We’ve sure come a long way from those heady days in August when Liverpool was top of the league and threatening to mount a challenge for a 19th title.
For all the complaints over a fourth place finish (which are justified), and the relief in seeing this season finally in the books (mostly due to the ongoing off-field circus), there are still many positives to take away.
First, the arrivals of Torres, Skrtel and Babel, as well as a long-term deal for Mascherano, yet more signs of the ongoing improvement of the squad. Despite finishing fourth, a spot lower than last year (although eight points higher than last season’s total), Liverpool has more and better players at their disposal. In addition, Benitez has seemingly found a formation that caters to the talents of both Gerrard and Torres. It’s been said far too often, especially after last season, but it truly does feel like Liverpool isn’t that far away from the top two.
It’s nearly impossible to do Torres’ season justice, while Mascherano will be a cornerstone for years to come (the fact that Liverpool spent somewhere in the region of £18m on the player hopefully demonstrates that the purse strings aren’t tied too tight), but I want to focus on Skrtel for a second, who was almost as important to the second half of the season as both Masch and Torres.
I’m bordering on hyperbole, but Skrtel played a huge part in Liverpool finishing fourth and qualifying for next year’s Champions League. Look at the statistics posted yesterday; a big reason Liverpool struggled this year was the fact that they gave up more goals and kept less clean sheets (although Reina still won the golden gloves).
While the offense drastically improved thanks to Torres (as well as Babel and Benayoun), the defense was the worst since Benitez’s first season. I didn’t include it in the statistics post, but Liverpool also gave away more penalties this season than in the previous three seasons combined.
But even more important was the fact that Liverpool lost a lead six times this season: Chelsea (h), Tottenham (h), Arsenal (h), Wigan (h), Aston Villa (h) and Arsenal (a), all of which ended in draws. That only happened once in each of the past two seasons: a loss to Newcastle after going up 1-0 in the 6th minute in 06/07 and a 2-2 draw against Birmingham in 05/06.
Five out of those six games came before Skrtel signed, with only the Chelsea match coming before Agger’s injury. And to make matters worse, five of those six games listed this season came at Anfield. Had Liverpool kept a lead in all of those it would have been an extra 12 points. They finished 11 behind Manchester United.
The biggest factor is most likely Agger’s long-standing injury -- not only is he an outstanding defender and partners Carra very well, but he brings the ball out of defense excellently and pops up with goals now and then -- but, and it truly saddens me to write this, Carragher, Hyypia, and Finnan are all showing signs of age, while Riise had his worst season in a Liverpool shirt.
I firmly believe with Agger returning to fitness (providing Carragher and Hyypia more rest to be fresher) and some money spent at fullback (plus the continuing development of Insua), this won’t be an issue next season. Defense is what Benitez has built his reputation on, and I highly doubt he’s lost the plot in that area. It’s about finding the balance between attack, which has vastly improved this season, and defense.
But just as important as the squad improvement, if not more so, is that Liverpool survived. Despite the off-field turmoil, Liverpool’s qualified for next season’s Champions League and made it to the semi-finals this year. Lesser teams would have succumbed to the first three group stage games, the injuries to key players (especially in defense), the poor league spell in the winter, or any time during the Gillett/Hicks/DIC fiasco. But this side didn’t.
And just as importantly, Benitez survived. At nearly any moment during this crisis, Benitez could have walked away and it would have been understandable, with the ownership issue hanging over the club like the Sword of Damocles, Benitez’s mysterious November press conference and January transfer saga, and the Jurgen Klinsmann farce. And it would have set Liverpool back years.
Much of the Spanish contingent probably would have angled for an exit, as could other players signed by Rafa. It could have been Gerrard’s prime and Carragher’s final years wasted. And so much for the youth development set up by Benitez: Insua, Plessis, Nemeth, San Jose, Pacheco, and Bruna, just to name a few.
There may have been moments of wavering during the poor spell through the winter, but I firmly, firmly believe Benitez is the right man to take Liverpool forward. Yes, all the way to the Premiership title. If you could combine the defensive record of 05/06 with this year’s attack, it probably would have already happened.
Liverpool had fewer losses than last season, a vastly improved away record (34 points this season compared to 22 points in 06/07), more goals scored (119, the most since 2000/01) and double-digit goal scorers (Torres, Gerrard, Kuyt, Crouch, Benayoun and Babel), and a better record coming from behind. Plus, there was the double over Everton, which was much better than last season’s performance in the derbies.
The failings were more draws (but, again, fewer losses), a worse Anfield record, a worse defensive record, and finishing a spot lower in the league. But I do believe all of those are remediable, and without spending a ton of money.
Now we just need to settle this ownership nonsense and then roll on August.