It’s the Chemistry that’s the Key

The opening of the transfer window usually causes plenty of excitement and speculation over who we might be signing, or who we should be signing, and plenty of (sometimes heated) discussion about both. As this month draws to an end, it looks more and more likely that the window will close with no new first-team signings at all. Is this a bad thing, or could it be that we don’t really need any players at this time?

The two biggest names most commonly linked with The Reds recently have been Lucas Neill of Blackburn Rovers and Javier Mascherano of West Ham. The Neill deal was supposedly in the works since last summer when Rafa was said to have been ready to sign him as additional cover for Steve Finnan at right back, but the deal was not completed in time. Mascherano came as something of a surprise, since none of us would have guessed that we needed an extra midfielder, and even if we did it would definitely not be a loan deal for a player who was an apparent reject from elsewhere. But, we’ve all been wrong before in guessing who Rafa might want to sign (I’ll admit I was sceptical over Peter Crouch, among others) and so with the injury to Momo Sissoko keeping us a little shallow in the middle, it might just make sense to bring in another experienced midfielder. That particular deal is currently under review by FIFA, and we all know how quickly and sensibly such decisions are made once in the hands of the bureaucrats. As for Lucas (or should it be Lu-cash?) Neill, all I can say is that if a player doesn’t automatically choose to come to Anfield when given the opportunity, then we certainly don’t need him.

The most common opinion that I’ve heard recently is that we should be looking for players with pace, especially to strengthen our defence. I will respectfully disagree with such opinions and suggest that we really don’t need any new defenders, with or without pace, at this time. If we consider that last year we had essentially the same steady back four of Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia, and Riise, and that they performed magnificently along with Reina to give us a new record of clean sheets and the second lowest goals against for the season, then where do we need to make improvements? Agger came into the squad a year ago and has been gradually working his way in as Sami’s natural replacement. I really don’t see how a player such as Neill, or any other, can greatly improve on what we already have. Admittedly, an extra player available at right back would be useful, but let’s make sure we get the right player in terms of attitude, not just whoever might be available right now at the right price.

What we definitely do need is a better and more consistent performance from the players already here. Earlier in the season it was depressing to say the least when we were being beaten by Chelsea, Manchester United, and Arsenal. To add to the misery we also lost to Everton and Bolton, and could only manage a point each against Sheffield United, Portsmouth, Blackburn, and Middlesbrough. Those were not just poor results, they were games where we looked uninterested, confused, and nothing like the title challengers that we had hoped to be at the beginning of the season. Everything from the number of early kick-offs to the rotation policy were being blamed, but from what I could see it was more of a case of the entire squad failing to gel with each other. The number of missed passes and losses of possession made it look as though there was no real teamwork, just a collection of individual players that didn’t know each other well enough. The look of resignation on the faces of the players, as well as their body language as they left the field, said it all. At least we can say that most of our recent performances have vastly improved since those low points; it had to, and we all knew that it would.

The answer for me lies in that intangible concept of ‘œchemistry.’ Rafa has proven that he can take a moderately successful Spanish club like Valencia that has been in the shadows of such big clubs as Real Madrid and Barcelona, and outshine them both to make them champions after a drought of 31 years. He managed this feat again two seasons later, and also added a UEFA Cup for good measure (Valencia had been runners up in the Champions League in 2000 and 2001, but had not won a European trophy for 20 years). His first season at Liverpool showed that he could take a club to a domestic final with the League Cup, and then showed his brilliance by taking us all the way in Europe to winning the Champions League. Just thinking back to that amazing success, we have to wonder: what was the magic ingredient? Our squad for that season and that incredible final included Dudek, Biscan, Smicer, Baros, Traore, and Cisse. We also had Nunez, Josemi, and Morientes over the first season, but all of those players have since been considered no longer good enough to be first choices, and so have moved on (apart from Dudek, whose days must be numbered now). Surely the players that have come in during that same period ‘“ Sissoko, Crouch, Agger, Bellamy, Kuyt, Aurelio, Gonzalez, Reina, – are a definite improvement in the squad, so why have we had so much trouble this season? We really thought last season that we were making excellent progress in the League, and proved our credentials domestically by finishing just a single point behind second place, and winning the FA Cup. What has happened to halt that progress since the end of last season?

Building a squad that can compete for the League title takes a special know-how. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that collecting the best players together can automatically lead to a great team, but we know from clubs like Real Madrid (or even Chelsea) that it takes more than just money. It takes talented players – there’s no doubt about that, but it also takes the right chemistry to make all the ingredients work together effectively. It also takes a special manager to be able to get it all right.

When Bill Shankly‘s first squad was clearly getting past their prime at the end of the sixties, Shanks made the decision that it was time to break them up and start over. To do this he brought in players like John Toshack, Larry Lloyd, Steve Heighway, and Brian Hall, and added them to players that had been brought in earlier including Emlyn Hughes, Alun Evans, and Ray Clemence. Ian Callaghan, Tommy Smith, and Chris Lawler were the only players to have survived from the previous League championship side of 1966. The new squad performed well, but were not quite ready to challenge for glory. That is, not until the vital piece was added in the summer of 1971. That final piece to the jig-saw was of course Kevin Keegan. He made an immediate impact on the team, scoring goals, making goals, and being a bundle of energy running all over the place and causing havoc for opposing players. The club soon became League champions again, won a UEFA Cup (our first European trophy), and then their second FA Cup.

When Bill Shankly retired and handed the club over to his assistant Bob Paisley, few changes were required. ‘œSir’ Bob added no more than one or two players each year, keeping that chemistry working and winning more silverware. The first European Cup came in 1977, and coincided with Keegan’s last season at Anfield. It was seen by many as the end of an era for Liverpool FC ‘“ how could we ever replace such an important player? The answer of course is that we brought in Kenny Dalglish, and though he was never described as Keegan’s replacement, he filled the gap and became the latest piece to complete the puzzle. Is it just a coincidence that we haven’t won the League since King Kenny resigned as manager early in 1991? We’ve had success in various cups, and have been as close as second place in the League, but we have never quite been able to take that final step to become champions again.

If I can push that analogy of ‘œchemistry’ just a little more, we could describe both Keegan and Dalglish as the ‘œcatalysts’ that caused the desired reactions. Is it possible that we should be looking for a similar catalyst to push the current squad far enough to take that final step now? I think the answer is staring us in the face if only we would see it for what it is.

We have a squad of quality players ‘“ nobody would question that. We have players like Steven Gerrard who is unquestionably one of the best midfield players in the world alongside Xabi Alonso and Luis Garcia. We have added some more quality players that Rafa has brought in over the last couple of seasons like Reina, Crouch, Agger, and Sissoko. We have the veteran character players like Carragher, and Finnan, who don’t do anything flashy but consistently get the job done, and we have a host of new players this season including Gonzalez, Pennant, Bellamy, and Aurelio, who are slowly but surely working their way into the system. What we need is that catalyst to bring it all together and make it work. I believe that player is already here, in the shape of Dirk Kuyt.

I wouldn’t be the first to say that he reminds me of Keegan with his skills and his energy on the field. He also reminds many of us of King Kenny in the way that he can score goals with what seems like little effort, just by being in the right place at the right time, even though we know it takes great skill. Moreover, just like Keegan and Kenny before him, Kuyt became an instant idol of the Kop and impressed the media analysts from his first appearance in a red shirt.

Keegan- Kenny- Kuyt; there almost seems like there’s a supernatural link between the three K’s, but I doubt that there’s anything significant in that. What I do know is that we have a player that I see as our final piece of the puzzle that will take us that final step to our rightful place at the top. That is, if we can use his talents wisely and solve the team chemistry around him. Kuyt may not see a League Championship in his first season with us – neither did Keegan or Kenny; but I believe that he (and we) will see it soon.

Keith Perkins

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