20 December 2009

What’s Changed?

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.”

Xabi Alonso
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.

Net spending
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.


Andreas Bjørklund said...

My comment got lost in the exclamation marks in your last post I think, in danger of spamming I`ll re-post:

I`ve never seen this blog this heated before.

I more often than not read your pre- and post game analysis Nate, you`ve got a very good eye on the club. I`ve followed LFC closely since 1987, as a kid.

Thank you for your contribution to the LFC-sphere, it`s very appreciated and you obviously have a substantial readership. I`m sure the blog will eventually get you a job in sports journalism. Good work!

But do you really want to sack Rafa? To replace him with who? And with what money? If Rafa walks (with a five-year contract) the entire backroom-staff will go as well. If the club were to receive investment I would very much like it to be directed towards the squad and not towards sacking managers. Rafa`s clearly made some poor decisions this season, but he`s working under very difficult circumstances as a top manager. All in all he`s been our best manager since Kenny, who Rafa`s brought back to the club.

Let`s stay positive, people!

nate said...

I think I've made it fairly clear I don't want Benitez sacked, especially not before the season's over. I don't think there's a better manager around willing to take the job even if there was money available, which there isn't.

But the club's unavoidably in the worst doldrums since Benitez took over. I hate using phrases like "lost the dressing room" when I've no clue what going on inside the dressing room. But this is not the same team as last year, and the players simply aren't performing. Confidence, morale, and tactics clearly fall under Benitez's brief.

Benitez's isn't an 'arm around the shoulder' man-manager. And, sadly, it looks like that's what missing. Confidence is at an all-time low. Players look disinterested and beaten as soon as they concede. I know he's suffered with injuries, but Gerrard looks like he's mailing it in every game, waiting for the World Cup, and that's never happened before.

Something clearly needs to change. As much as I adore what Benitez has done for the club and his strengths as a manager, it's only right that his position comes under scrutiny given the state of the club.

Anonymous said...

Just saw the Chelsea-Westham game.How about Zola.His team plays pretty football and most importantly theres passion and 'love' between the players,while in Liverpool u never see players ,u know appreciate each other or give a pat on the back for a nice try and things like that..I guess this is the time when u need a manger who's actually 'played football' to know what the players are going through..

Anonymous said...

Nate, like you I have been a big Rafa supporter, but I just can't anymore. I can live with his strange tactics and lineups and awful buys, but when his team is out there playing with absolutely no heart on a regular basis what else can I do?

Mike Georger said...

When Kelly gets fit I wouldn't even be remotely shocked if he takes over for Johnson ... and Johnson takes over for Kuyt.

Andreas Bjørklund said...

Gillett/Hicks cant afford to sack Rafa. There is little point discussing that Scenario.

They are many things, but they are not the Abu Dabi United Group. They can not simply sack the manager and buy a new one.

Why they insist on owning the club is beyond me, and why they were allowed to buy the shares in the first place is even more difficult to understand. But that is a different matter.

Like any other fan I want new investment coming in. Then we can discuss Rafael Benitez.

Anonymous said...

Mike, I could live with that, but I don't know if Rafa would every bench Kuyt. Unless he's smart enough to go 4-4-2 with Kuyt and Torres uptop which he isn't.

Matt said...

Let's also not forget what hasn't changed - lack of squad depth and lack of attacking wingers. Only Yossi and occasionally Riera actually attack defenders with the dribble. Johnson did when he and Kuyt clicked but that seems past.

For that reason though, I do like Gregor's idea - move Johnson up.

Bilal said...

I think it may be a moot point if sacking Rafa is a good or bad action in the grand scheme of things, I personally doubt it if you consider his whole record at the club, but come the end of the season his position may be well be untenable. Sometimes good managers get themselves into situations from which they cannot progress, actually, good friendships and good working relationships find themselves in that boat sometimes, you just have to call it quits even though your personal or professional qualities are still there. Sacking Rafa may cost a huge amount but if things do become untenable then not sacking him could cost the club even more, it may wipe out the transfer budget for a season or two but frankly, will the owners care? They would love to see the back of him with the fans and even considered judgement on their side and if it helps retain the value of the club to sell even it hurts financially in the short term.

Fuck, who knew things would get this bad? We've been here before, a brilliant 2nd place season followed by a balls up.

Neel said...

Long term, the best thing that could happen is getting a fresh start.

Rafa LEFT Valencia for seemingly nothing earlier in his career. Don't think he got a very pretty severance package. A loss to the bottom club (!) where we didn't even look like playing...

The only player who is showing some passion and ability is Torres, and I can't help but feel sorry for him... Gerrard looks forlorn. Mascherano is acting stupid again.

Rafa can very well leave the club like he did before.

Neel said...

And about the owners.

How can people complain they haven't invested in the club in this $-climate?! Except for ManCity & Madrid no other club has significantly invested in the market recently. Mancity is petro-Dirhams and Madrid is bank contacts.

i think the best thing that can happen LONG TERM for the club would be a devaluation and repaying of debts at the earliest. That would mean selling assets now. A few Arabian Conglomerates have considered Liverpool but have turned away becoz of debts.

Its gonna take a miracle to see Liverpool as a top club in the next few years. A lottery maybe? Its difficult always having to defend a manager who doesn't always give you defendable performances...

Anonymous said...

This is quality post as usual ...The players as well as the fan must step up or else...

Anonymous said...

irfaanfr your "This Is Our Passion" video gives me goosebumps.

Anonymous said...

"Benitez can hardly be blamed for Alonso wanting to leave"

Really? He tried to bring Garry Barry in the summer before to replace him!

Of course Rafa can be blamed for Xabi wanting to leave.

Jim said...

Nate, your post sums up a lot of my feelings about this season - especially the bit about a series of kicks to the crotch.

My main worry about Benitez has long been that he is not the kind of manager who tries to instill a sense of bullet-proof, run-through-walls confidence in his players. Instead, he seems to try to treat them like intelligent adults, getting them to analyse their own game and improve on their faults. Right now, this kind of approach may be doing more harm than good. And maybe Benitez has just run out of things to say to this group, or they're no longer listening.

Another long-standing concern of mine is Gerrard, who I think is a wonderful player but probably not a great captain. He is too introverted to drive on those players around him when things get tough. Instead he looks within himself to find what's required to turn things around. Very often that works but of late he's been coming up short.

McrRed said...

Benitez should get another three years to pull it around. Anything less would be knee-jerking, suicidal madness...unless you want Klinsman at the helm?! Newcastle? Leeds, anyone?

Bilal said...

Considering there is another post above this I may just be talking to myself, but three years? Seriously? Seriously seriously?

I think Rafa is a great manager, I suspect he will eventually become a Real Madrid legend if they have the sense to keep to over a number of years and not sack him 6 months into his reign, but lets not kid ourself as to how dire the situation is. In three years the club may well be a stumbling mid-table team with major stars have jumped ship and others such as Gerrard and Super Jew into the twilight of their careers. Despite his qualities, if Rafa doesn't achieve a fourth placed finish and more importantly stop the rot within the team, their belief and their spirit, his position may well be untenable come May, never mind 2013.

Anonymous said...

The basic point is we havent been playing good football.Rafa has been trying a lot.I feel sorry for him and even more for the fans.He needs to leave,we cant forget the fact that we are a football team and we need to play good football if we want to be considered a top team,which obv isnt happening