We’ve been crying out for years for a serious challenge to the title. It’s 1st December and we’re top of the league, albeit by one point, and yet I’ve rarely been more pessimistic about our chances of winning it. How on earth with our consistently poor performances this season are we top of the league? One thing is for certain, if we carry on playing like we did against West Ham, our luck will run out and we will fade into 4th (or worse) yet again.
One game obviously doesn’t dictate the fortunes of a season but we have lacked domination against so many of the weaker sides in the league and we seem totally devoid of ideas of how to break down defensive teams. Champions hammer teams like West Ham 4-0, who tonight played very ordinary themselves and only looked like snatching a goal when we let them counter attack.
Our record this season shows only 3 times have we won by at least 2 clear goals in the league; Everton, Bolton and West Brom. Compare this to Arsenal and Man Utd who (after comparatively poor starts) have won 5 games each by 2 clear goals or more and Chelsea who have won 9 games by the same margin or greater.
I have defended Benitez to the hilt not only on this site and others but also verbally over the past 4 years. I feel however that something must be clearly wrong with either the tactics he employs or more worryingly the coaching and motivation that he and his team provide in training. Why else do players move to Liverpool and seem to become worse than when they played elsewhere?
Robbie Keane is probably the best example of this. He has played in the Premier League for years for several clubs and surely doesn’t need that long to adjust to his new surroundings. He looks devoid of ideas, disinterested and clearly unable to find the target on anything like a regular basis. Benitez now seems to have such lack of faith in him that he substituted him for David Ngog who is totally unproven, not only in England but also in France where he came from. Is this the sign of a desperate manager or one who has realised he may have wasted £20M in the summer? I’m sure if he wanted a back up striker past his best he could have offered Newcastle half of that amount for Michael Owen.
When Yossi Benayoun came to the club, nobody really thought he would set the world alight but he was a classy player at West Ham with great versatility, able play in a number of positions. He wants to be in the first team more often but on tonight’s performance (and many others before) he looks a shadow of his formal self. The same can also be said of Ryan Babel who we all expected to take off this season and really make an impact. Few would deny he seems to have gone backwards and his 15 minutes on the field against West Ham cemented the fact that he is light years away from providing the kind of dazzling performances we want and even nowhere near matching his promising start of last year.
It is worth a note at this point on Benitez’s other major summer transfers. Andrea Dossena (who I previously knew nothing about) cost around £8M and has looked solid at times and woeful at others. I’d have rather spent the money on Wayne Bridge who must be desperate for a chance at another big club and surely could have been captured for a similar fee. Albert Riera has proven a little better, showing some promising signs but has been anything but consistent. The biggest problem I have with Rafa’s transfer decisions (apart from Keane) is that he almost sold Xabi Alonso who I would say has been our best player this season and even against West Ham looked the best on the field. I don’t want to play the “I told you so” card but I will, as if you’ve read my column before you may remember I was against replacing him with Gareth Barry and agreed with the board in their decision to stall on the deal.
Benitez may not have lost the plot yet (let’s remember we are somehow top) but something needs to change. I hesitate to call for 3 or 4 more players in January because we’ve been doing that every season for almost as long as I can remember. It may be a change of coaching staff that is required as the present set up don’t seem to have the creativity or motivation to get the best out of a team, that even if winning the league is beyond them, should be able to score a goal against Stoke, Fulham or West Ham at home.
Perhaps if we get Torres back we can start scoring again, the team will all click into place and we’ll still be top (or close) come the end of the season. That is seeming increasingly unlikely to me and judging by the 4,000 empty seats at Anfield tonight I’m not the only one.