2009/10 Premier League favourites: Liverpool?

I know the Internet is full of trolls – people who deliberately post inciting messages just to get attention and a reaction.Liverpool crest Usually these messages contain outrageous claims and opinions that are clearly extremist for the shock value.  But sometimes, while obvously still troll-esque, they contain opinions that have a mainstream following and do have points that can be argued.

I saw one such post on the tabloid-style Football365 website’s letters page today.  A poster called Droopy suggested that Liverpool would be the ones to drop out of the Premier League top four next season and gave his arguments why.

I’m usually the last one to support Rafa Benitez given how he’s such a smug, arrogant git with an inability to lose with any grace whatsoever.  But Droopy’s shots at Rafa were twelve months out of date and the evidence of the last six months suggests that far from dropping out of the top four, Rafa’s Liverpool may actually be favourites for the league next year.  Let’s analyse.

Firstly, look at their squad. Liverpool actually have very little quality in their squad. Torres, Gerrard and Alonso all speak for themselves and would probably be key performers for any of MUFC, Chelsea or Arsenal. Beyond them though, who else is there? Arsenal could probably find something for Mascherano to do, a better manager than Rafa could probably do more with Babel, but that’s about it. The first 11 is weak, the strength in depth almost non-existent. Not great for five years under Benitez.

Ironically I would argue that Alonso is not in the same class as Torres and Gerrard but that’s a very subjective opinion.  In his place I would argue Pepe Reina should be considered top class, a better keeper than either Cech, van der Sar or that Spanish lad that Wenger inexplicably kept faith with last season.  But even if you put Alonso as a “Tier 2” talent with the likes of Daniel Agger, Javier Mascherano, Martin Skrtel and Jamie Carragher, it’s really irrelevant.

What Benitez did last year was get excellent performances out of Yossi Benayoun, Dirk Kuyt, Álvaro Arbeloa and Fábio Aurélio (although in truth I forget which of the latter two is which most of the time).  What he did was mould a team who were greater than the sum of their parts.  That is why the lack of top quality players is a moot point.

Secondly, look at their manager. The guy is a chancer unlike any I have seen at the top level. His best player remains Gerrard, a player that was not signed by Rafa, and whose winners and equalisers contributed far more to Liverpool’s overachievement last season than any tactical nous by Benitez.

He is a chancer, totally agree.  On a professional level I loathe the man.  To criticise him for not signing Gerrard is a nonsensical argument.  His job is not to sign players better than Gerrard – his job is to put a team together capable of winning the league.  And I think he was very unfortunate in not doing so last year.

His lack of balls in attempting to kill off games was key in Liverpool’s failure to win anything last year. His media performances are embarrassing – his ill-advised trawling through Google for anti-Fergie stats needs no further comment, and his constant bleating about the myth of Liverpool having had no money to spend makes me want to put my fist through the laptop.

We’re going to get on to the money bit in a second but it’s true to say that Benitez’s rant about Fergie was a complete PR disaster no matter how true it might have been.  Liverpool have had a fair share of decisions go their way and if you trawl through any club’s closet there are skeletons there that will swing an argument any way your bias leans.  But this is all immaterial too – plenty of pricks have won the league before (look at Ferguson).

Thirdly, their transfer record. I’ve previously mailed in on this topic, illustrating that since Rafa arrived over £100m has been splurged on forwards alone. The dross that has been purchased is well-documented. Virtually no players of genuine top class have been unearthed on the cheap, with Torres and Alonso remaining the best purchases, insight that any Football Manager-playing troll could have shared alongside Rafa and the board. Rafa can also say what he wants about the board’s control over transfers and lack of resources, there is no way he has not had a significant input into the better part of £200m of purchases. Don’t forget that in the last 12 months Rafa has tried to ditch Alonso (just see how many points he was worth to Liverpool last year) and replaced Peter Crouch with Robbie Keane.

Rafa’s transfer record is not great.  If we look at the upper end of the scale he has bought five players that cost over £10m: Torres, Mascherano, Keane, Babel and Alonso.  We can say that 60% of these purchases have been a success, 20% is leaning towards failure and the other 20% was an abject failure.

Looking at the players who cost between £5m and £10m, the record is patchier.  Agger, Skrtel, Reina, Benayoun and Kuyt have all justified their fees but even some of those who didn’t (Crouch, Bellamy, Sissoko) have been sold on at a profit.  Yeah there have been disasters – Lucas and Dossenna for example – but Liverpool will probably break even on them.  Again, this is not a poor record.

Like most top four managers, those sub £5m purchases were mainly forgettable.  Arbeloa and Aurellio are the only names to make an impact although the vast majority of the 36 players listed here are younger players who have been bought with an eye on their sell-on value.

But again I refer to the point that Benitez’s job is to build a team with the funds available.  We might say his transfer record is not great but that charge can be laid at Alex Ferguson’s door too – it just so happens that he’s winning the title in spite of over-spending (some might argue) on the likes of Nani, Anderson, Carrick and Berbatov.

Fourthly, their competitors will surely all improve. There is no way Man Utd won’t replace CR7, with their young players improving and pulling together in the vacuum left behind by the ego.

This is just innuendo and speculation.  Man United might try to replace Cristiano Ronaldo but until someone signs on the dotted line and then does the business on the pitch, it’s a pointless debate.  As for young players improving and pulling together, well it remains to be seen what sort of performances they get out of Nani, Zoran Tošić and Ji Sung Park.

Ancelotti, while not a dead cert in my opinion, will surely be worth more points over the whole season to Chelsea. Arsenal have already begun strengthening in their weaker areas, and would have more luck with injuries next season (they would hope anyway). I would also argue that with a good central defender, Man City’s spine of Robinho-Ireland-Barry-X-Given is better than Liverpool’s.

Again, just opinion and suggestion.  A counter-argument (which is just as valid) is that Arsenal will always struggle when injuries kick in and Chelsea’s ageing squad is a year older than it was last year.  In the “straw clutching” department is the suggestion that Robinho-Ireland-Barry-[unknown defender]-Given is better than Liverpool’s.  That’s simply waffle.  Robinho and Ireland are not in the same league as Torres and Gerrard, Barry and Given can be compared favourably to Mascherano and Reina respectively but can not be considered stronger … and the unknown defender?  Well I’m pretty sure it’ll be an over-priced English player in their mid-late 20s who will not come from a top four club.

I consider Liverpool favourites for the league next season based on current squads and even allowing for Man United to buy their replacements for Ronaldo and Tevez.  I’ll revisit the question in mid-August but as of now the momentum is all theirs.

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