Back in early March, I took a look at Liverpool’s record depending on who started on the left. I reckon it’s worth updating that post, given the continuing emergence of Insua, more starts for Benayoun, and much less of Babel and Dossena. Fair warning: this is long, even for me.
The previous post went up to Sunderland on 3/3. Those numbers are here, and the new additions are above in red for comparison. There were 13 matches over this stretch.
2-1-1; 14 goals for, 8 against
4-4 Arse; 1-3 Chelsea; 5-0 Villa; 4-1 United
9-4-0; 20 goals for, 6 against
1-0 Real; 2-0 Chelsea; 1-1 Everton; 0-0 Stoke; 1-0 Marseille; 0-0 Fulham; 2-0 Bolton; 3-0 West Brom; 1-1 Atletico; 1-0 Chelsea; 3-2 City; 3-1 PSV; 2-1 United
3-1-0; 13 for, 5 against
3-1 Spurs; 3-0 West Ham; 3-0 Newcastle; 4-4 Chelsea
1-0-0; 1 for, 0 against
1-0 Liege aet
2-0-0; 5 for, 1 against
2-0 West Brom; 3-1 Hull
1-0-0; 4 for, 0 against
3-1-0; 8 for, 1 against
2-0 Sunderland; 2-0 PNE; 3-0 Bolton; 1-1 Arsenal
1-0-0; 4 for, 0 against
1-1-1; 2 for, 3 against
0-2 Boro; 1-1 Wigan; 1-0 Pompey
1-0-0; 1 for, 0 against
3-5-2; 13 for, 10 against
1-1 City; 0-1 Everton (FA); 2-2 Hull; 3-1 PSV; 0-0 West Ham; 1-2 Spurs; 1-1 Atletico; 3-2 Wigan; 2-0 Everton; 0-0 Stoke
2-1-1; 8 for, 8 against
3-2 Pompey; 1-1 Everton (FA); 2-4 Spurs (CC); 2-1 Marseille
2-1-0; 3 for, 1 against:
2-1 Boro; 1-0 Sunderland; 0-0 Liege
2-0-0; 8 for, 2 against
5-1 Newcastle; 3-1 Blackburn
1-0-0; 2 for, 1 against
2-1 Crewe (CC)
0-1-0; 0 for, 0 against
• Dossena didn’t start at left back after the 1-1 draw against City on 2/22. He started once – as a winger against Fulham after two goals in two substitute appearances against Real and United. And he played a grand total of about 30 minutes in three trips off the bench after that.
• Liverpool won every game Insua started from late December on, and only dropped points in the 1-1 draw at Arsenal. 11 matches: 10 wins, 1 draw. Amazing… even though admittedly that stat’s a bit misleading. The updated matches were against Fulham, Hull, West Brom, and Blackburn (no disrespect, but not quite a murderer’s row) and Liverpool won 10 of these last 13 matches anyway. But still. 10 wins, one draw.
• On first glance it’s surprising that Babel only started one match, Liverpool won 4-0, and he still rarely featured. But that’s evidence that stats aren’t the end all, be all. Babel hasn’t impressed this season – I’m struggling to pick a star moment outside of the winner in the 2-1 victory over United in September, despite over 40 appearances (most as a late sub). Maybe the assist for the third goal in the Real rout. And that’s why he seems the most likely departure, especially since he should still recoup a fair bit of his original fee.
• Benayoun didn’t start on the left from the 8/27 late win over Liege until the second CL leg against Chelsea on 4/8. From there, he was the most frequent starter on the left – probably thanks to Benayoun being in outstanding form as well as Riera fading as the season went on.
Either way, the number of players deployed at this position shows it’s one of Liverpool’s main weaknesses. Liverpool used five different left wingers – six if you count Keane’s cameo against Villa – and only Benayoun and Riera came close to making the position their own.
And as much as I like both, they’re probably squad players in a title-winning team. That comes off much harsher than I mean it to; both have been important in a very good Liverpool team, and both merit a place in the squad. I certainly wouldn’t sell either. Riera’s definitely had some highs, but his inconsistency means that competition’s needed. And Benayoun, while in fantastic form, is not a left-sided player. He’s best as a backup for Gerrard in the hole and competing with Kuyt on the right. And deployed on the left as a last resort.
Aurelio has been the better partner for Yossi because of Fabio’s ability to get forward and stay wide while Benayoun cuts in and operates centrally. And that’s why it worked a treat against the likes of West Ham and Newcastle, where Liverpool was on the front foot for long stretches, and less so against a team with the firepower of a Chelsea.
Insua’s not bad at getting forward in his own right, but due to his age (and, I’m assuming, Benitez’s instructions), he’s a bit more conservative and restrained in attack. But, and again, no disrespect meant, it’s not easy to get a good handle on his and Benayoun’s capabilities when the pairing’s only been deployed against West Brom and Hull.
Yes, Benitez doesn’t often play with ‘out-and-out’ left wingers, especially in the 4-2-3-1. You can see it in the way Riera hugged the touchline less and less as the season went on. The fullback usually provides the width, and I don’t disagree with that. But, at the least, Liverpool needs a player that’s predominately left-footed, if not at least capable of whipping in crosses with his left. The player has to be able to cut in, but also able to stay wide if the fullback’s penned back, which will happen against the top clubs. The need for versatility is one of the drawbacks inherent in Benitez’s preferred fluid style, I guess.
And, although I doubt this inference will be welcomed by all Liverpool fans, it would explain the continued pursuit of Gareth Barry. Which wouldn’t be bad business, although I still think there are better options; whatever the fee, it’d be less than last summer, and probably cheaper than other rumored targets. However, I think it’s just as crucial the player be able to run at and beat his man. Which is why Babel’s inability to progress is so frustrating. On paper, he’s the type of player Liverpool needs – only he cannot deliver on anywhere near a consistent basis. And it’s not as if players like that are ubiquitous.
This is why left winger is the position I’m watching all summer. It’s the one place I think Liverpool definitely needs improvement to win the title. A back-up striker would be nice, as would a right back to compete with Arbeloa. But, worst-case scenario, N’Gog will be a year older (and Voronin could always come back from loan!), while Degen might get fit (*snicker*) and Darby’s been touted for a step up in the past (plus, he’s English!). I’m not even suggesting replacing Alonso because I’m not even contemplating him leaving.
But Dossena and Babel are seemingly on their way out, and will probably be pushed to increase Rafa’s budget. Neither are lost causes – Babel is still young and it was Dossena’s first season in England – but neither have been good enough and money’s most likely needed. Would I be disappointed if neither went and Liverpool kept basically the same squad? Probably, but I don’t think that’d mean a title challenge is impossible. But, as this year proved, it’ll be very, very difficult, and it’s not likely that Liverpool will take 12 points off United and Chelsea in subsequent seasons.
Long story short, more damage must be done against teams content to sit back, especially at Anfield, and improving this position is probably the best way to remedy that problem.