Gently does it on Houllier return

Where have all the wingers gone? Caretaker Thompson answers the detractors with a defence of Liverpool's style
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The Independent Football

If you can believe anything from a man with a nose as long as his, you have to accept that the pressure isn't exacting its toll on Phil Thompson. He is even able to laugh off all those Pinocchio jibes.

"I like to think I've held myself together quite well," maintains the Liverpool acting manager, rolling his eyes in a mock gargoyle of madness as a jocular response to suggestions that temporary elevation to No 1 has affected his sanity. "It's not getting to me just yet. I'm more than happy doing what I've done here. But Gérard [Houllier] will be returning and it'll be nice to go back to being horrible, to just being that ranter and raver on the touchline."

After training on Friday, Thompson is in a reflective and perhaps more relaxed mood than recent weeks after victory at Old Trafford on Tuesday evening completed a double over the champions and ended a "tricky" spell, as he calls it. For the first time in several weeks, he could look forward to the next fixture – today's fourth-round FA Cup tie against Arsenal at Highbury – without there being mutterings among supporters and pundits that Liverpool have suffered from the absence of the sheer physical presence of Houllier, who is still convalescing in his native France after heart surgery.

In fact, despite contrary impressions, since Thompson was handed day-to-day responsibility for the team 16 games ago, Liverpool have actually accumulated more Premiership points than Manchester United – 30 compared to 28. "I look round at other clubs and wonder if the person who was second in command could have done any better than me," says Houllier's assistant turned baby-sitter. "I like to think I've done quite well. I think the experience has helped me as a person, to understand Gérard and how he gets tired. This is a major football club with a massive fan base. You have to do things right, with credibility."

He adds: "I've got no great claim of being better than Gérard. We're a pair, we trust each other implicitly, and, more than anybody, I want him back here because we work so well together."

Thompson agreed that he'd had to change his relationship with the players "a little bit". "I talk to them a lot more than I used to because that was Gérard's role. I usually do it off my own bat. But sometimes he'll say to me, 'So and so a player, why don't you have a little word with him, see how he's doing, how he's behaving himself'. That kind of thing."

Houllier is due to return in the next month, but as Thompson explains, the Frenchman will dip his feet gradually into the treacherous waters of Premiership, Champions' League and possibly Cup football, not plunge immediately back into the brine. "I would imagine that would probably be the best way," he says. "It's like a player. You don't bring a player back from injury and just throw him straight into the fray. I will talk about that to Gérard and I'm quite sure that he would have an open mind to it. He trusts the people immensely who have treated him from day one. He will be guided by them as to when he returns and, of course, Isabel [Houllier's wife], but he also knows his own body and he'll only come back when it feels right."

In the interim, Thompson maintains a steady telephone dialogue with Houllier. "We talk all the time: tactics, the team, training and players we might be looking at, and those who may want to go out, maybe six, seven times a day. He wants it, he likes it, it stimulates him. Anyway, I know that it wouldn't help if I tried to keep things from him."

You wonder what Houllier would have made about the criticism that Liverpool, both as a team and the players individually, have received. Not positive enough. Lacking width. No killer instinct when in front. The pundits have feasted voraciously on a table of perceived ills. "That has not been nice," says Thompson. "I wonder if there's been any hidden agenda somewhere along the line. It's a shame because we've played well, and sometimes you can't always perform as fluently as you'd like. But we've got this winning mentality, and if people don't like that, it's down to them. All I'm beholden to is the Liverpool fans."

You broach the principal observation that his team are preoccupied with attacking through the centre. "Look closely at Manchester United and see the positions where David Beckham and Ryan Giggs play," he retorts, drawing in the air an 18-yard box and demonstrating how those midfielders frequently cut inside. "United will go wide when it's on, or they will also play through the middle, where they're strongest. You need the players to be able to have wingers and there are not too many in the Premiership. In fact, there's not too many elsewhere in Europe. You play to your strengths."

He adds: "It's the first thing out of the mouths of the fans, 'Oh, there's no width'. But look at us and other teams we play and we're all basically similar. We'd all love wingers, we'd all like Peter Thompson, Ian Callaghan, Steve Heighway. But they don't exist. Arsenal are the same, they don't have width, but they're on a good run so no one complains about them. Look at Pires, he comes inside and Freddie Ljungberg, he doesn't play wide, he makes runs through the middle and scores bloody goals – what a bastard! [Thompson jests]. Do me a favour. They need, say, Ashley Cole to give them width and in our make-up we do the same through our full-backs. It's an integral part of how teams' tactics pan out."

Fortunately, for Liverpool, given Ljungberg's record against them, the Swede is absent injured. But Thompson scarcely needs reminding of the potency of Arsenal's other goalscoring contributors, notably Thierry Henry. However, having negated the threat of United's Ruud van Nistelrooy already last week, Sami Hyypia and Stéphane Henchoz will arrive at Highbury today exuding confidence.

The acting manager believes that the Frenchman has the edge over the Dutchman for sheer speed off the mark. "Van Nistelrooy has got great awareness around the box and tremendous finishing qualities, but Thierry's blistering pace is always going to be a problem," Thompson says. "And he's cool and composed."

The same cannot be said of Thompson, who lives, breathes and would probably die for the Anfield cause. A fine character to have in a crisis. And that's no lie.