TOMKINS: LEVELING THE PLAYING FIELD

TOMKINS: LEVELING THE PLAYING FIELD
Paul Tomkins 13 February 2009
Taken from: http://www.liverpoolfc.tv/news/drilldown/NG163249090213-1041.htm

Following my piece earlier in the week, I want to expand on a couple of the themes and clarify one small mistake on my part.

I was accused by one Liverpool fan of being obsessed with Manchester United. In truth, I was just responding to people in the media saying that Liverpool can’t cope without key players when, quite clearly, they can, and that United can cope wonderfully without key players when, quite clearly, that’s not totally true.

Manchester United are the current barometer. Their success dictates comparison. They are where we want to be. In the bigger picture, the Reds are catching them up, and at a far greater rate than Ferguson originally caught Liverpool. But it’s still not enough to spare Benítez some appallingly wayward criticism, much of it relating to his rival down the East Lancs Road.

Even as Liverpool fans, we cannot argue with Alex Ferguson’s record or his status as a legend of the game. However, at times he will do something that Rafa also does and be labeled a genius for getting the result, whereas the Liverpool manager will be castigated even after a win. Stuff like that needs redressing.

With the purchase of Berbatov, United now have three £30m(ish) strikers. This season they’ve coped much better without one of those: Wayne Rooney. You can’t argue with their depth up front, which is better than last year, when Rooney’s absence left them light.

But in the four league games Ronaldo has so far failed to start this season, United won just one, drew two and lost one. Two were tough games, but then so too were two of the four Gerrard has missed, and Liverpool’s results were better.

I made one error in my piece discussing United without Rooney and Ronaldo last season: they also won at Fulham. It doesn’t greatly alter the overall picture: that they were much diminished without these two key men.

For me, this is perfectly natural anyway. Any team would miss a pair of the quality of Ronaldo and Rooney. But it’s glossed over with United that, actually, they did really rely on them, and that this season they still look iffy without Ronaldo.

The fact that this season Liverpool have coped exceptionally well without Gerrard and/or Torres is my main point.

And I must emphasise greatly –– I wouldn’t draw the United comparison if it wasn’t for the media ramming that myth down our throats to start with. At the weekend I lost count of how many times different pundits said United can make do without players like Ronaldo. The evidence is suggestive of the contrary.

What’s interesting is that Ferguson, with a Champions League game looming after the Fulham fixture last season, did exactly what Benítez did at the weekend, and left out his star names. At the time, United were trailing Arsenal at the top of the table. Was it a crazy gamble? Was he cracking up?

United won 3-0. Again, this might suggest that his squad was far stronger than Liverpool’s now, but I’ve already shown that United were far inferior without Rooney in 2007/08 to their overall form, and almost impotent without Ronaldo. Also, United hadn’t just had a 120-minute midweek derby and lost players to injury.

Liverpool’s win against Portsmouth may have been less convincing than United’s at Fulham last year, but it was a win all the same; just as United, with a full-strength team, needed a Stoke player sent off late-on to eventually aid a breakthrough. That’s football. Good teams wear down less-good teams. Whatever side you select, you cannot always win the game in the first 80 minutes.

And it can’t be ‘luck’ that Liverpool have won so many games late on under Benítez, including coming back from what appeared impossible situations.

Dirk Kuyt has scored and set-up a lot of last-gasp goals this season, and part of that is down to the manager finding such characters, who will never give up. Similarly, look at the determination of Javier Mascherano, a defensive midfielder, in the dying seconds, to try and win the game. Look at his joy at Torres’ goal. This is no accident, no fluke.

Ferguson deserves great credit for buying Ronaldo amongst others, but then so too does Benítez for purchasing Torres and turning Gerrard from a six-goals-a-season midfielder into a twenty-goals-a-season midfielder-cum-striker. Prior to Torres arriving, Liverpool were accused of lacking a world-class striker; now he’s here, the manager is wrongly accused of an over-reliance on him.

With all this, I’m not trying to belittle Manchester United or Ferguson. What he has done has worked. Some years he may have had luck at vital times, but their enduring success speaks of doing things right time and time again.

But by having a massive head-start on Benítez, he has had the kind of advantage that he himself could not overcome when Kenny Dalglish was Liverpool manager over a similar time span.

Neutrals may now say Ferguson is a better manager than was Dalglish; and yet Ferguson was miles adrift of Dalglish season after season before King Kenny resigned in 1991. And Ferguson had arrived from the similar Scottish football, not a different culture like Spain.

People say that the seven years it took Ferguson to win the title cannot be compared with now; football has changed too much.

But if anything, it’s now harder to come from lower in the league (indeed, below 2nd-place) to win the title. Gone are the days when people like Brian Clough could take a promoted side to the league title; imagine West Brom or Stoke doing that now! And in 1992, Leeds won the title in their second season back in the top flight; I don’t see Sunderland doing that in 2009, do you?

Casting the net further afield, Arsene Wenger is used as an example of how it’s possible for someone to win the league very quickly. But he was a pioneer as the English game changed to a more continental style; his timing was perfect in order to offer new enlightenment. By the time Benítez arrived, you could not get such an advantage. Everyone was enlightened. Even Bolton used sports scientists, dieticians and psychologists.

And if you look at Wenger’s record since Rafa arrived, you can say that the great Frenchman has been decidedly second-best to the Spaniard on the whole. More experienced than in 1998, Wenger, already an expert in English football, has found it tougher because the top end of the table now has a number of great sides to compete with.

Of course, there was Jose Mourinho’s impact at Chelsea. But he had exceptional resources, to add to a team that were already a 2nd-placed 80-point Premiership outfit and Champions League semi-finalists. But even then, what he built appears to have been a little short-term in its vision, given the ageing side and subsequent strife at Stamford Bridge.

Going back to United, Alex Ferguson made a series of astute signings in 1988 and 1989. But it took 4/5 years for Bruce, Irwin, Pallister, Ince, Hughes and co. to win the title. The fees for these players may seem cheap to us now, but in relation to the transfer record of the day, these (and some of the expensive ‘flops’ he bought at the same time, like Danny Wallace and Neil Webb) were big-money deals.

One of the main points of writing Dynasty was to make comparisons across the eras on as even a playing field as possible. The United team that won the 1990 FA Cup had an average cost (at time of purchase) of half of the transfer record; or the equivalent of an average of £16m per player in today’s market.

By contrast, Kenny Dalglish had a far cheaper team at the time. Part of that was the decreased need to spend big, as over the years Liverpool, similar to United now, had become a well-oiled machine that needed tweaks rather than overhauls.

However, to show that it’s not just about money, and also that Liverpool can’t claim to have been paupers when Ferguson finally ended United’s 26-year wait, Graeme Souness, in rebuilding the ageing side he inherited, formed a team that also cost on average close to 50 per cent of the transfer record. His own purchases, which did include some cheap players like Rob and Lee Jones, worked out at 45 per cent of the record: an average of £13m per player in today’s market.

Had a world-class manager spent that money at Liverpool, Manchester United ‘might not’ have made that vital title breakthrough. But they did, just as Liverpool won against Portsmouth at the weekend, despite all the ‘if Liverpool hadn’t won’ speculations.

Even so, Ferguson spent big to lift the burden on United’s shoulders. At the time Dynasty went to print, Rafa’s average spend on all players was just 16 per cent of the English transfer record. (This figure does not include the many youngsters and reserves yet to play a part in the first team, so it’s not skewed by such cheap investments.)

United’s strongest XI based on last season is listed in Dynasty as having an average cost of 43.5 per cent of the record, compared with the 18 per cent of Liverpool’s.

That 43.5 per cent was based on United making the Tevez deal permanent at £32m; so it still stands because Berbatov cost precisely that, and Tevez, rather than a regular pick, is now a rather luxurious reserve (to add to expensive signings like Anderson, Nani and Hargreaves. The first two have just nine league starts between them this time, despite their cost.)

Liverpool’s (perceived) strongest XI did become a little more expensive with the signing of Robbie Keane, but he’s no longer part of the equation, while a signing like Riera, who has replaced Babel as first choice on the left, was actually £3m cheaper.

So for Benítez to have the financial advantage that Ferguson could call upon between 1986 and 1993 – i.e. the ability to outspend a great rival in order to overtake them – he would need a team stuffed full of £15-30m players, as opposed to just a couple. (Again, I’m not saying that if you spend the money you’ll definitely have success, but equally, Ferguson did not overtake Liverpool with thriftiness.)

But there’s an even more crucial point. Not only did Ferguson have a financial advantage that Benítez now doesn’t, he also had disruption at Liverpool from 1989 onwards, when Hillsborough derailed the Reds and left Dalglish suffering from understandable stress. The worst imaginable luck in all senses for Liverpool was, in sporting terms, good luck for United.

It’s also important to note, by way of balance, that United were similarly damaged by Munich in 1958, without which Bill Shankly might have found Matt Busby’s men impossible to overhaul six years later.

No matter how good Shankly was, and how great the team he assembled, if United had not been rebuilding when he arrived 50 years ago, but instead going from strength to strength with a great young side, it might have been too great a gap to bridge. At the very least, it may have taken Shankly beyond 1964 to win the championship if Duncan Edwards and co. were still alive.

You almost always need some disruption with preeminent rivals to sneak a march on them. Because whatever you do, they already have momentum.

Since his arrival, Benítez has elevated the Reds above Arsenal, although it could be argued that they are in transition. This season he has got the Reds above Chelsea, but their constant changing of managers in search of ‘sexy’ football appears to be part of their undoing. All the same, you have to be in a position to take advantage, and so far Liverpool have with their own improvement.

In other years, this might be enough: two strong rivals (and recent European Cup finalists) overtaken. But the one constant remains United, who were miles ahead of Liverpool in 2004, and who, even though the gap has been closed dramatically, still have undeniable advantages that stretch back well into the 1990s in terms of personnel, finances and one manager’s vision.

So I repeat, the point of this is not to demean Ferguson’s achievements. They are set in stone. But what irritates me is how he is seen as almost able to do no wrong, and Benítez no right.

I reiterate: in the last two seasons, United’s results without Ronaldo have been the equivalent to mid-table form. Liverpool’s results this season without either Torres or Gerrard have been far, far better. And yet Liverpool are portrayed as the one- or two-man team, and Benítez the clueless, lucky manager with a weak squad.

And how utterly wrong that is.

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