By Kevin Koczwara
A cloud of negativity looms over Anfield these days. Liverpool was once the crown jewel of English soccer – winning trophies and attracting the world’s best talent. Now, the club is in disarray and lacks the passion that once was its calling card.
Liverpool has never won a Premier League title and hasn’t won England’s domestic top flight in 20 years. Dreams of winning a title this year should fly out the window. Even the manager has conceded to only fighting for fourth place and Champions League soccer, rather than for the English Premier League title.
The club’s American owners have been searching for a buyer since April, but anyone with half a brain wouldn’t buy the club for its owners’ asking price. The owners own a mountain of debt almost as high as Manchester United’s, but Sir Alex Ferguson and company seem to be doing all right – and the mountain isn’t getting any smaller.
And yet last weekend, millions of fans watched what Sir Alex calls the “most important fixture.” It was Manchester United and Liverpool at Old Trafford, why wouldn’t they clear their schedules – or, for us Americans, make some coffee and a big breakfast for the biggest game of the season.
I was expecting a game where two teams went full –throttle at one another because this game means so much to both clubs and could be the game both club’s look at as the one that changed the season.
And it was just that, but only one team went all out – United.
The Man in Charge
Rafa Benitez’s tactics and player choice irked me like no other manager in soccer. Why play Lucas over Xabi Alonso (when he was with the club)? Why not try out some youth players instead of playing Javier Mascherano at right back? He is a holding midfielder after all, not a defender. Why not give players a chance like Ryan Babel, Albert Reira, Robbie Keane (I know, I know he never wanted Keane unless he got Gareth Barry), or Alberto Aquilani when he was healthy? If you don’t give players a chance then they just sit on the bench, complain, and rot. Why did he always have to play with two holding midfielders? Why not try and score some goals, you know like in 2008 when the team finished second? Wait, the team dropped too many points at home with draws because they played negative soccer in 2008/09 and that’s why they finished second.
This is how much Benitez’s tactics and personality bother me: I picked a dominant Inter Milan team to finish third in Serie A this year after winning a treble last season because he is the manager. He alienates his players and he seems to let too many wins slip out of his teams grasp.
When Rafa was told to go find new pastures, I thought the Liverpool board had finally come to its senses. But I was mislead.
I hoped the Liverpool board in charge of hiring a new manager may go out and seek someone new to England, some fresh blood, someone who can manage team on a tight budget, and someone who wants to change Liverpool’s style of play to that of a team looking to win rather than one trying not to lose. I was wrong again.
New Boss, Same Result
What Roy Hodgson did with Fulham was amazing, but that club is different from Liverpool. Liverpool has a tradition of winning, not surviving or making it to the finals of a secondary competition. Fulham had that type of history. Liverpool won European Cups, Fulham hoped to qualify for them.
As a supporter, Hodgson wasn’t my first choice for the manager position – I wanted Manuel Pelligrini.
What people don’t realize about the former Villareal and Real Madrid manager is that he has won with a huge budget at Madrid and with a small budget at Villareal. People only see that he was sacked last season after Madrid couldn’t topple Barcelona in the league or get past the first knockout round of the Champions League. But, Madrid went 31–4–3 in La Liga last season and finished with a record 96 points in the league. The club finished second because Barcelona finished with a staggering 99 points – also a record. Madrid was a juggernaut in the league. In fact, it scored 102 goals in 38 games, more than Barca’s 98 goals for. Those are amazing numbers. The Champions League loss came at the hands of a very good Lyon side that knocked off Liverpool as well. Lyon wasn’t a bunch of slouches.
While in charge of Villareal, Pelligrini led the small club to a third–place finish in 2004–05 and a second–place finish in 2007–08. Villareal plays in front of 25,000 fans and had only been in Spain’s top division since 2000 and Pelligrini got the team to finish ahead of Barcelona in 2007/08. Those are impressive feats.
The final big selling point for me on Pelligrini: he was free after being sacked by Real Madrid because los Blancos decided they wanted to go in a different direction and hire the best manager in the world, Jose Mourinho.
Pelligrini being free was huge for Liverpool, the team is laden in debt and in desperate need of some new players. So, the money spent on Hodgson could have been invested in a new player.
With all that said, I wasn’t disappointed when Liverpool was able to bring Hodgson in as the club’s new manager. Hodgson brought life to the club. He kept Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres around. I had pretty high expectations this year.
But the more I watch Liverpool, the more I see the same style of negative soccer.
This weekend’s match with Manchester United could have been a lot worse than it was. Liverpool never threatened the United goal from play, in fact, the Reds looked horrible in their build up and attack. There was no width, no creativity and players looked confused. United on the other hand, broke out whenever it got the ball, used their wide players to streak up and down the field and went for goal rather than pass the ball around the back for minutes at a time like their counterparts.
Hodgson has decided to play a similar style as Benitez, he has employed two holding midfielders (Steven Gerrard occupying one of those positions rather than the supporting striker role is a change), a lone striker with an attacking midfielder playing off his shoulder and wingers that don’t really bring any width to the side. It’s been an ugly sight to see, and I was sorry to wake early on Sunday to watch Liverpool pass the ball sideways then backwards, then kick it long to no one – over and over again.
The 3–2 scoreline doesn’t do the match justice. Fernando Torres barely saw the ball, but he was able to draw two key fouls that lead to both of Gerrard’s goals – one was a penalty in the box and the other was just outside the box. If it weren’t for both of Gerrard’s kicks and Torres’s ability to create something out of nothing then the game would have been uglier.
The Liverpool attack other than those two kicks was non–existent against United much like it was in the Birmingham game, which was more like watching snails player soccer. The ball moved slow, there was no movement, creativity or ambition on the part of Liverpool, and part of the problem has been the personnel sent out by Hodgson.
Raul Meireles could be a great signing for Hodgson this summer if the Portuguese midfielder is played in his more natural center midfield position, not as a second striker behind Torres. Meireles isn’t a goalscorer, he is a solid center midfielder. Why was he playing behind Torres against United, and then on the wing when Maxi Rodriguez came off in the second half? It’s just remarkable what Hodgson was doing, and not in a good way.
Rodriguez has been useless this season and should not see a blade of grass on the field with the first team until he understands that a wide midfielder’s job is to create, get to the touchline and send the ball into the box. His performance was appalling.
Christian Poullsen was abysmal and not worth the price Hodgson paid for the midfielder. He has no creativity or any will to go forward. He passes the ball backwards, sideways, but never tries to send anyone through on goal.
I was disappointed in a fixture that looked like it could be the one that would turn the season for Liverpool, but instead I was left scratching my head again. I kept looking for Benitez to hop off the bench at one point and yell at the Liverpool players to defend better, but it was only Hodgson doing his best impression.
If Liverpool is able to secure an owner who cares about the club, the sport and winning something other than a a bigger paycheck, then the first thing the new owner will have to do is change the mindset and philosophy of the club. Liverpool use to be about winning trophies, not finishing fourth. It was a club that was about winning, not about avoiding a loss. Liverpool needs to get back to that mentality, and soon, or the club could be finding itself in even deeper waters.
Kevin Koczwara is a contributing writer and editor for The Soccer Guys. he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.