Time Will Cure Our Travel Sickness

Posted by Paul Tomkins on October 5, 2004, 10:31:30 AM

The captain of the ship wants to radically change course - reverse its direction. He knows it is not a simple task. He cannot stop still and then do a u-turn; he has no choice but to drift in the wrong direction as the bow is adjusted and realigned, and wait as the vessel arcs gradually around in its large turning circle. He has plotted the correct co-ordinates, but it will take time.

It may travel quite a distance away from his desired destination before the ship is eventually righted. But you need to make that change nonetheless. You need to at least be aiming in the right direction to get where you want to go. To simply cut the engines and drift aimlessly, or re-stoke the engines and head full steam ahead without having altered course, are both recipes for disaster.

At the risk of seriously overcooking this seafaring metaphor (I think this is still an article on football...), it doesn't help when your main engine is out of action; or that the front of the ship has been reconstructed (and where the metals haven't had time to properly bond, water is leaking in). At the stern, changes have been made too; it's clearly not watertight at the back either, but the leaks there are relatively minor. The choppy churning seas of uncertainty (now starting to sound like Alan Partridge in his sports reporting role on The Day Today) help even less. Many from the captain, crew, and deck hands are new to their roles. Not everyone is rowing in synch yet (yes, there are suddenly oars on this vessel).

All that, and not a single mention of the Spanish Armada.

What the hell am I talking about, you may well be asking? - with some justification. (Although if you've picked up the gist, you may well have a decent grasp of our current situation.

If it was merely a case of a lack of motivation under Gerard Houllier last season - and everything else was rosy - Rafael Benitez need only have turned up with some stock platitudes, and suddenly results would have bucked up with this new impetus. You find that happen with mid-table clubs, who replace a manager with a new guy who does everything the same, with the same players, and results turn around. (Apparently, on average new managers have an increased success rate for just eight games, before the players stop trying so hard to impress him, and it reverts to the way it was before).

It wasn't so simple for Rafa. Required was a major tactical overhaul (how predictable were we?), with the added complication of the need for half a dozen new players in the first team – only half of whom have been added. It is clear that - unlike Jose Mourinho - Rafael Benitez had more than cosmetic surgery to perform (and no, I'm not daring to suggest Mourinho's had a shifty nip and tuck).

We're trying to build a team now, and get away from hitting the big man early (and from deep) for the little man to run onto. That only gets you so far - it is effective, but only up to a point. In fact, it can be great away from home (even if a little predictable), but proved a total failure at Anfield. The most important thing in football is to win your home games. That gives you a platform to build on, and the perspective of points on the road being a bonus.

The change has resulted in stunning home form, followed by unconvincing away form. It makes sense that we will struggle until the away tactics are honed, and we learn to keep the ball better in more hostile environs, and on larger pitches. Under Houllier we could keep ultra tight at the back (in theory) and then bypass the midfield (who were in defensive positions) to Heskey. One flick, and we were in on goal with Owen. Benitez's sides are going away with more ambition and trying to play through midfield, but as yet cannot match that ambition with exceptional football. In time, they will.

Our league position isn't helped by us having already played two of the three trickiest away games – had we been able to travel to Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge in the second half of the season, at the stage when everything can realistically expected to be clicking into place, it might have been different. As it was, we lost by a single goal margin in both, as we did at Bolton (unluckily). We got a draw at Spurs, one of the season's brightest starters.

Like Everton, Spurs are parking buses in front of opposition goalposts, and nicking the points late on. That's okay for teams with limited ambition, but as we saw under Gerard Houllier, it doesn't win you the major trophies. You need to be more special than that. As soon as you don't take those one or two chances you create, it starts to fall apart. We need to move on from average to exceptional, and that won't be all smooth sailing. (Everton are also benefiting from a settled side - even a team consisting of eleven players as average as those looks good from a few seasons together; that's a luxury we don't yet have, but it's better to get quality in now and let them spend time together than stick with substandard players).

As we saw in the away games at White Hart Lane and Graz, Steven Gerrard was the midfielder who used his energy and power to get forward and make things happen. We've lost that crucial aspect to our play. Xabi Alonso is capable of sitting deep and spraying sublime passes, but without Gerrard in the side, it gives opposition midfields the chance to afford the Spaniard special destructive attention (after the Norwich game, he'll get more of that). With Gerrard causing mayhem up ahead, that wouldn't be possible - he would need special attention too, and that would leave the opposition offering no threat of their own in the centre of the park. We have not been a one-man team this season - and at Anfield we have been a delightful 11-man operation - but we have lost the best player we have to injury: the one who really made the new system tick.

We also lost at Olympiakos. The atmosphere was hostile, the Greeks were Christening their new stadium in the Champions League (and were still high on Greece's success over the summer), and Olympiakos had already gone to Deportivo La Coruna and got a draw - the Greeks don't usually travel well, but at home they cause teams problems. Both of these teams should be despatched at Anfield. (Deportivo, having beaten Madrid at the weekend, are still struggling way down the league - as does nearly every side who announce the manager will be leaving at the end of the season; players lose focus. Depor also lost to Monaco away).

We need to build a footballing team, and to do so without a settled regular goalscorer (Owen) and our best player (Gerrard). If we still had Heskey and Owen, and GH in charge, we might be higher up the league. But we'd never get good enough to challenge in a year, or two, or three. Now it's a few backward steps as we re-adjust to make bigger forward steps.

If Owen had stayed, we'd be much better off now. That's not a fact, of course, but it's almost certain. He knew how to get goals in the top division. His leaving put extra pressure on Cisse - instead of complimenting Owen, and running different channels, Cisse was replacing him. Had Owen been on the pitch, Cisse could have bedded-in gradually. Baros, who has been at Liverpool three seasons, remains an enigma: great or woeful. But he has never really had a run in the side, and he's finally getting some games now (if mainly from the bench). Both he and Cisse have great talent, but it's a question of harnessing it, and finding the best ways to create chances for them. In Madrid, Owen is suffering similar problems to Cisse.

The trouble with Cisse is not all down to the Frenchman himself - we're not finding him with the right service yet. He looks bewildered by the pace of the game at times, but read up on Thierry Henry's comments about his own first four months in England. He was labelled the French Perry Groves (for those who don't remember the hapless Groves, he was the English Bernard Diomede - Bernard Diomede being the French Jimmy Carter, and Jimmy Carter being the... ).

A positive was that against Chelsea, the zonal marking appeared to be supplemented with three man-markers, and the mix of the systems is a better way forward; we still conceded from a set piece, but it was a well-worked goal that would have outfoxed other teams too; and after our tribulations in recent games, we were perhaps too worried about balls into our box. Perhaps that's a further reason why the towering Traore and Diao were in the side - it's not easy defending set pieces without Heskey, who was our second best header under GH (defensively, as he just got his head to things and they sailed high out of the box - his attacking headers were rarely accurate enough). Steven Gerrard is another we are missing at set pieces.

For all Chelsea's supposed might, they had only a couple of shots on target, a couple more off target, and we had more possession. So it was a tight contest. A draw would have been a fair result, and there was a definite improvement on previous away performances - even if there lies ahead plenty more room for more improvement.

It needs to be put into perspective. Rafa had far more problems than Mourinho inherited. The Portuguese gained players, while we've lost our best two (Owen, and Gerrard to injury). They were far ahead of us last year, and spent far more money this summer (£40m on a defence that was already pretty damn good). Same with Man U, who spent much more than us, and yet if we win our game in hand we go above them. We've had four away games to just three at home - and as I said, two of those away games were huge fixtures. Christmas remains the time to judge, and even then, next summer is when we'll have the best idea.

In the meantime I'd suggest some pills from the chemist, as there may well be some more travel sickness in the coming months. But don't waste money on a large packet - I don't think they'll be needed for too long.

© Paul Tomkins 2004

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