"I don't know if we are capable of challenging for the title next year.
"We want to make progress but it is a multiple-year programme. We want to challenge but we won't do it overnight.
"Manchester United are formidable competitors, Arsenal are one year older with brilliant young players and Chelsea are perhaps the greatest club in the world. They're not going to get any worse.” – new co-owner George Gillett
I start the last “review” (I promise) with this recent quote from Gillett because in the run-up to this season, this was supposed to be the year that Liverpool finally challenged for the title, if not won it outright (see here, here, here, and here, among others) And we all know how that turned out.
This is a more depressing note to start on than is probably warranted. Liverpool finished third in the Premiership. They reached the Champions League final for the second time in Benitez’s three seasons, despite the final result. Players such as Mascherano, Kuyt, Arbeloa, and Pennant all progressed as the season went on, looked like settling, and looked like important pieces of the puzzle for seasons to come, while other recent signings such as Agger, Reina, and even Crouch improved as well. It was not a season to be completely forgotten. But it certainly was not good enough.
When all is said and done, Liverpool finished third because of the following:
1-1 @ Sheffield
0-3 @ Everton
0-1 @ Chelsea
0-2 @ Bolton
0-2 @ Manchester Utd
Those are the results of the first five away games in the Premiership. I know, it’s an easy conclusion to come to, and a popular one as well, but it can’t be ignored. To be fair, 4 out of those 5 teams finished in the top 7. But I distinctly remember talk leading up to the season ecstatic at Liverpool’s “easy run” in, getting many difficult away matches out of the way early. Combined with Liverpool’s frequent slow starts to the season, aided by a World Cup hangover for many of the key players, this was always going to be a potential pitfall, but they way it ended up still leaves mountains to be desired months after the fact.
In four of those games, against the four that finished in the top 7, Liverpool went scoreless. We know the frequent complaints about Liverpool’s incisiveness, coupled with adding a number of new players to the attack, but the lack of goals has been a criticism for the duration of Benitez’s reign, and it’s not going away after this last season. I’m still not sure how much is due to Rafa’s tactics or due to signings that haven’t panned out as hoped, but both have lead to questions and both need to be rectified if Liverpool is to win the elusive Premiership crown.
The quote at the beginning leads to the big issue: is Liverpool really that far away from #19 than we all thought? Are the fans expectations so much removed from the reality of the situation as the management and new owners see it?
Personally, I’ve been a bit surprised by the stories coming out of Anfield and Melwood following the Champions League final. I expected funds to be spent in the close season, more than in the last couple of seasons thanks to the Americans, but the degree being bandied about is still a lot bigger than I expected. Whether it actually happens remains to be seen, but the consistency in media gossip and the quotes coming from Liverpool staff still make it seem that a bit more change is coming than I thought possible.
Which worries me in another regard. Despite the fact I’m convinced the early season form doomed Liverpool’s title ambitions, some of the reason for that form was due to the number of new players brought in. And if a number of new additions must again be bedded in, what will it do to next season’s campaign?
With that said, I still have the utmost faith in Rafa Benitez. Yes, he can be too cautious and too meticulous at times. But he is building a team basically from scratch (NB: Guillem Balague’s excellent “biography” A Season on the Brink does well to detail the extent of the overhaul started once Benitez arrived although it’s getting a little out of date), one that fits his vision of how football should be played. And from what Valencia accomplished in La Liga, I’m more than willing to give Rafa the benefit of the doubt.
You just have to look at two of Liverpool’s three main contenders (with the money spent in such a short time, Chelsea is a very unique case). Both Wenger and Ferguson were given time to put their stamp on their side (Wenger differently than Ferguson because of the defense inherited, but nonetheless…). Ferguson was nearly fired a number of times in his first few years, not winning the league until his 7th season.
Regardless of the drop in points total and of a second consecutive third place finish, I am still certainly of the belief Benitez will achieve what he’s set out to do. Maybe Gillett is right, maybe it will take longer than just next season, which won’t delight the fans, but Rafa will do it. Anfield will see the trophy paraded around in a lap of honor to the sounds of ‘Ee aye addio, we’ve won the league.’ Of this I have no doubt.