Thursday, 1 March 2012

Sure, it's the Carling Cup... But is it progress...?

Celebrating the Carling Cup trophy after 6 years without a trophy?  Isn’t that like being single for 6 years and winning a date with Susan Boyle?
Not sure.  In any case, doesn’t Susan Boyle have a fair bit of money by now?  Regardless of her dating prospects – maybe she can buy us some additional players?
Enough sarcasm – I, for one, am ecstatic that Liverpool finally managed to get the 6 year old monkey off their back.  I’ll leave the Susan Boyle metaphor to the person who wrote that tweet in the first place. 
Of course, there was banter directed at Liverpool fans who dared to celebrate this occasion.  One Manchester United fan on my Twitter timeline pointed out that they won the same cup recently with a second string side – relatively true for 2010, not so true for 2009 (at least that’s what I wanted to say!).
What was interesting, though, was some Liverpool fans celebrating relatively passively, indicating a concern that despite this achievement, the league position of 7th still suggested a lack of progress in the team from recent years.
So the question is – has the team progressed?
I argue yes – not extensively – but yes.  Is that because of Liverpool progressing too slowly, or the competition progressing faster?
A bit of both, I’d say.
Consider that, while many may be critical of the signings we made in the summer, especially Henderson, Downing and Adam, less must be made of their price tag and more must be made of the necessity Liverpool face in building a squad that can compete on all fronts.  Depth is key to winning titles, including (and especially) the league.
Our Carling Cup run is a prime example.  It reflects positively that Liverpool, in the process of navigating 7 matches to lifting the trophy, ended up using most of the current squad in reaching the last hurdle.  We used 1st and 2nd choice lineups throughout the competition, allowing a fair extent of our full squad to contribute.  And some of them really used the opportunity to shine.
When we lost Lucas against Chelsea, it created the opportunity for Jay Spearing to make an impact in the semi against Man City.  His brief performance (cut short by injury) in the first leg of that semi was critical to the attacking spell that defined our chances to win the semi – his covering of the dangerous Man City attacking midfield was excellent enough to allow Gerrard to spend most of that time in Man City’s final third.  His impact was missed in the league defeat to Bolton.
It’s one example, but it’s that kind of depth Liverpool have lacked in recent years.  We may not like comparisons to Man United, but they are appropriate given that is the team we need to overhaul, eventually.  I’ve collated the core squads of the two clubs for the past few years in the tables below – have a look at the squads over time – paying attention to depth, number of players, quality, and players who can be used in multiple positions.

Table 1 – Liverpool squads 2006-current

Table 2 – Manchester United 2006-current
When we ran the Red Devils close by 4 points in 2008-09 to the league title, our strikeforce was Torres, poorly supported by Kuyt, Babel, Keane, Ngog and El Zhar (not in effort, just in actual goalscoring output) – especially when compared to Tevez, Ronaldo, Rooney and Berbatov.  That title was lost because of a lack of goals in games we dominated, but drew – 2 goalless draws against Stoke City spring to mind – we still haven’t learn that lesson in the current season clearly.  And not just in that position - Henderson and Adam haven’t been altogether good at filling that role in Lucas or Spearing’s absence either. 
In fact, while the 2008-09 season may have been perceived as a better year for Liverpool compared to previous ones, when you consider Man United that  year won the Carling Cup, and were Champions League finalists and FA Cup semifinalists, finishing 2nd , getting knocked out relatively early in the cups and beating them 4-1 at Old Trafford doesn’t seem all that impressive.
Squad quality and depth is not something Man United have suffered from down the years – if Rooney isn’t playing, there are still goals in Berbatov, Welbeck and Hernandez.  Creativity on the flanks comes from Nani, or Young, or Valencia, or even Ryan Giggs.  Defensive midfield has many options in Carrick, Anderson, or Fletcher. 
That’s not to say we aren’t improving, though.  In attacking midfield, if Downing plays poorly, Bellamy, Kuyt, Shelvey, Henderson and Maxi are all accessible and worthy replacements (and vice versa!).  Central midfield cover exists in the form of Gerrard, Henderson, Adam and Shelvey.  In defence, Johnson can cover for Enrique, and Kelly can cover for Johnson, with minimal concern of the quality of player replacing the other.  Carragher and Coates provide solid cover for Skrtel and Agger.  So we are slowly finding the formula.
Ultimately, Liverpool should be a team that competes and wins every tournament it plays in.  I’m too cynical to think of the Carling Cup as a springboard as others have described it, but for those who lifted silverware for the first time on the 26th February 2012, I imagine it’s good for them to know what winning a trophy feels like – they need to get used to the pressure of a final – many more need to follow.
Down the years, Man United have always been flush in having 6-7 players in defence, midfield or attack of the same or similar quality.  Particularly since the departure of Alonso, Liverpool allowed the team to be too reliant on Gerrard and Torres – but the current squad doesn’t have the problem to the same extent.  I’m not going to say it’s ideal to have Lucas missing, but we did have navigated 3 Carling Cup and 3 FA Cup matches successfully without him.  Suarez hasn’t really scored many goals, so while he is a talented player, his absence in January was managed well – and let’s not forget that we only had Steven Gerrard back properly from late December.
Winning the Carling Cup has many other side advantages – even if we don’t finish 4th, if we’re serious about the Champions League, the squad needs to get used to playing twice, three times a week.  I certainly doubt we’d go to the Champions League wanting to make up the numbers, but the current squad is still lacking to survive the rigours of European football in addition to domestic commitments.  The Europa League ironically could be a decent stepping stone for that process.
That’s why I think progress has been made – even though Spurs, Man United and Man City are well beyond catching in the current league table, Arsenal, Chelsea and Newcastle are not – meaning that even with our inexperienced, slightly above average squad, we’re keeping pace with some teams that command greater depth than us.  And fair enough, maybe compared to previous years, a midfield of Alonso, Mascherano, Gerrard, Riera and Benayoun is stronger than Henderson, Adam, Downing, Gerrard, Maxi, Lucas, Shelvey and Spearing – but with a couple of transfers, and some continuity – that midfield could be a key characteristic of a deep and strong Liverpool squad.
It will also be key to continue to involve the full extent of the squad in as many league matches as possible.  One of the things other sides do better than we do is rotate – to illustrate my case, we know our back 4 of Johnson, Skrtel, Agger and Enrique are outstanding – but do we have the same confidence in Kelly, Coates, Carragher and Flanagan?  Each of them has merit as good defenders, but they just haven’t played enough, which affects how well they will assimilate into the team when called upon.
So – lack of continuity and a couple of transfers aside – and in spite of strengthened competition (Manchester City and Tottenham in particular) – Liverpool have progressed reasonably well, and the team’s potential of 4th place and 2 trophies illustrates that (after all, the last couple of years haven’t seen anywhere near that much).  But with other teams setting a heavy pace, Liverpool will be pressed to push on and grow their squad in both depth and talent.  We have a much better core and enough depth that the over-reliance on one or two players has decreased.  But the squad is still lean, and still needs a couple more injections of serious quality.  Hopefully Kenny Dalglish and Damien Comolli agree…