It’s quite unfortunate but somehow, you only truly understand brilliance some time after a player’s magnificent career or a team’s glorious era. For the latter, it’s easier to comprehend such brilliance when you have another side to compare the achievements with. It is only then you realise how great that team was.
This is certainly applicable to that Liverpool side of 2008/09, which for only the second time in a decade, came close to bringing the title back to Anfield. Somehow, as we look back, and as we compare Rafa Benitez’s most successful Liverpool side to last year’s exciting outfit of current manager Brendan Rodgers, Benitez’s et al just seemed to work, and were so balanced that it was more of a pity they couldn’t win the title nor build on the success in the following season.
This difference in balance could be highlighted by how a key player sale from either side led to their significant drop in form the following season. For Luis Suarez in the summer of 2014, read Xabi Alonso in August 2009. Both were key cogs in their respective sides, both were sold to Spanish giants, but there was one stark difference. Suarez, of course, was Rodgers’ hardworking, elusive, goalscoring striker, while Alonso was Benitez’s elegant midfield orchestrator that could pick out an exquisite pass almost on-demand. Suarez epitomised the free-scoring attacking force that was Liverpool in 2013/14, whereas Alonso provided creativity and a passing range second to none as well as a decent defensive shield, giving Benitez’s 2008/09 side much more balance as a result.
alonso made his name at anfield
Most would argue that Alonso was only really effective when he lined up alongside midfield destroyer Javier Mascherano, who proved in the most recent World Cup what a fine defensive midfielder he is now and was back then. Alonso could only have survived the hustle and bustle of the Premier League with Mascherano present to protect him and to a larger extent, Benitez’s back four. This was more true than not, as Alonso only truly found form in the latter years of his Liverpool career after the arrival of the Argentinian midfield enforcer. Before that, the talk of Benitez wanting to replace Alonso with England’s Gareth Barry – though laughable now – was very much concrete rumours that ultimately led to Alonso’s unhappiness at Anfield and eventual switch to La Liga. Put alongside Rodgers’ central midfielders (for the sake of simplifying this article, hence minus Steven Gerrard) – Joe Allen, Jordan Henderson and/or Benitez signing Lucas – there is simply no comparison. Simply put, at that time, Liverpool had the best central midfield pairing in European football.
The back four that Mascherano shielded and patrolled in front of was also one of Liverpool’s finest. Just looking at the four central defenders Liverpool had, one can only be envious and heave a sigh of disappointment at the current crop of central defenders Rodgers has and had brought in. Jamie Carragher, in his prime, usually lined up alongside a youthful but emerging Daniel Agger, one of four survivors in Rodgers’ side from last season. In reserve, Benitez could call upon Anfield’s favourite Finn (sorry Jari Litmanen) veteran Sami Hyypia, as well as another survivor in Rodgers’ side, Martin Skrtel. That quartet contributed to Benitez’s Reds only conceding 27 league goals that season, measly when you see that Rodgers’ side conceded 50 league goals last season, hardly title-worthy defending. Skrtel and Agger were supposed to form a solid pairing, while free transfer veteran Kolo Toure and Mamadou Sakho were mostly unconvincing.
It must be said that not all was rosy at the back for Benitez, though if you compare to Rodgers’ current plight, one could argue that the sole issue Benitez faced wasn’t too great at all. Benitez’s own free transfer in defence, Swiss right-back Philipp Degen, seemed to be permanently injured and never got a run in the side. Fortunately for Benitez, Alvaro Arbeloa was almost always injury-free and supremely dependable – a fine full-back when compared with earlier Benitez signings Josemi et al. On the opposite side, it was usually a tossup between injury-prone set-piece specialist Fabio Aurelio, Serie A new signing Andrea Dossena and youngster Emiliano Insua. Though Dossena ultimately proved unconvincing and sold soon enough, all three had sufficient quality for a title-challenging side and like Arbeloa, were dependable at left-back. Only Jon Flanagan’s determination and tackling ability could match up to any of Benitez’s full-backs.
flanagan could show his team-mates how to properly defend
It wasn’t just the individuals in defence that made Liverpool’s 2008/09 side so difficult to break down. Benitez drilled his side’s defending so well that any one could come in seamlessly and do the job. Another survivor in the current side, Lucas Leiva, had Mascherano to look up to and did a decent job whenever rarely the Argentine was injured or suspended. Much less said about Rodgers’ chopping and changing of his back four, the better. With such a great defensive base to work from, Benitez found the perfect formula up front. By pushing Gerrard, who to the Spaniard was not positionally-disciplined, closer with his marquee signing Fernando Torres, Benitez had a front two that linked up in tandem so well that Torres hit the heights he has so far not seen since leaving Anfield and probably will never come close to again. And he also had Robbie Keane for half a season.
The supporting attacking players Benitez had at his disposal, especially for the two wide midfield positions, all had their own individual qualities and were never considered like-for-like replacements. The Spaniard could choose from the hugely talented but inconsistent Ryan Babel, Israeli attacker Yossi Benayoun on the left side, while almost always picking the industrious Dirk Kuyt on the right flank. With Alonso, Gerrard, Torres and whoever played left wing charged more with the attacking side of Benitez’s game, Kuyt’s industry provided the much-needed balance in the side, with his defensive game and willingness to close down helping push back opponents and forcing the opposition into mistakes. Formerly an out-and-out striker, Kuyt’s willingness to hassle defenders by running the channels also gave Torres and co. much more space to work with. As much of an unsung hero was Kuyt, the Dutchman’s unselfish and energetic displays eventually won over his initial Anfield critics and saw him leave as a Kop favourite.
Rodgers’ own version of Kuyt would probably be English midfielder Henderson. Up top, Luis Suarez did more and scored more in a single season than Torres could ever muster, with the Uruguayan’s durability giving him that required edge over the rather fragile Spaniard. In the second fiddle of frontmen, Sturridge did break the 20-goal mark over the full season, while Keane only lasted half a season before his move back to Tottenham. However, by playing the deadly duo in the same line-up, Rodgers sacrificed the defensive stability required for a title-winning side.
kuyt: the unsung hero in a side highlighted by the gerrard-torres axis
Benitez’s ironically consistent line-up only really had uncertainties in the two left sided positions. It was usually either Babel or Benayoun there, with the one left out almost certain to replace the starter at the 60th minute mark. Rodgers tried a similar rotation with teenage prodigy Raheem Sterling and Brazilian playmaker Philippe Coutinho, especially when Rodgers switched to a diamond formation and both would take turns for the No.10 role. This added advanced playmaker behind the two strikers left more gaps at the back; whereas Babel/Benayoun and Kuyt could support their full-backs, Rodgers had to rely on the two central midfielders on either side of the diamond to cover across for their full-backs, which of course left a deep-lying Gerrard isolated at times.
Whereas the blend of players and tactical set-up made Benitez’s 2008/09 Liverpool side balanced, defensively solid and still a threat going forward, Rodgers’ team of last season was overly offensive and conceded one too many goals. Had Rodgers’ side conceded just a couple less in key games, Liverpool might have had the title. One might argue that this doesn’t make Benitez’s side better than Rodgers’, since the former could not clinch the title either; and that the current problems Rodgers is facing is similar to Benitez’s follow-up season that ended in 7th place, culminating in his sacking.
But one has to be able to appreciate how much more tactically astute Rodgers could be, especially in this trying time when he tries to find the right formula to dig the Reds out of this mess. Without the goalscoring talents of Suarez and the continuing injury problems plaguing Sturridge, Rodgers has to find a more balanced side akin to Benitez’s: to stick to the basics, learn how to defend properly, and ultimately be able to dig out wins, however ugly or pragmatic it may seem.