Liverpool Football Club has a great history – 18 times the champions of England and five times the champions of Europe. However, one of the most decorated clubs in world football has not been national champions since the 1989/90 season, fully 20 years ago. After defeat at Sunderland on Saturday, the long wait for the championship crown looks set to enter its third decade.
Not since the 1963/64 season has a side lost four of the opening nine matches of a campaign and gone on to win the title. That ironically was Liverpool. However, this season there seems to be something seriously wrong at Anfield. Defeats away from home against Spurs, Chelsea and Sunderland coupled with a home defeat to Aston Villa, suggests that a lack of fight and the seeming lack of ability to win games when playing badly is an issue for Liverpool. In the opening nine matches, only Burnley and Stoke have failed to score against Liverpool whilst the away defeat to Fiorentina suggests that even European form is starting to suffer. Rafael Benitez was seemingly furious after defeat in Florence and rumours of a split in the dressing room between the Spanish players and the rest of the squad have started to surface. Where has it all gone wrong?
Xabi Alonso is certainly a miss in the middle of the park and Benitez must be regretting allowing him to leave for Real Madrid in the summer. Alberto Aquilani might turn out to be an excellent replacement but it remains a strange decision to buy someone who is not fit and has no experience of the English game. Whilst Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres are seen by most observers as the two key players in the Liverpool side, in hindsight it appears that Alonso was also a key figure in last season’s attempt at dethroning Manchester United. The lack of support from the board when it came to attempts to sign Gareth Barry at the start of last season have been well publicised, but questions need to be asked of the decision made by the manager when over £18m was spent on Glen Johnson, who brings less to the club than Barry would have. If Benitez was strong enough in his relations with the board, he could have got Barry as a perfect replacement for Alonso. As it is, the weakness in the midfield has yet to be solved by Benitez and the lack of options is of concern.
Defensively Jamie Carragher has come under much criticism so far this season and appears to be lacking in pace against top Premier League strikers. Daniel Agger is an impressive centre-back, but there is a lack of cover which has been exposed repeatedly this season. Sotirios Kyrgiakos showed at Rangers that he is a mediocre player at best, and not capable at the highest level. It is difficult to see if there is anyone at the club who can slot into the back four and make it a solid unit again, leaving the club’s defence in direct contrast to many clubs such as Manchester United and Chelsea. In over five years of the club, the lack of young players coming through from the Academy under the guidance of Benitez is a concern. Manchester United have spent a lot of money on Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic and they form a great partnership. Yet Sir Alex Ferguson is able to rotate these two with Jonny Evans. He has come through the youth set-up at Old Trafford and did not cost a fee. At Liverpool, there is a real lack of youth being promoted from within, with the notable exceptions of Carragher and Gerrard.
Up front with Torres, Benitez seems to have yet another problem. Dirk Kuyt has four goals this season but does not appear to be a natural partner for the Spanish striker. In the Premier League last season, Gerrard was Liverpool’s highest scorer with 16 goals – two more than Torres. For a club wanting to win the title, there should be at least three strikers who can be relied on to score the goals needed to win matches. A midfielder – even one with Gerrard’s exceptional ability – should not be top scorer. Whilst Benitez has boardroom troubles to deal with, he should have made it a priority in the summer to recruit a striker who could make a great partnership with Torres. David Villa anyone?
The threadbare nature of the Liverpool squad is of great concern. The likes of Ryan Babel and David Ngog are simply not good enough for Liverpool. A mass clearout is needed at Anfield, with much deadwood in the dressing room surplus to requirements. The approach of squad rotation which the manager operates can work, but only if the players coming into the team can maintain high levels demanded by Liverpool fans.
Liverpool may only be seven points behind Manchester United, but this season more than any other in recent memory there appears to be a group of clubs who could mount a title challenge. Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City will believe they can win the Premier League. Liverpool is in real danger of missing out on not only another title challenge, but a top four spot. The repercussion s of missing out on the premier European competition next season could leave Benitez with limited funds and opportunity to strengthen the squad next summer, with further consequences threatened with the club one of many riding significant debts.
These are worrying times for Liverpool and their passionate supporters. The visit of Manchester United to Anfield next weekend gives Liverpool the chance of some redemption. It certainly is a must-win game if the Premier League trophy has any chance of being received in Merseyside next spring. Defeat could mean leave the manager under more pressure than ever before and with domestic success continuing to elude the club, it may be time for Benitez to consider if he has taken Liverpool as far as he can.