Liverpool owner John Henry’s admission that the paucity of talent in the current Liverpool squad was worse than he had ever previously anticipated upon taking control of the club will come as a stark, yet refreshingly honest admission to most – but who is to blame for this most visible of problems?
Former Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez will always garner a certain degree of affection among a large section of the Anfield faithful, but it became clear towards the end of last season prior to his departure that things had grown a tad stale and that a change needed to be made to freshen the side – that change was the eventual appointment of Roy Hodgson.
The squad that Roy Hodgson inherited was hardly teeming with talent, yet it could be argued that the affable Englishman’s forays into the transfer market while at the club hardly helped matters, with his acquisitions rendering mixed results at best. Paul Konchesky looked woefully out of his depth and Christian Poulsen has failed to arrest the slide in his performance that has dogged him since his time in Italy with Juventus. Joe Cole and Milan Jovanovic have both been used sparingly and have routinely disappointed when they’ve been called upon.
In essence though, this is still largely a squad of Rafa Benitez’s making. Woeful under performance and inconsistency on the pitch have become the only constants in Liverpool’s troubled season so far, yet at the core of this side remains a whole host of international stars, many of which were at the club when it came so close to clinching the Premier League title just two seasons ago. It remains questionable whether you could lay the blame solely at Benitez’s door over the issue of Liverpool’s relative lack of squad depth though, as the well documented issues off the pitch appear to have taken their toll on the playing staff, much to the club’s detriment.
It’s fair to say that under former Chairmen Tom Hicks and George Gillett, Liverpool became a selling club. Benitez’s transfer plans were constantly hamstrung by the fiscal constraints emanating from the boardroom. Liverpool were hardly a club operating on a small budget, but they were left them open to accepting bids for their star players from other clubs and the loss of players such as Yossi Benayoun, Javier Mascherano and most importantly, Xabi Alonso, have hit the club harder than they could ever have imagined.
Henry is quoted as stating “The worst surprise was the lack of depth in the squad. Our biggest concern in taking on this responsibility was the issue and it was a bigger issue than we first feared. There was a huge multi-year pay-roll for a squad that had little depth.”
Hodgson voiced similar concerns upon taking the job at the beginning of the season, citing that the squad that he had inherited lacked both depth and quality as well as boasting a bloated wage bill. Hodgson, rather correctly in my estimation, hinted that the current squad Liverpool squad was filled to the brim with average players on large wages and that the structure of the reserve and youth teams was nothing short of sub-standard for a club of it’s size.
It is difficult to absolve Roy Hodgson of any blame entirely over this issue, as his signings, barring Raul Meireles, have all proved poor, but it’s fair to say that this was an issue that required addressing even before he came to the club. Hodgson became the fall guy for everything that was already inherently wrong with the club. His change in playing style and lack of ability to inspire his charges only served to exacerbate the already existing problem about the lack of squad depth at the club.
Benitez largely avoided critique through Hodgson’s reign, despite the current West Brom boss’s attempts to shift the blame onto the Spaniard at any given opportunity. I would even go as far as to state that despite the underperformance of the side, Benitez left the playing staff and wage bill in a similar state of disarray as to the one that Gerard Houllier left the club in 2004 for Benitez. It’s fair to say that Benitez should shoulder a large proportion of the blame for the current lack of depth. Hodgson didn’t do much right while at Liverpool, but to blame all of the squad’s ills on a manager that barely had time to unpack his boxes before he was shown the door does seem misdirected in it’s appropriation.
Benitez was undermined at every turn financially by the club’s previous owners. Both Rick Parry and Christian Purslow‘s respective fractious relationships with Benitez hardly helped matters either; yet Benitez was also granted an autonomy over first-team matters that was unparalleled in the club’s long and rich history. The timing of Benitez’s increase in influence and control at the club remains somewhat ironic, as it happened just at a time when the owners began to feel the bite of the recession the most and as a consequence they withdrew large scale investment in the playing staff. The investment simply wasn’t there for him to take full advantage of his new-found power after the ousting of Parry.
The club’s precarious financial state under Hicks and Gillett remained the real burning issue here. Every member of the ‘In Rafa We Trust’ brigade’s favourite topic of choice is the club’s relative low net spend during Benitez’s reign, and while it is difficult to question that fact that he was given sufficiently large amounts of money to spend on transfers, he always had to balance the books to an extent in order to pursue the targets that he wanted. A one-in-one-out system became the norm at Liverpool under Benitez and the revolving door of transfers seems to have had a deeper and lasting effect than was first thought.
This in turn meant that Benitez, and later Hodgson, had to shop around at the second tier of European talent for much of their reigns, while also fervently hoping to pick up a bargain free transfer along the way. It’s clear that this is no way to build a squad that requires the necessary strength in depth to consistently challenge for full honours.
It would appear, in the theme of a great history essay, that there is not just one underlying factor to the worrying lack of squad depth at Anfield at the moment, but rather a myriad of components. Questionable transfers coupled with fiscal prudence is always likely to render a club just short of what is required, whether it be in terms of quality or just basic numbers.
The quotes attributed to Henry have been interpreted in some quarters as a thinly veiled attack on Benitez’s legacy and the state of affairs that he left behind him, but the root of the problem at hand lies predominantly at the feet of the club’s former owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett. Granted, Benitez must be held accountable for his mistakes, of which there are many, but to blame him entirely for this problem would be to ignore the context and conditions with which he had to work under during his spell at the club. Hodgson may have played a part in the club’s immediate short-term problems on the pitch, but in order to move on and progress, the club should look to avoid the mistakes of its recent past.
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