Almost everything is going wrong for Liverpool. I say ‘almost’, because last week they beat Manchester United at Anfield, and the gloom was temporarily lifted. “Liverpool have turned a corner… This will kick-start their season… etc” in the end, it hasn’t. Liverpool’s continued struggles share similarities with those of the aforementioned United in the 2004-05 season, where, after an awful start to the season, a victory against Big Rivals (in that case, Arsenal) threatened to send the Old Trafford club on a march back to glory. It didn’t. The next match was a defeat at Portsmouth. Right back to square one. United ultimately finished third. A similar fate to United’s at Fratton Park awaited Liverpool on Saturday. After the giddy hope of redemption last Sunday, soon came the ignominious crash back to earth.
One of the reasons for Liverpool’s hideous run has been, if you believe large sections of their supporters, the owners – George Gillett and Tom Hicks – whose ‘holding the club to ransom’ through the medium of crippling debts has meant that Rafael Benitez’s transfer budgets have been lower than those of other, clubs of similar stature in England. This viewpoint is not an unreasonable conclusion considering Liverpool’s net expenditure in comparison to previous years – from the £39m net splurge of season 2007-08, and the subsequent drop off (£6.25m last year, £950,000 this), but compared to their Big Four rivals, Liverpool’s expenditure this year has been the second highest. The figures are skewed by Manchester City and Real Madrid’s domination of the market this summer, but having sold Xabi Alonso and Alvaro Arbeloa for £33.5m, and with Benitez apparently having to sell before he can buy couldn’t Liverpool have benefited more from investing in a cheaper right back – especially with the bright prospect Martin Kelly, and the talented Philipp Degen in reserve – and therefore having the funds for a more reliable reserve striker?
A further problem for Liverpool has been their midfield. Following the departure of Alonso, his team has struggled to make use of possession as effectively – when Lucas does not have the space to move through the midfield as he had against United, he is unable to pass particularly incisively, and as he and Mascherano tend to pass the ball more sideways than looking behind the defence, a lot of Liverpool’s possession ends up out wide, at the door of either Dirk Kuyt – creatively limited – or Ryan Babel/Yossi Benayoun on the other flank, rather than the key players (Gerrard and Torres in the middle). Torres has been able to score more goals this year – attributing to the fact that he can move in between defenders when the ball is out wide, finding space in dangerous areas – but is not as involved in attacking moves. When Liverpool play well organised sides, their wide players have been unable to regularly create chances.
With their attack struggling, the defence has, for a variety of reasons, drifted aimlessly from shambles to shambles. Age seems to catching up with Jamie Carragher, his never extravagant pace has dwindled to the point where he is simply abysmal when turned. Bobby Zamora (twice) has joined the growing list of attackers to be hauled down by Carragher when in a foot race, and while he is still superb at timing tackles when faced one-on-one with his back to goal (the game against United proves this), he has become a liability in games where Liverpool are not defending from their own penalty area. Many have claimed that Carragher’s poor performances have come from not having a regular partner at the back, but standing next to the same man every week is not going to make him run any faster. Many tactical elements can be controlled, but pace (or lack thereof) in a defender makes life really difficult, especially in a team where winning games is crucial, and they have to defend high up the pitch.
Benitez, for his part, has admirably tried to right some of the wrongs of last season – too many stale draws against relatively poor sides damaged their title charge – and Liverpool have more intent (from the full back areas at least) to bomb on forward: explaining Glen Johnson’s exuberant performances against Stoke and Burnley, for example – but this process contradicts with Benitez’s controlling nature. He knows that his team is at its best when it has to go for positive results (Champions League escapes, comeback after comeback after comeback), yet this means that he has to play instinctive, creative players like Yossi Benayoun. The Israeli is a good player, and Benitez knows this, but his instinctive nature means that a controller like Benitez doesn’t know what he’s going to do, so when he changes to a new plan when they are in search of a goal, he takes Benayoun off, as his style can’t be measured or controlled. He doesn’t know what Benayoun is going to do, so he can’t trust him, so he is substituted for someone (possibly with pace) that Rafa can understand what to do with.
Liverpool’s failings have resulted also, to an extent, from luck. Remember the Beachball episode at Sunderland, for example? Furthermore, the two sending offs on Saturday (especially Degen’s) are not something that can be laid at Benitez’s door, surely. A catalogue (doesn’t seem an appropriate collective noun, that) of injuries also haven’t helped, and have kept Liverpool’s first choice XI off the field. They have had some good luck too mind, Carragher could have been sent off against United for hauling down Owen, and Lyon’s paucity of defensive options (they had no centre half on the pitch after Cris was injured) meant that they were there for the taking. The problem was, as it has been many times this season, that Liverpool didn’t have the options on the pitch to either force a victory, nor hold out for a draw.