Few would disagree that our season hasn’t exactly gone to plan, and following last year’s barnstorming late push for the title, fans can be forgiven for being disappointed, despondent or just generally p*ssed off about our performances over the last few months. Whether you blame Rafa, the players or bad luck it’s very difficult to accept the fact that entering the Christmas period, our main aim is to claim a spot in the top four.
Results have polarised the majority of supporters into rival factions. Where the ‘knee-jerk’ gang cries for Rafa’s head, others call for loyalty and solidarity, and for most it’s becoming increasingly difficult to sit on the fence.
As always at TIA we try to take an even-handed approach to analysis and as such I’ve compiled the ‘top ten’ reasons why, in my opinion, our team hasn’t clicked so far this season. Some may seem obvious, some overly critical, some overly forgiving, but as always we welcome discussion so feel free to post your views in the comments section below.
Injuries and confidence
Let’s start with the obvious. Nobody could quite have anticipated the injuries to key players we’ve had to deal with this season, and while it’s true that all teams must cope if they expect to challenge for the title, the simple truth is that we’re not prepared to do so. This is partly due to the extremity of the situation but largely down to a lack of funds. Fans argue that money could have been better spent, and some of this criticism may be justified, but the fact that we missed out on quality defensive cover to Sunderland because we only had £2m left to spend in the summer should say it all.
The season started off to a bit of a shocker against Spurs as Carra and Skrtel clashed in our opening game, which had a visible effect on the team in a tricky opening fixture that we were no doubt fired-up for following our strong finish last season. Sadly this was to be the shape of things to come, and a series of unfortunate, unsettling injuries to key players has made it extremely difficult for a solid first-eleven to build up a head of steam and vital confidence at any point during the season. We’re still struggling, and with Stevie looking a little lacklustre following his return from injury, there are too few guiding lights in our team at present. This brings us to:
Lack of leadership
There haven’t been nearly enough players in our first team capable of providing a moment of inspiration during difficult times and pulling the team up by the bootlaces. Gerrard pretty much defines this role, but is clearly far from his best at the moment and looks a little lost without his strike partner in tow. Looking around the pitch, many players are too young or too ineffectual in this light and often it seems that key performers who are capable of a big of magic now and again (Benayoun, Johnson) are searching earnestly for support where there is none. Alonso provided that last season with his calm, assured play, and when Gerrard, Torres and Aqua-man (provided he lives up to his billing) are fully fit we’ll have more than enough. For the time being though, we’re desperately short on options in terms of creativity and inspiration.
Our front line
Much has been said about the lack of a quality backup to Torres, and as impressive as Ngog has been this season he cannot (and should not) be relied upon as the main goal threat at his tender age.
Many fans, wrongly I believe, criticise Rafa for ‘selling’ Keane, Crouch, Bellamy etc. when the players clearly illustrated that they didn’t have the right attitude and/or weren’t willing to sit on the bench. Other teams keep players happy by paying them exorbitant wages, which we can’t afford to do, but our biggest problem is that our two most undroppable players (when fit) occupy the front two spots. This leaves us attempting to pick up a cheap, young, unproven prospect (NGog), or an aging star (Van-Nistlerooy, for example), neither of which can guarantee to be an able deputy to Torres and in the case of the latter (with the World Cup coming up) may not be happy to sit on the bench.
Could anyone who criticises Rafa for this name many strikers that would cost no more than £5m AND be willing to sit on the bench for (potentially) the vast majority of the season?
Following the final months of last season, there can be little doubt that with a fully fit squad, the Gerrard-Torres partnership is unbreakable, which puts the manager in an extremely difficult situation when trying to entice quality replacements on a limited budget.
Since my previous criticism of Lucas, he has improved dramatically over the last few months and has contributed to many of our best performances. However, there’s no escaping the fact that with him and Mascha in our midfield we are desperately short of creativity through the middle. Neither of them have a knack for picking out a killer pass, neither of them are known for scoring from distance, and neither have a great passing range. Two ‘battlers’ in the center means we’re desperately short of service to the front men in our preferred passing game, something which has been exacerbated by injuries to the two players in our team who are capable of making something out of nothing. We’re all hoping that Aquilani will be this man when he is fit, but Rafa’s undoubted fondness for Lucas suggests that he may try to cram the three of them into midfield, which I think would be a mistake.
The old zonal-marking argument has been rampant again this season, and this is in no small part down to the cackling monkey at Sky Sports and his bald-headed trainer. The frequency at which Richard Keys raises this subject is frightening, and the lack of objectivity in praising the system when it works is synonymous with modern one-eyed punditry. The real reason why we are looking so ‘shaky’ at the back this season should be far more obvious – we’ve had 11 different defenders start for us across the back line and with Johnson bedding in (very nicely I’ll add), a stable back four is essential if we are to maintain our excellent defensive record. This hasn’t been possible, and combined with a lack of height at times we’ve been exposed far more frequently. Hopefully with Agger back fit alongside Carra we can re-establish our dominance in this area, and three clean sheets in a row is testament to this.
Expectations of both fans and players following last season were effectively sky-high, and though this can breed confidence, (bordering on arrogance – one of the biggest reasons Chelsea and the Mancs tend to ride ‘storms’ so well) when things are going well, it can feel like a hammer blow when the proverbial sh*t hits the fan. There’s no doubt we’ve been mopping up quite a lot of it this season, and other key factors such as a lack of leadership or inspiration means we’re only left with ‘working hard’, as Rafa puts it, in order to put things right. There are very few performances this season where we can accuse players of not trying, but this has too often resorted in the old ‘headless chicken’ approach that runs the risk of leaving you exposed at the back.
Expectations are part and parcel of the game for a club like Liverpool, but when it gets to the point of being damaging and catalysing sweeping decisions as to the abilities of the manager or certain players, it’s important to put things in context. The much lauded book Socceronomics, which is explained and summarised with clarity in relation to our club by LFC analyst Paul Tomkins, explains exactly why some people’s expectations for this season may have been unrealistic (at least statistically), and any fan crowing for the manager’s head should first apply logic to the situation before they come to any rash conclusions.
Lack of funds
Often seen as an excuse by some fans (and most rivals), some shockingly inaccurate figures have been banded around illustrating how much Rafa has spent (read ‘wasted’) and how little quality he’s brought in. This is old ground to an extent, and has been covered extensively by Tomkins, among others, but the fact remains that Rafa has missed out on many of his first-choice targets due to a lack of funds, had nothing to spend last summer (when player sales are taken into account) and should not be realistically expected to mount a title challenge with the fifth most expensive team in the league. Until the owners show some genuine desire to crack the Premiership, the simple fact is that we will not be able to compete with the big boys on an even field, so must rely on a fully-fit squad, sustained confidence and long runs of form to beat Chelsea or Man Utd to the title.
Rafa has commented on a number of occasions that he rarely reads (or watches) analysis from press and pundits in the media, and the majority of our players would do well to take a similar stance. Realistically it’s almost impossible to avoid criticism being aimed in your direction in today’s media-centric times however, and the frequency at which pundits, ex-players and journalists target our club seems grossly disproportionate when compared to rivals who have achieved the same or less on a far bigger budget.
The furore seems to have abated slightly in recent weeks, perhaps because our season appears to be all but over already. Like the proverbial cat that finally grows bored of the mouse because it stops wriggling, they may have decided to look elsewhere. Perhaps Arsene Wenger will get some more stick (wrongly, I should say, much like most of that aimed at Rafa, or, heaven forbid, Harry Redknapp, Mark Hughes or Steve Bruce, all of which have outspent our manager by a significant margin in recent times. The fact that they are all English does thinly-veiled suggestions of xenophobia on the part of the media in this country no favours.
They say luck evens itself out over the course of a season, but perhaps in our case it is evening itself out over the course of two. Last season we accumulated a number of ‘extra’ points from last minute goals against Man City, Wigan and Portsmouth among others and while we arguably deserved them due to our attitude and ambition, you still, to an extent, need the run of the ball and/or a solid finish under pressure to wrap up the points. We certainly have not benefited from anything similar this season, quite the opposite in fact. From beach-balls to calamitous injuries to nonsensical red-cards and some shocking penalty decisions that haven’t gone our way, these decisions can prove vital as a springboard to building confidence over a string of games. Unfortunately we have had neither the personnel nor a sustained run of form to cope, and each of them could quite feasibly be a contributing factor in chipping away at our already fragile confidence.
This article wouldn’t be complete without an analysis of Rafa’s performance this season, and the manager should not be beyond reproach. Though there’s little doubt that much of the criticism aimed at him from some quarters has been grossly unfair, he hasn’t exactly covered himself in glory with some of his tactical decisions and substitutions. While it may well be the case that he has been responding to advice from medical staff on a player’s fitness in many instances, the fact that he is so loathe to take risks, and in many cases has removed (or omitted) a ‘form’ player for a sub that has had little or no impact on a game has just opened the door for further criticism. While I have the utmost respect for our manager and have no doubt that (with the right resources and a dash of luck) he can be the man to take us to the title, it does seem as though he over-thinks things sometimes and while I believe our overall style of play is frequently mislabelled as being ‘overly cautious’, I will suggest that too frequently this season, his decisions on the line-up, substitutions and management of injuries is doing us no favours. Give Rafa a fully fit squad though, and I think we’ll again see how effective he can be.
In summary, there’s a lot to be disappointed by this season, but it’s important to consider these issues with an open mind before pointing the finger of blame at the manager, team or specific players. It’s fair to say that we’re battling for the Europa Cup (horribly mislabelled as a ‘mickey-mouse’ trophy, due mainly to some shocking disrespect shown to it by certain managers, such as Martin O’Neill, and the financial implications of reaching the Champions League) and a top-four place from now on in. Unless ‘Aquaman’ turns out to be ‘Superman’ and our rivals continue to drop unlikely points, of course.
As frustrated as we all are by another ‘false-dawn’, I will conclude with the same argument I’ve countered my ‘negative’ Liverpool-supporting buddies with over the last few months. Judge our team, and our manager, when we have a fully fit squad, and accept the fact that we don’t have the luxury of a series of equally-capable substitutes. If we have our first choice eleven fit for the next three months and encounter a similar run of form to the last three, there will be very few places Rafa can hide. But until then, let’s suck it up and hope for a dream second-half of the season – you never know what might happen.