25 May 2009

The Schizophrenic Season (Review)

It’s Liverpool’s best Premiership campaign, and the best points total under Benitez and since the title-winning ‘87-88 season (the league was 40 games that year). But Liverpool could and probably should have won the championship, throwing the league away with mid-season draws.

I’m thrilled there was actually a title race until the second-to-last round of fixtures, but I’m massively disappointed that Liverpool was top of the league to start 2009, and still finished four points behind the bloody Mancs. Second place is better than I predicted at the beginning of the season, but first was definitely achievable. Sigh. There’s always next year.

0-0 at Villa, 0-0 v Stoke, 0-0 v Fulham, 0-0 v West Ham, 2-2 v Hull, 1-1 at Arsenal, 0-0 at Stoke, 1-1 v Everton, 1-1 at Wigan, 1-1 v Man City, and 4-4 v Arsenal.

Six or seven of those eleven draws are regrettable, if not unforgivable. Especially when you consider that Liverpool did the double over both United and Chelsea. Hence the disappointment and frustration, even though the team clearly made strides this season.

And seven of those draws were at Anfield, which is obviously unacceptable. That’s the highest number of home draws in Benitez’ five seasons. At the same time, Liverpool went unbeaten at home, the first time that’s happened since the aforementioned ’87-88 campaign. This is why I’m calling it the schizophrenic season.

If you want, you could blame two separate stretches: the spate of early home draws against Stoke, Fulham, and West Ham, or the run in January – draws against Stoke, Everton, and Wigan – before which Liverpool was top of the table. Or you can just count the whole winter – from the November 1 loss at Tottenham to the 1-1 draw against Wigan on January 28 – five wins, seven draws, one loss. Yeah, there were a couple of decent games back-to-back – against Blackburn and Newcastle around Christmas, for one – but overall, Liverpool was mediocre for three straight months.

You can narrow it down even further. What if Gerrard’s “goal” counts against Stoke? What if Bellamy’s strike for City doesn’t take a massive deflection off Arbeloa? What if zonal marking doesn’t break down in the final five minutes against Everton? What if individual mistakes don’t lead to Arshavin scoring four at Anfield. Four points from any of those matches, or any of the aforementioned draws, would have won Liverpool the league. Sigh.

If we’re being generous, we could credit Manchester United, as much as I hate the smug pricks, led by that knighted smug alcoholic prick. They could have ballsed up after the losses to Liverpool and Fulham, but a 17-year-old saved their bacon against both Sunderland and Villa (they draw both those games and Liverpool wins the title), and they held their nerve through the rest of their games. Kudos, schmucks.

Or, you can blame Torres’ fitness, as Benitez has already done – although I’m loath to complain about injuries, which happen to all squads. But the Spaniard didn’t start in either loss, at Tottenham or Boro. And those 11 draws? Torres started seven of them, but Gerrard and Torres only started together in three – the first against Stoke (disallowed Gerrard goal), Everton (stupid late Cahill goal), and Wigan (stupid late penalty, and I hate Steve Bruce).

The final 13 games of the season, starting with the 4-0 romp over Real Madrid, demonstrate what this team’s capable of. The easy answer is that Rafa let the reins off, and there’s truth in that, but there’s more to it. The team certainly played like a massive weight had been removed from their shoulders after the Real and United romps, and built momentum from there. Confidence is an extremely important thing, just as on the flip side, the nervous tension that snowballed during the winter mediocrity abetted Liverpool’s struggles. Finally, for all the complaints about rotation, it’s yet another season where Liverpool’s the strongest at the business end. Players like Torres, Gerrard, and Agger got healthy and it made a clear difference.

There are a fair few lessons to be learned from this campaign. Most important is the title chase experience – and it’s why Benitez was so hesitant to change the squad in the last couple of games, even when it was clear the title was gone. Another is that the 4-2-3-1 is the obvious way forward, which should have been realized before Keane was bought. The final lesson is that Rafa’s usually right. Now he has to put that hard-won power to good use in the transfer window, or else all bets are off. Liverpool cannot have another rerun of summer 2002.

86 points would have won the Prem in 1993, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2001, and 2003. Liverpool’s the first team to get 86 points and not win the title since it became a 38-game league in ‘94-95.

It goes without saying that the team isn’t far away. Last year’s season review harped on leads lost and the off-field fiascos. Neither has been an issue this season; Liverpool only dropped points in three games where they scored first – the loss at Spurs and the draws against Wigan and Everton – and although Hicks and Gillett are regrettably still in charge, the only substantial off-field news was the exit of Rick Parry.

I’ll have more to say on transfer dealings as news comes during the window, but I don’t expect a ton of purchases, although we’ll probably see a fair few squad players out the door. What I want, and what I firmly believe Liverpool needs, is to spend big on a couple of players – most importantly an attacker who can play across the three in the 4-2-3-1, which is why we’ve seen players like Silva, Tevez, and Lavezzi in the gossip columns. The only other additions should be depth at striker and a right back to challenge Arbeloa.

That’s it. Otherwise, we’ve seen Liverpool prove that they already have the depth and talent capable of the title.


Yohan said...

If we get Tevez in the summer, we win the league next season. Ok, so that's assuming a lot of things like no catastrophic injuries to key players, etc., but he'd be a huge addition. If we're the hardest working team in the Prem as it is, imagine what we'd be like with Tevez.

We're not far away in terms of starters, but we are in terms of depth. Real depth--not just warm bodies. Players who we'd probably do better cashing in on instead of hoping they'll get better: Babel, Riera, Lucas (why does Rafa have such a soft spot for this kid?), and Voronin. I might be missing some, but those guys should fetch decent money if sold on.

Biggest needs: left winger/striker, fullbacks, and 1 more center mid to push Lucas down the pecking order and out the door.

Abhiram said...

Very well put blog Nate.. In the Transfer front, my sentiment match with yours to the t. In my opinion, we need two players. One is a utility player and another a good attacking midfielder/forward. I don't want a replacement for Arbeloa or the RB spot. Degen gets a full off season to get fit. We have Darby in the ranks. We don't need a 4th.

My choice for the two players i was talking about would be one of Silva/Tevez/Lavezzi and Barry.

Silva can play behind the striker as well as LM. Tevez as behind the striker (i don't see this happening though). Lavezzi as a RM as well as a Behind the striker role. I am saying one among these three as all of them will be very costly and i don't think we can afford 2 of the three. My second choice is Barry because he is a very good utility player who can play LB, LM and he's a good CM. He can never replace Alonso. But he can cover for the other spots very well.

I don't see Babel and Voronin staying. Others staying will depend on the buys we make. If we buy Silva, Riera or Bennayoun might not stay. Many combinations are possible. We can delve into it later in the off-season.