This season’s been utterly inexplicable. Confidence is smashed, the team is an utter shadow of itself, and everything seems to be imploding. So, naturally, I feel the need to explain it. Time to list every difference I can think of, as if that’ll help. I should have just titled this post “Blame Everybody.”
The elephant in the room. Better players have left Liverpool at key times before. And while I’m hesitant to overemphasize Alonso’s importance (despite the effusive praise written throughout last season), maybe he’s more vital to the 4-2-3-1 than thought. Liverpool rarely used the formation during Xabi’s “bad seasons,” often playing with some combination of Kuyt, Bellamy, and Crouch (and then Torres if we’re counting ’07-08) up top. Now, the formation that saw Liverpool unbeaten in 13 of 14 to finish last season, putting 4 or more goals past Madrid, United, Villa, Blackburn, Chelsea, and Arsenal, looks wholly impotent. Benitez can hardly be blamed for Alonso wanting to leave, and got double what he would have taken for the player a season before, but Liverpool hasn’t compensated on the pitch.
Alonso’s replacement with Aquilani out far longer than expected. I’ve defended and will probably continue to defend Lucas. He’s steadily improved and delivered impressive performances in a fair few matches. He shouldn’t be the scapegoat he is; he’s been one of the team’s most consistent players. But the team’s unarguably different when Lucas and Mascherano are in midfield. Even Lucas’ staunchest defenders (like me!) have to admit the duo’s nowhere near incisive enough. The three high-scoring victories – Stoke, Burnley, and Hull – came with Lucas and Gerrard in the middle.
The “other” high profile signing. He started impressively, especially in attack, but is part of a backline that’s been unbalanced all season long. He was marginally at fault for three of the last four goals conceded, and hasn’t looked the same player since returning from injury, turning into an absolute defensive liability, which has also restricted his forays forward.
And the other backline change (aside from early-season CB injuries), getting more playing time than he otherwise would thanks to Aurelio’s inability to stay healthy. He can be a tidy defender, but has struggled with the pace of certain players and the height of others. He's only 20 years old. Like Johnson and Lucas, he’s nowhere near the sole or main reason for Liverpool’s problems, but yet another to add to the list.
Blaming injuries is a weak excuse, but bear with me. The big gamble on Aquilani – which might have had something to do with a lack of funds – has completely failed. He was out far longer than expected, with Liverpool off the pace by the time he was “available,” and he even missed the last match after picking up a calf strain. But the entire side’s kept the trainers busy. Torres has started 15 of 26 games. Gerrard’s started 19, only 12 with Torres. Benayoun, Riera, Aurelio, Johnson, Agger, Skrtel, Babel, and Kelly have all missed significant games. But all teams have problems; United and Arsenal have had similarly difficult absences.
The Scousers’ form
Carra and Gerrard are often and rightfully described as Liverpool’s heartbeat. As they go, so goes the club. And neither’s had a season to write home about. Carra saw a lot of stick for the early defensive woes – often looking a step off the pace – although he’s also had some good games that also happened to be wins (United, for one). Meanwhile, Gerrard’s been the opposite of influential since returning from injury (noticing a trend?), unable to dictate proceedings from midfield or in attack, his the telepathic partnership with Torres failing to fire. It’s not like the two are the only senior players off the pace – Reina and arguably Torres (injured but has still scored 11 goals) are the only ones having decent seasons (along with Lucas and Ngog, who aren’t senior players) – but Gerrard and Carragher are beyond crucial.
The most intangible of my explanations, but still merits a mention. A clear penalty – an opportunity to equalize – denied in the first match. Players like Jerome and Belhadj scoring the goals of their careers. Two dubious red cards at Fulham – the same game where Kuyt’s work ethic was what set up Fulham’s winner. Late goals galore. The bloody beach ball! Karma must be a bitch.
Ah, here’s where I can complain about off the pitch problems, specifically my lying, two-faced countrymen (*spit*).
Liverpool’s net spending under Benitez (numbers from lfchistory.net):
Summer 2004: £22.2m
January 2005: £7.3m
Summer 2005: £6.78m
January 2006: £6.05m
Summer 2006: £15.78m
January 2007: £1.3m
Summer 2007: £18.07m
January 2008: £17.06m
Summer 2008: £18.5m
January 2009: -£16m
Summer 2009: -£150,000
Numbers are fungible – a couple of undisclosed transfers in each direction, incentives, and the oft-disputed price for Torres, among other debatable points – but that would be a £16,150,000 “profit” over the last two windows after spending an average of almost £18m in the previous three windows. Oh, and there’s a pile of debt on the club (which is where that transfer profit went) and no new stadium anywhere on the horizon. And we expect Liverpool to keep pace with the likes of Chelsea and United, let alone City, Spurs, and Villa. Thanks, George and Tommy. I especially appreciate you making all Americans look bad. Please sell. Now. That’d be the biggest turning point possible.
This season has been a confluence of kicks to the crotch, to say the least. Shit rolls downhill, so on, so forth. It’s led to a team that’s definitively and deservedly mid-table so far.
But listing all the shortcomings and misfortunes is the easy part. The real question is how to fix it. Whatever the form, even after his team was out-fought by the Premiership’s bottom club, even with morale seemingly so low, Benitez deserves until the end of the season to rectify these problems – at least the ones he’s accountable for. Evident evolution over five seasons, two Champions League finals, including one night in Istanbul, and Liverpool’s best haul in the Premiership for more than 20 seasons last year have earned him that much. Benitez obviously has to bear some of the blame – players need to sort themselves out, but it’s the manager’s job to get the most out of them and put them in the best situation to win. Neither’s been accomplished recently.
If Liverpool’s still in this situation come May, the club has to look around for a top-class manager brave/dumb enough to try and put it right (there’s always a surplus of them…). And I can’t believe it’s come to the point where I’ve written that sentence.