We’ve had the Foreign Legion at Chelsea, the French revolution at Arsenal and the Dogs of War at Everton. Now Rafael Benitez is attempting to bring some Spanish substance to Merseyside – and so far the signs are not good.
It’s early days for the new man, UEFA Cup and double La Liga winner, but the pressure is already building after a relatively poor season.
Progress to the last 16 of the Champions League only serves to paper over the cracks of a hit-and-miss campaign. There was a warning sign with the narrow preliminary round win over Graz AK and away defeats to moderate sides like Olympiakos and Monaco as well as a poor home draw with Deportivo La Coruna, indicate that Liverpool will struggle against a strong European opponent.
In the league, it’s been a relative shambles with little improvement over the previous season. Their big wins have come against newly promoted sides like Norwich and West Brom, and critical points were dropped against Birmingham, Everton, Portsmouth and Bolton. When they’ve met the Premiership bigwigs the results are mixed. The inspiring win against Arsenal was a case of meeting the Champions at the right time, while Chelsea and Manchester United have gained maximum points against the Reds.
Liverpool are dominating many games, creating lots of chances but converting few. The loss of Owen to Real Madrid, Cisse for the season, Luis Garcia until after Christmas and Baros for a while left them relying on the awful Harry Kewell, youngster Florent Sinama Pongolle and limited Neil Mellor up front. Mellor hasn’t let the side down but he’s not the answer. The recent dropped points at home to Portsmouth was indicative of a season that promised much but has left Liverpool fans frustrated by the lack of ability in the team.
Steven Gerrard is clearly the king pin, but also clearly has his mind set on big money and glory at Chelsea or one of the big two in Spain. Few could question Gerrard’s right to move on but his recent habit for mouthing off to the press about his dissatisfaction with the team is not the behaviour of a responsible captain. Liverpool fans continue to sing the praises of the midfielder, but they’ll be cursing him relentlessly when he does eventually leave.
Coming up short
The squad is short all over the pitch. Both goalkeepers are error-prone. Jerzy Dudek has had numerous chances to make the number one slot his own, but his too frequent mistakes are undermining the team’s progress. Former “England Number One in Waiting”, Chris Kirkland, has had a nightmare time with injuries and form. For £6m, you have to say he has been disappointing.
The ageing Hyppia and Henchoz are running out of time and the addition of the erratic Josemi has not convinced fans that he’s a better option than the slightly under-rated Steve Finnan. Djimi Traore has never made the grade, Jamie Carragher has improved but is not going to lead a side to Champions League glory and John Arne Riise has been in and out of the team, failing to find his best position.
The midfield is painfully inept. Harry Kewell chose Liverpool ahead of Manchester United and perhaps he was expecting to be a big fish in a little pond. He’s just been downright abysmal and looks set to go the way of Lee Sharpe. El Hadji Diouf, often played out of position, was a £10m flop who is now on loan at Bolton, and his Senegalese compatriot Salif Diao is out of his depth. Dietmar Hamann is 31 now and the decision to possibly award him a new contract looks unwise, while Igor Biscan’s career has ground to a halt at Anfield, similar to the on-loan Bruno “New Zidane” Cheyrou and injured Vladimir Smicer.
The few bright spots for Liverpool have been the form of the newly acquired Xabi Alonso, albeit for an obnoxious £10m fee, and Florent Sinama Pongolle, who has stepped in to the breach ahead of schedule and done okay. But “okay” doesn’t cut it when you are Liverpool FC. A proud history now pales in comparison to the tens of millions that have been frittered away on sub-par players who are worth little in todays market.
What can Benitez do?
For a start, admit defeat on keeping Gerrard whose constant whining in the press is not doing his teammates any favours. In addition to making threats to leave if Liverpool don’t match his ambition, Gerrard has also begun trying to dictate transfer policy by suggesting who the shareholders money should be spent on. Roy Keane pursued a similar campaign when Man United hit difficult times after the 1999 treble, but Keane is a different beast to the Liverpool midfielder. You get the impression that some are tiring of his antics. Look at how Everton rallied after the loss of Wayne Rooney. Rather than hit the bottom three as predicted, they’ve hit the top three. The £30m that Gerrard would attract, whether it be from Chelsea or abroad, will enable Benitez to bring in someone who would have their head at the club.
The wage bill needs to be trimmed dramatically. Players like Diouf and Diao, Smicer, Biscan, Kewell, Henchoz and Cheyrou have no future at the club and freeing up the estimated £250k a week that they bring home between them would give Benitez millions to spend on players who can make an impact in the Premiership.
Youngsters like (the currently on loan) Le Tallec, Ostemobor, Potter, Welsh, Warnock and Partridge are patiently waiting for their opportunity to further their careers outside of Carling Cup games, and Benitez should look no further than the progress of Stewart Downing at Middlesbrough, Shaun Wright-Phillips at Man City and James Milner at Newcastle for examples of how the right exposure can expediate development. Why play Kewell when he consistently fails to deliver? Richie Partridge has waited long enough to get a run of games and prove, one way or the other, whether he can make it or not.
Perhaps most of all Benitez needs to get to know the Premiership. His decision to leave Alonso on the bench in away games has left them without half their creative force and subsequently struggling to out-score the opposition. Recall the Alonso-inspired comeback when introduced at Craven Cottage with Liverpool 0-2 down – they won 4-2. “The Benching of Alonso” policy leaves Gerrard as the only legitimate threat that opposing managers have to worry about in midfield.
Liverpool can easily re-establish themselves as the fourth team in the Premiership, and perhaps inch closer to Arsenal and Manchester United in what is a distinct time of change for both teams (new stadium and ageing team respectively). However Liverpool have their own new stadium to worry about and this might be the final factor that holds them back.
Benitez is a good manager, but he needs to start again. Do Liverpool fans have the patience for another five year plan?
This “quick free-kick” business is really getting on my nerves. FA rule it might be, but once again inconsistent decisions from referees leave players scratching their heads. How many times can we recall a referee calling back a quickly taken free-kick, or signalling that it can only be played on his whistle. This is what frustrates players and causes the sort of ludicrous outburst from Chelsea’s Petr Cech (who called Graham Poll a “cheat” and “an Arsenal fan”) that brings more bad publicity to the game.
Only a few months ago, Graham Souness called Poll a Spurs fan. Poll subsequently sent off Souness.
Maybe he is an Arsenal fan.