Start as you mean to go on – It all started pretty poorly if I’m being honest. The departure of the side’s creative fulcrum and heartbeat of all their play Xabi Alonso departed for Real Madrid after getting royally peeved off with his manager Rafa Benitez’s less than quiet pursuit of Gareth Barry as a replacement for him the previous summer. The club received a hefty fee for his services, £35m in total, but it’s come at a cost to the side as a whole. No longer able to dictate play in the same way, unsurprising really when you play with two graters in the middle in Mascherano and Lucas, Liverpool went from looking fluid the year before to seriously sluggish with the departure of the classy Spaniard throughout this season. They’ve never really got going.
The Replacements – Glen Johnson signed on the dotted line for £17m and Alberto Aquilani arrived to much fanfare seemingly as Alonso’s replacement for around the same figure. Liverpool have had some terrible full backs this decade, baring Steve Finnan (I’m a very big fan) so with Arbeloa off to Real with Alonso, for a rather pitiful fee of £3.5m (I know he was out of contract at the end of the next season, but that’s just poor planning with a first team regular’s contract) Benitez decided to finally stake a fair amount of cash in the area and attempt to sort out the position once and for all. Johnson started brightly and for the first month or so was probably the side’s outstanding attacking prospect, but injuries and a dip in form followed and large swathes still remain unconvinced about his defending (myself included). Aquilani it appears has been protected from action more than a child in a court case, it’s unfair to label him as Alonso’s replacement as he plays a lot higher up the pitch and gets forward more, but after arriving with an injury, taking a while to get going and then not fully earning the confidence of his manager to be able to deal with the physical demands of the league, when finally given a run of games in the side and when he’s been back fully fit, he’s looked an excellent player. It was perhaps an unwise move to replace and outgoing player with an injured one, but Aquilani, if he stays fully fit, can do other sides a lot of damage and his eye for a pass is exceptional. He hasn’t made a huge contribution as yet, partly due to the manager’s reluctance to play him, but in future he may be able to relieve some of the pressure off of Captain Steven Gerrard’s overburdened shoulders, God knows it’s about time someone did it.
Skipper goes through slump – Captain Steven Gerrard has had a difficult campaign, and whilst I don’t fully subscribe to the view that he’s been shocking (those of you doubting his England place, jump on a bandwagon much?) he’s still managed 9 goals in the league which isn’t a return to be sniffed at. By his high standards he’s been poor for large parts but he’s still made telling contributions in matches (not talking about the Chelsea one – he’s got previous in that ear conspiracy theorists) that have gone unnoticed. Obviously this doesn’t subscribe to the view in the tabloids that he’s been appalling, we really do build them up to knock them down don’t we? He’s had his fair share of niggles and the thought of him leaving Liverpool literally terrifies me, people do have short memories don’t they? I expect him to have a decent World Cup and get some way back to his best next campaign, but I’d just like to see a little more effort on his part – a string od defeats and poor personal performance will obviously be disheartening but his lack of work rate at times has been lazy to say the least. Just don’t change the CD on a night out when you’re around him.
Vice-Captain goes through slump – I could probably go through one of these for most of the Liverpool players this season in all honestly. Jamie Carragher embodies Liverpool, his heart on the sleeve mentality endears him to home fans and gets up away fans noses in equal amounts, but this has undoubtedly been his worst domestic season for quite some time, especially since Benitez came to the club at least. The higher defensive line that the side started with at the beginning of the season to accommodate new full-back Glen Johnson and to play to his strengths down the flank in Alonso’s absence had terrible repercussions for Carra’s form. He was never the quickest but he was badly exposed by anyone baring even a modicum of pace, the Zavon Hines incident particularly stick in the memory and at times he looked like a penalty waiting to happen. But a return in the New Year to a deeper defensive line did wonders for his confidence and he began to organise the back-line with authority once more and he ended the season in relatively good nick. Doo-mongering predictions that this was the end for him were greatly overestimated and he’s likely to end the season on the plane to South Africa with England as defensive cover.
Torres, Torres, where for art thou Torres? – Suggestions that Liverpool are a one-man team have been consistently wide of the mark, they’re a two man team don’t you know. World class striker Fernando Torres has been in and out of the side all campaign and it’s shown. It’d be interesting to see how the red side of Manchester would have fared without their main striker Rooney on such a regular basis with England’s great hope having missed just the 5 league games this term and even Didier Drogba just the 6. Torres made only 20 starts in the league this season, came off the bench twice and in 10 of these games he was taken off before the end of the game, yet he still managed to bag 18 league goals, a truly exceptional total considering the amount of time spent on the pitch. His inability to stay fit on a consistent enough basis is a major worry and has cost the team dear this term. He’s already stated that the rigours of the league have left him a broken man, so from that evidence it would appear he’s trying to engineer a move away from the club. I don’t especially foresee any move materialising this summer and I don’t see him moving to another Premiership club as the same problems will still remain, but next term could be his last season at Anfield I fear.
Reina drops keep falling on my head – Goalkeeper Pepe Reina has been a shining light this season for Liverpool and the fact that he’s earned the club’s Player of the Season award tells its own story. Never before has he been called into action on such a regular basis in a Liverpool shirt and were he not of Spanish origin, he would be a shoe-in for a starting position in any other national side in the world. He’s signed a new 5-year deal just a few weeks ago which bodes well and highlights his commitment to the cause. Despite the defensive line going through a tumultuous few months earlier on in the campaign, he still finishes the season with 17 clean sheets in his name in 38 games, earning the honour of the Premiership’s Golden Gloves award for the fourth time in the league sharing the award with Chelsea stopper Petr Cech.
Chairmen hold the club back – It’s clear for all to see that Chairmen George Gillett and Tom Hicks have seriously held the club back, their statement that “Having grown the club this far we have now decided together to look to sell the club to owners committed to take the club through its next level of growth and development” is as woefully inaccurate and delusional as it gets. Having saddled the club with huge amounts debt, told manager Benitez to balance the deficit on incomings and outgoings and stalled the club’s move to a new ground numerous times, I fail to see the correlation between taking a club that when they took over had just been in a Champions League final in 2007 to 7th in the league as anything even close to approaching the word ‘growth’. With Gillett having decided long ago that he wanted to sell and get the hell out of dodge and Hicks rather too slowly realising that he’s not going to be able to sell only half of the club for the fee he’s asking, BA head honcho Martin Broughton has been brought in to oversee a quick sale. Christian Purslow has had a big effect on the club behind the scenes restructuring it and if a new buyer can be found before the close of the transfer window this summer, then perhaps all is not lost, but Hicks will have to lower his unrealistic estimated price on the total value of the club before any deal is likely to be made. One thing has become painfully clear, as long as these two stay at Liverpool, the club will not be a success.
Lack of a supporting cast – What’s truly been the difference between Spurs in fourth place and Liverpool in seventh this season has been the strength in depth of each respective side. When Spurs can call on the likes of Bentley and Pavlyuchenko, Liverpool only have Nabil El Zhar (he’s 24 years old for God’s sake, it’s not ‘potential’ anymore) and David Ngog in reserve. With Torres’ injury problems so evident, Kuyt running himself into the ground and Babel frozen out for long periods for his surly demeanour and perceived lack of effort, the lack of a Plan B in Torres’ absence has been palpable at times this season more than any other before, and a decent backup option should be top of the list in the summer.
Home is where the heart is – In last season’s title challenge Liverpool lost just 2 games all season, but what held the side back from clinching their first league title in 21 years were some crucial draws at home, 7 in total. This season however, Liverpool’s away form has been dreadful; they’ve collected just 21 of their 63 points this season away from the comforts of Anfield, with only 5 wins to their name. Contrast this with last season and they collected 43 of their 86 points away from home. It then becomes clear that to truly challenge you have to be consistent both at home and away, and by scoring just the 18 goals on their travels this season, less than every side that finished above them, Everton, Birmingham and Wolves and even only the same as lowly Wigan, it’s not hard to pinpoint the root of the problem and where the faltering challenge for fourth began. This poor away form has proved costly and precipitated the club’s lowest final league position in over a decade.
Who will steady the ship? – Benitez has been linked with a departure nearly all season, at first it was with the sack due to the horrendous league campaign, FA Cup exit to Reading and a failure to do anything of note in Europe in both the Champions League and second-chance saloon the Europa League, but for the past couple of months rumours have persisted that he’s about to jump ship to Italian giants Juventus in Serie A. Personally I think he’ll stay now the owners look like leaving, and the saving grace about the Juve links at least for you Rafa fans out there is that Juve are in equally as bad a state as Liverpool and their owners are impatient about getting a manager tied up soon. It’s unclear who’ll be Liverpool manager next year, the fact that it would cost £15m to sack Benitez probably kept him in his job earlier on in the season, but still the feeling persists that if the club do decide to get rid of Benitez, who are the viable alternatives? Hodgson has been mentioned and whilst a good short-term measure it can hardly be seen as planning for the future, Mourinho is unrealistic and appointing Dalglish would signal a backwards step. I think Rafa is merely using the Juve link to force the owners into giving into his demands, a clever ploy players often use when they want a new contract. Serious reinforcements are needed and Benitez’s estimations that it’ll require four of five top notch players to truly challenge again aren’t too far wide of the mark, whether he’ll be the man to do it though remains to be seen.
Arbitrary marks out of ten – 3/10 – It literally has been as dreadful as that, they haven’t become a bad team overnight and the basis of the squad that came second is still there, but morale is low, funds are in short supply and players, staff and Chairmen are all looking for ways out. The loss of Champions League football will hurt the club in the short-term at least and troubling times lay ahead.
Written By James McManus