As we enter the final run in at the end of the season, Liverpool find themselves in an all too familiar position. Effectively out of the title race by February, they are fighting with Everton to keep their place in the “Big 4”, in a footballing sense at least. The league cup campaign ended with a nothing performance at Chelsea, and the FA cup campaign ended with a humiliating defeat at home to the mighty Barnsley. Lets not forget that Liverpool also needed a replay to dispose of Luton and came from behind twice to overcome Havant and Waterlooville. There is however, a very realistic chance that the Champions league could yet provide Liverpool with a happy ending to this season.
I am writing this article now because if Liverpool do win the Champions league the truth may be dusted under the carpet. The fact is Liverpool need a LOT of work if they are to finally end the 19 year drought.
So what has been the problem? Boardroom soap operas haven’t helped at all, but football is played on grass and Liverpool simply haven’t been good enough. Injury to Daniel Agger cost Liverpool what was proving to be their best defender. Steve Finnan, Fabio Aurelio and Alvaro Arbeloa have been in and out of fitness, as have Jermaine Pennant and Harry Kewell. These injuries however are not good enough excuses for such a poor showing.
In this writers opinion the position Liverpool are in is down to one thing. There isn’t a referee’s vendetta against them, they aren’t injury plagued and there isn’t a shooter behind a grassy knoll. There is no conspiracy. They simply aren’t good enough.
But they should be.
Starting at the back, Jose Reina is as good as any keeper in the premiership at the minute. His clean sheet record speaks for itself. Jamie Carragher and Daniel Agger (if fit) have the makings of a fantastic partnership, and the new signing Skrtel looks so far to be an able deputy. The full back positions are a little trickier. The formerly unmoveable Steve Finnan looks past his best, injuries and age seem to be catching up with a player who until last year was one of the most impressive and consistent defenders in the premiership. Arbeloa is an exciting prospect and I think he will go on to make the right back slot his own. The lef t hand side is in need of a complete overhaul. John Arne Riise is a shadow of his former self. Fabio Aurelio has shown glimpses of quality but nowhere near enough to warrant a regular place. Neither of the two are great when defending, and their attacking prowess, of which both are supposedly renowned for, has been almost non existent. This is an area that desperately needs new blood. The young and hugely exciting young Argentinean Insua, currently plying his trade in the reserve team, could be the answer to this problem.
Liverpool have excellent midfielders in the centre. Javier Mascherano has been a revelation this season and Lucas Leiva will go on to be a fantastic player for the club. There are still some question marks over Xabi Alonso however, though I believe that if he continues to play alongside Mascherano he will regularly get the space in which to play. This is when Alonso is at his best. Steven Gerrard is obviously quality and his loyalty, commitment and ability should not be questioned. One question mark that remains with Liverpool’s central midfield is what happens when Mascherano is missing? Lucas and Alonso have played together only a handful of times and haven’t looked anywhere near comfortable.
The attacking wide players in Liverpool’s squad is, in my opinion, another area where they let themselves down. Ryan Babel has been fantastic in the last few months, but other than him what have Liverpool got? They certainly don’t have the depth of talent Manchester Utd have, through Ryan Giggs, Nani, Anderson, and that other kid, I think they call him Ronaldo…Thomas Rosicky, and Alexander Hleb at Arsenal, and Florent Malouda, Shaun Wright- Philips and Joe Cole at Chelsea, would also all easily walk into Liverpool’s side. Yossi Bennayoun is a decent squad player, but is he Liverpool class? The question remains. Harry Kewell and Jermaine Pennant are simply not good enough. Nowhere near. Kewell should have been, but injuries really have ruined who should have been a fantastic Liverpool player.
The strikers role is one that again highlights Liverpool’s lack of quality depth. Fernando Torres is the most exciting number 9 have had in 7 years and could go on to score goals by the bagful. Rafa Benitez was criticised for resting Torres early in the season, but Wayne Rooney has been rested far more often this season. Why has Sir Alex not been criticised like Benitez has? Simple. Where Ferguson can bring in Carlos Tevez, Liverpool cannot. Benitez claimed he wanted to rest Torres so he was fit when the business end of the season set in. His recent form surely is a testament that Benitez was right. Unfortunately if you take away “El Nino” Liverpool woefully lack goals. Peter Crouch, whilst possibly unfortunate to be on the bench so often, doesn’t fit in the way Benitez likes his team to play. I do feel he is a useful squad player though. A plan B if you like. Voronin isn’t good enough and then there’s Dirk Kuyt. Kuyt is a player I, as a Liverpool fan, am very fond of. His workrate and commitment is appreciated and respected by team-mates and fans alike. He has been forced to perform in a thankless dogsbody role which has not brought out any of the talents he DOES possess. Despite these things I honestly believe he has to move on now, he simply hasn’t scored the goals he should. This possibly isn’t his fault though, and it will be a sad day if he was to leave because he is adored in Liverpool.
So there we have it. In Reina, Carragher, Mascherano, Gerrard and Torres, Liverpool have the spine of a team as good as any in Europe. In fact when on form Liverpool’s best 11 could compete with any team in the world. But the supporting cast needs a complete overhaul. Out must go Hyypia, Riise, Aurelio, Kewell, Pennant, Voronin and unfortunately probably Kuyt. In must come a quality left back, a midfielder with real creative brilliance. They need at least one, if not two quality wide players, ones with real pace who can run at players and frighten the lives out of them. They also need a striker who can take away some of the burden currently held by Torres.
Mangers are often judged on the players they bring in, however Benitez could possibly be criticised for players he has allowed out to leave Anfield. In Stephen Warnock, now at Blackburn, Liverpool had a strong defender with a vastly improving attacking game. He was also a committed homegrown talent, I’ve always believed that players give that little extra 1% when playing for their home team.
Creativity and brilliance has been shockingly absent from Liverpool this season, but a huge gap in the team could have been filled by a diminutive talent. Liverpool have unquestionably missed Luis Garcia. His flair, imagination, not forgetting his knack of scoring important goals, has simply not been replaced.
Us Liverpool fans should not kid ourselves. We aren’t one or two players away form the title, we are 5 or 6 away. Hopefully whoever is in charge upstairs will provide funds to get these players. This, like everything else at boardroom level is surrounded in doubt. Folks, please stay tuned for the next episode of LFC the soap opera!
I have a sneaky suspicion and no small amount of hope that one or two of these players might come from the reserve side. There is without doubt heaps of talent within the reserve ranks and we can only hope some of this will be nurtured.
The last question is the manager. Is Benitez the right man for the job? The Beatles once sang “Boy you’ve got to carry that weight” Benitez is carrying perhaps the biggest of footballing heavyweights on his back, he has a HUGE job still to do. In my opinion he has already greatly improved us, but can he finish the job?
There is a saying in the red half of Merseyside and it should be followed to the end.
In Rafa we trust.