Last season, Gerrard and Torres missed substantial chunks of play. And Liverpool suffered for it. When they were both fit, Liverpool hit some astounding results: v. Real Madrid: 4-0; v. Chelsea 2-0; v. Villa 5-0; and @ United 4-1!!! They even managed strong results against big sides with one or the other missing from the starting lineup. Prior to the above results, they beat United, Madrid and Chelsea by slimmer, yet equally satisfying, margins. But few Liverpool supporters could cling to sanity with Gerrard or Torres out for too long. The real nausia was when, without one or both, Liverpool crashed upon the wall of smaller teams who were playing for a draw. In those moments the lack of Gerrard and/or Torres were as missed as the empty space left in one’s chest after you’ve been shot… by a bazooka.
At this point, Gerrard might be the easier one to cover. (Yes, it feels blasphemous to say this, but since no red streak of lighting has come from the heavens to strike me dead, I’ll keep typing). Say Stevie G needs time off due to injury or he sees a straight red card after he shows Drogba what it really takes to go down just outside the box. (And yes, I’m still bitter about the Olympic-quality diving in the last Champions League quarter-finals). Rafa can feasibly put Kuyt, Benayoun or even El Zhar behind Torres. If he needs to. Not ideal, but manageable.
The real problem at this point, would be losing Torres for any amount of time again. In the favored (and effective) 4231 formation, who goes up front? Kuyt alone? N’Gog alone? Bring back Voronin? (Can you smell that? That’s a writer putting on the breaks. Sorry about that). Babel can do it if absolutely needed, but I am almost certain he’ll be sold before the transfer window ends.
Rafa should bring on a talented striker to cover for Torres. But who would come to play off the bench? If Rafa finds someone as good as he needs, that player is already too good to be a squad player. If N’Gog picked this season to really blossom into greatness, that’d be perfect. He’s young enough to be content come off the bench for a season. Willing to live in El Niño’s shadow for a while. Getting the job done as needed. That’s wishful thinking to the extreme. I know.
What Liverpool needs is one more attacking player with proven goalscoring ability. Rafa has always loved versatile attackers. Luis Garcia. Dirk Kuyt. Ryan Babel. Harry Kewell—whoa, hear me out…
A pre-injury-marathon Kewell would be perfect right now. Rafa inherited Kewell from Gerrard Houllier, but Kewell’s fitness and productivity were apparrently relegated along with Leeds United. Kewell stayed up in the Prem. His footballing went down to the Championship and later League One. It was stashed in a locker at Elland Road for years.
But the potential of Kewell was spectacular. If he’d played for Liverpool like he had at Leeds, he would have been devastating in two or three different positions. Liverpool need to find someone along those lines. Only fit. Ryan Babel came with that potential, but since Riera arrived, Babel just can’t get enough pitch time to flourish.
The ideal purchase would be a starting attacking mid (a Maxi Rodriguez, a David Silva) who can start wide right or wide left and make that spot their own. But they’ve got the finishing quality to move to the middle if Torres comes out. A striker-winger almost. But the dude isn’t competing for place because he’s already a starter. If Torres is out, Dirk Kuyt and Player X can work together in a 4411 or 442, depending on the new player’s specific abilities. Notice how vague I’m staying on Player X. Because who knows what Rafa is thinking right now as he scours the market behind closed doors! If Torres is in (hopefully always), Niño’s got Riera-Gerrard-Player X or Player X-Gerrard-Kuyt behind him. God, I miss Luis García.
The ruts Liverpool hit, as I’ve mentioned, were points dropped against the defense-minded sides. Breaking down the ten-men-behind-the-ball types has not been Liverpool’s forté in quite some time. But with Glen Johnson in and Albert Riera looking up for it, Liverpool can break out the True Width™. Against the sides that stay back, Johnson can get forward, shifting the side into more of a 353, with Kuyt (or Silva, or Rodriguez, or ?) cutting in toward the box to help Gerrard and Torres. The width coming from the back will allow the Reds to spread defenses thin while adding more playmaking in the danger area. They had this in mind last season, but Johnson will be far better at this than Arbeloa.
You could see the frame of this in the 3-2 win at Pompey in Feb. Five starting defenders but Arbeloa and Dossena charged down the wings with three defenders hanging back. Pompey took the lead twice, but didn’t really know how to handle the formation. This wouldn’t work all the time, but it has a lot of potential for breaking down the sides who stay back and play for a draw. And Johnson can always shift to a deeper spot when it isn’t working. Versatility, baby.
Last season was about the best season Liverpool have had in 18 years. If you had told me last August that’s how 08/09 was about go to, I might have asked what medications you were mixing and, more importantly, did you have extra. But the season was mostly fantastic and the title was in sight deeper into the campaign than it’s been in almost two decades. The Reds just need little adjustments. Glen Johnson was one adjustment (if we can call £17m little). I think Liverpool are one more from getting it right.