Almost two years after I wrote a piece pulling apart an Alan Hansen attack on low-flying Liverpool, the ex-captain is back with some more heavy criticisms.
I’ve no problem with him criticising the club, and if there’s ever a time to be critical of performances it’s now. But I just wish he’d get it right, and show a bit more balance in his approach to criticism. For me, he’s been as off-target as many of the Reds’ shots this season.
Hansen was on my mind anyway. I’ve only just finished writing ‘Golden Past, Red Future Revisited’ for a new anthology I’m releasing, and that involved reassessing Alan Hansen’s stinging criticism of BenÃtez in January 2005, while simultaneously reassessing my response to it. I’m more than happy to admit to the things I got wrong in that book, and indeed do so in this new book, but the Hansen critique is not one of them. Everyone gets stuff wrong in football writing, as no one has a crystal ball, but at least consider all angles regarding what you’re saying.
There are problems at the moment, that’s clear. And the performance at Old Trafford, once United scored, was incredibly limp, as the confidence visibly drained from the players. But too many of the things Hansen identifies are lazy criticisms dressed up as facts.
United’s success in the game came through three home-grown players immersed in the club, according to Hansen. But we had two out there, Gerrard and Carragher, and neither played well. Gerrard seemed to moan more than encourage, while Carra, despite his unstinting effort, was at fault in some way for both goals (the second due to injury, admittedly).
Why all the talk of locals again, when there were so few during Hansen’s halcyon days? Xabi Alonso, a Spaniard, gives 100% every single game, even if he’s not a blood-and-thunder type player. He cares. His form has been stodgy this season, but we’ve had two great years from him. The same can be said of Carragher and Gerrard. All three care; none is playing anywhere near their best.
Momo Sissoko, who’s only been at the club 15 months, was our best player at Old Trafford, all over the pitch working his extra-long socks off. He’s not local, nor immersed in the club. He’s just a great player and a hard worker with lungs of titanium. Sami Hyypia’s commitment can never be questioned, even if his form can be. How local is he?
As for Hansen’s talk of the Reds lacking a striker capable of 20 league goals a season since the sale of Michael Owen, it has to be pointed out that Owen never actually scored 20 league goals in a season. Of course, he came close, with a 19 and a couple of 18s, and was capable of getting 20 if he stayed fit long enough.
But where did that get the Reds? Not as many points as BenÃtez’s team managed last season, with no striker even making double figures, while the top scoring striker on the run to winning the European Cup in 2005 was Milan Baros, with just two goals. And Chelsea have won the league the last two years with low-scoring forwards, as have teams on a number of occasions since the Premiership began.
Dirk Kuyt could well be capable of 20 Premiership goals a season, and that has to be the aim, but he needs time to adjust. He’s scored as many league goals as Â£30m Shevchenko, rated the best finisher in the world, in far less minutes on the pitch. Okay, so it’s not saying much. But until this point Kuyt has looked better value. It took Michael Owen a while to adapt to life in Madrid, and to find his scoring boots, so why should Kuyt be any different here? Newcastle then paid Â£17m for Owen, and will be lucky to get more than ten games out of him in his first two seasons.
Hansen then says the club’s limited funds mean it has to buy ‘maybe’ players between Â£4-9m: “That gets you ‘maybe’ players, footballers who could do a job but who would be dangerous to rely on in a crisis.”
Well, Reina was in that price range, and he was superb last season, as he had been in Spain for a number of years, despite still being just 23; but now, as a young keeper, he’s not playing so well, so he’s crap, right? Sissoko was another. He’s been a real steal, and while he can be rash with his passing (take your time, Momo) he’s superb for his age. Luis Garcia is another, and while he’s in and out, he’s scored a lot of important goals that are worth their weight in gold.
Peter Crouch cost Â£7m, and has been a revelation for club and country since the summer, to the point where there’s an outcry if he’s omitted. He may not be the best player in the world, but he presents defences with unique problems, and is now scoring at a rate Owen would be proud of. Craig Bellamy would have cost double his Â£6m but for a clause in his contract. He just needs time to adapt to being at Liverpool, as do the clutch of other new signings. You can’t just throw new players into the equation and expect instant dividends, as nice as it would be.
Finnan, Riise and Hyypia all cost Â£4m or less. The new players, like Gonzalez and Pennant, cost in Hansen’s quoted bracket. But Jesus, give them time to settle; Shevchenko cost Â£30m and he’s been pony this season. You cannot even start to write off any new players before at least six months at a new club, and up to a year if in a new country. Too many have taken that long, or even longer, to adapt.
As for the point on big spending, when Liverpool have shelled out in excess of Â£10m, only Xabi Alonso has been worth the money. (Kuyt, who cost between Â£9-10m, should prove good value, too.) But Diouf? Heskey? CissÃ©? They turned out to be ‘maybe’ players, if that.
As with Hansen’s criticisms two years ago ‘“ namely that BenÃtez should have bought British ‘“ his assertion that spending little has resulted in average players makes no sense based on what the Reds have actually got for that money. There’s also the fact that BenÃtez has had 80% of the squad to rebuild since 2004, rather than merely needing to add a couple of players; so the money had to be spread fairly evenly across a number of purchases. The option of more money always helps, of course; but there’s no simple solution to that.
There are also serious problems with the back four, according to Hansen. But it’s much the same personnel as last season, when it was the best around; could it be that it’s just form and confidence? After all, they proved how good they can be last season, even when the full-backs were heavily rotated. They’ve not all become bad players overnight, have they?
While I agree with Hansen on what he says about the centre of defence being an area you don’t needlessly tinker with, Hyypia was struggling for form at the point when Agger came in, with Carragher injured. Agger played so well it meant one defender had to drop out, so it was only going to be Hyypia. Except when it came to playing at Bolton, where the aerial bombardment was on the cards, so a switch to the Finn was made.
Then Agger, the best defender in the league this season, broke his hand with Denmark, and hasn’t played since. So I’ve not seen much rotation there, just enforced changes, plus one understandable tactical change (especially after a couple of headers were conceded against Galatasaray). United have rotated their team as heavily as Liverpool in the league this season, but it’s working for them. Then again, it worked for the Reds last season. Doesn’t that suggest that blaming rotation is a cop out?
Hansen says the Reds don’t look capable of going on a run like the one at the end of last season, but this time a year ago the same could have been said; and the Reds went on two outstanding runs, not just the one he mentions, having also had a similar slump between January and March.
It doesn’t mean such great runs will happen again, but it does show what the team is capable of doing, and how this manager can turn things around. A few weeks back Arsenal were in the bottom three after poor home results, now they’re full of confidence. Last year they couldn’t win an away Premiership game, now they’re cruising. Things can quickly change. Maybe it’s too late for a title push from Liverpool this season, and that’s frustrating; but it’s still early on, and so much can happen.
Is BenÃtez making mistakes? Almost certainly. But hindsight is a wonderful thing. All managers can be said to have made mistakes if their team has lost.
Are the players making mistakes? Of course. Low confidence does that; but confidence cannot be restored with a pep talk. If it could, there’d never be any shortage of confidence in the sport. The problem at Liverpool, to my mind, is that too many players, including nearly all of the key men, are low on confidence following dips in their own form, and once it affects the team as a whole it gets that much harder to do anything about it. You can’t ‘rest’ an entire team.
So while I maintain that Alan Hansen has every right to air his views, and to be critical, I’d like to see him take a little more time in thinking about what he’s saying. I don’t have it in for the Reds’ legend, but I do expect better from him.
Â© Paul Tomkins 2006
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