By Liverpool’s usually high standards, the 2009/10 season has been hugely chaotic and little short of disastrous. With the club saddled with huge debts, afflicted by disruption in the boardroom and possibly facing the departure of its manager, Rafa Benitez, at the end of the season, it seems that there is little else left to go wrong on Merseyside. With the club’s future seemingly shrouded in rumour and uncertainty, The Equaliser chats to Liverpool blogger Matt Wood about all things Anfield.
Patchy league form, dumped out of the Champions League at the first hurdle and trophyless for another year, has this season been the unmitigated disaster it’s been packaged as by the media or is it an important transitional year in the life of the club?
It’s been a massive disappointment, there’s no getting away from that. Expectations sky rocketed after last season, where we probably should have won the league, being beaten twice in an entire league campaign is no mean feat. Perhaps that success masked the fact that the squad in general is a little threadbare.
I think the media have had a field day with us this season. They know we were tipped by many people to win the league, so when that didn’t materialise they were quick to stick the knife in. Some of the punditry regarding Liverpool’s situation has been borderline pathetic, even ex-players (who should know better), have been very quick to get on the bandwagon.
With the likes of Manchester City and Tottenham continuing to strengthen both financially and in footballing terms, do you think Liverpool will have to reassess its ambitions in the years to come? Will title challenges become a thing of the past and Champions League qualification a bonus rather than an expectation?
For the short-term, certainly, yes. Anyone who thinks we are going to be challenging for the league again next season is very much mistaken. The situation behind the scenes at the club needs to be sorted first and foremost, new owners who have the right intentions with the club need to be found and the debt needs to be lifted.
In addition, the playing squad needs to be strengthened. Man City, Spurs and Villa have all spent big money over the last few years and, inevitably, are catching up. Man City worry me because if they manage to finish fourth it’s likely any player in World football (perhaps with one or two exceptions), would be willing to sign for them, and that can only be bad news for us.
What positives, if any, have you taken from what has clearly been very a difficult season?
You got me thinking on this one!
Pepe Reina, without doubt for me, has been the shining light of our season. I personally rate him as the best in Europe right now. I’d dread to think what position we’d be in without him. He’s been tremendous in goal all season and, in addition, seems like a top bloke who has genuinely taken the club to heart.
The development of David Ngog has also been encouraging. It infuriates me when he’s labeled as a ‘flop’ because this season has seen him play a number of starring roles. The home game against Birmingham (2-2), which will be remembered for Ngog’s dive, masked his wonderful individual performance on the night. That was the game for me that showed he could be a top centre forward in the future.
Have you noticed any major tactical deficiencies in the team this season or has it simply been a case of players missing through injury or not finding their best form at crucial times?
Benitez swears by his 4-2-3-1, and perhaps that has been found out a little with the emergence of the 4-5-1/4-3-3. In saying that, I still regard Benitez as one of the top tacticians in Europe.
Injuries indeed have been critical, it started on the first day against Spurs with a half-fit Jamie Carragher and an injury to Martin Skrtel, and has continued throughout the campaign. The list of absentees at times this season has been scary. The challenge for fourth would have been a lot healthier had Agger, Skrtel, Aurelio, Gerrard, Benayoun and Torres been fit on a regular basis.
The Benitez era has yielded four trophies and several sustained challenges for the title, but do you think it has reached its natural conclusion or should Rafa be given the time to build a new side?
You don’t become a bad manager overnight. Rafa’s record in Spain and England proves he is top drawer. Personally I’m desperate for him to stay, purely because I don’t think there’s too many out there as good as he is.
I’m not sure ‘building a new side’ is totally appropriate, the basis of a strong team still remains. Reina, Carragher, Agger, Aurelio, Johnson, Mascherano, Gerrard, Kuyt and Torres are all fantastic players. I believe that adding depth to what we have (i.e. more recognised subs), in addition to one or two quality wide players could see us perform considerably better than we have done this season. However, the main problem is that we don’t have the finances to make such additions to the squad.
If Benitez is to leave Anfield who would you realistically like to see take over at the club?
It’s not really a thought that has crossed my mind too much until the past couple of days. Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola are top class but realistically Roy Hodgson.
What he has achieved with Fulham has been nothing short of miraculous. The playing squad he has at his disposal is by no means the greatest, and to lead them to the final of the Europa League has been incredible. Last season’s seventh place finish also can’t be sniffed at (finishing ahead of Spurs, City and West Ham).
The sale of Xabi Alonso last summer and subsequent purchase of Alberto Aquilani angered many Liverpool fans and is held up as an example of Benitez’s alleged incompetence in the transfer market. Do you agree with those who say Rafa has held the club back with his transfer policy over the last six years?
Benitez’s record in the transfer market is regularly misrepresented in my mind. Admittedly the Aquilani situation is a little puzzling because of his injury record (last time he started over 20 games in a season was 2005/06), but there’s no doubt he’s got ability. From what I gather though, Benitez was declined further acquisitions after the signature of Aquilani, with a striker apparently top of his agenda.
Of course there’s been some ‘flops’, Andrea Dossena, Mark Gonzalez, Antonio Nunez and Josemi spring to mind – but no manager is perfect. Ferguson has Bellion, Djemba-Djemba, Kleberson, Veron and Berbatov (£30m!) while Wenger, equally, isn’t a saint.
By the same token Benitez has made a great deal of top class buys. Reina, Agger, Mascherano, Alonso, Aurelio, Benayoun, Kuyt, Torres and for the current budget, Maxi and Kyrgiakos look to be astute signings.
From the perspective of an outsider, the running of the club from the boardroom seems to have been an absolute shambles this season. Would you pin Liverpool’s on-field problems on the American pair or have other factors had a detrimental effect?
It’s been going on for a while now, the success on the pitch last season probably hid, to an extent, the problems off the pitch. Hicks and Gillett deceived the supporters of Liverpool Football Club. They claimed a new stadium would be built, which hasn’t happened. They also claimed that they wouldn’t borrow money when they took over the club, again, complete bullshit.
With the club now debt-ridden, the money available for transfers just isn’t there and as a consequence Spurs and Man City are gaining ground. I’m quite certain that the values of their respective squads probably far exceeds our own now.
With Liverpool reportedly £237million in debt, do you fear for the future of the club and its ability to hold on to its most valuable assets, particularly Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres?
Personally I think both Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres will stay. Torres especially, has committed himself on numerous occasions during the season, even stating he would settle for Europa League football.
Pepe Reina recently signed a new contract, signaling his intent to stay and Javier Mascherano is also reportedly close to signing. There certainly needs to be visible progression next year though if we are to keep hold of Gerrard, Torres et al.
If the club is sold in the near future, do you think promises of a more substantial transfer kitty would convince Rafa to stay?
I believe he loves the club so inevitably I have to say, yes. I feel Rafa believes he has unfinished business here, despite the myths that state Rafa prefers the European Cup, I’m certain he’d like nothing better than to finally land league title number 19 for Liverpool. It would surely have to rank as his greatest achievement if he could pull it off.
However, selling the club in the near future is not likely with Hick’s outrageous £800m price tag slapped on the club.
What have you made of the young players that have been in and around the first team this season? With the club’s finances the way they are, do you think the likes of Daniel Pacheco, Daniel Ayala and Jay Spearing will have an important role to play in the years to come?
Emiliano Insua has struggled. Left back is a department we’re particularly weak in with the injury problems to Fabio Aurelio (arguably one of the best LB’s of 08/09) and the failure of Andrea Dossena. It’s hard to put your finger on why Insua hasn’t played particularly well, because prior to this season he looked a real gem. Perhaps it’s a confidence problem, but you can’t really afford too many liabilities in your team, and unfortunately he has been one at times this season.
Daniel Ayala has looked impressive whenever he has played but he’s still awfully young (19) for a centre-half and it could be another season or two before we see him regularly. His compatriot, Daniel Pacheco has also had some lively outings and could turn into a quality attacking midfield player. Physically he doesn’t look too ready for the Premier League yet, but I foresee him playing a greater role next season.
Jay Spearing’s career has arguably stuttered this season. At the back end of the last campaign he was debatably on the cusp of the first team. His cameos against PSV and Real Madrid heightened expectation but, unfortunately for him, when he has been thrown in this season, most notably against Sunderland, he’s been relatively poor.
I hear he has been doing well at Leicester though, and it’s hard to disregard the impressive outings he had for the reserves and the first team in 08/09.
And finally, if you could make three changes to Liverpool between now and the start of next season, what would they be?
Not so much of a change but… keep Rafa Benitez in charge. Secondly, find suitable owners who can stabilise the club, bringing us out of debt and proceeding with the stadium plans drawn up about three years ago.
Thirdly, get more of our young players out on loan in the Premier League or in top Championship teams. It’s evident that a lot of the guys in the reserves need some more competitive playing time at a high level. Ayala and Pacheco would certainly benefit from loan spells because it’s unlikely they will see regular first-team football next season.
You can read more of Matt’s regular thoughts and opinions on Liverpool on his blog, Red and White Blogger.