Following Albert Riera’s timely arrival at Liverpool on the last day of the transfer window, Rafa Benitez finally has two good wide players to deploy in his line-up who he can trust to produce excellent performances consistently.
Ryan Babel can be played on either flank, but now that the left-footed Riera has turned up he should be placed on the right-hand side of Liverpool’s previously rigid midfield. Babel has already shown how effective he can be when taking defenders on, like when he won the infamous penalty at Anfield against Arsenal in the Champions League last year, and when whipping in dangerous balls, like against Standard Liege when he crossed for Dirk Kuyt to net the winner late on only a few weeks ago.
Babel was used as a substitute on most occasions by Benitez in the winger’s first Premier League campaign, but this season should offer a more prominent role in the side for the Dutch youngster. Whenever he comes off the bench he brings a burst of energy and a creative option who can produce something from nothing. Along with Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard, Babel is the key for Liverpool capable of unlocking opposition defences with one moment of magic. That is why he must start most games this season.
But whilst Babel was Benitez’s only reliable wide player last year, the Spanish manager now has a fellow countryman in his squad to ply his trade on the other flank. Albert Riera may not have been explosive in his loan period at Manchester City a few years ago, but he has improved during his time playing in La Liga for Espanyol. He played in a UEFA Cup final, and Liverpool obviously see him as the hidden talent they have needed on the left of midfield to push for the title.
The club have struggled for quality in that position for a number of years now, with players like Bolo Zenden and Harry Kewell either proving not good enough or picking up too many injuries to play for such a top side. But Riera should be different. Liverpool supporters cannot have put together a full mental image of how good a player he really is after such a short time at Anfield, but if you were to judge his opening few performances then the picture would be a reasonably good one.
He has already demonstrated that he can take full-backs on and whip brilliant crosses into the penalty area, something that Liverpool have lacked consistently in the left-midfield position for so long. And Riera should improve in the coming weeks as well, as he gets to know his team-mates better and settles into the fast-paced nature of the Premier League with greater comfort.
So with two excellent wide players now in his ranks, Benitez must not waste the opportunity to stretch teams to the limit. Other players at Liverpool will benefit from Babel and Riera’s width as well, meaning there will be more problems for opponents. Torres will have more space to drift into and sprint at, and Gerrard will get more opportunities to drive through the middle and create chances. They will both receive better service into the box too; such is the crossing ability of the pair of wingers.
The reason to why Liverpool often struggle to break down stubborn opponents, like Stoke City last Saturday, is that the team is set-up so narrowly and rigidly by Benitez. Teams that visit Anfield can come and just play the same way; packing the centre of the pitch and leaving Liverpool’s golden talents no room to operate. Liverpool did still create some good chances against Stoke, and had a goal wrongly ruled out, but unless Benitez’s side score quite early the game can become difficult for Liverpool. If they do score early though, the other team has to come out and play more attacking football, leaving Gerrard and co. more opportunities to flourish.
Liverpool could not break down Birmingham and Wigan’s defences last season at Anfield in similar contests to the Stoke fixture, and that ultimately cost them four points that could have propelled them into a position to attack Manchester United and Chelsea. And now that Liverpool have let their old habits return to fruition again this time around, there must still be serious doubts over their title credentials. If any more slip-ups of the sort occur again, any hopes of league glory will be over.
But if Riera and Babel play when available, these catastrophic results should not materialise. The middle of the park will not be so cramped, meaning there will be more space. More space means a greater chance of Gerrard, Torres and Keane getting chances to pull the trigger or create goalscoring opportunities for others using their class.
When in tight European matches against the continent’s elite then playing compact is absolutely fine, as Benitez well knows, but against Stoke City points cannot be afforded to be dropped. Wingers are the answer to Liverpool’s Anfield frustrations.