A strange sense of optimism grips football fans up and down the land this year- a feeling that every fan shares from Arsenal to Accrington Stanley that this can be their year. The year that the final piece of the jigsaw will be fitted, that the hopeless centre forward will find a pair of Jimmy Grimble boots and hit the 30 goal mark and that the clueless manager will achieve a zen-like state of tactical brilliance.
Of course, these pipe dreams will only come true for a select few as more often than not, by the time autumn arrives, you realise that nothing has changed. For the most part of my life supporting Liverpool, I’ve been well acquainted with excitement giving way to disappointment.
There have been trophy-laden days out in Cardiff, great wins over the Mancs and the Blues down the years as well as the miracle of Istanbul but the times when we have actually had a great season and genuinely like a team who could win the league have been rare. Off the top of my head, only the 1996/97 and the 2001/02 seasons have delivered on the promise of a title challenge and on both accounts we fell at the last hurdle.
Being 19 years old and having gone the match regularly since 1996, I am of course, yet to see us win the league. What’s made things worse is that in that time, our greatest rivals have dominated the league and are rapidly approaching our record of 18 titles. In recent years, I’ve only got a sense of shadenfreude from the outcome of some league campaigns when either Arsenal or Chelsea have triumphed and it’s been a case of ‘œthank God it wasn’t the Mancs.’
It has to change this season. For the first time in my living memory, a Liverpool manager hasn’t been restrained by finances and has been shopping for his first choice targets rather than scrimping around in the bargain basement. Finally, Benitez has got his wish in being able to compete with the likes of Chelsea and the Mancs in the transfer market. Of course, with this comes pressure on Benitez’s part and a title challenge is a must given his spending this summer.
The signing of Fernando Torres is understandably the signing that has created most excitement in fans. Although it’s impossible to fully judge a player on a few pre-season friendlies, Torres has already showed glimpses of quality. He certainly looks an exciting player as he makes things happen when he has the ball, a trait that has been lacking in previous squads. He isn’t afraid to take people on, looks comfortable in possession and appears to have a great footballing brain. The only question mark that remains against the lad is the fact that he isn’t a renowned 20 goal a season man, and that is one of my main concerns about the upcoming season. More on that later though.
Ryan Babel, at first glance, appears to be another promising signing after an impressive time in the U21 European Championships and I’m quite happy with the signing of Yossi Benayoun as I believe he’ll add depth to the squad and can play anywhere in midfield as well as a second striker. In my opinion, it shows how far we’ve come in recent years when a player of Benayoun’s qualities is regarded as a squad player as opposed to a first team regular. Andriy Voronin, who’s signing at first provoked a sense of apathy among supporters, has impressed fans in pre-season with hard working robust displays and looks set to be solid back-up for the forwards. Not a lot however, is expected of South American youngsters, Lucas Leiva and Sebastian Leto. While they have impressive pedigrees for such young players, a first team spot may be beyond both this year and a settling in season may be required, although it will be interesting to monitor their progress should they get a few games here and there in the League Cup.
Anyway, with regards to the current squad- is it good enough to win the league? In my opinion, I will say an optimistic yes, as I would rate our first XI to be a match for any side in world football on our day, but for me, there still remain a few flaws as to whether we can go the distance in the 38 game marathon.
I regard the spine of the team as one of the finest in Europe. In my opinion, Pepe Reina is already one of the top three keepers in world football and whenever he doesn’t play for whatever reason, what is missing is glaring. For a good number of years, we’ve had plenty of keepers who have been great shot stoppers, but have had very little else in their locker. Reina has the complete package. His anticipation is superb, his concentration skills excellent and for a keeper, has phenomenal distribution. Next season, his quick fire throws from crosses to set up counter attacks could be a factor in turning the odd would be draw into a victory. What has impressed me the most about Reina though, is his mental strength- the way he can make a mistake and not let it affect his form. Note the errors he made at the start of last season especially in the Goodison derby, it’s a testament to the man that he recovered from them and ultimately had a fine season in the end.
Defensively, we are quite sound. Agger and Carragher appear to have a great partnership going and in the former, we finally have a ball playing centre half we have lacked for a number of years, the type who looks composed on the ball, can set up attacks and has excellent distribution. Carragher’s retirement from international football is another plus for me over the coming years, and hopefully it can prolong his playing career. The form of Paul Scholes last year for Man United points to the benefits of quitting England when you’re at your peak.
In central midfield, we also appear to be well stocked. Steven Gerrard should now be entering his peak as a player and will of course be central to any title challenge we hope to have. I have yet to see a more complete player than Gerrard and it is a scary thought he could yet get better. Say what you want about his persona off the pitch, but the fact remains that he is a genuine world-class talent and we are lucky to have him. Javier Mascherano will also hope to continue his exceptional form from the end of last season and further add to his reputation as one of the best young players in the world. Xabi Alonso will also have to have a greater impact than he did last season. While not dismissing the Basque’s contribution, the pin point passes to create chances seemed to dry up at times last year due to teams denying him space to play and defending deeper against us, but the lad has showed his class in the past and could be a key player in away games in exposing the chink in opposition defences when they begin to push up and leave space.
Despite Momo Sissoko receiving a stick from some sections of support towards the end of last year given his sloppy distribution and lack of ability in the final third, I maintain that he’s an important squad player to have in certain games when percentage football will be played. His uncompromising style could come in handy next year when teams will fancy their chances of bullying us off the pitch and crucially, his presence will allow more technically gifted players time and space. Note his master class of protecting his own teammates in Barcelona last season for this and Sissoko was certainly instrumental in our victory that night. For me, Sissoko is still very much an important member of the squad.
Of course, there still remain flaws in our squad and one area that concerns me greatly is the lack of an out-and-out 20 goal a season man. Of course, people will argue that the last three champions have won the league without one of these in their sides, but that has depended on everybody weighing in with their fair share of goals, especially from midfield but apart from Gerrard, I can’t see anyone from our midfield getting more than 10 goals in the league which makes the need for a ruthless front man all the greater. Torres does indeed look a quality player from what I’ve seen of him but he’s never been a regular goalscorer so I’m not sure if he’s fully the answer to our goalscoring worries. While Dirk Kuyt’s work rate has won over the majority of fans, the jury is still out on him as goalscorer given his less than stellar finishing at times last year. In my eyes, Peter Crouch still represents the man who, if played, will get the most goals of our forwards; as last year he demonstrated some truly exceptional finishes, scoring the sort of goals that wouldn’t have looked out of place if they’d been scored by Robbie Fowler in the mid 90s. The only thing that works against Crouch is the lean spells he sometimes goes through in front of goal and whether or not Benitez sees him as a first choice striker.
I’m still not sure whether the lack of creativity in the final third, which afflicted a number of games last year, has been addressed. Too often in matches last year would teams be content to sit deep against us in the knowledge that they would be good for a point barring a mistake or an all too rare unexpected flash of brilliance on our part. While Benayoun’s job at first glance would be to replace Luis Garcia as the man to come off the bench and try to unlock a tight defence, I’m still reserved about whether we have enough in our squad to regularly produce moments of brilliance to foil disciplined back fours.
In my opinion, one thing that must change is Rafa’s tactics in away game as well. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy with Rafa’s contribution at the club and not many managers could have achieved what he has in such a short space of time, especially given the state in which he inherited the club but this remains my only real gripe with the man. Six away league wins last year was far from good enough to mount a title challenge last year and most of time, we were far too cautious away from, seemingly playing for a point with anything else being a bonus. Far too many times we’d try and press teams into making a mistake rather than forcing ourselves on the opponent. I believe that a change in tactics away from home is crucial to our fortunes over the coming season and we’re certainly good on enough to take the game the other team in a case of genuinely going for three points.
Another area of importance for me over the forthcoming nine months is differentiating between the league and the European Cup. For two of the last three seasons, our exploits in Europe has come at a cost to our league form meaning that it would be extremely difficult to juggle the demands of both for next season. Very few teams over recent years have reaped success in both competitions in the same season so it is clear that Rafa has to prioritise between the two for the year and conserve a large portion of our efforts for the designated competition. The single minded approach we have adopted in Europe recently would be great if it could be adapted to the league, to have players, managerial staff and fans all pointing in the same direction. I, for one, would be willing to sacrifice a meaningful European campaign next season if it could finally mean that we could put an end to 18 years of false dawns and broken hearts. Here’s hoping anyway.