It is a sign of the times that finishing fourth in the league is seen as more of an achievement than winning a trophy to most of us nowadays. The subsequent qualification to the showcase that is the Champions League, the global exposure and the appropriate monetary gains have brought about differing parameters in defining a successful season.
You will recall that Gerard Houllier’s leaving present was to set up Rafael Benitez in this holy grail and our new manager duly obliged by winning the greatest club cup competition in his first season. Amidst great debate of course, we finished outside the fabled top four positions that year, but re-entered the competition as winners. Everton remained then, the only club to challenge the usual suspects in recent times and our presence in the competition had never been threatened until this year.
Indeed, in reaching the final again in 2007, we became renowned adversaries in the competition and the Chelsea and Arsenal ties will always retain legendary status, but for the first time under Rafa Benitez, we did not make the knock out stages this time round and duly entered the “ropey” league after coming third in our CL group.
Even in it’s revamped format, the lack of prestige, distorted fixture arrangements and the relatively small financial recompense leads most of us to believe this competition was and is a waste of time and effort. Also for the first time in years, we saw an unwelcome return to the mediocrity of that struggle with the second tier of the Premier League to confirm our status in the big four establishment, having forsaken any notion of a top three finish with our form in mid season, especially once we lost at the Emirates in December. Those of us who thought our illustrious owners may speculate to accumulate by providing transfer funds in the January window were sadly mistaken despite the very real fear, even then, that the £20 million anticipated CL revenue for season 2010/11 was disappearing over the horizon at a point when City, Spurs and Villa were coming in the opposite direction.
Unfortunately for us then, for the first time in years we saw real, credible and sustained competition from those second tier sides in a year where some of our results were the worst in living memory. In the past both Tottenham and Villa had sacrificed progress in the Europe’s ugly sister by fielding weakened teams when in with a sniff of fourth place, but this time they had no such distractions, especially when it was practically being offered to them on a plate by our relegation form away from home. Of course that second tier of the Premier League had now been galvanised by the nouveau riche Man City, who look set to transform the Premier League status quo with promises of spending beyond even Abramovich’s deep pockets.
The threat, then, to our short and long term future success has never been more real at a time when we are saddled with cowboy owners who, if anything, are making our position more untenable with every passing day. Their declaration of intent to sell the club then was met with universal approval but comments such as finding a buyer to take us to the next level were met with bemusement by me as surely that was why they were here in the first place, wasn’t it? The only “level” they took us was down despite improvements on the pitch and subsequent remarks regarding the profit that could be made left me absolutely disgusted. The whole charade at those early press conferences, the “safeguarding and cherishing” the club’s values and history etc has indeed been shown to be nothing more than a load of bollocks and our scepticism at the time has now been shown to be more than fully justified.
My view on our poor form is both obvious and predictable. An inadequate and unwise transfer policy, once again saw us fail to provide cover for the indispensable Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard as déjà-vu struck for a second successive injury-stricken year. But whereas season 2008/9 saw the squad cope admirably in their absence to dispel the “two man team” myth and finish second, those heroics proved too much to replicate and the squad at times looked worryingly bereft of quality in their absence. Despite the fingers being pointed at our owners for not providing funds, the conviction, that after six years of transfer dealings, our manager should have already balanced his squad accordingly, cannot be dispelled.
Conventional football wisdom dictates the requirement for 4 quality strikers at the very top level. So to have just David Ngog and Andrei Voronin and utilising Dirk to compensate for any absence of Fernando was seen by many of us as a mistake long before a ball was kicked. Particularly when you bear in mind that Kristzian Nemeth was out on loan and the monies from the Peter Crouch and Robbie Keane transfers had seemingly not been spent. Most of us spoke all year in doubting how it could be substantiated that Rafa had indeed got the usual £20 million to spend from the owners plus the outgoing transfer funds. The sums just did not add up and the worrying notion that some went on servicing the debt was never truly dispelled and especially now in the light of recent revelations from Rafa about promises being broken.
In my view though, the major casualty of this whole shambolic season has been our credibility, for at times, we have become a laughing stock. Quite how you can go backwards to seventh from second with over twenty points less, in the space of twelve months, defies belief.
Despite the usual pre –season hype, most of us did keep our feet firmly on the ground and refuse to get carried away, but there was a still a quiet confidence based on that year-on-year improvement to the level of finishing only four points off being champions. Even our adversaries expected us to move to the next level but instead there were real echoes of season 2003/4 when, similarly, Gerard Houllier was into the sixth year of his five year plan too.
The significance of the departed Xabi Alonso, and to a lesser extent Alvaro Arbeloa, became ominously apparent as the weeks and months went by, especially with their replacements seemingly encamped on the treatment table. The further absence of two other important and creative elements in our set up, Yossi Benayoun and Dan Agger, again did little to help the cause, though the quandary remains that, last year apart, no other team seems to suffer when players are missing more than us.
That belief, pre-season, also surrounded the fact that for the first time in our twenty year wait, the league had looked to be there for the taking with our adversaries all apparently weaker this time around. United without Ronaldo, Chelsea’s ageing midfield a year older and Arsenal continuing to be big on promise and southern media rhetoric, but not much else. As it turned out the number of defeats suffered by the top three was indeed excessive by normal standards, but a further glance at our total losses, at well into double figures, is nothing short of fucking disgraceful for a team with such lofty aspirations and you have to say is quite frankly unacceptable.
I still remain of the opinion though, that the addition of say, David Villa and David Silva, to supplement Fernando would have (obviously) meant less pressure on his continued fitness and varied our attacking options and would have at least taken us very close again. Especially when you consider just our two reversals last year and the point tally which has won it this time round. Nevertheless, it is obvious to everyone that we also remain bereft of potency, guile and creativity in supplying the ammunition to the forwards from the midfield at times. When taking on the best defences in particular, our goals scored in the big games even with the now apparently injury prone Fernando would substantiate that conviction.
That requirement for 2 or 3 world class requirements costing £60m was of course discussed repeatedly over the last few months by Rafa, Stevie and Fernando but it is an old chestnut that has been debated for years on the forums. Indeed the fabled left wing conundrum has cost us both financially and emotionally for about twenty years now with Albert Riera, becoming the latest final piece of the jigsaw that never quite fits together.
The performances against Atletico Madrid and Chelsea in the last few weeks somehow encapsulated the season. Atletico are a not as good as Benfica but the margin of the win against the Portuguese was purely down to the presence of Fernando in one game and his absence against his former club in another. Okay I gave my derisory opinion of this competition earlier in this article but having got to the semi-final, the competition was there for the taking and the fact that we could not beat the tenth best team in Spain says it all really in what is supposed to be our specialist subject i.e. European football over two legs.
Likewise against Chelsea, that overall lack of quality in squad saw players being utilised out of position all over the park and against the best team in the country, you just cannot do that. Still, the damning fact from the game was that our only shot on target came in the 93rd minute and that is quite frankly a staggering statistic.
Wholesale changes, then? Not necessarily, I am not 100% in the camp that wants Rafa out at all costs but there comes a time, a feeling, a sense, call it what you like, when you have to take a considered, detached view, put the emotion to one side and ask yourself whether we are progressing or not. We had a revolution behind the scenes last summer and a complete overhaul of the academy and reserve coaching staff and the recent strategy of recruitment of the cream of English talent under the tutorage of Rodolfo Burrel and King Kenny gives us great optimism for the future but it in the short term I have major concerns regarding the first team. Now if any of you reading this think we are moving forward then I would admire your optimism but also ask you to justify how come you felt that way. We have always supported our managers, that is the Liverpool way and we are admired universally for never really dissenting when things go wrong, but there is little in what we have seen to predict a title assault next season and as far as I am concerned, that is the be all and end all. If we go into next season with the ownership issue rumbling on for fourth year and still no massive investment on transfers, then seventh place will be in doubt, never mind fourth. Under those circumstances I could see dissention of a kind never witnessed at Anfield before.
Nobody realistically knows the exact figures spent in Rafa’s reign but some being bandied around suggest he has spent £240 million and recouped £180 million. Simple maths, therefore, shows a net outlay of £10 million per year has been spent in trying to create a squad that can first of all compete with the best and ultimately, to go on and win the league. I would suggest that if these sorts of figures are correct, then it is simply not enough. I hear the names being put forward where we have wasted money but I would counter that by saying that you get what you pay for and would suggest that our first eleven are indeed good enough to take on anyone but the 7 on the bench need to be of the same quality and sadly that is not the case by a long way.
Fourth place and better has brought in, by my estimates, getting on for a £100 million in revenue from the Champions League taking into account the two finals we reached. Somehow that shortfall will have to be absorbed and an awful lot more for the kind of reinforcements to be brought in that we are all looking for. To my mind without investment now, the future is indeed bleak. If we were not being given substantial transfer funds when the CL revenue was coming in, how the hell can we expect it now that pot of gold has gone to White Hart Lane?
A lot of us said that this shit season, perhaps, needed to happen. The thinking being that our ‘owners’ would then sell up and their asking price would be reduced accordingly. Only time will tell if things are as straight forward as that, but it is a risky strategy if there happens to be no buyers out there. The slippery slope could indeed be a very long one if we are asset stripped by two very greedy businessmen who would only ever give part of their ill-gotten gains back to the manager if, god forbid, our best players were sold.
Quite how David Moores has viewed the last three years is unknown but his comments regarding selling the family silver only once may well haunt us all for a very long time.
Pessimistic times to be a red.