In lieu of more macro-level wrist-slitting about the club and manager's prospects, I'd rather investigate one of the tactical areas that irritated me yesterday (yeah, there were more than just this, but I'd rather write about the wingers than the fullbacks or Gerrard).
For the fourth straight game against 'top-level' opposition, Maxi's started on the left. Admittedly, I didn't see a ton of him at Atletico or for Argentina, but when I have, he's been deployed on the right every time.
Maxi on the left: 1-2 United (a); 0-0 City (a); 0-1 Arsenal (a); 1-0 Everton (h)
Maxi on the right: 4-1 Pompey (h); 0-1 Wigan (a); 2-1 Blackburn (h); 0-0 Wolves (a)
If Maxi starting on the left when either Babel or Benayoun (or both) has been available isn't the perfect demonstration of Benitez's conservatism, I don't know what is. It's ostensibly "worked" in two of those matches, Everton and City (as both sides were clearly content with a draw at the Eastlands), and Liverpool could have eked at least a point out of United or Arsenal if other things went differently, but I can't remember Maxi making much impact in any of the four.
Despite Liverpool's record when Maxi's started on the right, that's where he's done the most, and it's led to Liverpool at least looking cohesive going forward. He was excellent against Pompey and good against Blackburn. The entire team was dire in the two losses, and Maxi's excusable for a poor game in his first start, at Wolves.
It's symptomatic of how Benitez uses the flanks, trying to control the game out wide as he does in midfield. There are multiple pros and cons to the 'keep it tight' method in certain matches; it's one of the ongoing endless debates about Rafa's tactics. It's led to some brilliant performances in Europe and the league in previous years, but few if any in this one. We can argue about how many ways this season's gone wrong; I've come up with multiple excuses over the past months. And I'll unashamedly admit to stretching for ways to defend Benitez, but I've at least come to the conclusion that his thinking about the wings has to change.
The flanks have been at or near the top of the list of Liverpool's weak spots since Rafa arrived, mainly manned by Nuñez, Luis Garcia, Kewell, Pennant, Gonzalez, or Zenden prior to this crop. Of course, the combined cost of those players not including Kewell (bought by Houllier) is less than £15m and almost all in the fees for Pennant and Garcia. The cliché of not buying championships in bargain bins yet again rings true. And money's yet again the root of all evil, but Rafa hasn't helped himself in prioritizing other areas. And to compare to Benitez's Valencia, set out in a similar formation, Liverpool's never had a Vicente (or even a Rufete), and for some reason, hasn't gone out and got one.
The point of this isn't to single out individual players (although I clearly am), bash Benitez, or again snipe at the owners for not having any money. But it's apparent, even to a sycophant like me, that Liverpool and Benitez need to stop undervaluing the flanks.
I've written countless words about how the fullbacks ideally provide the width in Liverpool's system, but this season's made clear we're not in an ideal world. Johnson and Insua are a whole different kettle of fish, but suffice it to say that fullbacks bombing forward have been problematic for multiple reasons.
I try not to let solitary games affect me, especially solitary games where I pretend to expect Liverpool to lose, but Valencia might have been what finally prompted this post. Having a player who can create that sort of threat from out wide, drawing defenders and pinning wingers, absolutely can change a game. And you have to pay the premium for that presence. At the same time, you need workhorses and piano-carriers – just like Kuyt (who I'll continue to defend until the singularity reemerges) – which is why I'm focusing on the left flank.
I'm also well aware that both Babel and Benayoun are right-footed players probably best in other positions. I still question whether either can be a full-time starter on the left, and that Benitez has used Maxi there against United, Arsenal, City, and Everton means he does as well. It's a pity Riera's napalmed his bridges, but it's not as if he's done much of anything this season either. Although, to be fair, the combination of the three did lead Liverpool to its highest points total in years last season.
At the least, we've seen some continued attacking cohesion when Babel and Benayoun have been on the left, as we have when Maxi's been on the right. Kuyt's obviously going to start most games, but Maxi has and should continue to spell him at times, especially against lesser opposition, as against Pompey and Blackburn.
Long story short, pick a flank and stay there, at least for the rest of the season. And in the off-season, no matter what turmoil goes on (and there assuredly will be some turmoil), this is again the position I most want to see addressed.