One can only look back at history to have a glimpse of the future. Things at Liverpool should be no different. After a 2nd place finish in the last Premier League season, fans will no doubt be high on optimism. The departure of Luis Suarez has definitely sought to dampen some of this optimism.
The Reds have finished runners-up on two other occasions since the turn of the millennia, in 2001/02 under French manager Gerard Houllier and 2008/09 under the Kop favourite that is Rafa Benitez. However in each subsequent season, the Reds did not make the next step, and instead digressed significantly, losing pace with the rest of the top teams in the league, and finishing out of the Champions League places.
This is of course a cause of concern for Brendan Rodgers and the current Liverpool side, minus the 31-goals of Suarez. It will be interesting to see how Rodgers can not only somehow replace Suarez’s goals, but also ensure the Reds do not experience the same decline as that last two seasons.
Both 01/02 and 08/09 seasons, the Reds finished 2nd while competing in the Champions League, exiting in the quarters. They then failed to qualify from their group in the subsequent season, which in hindsight, were early signals of the season’s decline. This time around, the Reds finished 2nd without the burden of Europe’s elite competition, so they will be taking two extra steps this coming season, both trying to contend with the extra games as well as maintaining their elite status at home.
Owen, Heskey and …?
Houllier’s class of 01/02 contained three out-and-out strikers in Michael Owen, Emile Heskey, and a combination of Robbie Fowler and Nicolas Anelka. The prodigious talents of Owen saw him garner a haul of 19 league goals and 5 in the Champions League, while his support striker Heskey managed a respectable 9 league goals and 4 in Europe. For the first half of the campaign till his departure, Fowler found the net only 3 times and once in Europe, while his replacement Anelka went one better in the league, scoring 4. That meant Houllier’s strike force had an overall strike rate of 45 goals in all competitions, 35 in the league and 10 in the Champions League.
the classic little & large rarely seen nowadays
In the following season, leading frontmen Owen continued his goalscoring streak with another 19 league goals and 4 in Europe, while new man Milan Baros found the net 9 times in the league and once in the Champions League. The only other striker in Heskey scored 6 at home and 3 on the continent. This trio of strikers had a combined total of 42 in all competitions, and this difference of just 3 goals meant the quality of Houllier’s strike force did not drop.
This trend was quite similar amongst Liverpool’s goalscoring midfielders in those two seasons. In 01/02, veteran midfielder Jari Litmanen, Danny Murphy and an emerging Steven Gerrard all combined for 18 goals in all competitions. In the next year, new signing El Hadji Diouf, Gerrard and Murphy scored 15 goals between them, signalling a similar 3 goal drop, which should have meant little in the grand scheme of things.
However, for any team to improve or maintain their lofty position, the difference had to be on the onus of the midfielders to get more goals. In this case, Litmanen’s replacement, Diouf, did not even manage to match his predecessor’s tally, and this led to a drop of 3 positions in the league standings.
The partnership of Torres and Gerrard
Benitez had the fearsome duo of Fernando Torres and Gerrard during the highs of the 08/09 season and the lows of the 09/10 campaign. In the initial title-chasing year, Torres, beset by injuries, still managed a good return of 14 league goals and another 2 in Europe. His young back-up, David N’Gog, could only score 3 goals in all competitions, while Robbie Keane’s single half-season at the club resulted in 5 league goals and 2 in the Champions League.
they scored their fair share, but could not stop the slump
In the following season that ended in a disastrous 7th place finish, Benitez could only call upon Torres and N’Gog, following Keane’s departure in January of the previous season. Ironically, Torres and N’Gog managed to combine for 3 more goals than the 08/09 season. The Spaniard shrugged off his injury worries to record an excellent return of 18 league goals and 4 in the Champions League, while N’Gog steadily improved with a tally of 5 at home and 2 on the continent. What was the problem here then?
Similar to the dramatic fall at the start of the millennia, the top two goalscoring midfielders in the squad saw their numbers fall. Forward-turned-winger Dirk Kuyt grabbed 15 in all competitions in the 08/09 season, but could only manage 9 the following year. Gerrard himself scored a massive 23 goals in all competitions in the title-chasing campaign, but only managed 11 the following season. The effect was huge, to the extent that the 3 extra goals scored by the forwards could not compensate for the 18 goal decrease from Kuyt and Gerrard. This thus resulted in a even larger fall in their league standing, a further drop of two places compared to the 02/03 season. Goals from midfield proved to be the side’s downfall, and what ultimately led to Benitez’s sacking.
To be continued…