The Future is Bright, The Future is Benitez

Posted by Paul Tomkins on August 17, 2004, 11:22:35 AM

Well, it didn't take long: Benitez is rubbish, the new era is worse than the last one. You read it here first. Oh no, actually you read it in the Daily Mirror first. If you ever needed a reminder of the distasteful nature of football fans' stupidity, then it was provided this week by Derek McGovern, purportedly a lifelong Liverpool supporter. Here's his first paragraph:

"Come back Gerard we didn't mean it honest. Liverpool were a disgrace last season under Gerard Houllier but on this evidence this season they promise to be an even bigger embarassment under Benitez. Owen's gone, Heskey's gone, Murphy's gone and who have we got in their place? Cisse who looks nothing like a footballer and on Saturday played nothing like one. Ok he scored, but Diouf scored twice on his debut and look how he turned out."

It is almost too easy to rip an argument like his to threads as it is less substantial than a wet tissue (and a cheap tissue at that - not your superior well-bonded brand); almost too easy to laugh off some moronic tosh written purely to be "outrageous" to sell newspapers (and there was me thinking people would prefer to read honest and insightful views on their team). But it gives Liverpool fans a bad name, and for that reason alone deserves contesting. In fact, it gives football fans in general a bad name. It is the apotheosis of "606" culture, where people whose attention spans' last barely long enough for one ultra jump-cutting MTV video, feel it is time to damn the new regime after its first league outing.

That is not to say that I was happy with the second half on Saturday; far from it. It was almost a carbon copy of the failings of last season. However, it was the first league game, for crying out loud, and Rafa's job is to rid the team - only one of whom he'd purchased - of their bad old habits, and that will take several games, maybe several months. How can you base any kind of concrete judgment on one poor half? Players were tiring in the heat. As one RAWKite put it with such perspicacity: "If the first half saw a glimpse of life under Rafa, with the team playing on instinct, then the second half represented a team playing from memory."

The substitutions could be called disappointing, but Cisse and Baros weren't involved in the second half, and fresh legs in a sapping game is never a stupid consideration. I think Rafa needs to understand (he may well do already!) that defending leads in England is possibly different to Spain, where teams lose heart a lot easier. All foreign coaches comment on how English teams, even at 2-0 down, never give up. You also can't play tactical chess in England, as teams - even ones like Spurs - revert to humping it into the box, and it becomes a free-for-all; a lottery, no less. In time, once the team is on Rafa's wavelength, we will be able to keep the ball to wear the opposition down; no one scores against you while you're in possession. He will also get us defending the higher line he wants for a full ninety minutes.

One broadsheet journalist poured scorn on the idea of Cisse and others being tired (you know the kind of thing, poor pampered over-paid stars, yada yada...). But it was a hot summer's day, and we'd had a trip to Europe a few days earlier. Players cannot start the season at optimum fitness; if they did, you'd have to start pre-season training in May (and even then, only matches provide match fitness; it goes without saying: you can't, by its very definition, be match fit the first league game of the season, especially as friendlies have none of the intensity and pressure of real matches). Then players would get no time off, they'd burn out mentally and physically. I was slightly concerned that we started our pre-season a week after Chelsea, especially as our first game was five days before theirs. I was also worried that we played just four first-team friendlies, which meant that with players mostly only playing one half each, each player effectively only played a measly two games. Spurs played ten. Maybe that's why they looked better in the second half. But within a couple of weeks, we should be at full-fitness, and as the season wears on, players will be grateful for the longer rest over the summer. 

It may be next summer before Rafa's stamp is fully imposed on the team. For me, securing the Alonso deal this week is crucial. Really crucial. Not because I rate him particularly highly - to be honest, I can't remember ever seeing him play, so I'm in no position to judge him on first-hand experience. (That hasn't stopped people judging Nunez, makeweight in the Owen deal, without having seen him; the fact that Rafa wanted him irrespective of the Owen deal tells you something, and even if it's only as a decent reserve and provide a little competition for places, who are we to grumble when we are light on right-sided players? I maintain that reserves at Real Madrid must have some talent - especially if they played a dozen first team games last season - unlike reserves at other less-impressive clubs, for example).

The Alonso deal is crucial because far better judges of a player than me - Rafa Benitez, Alex Ferguson (is it illegal to omit the "Sir"?), and the Real Madrid Sporting Directors - rate him highly, and most crucial on that list is the name of our manager. Alonso seems a must-have player to me, having heard what others "in the know" think about him. In Spain he is seen as a top all-round midfielder, with great passing ability. Believe me, a great passer in the superior - technically-speaking - La Liga is a genius passer in England. He seems fairly robust, and if he can prove to be more Vieira than Cheyrou, he will succeed in style. Alex Ferguson (I've omitted the "Sir" again, is that treason?) rated him as the best young midfielder in Europe a year ago (possibly along with Steven Gerrard, given his admiration of our captain). Pair the two of them together - Gerrard and Alonso that is, not Gerrard and Ferguson - and you have possibly the best central pairing in world football. I don't think it is a case of hyperbole to suggest as much. It's a mouth-watering prospect, and it will also evolve the team into something closer to what Rafa desires.

For those still outraged by the fee for Owen, I found it interesting to read that Manchester United were apparently quoted £25m for Alonso last summer. Hmmm, a £25m player going for £10m? Sound familiar? The thing with football transfers is that it's a case of swings and roundabouts. We lost McManaman for free, and within a year procured Gary Mac - who was instrumental in more trophy wins for Liverpool than the earlier "Macca" - on a Bosman. We paid £11m for Heskey, and yet £3.2m got us Baros, the Golden Boot winner at Euro 2004. We paid £14m for Cisse - top scorer in France in recent seasons - while Chelsea paid £24m for Drogba, scorer of seven less goals in the French league last time out, and with only one season in top flight football behind him despite being four years older at 26. Josemi cost one-fifth of Chelsea's new right back. It's not the money you pay for players, or the money you receive for them. It's the quality of your team. That is the only thing that matters.

In 2001, Harry Kewell was being courted by Roma, and Leeds were quoting £30m. We got him for £3m-5m. On the evidence of Saturday's game, where he did especially well considering he had three men marking him whenever he got the ball, Harry - looking fit, sharp and quick - will prove to be a snip. Once he - like Cisse, Gerrard and Baros - gets full match-fitness, then we could see an amazingly exciting attacking side to our game this season. If he stays fit, unlike last year, Kewell will prove all doubters wrong.

Benitez can spot a player. We've seen that with Josemi, his first purchase - not one to whet the appetite at first mention of his name (Josemi who?), until Reds saw him play, and then understood that he was on the verge of the Spanish squad. Much like Hyypia (Sami who?), the player GH bought for the exact same fee five years ago. The point of transfer fees can be illuminated by our current back four - Josemi, Carra, Hyypia and Riise - costing less than £10m, so therefore roughly the price of Rio Ferdinand's three remaining brain cells.

What the sale of Murphy and the purchase of Josemi tells me is that Benitez is going down the Arsene Wenger route. Every single Arsenal player - first team and reserve - appears to be good on the ball but, crucially, also extremely quick. Even Denis Bergkamp in his dotage can keep up with Henry and Reyes and Ljungberg and Pires and Vieira and Cole.

With regards the "Benitez Player", it was interesting to see the promising and talented - but slow - John Welsh left out of our European squad last week, while Warnock and Potter travelled. Warnock is also an example for those who demand the inclusion of any youth team graduate, even if they've never seen them play. Warnock is 22 now, and has approaching 100 first team games in the First Division under his belt. He has learned his trade under more pressure than Liverpool reserves, and shown his worth. If Welsh is to progress, he needs to prove himself and garner experience at another club first.

My admiration for Arsenal's football grows by the season; if we can get close to matching them, we will be a bloody good side. But Wenger has had eight years to get that club to that level. Benitez has had eight weeks - still, sack the bugger, he's a failure, eh? Unbeaten in two away games, the latter at a ground where a draw is an improvement on five of the last six seasons, and with safe passage to the CL group stage virtually secured - and the natives (of the asylum) are restless. Mr McGovern may be a very nice bloke - I've no idea. It's just a shame that he's been put up as a spokesman for our club by a national newspaper, when 99% of us wouldn't want such a mouthpiece.

The most amusing part of McGovern's piece was his comment about Cisse. Apparently he doesn't look like a footballer. How so? Because he's black with a funny beard? (Maybe he's thinking of Abel Xavier?). Personally, I'd like all Liverpool players to have Cisse's physical attributes: tall, quick and with the perfectly-honed physique that will protect him from a buffeting. Maybe McGovern thinks Neil "booze and pies" Ruddock looks like a footballer? I beg to differ. Cisse doesn't play like one either, apparently.

The comparison with Diouf is laughable. Not only did Diouf fail to score on his debut (at Villa, get your facts right), I'm not sure he scored a single league goal away from Anfield (well, there were only three in total!). In five years in France, Diouf scored 20 goals. Cisse scored 70 goals from 100-odd games in the same league. Plenty of other Reds scored on their debuts: Owen and Fowler leap instantly to mind. Oh, and both of their goals, like Cisse's, were in away games. Yes, it's too early to say for certain that Cisse will prove to be as good as we expect; however, it's far more ludicrous to say he didn't play like a footballer after a promising debut in which he scored.

Cisse's goal backed up what I've been saying about him all summer - that irrespective of his blinding pace outside the area, he is a penalty box poacher. His goal was as good as you will see in terms of split-second reaction, and that's about being quick "upstairs". The ball was headed at pace towards him, but slightly behind him. In an instant he hooked his foot around the ball - a difficult skill - and steered it with delicious precision into the corner. I cannot think Robbie Fowler in his extravagant pomp could have reacted any better. Once Cisse gets his match fitness, he will tear past defenders in a flash, so you won't see the over-running of the ball for much longer. Some of his lay-offs to teammates were top notch, and I honestly believe he can eclipse what Michael Owen did for the Reds, as he is as good a finisher, but a better all-round player (as I've said before, quicker, stronger, taller, with a better first touch). I just hope he can shine in the high-pressure games in the way Owen did, as that was always Owen's crowning glory. Then again, Cisse has already single-handedly won a cup final in France for Auxerre with two beautifully-taken goals. The signs are good.

The second-most amusing part of McGovern's piece was his dismissal of Josemi - who looks an outstanding purchase (quick, strong, good on the ball) - as he is merely a right back. "Josemi did well but right backs don't win you trophies." An interesting statement. I've checked through all the record books going back to the mid-1800s, and I cannot find an example of a team who won anything without a right back. Presumably McGovern would rather a poor right back than a good one?

It was good to see Gerard Houllier - who spent two years trying to sign Cisse - present for the start of the new era, given that he bequeathed a handful of absolute top-notch players to Benitez (Rafa apparently told Rick Parry he couldn't believe how much talent he had at his disposal). It was also nice to see a big banner thanking Gerard in his native tongue. I feel proud to be a Liverpool fan when I see things like that. It's a touch of class. It was the time to say goodbye - we all know that - but for the most part Liverpool fans have showed humility and respect towards the man.

And then McGovern springs into mind: "And under Benitez the Reds are right back where they are started," and the shame returns.

I'd like to end with the enduring images of the first halves of Rafa's first two games - before we tired - when we controlled the games, passed and moved, created clear-cut chances with good football, and looked like a team reborn. Back where we started? To me, it was a sign that - in a few months' time - we could be back to close to our best.

© Paul Tomkins 2004

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