A Striking Resemblance To A Striking Crisis

Posted by Paul Tomkins on November 10, 2004, 11:09:13 AM

Rafael Benitez must be wondering just how he annoyed the god of centre forwards (no, not Robert Bernard Fowler). The current situation bears a striking resemblance to a striking crisis.

First, Owen leaves and does so at a stage where no suitable replacement can be found; following a tricky start, Owen proves he's still as good as ever, with five goals in six games for Madrid, and one for England. As part of that deal, Benitez tries to secure the services of the talented Fernando Morientes, fresh from his scoring exploits in the Champions League for Monaco; Morientes offering a playing style (the ability to be both a target-man or drop off deep and supply passes) that would compliment either Cisse or Baros. However, Morientes - although keen on the idea of a switch to L4 - has given his word to Madrid manager Camacho that he will stay and fight for a place now he is back in the fold at Madrid; Camacho is soon gone, and Morientes drops below Owen, Ronaldo and Raul in the pecking order, to the point where I am certain he would rather be at Anfield at this point in time.

He may still arrive in January, or July, but right now Morientes and Liverpool could certainly use each other.

Harry Kewell - whom Benitez played up front at times in games earlier in the season (mostly late in games) - has suffered injury niggles and cannot find from within himself the version of the player we signed from Leeds; gone are the goals he scored in his first few months at Liverpool. Like Kewell, Steven Gerrard found himself in an unfamiliar striking role, late on in games, in the first few weeks of the season. He was scoring goals wherever he played, until he broke his metatarsal - thankfully he's due back soon, but we've missed his contribution in all areas of our game. Anthony Le Tallec, rated highly by Benitez but at the time behind Owen, Baros and Cisse in the pecking order, was shipped out on loan to gain valuable playing experience, and so another striker became unavailable (and he was also soon injured, although after two months out is now fit again). Rookie Neil Mellor has struggled for fitness after missing pre-season training and the early weeks of the season.

Vladimir Smicer, whose preferred role is as the second striker, suffered a terrible knee injury and will miss most of the season. Nunez, who played all his games for Real Madrid as a striker, injured himself in his first training session in August, and hasn't been seen since.

Then came Cisse's horror injury, and his season was written-off in the most devastating of manners. When he returns Cisse will have a lot more good will afforded to him - fans will surely be a little more patient, with expectations lowered a little. Cisse can spend his recuperation working on his English, bonding with his teammates, and watching English football at close quarters. In the meantime we will see how much space he created for others just by his very presence on the pitch - he was never afraid to use his blistering pace, and therefore defenders often needed to have both eyes on him.

Throughout all this, one man has stepped forward, and continued to make a name for himself.

Milan Baros

Milan Baros, after three goals in two games (and in the third game he was only denied a goal when the Depor defender decided to put the ball into his own net before our number five could), suddenly suffered a hamstring strain. He may be back this weekend - but instead of the Czech being asked to train during the remainder of the season, Rafa may be tempted to store him somewhere safe, wrapped in cotton wool, only bringing him out on matchdays as would a host the best china.

Seven goals from Milan - having started a good few games on the bench - is a great return. If Baros had taken (and scored) as many penalties as some other strikers in the Premiership - say three - he would be in double figures by now. Ten goals at this stage would be amazing. Instead, he doesn't quite make the top echelons of the scoring charts.

The fact is, we haven't been awarded the four or five clear penalties we should have (some "won" by Milan's direct running). He may not even take our penalties. But penalties swell the tallies of Van Nistelrooy (his only league goals - now we're in November - are penalties), Henry, Anelka and Andy Johnson, who arrives at Anfield with Palace at the weekend following on from speculation that we're interested in him. (Quite ludicrous at this stage: he looks a decent Premiership striker in top form, but we've seen some one-season wonders in recent years, such as Marcus Stewart; it's also a tough job, mentally, to play for the biggest clubs in the world - which is why someone who's played for Real Madrid can cope with Liverpool, and vice versa).

Milan missed the Birmingham game, and therefore definitely wouldn't have taken (had Uriah Rennie not been blind) the most blatant of all our 'non' penalties this season.

If a striker scores 15-20 goals in a season from open play, it's just as valuable as him scoring 25-30 if ten are penalties (in that if he doesn't take the penalties, even a goalkeeper - if he took them - could get ten goals from penalties, and so the end result is the same). The true mark of a striker's talent is the amount of goals he scores when penalties are not included.
Right now (minor hamstring tweak aside) Milan's as fit as a fiddle as last season was a 'rest' in many ways, but once the summer catches up with him we could have problems; his all-action style and constant running may take its toll as the season wears on. (As might the fact that, because he runs so directly with the ball, he is 'taken out' at every opportunity). So January becomes crucial. We need reinforcements, and the money will surely be found; a new striker could pay for himself by ensuring we qualify for the Champions League.

Luis Garcia

Luis Garcia gets criticized for missing chances, but - even more so than a striker - if your midfielders are getting into the positions to miss them it's still hugely encouraging. You want your strikers to get into positions - where missing the target happens - but that's almost a given; you expect it, seeing as they should be in the box anyway. Midfielders who get into those positions are a big bonus. Some midfielders score lots of long-range goals, plus free-kicks and penalties, but if a midfielder can get into the box to score goals, that's a big advantage.

When Heskey played on the wing, he never left his position to gamble - perhaps a mixture of the old regime's inhibited style, and Emile's own mental blocks. When the ball was on the opposite flank, Emile should have moved infield alongside the strikers, around the penalty spot. Too often he was still stuck out on the opposite flank, watching the game (or possibly worrying about what would happen if the opposition broke away). The chances that Luis Garcia misses are ones that other players (such as Emile, when he was in that role) wouldn't get - the ball would otherwise just drift across the penalty area, past the empty space no Liverpool player was occupying, and be cleared by a defender.

Luis Garcia makes things happen, and although he's infuriating in his inconsistency, at least he hits the heights as often as not. He has yet to prove he can make things happen away from home, but that should come with time. If not, he remains - for all the missed sitters - a potent weapon at home.

Our midfield is scoring a very healthy amount of goals this season, and Gerrard's return will boost that.

Mellor, and the mooted return of Fowler

Mellor is a natural finisher, but that's not really good enough if - in the super-fast Premiership - you cannot get into positions in time. In that respect he reminds me a little of the current Robbie Fowler (who some fans would like to see back at Liverpool), and so comparisons can be drawn. In the time that Fowler has lost yard after yard of pace, the Premiership has welcomed ever-better and ever-quicker defenders from all over the world. The game in general has sped up, so strikers need to be super-fit to retain their sharpness - you are dealing in fractions of seconds. If they find they are getting less chances, the temptation comes to snatch at them; and if they are out of breath, or heavy-legged, then it becomes ten times harder.

Fowler benefited at Liverpool in the mid-90s from a slower passing game; once we moved to fast counter-attacks based on long passes he was in trouble, as he couldn't keep up with his co-striker, be it Heskey or Owen. Benitez's style is between the two - utilising the counter-attack, but not afraid to string passes together. Fowler remains the finest finisher I've seen, but much of finishing is down to self-belief and confidence. In Fowler's case he has lost that self-belief, which seemed tied in to the carefree attitude of his youth - the pressure being water off a duck's back, as he knew he could score goals. Now he's admitted he's no longer the same player, and sometimes there's no coming back from that. Injuries have robbed him of "Robbie". You don't lose natural ability, but you can lose your self-belief over a period of time, and also your hunger.

Both Fowler and Mellor have been criticized by their managers this season over their fitness; in Mellor's case it's partly down to missing pre-season training, but he's never looked like an athlete. Unlike players like Owen and Baros, he is someone who, at the top level, will need chances created for him, as he doesn't have the skill or pace to beat men or run with the ball. Mellor doesn't look like a Premiership "footballer" (in the way Pongolle has on occasions) but if he scores goals, people won't be too fussed about the awkward running style and the average control. The trouble is that in the top flight you need to be able to play your part in the build up. If you can't, too many moves will break down at your feet and no chances will follow as a result. (By comparison, Pongolle often looks like a Premiership player, but one who's not going to score many goals).

Fowler, if he returned (and I don't see it happening), might score goals at Anfield, where we push teams back with possession football and play more in the mid-90s style. Away from home I just don't see him coping with counter-attack football that has become the norm in the Premiership.

Mellor's biggest problem is the 'mental' side of the game - like Fowler (circa 2001-04), it's about doubts. By Mellor's age (22), Owen and Fowler had over 100 goals for Liverpool. Mellor has one. He hasn't had much of a chance to prove himself, but both Owen and Fowler took their chances early on: Owen scoring within seconds of his debut in the top flight, and Fowler scoring on his debut followed by five in the return fixture with Fulham. Mellor needs to prove quickly that he can cut it at this level, before the doubts in his own mind (and everyone else's) grow - as they will. Time is running out - if that sounds harsh, it's life at the cutting edge: it's been two seasons now since his debut, and dividends are required. Before his injury Cisse hadn't yet proved he had settled into English football, but he'd proved his calibre with 100 goals for Auxerre, and goals for France. In terms of all-round threat, a fit Cisse would worry defenders in a way Mellor never could.

Mellor's biggest disappointment was his loan spell at West Ham in the First Division, where his only two goals came against Saturday's opponents, Crystal Palace. Luck was against him - with a change of management and the signing of Brian Deane. But it's hard to believe that if it had been, for example, Jermain Defoe (or even the 18-year-old versions of Owen or Fowler) we'd loaned to West Ham that he'd have been omitted for some aging donkey. Mellor didn't do enough to force his way into the manager's plans - had he been an outstanding prospect, he would have got games, and goals. There would have been no doubts. It didn't close the chapter on Mellor at Liverpool, but it did absolutely nothing to prove he has what it takes at that level, let alone the top level. It leaves more questions than answers. This - the upcoming months - is his chance to answer them, and possibly his last chance.

The mental side of striking is all about pressure. Training and reserve matches don't come with any pressure. It's easy to finish with coolness and calmness when there's nothing riding on the outcome, and only a handful of people looking on. Pressure is the enemy of the striker - you need to be able to put it out of your mind, and remain relaxed. It's what marked Owen out as a great. Fowler was always a better finisher, but Owen had the stronger mentality. Both have suffered injuries, and been written off, but only one has nearly 30 goals for England and is the hottest striker in La Liga, for the world's biggest club; one is still creating memories, while the other is living off of them.

I've also felt many reserve games have often had a huge imbalance in terms of the quality of display, where we've fielded a whole host of internationals, against a reserve team like Bradford or Sheffield Wednesday - teams now in the lower divisions, whose entire first team squad may have been in midweek league action, leaving their reserve team as little more than their youth side. Mellor has also scored goals in more evenly-matched games, but the reserves is not a foolproof indicator of talent.

John Durnin was the apotheosis: scored hatfuls in a talented reserve side in the 1980s, but wasn't even good enough to make it at a lesser top division club. His career was played out in lower divisions. Crucially, the reserve games are played at a pace which is pedestrian when compared to the top flight.

I believe Mellor will, in time, make it as a First Division (sorry, Championship - *puke*) striker at the very least. I imagine that within a year or two he will drop a division on a permanent basis and struggle initially, before maturing and possibly making a decent Premiership striker at a modest club later in his career. With experience comes canniness, and I feel he'll need that to overcome his other deficiencies in order to be able to do what he does best: scoring goals. He's big enough to put himself about, but he needs the cleverness of someone like Alan Shearer - who, having lost his pace and dynamism, needs to resort to all his experience to remain a handful. Mellor can't draw on such reserves.

Whoever arrives in January, it's clear we need someone to supplement Milan Baros as 'proven' quality. Mellor and Pongolle will have chances to impress in the meantime, we could use a slice or two of gold-plated luck - in terms of injuries, and in terms of penalties.

© Paul Tomkins 2004

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