Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Bleak times for Liverpool

16 games played, 8 games won, 8 games lost. For those of you horrible at math that’s half the games lost. More alarmingly 6 of the 8 losses have come in the last 7 games with only the delightful win over Man Utd sneaking into the sequence. After a record breaking season last time around and a genuine good feel about the current one, Liverpool are in a bigger mess results wise than they’ve ever been under Rafa Benitez. Not even in his first season in charge, a season in which he had to field the likes of Biscan, Diao, Nunez and expect goals from Baros and Cisse, has Rafa experienced losing 6 game in a matter of few weeks. It’s safe to say that things couldn’t be that much worse at Liverpool at the moment. That is until you realize that half the squad is out with injuries/illness and two key players, Gerrard and Torres, face playing uncertainty at best and surgery at worst. Those are the bleak times indeed.

Who is the blame for this mess though?

Is it the owners? If the fans of the club you own are demonstrating against you on daily basis it must be because you’re not doing a very good job. While the Americans may be doing the best they can, they’re certainly not doing well enough nor are they doing what they promised they’d do. Granted the financial crisis is hitting them as hard as everybody else and because of this alone Liverpool may have to tighten their belt even further in the transfer market, but would it really hurt them to even pretend like they’re working towards the new stadium that’s been on hold for a couple of years now? Would it really hurt them to at least tell the fans that the stadium is on course and will be built soon enough? They’ve lied about spending £20mil on players each summer so why not throw in a white lie once in a while to keep the fans going at least? This is what businessmen do. If you are sleazy, moral less, American businessmen and we know you are, you should go all the way and do it properly.

Is it Rafa Benitez? Some fans want him sacked while others want to give him more time on the basis of him overachieving while working on a tight budget. Then there is the third group, the ones who can’t quite figure out what’s best for the club at the moment.

One thing to remember when judging a manager is to realize that you can’t form an objective opinion on the basis of the present. Any manager in the world, past or present, can win or lose a few games on the bounce. That’s the nature of the job. There are so many things that decide games that you cannot pin it on the manager, either good or bad, in the short run.

However, the problems Benitez is facing now could be a result of accumulated mistakes in the past couple of years. Let’s toss aside for a moment the fact that he cannot spend as much as Ferguson, Hughes or even Redknapp. Let’s just look at what he can spend.

In his first 3 years at the club he managed to unearth indisputable success stories like Reina, Skrtel, Agger, Aurelio, Insua, Alonso, Arbeloa, Garica, Benayoun, Kuyt and Torres. Even the likes of Bellamy and Sissoko, players whose time at Anfield turned sour in the end, were sold at a profit. Some of the above mentioned players may not have turned heads but they have all proved to be genuine value for money.

Now, if we look at the last two seasons we see the signings of Cavalieri, Degen, Dossena, Riera, Keane, N’Gog, Johnson, Aquilani and Kyrgiakos. How many of those will prove to be value for money signings? We already know that Dossena and Keane, worth £27mil combined, haven’t. For £3mil Cavalieri doesn’t seem like a bargain either. Riera and Kyrgiakos could prove to be decent signings for money spent while the jury is still out on Johnson and Aquilani. Johnson, while a fine footballer with a lot of potential for improvement, could still prove too costly at £18mil. That is when we take into account Liverpool’s budget. Aquilani, while a very talented player who may become a big man at Anfield, does not seem like he’ll have a telling impact this season.

If we look at Benitez’ signings in his time at Liverpool it does seem like his touch for bargains has deserted him in the last couple of years.

It does seem like money has been wasted in the last two seasons more than in the previous seasons under Rafa. Even if some of them go on to prove themselves worthy of their fees, where are the bargains? Have the scouts Rafa used in his first few years at the club been doing an inadequate job? Is it simply a case of Rafa trying to go for more expensive players but has instead been caught in the very dangerous £15-20mil per player land, where you’re neither getting a world superstar nor a bargain? It’s difficult to know from the outside but the transfer machine isn’t quite functioning at Liverpool at the moment.

Buying and selling players aside, it has to be said that uncharacteristic mistakes have been made both on the pitch and on the touchline this season. Defenders cannot defend, midfielders are neither helping the defence nor forming attacks and wide players are all struggling, apart from Benayoun. Up front Torres is isolated and asked to be Superman every week.

There is no doubt that Liverpool are missing a quality central midfielder with Alonso gone, Aquilani unavailable and Lucas not good enough to do the job a central midfielder at Liverpool is asked to do. However, Gerrard has been an option alongside Mascherano prior to his injury and he wasn’t used there. Instead he spent his time sleeping just behind Torres while Mascherano, Lucas and Kuyt struggle to get him involved in the game. Then there is Benayoun, one of the best Liverpool performers this season, being shunted out to the left and made completely ineffective in recent games.

There is no doubt that Rafa Benitez makes all his tactical moves based on his in depth analysis. He doesn’t just do it randomly so when he continually plays Lucas alongside Mascherano or plays Benayoun on the left it’s because he is convinced those are his best options at the moment. It just appears that he is wrong. Liverpool’s game is suffering and Torres’ magic up front isn’t enough to win games on regular basis.

Make no mistake though, Benitez is feeling the pressure. On one hand he is convinced his decisions are the right ones and he won’t budge, while on the other hand the pressure appears to be clouding his judgment at the moment. Especially when you look at some of his substitutions. They’re mostly ineffective because they’re either too late or involve wrong players. But when we criticize a manager we have to acknowledge that behind the suit and the personality we get to see twice a week, there is just a man and when he’s standing on the touchline, with another loss looming, he must feel the pressure. It must affect his decisions, even to a point where he deliberately tries something slightly outrageous as a way to signal to his critics that he sees the tactical moves that his critics don’t. That’s human nature. That’s the nature of football managers. They are proud and stubborn and the more they’re pushed the more stubborn they become.

Then there are the players, who simply have to take some of the blame themselves. A manager may be responsible for it all in the end, but too many players at Liverpool are either hiding or showing themselves only when they make huge errors. They have to emerge from that, stand up and play for themselves. They all have to stop thinking about the team and play as individuals to the best of their abilities. When each player manages to raise his own game so will the team.

As a red man myself I know how frustrating it is for everybody at the moment. With every added loss comes another dose of lethargy and the tunnel keeps getting darker. You feel the urge to stop moving towards the light. Don’t do that. Critisize the manager, the players, the owners or the fans. Vent your anger to make yourself feel better. Just know that with or without the American owners, with or without Rafa, Liverpool will bounce back. Injuries will clear up, confidence will return and Liverpool will get back to winning games. It may be painful in the meantime, but soon enough we’ll be plotting a way to win the title once again. For now, we just take it one game at a time and manage the best we can with all the qualities and faults that the manager and the players have.

”Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars." - Kahlil Gibran.

And in football, joy is only a game away.