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TOMKINS: EVOLUTION OF A TEAM

 

Despite all the problems this season, the biggest ray of hope remains the chance to see a fully fit strongest XI take to the field.

For years, the criticism was that Benítez bought too many squad players, and didn't spend his budget on the high-end, proven quality stars who cost a pretty packet.

 

But adding a £25m player to the squad he inherited was almost pointless.

 

Too many new players were needed across the board to succeed in the long-term; and if the new £25m man broke his leg, or turned out to be a Veron or a Shevchenko, Benítez would have been back to square one, sending out players who were patently not good enough.

 

If you look at how Benítez spent his first £20m, you'll see why his was the correct way. Xabi Alonso and Luis Garcia cost around £16m combined; Nunez was part of the Owen deal, but valued at around £2m I believe, and Josemi was also about £2m.

 

Critics took great pleasure in pointing out the two flops, but they were inexpensive; the two successes contributed to winning trophies and the pair left for £33m, over twice what they cost. (And even the Josemi and Nunez fees were recouped when they departed.)

 

Similarly, over the next few years, players like Reina, Agger and Benayoun have come in for £5m-£6m, and been worth their weight in gold.

 

The evolution of Liverpool's squad has continued thus. Every year we've seen some excellent players arrive, but also some who've failed to make the grade. That's natural.

 

But it can take time to integrate new players, and get the balance right; especially when the natural counterweights are unavailable to the manager.

 

One thing I discovered when researching my book ‘Dynasty' was just how many flops Bill Shankly signed; in some cases, players I'd never even heard of, and not all of them signed for negligible fees.

 

Fifty years on, and in a different era, no-one focuses on these errors of judgement; and rightly so, because of Clemence (read Reina), Keegan (read Torres), Yeats (read Mascherano), Hughes (read Alonso), et al – the top-class purchases that more than compensated.

 

It also backs up my theory that it's hard to make more than one outstanding purchase a season. Few managers ever manage to do better; the talent is in short supply, and competition fierce.

 

By my reckoning, Shankly signed 16 outright successes – in fifteen years; about nine or ten were bona fide greats.

 

Also by my reckoning, Benítez has signed Alonso, Reina, Torres, Agger and Mascherano, who are all up there with the best in their position. Alonso has now gone, but the others remain, and Johnson looks set to be added to that list, while Aquilani has the chance to.

 

These days, you need a bigger squad. And another problem is that some of your signings cannot be as successful as they would if they got regular football; but despite needing to buy more players, you can still only start with eleven.

 

Part of the problem in 2004 was that age was not on Benítez's side – or should I say, in Houllier's side. Of those Rafa inherited, most of the best half a dozen were 30 or over.

 

Houllier had created an excellent, experienced squad by 2001, but three years later the squad was suddenly full of inferior imports; the young replacements, like Diao, Diouf and Cheyrou, were just not good enough, and his better signings were knocking on in years.

 

So by the time additions were made by Benítez to replace the deadwood in all areas of the team – two or three years down the line – the likes of Hyypia, Finnan and Hamann themselves would be tailing off (while the excellent Markus Babbel had seen his career wrecked by illness).

 

So Houllier's best signings were never going to serve Benítez for very long, and his worst were on long contracts, with their values dwindling rapidly.

 

Perhaps this is why the Reds peaked at 3rd in the league in 2006 with a very healthy 82 points, then dipped for a couple of seasons; already another mini-transition was necessary.

 

By the time the Reds finished 2nd, with 86 points, Hamann and Finnan were gone, and the ageing Hyypia was scarcely needed. Liverpool's worthy title challenge came with only that one Houllier signing, and the Finn played just a handful of games.

 

And of course, going back to 2004, Michael Owen had kept his options (or rather his contract) open in order to be able to leave to Real Madrid (which was his right), while Harry Kewell, one of the few other top-class players, was just never fit. Had injuries not blighted his career at Liverpool, more might have been achieved.

 

But Kewell became yet one more player who needed replacing around the three/four-year mark, when it was clear that he would never offer enough.

 

In the case of both Owen and Kewell, the Reds were unable to recoup the money their natural ability and previous reputations merited. Contract situations, and injuries, meant that the club gained just £8m for the pair. That meant less to reinvest.

 

Now, as 2010 approaches, we're seeing something very different from the critics. Liverpool, it's decreed, don't have a good enough squad. For four years the criticism was “the first XI needs improving”; now it's about squad depth.

 

And yet the first XI, to my mind, is now as good as anyone else's in the Premiership; a real achievement in team building. The problem is, we've not got even close to seeing it in 2009/10.

 

The positive is that it remains something to look forward to; in particular, the attacking triumvirate of Torres, Gerrard and Aquilani, which, in theory, is mouth-watering.

 

And the squad is far better than the critics suggest; however, it does not have the almost unending depth of the biggest spenders.

 

Saturday's opponents, Manchester City, have a quite incredible cluster of strikers, but keeping them happy long-term will be a challenge (the large wage packets help).

 

Maybe they could attract them all to City with the promise of being in the first team, with the position yet to be nailed down by anyone. But at Liverpool, everyone knows who the centre-forward will be if everyone is fit; making it both a blessing and a curse.

 

You can ask potential signings to challenge Torres for the role, but they will have realistic ideas of their chances.

 

Peter Crouch was already at the club, and a great player to have in the squad, but turned down the offer of a new deal because he knew he couldn't play every week.

 

Even then, a player Benítez was mocked for signing left for a profit, despite only a year being left on his deal. And with brilliant ignorance, some pundits continue to slate the manager for not wanting him! Crouch is now at Spurs, challenging for a starting place, but as good as they are, Keane is no Gerrard and Defoe is no Torres.

 

Benítez has also received untold criticism in the past 18 months for persisting with David N'Gog, who was a teenager when he arrived last year. Now people are finally seeing the young Frenchman's worth.

 

In many senses, N'Gog is the perfect back-up for Torres, because he's talented, but very much a willing apprentice. When you have a real, one-in-a-million star, the understudy has to accept his position, but also keep working to close the gap.

 

In an ideal world it'd be great to have two ‘finished-article' world-class forwards warming the bench, but it's simply unrealistic. In an ideal world, N'Gog would be 23/24 now, but what would he have cost? Not £1.5m.

 

And this is where another bonus from this most testing of seasons comes in. While the team has struggled at times when massively under-strength, the same is not true of every player.

 

At the start of the campaign, Insua was a mere squad man, N'Gog was (ludicrously) mocked for being a ‘no-one', and Lucas was given dog's abuse by people unable to see his true worth.

 

Now, each has significantly enhanced his reputation. If all three were on the bench – as might well be the case if the best XI was available – then suddenly that bench would seem stronger. Still so young, none is anywhere close to finishing his development, but each has improved. In these trying times, to differing degrees, they've come of age.

 

People are now admitting that Lucas is far better than they gave him credit for. And the more aware will realise that N'Gog actually has the best goals-per-minute ratio at the club; it was good last season, but now it's better than Torres'.

 

That doesn't mean N'Gog could keep up that incredible rate when starting games week after week, but it does mean that he can be an excellent impact player and a fine understudy, as seen in the way he finished off Manchester United and tortured Birmingham's defence.

 

But of course Liverpool's best hope of success lies with getting its best players onto the field as much as possible. Shocking luck with injuries can undermine any side.

 

I make it that the following defenders have started major games: Carragher, Agger, Johnson, Skrtel, Insua, Kelly, Kyrgiakos, Degen, Ayala and Aurelio.

 

That's ten defenders starting in the Premiership or Champions League by November! (Therefore not even including the League Cup, while in the Champions League there have been no dead-rubbers.)

 

Even with rotation, you might expect five or six at the most by this stage; seven at a push. Two of those ten defenders were teenagers making their full debuts, while of course Johnson and Kyrgiakos are new additions to the team.

 

It's no wonder the Reds have been shipping more goals than you'd expect. The same has been true of Manchester United when they've had key absentees this season; shipping three at home to CSKA Moscow, for example. The same has been true of Chelsea when they've been without John Terry.

 

As mentioned earlier, Liverpool have a first team as strong as any Premiership rival – providing Aquilani is as good as he was for Roma.

 

Indeed, while there's always a chance a player can fail to adapt, let's not forget the chance that Aquilani could actually be better than he was in Italy. As seen with Torres leaving his boyhood Atléti , it can be emancipating to leave your hometown club, where you've carried a burden.

 

Sometimes you need to escape to reinvent yourself, and be taken more seriously. So the Italian is not limited to reproducing only what he achieved in Rome – in what is, when every Liverpool player is fit, a better side; if he really shines, the team can, too.

 

And I'd still take this current collection of players over any I've seen since 1988. For me, it's stronger than the last title-winning side in 1990.

 

But even that glorious 1988 vintage would have struggled without Barnes, Beardsley, Aldridge and Hansen. If they'd all been injured, we would not still be talking about that side being better than the Brazilians.

 

And this current collection has age on its side; the same group of players can mature together over the next four or five years. Carragher aside, all are in their 20s, and most in their mid-20s.

 

There's a lot to look forward to, if enough players get fit and stay fit. Of course this season is already undermined by some poor results (some deserved, some definitely not).

 

But as we saw with Arsenal last season, a bad few months at the start of a campaign does not mean the team or its manager is on the slide.

 

Far from it.

 

TOMKINS: EVOLUTION OF A TEAM

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That isn't going away, is it?

 

The Shankly stuff is a bit much, but he has a point about the 88 side, and he surprisingly missed a good opportunity; Liverpool's start to 88/89 was poor, in fact 19 points from the first 12 games.

 

And we were hit by incredible injuries. We got 48 points from the last 19 games, the only defeat being Arsenal at home.

 

Not sure this team has what it takes to do that, but y'know.......

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That isn't going away, is it?

 

The Shankly stuff is a bit much, but he has a point about the 88 side, and he surprisingly missed a good opportunity; Liverpool's start to 88/89 was poor, in fact 19 points from the first 12 games.

 

And we were hit by incredible injuries. We got 48 points from the last 19 games, the only defeat being Arsenal at home.

 

Not sure this team has what it takes to do that, but y'know.......

 

So you're saying it's an omen ...?

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So you're saying it's an omen ...?

I'm saying if Rafa has 28 points from the first 19 he will no longer be our manager.

 

Not like PT to miss a completely irrelevant comparison between one of our greatest ever teams and erm this......

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Apparently the latest opus contains this masterpiece;

 

Towards the end of his massively successful reign, and with his team still the best in England, Kenny Dalglish was torn apart for fielding three full-backs in midfield away at Arsenal. I even heard it mentioned by one commentator recently.

 

What wasn't mentioned was that the Reds won.

 

We lost. 0-3. It was the beginning of the end for Kenny.

 

Try again.

I've repped Ste for this, gaddamn it if i didn't think my memory was on the blink when this clown wrote his piece, i seem to remember watching this game live in a 2 up 2 down in Walton (long story) and having recurring nightmares of Barry Vennison in midfield; turned out it really happened after all.

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Repped for Venison reminder?Ace.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Piechnik......

 

Speaking of whom; does any fellow fossil remember the completely unnecessary glasses he used to wear as an ITV pundit? Worra fuckin ballooon

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if Tomkins is telling lies and distorting facts to support Rafa then he's out of order. I'll call Bascombe on it when he does it to stick the knife in and it's still shit journalism when it's done to defend Rafa. The truth is enough to work with.

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There was some suggestion that he may have got his wires crossed. Earlier in the season Kenny put Burrows in midfield to man-mark Paul Gascoigne, which he did with ruthless and often painful efficiency. We did win that one.

 

Don't know why I'm defending Tomkins all of a sudden, but anyway that would at least partially explain it. If he's 36 now he'd have been 17 then, so he really should have some recall.

 

Especially if he's such a smartarse with everyone else!

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I was there paul, that's why I negged him, don't really want to be reminded of it.

Can't say i blame you Al, fuckin painul that one was. Funnily enough that was in the day when i used to go to most away games and ordinarily i would have been there, however as previously mentioned i was somewhere in Walton for some reason i really shouldn't have been. I seem to remember it being on the telly live, ITV i think. We were in some shitty new kit as well weren't we?

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There was some suggestion that he may have got his wires crossed. Earlier in the season Kenny put Burrows in midfield to man-mark Paul Gascoigne, which he did with ruthless and often painful efficiency. We did win that one.

 

Don't know why I'm defending Tomkins all of a sudden, but anyway that would at least partially explain it. If he's 36 now he'd have been 17 then, so he really should have some recall.

 

Especially if he's such a smartarse with everyone else!

I don't think that explains it tbh, he was hopelessly wrong.

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What about when we agreed a fee with Everton for him. Kendall sat him own to discuss wages. It lastest 2 mins. Kendall asked what are you on at Liverpool? and Venison said 10k.

 

Interview over.

 

 

 

ha ha ha

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TOMKINS: WHAT CAN WE RIGHTFULLY EXPECT?

 

I don't want to sound like I'm just making excuses, but I'm finding it almost impossible to judge the performances this season.

What should we expect of the team when constantly missing players, with numerous enforced changes each and every week?

 

Maybe I should expect more. Or maybe others expect too much.

 

I'd know where I stand with the best XI, or even something approaching it, playing most weeks. But this has been a season of utter chaos, in terms of selection.

 

The biggest hypocrisy with a lot of Benítez's critics is this: slating him for rotating, saying that you can't win trophies making lots of changes (even though other major managers have had success when making a greater number), yet failing to cut him slack when he's forced to make far too many due to injuries.

 

And injuries are far more unsettling than rotation. At least with rotation the manager has full control of his selection. And at least with rotation the unused players are still fit, and usually on the bench (an example: Ferguson often brought on Rooney and Ronaldo to try and win the game if he rotated his side).

 

Players like Torres, Gerrard and Johnson are currently in and out of the side, and these are all match-winners. So is Benayoun. Aquilani, another potential match-winner, is getting closer to playing, and may well start in Hungary, but his selection is not straightforward, after a longer-than-anticipated ankle problem.

 

It didn't help against City that Gerrard visibly tired in the second half, after a very influential first 45. Maybe he was just frozen out of the game as City threw caution to the wind to equalise, but he's missed a lot of training lately. At least the 90 minutes will help him rediscover his sharpness, even if the second 45 more-or-less passed him by.

 

There has to come a ‘critical mass'-type point with injuries, beyond which too much is missing to expect to compete at anything approaching your normal level. Can you cope without two players?

 

Three players? Four? Five? Six? ... Twelve? ... Twenty-five?!

 

Where is the cut-off point?

 

The same applies to players looking to get fit with games; hence why starting both Gerrard and Aquilani may have presented a gamble too far. Carry too many under-par players in terms of fitness, and you'll suffer, especially in the tougher fixtures.

 

We can all play this new game called Fantasy Physio, but how many fans have both the necessary medical insight and the all-important access to the players and their medical notes? None that I'm aware of.

 

Aquilani needs match fitness, and can't get that without playing. However, if he's thrown in and the Reds lose, at a high-pressure time like this, that's not helpful either. Particularly when Gerrard isn't 100% sharp.

 

If anyone think it's a simple decision, they're deluded. It was seriously complicated by the two early injuries, and the fact that much more than 60 minutes for Benayoun would be a massive risk.

 

I admit that I was surprised when Aurelio came on, but from that point the Reds had full control of the game, and had chances to win it. By helping strengthen the left-hand side, the Reds got the upper hand.

 

While neither team came into the game high on confidence, the 13 players City used cost £162m; the 14 Liverpool used cost £71m. That's well below half of the visitor's line up.

 

A large part of this is down to the incredible spending at Eastlands. But also, three of Benítez's four biggest signings were either unavailable or only on the cusp of the required fitness.

 

But I still feel that the Reds have sufficient quality and experience to finish above City, assuming the number of fit players increases. Are Liverpool's reserves better than City's first-team players? Of course not.

 

I'd take Liverpool's strongest XI over City's any day of the week, but they clearly have more depth (particularly up front – Tevez, Robinho and Santa Cruz in reserve!), and in the 2-2 draw, Hughes had a full hand to choose from. Benítez didn't.

 

Liverpool started perfectly, with a very positive first five mintues that almost brought a goal, but the momentum was killed by two early injuries, particularly the one to Agger. The game slowed down, the Kop lost its buzz (which is never as buzzy as in later kick-offs).

City's job was to break up the game and quieten the crowd; the injuries did that for them.

 

I have to say that I thought De Jong's tackle on Babel was terrible: off the ground, two-footed, studs showing. I think he tried to play the ball, and may well have won it – I'm not saying it was malicious – but it is without doubt a red card in the modern rules.

 

Given that Degen was sent off for a far less dangerous challenge at Fulham, this could only have been a red.

 

But that's the kind of luck Liverpool are having this season. Even the N'Gog penalty against Birmingham was wrongly analysed as fortunate, with Carsley's desperate lunge missing the ball; contact with the player isn't necessary if you cut right across his path and don't actually get the ball. If N'Gog stayed on his feet, he might have a broken ankle now.

 

(And yes, I'd say the same if it was at the other end. If you dive in and don't win the ball, you only have yourself to blame.)

 

I also thought Kuyt was bundled over by Bellamy in the box – a blatant penalty – and that their 2nd goal looked offside, although that was a close call.

 

But I don't think you can argue with a draw being the fair result. The Reds looked nervy after taking the lead; as if they didn't know whether to twist or stick.

 

From Liverpool's point of view, it was a fairly good first half display, a very good start to the second half, a poor 25 minutes after taking the lead (either sitting back or being forced back), and a storming ending that deserved a winner.

 

I'm not saying that the season's problems are all down to bad luck and injuries, but it becomes much more of a lottery if you have a depleted squad.

 

Part of the problem Liverpool had against City was that without Johnson, who reported unfit to play the morning of the game, and with Kyrgiakos (who I felt did well) having to replace Agger after just five minutes, the Reds were shorn of a lot of defensive pace, against possibly the quickest front line around: Bellamy, Adebayor and Wright-Phillips, who were later supplemented by Tevez; and with Ireland arriving from deep.

 

As a result, it was hard to push up as a back-line. It must also be harder defending as a unit when you've never played together before; the last couple of weeks have seen some previously untried and untested combinations, as has the season as a whole.

 

I've said it a lot recently, but the constant changes to the back four have been a nightmare. I'm sorry, but any manager would struggle to get sufficient results in the circumstances.

 

Every week the defence has had to change, and often during the match, too. It's been injury after injury.

 

I'd be a lot more worried if it was the four/five regulars who were starting every week, and still conceding a higher than usual number of goals. It'll be harder to win games on a regular basis again until there's a bit more stability there. When a team is not keeping clean sheets, defenders get nervy; when they are keeping clean sheets, they can look unbeatable.

 

Liverpool defended poorly for City's opening goal, but then the visitor's were twice “beaten” by set-pieces; Lucas knows he should have headed that late chance in and become the hero, following on from Skrtel's strike.

 

All around the country, goals are flying in from corners and free-kicks. So Liverpool aren't alone in struggling with them; but clearly also need to cut out the mistakes, too.

 

On the plus side, in adversity, some young players continue to shine.

A big positive is the hold-up and link play of N'Gog, who yet again had a hand in the goals: first by winning the free-kick, and then with some brilliant skill to work an opening, before his shot deflected to Benayoun to equalise.

 

He's showing a great appreciation of what's going on around him, and is progressing very nicely indeed. However, he's still getting used to the gruelling demands of 90 minutes of Premiership action, and seems to be tiring after the hour mark. It's all part of his development.

 

Lucas also continues to get better and better; evidence of what you can get from players by not dropping them. (I'm not saying that dropping players is wrong, just that there are alternative approaches, too.) I believe that Lucas will score more goals in time, but it's the one part of his game where a lack of confidence still shows.

 

I think the Brazilian's form has improved massively these past six weeks, as has Mascherano's. The Argentine was sensational against City – he was everywhere, passing with vision and dribbling forward

like a man possessed. At the start of the season they looked a little unbalanced as a duo, but when they are passing well, they are far from the negative pairing some people paint them as.

 

So all in all, I still sense that this is a team very much on the right lines, but a little derailed of late. You can argue over fine details, but there's not a lot wrong with the side, and the majority of the squad, when fit and in form.

 

But confidence and fitness are two of the most important factors in the sport, yet the hardest for the manager to control.

 

Injuries can happen no matter how careful or well prepared you are – anyone can have a muscle injury (name a player who hasn't?), and anyone can clash heads or get studs in their ankle; while confidence comes and goes in mysterious ways, which often revolve around turning points (good and bad) for both individuals and the collective.

 

You can boost a player all you want, but what happens on the other side of that white line affects his performance; start with a bad touch, and it can go downhill fast. End a barren spell with a lucky goal, and you can get a hat-trick.

 

A lucky deflection can change a team's season, not just the player who claims the goal off his backside.

 

Another big week awaits, and I'd gladly see a few deflected Liverpool winners in the coming fixtures.

 

TOMKINS: WHAT CAN WE RIGHTFULLY EXPECT?

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Not sure what Tomkins means by this:

 

Aquilani needs match fitness, and can't get that without playing. However, if he's thrown in and the Reds lose, at a high-pressure time like this, that's not helpful either.

 

Not helpful to who? Rafa.

 

We might have lost if Aquilani was in the team, but it would be nice to know.

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Not sure what Tomkins means by this:

 

 

 

Not helpful to who? Rafa.

 

We might have lost if Aquilani was in the team, but it would be nice to know.

 

In other words, Tomkins twists the "Rafa is a bottler" fact to a more positive crap.

 

I haven't read the article (I haven't gone totally mad yet) but it is funny he starts with "What we can rightfully expect" and then finishes by saying "I will be glad to have a few deflected winners". The man is a bellend. As I said I haven't read it so I don't know in what context he has finished it but reading the heading and the last line made me chuckle.

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