I have been scratching my head trying to think about what has changed at Liverpool this season to turn us into true title contenders. Nine games in and we are sitting pretty, three points clear at the top of the table—but what has actually changed since last season?
Rafa has brought in several new players in the summer, three of them have walked straight into the first team. Now this usually has an adverse effect as they need time to settle in. But the two most notable buys, Riera and Keane, are apparently players that have the right mentality to win, according to the Liverpool manager.
Robbie Keane, a boyhood fan of the club and a proven goalscorer at every level, has quite possibly not reached his full potential. The passion and desire is definitely there, which counts for a lot in today’s game, but at the age of 28, this could be his last real chance to win a major trophy.
The second new addition, Albert Riera, was never given the full credit he has now proved he deserves. Many supporters had written him off before he had even played his first game for his new club. He may not have the flashy style of play a lot of fans craved, but he has the ability to take players on, and a handy knack at delivering decent crosses on a regular basis—something we have definitely missed.
Benitez has also added Degen, Dossena, N’Gog, and Cavalieri to his squad—all brought in mainly as cover and competition for places, but all with the same mentality and desire to win. Some of these players have not broken into the first team on a regular basis as yet, some because of injuries, others due to the step up in quality of other players; which has made it harder for Benitez to fit them in—all part of the “Master Plan”, so to speak.
Certain players from last season have looked like new signings—Dirk Kuyt still has the work horse ethics we all came to love, but he has also improved in front of goal. Benitez still seems to prefer him on the right—cutting in and supporting Torres and Keane, but he has also scored some important goals for us already this season.
Ryan Babel has been used mainly as a super sub due to his recovery from an injury over the summer, but he seems to have grown in confidence the longer he plays for Liverpool. He appears more settled and is taking players on with a lot more ease.
Alonso—who nearly left the club in the summer—has come back in to the form that he has possibly lacked for the last couple of seasons. Even good old Mr. Reliable, Jamie Carragher, seems to have found a new level to his game.
All this is good news for the club, but I still don’t think this is what has turned Liverpool in to the title contenders some people are claiming them to be.
So what else has changed that has seen Liverpool to their best ever start to a Premier League season? Is it the manager’s attitude and his tactics?
I don't think it is, as we are still playing with some caution, but I think the players now know when to drop the cautious approach and play more attacking football.
Could it be the American owners keeping much more tight lipped than they was last season?
Definitely not, as there is still noise about them selling up to another buyer and the issue surrounding the funding of Gareth Barry over the summer.
The players have the belief they can win, this has come by beating the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea as well as the come backs against Manchester City and Wigan. But what, or possibly who, has installed the initial belief and what is now at the club that was missing last season?
As we look back to last season at some of our failings, the team started well with a good win over Aston Villa and a point from Chelsea, which many can argue should have been three. But something happened at the Chelsea game that would shape the rest of the season.
Everyone knows of the recent Chelsea and Liverpool rivalry, and the competition between Benitez and Mourinho, so it did not go down well with Rafa that his assistant manager, Pako Ayestaran, was seen to be friendly with the then Chelsea boss after a match that Liverpool should of won.
Fireworks erupted between the two, and the long term working relationship came to an end as Ayestaran left Liverpool for another job on 14 October 2007—very early into the season.
The Mourinho incident was not the only problem between Rafa and Pako, but it was the final straw that left us without an assistant manager for the remainder of the campaign, resulting in a massive amount of extra work for Rafa Benitez.
Rafa is greatly considered a tactical genius and a great manager, but he can’t do everything by himself. The analysing of the opposition, the implementation of tactics in training, the compilation of training schedules—the list goes on. I believe this is what contributed a great deal in hampering the title charge last season. We had the players, we had the manager—but we just needed that little something extra.
We can fast-forward to the preseason of 2008—the most important signing for Liverpool had been made. That little something extra walked though the doors of Melwood, and we got more than we could bargain for. Two former players—both with different experiences and success at the club, but both with the same “Winning Mentality” that Benitez craved.
On 16th May 2008, Sammy Lee returned to his spiritual home. The former three-time league and two-time European cup winner and most importantly, ex-Liverpool great, had returned as Rafa’s No. 2.
Previously he had been the first team coach under Houllier at Liverpool and also the assistant manager to Sam Allardyce at Bolton; he has now returned to stamp his style of coaching back onto Liverpool.
Forever the optimist, his coaching style is all about team unity and spirit, embedding the belief in to the team that they can beat anyone. Sammy Lee is also a big believer in player fitness, which has already been seen this season with the late wins. He knows what winning the league means to Liverpool and to the fans—he knows the history of the club and he knows all about the “Liverpool Way” of old.
The other significant backroom member to join Sammy at Liverpool was Mauricio Pellegrino, a player that Benitez knew very well. A three time La Liga winner—two of which were with Benitez at Valencia—Pellegrino also knows what it takes to succeed.
Liverpool Football Club is now fully equipped to challenge for the league title. We have the right manager and tactical genius of Rafa Benitez, the right players with their mix of raw talent and experience; all of which have the desire to win.
We have the greatest fans in the world to cheer the team along, and now we possibly have the missing piece of the jigsaw that could get them and the team the long awaited Premier League title—the difference between thinking we can win, and actually believing we will win.
So what has turned us into true contenders this season?
The simple answer for me appears to be Sammy Lee and Mauricio Pellegrino.
Originally Posted at The Monkey Office