In 2006/07 Liverpool’s end-of-season adventures were once again concerned with European exploits, but there was plenty to admire on the pitch in the Premier League, too—and a club legend to wave goodbye to.
After a third-place finish the previous season, Rafa Benitez once again wielded a ruthless axe to various parts of his squad, improving and adding to the depth of the team, particularly in attack.
Djibril Cisse and Fernando Morientes were replaced by Dirk Kuyt and Craig Bellamy, while mid-season transfers saw Alvaro Arbeloa and Javier Mascherano arrive to reinforce the defensive options.
Benitez was moving toward one of his finest teams, not quite there yet but still one good enough to reach a second Champions League final in three seasons with the Reds.
Even so, domestically there remained a gap between the Reds and the top two.
Liverpool finished third again, 21 points behind winners United and way off Chelsea, too. The problem certainly wasn’t in the defensive half of the pitch though: the Reds had the joint-second best defensive record and kept 20 clean sheets, but only netted 57 in league play—despite 90 overall for the season.
Of those 57, 15 different scorers found the back of the net in the league, with Steven Gerrard (36), Jamie Carragher and Pepe Reina (both 35) playing the most times.
Rotation policy at work
Rafa was famous, or infamous perhaps, for his early adoption of a rotation policy, keeping everyone guessing as to his lineups and picking on fitness as much as form. As a result, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that only two players cleared 3,000 minutes of Premier League action: Gerrard and Reina.
Winger Jermaine Pennant actually played the most games across all competitions in 06/07, with 52, but that doesn’t translate to most minutes—in fact in the league he managed fewer than 2,000.
The wide men and the attackers were often subbed, switched or left out, which perhaps contributed to fewer league goals than were required being scored—or, depending on your point of view, left enough in the tank for the team to mount an assault on Europe.
Watching the goals fly in it’s notable that the front six changed with regularity from game to game, highlights to highlights: Mark Gonzalez or Bolo Zenden; Gerrard in the middle or from the right, a rotating cast up front.
There are positives and negatives which can be taken from it, but it did sometimes leave everyone wondering who was going to be on the pitch, never mind the scoresheet.
The best striking depth in recent history?
Crouch, Kuyt, Bellamy, Fowler.
It might not have scored as many goals as a quartet as the modern-day starting trio do, but for having two players for each role, have the Reds had better depth than that in the modern age?
The short spell where Jari Litmanen joined the English trio of Fowler-Heskey-Owen can perhaps go close, but Rafa’s four were often excellent.
Dutchman Dirk was the big summer arrival from Feyenoord, and though his best days perhaps came later out on the wing, he proved an instant hit with the fans for his non-stop running, enormous bravery, selflessness off the ball and penchant for important, scrappy, close-range goals.
Crouch was already in place and Fowler earned a one-year extension after signing the previous winter, while Bellamy’s arrival brought some much-needed pace and nark to the front line.
It was almost always two from four—Fowler by then the backup and cup option in truth—and at times Kuyt and Crouch in particular had a good understanding.
Dirk’s respectable haul of 12 league goals in his debut campaign in England saw him top score in our league collection, though Crouch (nine in the league) took the in-all-competitions version of the crown with 18 to Kuyt’s 14.
Fowler’s all came from the spot against Sheffield United in the league—while his farewell appearance saw him subbed two minutes from the end on the final day…with the Reds winning a penalty a few seconds later.
At least the man we called God got a proper send-off this time around, though rarely has Anfield sounded more disappointed at being handed the chance to score from 12 yards.
Screamers and surprises
There might not have been the plethora of Premier League goals to celebrate we’d have loved, but some of them were absolute stonkers, goal of the season contenders in their own right and no doubt personal favourites of many fans, for many different reasons.
There was Daniel Agger’s first goal for Liverpool, a missile from miles out which found the top corner against West Ham.
Then Xabi Alonso, winning the ball and scoring, incredibly, from the halfway line against Newcastle—his second goal in succession from that range after doing so the previous season against Luton.
A rare event indeed followed: Jamie Carragher finishing from close range, in a 4-0 win over Fulham.
Crouch netted a stunning overhead kick against Bolton not dissimilar to his effort against Galatasaray.
And Pennant just one goal all season: an unstoppable half-volley into the far top corner against Chelsea.
Gerrard’s latest adaptation
Already the season previous, we had seen Rafa willing to use captain Steven Gerrard in a variety of roles, seeking to get the best out of his athleticism, drive and quality on the ball further up the pitch.
06/07 wasn’t quite as productive in terms of goalscoring, and part of that was a shift back into central midfield earlier in the season—the No. 8 didn’t score his first in the league until November, incredibly enough.
After, it was a case of both looking forward and back: some games out on the right and, after Mascherano’s mid-season arrival, games in support of a lone front man.
We know what came next, of course: the 2007 arrival of Fernando Torres and the unreal partnership that our 8 and 9 developed.
But this particular term was an in-between year of trial and error for Benitez and Gerrard, with the boss perhaps eventually deciding that he needed his main man central—and that meant just one striker, rather than the two he had mostly persevered with throughout the 06/07 campaign.