After the demolition of Real at Anfield on Tuesday night, the following exchange took place between two Liverpool fans:
Fan #1: “I just want to see this type of performance more often.”
Fan #2: “Therein lies the rub. Either the players aren’t able to get geed up for the league, or Rafa’s unable to get it out of them. Point being, we’re able to play like that when we want to, but seemingly choose not to do so. Why is that?”
That’s a bloody good question, I thought to myself, and after giving it some thought, here’s my answer:
I think some of it has to do with confidence and the absence of confidence. When our lads go out in Europe, they play like champions. they play like a team that knows they can beat anyone, they fear no one, they have very little pressure on them (even when the stakes are high and the match is dubbed a ‘œcrucial must win’). I think some of this stems from the miracle of Istanbul. The manner of our wins, the number of narrow victories, often coming from behind to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and that final success in that epic and emotional battle – these things have become embedded in the culture of the club on the European stage. The amazing thing is that it has endured through a time of changing personnel.
Gerrard, Carra and Xabi Alonso are the only players left on our team who won the CL in 2005. But the team has maintained that confidence and fighting spirit in Europe, perhaps because the other players didn’t leave and their replacements arrive overnight, and many of our current team joined the following year and were able to benefit from that same confidence and others arrived soon after and benefited greatly as the team renewed that spirit winning spirit en route to the final in Athens in 2007.
We don’t always play the kind of football we played on Tuesday, but in Europe, for the last 3 seasons, we rarely look like losing. In 2007 we were only eliminated in the final. In 2008, we lost in the semi-final in the most painful of circumstances involving Riise’s calamitous own goal. That’s an unbelievable record to have, even aside from the wonders of 2005.
So our lads go into European battle feeling like winners. Psychologically, they are in a much better position to take advantage of their chances. They aren’t as nervy in front of goal, and they don’t make as many silly mistakes as a result.
But perhaps of even greater significance, because these are cup ties involving top teams whose fans expect to see their players attacking, our opponents HAVE TO attack. Teams cannot sit back and defend over 2 legs. It’s a very risky strategy to attempt to park the bus in European competition – especially away from home. So more often than not, particularly in the knockout rounds, teams come at us and try to play football. This gives our players space to play and, as we’ve proven on several occasions in both Europe and in the Premiership, when teams give our players space to play, we can be as lethal as any other team in the world (ask Chelsea, Newcastle, Besiktas, PSV and now Madrid).
However against the likes of Stoke and Wigan, we face a totally different problem. These teams don’t try to play football. They are aware that if they give us space we’ll slaughter them. And they have nothing to lose from trying to stifle us for 90 minutes. They realise that if they try to play football, they are almost guaranteed to lose, whereas if they park the proverbial bus, they may come away with a point. Their fans put no pressure on them to attack, and the media hails them as heroes if they leave Anfield with a point.
We struggle against these teams because it often requires a lot of individual brilliance to unlock such stubborn defences. This year, the difference between us and United has been how they have been able to turn 0-0s against teams that park the bus into narrow wins (often 1-0 wins), with the crucial first goal often coming from either a Ronaldo freekick, or a burst of pace and trickery from one of Ronaldo, Tevez, Rooney or Berbatov (more the trickery than the pace in the latter’s case). Three of those players are worth over Â£30m, and the other (the world player of the year) could perhaps fetch double that in today’s market.
Whatever the reasons why we don’t have as many Â£30m players, regardless of whether you believe it is Rafa’s fault, the owners’ fault, Rick Parry’s fault or nobody’s fault, it is this lack of multiple Â£30m strikers that has resulted in so many stalemates against teams that park the bus.
It isn’t that Fergie’s tactics are so much better than ours – his tactics are quite reliant on having Â£30m quality players on the field. It isn’t that Fergie is so much better of a coach than Rafa, and it isn’t that Rafa just can’t figure out the premiership. It’s that it often takes the sort of moment of brilliance that only the world’s top talents can produce, to unlock a well organized defense of 11 men behind the ball providing no space for the opposition to move in and out of.
It’s actually a good problem to have because with a team that is doing well in Europe and consistently improving in England, and so getting the cash windfall of European competition year in year out, each year of stability and development means that most of our budget can be spent on acquiring the likes of Torres each summer. United can’t get much better than they are in terms of the quality of players they have on the field. Whereas with the addition of an Aguero, a David Villa, a Tevez, or any player of that callibre, our team can take several giant steps towards premiership success as we’ll have more tools to unlock stubborn defenses that park the bus.
I said before the Madrid match that, a win wouldn’t prove that Rafa is a genius worthy of worship, as neither would a loss prove that he is incompetent and ought to be fired. I said that Rafa is the same coach today as he was 3 months ago; it’s the same coach that masterminded a win against Madrid that saw his team drawing twice to Stoke and against Wigan and Hull etc. So Tuesday’s result doesn’t suddenly turn Rafa into the Messiah. Whatever he is now, he has been all season. The only thing that changes as a result of a single result is fans’ perceptions of reality – not reality. A single result doesn’t prove much.
But what I think the manner of our win against Madrid proved is that our team with Rafa Benitez in charge is capable of playing some of the best football on display in Europe. Although we had the record number of goals in the premiership last year, we are still thought of as a defensive team. I’ve argued that we have seen glimpses of what Rafa is trying to create in matches against Newcastle, Chelsea, Besiktas, and now Madrid. Our team tore Madrid apart much the way Rafa’s Valencia tore our team us apart at Anfield. The Madrid players were chasing shadows, and the score line was flattering to them – had they not had arguably the world’s best ‘keeper in goal, it could have been far worse than it was. And it wasn’t so much the result that excited me, it was the manner of the performance that proved that we really can play some breathtaking attacking football and that we are not merely a well organized defensive team as Rafa’s critics tend to suggest we are. A few years ago it was absolutely unimaginable that we would brush aside a team as great as Real Madrid with such consummate ease as if they were Newcastle! Anyone who can remember the nerves when Liverpool drew Juventus on the road to Istanbul will know I’m not exaggerating.
With time and one or two personnel upgrades, we’ll have a team with enough cutting edge to open up teams that park the bus. And if we can do this early in a match, if we can score a single goal against a team like Stoke, it forces them to try to play football, and we’ve already showed what we can do when a team tries to play football. I think we’re one or two signings away from duplicating our European exploits in the premiership.
I’ve said it numerous times this season and I’ll say it again: we are still a work in progress. However with each passing season, we’re getting nearer and nearer to completion. Prior to this season, we still lacked the experience of a title challenge and the crucial lessons such a title challenge teaches players, even when they finish on the losing side. We are gaining that this year. At the rate we’re moving along the learning curve of title winning teams, I’m confident with one or two shrewd signings this summer, we’ll be perfectly positioned to launch the sort of title winning campaign that will be the beginning of another rich era of success in our clubs great history.