Toro toro El Moro - on me 'ed, Señor

Posted by Paul Tomkins on January 13, 2005, 03:27:51 PM

Six months into his reign, and Rafael Benitez has already succeeded in one area where Houllier failed: procuring some of the very best talent from his homeland. (Assuming there are no last-minute hitches with Fernando Morientes' medical).

I read today that Houllier signed 17 players from the French league; alas, none has proved an outright success. (Although some, like Le Tallec and Cisse, may still do so, and Traore and Sinama-Pongolle have been largely excellent this season, and the latter, at just 20, will be some player in years to come). Although Cisse hasn't had the chance to prove himself, the general rule was that the more Houllier paid for his French-based signings, the less effective they would be.

Top Spaniards seem to want to play for Rafa in the way the best Frenchmen saw Wenger as the main man. Houllier was seen as a fine (but flawed) coach in his homeland; Wenger had that air of being the best. Same with Rafa: the Spanish revere him. And rightly so, given his achievements in recent years. Players want to play for Liverpool, and they also want to play for Benitez.

There is already an uncanny resemblance between Rafa's transfer activity and two of Wenger's best signings; the parallels are striking. In 1999 Wenger bought his country's best forward - Thierry Henry - then aged 22, for £10.5m. Last autumn Rafa paid the exact same amount for a player the exact same age - who happened to be his country's best central midfielder. Different position, same quality and potential.

Next Wenger bought Robert Pires for £6m - an experienced player, with 40-odd French caps. Like Henry, he became Footballer of the Year. Benitez has paid the exact same price, for a player of a similar age at the time of signing, and with a similar amount of caps for his country. These are Rafa's 'Big Two'. If Alonso and Morientes are anywhere near as successful as Henry and Pires, we'll be laughing; and Alonso's form before injury, and Morientes' style and pedigree, suggest they will be.

The best thing about Morientes is this: he is a big game player; he will not fail because he's at a big club and couldn't handle the pressure, nor will he freeze in the spotlights (more commonly known as floodlights for night games) of the big occasion. Some - but not many - of Houllier's signings knew what it was like to play under such pressure and intense scrutiny; Rafa has now signed four (out of six) players from Spain's big three: Real Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia. Rafa is signing winners (Pellegrino and Morientes have some medal collection between them), and he is signing players used to the big occasion; not raw and young potential 'chokers'.

Morientes has been there, done it all. However, unlike some players looking for a big pay day and to laze on the beach, he's merely hungry for more medals. His comments about joining Liverpool were manna from the heavens. Success has played a big part in his career; he can certainly be a significant step towards making us great again - even if he is not that irritatingly-overused 'final piece of the puzzle'. He's just the latest key element.

Since his international debut in 1998, Morientes has played in three major tournaments for Spain and has scored five World Cup goals (2 in 1998 and 3 in 2002) and one in Euro 2004. He's won two La Liga titles, several domestic cups, and has played in no less than four Champions League finals, and been on the winning side three times. Last season he scored home and away against both Real Madrid and Chelsea while with Monaco, and finished top scorer in the competition. Not bad, huh? He also helped Raul grab most of the headlines in Spain; since Morientes fell out of the first-team picture at Madrid, Raul has waned dramatically.

In his first six months Benitez has also had to make some low budget signings - perhaps stopgaps, or minor gambles. Josemi and Antonio Nunez may or may not prove long-term successes; if not, then in truth not a lot will have been lost. It's not often possible to get outstanding players on a low budget, unless they are out of contract. Sometimes you need men who can merely do a job.

Luis Garcia is somewhere in between, in the middle of the scale - a mix of the sublime and the ridiculous; but on the whole a success. He's a talented addition to the squad, but of course will never be the best player in the world (some people - in Dreamland - think we should only sign players who can be the best in the world); however, only injury stopped him playing for Spain when called up in the past. He has some pedigree. You just have to accept that flair players - unless the very best in the world - will always be up and down, in and out of games, as they will look to try special things in games but it won't always come off. People say Luis Garcia should play it simple more often, and that's true on occasion; but we didn't want a player who merely gives it simple every time: Oyvind Leonhardsen did that for two years in the 90s, and didn't make one telling pass in all that time.

The much-maligned Nunez interests me. He's different from anyone else in the squad.

Nunez got slated by some fans against Watford; others (and many in the media) listed either him or Milan Baros as our Man of the Match. Nunez is an interesting one as he stays wide without licence to roam. He hugs the touchline - if others pass to him, he'll receive the ball in space. If they don't pass to him, he'll be stretching the opposition defence but, obviously, watching the game pass him by. (But if he drifted inside to get involved, he'd clutter it up in the middle and leave less space for others to operate in). After Baros arrived in the 50th minute, everything went through the middle, and Nunez was a spectator; but he was still helping Baros find that space. That's crucial. 

One thing Nunez did against Watford - up until he was frozen out of the game - was put crosses in. Seven, to be precise. One sailed ingloriously into the Kop. The other six were superb: whipped-in and not - as many do - hung up too high (so the keeper could take them); and they were mostly sent into that 'corridor of uncertainty' where keepers and defenders become caught in two minds. Alas Pongolle wasn't the ideal man to be on the end of most of them; others were cleared in desperation by defenders. Morientes - a truly sublime header of the ball - would have had a field day.

Nunez can be as poor or anonymous as possible if all he does is put in four or five telling crosses in a match; for Morientes that's two goals guaranteed. I can think of taller strikers in world football, but not a single better exponent of heading the ball. This is a man who scored four headers in one league game, and who, in some seasons, managed to get half his goals with his head. The power and accuracy he generates is frightening, and with Gerrard and Alonso's delivery from set pieces, we'll be a big threat. (Something the towering Pellegrino will add to, when he plays; also, Nunez is very good at attacking the ball).

One thing Houllier did well (but perhaps too frequently?) was get in young players from the French Academy system. The thing is, Rafa's first aim was to get some experience into the squad; we had too many kids and not enough established players of a sufficient quality. Alonso is young, but very experienced, and a no-brainer when it came to handing over the money. Otherwise the players Benitez has signed have been at a nice age, between 24-28, with the exception of Pellegrino, who has been bought for his amazing experience, as a winner of league titles with three different clubs.

I'm looking forward to see - at some stage in the future - which Spanish wonderkids come to Liverpool to play for Benitez; Arsenal (with Reyes and Fabrigas) and Man U (with the 17-year-old Pique) have already plundered young Spanish talent.

I just want to repeat what I said last time about Baros and Morientes as a pairing, now it looks almost certain to become a reality: Morientes is that rarity - a goal-scoring target man - so Baros (small, nippy, natural finisher, in the Owen mould) would have a perfect foil. Baros and Morientes would (in theory - and that's all it is at present) offer more than Owen and Heskey. Morientes looks perfect for someone like Baros to play off. Baros is never static, always running into the channels, either with the ball or without. He doesn't drop deep, but works the width of the pitch. Morientes would be the opposite: working only the centre of the pitch; dropping deep to link the play, or advanced as a target man, to hold the ball up or head down for others.

While Morientes still has to prove himself in English football, there can be no denying that he has the talent, temperament and style to succeed here. Man Utd won't be happy if they see him on our teamsheet, or ready to emerge from the bench.

Before I go, a short update on my book on LFC: thanks to all those who have expressed an interest so far. I will be setting up a website next week, with 'work-in-progress' sample chapters introduced over the coming months and updates on developments, ahead of publication late summer 2005. A few people have asked about how to pay me - just to clarify that it will be sold by the usual book retailers, and as such I won't be selling any copies myself. As before, anyone who wants to register a purely provisional interest in the book please email me at:  and I'll let you know when a publication date is set.

As things stand, I expect to be writing a chapter about Fernando Morientes - let's hope it's a long and incident-packed one...

Finally, Morientes' record up to now:

Club football

296 league appearances –– 115 league goals (including a lot of substitute appearances in recent seasons)         

76 European Appearances –– 29 European goals

International record for Spain                      

38 appearances –– 25 goals    

© Paul Tomkins 2005

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