SO CHRISTIAN Benteke is officially a Liverpool player. The Reds have bought goals this summer. No two ways about it. Whether or not we agree with the goals that have been bought, whether or not we feel it could or should have been different, it’s crystal clear that Liverpool have committed to goals. I wouldn’t have bought Danny Ings. I probably wouldn’t have bought Christian Benteke but both are footballers whose raison d’etre is putting the ball in the back of the net. Having urged the purchase of goals, Liverpool have added £75million worth that they didn’t have last season.
By contrast, last summer Liverpool added goals from Mario Balotelli and Rickie Lambert (we’ll come to Lazar Markovic and Adam Lallana later and regardless neither have that raison d’etre), spending a meagre £20m on goals while selling their top goalscorer, Luis Suarez, to Barcelona for £75m.
It’s a bastard of a sentence that. It was a bastard of a season. A season that started with a throbbing hangover and ended with crippling nostalgia. Steven Gerrard. 2005. Gerrard and 2005. In part, Suarez. It’s a city and a football team which is, on its best day, historic. A city and football team which is, on its worst day, nostalgic. History is something you can learn from. Nostalgia is something which keeps hard lessons at bay, the cotton wool of yesterday, cosy, secure, deadening. Yesterday can be acclaimed without being smothering. Yet yesterday became all the Liverpool of 14-15 had.
Football teams have to move forward. Liverpool have to move endlessly forward. More than any Liverpool side I can remember Brendan Rodgers’s Liverpool has to move implacably, endlessly forward and arguably three times in 2014-15 it ceased to do so — July, November and as March turned to April. This lack of forward momentum, this lack of faith in forward momentum which was manifested on the pitch with his selections and approach by the manager in November and by the better players with their lack of faith in their forwards come April led the runaway train of 13-14 into a railway siding.
The first step to rectifying a problem is admitting you have a problem. When Liverpool go into their first game against Stoke City on August 9 there will be the option of £75m worth of goals that weren’t there when they left Stoke City as 6-1 sinners last May. This summer’s transfer business is Liverpool skywriting that there has been a problem. Something went wrong. Something had to be done.
Something has been done.
In Ings, Roberto Firmino, Benteke and the arrival of Divock Origi after his loan spell, Liverpool have gone heavy on lads whose very essence is performing that most divine of footballing functions — putting the ball in the back of the net. Goals scored by your side create ecstasy. They take us into a state of grace. In excelsis deo. The more goals you score the more ecstatic you should feel.
Michael Owen scores a goal. Hallelujah.
Robbie Fowler is known as “God”.
These things are not accidents. There’s an argument that as society has become more secular football has become, in general, misconstrued with religion. However Shankly was discussing Anfield being a place where we worship back in the sixties. He was right then and has been right since. At our best we worship. At our worst we curse. It’s a temple which can go either either.
It’s Liverpool. So let’s embrace the mania rather than cock a snook at it. Let them — all the thems, all the different types of thems, the rivals of all hues, the punditry class, the grey bearded and/or endlessly angry among our own ranks — let them be wry or insulting, let them be cynics, instead let us be frenzied watching our blood-red clad and beautiful ecclesiastical pure white (with blood red trim) hordes breach defences with force and guile. And anyway, it’s the most sensible approach. The club has addressed the pressing issue. We get to see if it has worked. We get to cheer it working on. Faith and reason can chime together.
In short, there is suddenly a lot to be excited about with these Reds. There are 38 games to be excited about with these Reds.
Liverpool don’t play Chelsea, Arsenal or Manchesters United and City every week. They only play them eight times. Everyone else they play 30 times and everyone else can be blown away. The correlations between wage bill, transfer fees and success across a season which we talk of should work in our favour. Thirty times we should walk onto the pitch with the stronger 11 and stronger bench on paper. The discipline is in making that paper pay dividends as many times out of 30 as possible. Arsenal are the masters at this. Last season Liverpool were dreadful at it. They managed only 24 goals in games against the sides that finished 11th to 20th. 24 in 20. That is a disgrace. Liverpool should go into games next season with five forwards to choose from — Firmino, Benteke, Daniel Sturridge, Ings and Origi. There can be no excuses. These are the players the club and the manager wanted. The first three in harness should be far, far too much for most Premier League defences to handle.
What’s key to all this though is the use, and, oddly, the classification, of Philippe Coutinho. Coutinho is a midfielder first and foremost. Hugely talented and able to contribute higher because of that talent, but a midfielder. In the aforementioned 30 games he should be spending most of his time picking the ball up and seeing three options in front of him, not, as happened all too often last season, one. As a player he wants to be constantly involved. He drops deep and loves to drop in and battle. Coutinho will add goals to his game, he managed it last season, but his primary function should be adding goals to the games of three players ahead of him. Coutinho as a 10 to Benteke’s nine could prove painful to watch. The two need to not be on each other’s toes and both need movement around and ahead of them. The two of them can be Liverpool’s outball in different ways. Concerns about them dovetailing are completely understandable, I share them. But they shouldn’t be a classic partnership. They don’t need to be. Liverpool have a ton of options beyond that and should have moved beyond it.
The 4-4-1-1 the club’s glorious history is littered with is not this Liverpool’s answer — 4-2-1-3 is. It is why that front three has to be populated with attackers. 4-4-1-1 with Coutinho as the one or wide on either of the flank would too easily become 4-5-1. 4-5-1 plays into the hands of the opponents in the 30 games. How 4-2-1-3 stays 4-2-1-3 is by selecting forwards in those wide positions. On The Pink podcast after the Brisbane friendly John Gibbons mentioned how Ings wide means he naturally wants to get into the box. Ings will work but he is a forward. Play him in a front three, it remains a front three. Liverpool need to constantly move forward, Brendan Rodgers’s Liverpool need to constantly move forward.
Liverpool also appear to be looking at a diamond again. Even there Coutinho should find himself either side against the poorer teams rather than at the apex. Phil Coutinho looks up, sees three options and ideally some grass ahead of him. Write it on your hand. Tattoo it on your eyelids. No two ways about it.
Around him you have Jordan Henderson, James Milner, Lucas Leiva and Joe Allen. I’d expect Henderson and Milner as two starters week in, week out with Lucas anchoring against the better sides in those tough away games early on before Henderson and Milner are left to their own devices. Pulling last season’s Coutinho back into midfield and adding Milner means this squad has the most energy I can remember from a Liverpool midfield since Momo Sissoko, Gerrard and Javier Mascherano in their pomp. Liverpool should be moving forward, taking the game to their opponents in every game. Our ball. Our game. Last season, far too often, both belonged to opponents. Well sorry, lads, we want them both back now and we might just be equipped to get them.
Behind these lads there are some defenders and a goalkeeper who, even if Liverpool do all this right, are still going to find themselves very much exposed at times but who can also squeeze opponents too. It’s clear, from the manager and his appointments (Sean O’Driscoll and Pepijn Lijnders), the club and its transfers (Firmino to Nathaniel Clyne), the players who remain at the club and in favour and their natural approaches to the game (Henderson, Milner, Coutinho, Mamadou Sakho, I could go on), we are going to want to squeeze and harry and press. Occasionally, for 30 seconds, for 30 minutes, this will come undone. That’s football. Every approach can be undermined.
What’s important is that heads are kept when it is undermined. Everyone concedes. There aren’t a load of terrific centre halves knocking around. Baresi and Maldini aren’t centre back for Arsenal. Kompany looked shaky last term. There is no great team in this league. Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid play in different leagues to us. We aren’t up against them. Let’s not measure ourselves against them. And, again, other than eight times a season, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchesters United and City play on different pitches. We aren’t up against them 30 times.
Those left out from clear roles are the most interesting and could prove the difference between disappointment and God knows where. The question marks, interestingly three of them signed last summer. Lallana, Emre Can, Markovic and Jordon Ibe. Lallana is beginning to remind me of Jamie Carragher circa summers of 2001 and 2002. He is in no-one’s dream 11 but his teammates tend to improve when he features, the manager is going to want to find a place for him and, as was always the case for Carragher at that time, he was better last season than he was given credit for.
He offers a tactical flexibility. Much more than Coutinho — a player more talented — he blurs the line between midfielder and forward. If he excels in both his performances and return then Liverpool could really be in great shape. If he fails to impress this side could and really should pass him by quickly. It is the most make-or-break of seasons for him.
It’s difficult to see where Can gets his requested midfield time from the start in the league without compromising Coutinho as a midfielder, certainly early on in the campaign. He’s surely a way behind Henderson and Milner and Allen has his strengths. Further, it still isn’t clear what type of midfielder he is, though he is clearly talented. It may be worth him not being quite so dogmatic — it’s conceivably easier to make a case from him starting at centre back in the early home games than it is to see him at the base of the midfield ahead of Lucas in those difficult early away games.
But 38 games is a long season. What is present in both midfield and in attack is a lot of energy. Lads who look hard to find a place for in August could find themselves and their legs integral come February and it might well be on the road as autumn becomes winter that Can is able to offer a little more oomph than Lucas as the games become easier and the intensity damages the early 11s.
Markovic is a player who may well find himself the attacking Emre Can. You want to find a place for him but it may well be in the second half of the season that he proves his worth as the campaign begins to take its toll on others. Like Can, his best position doesn’t seem as clear as you’d like but there can be time from the bench and Europa League football to work all this out for both of them. Three years ago Jordan Henderson was behind Jonjo Shelvey and looking likely to go. The Europa League changed that for him and now he finds himself deservedly the club captain. There are about five or six lads I’d be sitting down and explaining that to if I was Henderson.
Ibe’s another for that but the feeling is he already knows this. He’ll be getting a ton of 20 or 30-minute league cameos this season. He should always leave us all wanting more but the manager should resist the temptation as much as he can.
Liverpool are still being linked with one more forward. Mike Nevin was on at me about this. Raheem Sterling goes we should get one more. He may well be right. It’s the Sturridge issue. Daniel Sturridge makes you think “let’s get two belts and three pairs of braces.” Would it be overkill? Given the potential of both Markovic and Ibe and given how pace can only benefit us with Benteke and Coutinho then perhaps. But you offer me one more proven very good attacking player and I’ll get excited. Pace and proven are the thrilling p-words, potential and planning aren’t, not any more. You can’t plan more than one year ahead anymore — Raheem Sterling has given us our yearly lesson in that — and regardless, Ibe, Can and Markovic all remain works firmly in progress. And there are goals to be scored now. A league to be won now. Not as a theory to be worked towards but as an urgent blazing fire that needs extinguishing.
The key thing is that something had to be done and something emphatically has been. As said, I wouldn’t have gone for Ings, I wouldn’t have gone for Benteke. (I always remember that I wouldn’t have gone for Torres. Football makes us all wrong all the time). But the policy was always more important than the particulars, certainly this summer around. Sterling and Gerrard going are two very different departures but both are profound disappointments, and yet we look like we can be far more competitive because while football manages to be about everything while simultaneously isn’t about anything more than the round thing going into the rectangular thing. It’s called a goal for a reason. A goal. No two ways about it.
Liverpool have bought goals. I can shut up about that now which is a relief. It is now about using them. The buying of them might not change everything but that focus, the lack of the hangover, the end of the nostalgia, the return of forward momentum on and off the pitch should change many things. We can know this. We can feel this. We can believe this. We can be let down and we can be disappointed; we probably will be. But faith and hope are their own excitement. Last season it was clear Liverpool had become hopeless. On the pitch, in the dugout, in the stands — hopeless.
Success in football can be about delusion made reality. You need the collective delusion first. Then you need the faith. Then you remake the reality. So: Glory be. Come all ye faithful. Joyful and triumphant. Oh come ye oh come ye to Anfield.
Come. Let’s adore them.
Pics: PA Images/David Rawcliffe-Propaganda Photo