Another mixed season with another new manager at the helm and these are indeed strange times for those us who witnessed the decades of success where the bye words were stability, consistency and continuity.
It is galling that a glance at the league table shows that yet again there is only one team displaying those attributes as we enter a third decade without that trophy we yearn so much. Floundering in mid table, some thirty points adrift of the summit, with an ominous sense of déjà vu and frantically searching for pointers to give us any sort of hope that this group of players can succeed where so many others have failed, so where do we go from here?
That Hicks and Gillett fundamentally damaged the club to the core is undisputed, but what is also undeniable is the fact that under their stewardship, we had a team that were at least the equals to most and we were so very close to that premiership five years ago. Quite how that team was allowed to be disassembled with such indecent haste is a source of bewilderment to me and even now, that heady week where we were arguably the best team in world football by putting four goals past Manchester United and Real Madrid in successive games seems like a lifetime ago.
But while we have drifted aimlessly, others have not and that task to overhaul the best may indeed be fundamentally more difficult due to the levels of disproportionate wealth being injected into more and more privileged clubs now. Every one of them has followed the Abramovich model by flying in the face of any financial fair play regulations and simply throwing money at the problem for that Holy Grail called “success”.
Our past few rudderless years has also coincided with, in Spain, the rise to eminence of arguably the best club side ever with a totally different philosophy based on close passing and ball retention with the foresight to build that ethos through the club via progression from within their youth system and it is this very strategy that persuaded John Henry to head hunt Brendan Rogers to create a similar dynasty at Anfield.
The task to adapt to the requirements of managing here has been taken up with tremendous humility and passion and it is very difficult not to like the man and in particular, his desire to embrace the values and history of our great club. I think we all can see the thinking and logic behind the project he is trying to create but it still goes against the grain with some that we are being asked (yet again) to be patient in addressing the size of the task, while (yet another) playing staff reshuffle is being undertaken.
So what sort of job is Brendan doing? In my view the progress is steady if not spectacular and in the main, I believe he has unwavering support but that excellent radio programme, the “Anfield Wrap”, made for interesting listening when it was suggested that pro- Rafa and Kenny factions within the fan base, were still making grumbling undertones to dispel that thinking. Indeed the further notion that the manager was saying what we wanted to hear, rather than stamping his own personality on both the club and his job, perhaps has some credence. The “hiding to nothing” supposition was further advanced as a ryder to difficulty of the job in hand.
That task is however being under pinned by potentially the best crop of young talent in the clubs history and if even half of the dozen or so of the excellent prospects on show, do indeed progress to the highest level, then there will be a lot of happy faces on both sides of the Atlantic.
The inability to address the striking options was debated long and hard in the autumn and the introduction of Daniel Sturridge in January, as opposed to last summer, takes on even more significance every time the lad puts on the red shirt. Very rarely has a player had such a profound effect on a team but his signing has galvanised our attacking dynamic in a way very few thought possible only two months ago. Indeed I would suggest that, at the moment, he is probably our second most important player which is quite a staggering admission.
That fabled top four place is no longer the given it “usually” was under Rafa who has his own issues trying to cement that berth down at Stamford Bridge, but the fact that we are even in with a sniff of it presents us with some consolation in the run- in of a trophy-less season. Last August, realistically, I was looking for just a better second half of the season than the first, with a late flourish & run of form to give us grounds for optimism of that CL qualification in season 2014 /15 and there is no reason to believe that is still not a possibility, albeit a remote one.
However, a fifteen second spell of intricate attacking football leading to a goal of superb quality from an attacking left back gave us a tantalising glimpse of what just might be. One and two touches, pinball-like, through a packed defence, if it was Barcelona the hacks would be wetting their pants, but that goal against Swansea gave at least some repost to those who criticised us for over passing “just for the sake of it.” The stattos have been extolling the virtues of our supremacy in the shots taken table compared with the teams in all of the top five leagues in Europe. Now it is nice to be at the top of at least one table but that volume of shots taken merely betrays the imbalance ratio to the number of goals actually scored and none of us need reminding of the number of times we have failed to be clinical and got caught out accordingly.
The 64 million dollar question then is whether are we in good enough shape to compete next year? To hit the ground running in August and be consistent enough to be in a position to challenge for at least a top four place in April. Other than Luis, every man’s place in the team has been scrutinised this year whether it be due to lack of form or advancing years but there will, no doubt, be another raft of changes in the summer as the squad is continually evaluated to get the right blend. To my mind we are still light on goal scorers at a time when margins have never been so tight between success and failure. Against the top clubs we have struggled to compete due to a combination of individual mistakes and not being clinical enough in front of goal.
The obvious exception to this has been the magnificent form of Luis who, for the first half of the season, carried us almost single handed and the fact that we are even in with a sniff of European football next year is down to the Uruguayan. Of all the signings we make in the summer, his inclusion in any team running out at the start of next season will be the biggest coup of all. The departures of the likes of Alonso, Arbeloa, Mascherano and Torres over the last few seasons for the lure of Champions League football is a worrying trend when we are not in that elite group.
Complicating the situation further, the monies injected from Sky television into the game has led to a levelling out of standards across the board domestically and every premiership team has quality players in its ranks now who can punish you if you do not score when you are in the ascendancy and the home defeats to West Brom and Villa are perfect examples of this. Arguably, then, of all the so- called top teams, it is us that has suffered in status more than most in regard.
Ok, so where does all that leave us? In terms of our attacking options, our front three of Luis, Daniel and Phillipe then, looks to be an appetising prospect but is still in its very early infancy with a lot to prove despite our initial enthusiasm. But in terms of a goal threat from elsewhere, we are never going to get ten goals a season from the like of Downing, Henderson, Lucas, Allen or even Borini at the moment and therein lies the problem. Over reliance on just your main strikers does not win you titles as we have learned to our cost from recent experience with our one and two man teams, whereas great sides can rely on goals from all outfield players. Stevie, of course, is not going to last forever, so I believe we still need to add an attacking threat of absolutely top quality to put into the mix if we are going to really mount a challenge at the very highest levels.
Defensively, after starting the season mooted as the best centre back pairing in the premiership, opinion has shifted dramatically and I am reading conjecture that Martin may be sold, a move that I find alarming given the imminent retirement of Carragher and the ongoing doubts regarding whether Sebastien is up to the quality required in the premiership. Quite how and when the manager’s confidence regarding the Agger / Skrtel pairing evaporated I am not sure, but I believe the rotation with Jamie is not helpful in terms of the bigger long term picture unless Martin is, indeed to return home in the summer.
The full back situation looks better than it has for years, especially with the emergence of so many youngsters as back up for Johnson and Enrique, so you would assume we are well served in this area for years now. In goal though, ongoing & continued speculation about Pepe’s future is alarming, having been a rock for us for so many years, his premature departure would sadden me.
With easter, then the home stretch looming with only that remote chance of a top four berth to compete for, you would assume that everything was up for grabs in terms of a place in that starting eleven for next year with, presumably, very few nailed on places in the manager’s mind.
So we face yet another in a long line of pivotal summers where the signings must be spot on and the youngsters really will have to step up to the plate and prove they are the real deal to both supplement and balance the squad. Above all though, we have to be witnessing a significant improvement all round in terms of the quality of performance and tangible evidence that the philosophy being put in place is bringing results on the field. That required consistency and the subsequent “winning habit” is absolutely vital to both keeping and attracting the better players to Anfield.
Another inconsistent season under Brendan without real progress will bring about dissention and apathy and after so long on the periphery of success, it would be a dreadful prospect. The bigger and long term picture though, is that there well may be light at the end of this seemingly endless tunnel, after all. Provided that is, we can just get it right, both on and off the field, over the next season or so because I simply don’t feel that all of the top clubs here are in the best possible shape, either.
Can I ask you to look at our competition in the premier league and what do you see? United will be losing Fergie within the next few years and the fall out may well be catastrophic there and perhaps only Jose Mourinho would have the balls to take over the mantle the great man would be leaving. Mancini, conversely seems to be hell bent on self destruction at City as despite so much money spent, he is still saying his squad is not big enough to compete on all fronts which, from the outside, looks tantamount to a self admission he can’t cope at this level but yet again you feel that a better manager, such as Mourinho, would make better use of the abundant playing resources there – should he get fed up with the boardroom and media pressure at the Bernabeu. The wheels are certainly starting to fall off at the Emirates and there are times this season where Arsene has looked a troubled man and under intolerable pressure.
The media vultures are certainly putting the knife in but quite how the so called “faithful” at the Emirates can turn on their manager is beyond me when you look at what he has achieved, especially under the stringent financial disciplines of recent years. Agent Rafa is on a mission for us at Stamford Bridge and the precipitation for sacking by comrade Roman surely made the choice of Bayern Munich an easier alternative for Pep Guardiola. Spurs, conversely though, seem to have plenty of room for long term optimism with AVB enjoying life across London. So all in all then, it is not exactly tickety-boo across the board and maybe, just maybe a source for optimism on our part? Like a lot of us , the truth is I simply do not know which direction we are heading in and as I say for those of us who gave seen it all, these are indeed trying times.
In Germany though, Borussia Dortmund are the shining example to prove that the ones that spend the most money don’t always come out on top. Provided Brendan gets unequivocal, total backing from F.S.G and he gets the same here from supporters of all persuasion, we simply must hold on to the conviction that this sort of success can be mirrored in the premiership.
Optimistic times to be a red?