Given the fact that at times the opposition gave a commendable portrait of a lot of kids having a kick about in the park, you’d have expected Liverpool to lord it over the strictly limited Belgians of Standard Liege in Wednesday night’s qualifier for the Champions League.
Anfield, that great old bastion of the north that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Hadrian’s Wall for its usual impenetrability, packed its defences and awaited the floodtide of goals. It was still waiting as extra time began.
If you remember, too, that this is Rafael Benitez’s fourth season in charge at Liverpool, you would surely anticipate the performance of a smoothly oiled machine, the opportunity to admire a carefully constructed outfit that oozed class, understanding, poise and purpose.
But then there was Liverpool. What we might call a rag-tag-bobtail of a team struggled for almost 120 minutes to quel Standard’s pacy breakouts, their direct, no-nonsense approach and break down their defending in numbers. Had they possessed an iota of composure in front of goal, had they greeted scoring chances with some degree of personal control rather than rushing at them like children at their Christmas presents, then Liverpool’s struggles could have been so much worse. In the end, Dirk Kuyt’s single goal two minutes from the end of extra time dragged Liverpool through, thoroughly unconvincingly.
You can tell the trouble with Liverpool just by watching Rafa Benitez. He’s that maddening combination of the control freak and the tinkerer. He can’t leave the players to get on with it themselves; he’s shouting, waving, gesticulating, re-arranging, changing formations, organising, urging and cajoling the whole time. And when he isn’t doing all that he’s furiously making notes, ready to baffle and bewilder his players with even more technicalities during the half time interval.
Constant tinkering with a team: it’s the death knell for most top clubs. The manager who can’t settle on a regular formula, an established style is a menace to his own club. He’s forever adjusting, moving, re-organising – he’s never satisfied in his own mind with his formations so how can his players feel settled?
And the killing reality from so ordinary and unconvincing a display was that Liverpool looked a shambles for the most part. Arbeloa and Aurelio were short of the class needed at this level: Skyrtel is efficient but hardly deadly. Yet it was the balance of Benitez’s side that looked so hopelessly awry. Three front men were employed in Torres, Kuyt and the surely wildly over priced Keane at £20m, albeit with Kuyt pushed out wide, yet there was seldom any sign of cohesion, understanding or collective purpose.
For all his apparent expertise, Benitez seems to fail to understand essential elements of his business. Teamwork, cohesion, the ability to fit together component parts for the greater good of the side as a whole are key requirements of any successful manager. Splashing £54m on three strikers is all very well but it is rarely the criterion for success in management. Will they gel as a unit, will they settle and form a proper understanding?
The great managers have always understood that building a proper unit is the key to ultimate triumph. But right now, it looks like Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool is as far away from enjoying a settled team as the day the Spaniard walked through the Shankly Gates at Liverpool for the first time.
As before, the two Englishmen Gerrard and Carragher provide the bedrock of this side. Take them out and an even greater hole would exist. But even amidst their presence, there remains the lack of a commanding world class central defender, another visionary midfielder of undisputed quality to take the pressure off Gerrard and a wide man of purpose. Benayoun flitted in and out of this match like a butterfly in a summer park.
There is no dispute that quality players exist at Liverpool. But what is equally undeniable is that there appears to be no proper structure, no true and established foundation and playing formation in which they can excel.
Already, the storm clouds may be gathering above Anfield and the season is only a couple of weeks old.