It’s at times like these that soul searching is inevitable. When you’ve seen your team well and truly hammered by not only a better side, but a far younger one too, it cannot be swept under the carpet. Liverpool have been comprehensively outclassed by Arsenal three times this season, not just as a team but as a club.
Four or so years ago, I wrote an article on this site entitled ‘˜Never Gunner be as good’. The pun is as bad today as it was then and the sentiment remains the same too. While last season Arsenal finished 15 points behind Liverpool in the Premiership, and indeed are a point shy this time around, there can be no mistaking which club is forward-thinking and forward-looking. The one whose board has managed to deliver a state-of-the-art stadium on time and on budget, for instance.
Arsenal‘s kids were in a different league to our back-ups. Questions will rightly be asked about the differences in youth policy between the two clubs. Liverpool’s expensive Academy has produced some brilliant players in its time, but no first-team regular since Steven Gerrard nine years ago. How has this happened? In the same time, Arsenal have been hoovering up the best up-and-coming talent from around the world and moulding them into a style that befits the eye-catching Arsene Wenger mould. His youngsters would not look out of place in a Premiership match. And they are just the ones who are at the club but can’t make the first team ‘“ there are others such as loanees Nicklas Bendtner and Arturo Lupoli earning rave reviews in the Championship, while 18-year-old Anthony Stokes, who has played just one game in Arsenal colours, has been sold for Â£2.2m to Sunderland after impressing on loan in Scotland. Can you think of a single Liverpool kid who would raise that kind of money?
Apologists can point to last season’s FA Youth Cup win as evidence of a thriving youth policy, but that level of football is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Benitez may have brought in players from different parts of the world as he looks to get Liverpool competing for the best youngsters, but so far there is nothing to show for his efforts. Paul Anderson was widely tipped as a right-winger of promise, but even in a season where that has been a problem position in the first team, he has been nowhere near a start. Maybe he, like the rest of that crop, just needs more time, even if that argument wouldn’t appear to wash at Wenger’s Arsenal. And even if Anderson et al do make the long-awaited breakthrough, are any of them in the class of Michael Owen, Jamie Carragher or David Thompson, stars of the 1996 FA Youth Cup triumph?
There are no positives to be drawn from the embarrassing defeat to Arsenal, none whatsoever. With two demoralising defeats against the same club, if not the same XI, in the last four days, Rafael Benitez’s reputation has taken a bash. Between the games, the papers began wheeling out the stats about Liverpool’s record against their title rivals in the two-and-a-half seasons Benitez has been in charge. They didn’t make for pleasant reading, just as the records broken in Chelsea‘s 4-1 win at Anfield last season and the six goals conceded against Arsenal last night do not either. Stats, though, can work in your favour and Benitez, should he take any notice, would be heartened by the club records broken last season for clean sheets and successive wins. The trouble is, and it so often is with Liverpool, is that every silver lining brings with it a sky-full of clouds.
Last season’s optimism dissipated quickly at the start of this campaign and with the title gone, the cups provided the best route of Benitez maintaining his record of silverware in each of his seasons in charge. But as with almost any time Liverpool face one of Chelsea, Manchester United or Arsenal, the Reds’ weaknesses ‘“ and possibly the gap between them and their rivals ‘“ are ruthlessly, cruelly exposed. It’s painful to watch. The two defeats to Arsenal summed up Liverpool under Benitez in the Premiership: determined, not short on effort but sorely lacking in the all-important cutting edge. Too often against even mediocre opposition Liverpool have struggled to break teams down. The football is seldom flowing. The number of Premiership clean sheets ‘“ 12 ‘“ is a league best at present, but we don’t have any of our players in the top 10 leading goalscorers. What does that say about the manager’s priority? The manager has earned plaudits for his tactical acumen, but when it comes to the Premiership big guns he’s been found consistently wanting. Is it personnel or is it an over emphasis on organisation and a shortage of genuine flair and creativity? We were here under Gerard Houllier too.
Against Benfica last season in the Champions League, Liverpool were unable to seize the initiative when it looked all set for them to progress. The same could have been said for the Arsenal games. Home advantage counted for nothing when usually it is one of Liverpool’s greatest strengths. When ‘˜the big three’ plus Barcelona come to Anfield in the coming weeks it’s difficult to imagine them being overly concerned with what is in store. It should simply not be that way.
The line-up for what represented our likeliest shot at a trophy this season will inevitably be picked to pieces. I can understand Benitez’s decision to rest players up to a point, but not to the extent he did. Before the game, Steven Gerrard had hinted that he expected a strong team to be chosen with the FA Cup fixtures now gone from the club’s calendar. Instead, there were square pegs in round holes, players looking off the pace and a glaring lack of cohesion, in stark contrast to a brilliant young Arsenal side. Perhaps Benitez was concerned at what would have happened if he had chosen his best side and they had still lost to what amounted to Arsenal‘s juniors. And quite why Jamie Carragher came on instead of Peter Crouch when Luis Garcia was injured and Liverpool needed goals is a mystery. I hate to draw parallels, even if they are starting to grow in familiarity, but it’s the sort of substitution that Houllier in his latter days on Merseyside would have made.
As ever, the drawing board appears to be the only place where the manager can be headed. After his success in Spain, Benitez knew the task of taking Liverpool back to the top of English football was not going to be easy, but perhaps he never bargained on it being quite this hard either. Cash from our Middle Eastern friends cannot come soon enough.