Not a Curse

One thing we need to be careful of is solving one problem, only for the solution to create new problems. This is a paragraph from the Telegraph that relates equally to us - Gary Lineker on Arsenal:

"Reyes and Henry could prove a very lively partnership next season. They both have such damaging pace that I can see teams defending on the six-yard line. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but there is a serious point there. One of the reasons Arsenal are so successful is that opponents tend to drop off so much because they are terrified of Henry's pace and that leaves space for the likes of Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg to exploit."

You have to say that with Cisse clearly quicker than Henry (quote: Thierry Henry himself, on timings from the French training sprint sessions), and Owen at least as quick as the sprightly Reyes, if not quicker (currently Mickey seems to be playing within himself, sprinting-wise, so it's hard to say), then we should be posing teams the same questions as Arsenal. With Heskey quick when he felt in the mood, maybe we should have already been doing that, but you sense with Cisse that, unlike Emile, he won't need to be asked twice to use his blistering pace to positive effect.

With Gerrard and Kewell capable of doing the damage Arsenal's midfield does, then surely it only needs one more player in that class of attacking football to put us much closer to the champions? In theory, at least. What Reyes and Henry have that Owen and Cisse don't is that real creative edge and flexibility, to create as well as score; both Arsenal men were used primarily as wingers before Wenger got hold of them, and so they can still drift out wide to leave gaps for the midfield to exploit. When out wide, they can be devastating.

That means we need to make sure we compensate for this in other areas, and having a purely "sit in and hold" midfielder when Arsenal's - Viera - does so much more, only leaves us further behind. While Cisse clearly looks a great buy, with a hugely impressive 26 league goals this term (seven more than the explosive Drogba), it appears we'll be playing with two out-and-out goalscorers - maybe we could be better served by a canny goalscoring/creating forward, like King Kenny, Denis Bergkamp, Beardo or "prime years" Sheringham (not a favourite of mine, but someone who might have been ideal, as he regularly got 20 goals-a-season, and seeing as he was also good in the air - something you'd need alongside the small Owen: Beardsley wouldn't have provided a sufficient physical buffer).

So maybe the Cisse/Owen axis could yet signal an end for Didi, much as I have to be careful saying such things, given the good, sometimes great, and always - at the very least - effective job Didi does. (Not that I can realistically see GH ditching Didi, but it might yet become an issue). Arsenal's best football this season came with Vieira and Edu in midfield, with both players frequently getting forward when the chance arose.

There can be no doubt that teams will have to defend even deeper against us than they now do (a problem we still haven't fully come to terms with). We have to be pushing midfielders onto those retreating defenders, forcing them back, keeping them there, and making things happen around the 18-yard box. If we are not counter-attacking (which will be ever-less likely, given how teams will set up so defensively against us), goals will only come - from Owen and Cisse at least, as they hit the brick wall of a deeply-seated massed defence - from the most cunning of passes (see Bergkamp and Gerrard at the weekend). But those kind of passes are rarities, even from players of that stature - you might get one gem per game, and that's one chance that cannot be missed. Signing Cisse for his phenomenal pace will only end up with the opposition - especially at Anfield, where tactically we're already stalling - seeking to nullify it; so we don't really get the full effectiveness of that pace for most of the game, merely the enormous knock-on-effect of how it allows the rest of our players more space. So it's more a case of how the midfield adapts to this, and takes the initiative. Games will be there for the taking, if we are positive enough. And a lot of people doubt GH allows his teams to be positive enough.

Didi could become an expensive luxury - an insurance policy for an event that will be less likely happen; so far he's tended to prove his worth, but now we are talking about finding ways of reaching the next level. It could be that Didi in fact becomes even more essential - time will tell; but if teams defend deeper against us, and show even less ambition against us through fear of Cisse breaking loose, then their midfield will drop deeper too, and so will their strikers. It stands to reason. Meanwhile, we'll have four defenders sitting back; or the two centre backs, at least, and one full-back (Carra, most likely). However it pans out, we will have more than two defenders dealing with one striker (or maybe no strikers!). To have a defensive midfielder as well may - theoretically at least - be pointless for 75% of games. Similarly, if we sign a quicker centre half who can recover and become the back four's own insurance policy, then that's another reason to sacrifice Didi for a more creative player - not a luxury lazy fat playmaker, but a modern midfielder who can, like Vieira, bomb forward from a holding position and, at times, get ahead of the strikers.

The next option is that our midfielders, allowed to advance to the edge of the opposition area, shoot on sight (but not pointlessly from 40 yards, as Didi and Riise annoyingly do). In 2001, with Gerrard scoring crackers from distance, and a midfield squad containing Redknapp, Berger, Muprhy and McAllister, we were perhaps more capable of doing this with  success.

Both Danny and Didi are capable of great long-range efforts, and Danny the cunning pass also, but I'd only want to see Danny in the side alongside Stevie G, in place of Didi - Danny and Didi together are often just too one-paced; the sense remains that something is missing from Danny's game out wide, and while I rate him, you have to now be looking at major improvements to the first team, and he remains one of the players with doubts hanging over them at the highest level (but I haven't forgotten how good he was in 2002/03). I liked Gerrard's partnership with Danny that season, but in my theory-world I'd earmark Danny as the one to hold - Gerrard needs full licence to attack, but Danny can also push up frequently, when the opportunity presents itself; meanwhile, Danny is widely regarded as tactically astute beyond his years, therefore he should be able to read the play, as Didi does, and he's certainly no weaker in the tackle than the spindly-legged German! It's something to ponder, at least. It works in my "theory", but practice is something else.

Right midfield (or left, if Harry switches like Pires) is an area that if filled by a world class talent who blends instantly with his teammates would help take us to a new level - that seems almost inevitable, providing the rest of the elements remain in place. I'm not the biggest fan of Beckham as an all-round player (although he's won me over a bit in recent seasons), and he's not someone who'd come to Liverpool or whom we could afford even with a massive cash injection into the club, but someone of his ilk, who could score 15 goals from right midfield and supply those kind of crosses, would double Mickey's goal tally each season. Stevie G could do that, of course, but he's needed elsewhere. (Yes, we'd all love several clones of Steven Gerrard to fill the team).

Who we can find to play right midfield remains to be seen. But a class act there, and at centre back alongside a rejuvenated Sami, and of course the introduction of Cisse, could easily improve our first team by 30%. (Yes, those words again: in theory). And that's the kind of improvement we'll be looking for. That's another 20 points, and that's very close to challenging for the title, if not quite matching the standards Arsenal have set that may be beyond our reach for the forseeable future.

Whoever we sign, they need to be able to play in the quick, incisive pass-and-move style that all successful teams (with very few exceptions) employ. Ideally, at least one will be an experienced older pro (ideally with experience of the particular demands on players at a big club, and even more ideally, with Premiership experience: I can only think of Mendieta who fits all those criteria). Most crucially, they need to have the courage - and maybe even borderline arrogance (a.k.a. enormous self-belief) - to be able to handle the pressure of being a Liverpool player (Cisse seems to fit that bill, thankfully), and instead of hiding behind the quick easy "get rid" pass, to follow Steven Gerrard's lead and stand up and be counted (especially at Anfield), in both tracking back and tackling and, more crucially, in being brave with the ball at their feet.

Anyone can chase someone and kick them up in the air, but it takes a special courage to be brave with the football. Those are the players we need.

© Paul Tomkins 2004

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