Not as coherent or analytical as I would have liked, but it’s nearly 4:00 a.m. on what has been a long night and I need to get this off my chest, so here it goes…
6 points from 7 games is the worst start to a league season for Liverpool since 1953-54. While the ownership situation is largely responsible for the downward spiral that the club finds itself in, that alone cannot explain the recent run of results. After the latest humiliation of a home defeat to Blackpool, Roy Hodgson has come under a lot of criticism from a large number of the (usually patient) Liverpool fans. Is the criticism justified?
Some fans don’t think it is. As far as they are concerned, there’s only one man to be blamed for the mess – Rafa Benitez. These views are supported (or rather fueled) by large pockets of the English media, led by Sky Sports. Without getting into the details of their anti-Rafa, pro-Englishman, Xenophobic propaganda, this post will attempt to look at what blame, if any, indeed lies at the steps of the Spaniard.
Whose team is it?
With everybody fit, and let’s not get into how often that happened last season, this was pretty much Rafa’s first choice XI last season:
Reina Johnson Carragher Agger Insua Lucas Mascherano Kuyt Gerrard Benayoun Torres
Note: Agger was injured at the start of the season, then Agger and Skrtel took turns getting injured, and then Agger had a brief stint at LB because Insua was injured & Aurelio was never around. But everyone would agree that was Rafa’s “go-to” team.
Based on the evidence so far, this is the XI Roy Hodgson prefers:
Reina Johnson Carragher Skrtel Konchesky Gerrard Poulsen Kuyt Meriles Cole Torres
I can count four players that Roy has signed in there. Can any new manager, coming in at any club, anywhere in the world (other than Manchester City) expect to make more than 4 changes to the first XI in his first transfer window? I don’t think so. The team he prefers to use has four of his players, four players whose pedigree no one can question (Reina, Carragher, Gerrard and Torres) and another two who may not be everyone’s favourites, but are regular internationals for top European nations (Johnson and Kuyt). That brings us to the 11th player. Roy clearly prefers Skrtel over Agger, with the latter’s tendency to play the ball out of defense in contrast to Roy’s desire to see the team never lose its shape. Again, a decision made by Roy.
To summarize, that’s four of his signings in the first XI, and a fifth he’s promoted from 3rd choice (behind a fit Agger) to the firm incumbent in the second center-back spot. Again, how many more changes can a manager expect to make to the first XI in one transfer window at a club with limited funds?
Let’s take a look at it another way. Four of Roy’s players are already here. Another four that he definitely wouldn’t want to change (JR, JC, SG, FT). That leaves us with the other three. Does anyone really think Roy could buy a trio better than Kuyt, Johnson and Skrtel given the purchases he’s made in the current financial climate at the club? He’s shipped out 4 of last season’s XI in Insua, Benayoun (probably not his fault), Lucas (dropped to the bench) and Mascherano (wanted to go) and brought in Konchesky, Cole (talks were already underway with him when Roy signed?), Poulsen and Meriles. Which of those 4 names suggest that if Roy could have imposed more of his authority on the first XI suggests that he would have done a better job (especially in the current financial conditions).
Sure, the new guys need time to settle in. Then how about not throwing all four of them in at the same time. Why not let Lucas or even Babel start some league games over Poulsen or Cole, both of whom have been pretty ineffective, to put it kindly. Blending in two new players would surely be easier than blending in four? But by starting those four, you are putting YOUR stamp on the team Roy, so please, there’s no blaming anyone else.
What about the strange decisions of letting Insua and Aquillani go out on loans when everyone’s moaning about the size of the squad? It may have been down to cutting the wage bill (though I doubt Insua was making a killing), but, the way I see it, we exchanged Aquillani for Poulsen and threw in an extra 5.5 million pounds to sweeten the deal! Surely, you can’t blame Rafa for that?
I am not even going to talk about tactical decisions like playing Gerrard deeper, playing Cole on the left, using Babel as a striker because he “likes it there”, or preferring Skrtel to Agger for that matter. That’s because there are smarter people out there dissecting that already and, secondly, unlike the cold hard fact numbers of how much of the starting XI is Roy’s, tactics are subjective. What’s brilliant for one, doesn’t work for the other.
(LFC score first)
Arsenal (H) 1-1 Man City (A) 0-3 West Brom (H) 1-0 Birmingham (A) 0-0 Man United (A) 2-3 Sunderland (H) 2-2 Blackpool (H) 1-2
P W D L Pts. GF GA GD 7 1 3 3 6 7 11 -4
P W D L Pts. GF GA GD 4 1 2 1 5 5 5 0
P W D L Pts. GF GA GD 3 0 1 2 1 2 6 -4
Last season – Equivalent fixtures
(LFC score fist)
Arsenal (H) 1-2 Man City (A) 0-0 Hull (H) 6-1* Birmingham (A) 1-1 Man United (A) 1-2 Sunderland (H) 3-0 Portsmouth (H) 4-1**
* West Brom qualified as 2nd ranked team from Championship and thus took place of Hull who finished 19th.
** Blackpool qualified via playoffs from Championship and thus took place of Portsmouth who finished 20th.
P W D L Pts. GF GA GD 7 3 2 2 11 16 7 +9
P W D L Pts. GF GA GD 4 3 0 1 9 14 4 +10
P W D L Pts. GF GA GD 3 0 2 1 2 2 3 -1
While critics may point at the deficiencies of such comparisons, and with good measure too, they definitely make for compelling reading. It’s true that Liverpool didn’t play these teams, in this order at the start of last season, and one bad result can snowball into a bad start if you have a difficult fixture list. But it’s also true that this is the closest we can come to making direct comparisons across seasons.
If you look at the equivalent fixtures comparison, the away record is almost exactly the same – draw at Birmingham and a narrow defeat at Manchester United. The biggest difference of course is the result at City where a goalless draw last season became a 3-0 drubbing this time. Money talks? Maybe, but that doesn’t explain the home record.
The narrow defeat to Arsenal from last year was improved to a draw. We played them off the park in the 1st half last season (which, amazingly, even Wenger managed to see and admit) but didn’t put the ball in the back of the net, and paid the price. On other hand, some may put this year’s draw as a harsh result after the Reds had almost held out till the last minute with 10 men, so you don’t always get what you deserve. It’s the other 3 games that really bring out the difference. Comfortable home wins were replaced by a narrow win, a draw and a defeat. While it’s true Portsmouth had nothing to play for when they came to Anfield last season (especially when compared to what we saw from Blackpool today), the same can’t be said about Sunderland or Hull, whose seasons where alive and kicking when they were dispatched comfortably last season.
Last season – First 7 fixtures
(LFC score fist)
Tottenham (A) 1-2 Stoke City (H) 4-0 Aston Villa (H) 1-3 Bolton (A) 3-2 Burnley (H) 4-0 West Ham (A) 3-2 Hull (H) 6-1
P W D L Pts. GF GA GD 7 5 0 2 15 22 10 +12
P W D L Pts. GF GA GD 4 3 0 1 9 15 4 +11
P W D L Pts. GF GA GD 3 2 0 1 6 7 6 +1
This comparison has been included just for reference. Even though it included away trips to Spurs, Bolton and West Ham, the Reds had a relatively easier fixture list in the first seven games of last season. What they did well last season, at this stage atleast, was winning the “home bankers” – Villa withstanding (if that can be called a banker i.e.).
Results – Conclusion
Not much to say. Nearly twice as many points, more than twice the number of goals scored, fewer goals conceded – clearly the Reds did much better in equivalent fixtures last season. The time based comparison is even more lopsided.
So what does this tell us? The simplistic can draw the conclusion that the new manager has come in, made some changes to the team and that hasn’t worked. So who must take the blame? Around 40% of the team’s starting XI is the incumbent’s, so he cannot claim for it to be entirely the previous manager’s fault. Besides, as shown above, the previous manager clearly did a better job in the same fixtures and the club was in a much healthier position in the league same time last year. Perhaps the problem lies in the missing 40% from previous season starting XI that have either moved on or been relegated to the bench? If that’s the case, atleast part of that blame is again attached to the incumbent since it’s his transfer policy/ tactics, albeit under the shadow of the financial cloud (which existed during the previous manager’s reign as well, lest Sky forget).