3 Jan 2008

After the Wigan debacle, can Liverpool summon up the spirit of 1989?

On New Year’s Day 1989, Liverpool lost 3-1 to Manchester United at Old Trafford - a defeat that left the club languishing 17 points adrift of runaway leaders Arsenal. A cloud of pessimism descended over Anfield and the title seemed a million miles away. Sound familiar?

Surely overcoming a 17 point gap was an insurmountable task? Surely the league was completely out of reach?

Not for Liverpool FC.

After that game, the club went on an amazing 18 game unbeaten streak in the league, winning 15 of those games along the way. Through sheer skill, determination, mental strength and a complete unwillingness to accept defeat, Liverpool pulled their season out of the fire and went into their final game against Arsenal at Anfield full of confidence, knowing that avoiding defeat would seal the title.

Of course, every real Liverpool fan knows the horror of what happened next (!) but the point is that Liverpool overcame a 17 point deficit to put themselves back in the title driving seat. It was a monumental achievement, and one that has not been matched since.

After the calamitous 1-1 draw with Wigan, Liverpool find themselves trailing Arsenal once again in the new year of a season, but this time by only 12 points.

The question is, can the team show the spirit of ’89 and resurrect their chances of landing the title?

Unfortunately, the answer is resoundingly NO.

Kenny Dalglish’s team of ’89 had something that Rafa Benitez’s team just does not possess in the league: A bona fide winning mentality and unshakable never say die attitude. The team of 89 also had real flair and creativity, an essential element missing from the current Liverpool team.

The lack of creativity and inability to consistently kill teams off has been Liverpool’s principal failure this season. Eight draws in the league already is unacceptable and represents sixteen points lost because the team could not create or convert enough chances.

The players must take responsibility for yet another failure to mount a serious title challenge, but Benitez must take the lion’s share of the blame.

Four years into his reign and Liverpool are no closer to winning the league than they were under Gerard Houllier. This is not an opinion, it is a painful fact. Benitez simply has no idea how to win the title, and his maddening obsession with changing the team’s personnel/formation every game continues to be his downfall.

And it’s not even rotation that is the main issue here – it’s Benitez’s refusal to play a settled formation. One game it’s 4-4-2 then the next game it’s 4-5-1, with strikers playing as wingers or some other square peg in a round hole. There is no consistency of formation and no fluidity, and the team has suffered as a result.

Wigan was a must-win game, and Benitez blew it. Playing a defensive 4-5-1 formation at home against a team in the relegation zone?! It’s beyond belief! Peter Crouch was ignored yet again and insulted once more with a 7 minute cameo performance.

What is the point of playing 2 wingers and leaving Peter Crouch on the bench?! He should have been on from the start, and Liverpool should have played 4-4-2 with aces in their places.

Instead, we get three central midfielders in the starting line up *again*, and creative players like Ryan Babel and Yossi Benayoun left on the bench or not even in the squad.

What other team plays three central midfielders against a team like Wigan?! This tactic failed against Everton, Arsenal, Blackburn and Chelsea and yet Benitez persists with it due to his irrational stubbornness.

Benitez would probably argue that Gerrard was playing a more attacking role, and it was his job (along with Jermaine Pennant and Harry Kewell) to get forward and support Fernando Torres. However, Gerrard was so deep in the first half he might as well have been playing in goal!

Having said all that, it doesn’t really matter what formation or selection of players Benitez puts out – there is too much dead wood weighing down the team and the Spaniard's negative approach is becoming too much of a burden to overcome.

The team will go through spells of playing well, and will have the odd great performance, but the consistency is just not there, and never will be until Liverpool start playing a settled team and formation.

As I’ve argued countless times in the past, the club also needs to invest in three or four excellent creative players and another Striker on the level of Fernando Torres. Pursuing Javier Mascherano for 17m should not be the priority right now – buying players who can unlock defences *consistently* should be the focus.

The galling fact is this: if just three of Liverpool’s eight league draws this season had been turned into wins, then the club would be only 3 points behind Arsenal with a game in hand. As usual, the team is so near yet so far away from the title.

The only plus point from the Wigan debacle was Fernando Torres. He lead the line superbly and caused problems all night. Torres can’t do it on his own though. I shudder to think where Liverpool would be this season without Torres, having to rely on the leaden-footed Dirk Kuyt for goals. Actually, let’s not go there…!

The title dream is over for another season; that is not pessimism, it is realism. No Liverpool team since the Kenny Dalglish era has overcome a points gap at the top of the table. This is certainly the case under Rafa Benitez, where *every season*, the club is invariably chasing shadows halfway through the season.

It is painfully clear that Rafa still refuses to adapt his methods and philosophies to demands of the premiership, preferring instead to stubbornly persist with the same approach that won him two La Liga titles.

The Premiership is 100% DIFFERENT! Until Rafa understands this and alters his methods and philosophies to fit the demands of the English league, Liverpool will continue to be perennial losers in the title race.


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