I left England on 27th January 2006. At that time Liverpool, the reigning European Champions, had just lost 1-0 away to Manchester United. The last game I went to was on the 14th January at home against Tottenham Hotspur. Liverpool won 1-0 thanks to a Harry Kewell goal.
The team sheet that day read:
Of course Rafa Benitez was in the Anfield dugout.
The win over Spurs kept Liverpool in third place in the league, and that is were they would finish the season, qualifying easily for the Champions League 9 points behind Champions Chelsea but a whopping 15 ahead of Arsenal, the fourth-placed team. Liverpool would also win the FA Cup thanks to an incredible performance from Steven Gerrard. I listened to the final in the middle of the night on the radio in New Zealand, the satellite signal came and went and I had to struggle to hear the commentary for much of the game. The day before I left England news broke that Liverpool had re-signed Kop hero Robbie Fowler, otherwise known as God. I was pretty disappointed that I wouldn’t get to see Fowler make his return for Liverpool, but I never really considered coming back until the next year when Liverpool made it to the Champions League final again. After beating Milan in Istanbul in 2005, Liverpool this time were on the losing side and I was happy I had made the decision to stay away from the UK.
In a little over 2 weeks I will be going back to England for a short while and thinking about the happy situation Liverpool were in when I left and the absolute mess they are in now is quite sad. After Liverpool’s defeat against Blackpool this weekend doom and gloom are the prevailing moods around Anfield. Liverpool’s next game is against Everton at Goodison Park, not the place that Roy Hodgson would want to take his demoralised troops to. Everton are having their own problems but the opportunity to drive their rivals from across Stanley Park deeper into trouble will surely give them all the motivation they would need.
Liverpool seem unable to find any motivation from anywhere at the moment. It is 57 years since Liverpool started a season so badly (thanks to @OptaJoe for the stat) and the problems are mounting up. Most of the current debate revolves around how much to blame Benitez for all these problems. I can’t begin to describe how wrong-headed these allegations are. Benitez, Hodgson and all the players have to work under the same conditions. Benitez managed that task better than Hodgson, and it can be argued that he allowed the players to manage that task better than Hodgson is so far managing.
For a manager that focuses so much on the shape of the team, Liverpool seem unable to find any. Blackpool’s two goals came on counter-attacks, the Seasiders finding space to exploit Liverpool’s lack of shape and to attack the ailing backline. Glen Johnson made a rash challenge for the penalty and defensive disorganisation allowed Gary Taylor-Fletcher too much space to pick a pass to Luke Varney that split the defence. Varney’s finish was the most composed thing on the pitch. Considering the opposition (and with all due respect) this has to go down as Liverpool’s worst performance in a season littered with them.
Liverpool failed to strengthen adequately this summer, for two seasons they have been unable to find an adequate back-up to Fernando Torres. Torres is a great striker but his injury problems over the last three seasons should have pointed to a new striker being the most important requirement. David N’gog has performed well in the games he has played but still lacks experience. Hodgson and Ryan Babel have both talked about how Babel will get more chance to play as a striker but when it comes down to it he seems unable to trust him. They let Mascherano, Insua, Riera and Aquilani leave and the replacements of Poulsen, Konchesky. Cole and Meireles have not yet managed to pick up the slack. In the last two games Meireles has found himself out on the right wing. Quite why Hodgson expects a new player to adjust to a new country and a new position all at the same time, as well as having to deal with the chaos behind the scenes at his new club is, to be honest, inexplicable. And as such it is unsurprising that he is struggling so far. Joe Cole has been hit and miss, mainly miss. After getting sent-off in his first game, he missed a penalty in his next and has yet to find any form since his move from Chelsea. Konchesky has struggled with injuries and Poulsen is an effective but limited player, it seems unfair to compare him with Mascherano but that is what he has to live with. The decision to loan out Aquilani is puzzling, Hodgson said he wouldn’t get the amount of games he needed to regain his fitness at Liverpool. The creativity Liverpool have struggled to find in the middle of the field shows that Aquilani could have done a job. Presumably Meireles and Cole were bought to provide this creativity but then both of are being played on the left and right of midfield. Supposedly Liverpool were offered Rafael Van der Vaart this summer, in quotes attributed to Hodgson he said they decided not to sign him as they were looking for another kind of player and had enough players like Van der Vaart. The way he has started at Tottenham is a harsh look at what they missed out on. To be sure it has to be easier to come into a confident, Champions League team like Spurs than a struggling Europa League team like Liverpool (5 years ago I would never have imagined I would be writing that now…) but Van der Vaart would improve any team he played for, Real Madrid excepted. For all Albert Reira’s faults he could at least stick to the wing and make an effective contribution, something a shape-obsessed manager like Hodgson must wish his team could do now.
All of this talk about players and managers is ignoring the elephant in the room. The elephant made up of Tom Hicks and George Gillett. It may be only a matter of days until they default on their debt and if no new buyer is found, Liverpool could easily find themselves in administration with the threat of a 9 point deduction looming. If this happens, it is not too far-fetched to talk about relegation. Liverpool have 6 points from 7 games, and look unsuited to a relegation dog-fight against other teams built for the purpose.
Comparing this mess to the situation at Liverpool when I left is pretty depressing. It has been said before but Roy Hodgson is a nice man but as a manager is nowhere near the same level as Rafa Benitez. People cheering when Benitez left hopefully should now realise the mistake they, and the senior management of the club, made. Somewhere at Liverpool there is a good team waiting to get out but tactical mistakes and a willingness to rely on big name players when they aren’t performing is hampering Hodgson. It may sound sacrilegious but often this year the performances of Carragher, Gerrard and Torres have warranted a place on the bench and not in the starting line-up. Hodgson may be a good manager but he is not a brave manager, and he is isn’t a manager with enough strength in depth to enable him to drop those under-performing players. He looks for all the world like a man set up to take the fall for Liverpool’s poor performance this year. Any anger focused on him is misplaced, he simply isn’t good enough a manager to turn Liverpool’s fortunes around, and he can’t do that by himself. I believe he wasn’t employed with that in mind, he is a caretaker employed to sit in the manager’s seat and keep his mouth shut while the owners try to wring as much out of the team as they can. It would be a surprise if any new owners kept faith with Roy, and he has my sympathy. He took on the most difficult job in English football when he moved to Liverpool. His great achievement at Fulham was to save them from relegation and get them into Europe, he now has the chance to repeat that feat with a different club. Albeit one that is fundamentally broken at the very highest level.
Before I left England I used to make every effort to go to Liverpool games and would buy the team shirts and subscribe to the website. When I go back I would like nothing more to do the same again, but not under this regime. Even if they do change the manager, which I am not advocating at all, as @karlsentk said yesterday on twitter, what makes you think they would make the right appointment this time around? The only correct thing they can do is leave.