Last week was a good one to be a fan of our club. Second only to winning a trophy, success over Man United is as good as it gets especially when the win was so clear cut and even the staunchest of their fans accepted that. The self imposed press veto by the club’s hierarchy at the time saved them the ordeal of explaining away a performance when we out thought, over-ran and outplayed the best team in the country.
This is why we follow football. That strange sense of well being when the club you love puts on a performance over your fiercest rivals and a televised audience of millions witnesses it too. The sense of occasion and atmosphere in the ground of course, was exclusive to only about forty odd thousand, but our supporters around the world will have enjoyed it just as much and at the very least this gave us optimism for the future.
As usual, of course, we are struggling in the pack and United are top of the table and worse still, likely to overtake the magic number and win title number 19. So lets just enjoy the bragging rights of the win for a while and look at the bigger picture to assess if we are closer to being set up to challenge United’s supremacy in general as opposed to just in one match. As the barometer then, they are the team to beat but it is a fair assertion that it has never been more difficult to acquire even the hallowed top four status, never mind the holy grail of becoming champions. They say the table doesn’t lie and if that is the case then there are four other teams who will consider themselves better placed than us to topple United.
Under “Arry” the fortunes of Tottenham have undergone a staggering transformation in recent times to a situation where they have shown they are not even out of their depth with Europe’s elite now. The transformation of Gareth Bale from win – jinxing defender to arguably one of the most feared counter attacking wide players in world football was a master stroke and just one facet of the options that they possess in a surprisingly strong squad where they have even been able to offload Robbie Keane, such was the strength in numbers. Bereft of success at home and abroad for so long, the board have nevertheless always provided the transfer funds to try and challenge their North London neighbours and after a lifetime it seems that they are very close to achieving that aim. Prone to defensive lapses though, they remain inconsistent but still a very attractive proposition to watch and classy performers like Van der Vaart, Modric, Defoe and Pavlyuchenko with the option of Crouchy from the bench, means that they can score in any company and makes them, to my mind, credible long term adversaries for us now. Furthermore and obviously, the CL revenue and experience will make them stronger opposition next year.
The situation at Stamford Bridge is one that most of us predicted with the core of the expensively assembled squad having now reaching the wrong side of thirty and requiring young blood at a time when there are doubts surrounding Roman Abramovich’s continued financial appetite. The signings of Fernando and David Luiz will have satisfied the locals to a certain extent but having bought their trophies in the past, the fact that they are no longer football’s biggest spenders will raise concerns given an apparent lack of youth coming through the ranks there and especially with new imposed financial guidelines on the horizon. After such a superb start to the season, even their most rabid fan would agree that on current form, they are no longer absolutely nailed on to finish in that top four and a Champions league success would now be a bonus as opposed to the trophy they felt was overdue. Accordingly, the decision and timing of Liverpool’s number nine to jump ship there was seen by many as a strange one that may well turn out to be, to say the least, ill judged, if the club policy there flounders over the next few years. Carlo Ancelloti has some big decisions to make in rebuilding especially if the fans, spoilt by success, have to endure a barren spell as a consequence.
So if buying success is indeed no longer the long term option, City will have least done their shopping in time but the problem at Eastlands has now gone from a lack of credibility in attracting the really big names to one of harnessing a winning formula from the many expensive players they now have actually assembled. The varied egos and languages bring about their own issues of course and owner expectations are obviously and predictably high. City have an amazing squad now though and will probably win the league in due course if they get it right on the pitch. Having the luxury of twenty odd million pound players on the bench to replace twenty odd million pound players who are either off form or injured is, as near as possible, a policy that is guaranteed to bring success as long as you can keep everyone happy. The most important signing under these circumstances is of course, the manager though it remains to be seen if Roberto Mancini can produce a winning culture. Personally, I am not convinced but with unlimited resources, his replacement by, say a returning Jose Mourinho next year for example, would be a master stroke that would be devastating for anyone with designs on success.
Arsenal, conversely, are stability personified and have utilised our unrest and the loss of form at Chelsea to launch their own assault on the premiership and are currently sitting pretty in second place. No longer a team of youngsters as such, they are now well experienced in terms of the premiership and Europe. Firmly sticking to his beliefs in attacking flowing football, Arsene Wenger is a fantastic manager in producing and nurturing talent and most of the time his team produce football second only to Barca in terms of quality. Unlike their Spanish superiors though, the men from the Emirates have the uncanny knack of shooting themselves in the foot as opposed to the back of the net, especially on the big occasion and the Carling cup final defeat and subsequent results are the case in point. Their inability to produce a plan B when the beautiful game fails has cost them in the past and you just some how feel it always will. Arsene’s ideology is commendable but looks like becoming their Achilles heel if the lack of trophies increasingly becomes a millstone round the neck of this crop of players. Having so very nearly lost their only true world class player in the summer, another fruitless pursuit of United in terms of silverware could yet see the hallowed return of Fabregas to the Camp Nou in the summer and you just feel that the wheels may begin to fall off then, especially if Wenger starts to lose his appetite for the cause.
On to United then and the enigma and blue print for sustained success that we all need to replicate. They looked very ordinary in defeat last Sunday but then there have been many times over the years when I have looked at their team on paper and wondered how they achieve what they do. They are the ultimate example of the sum of all parts being far greater than the individual components and the level of performance normally extracted by Sir Alex is staggering. Look at their squad on paper and tell me how many would walk into any team in the world and none would be automatic inclusions. Yes there may be an argument for Evra , Vidic and Rooney but that’s about it. Giggs, Scholes and Ferdinand would have qualified five years ago but not now. Alternatively, would you have Brown, Fletcher and O’Shea at Anfield? Almost inevitably you would say no but they all do a fantastic job in a winning team and that is what it is all about. As someone once said “ show us your medals”. After Giggs, the most decorated player at United was Gary Neville and although he was never the most skilful, his attitude, professionalism and desire on the park for his team was second to none and that sort of dedication was and is vital in supplementing the more elements to create the right blend as opposed to just spending the most. Just as importantly perhaps and again like Giggs, he never cost a penny having come through the ranks and was loyalty itself without the tantrums, a home sick wife or transfer requests when things got a bit shitty. Whether you like it or not, United are top of the league on merit and play good attacking football with an appetite for success that is second to none. I fear they will win the league again and rack up number 19 and as one who witnessed our 18th when they had a mere seven it is a very bitter pill to swallow.
So what is the way forward for us? The five teams above us would justifiably assert themselves in a better position to retain their status next year and beyond. The big four has become the big five, we are not in it and very few outside of our support would see us breaking up that monopoly anytime soon. So why is this air of optimism so prevalent amongst us? City and Chelsea have more money than us, Spurs have the momentum, Arsenal have a better squad and United have the winning habit but still the feel good factor is here. Are we simply deluded as we enter yet another false dawn or is there a case for justified optimism?
Two years ago at this stage of the season we were statistically, at least, the best team in Europe having brushed aside Real Madrid and United in successive matches and looked good to win the only two trophies worth winning in football but since then it has been all downhill. We have lost two managers, three world class players, put up with all kinds of boardroom acrimony, courtroom battles and endured some of the worst displays in living memory. At the very least though, I believe we have come out of a very long tunnel and if nothing else, have a structure in place now to at least be in a position to challenge.
Incidentally, the shining lights in the drama of those courtroom scenes have both left the club to very little comment and to my mind, not an ounce of gratitude for the job they did in ridding us of Hicks and Gillet. The animosity towards these two men arose from an acrimonious meeting with the S.O.S. lads in Christian Purslow’s case and an affinity to Chelsea with Martin Broughton. Given they outmanoeuvred and out smarted two street wise adversaries so comprehensively in court to get the selling price down to a reasonable level seems to have gone largely unheralded in most quarters and it baffles me why. Other than Kenny, I can’t think of anyone who has done more to give us optimism for the future now than these two. The personal sacrifices must have been huge in preparing and enduring our legal case but they never flinched and won hands down. If you still are not convinced then consider this scenario as our worst nightmare. What if H & G had managed to achieve success in court and prevented the sale to NESV who then pulled out of the deal. The boardroom situation would have gone into meltdown, the results from bad to worse and when Torres went, the entire 50 million would have disappeared back over to the states to service the debt. Think it couldn’t have happened? Then just remember where the Ronaldo money went at United.
Nightmare scenario over then, we have woken up and NESV are already proving to be just the sort of owners that we needed. No bluff and bluster or empty promises but quiet, studious people who are involved, prepared to listen, act decisively when required and not afraid to invest in the transfer market.
John Henry has shown he is a calm assured character who says all the right things in a quiet dignified way and he is gradually melting our justified cynicism of anything American with his manner. It looks like the acquisition of Luis Suarez had previously been sanctioned prior to Fernando leaving and so this may help dispel any reported notions about a lack of funds being available. Either way you have to say that the “epic swindle” perpetrated by the fixing of the price and subsequent sale of our club at a perceived low price may well have inadvertently swelled the coffers for future transfers and investment if, indeed, the true value of our club was indeed higher and NESV had set aside funds and were prepared to meet a higher valuation.
Damien Comolli was brought in, I think, to oversee the transfer policy as director of football and old cynics like me tend to dispel such new ideas out of hand but the way we dealt with the Torres departure and brought in Andy Carroll has warmed me to the man. A chequered CV from his time at Tottenham and Arsenal has also led to disquiet in some parts but let’s just give the man a chance to do his job over a period of time before we comment. If he does nothing more than keep the pressure of Kenny to do his job then he will do for me. Apparently the man is au fait with the football world in Europe with contacts throughout, so even if he snaps up one gem in the transfer market he will have justified his salary, regardless of yours and my perception of the validity of the position. The fact that it has been sanctioned by the owners as part of their strategy is also a good sign. For too long we have been a ship without a rudder and a fragmented crew without a clear direction. In many ways we missed out on the commercial aspects of marketing our club at a time when this was crucial. The value of our club now compared with that of Manchester United says everything you need to know. Our halcyon days are a generation away now and any processes or business plans to get us back to the top need to be embraced by everybody pulling in the same direction. The boot room days are gone even if the Liverpool way hasn’t and people like commercial directors and directors of football are important facets in the running of a club nowadays.
Kenneth Mathieson Dalglish answered the call to return to the club as manager when it was clear that Roy Hodgson’s tenure was not working. To say he has been a revelation is an under statement and the difference on the park is quite staggering from three months ago. Any doubts about “going back” or “being out of the game too long” have been dispelled by the aura of the man, his man management skills and he has begun the task of returning some dignity to the club by conducting himself in the that Liverpool way. The defeats to West Ham and Braga have restored a bit of sanity when there was a danger of people getting a bit carried away. There is still a lot to do but the signs are good that for the first time in living memory there are no dissenting voices and everyone is, at last, pulling in the same direction. Praise should also be given to the contribution of Steve Clarke whose appointment was equally inspired and I am sure his input was invaluable in some of the changes in tactics we have been seeing. They are both on contracts until the end of the season but despite reports intimating that a contract is now in the offing, I see no point in altering that plan. In the summer we can all sit down in a relaxed manner to review the situation and decide the way forward.
Seldom in the past has there been a time when there was so much excitement and discussion regarding the quality of the youngsters coming through. The investment in the academy and the installation by Rafa of Pep Segura and Rodolfo Burrell was imperative in order to try and provide a conduit from youth to the first team. There was a danger of academy becoming a white elephant and the logjam of talent that was peaking at eighteen in the reserves was becoming really problematic. Two youth cup triumphs in three years, for example, has produced only one player of note in Jay Spearing. Despite recruiting the next Messi and Zidane from all around the world to supplement the locals, on so many occasions once they became ensconced in Kirkby, all we ever saw of them again was a brief glimpse in pre-season friendlies, the odd games for the reserves and then anonymity. Hallowed names such Nemeth, Dalle Valle and Buchtman were all supposed to be the next big things at Anfield but have gone the way of so many others. So perhaps we should all exercise a little restraint with guarded optimism as the way forward with the likes of Suso, Coady and Sterling then, as opposed to over-the- top-expectations. A youth policy is the chosen route at our club but the kids are not robots, they are young impressionable men. Bringing half a dozen of them through to become the basis of our team is the dream of course. It happened at United in the nineties of course and was the catalyst for their success and the fruits of that same policy are now being enjoyed at Barcelona. So yes, the facilities, infrastructure and staff are all in place for success here, but let’s just see what happens without the hype rather than piling on unnecessary pressure of expectation.
Everyone has their own ideas about the strengths or otherwise of the first team at the moment but I think it is fair to say that in the main, most of us would consider that getting both Carroll and Suarez for Torres was a pretty good deal. We have the rest of the season for the pairing to work on an understanding but even in the limited time so far, Luis has shown some incredible ability in the box and the best thing about the lad is that he seems fully aware of what is going on around him when on the ball and that is a major asset. The aerial threat posed by Andy, as well as his physical presence, gives us all kinds of extra dimensions and options going forward and if he can develop his all round game, then we may have spent very wisely. Very early days of course but the prospects going into next season already are starting to look good, especially with the potential of some world class additions to supplement these two. Never again must we find ourselves relying on just one striker to score all our goals as I remain of the opinion that a world class forward, alongside Torres, with Steve playing just deeper, would have won us the league two years ago.
Speculation is rife about who we will bring in but with ownership debate a thing of the past, perhaps we will at last be in a position to spend big because, as I outlined earlier, it has never been more difficult to get into the top four, never mind winning the league. So where do we need to invest? Let’s start in goal and the rumours surrounding Pepe worry me. Not only because he is arguably the best in the world but also because he plays in every game and no one else is getting even a minute of match time experience. Losing our fourth world class player in three years really would give credence to the assertion that we are becoming a selling club and I would argue that his loss, especially to United, would be the most costly of all. Enough said. By bringing in the quality to challenge on all fronts, I hope the Spaniard will be as happy to be part of this club and as delighted with his new team mates as we are.
Paul Konchesky was considered to be a steady acquisition for the job at left back but it is hard to see him returning to the fold and with the continued injuries to Fabio Aurelio, clearly the situation needs to be addressed. Most of us would be of the opinion that when fit, Fabio is more than capable of holding down the shirt but his career has been blighted both in his time here and indeed when he was younger. Glenn has done a good job but at the very highest level, he needs to revert to his favoured side where the emergence of Martin Kelly will us real competition with two Englishmen competing for the right side and the option of playing both if tactics and opposition permit. Especially bearing in mind the level of injuries also being constantly accrued by the left sided Dan Agger, a consistent world class left back is absolutely essential acquisition to my mind along with the return of Emilio Insua who would be a better player for his year on loan. Quite why he went in the first place was mystery to me and unless we get offered big money for him, let’s get the lad back.
The centre back situation isn’t too bad as far as I am concerned if they are all fit. Carra and Agger would be my first choice pairing with Martin and Soto to supplement them and the option of three at the back when required. It remains to be seen if the experience gained by a returning Danny Ayala from loan will convince that he is the natural long term replacement for Carra or will that berth go straight to a developing Danny Wilson. Either way I would suggest that the signing of a centre half is not a priority at this stage.
The midfield is the subject of so much debate and conjecture but while I would suggest we are well endowed with good players, aside from the captain, only Raul is approaching world class. None of them are dynamic, box to box type or have the ability to beat a man with any sort of conviction and score. These are exactly the sort of qualities we were expecting from Joe Cole but even he has admitted disappointment in his form so far. A distinct lack of pace is prevalent in our ranks and we currently do not have the ability to hit teams on the break and this is highlighted in particular in the away legs of our Europa cup campaign where the goals have all but dried up. Comforting re-assurance for Joe Cole would suggest that Kenny still has faith that the lad can still rediscover his form and if that was to be the case, in tandem with Luis, we would have plenty of flair in the attacking third. Stevie can’t be forever expected to keep bombing all over the pitch and I see him now adopting a more central role across the midfield and dictating the play from behind the front men. Jonjo Shelvey, prior to his injury, had done enough to suggest that he may well have the dynamic qualities we are looking for but the enigma that is Dani Pacheco remains a mystery. Three successive managers now have only sporadically used the little Spaniard and you just start to wonder if he is a good as we think. Having starred and been top scorer for Spain’s youngsters last summer, I thought he was nailed on for increasing game time but alarmingly for the lad that never materialised which was a surprise, especially when you look at the dross we endured under Roy. Having spent years in bringing the lad on, it will be a shame if yet another prospect fades into obscurity after promising so much. Now that Raul and Dirk have added goals to their commendable work rate, both look nailed on for first team berths in whatever formation Kenny chooses with the latter still showing the striker’s qualities that will maybe justify Kenny only requesting that we need one more striker as opposed to two. Accordingly, most conjecture will centre around the likes of Maxi, Lucas and Christian, all of whom don’t do enough to convince on a regular basis and all manage to split opinion on their inclusion as anything other than squad members. As captain of his country and vastly experienced in Europe, Christian has to be a better player than we are currently seeing but his ineffectiveness for us is there for all to see. Lucas continues to add admirers with his work rate but he too needs to add more to his game to totally convince that he has the quality required at the very top level. Maxi is another with the worrying ability to go missing in games against the better opposition which is a disappointment when you consider the player we thought we were getting. Alberto Aquilani is another player out on loan and with current speculation regarding Juve wanting him on the cheap, then I would also get this lad back and have a proper look at him now he is fully fit. If he can offer us something different and is mentally up for the challenge of the premiership, then what have we got to lose. He is after all, still our player.
The list of players designated in filling the left wing berth over the last ten years or so must have run into double figures now and you just wonder how many more missing pieces of the jigsaw will be tried before we finish the puzzle. Crouchy never ever got the service in the air to fully utilise his talents so for Andy Carroll, we must get people to the by-line with the ability to send over a quality ball on a regular basis. It says it all that Martin Kelly is probably second only to Stevie in the entire club with that ability, so a foray in the market is absolutely essential for a wide man for that function.
It is difficult to remember a player who has had a bigger impact on arrival than Luis Suarez. Despite scoring just one scratchy goal, he has peppered the woodwork, is adept with the dead ball situation and his assists column is soaring by the week and memories of Peter Beardsley and Kevin Keegan come flooding back every time I see him play. His close control and awareness are exceptional and if this is the sign of things to come then we got him cheap. As with Andy, let’s just let the lad settle in until the end of the season, work on the training ground and decide who we can bring in to fully optimise the varied talents of our new front two. David NGog is of course the one under pressure now and it remains to be seen if training with the big Geordie brings about a change in his outlook. Too easy going for his own good, the young Frenchman physically has it all but rarely shows it .Imagine though if he did something about that laid back character and replaced that forgiving smile with a snarl and the sort of Gallic aggression his rugby compatriots are famous for and then we might indeed have a player.
So there we are then. As far as I am concerned we need a left back, a box to box midfield dynamo, a wide player and depending on our outgoings, either one or two more attackers. It remains to bee seen how far of the mark I am in terms of who actually sign in the summer, but we have owners who look like they will endorse whoever the manager and director of football identify as our requirements. Significantly perhaps, that man at the helm is an icon at the club who has experience of winning everything both as player and manager and perhaps the only adversary other than Mourinho that may give Fergie room for concern.
You would assume that with the level of investment made already and that set aside for ground development / replacement and transfer funds, a massive institution like NESV, with it’s proven track record of turning round the fortunes of the Boston Red Sox, will have a master plan or vision for success. It remains to be seen if that plan can be replicated in terms of results on the pitch but at least we are in safe hands now with a global fan base as loyal as ever and an infrastructure in place supplemented at last by a commercial side which is not being just used to service a debt. At the very least the players that step out next season will represent a club that is in the best shape for a generation to challenge.
Positive times to be a red?