A couple of sharp-suited, sinister figures have cast shadows over Rafa Benitez’s plans for the new season. The intentions of one, Florentino Perez, have been plain from the outset. The Real Madrid President’s relentless pursuit of just about everyone that Manchester City haven’t signed has led him to Alvaro Arbeloa and will eventually find the transfer request-wielding Xabi Alonso, but it’s likely that he is acting on the same principles as Benitez may soon be forced to.
The controversial 6+5 rule, the creation of Sepp Blatter – that second of the be-suited blockades to Benitez’s preparations – will have given the Liverpool manager some headaches ahead of the coming campaign, much more than a weekend pre-season defeat to Espanyol that ended with only three players on the pitch who’d are expected to start a game for the Reds this season plus Alonso, who isn’t. Publicity-shy FIFA boss Blatter, no doubt delighted that poor old Cristiano Ronaldo finally broke out of his shackles and fled to Madrid, and presumably under pressure to come up with a new law that doesn’t affect the length of female players’ shorts, is determined to see all clubs field a minimum of six native players in their starting XIs by the 2012/13 season, with a 4+7 rule, i.e. four citizen starters, pencilled in for as early as the season which follows the imminent one (2010/11).
Currently Liverpool have only three of their Three Lions guaranteed of a first team place – captain Steven Gerrard, his deputy Jamie Carragher and £16m Glen Johnson, a player who, perhaps tellingly, was welcomed to Anfield this summer with Benitez’s claim that: “Sometimes you have to spend a little bit more. We were looking for a player of quality and also somebody British because of the new Champions League rules.” Those UEFA rules already require a minimum of eight out of the 25 players registered for European competition to be natives. It is a law that caught Liverpool out last season when Sami Hyypia had to be left out of the squad for the group stages – with Bolton-born rookie Martin Kelly shoe-horned in in his place.
In the squad for this year will be 20-year-old scousers Stephen Darby and Jay Spearing, both recently awarded new deals after captaining trophy-winning youth and reserve sides and making two senior appearances each last season, with central midfielder Spearing getting a shock 20-minute run-out as Real Madrid were dispatched 4-0 at Anfield. If 6+5 is to become a reality – and repeated rejections by the European Union suggest that it may be delayed for a year or two – then Benitez would have to regularly include the likes of Kelly, Darby and Spearing in his matchday squads, whilst also radically altering his transfer plans.
Now here comes the science part. In his five years at Anfield, the Liverpool manager has signed 43 players who’ve gone on to play for the first team competitively. Of the 43, only six are English and only Johnson is currently at the club. Even if you throw in Craig Bellamy and Robbie Keane it’s not exactly a ringing endorsement from Rafa that Britain’s got talent. But of course Benitez is Spanish and so knows Spanish and Spanish-based players the best (16 of the 43 before you ask, but only Albert Riera in the past year).The problem for the boss is that, with the threat of 6+5 on the horizon, he faces compromising the quality of his squad in order to increase the quantity of British players within it.
The likes of Lee Cattermole and Michael Turner – linked with the Reds in the Press – may well have had impressive campaigns last season but don’t immediately strike you as a Liverpool standard of player, and wouldn’t whet the fans’ appetites in the way that a David Silva or Alberto Aquilani would. Instead of paying the often inflated prices for British players, Benitez may instead opt to sell off his dispensable foreign squad members – Andrea Dossena is a good start – and promote the home-grown youngsters to the fringes of the team in their place, thus still giving him space to buy overseas stars to replace Alonso – with Aquilani the favourite for the job and Silva still being tracked.
There is still the very real possibility that 6+5 will join the rest of Sepp Blatter’s hair-brained schemes back on his over-crowded drawing board, but Rafa Benitez has to decide if he can take that chance in what’s looking like a crucial summer in his plans.