Can Liverpool Challenge for Fourth?
The last three permanent managers of Liverpool have all overseen a familiar pattern of events. Roy Evans, Gerard Houllier and Rafael Benitez all enjoyed moderately successful starts – Evans had a decent first full league season, Houllier a distant third place and a (very fortunate) cup treble, Benitez’s Champions League triumph rightly overshadowed a fairly poor fifth place – followed by a genuine title challenge or two before it all went stunningly wrong. Evans took a team 90 minutes away from being top of the table in May 1997 to 15 points back in 12 months; Houllier took a team finishing above Manchester United for the first time in gazillions of years to 30 points off top spot in 2 years, via a £20m splurge from 2nd to 5th the previous year; whereas Benitez took his team from a very strong 2nd to an embarrassing seventh in twelve months, the trophy well having dried long ago. History would dictate thus that his successor would have a similarly up and down tenure in the Anfield hot seat, where all of his previous good work is immediately tarnished by the chaos that regularly surrounds Liverpool Football Club every five years or so.
And so the next man, Fleet Street ‘flop’ turned ‘saviour of the Kop’ (don’t worry, he’ll be rubbish again soon enough) Roy Hodgson, steps into the breach. He inherits a comically restrictive financial situation – to the point where the signing of Luke Young, a versatile full back of modest quality and a far from perfect age, becomes almost impossible. His first signing, Joe Cole, required no transfer fee from Chelsea. Cole was a very exciting enigmatic talent at West Ham and performed very well for Mourinho and Avram Grant at Chelsea. His creativity and footballing intelligence may well remain undimmed from those heady days but his injuries may well have wrecked his career. It is further difficult to see how Cole fits in at Liverpool. In a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 he has neither the pace, work rate or consistency of delivery required to play wide, and in a 4-2-3-1 it is difficult to see how he and Gerrard can co-exist centrally. A diamond midfield may be the alternative, but as an attacking fulcrum he has proved only really effective at home recently against poor sides. It is difficult to see how he offers anything that is not offered by anyone else in the squad, so as a marquee signing he may not be guaranteed to starting place he supposedly wants.
Fernando Torres is World Class at his best but if his performances at the World Cup are anything to go by, he may not be able to access that best for a while. Similarly, aspects of Hodgson’s first choice XI may well be on the wrong side of the illustrative hill. Jamie Carragher, even though we are constantly told he ‘never relied on his pace’ every time he is skinned by a kid half his age, has shown signs of wear and tear and is 32, while first choice left back Fabio Aurelio is 30, like club captain Steven Gerrard. Gerrard endured one of his worst seasons in memory last time out, followed by an indifferent World Cup, and while he may be soon back to his best, it is by no means certain. It would be a brave manager to leave out Carragher indefinitely, even at this advanced stage of his career, given his loyalty and service to the club.
Javier Mascherano is a genuinely World Class holding midfielder, but is allegedly looking to leave Anfield in search of Champions League football. Alberto Aquilani can be a devastating footballer when he’s not injured, but he is generally injured. Daniel Agger is a very competent centre half, and Pepe Reina a superb goalkeeper, but there are still gaps in the squad that require filling: Dirk Kuyt was always fairly poor technically, saved by his indefatigable work rate – but in a team lacking in quality, his weaknesses are exposed. The sale of Emiliano Insua to Fiorentina may have fallen flat, but if he is subsequently sold, as is Hodgson’s reported wont, the options behind the ageing Aurelio at left back would be poor to minimal. The options behind Torres too are not great, the improving David N’Gog and Daniel Pacheco have shown little to suggest themselves to be capable of sustaining a Champions League challenge. Ryan Babel remains a complete enigma, combining the physical attributes of Cristiano Ronaldo with the technical proficiency and end product of Carlton Palmer to create an infuriating footballer. The cunning transfer of Milan Jovanovic makes his impact on the squad less important at the moment, but if the expected-in-some-areas fire sale of players rocks into gear, he could be flushed into prominence.
Thus while the Liverpool squad contains players of great talent and potential, its uneven depth and the inability to rectify those problems makes Hodgson’s position difficult. Only with preposterous luck with injuries in certain positions, combined with the unforeseeable ascent of three or four enigmas is it possible to see Liverpool even remotely challenging for the title. As for fourth place, they would require one of the other ‘big three’ if they struggle with injuries, or Manchester City to struggle really badly despite their excellent signings, as well as Spurs and Villa to stagnate. Hodgson would further have to overcome a number of problems within the squad on a shoestring budget, with players desperate to leave, something that he is unused to dealing with in recent times. It would therefore appear to be a long shot for Liverpool to challenge strongly for a top four place.
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