Benitez needs common-sense approach

So it was a false dawn after all. For 2006, read 2002.

Any number of excuses can be made after the demoralising defeat to Manchester United, not least a fixture list that will have seen Liverpool travel to Everton, Chelsea, Bolton, Manchester United and Arsenal by mid-November.

However, none of them matter when the upshot is that another season will go by without a championship.

To be fair to the club`s fans, I am not sure that a title win was what was expected. It was hoped for, certainly, but not demanded.

What was expected was that a title bid would be fashioned, a concerted effort made to challenge Chelsea, Manchester United and the team who finished 15 points behind the Reds last season, Arsenal.

Instead, as with 12 months ago, it`s all over by October.

And while exactly 12 months ago this week it was the Carling Cup defeat at Crystal Palace that saw Liverpool`s season bottom out before picking up so spectacularly.

Expecting the same 12 months on seems unrealistic, although Benitez claims: “I know we are a better squad than last season”.

Perhaps that`s the point: the squad may be better, but the team isn`t.

Four years ago, Gerard Houllier spent big on improving his squad to mount a title challenge that quickly fell flat.

In the summer, Benitez spent big on improving his team, but instead seems only to have added to his squad.

The quantity is now there, but on the evidence of the season so far, the quality remains painfully elusive.

The list of problems have been highlighted in forums, on the telly and in the papers.

A minus two goal difference with a quarter of the season gone tells its own story.

Does Benitez know his best team and best formation? The evidence suggests not.

He is known for being a master tactician, yet a tactical focus merely suggests you are worried about the opposition.

I suspect that when Arsene Wenger took his Arsenal team to Old Trafford last month in another game they really had to win, he did so in the knowledge that his players and system were good enough to do so.

He did not alter his formation to try to counter United`s strengths. Instead, he let his young side – shorn of Thierry Henry, remember – go out and play.

The result was a swaggering display of free-flowing football, produced not against one of the Premiership`s lesser lights, but against a title rival in their own back yard.

On Sunday, Liverpool produced a spineless, clueless mess of a display, where the inability to keep the ball meant that chances were few and far between.

That United team was there for the taking, with a Ronaldo-less midfield begging to be run all over.

With Luis Garcia playing so deep, leaving Dirk Kuyt unnecessarily isolated, Liverpool effectively had five in midfield, yet never looked like winning the battle in the centre of the pitch.

Quite what sort of football Liverpool are meant to be playing at the moment is not clear.

The team looks unbalanced and confused and as for Steven Gerrard, whose form has disappeared amid an ever-changing role, he cuts a disconsolate figure.

Does he still believe that the title can be won at Anfield? I`m not suggesting he will be looking to leave, but how can our only world-class player be convinced that 2007-08 will be different from any of the last 17 seasons?

And if anyone believes Liverpool would be a better team without Gerrard, they are more delusional than Benitez`s assertion that the title has not gone this season.

Writing in the Liverpool Echo, Chris Bascombe claims the problems at Anfield run deeper than the manager, and that if the club cannot win the Premiership under Rafael Benitez – a proven title winner elsewhere – then who can it win under?

I`m not sure that`s the point.

The club has always backed its managers and Benitez has had plenty of money to spend.

Has he spent it wisely? That is debatable.

Even one of his better buys, Xabi Alonso, is playing so far away from his best that his presence in the side – at the expense of Gerrard in the centre – is now a matter for concern.

It does not appear that Benitez has any faith in the players he`s brought in. All have been in and out, ensuring that Gerrard seldom gets a game where he is most effective.

So, to stop people questioning his methods, which will always happen while results are elusive, Benitez needs to address the issues confronting him.

I don`t want to doubt Benitez, no-one associated with the Reds does, but he continues to avoid the common-sense approach – one which better qualified people than myself have been advocating.

1) Pick your best team and stick with it. The alternative is continued rotation – until the winning formula is chanced upon.

2) Put Gerrard in the middle and leave him there. He`s simply not a left- or right-winger.

3) Stop playing the game to stop the opposition – that`s not how title winners go about their business.

This team needs to play week in, week out, starting against Reading on Wednesday:

Reina, Finnan, Carragher, Agger, Riise, Luis Garcia, Gerrard, Sissoko, Gonzalez, Bellamy, Kuyt.

As Houllier proved before him, Benitez is unable to defend his way to the title, so why don`t we simply try to outplay a team for a change?

The title`s gone, but there`s still plenty of time for some good, attacking football.

After putting us through another cruel false dawn, it`s the least Benitez`s boys can do.

Neale Graham

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