Phil Shaw: Houllier defends his new plan of attack

Liverpool manager says Anfield may have to wait for a return to the glory years but insists his team are on the right track
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The Independent Football

First, the good news for the handful of clubs that harbour realistic ambitions of winning the Premiership title. In Gérard Houllier's view, Liverpool may still be "two or three years away" from challenging for championships as routinely as Arsenal and Manchester United.

Now for the bad news, at least for Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge and Anfield. Far from being emasculated or inhibited by the prospect of the wrath of the Football Association coming down on them, Arsenal are likely, according to Houllier, to become an even more formidable force, bound together by a fierce sense of injustice and mutual loyalty.

The Liverpool manager was speaking on the eve of one of the highlights of the English season, albeit an occasion with more than a whiff of croissants, café au lait and Gauloises. While the meeting of his own team and that of his friend and fellow Frenchman, Arsène Wenger, may not be the "make-or-break" affair that Houllier suggested (he said he was "taken out of context"), it remains an important pointer to what lies ahead.

Victory for the undefeated London side - who last lost away at Blackburn seven months ago - would leave them nine points ahead of Liverpool, who would have also lost three of their first eight matches. The all-conquering Anfield teams of 20 years ago had a maxim for how many losses a title quest could sustain: four and no more.

As well as telling us about Liverpool's capacity to push Arsenal, United and Chelsea, this afternoon should also prove instructive as to what effect, if any, the fall-out from the Gunners' combustible contest with Sir Alex Ferguson's side has had on their fabled competitiveness.

On the former score, when Houllier was asked whether Liverpool were closing the gap on Arsenal and United, he immediately pointed, as if in mitigation for their modest opening results, to the youthful composition of his team. Only Tottenham, he argued, sent out a younger line-up in August. "I still think we need more maturity and experience," he said. "This is a process that will come over the next two or three years."

Admirable as his honesty may be, Liverpool supporters may wince at the thought of being asked to wait any longer for a resumption of the pre-eminence they once took for granted. Even Dirty Den and Dr Who have been restored to what may loosely be termed their former glories, but for Liverpool it appears to be an ongoing case of paradise postponed. Thirteen years have elapsed since the championship came to Anfield. Houllier - who has now had sole charge since 1998 - has marched them up to second place, in 2001-02, only to see them slide back to fifth last time.

Now, of course, they are playing a more expansive, attacking game, with Harry Kewell and El Hadji Diouf supplying the width which they so obviously lacked. However, the policy hit teething troubles at Charlton last weekend, when Liverpool contrived to lose 3-2 in a game in which they enjoyed 60 per cent of the possession.

"I'm satisfied with the philosophy and the way we go forward," Houllier said. "Since the start of the season, we have had an average of 18 shots a match, and four of them have been away. I wasn't disappointed with the offensive aspects of our game at The Valley." By implication, he must have been dismayed by the defensive lapses. If Sami Hyppia did not feel under pressure for his place after an untypically sloppy display, the confirmation this week that Liverpool are pursuing Auxerre's Alain Boumsong will have driven the message home.

Admittedly, Liverpool have an unusually lengthy list of absentees, one of whom, Dietmar Hamman, was badly missed for his shielding of the centre-backs. It is hard to imagine Kevin Lisbie running 60 yards to score with the German in his usual role. By playing Steven Gerrard there, Houllier inevitably sacrifices some forward momentum.

In the really well integrated sides, attack and defence are part of a seamless, cohesive whole, rather than separate, unconnected units. Arsenal, with Patrick Vieira linking it all together, provide a classic example at their best. Houllier is a fan of what Wenger has achieved at Highbury, even if his use of the term "fighters" seemed ill-advised after the unpleasant denouement at Old Trafford.

"In fairness, the criticism [of Arsenal] went over the top," he said, warming to the role of counsel for the defence. "When you're a manager, you want your players to be fighters and winners. That mentality is of paramount importance in the Premiership. Sometimes it seems that every yellow card they get comes under the media microscope.

"They're not a dirty team, but a good one. I know most of the players and they're good guys. They don't go on to the pitch to hurt people or to wind up opponents. What happened at Manchester is none of my business, but I know that sometimes you can't control your players. If one is ill-treated or attacked, the whole team will react."

Yet Arsenal appear to have few problems playing at a numerical disadvantage, perhaps because, after 52 dismissals under Wenger, they are used to it. Houllier felt that what went on at Old Trafford was "not that bad ... I've seen worse" and actually predicted benefits. "I think it will have a positive effect on Arsenal. When you're under attack, maybe you stick together even more. It's not one player, but the whole team. It could even make them stronger."

But hopefully not at Anfield, he might have added, setting the fraternité aside and looking for something more than egalité. "This is a challenge for us, the kind of game I like," he said. "The result is very important because of the gap between us, though as far as I know, no title has been won in early October."