Looking back, looking forward

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Season 2007/08 was, like every Liverpool season since 1990, the proverbial curate’s egg: good in parts. Inconsistency continues to bedevil Liverpool, made up of two parts inconsistent players and one part inconsistent team selection. The result was a second successive trophy-less campaign, but one which showed that Liverpool are not a million miles away from mounting a title bid. We’ve heard that before, of course.

Success of the season

Fernando Torres. Who else? I was not alone in fearing another expensive flop, a la Djibril Cisse or Fernando Morientes. But I couldn’t have been more wrong and nor could I have been more delighted to have been proved wrong, week after week. The Kid can play and the crushing disappointment is that despite 24 league goals from the best No 9 in England, if not Europe, the team as a whole was not able to make more of his work. Considering only Arsenal of the other top-four teams had a No 9 with a comparable output, and that a 20-goal-a-season striker is considered a must to compete, Liverpool should really have done better than finish 11 points adrift of the champions.

Disappointment of the season

ImageImageA notable mention for John Arne Riise, who has gone backwards pretty much since the last season of Gerard Houllier’s reign, with that regression hastening in the last two years. But it has to be Xabi Alonso. Upon his arrival in 2004, Liverpool fans believed quite rightly that here was Jan Molby’s heir, albeit a more mobile one. There seemed little Alonso couldn’t do with his expert passing from the middle of the park. But since 2006 he has stopped influencing games. Sure, the sprayed balls to the flanks remain, but his assists are few and his goals are far between. For a man with his talent, he should be doing better. A twice-broken foot didn’t help him, but there was a genuine sense of a player going through the motions too often. And given he is still occupying Steven Gerrard’s rightful position alongside Javier Mascherano, it was only fair to expect more from him. If Juventus stump up £16m, Liverpool should be delighted.

Newcomer of the season

ImageYossi Benayoun and Lucas Leiva had their moments, but Martin Skrtel was a revelation after his arrival in January. He looked shaky early on only to improve markedly and offers the manager the opportunity to rest Jamie Carragher without anywhere near as much concern. He and Daniel Agger will vie for that spot alongside Carragher next season, with the venerable Sami Hyypia continuing to offer experienced, quality cover.

Departure of the season

Harry Kewell’s contract couldn’t have expired quick enough for a lot of Liverpool fans and he will ruefully leave Anfield as yet another player whose potential for the club was never realised. The key departure, though, has to have been Paco Ayesteran. Rafael Benitez spoke out about his fallout with his No 2 in a little detail, but the true reasons remain a mystery. Whatever the cause, Paco leaving so early in the season cannot have been anything other than a disruption. Sammy Lee’s return cannot come soon enough.

Overall

ImageImageImageThe off-field wranglings were also a major distraction, but in many ways they shifted attention away from Benitez’s continued underperformance in the Premier League. It is perhaps no surprise that his best season, points-wise, came when Liverpool bowed out of the Champions League relatively early. In the 2006-07 season, third place represented the status quo, if with a significantly reduced points tally. This time round, fourth place was not assured until late on in the campaign, although most of the work was done in the 1-0 win over Everton. The fact was, though, that Liverpool were slugging it out with Portsmouth, Everton and Aston Villa for many winter months and no-one was expecting that after the Reds went top with a 6-0 demolition of Derby on 1 September. Regardless, Benitez appears to have secured himself another season, probably his final one unless he mounts a title bid beyond early autumn, something which he has never done at Anfield. Despite Steven Gerrard’s usual rallying cry that next season will be better, it’s difficult to see that things will be any different come May 2009.

The argument is not so much that the money is not there for Benitez to spend, given the Americans have delivered every player he has asked for since their arrival in February last year. It is the contention that 80 per cent of the team is there, yet it feels like less given the way they are set up and managed. Ryan Babel is a case in point. Abundantly talented, he does not look happy playing on the left of an attacking midfield three. He is forever cutting in on his right foot to get a shot away, upsetting the balance of the team. Why not play him down the right, at least to see how he gets on? Or, more to the point, why not have given him a run up front alongside Torres, where he sees himself naturally? Neither has been tried and there was a real sense that the best of Babel was not seen, nor will be if he is forever asked to play out of position, like El Hadji Diouf, merely to justify paying a big transfer fee.

ImageSimilarly, Benitez has a decision to make about Dirk Kuyt. The Dutchman has scored important goals this season, particularly in Europe, but expecting him to become the new Ray Kennedy is not realistic. Up front or on the wing, his first touch is not good enough and while his work rate is to be applauded it should not be enough to guarantee him a starting spot in the big games. The 4-2-3-1 formation Benitez settled on later in the season might have looked like a masterstroke and something he’s been working towards since he came. But the fact is he still does not have the players to make it click. The full backs are not adventurous enough and two holding midfielders seems like one too many most of the time. It can leave the team’s two best players isolated when up against quality opposition. And, most crucially, it does not get the best out of Gerrard. As silly as that assertion sounds when you look at his goal tally – 19 for the season – he is not a second striker. He has said on numerous occasions he is a central midfielder, just as Carragher has expressed his understandable dissatisfaction with playing at right-back. Both play out of position for the good of the team and to the best of their abilities, but neither are at their best or at their happiest when away from where they are most comfortable. Gerrard is at his best in a 4-4-2 alongside a good defensive central midfielder. If only we had one, hey?

ImageImageIf Liverpool persist with 4-2-3-1, radical changes are needed. Assuming Gareth Barry comes for an inflated fee and plays at left-midfield, he should provide quality deliveries down the left. Those who think Benitez got the best out of Gerrard when he played at right-midfield, not least in 2005/06, will approve if he moved over there again, with the licence to roam. That leaves one position left to fill, and it’s arguably the key one in that attacking trio. Zenit St Petersburg’s journey to the UEFA Cup was built on a number of things, but central to their attack was the brilliance of Andrei Arshavin. Now, Liverpool have long been deficient in many areas and while some have been addressed there is still no playmaker in the team. Alonso looked like he could be that man, but as well as going off the boil a 4-2-3-1 formation has him playing too deep. Gerrard, for all his athletic brilliance, is not a No 10 and he can’t reinvent himself as one either. There aren’t many ballplayers in Arshavin’s mould out there – Arsenal have two of them in Tomas Rosicky and the majestic Alexander Hleb. But Liverpool are crying out for someone to supply some inspiration, creativity and vision in the final third. Arshavin looks like the man to fit the bill. Quick, clever and a goal threat, he would be the perfect foil for Torres’ runs in behind the defence, slipping passes through left, right and centre. Arshavin, valued at £15m, is 27 and nearing his peak – it is time to buy players for the now, and not just the future. It would be a worthwhile investment and would go a long way to getting Liverpool back to playing the pass and move of old. A bid for the other possible for that position, the moody brilliance of Dimitar Berbatov, looks prohibitively expensive.

ImageI am not a fan of 4-2-3-1, but it could work if those players come in. Should Alonso leave, Barry can slot in alongside Mascherano, with perhaps Stewart Downing signed for that left-midfield role. Shaun Wright-Phillips may still be worth a look too. At left-back Emiliano Insua should be given his head and he ought to get plenty of chances if, as expected, Fabio Aurelio’s luck with injuries remains out. Andrea Dossena’s signature seems a little unnecessary. Philipp Degen’s arrival on a free does not quicken the pace. But defence is not really Liverpool’s worry. It’s in attack where there needs to be more invention and an end to the reliance on Torres for the spark. Others must come in and be able to make a difference.

With the expected departures of Peter Crouch, who can consider himself somewhat unfortunate not to have played more and should be kept, Scott Carson, Jermaine Pennant and the hapless Riise, Benitez is likely to have money to play with, on top of what the board gives him. If he makes the right purchases and gets the team playing together with some consistency a genuine, concerted title challenge could well be in the offing. Anything less than that next season and Benitez will be justifiably shown the door.