Good times bad times – 2008-09 a season review

Now is the time that many will look at our season and try to sum it up. How’s it gone? What were the highlights and the lowlights? No doubt you’ve got your own personal views on how things went for us, here are mine.

Ask any football fan in the street how they feel Liverpool have performed this season and I bet most will say we have underachieved. We spent loads of cash in the summer so we should win the Premiership right? That’s the way it goes, it’s the minimum rule or expectation for a club like us. This is of course simplistic nonsense and symptomatic of the knee-jerk, pigeonholed, formularised opinions that riddle the game these days. Here is some money. Where is my trophy? I want it now! You haven’t got it? You’ve failed. You’re sacked. Next please!

When I wrote about my expectations for 2007-08 in August last year (click here for full article) I said that we would not win the league because the new signings would need time to bed in and that, in relation to the top four we should hope to improve, but it will not be enough to overtake them all. The realistic target? Third again or possibly improve to second and may be a cup or two?

So there you go, we’ve underachieved. Fourth place and not a silver pot to pi* in for the second year running. At face value it looks like a difficult argument to punch holes in. However, scratch beneath the surface there are always positives. Sadly these will be lost in what for me this was a season punctuated by overly ambitious expectations.

It should have been, and was, one of gradual progress rather the leaps and bounds everyone was expecting and demanding. To me it is more realistic to review it in the light of 2006-07 rather than the new targets clumsily and unrealistically foisted on us just because we’ve signed a few big names. We were never ever going to be able to live up to these expectations. It was too soon. Sure we’d spent money, but so had our rivals and we were too far behind the likes of The Mancs and Chelsea to make it up in one season.

Because of the expectations we always seemed to be on the back foot, justifying our so called “failure” or underachievement even though the targets were unrealistic. This didn’t help and it’s significant that once the pressure was off, ie. after the league had gone and the attention switched to off the field matters, we really hit form.

The league was, rightly, seen as the main priority and we began as if it was… for a few games! By the beginning of September we were top, unbeaten and buoyed by a 6-0 thrashing of Derby. Little did we know that to score six against Derby wasn’t going to be a big deal and that, in terms of the league that was our peak moment. Rafa, perhaps thinking that his new squad was stronger, more settled, organised and adaptable, rotated. Torres sat on the bench and points were dropped against Portsmouth and Birmingham. He then inexplicably played him in a Carling Cup game days after.

This went on throughout the winter months Spurs, Man City, Villa, Middlesbrough and Wigan. The absolute nadir was Reading away when a chance to progress on a defeated Arsenal was tossed away in favour of Champions League priorities which, had we not also rotated in that tournament, would not have been an issue! Add to this poor league results against the rest of the top four, four draws but not one win, and you’re asking for trouble.

Our league title hopes spluttered and coughed along but in all honesty the writing was on the wall long before most officially wrote us off. By the time we hit form, winning ten out of last thirteen League games, only losing one and easily brushing off Everton’s challenge for fourth place, it was far too late.

So what went wrong?

There was a short spell when after we’d had a bad game or result that Rafa, endearingly obstinate to the very end, used statistics as part of his defence rather than say “it wasn’t our day, we were cr*p”. You can apply this to the season. For a start we made a good start. Our first way win was on the first day of the season as opposed to December last year. Our away form was a massive improvement from last season losing only three games compared to nine. Indeed we only lost four league games all season compared to 10 in 2006-07. Hell, we even got more points, 76 as opposed to 68. Our wastefulness in front of goal, so much a feature of last season, was addressed as no less than six players made it into double figures. In end it was no trophies and a Champions league place – but after all is said and done this was the same as 2006-07. So where is the underachievement? If only things were that simple!

Such “improvement” doesn’t amount to much if past strengths and advantages are relinquished or allowed to slip. Home form was poor, too many instances when three points became one. How many times did you find yourself indulging in the pointless and futile exercise of “what if”? “What if we beaten X instead of drawing, where would we be in the league” was a common and frustrating pastime throughout the season?

Can we blame rotation? Perhaps it’s an easy peg to hang your hat on. Apologists of the theory will point to the good form in the final third of the season where Rafa really curbed it, evidence that a settled, consistent line up is a more successful one? One also has to bear in mind that we had new players who were also settling in but perhaps, in the early days, Rafa nannied them to much, particularly Torres? I wonder just how much Rafa has learnt this season in this respect. Will we see a more pragmatic, less cautious approach to team selection in 2008-09?

There is of course the off the field unrest of which Rafa was a key issue. One wonders just what the reaction to him would have been had this not occurred? As it was he emerged from this stronger than ever with the majority of fans, I include myself in this, behind him. The results, by which he should ultimately be judged, were almost secondary at times to the justified disgust felt at the American’s boneheaded tactlessness.

Elsewhere a perfectly winnable FA Cup (the top teams were dropping like flies) was tossed away against Barnsley however, this game could be more significant that we thought at the time as it was after this that Rafa eased off the rotation and the results, and consistency, started to come. The Carling Cup, rightly or wrongly, seemed like a hindrance to everyone but the fans.

So as usual it was left to Europe to give us hope. The team showed great character to dig themselves, and possibly Rafa, out of big hole that was entirely of their own making by winning their last three group games to scrape into the last sixteen. Then came what for many was probably the highlights of the season the ties against Inter and Arsenal before Chelsea finally got it right at the third attempt to deny us the dubious “honour” of a meeting with The Mancs in Moscow.

So, no silverware but what are we left with? Nothing? Well there’s the rub. It’s obviously disappointing not to have won anything and although many in the press and the premiership, whose sides also ended up without silver, have got all sniffy and looked at us as though we were suddenly from the wrong side of the tracks, arguably the side and the squad in general is much, much stronger. Rafa has better cover in every position. His “second sting eleven”, fielded on a couple occasions towards the end of the season, was far stronger than the ones of twelve months ago.

Up front we have a genuine world class player in Fernando Torres. His performances, particularly the knack of getting vital goals when we needed them, and the way he fitted in so quickly has been the highlight (and relief given his fee) of the season for me. He was easily my player of the season. The partnership with Gerrard that bloomed so profitably in the final third of the second gives us great optimism and hope for the future. It also injected some flair and excitement that had been missing from our performances at the start. Dare I say this? There are obvious differences but their impact reminds me of the Rush and Dalglish in their pomp.

Throughout the rest of the side there is good reason to be positive. Of the other new faces Skrtel, after dodgy start, showed that he might get to fill Sami’s mantel. Benayoun, so often ignored as the attention was focused on others, had his ups and downs but on the whole proved an astute signing. Babel was used sparingly and then more often in the final part of the season. There are raw edges, particularly with decision making, however, his pace and ability to use this to find the goal and make an impact is undeniable. 2008-09 will be a big season for him. Lucas suggested he had a good future ahead of him in midfield, if Alonso leaves then surely his chances will increase? Mascherano was simply immense.

Elsewhere Gerrard, along with Carragher, remained the clubs heartbeat. 21 goals from midfield says it all. His start to the season was indifferent but, like the side, he pulled it round towards the end perhaps galvanised and refreshed by is new role just behind Torres? Jamie Carragher proved as reliable and heroic as ever at full or centre back however the full backs, Arbeloa, Riise, Aurelio still have much to prove be that at Anfield or, the case of Riise, elsewhere? Out wide Harry Kewell probably blew his last chance to resurrect his Anfield “career” showing promise before succumbing to injury once more. Jermaine Pennant also suffered through injury and must be wondering what’s going on as Kuyt of all people, surely the hardest worker in the side, is keeping him out of the wide right position? Crouch was a lonely distant figure. Time for him to be put out of his misery? Alonso, if he goes, will be missed just as Carson will be but when Reina turns in the performances he does what can you do, pity his only blot was against the Mancs!

Gong forward into 2008-09. It goes without saying that I’d like to see an end to the internal strife. Perhaps things will be bought to a messy conclusion as the credit crunch tightens it’s grip. Work is due to start on the new stadium in September and after that presumably it will be hard to go back? There is a danger that this will also have an impact on our ability to sign players not only in terms of our financial clout, but also our attractiveness as a club to play for? It was a sad, sorry avoidable mess and those responsible come out with no credit whatsoever. Shame on them for what their incompetence has done to our club in such short space of time?

Rafa still needs one or two more new players. However it’s difficult to judge when we don’t know who he will sell? He seems to be flirting with more midfielders which is fine if he’s going to sell some but I would like to see another top class striker to complement Torres particularly if Crouch goes. Injury to Torres or Gerrard means we would be in difficulty given the formation we are currently playing. Oh and a full back please!

It was season of two halves. Had we had the “second half” first optimism and anticipation about our first championship for 18 years would have been justified however, we blew it before we could really get going. It is beholden on Rafa and players to hit the ground running in 2008-09, to ensure that by April or even May we are still in the mix. What is the point of saving players for this time if we find ourselves with nothing got play for? It is beholden on the owners to put away foolish, stupid things and give Rafa, the team, the club and the fans the quiet support and respect they deserve and need. It is beholden on everyone to stop judging the team on past glories and expecting them to come back because we’ve always done it in the past. A little bit more realism please.

Although they might not admit it, deep down everyone connected with the club must surely, in the heart of hearts know where they went wrong last season or what they could have done better. In some cases it is not as bad as many would lead us to believe but there are lessons to be learnt across the board. It would be perfect if in 2009, the twentieth anniversary of Hillsborough, everything finally came right?

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