Paul Tomkins 16 March 2009
Article by Paul Tomkins taken from LFC Official site
For once I'm almost lost for words. Where do you start after back-to-back results like those? Excluding cup finals and league deciders, I do not think there can have been two better results so close together in the history of the club.
If Liverpool do go on to win either of the main competitions, these will be seen as the defining moments. If not, they are still boosts to the self-belief and proof of what this team can do against the very best, and help attain future success.
Liverpool didn't just beat Real Madrid and Manchester United, they outplayed them and thrashed them. Unlike victories at Old Trafford in the past decade, this was no smash and grab; it was smash, smash and smash again.
To do the double over Manchester United and Chelsea and still be outsiders to win the league seems incredible.
But it's credit to United for such an unbelievable run going into this game; when Liverpool did stumble in the new year they took full advantage. All the same, United's remarkable clean sheet record was dragged through the Old Trafford mud on Saturday lunchtime.
Beyond anything else, this week has gone to show that a fit Gerrard and Torres combination is as good, if not better, than anything in world football.
Zinedine Zidane, no less, said Gerrard is the world's best player, and no-one will argue against Torres being the world's best centre-forward.
Put them together, and they will tear defences apart. If fit.
And whatever you say about the rights and wrongs of Liverpool's season, and the manager's decisions, you cannot dispute the quality that the pair bring, and how the Reds have sorely missed it. Results have been dug out in their absence, because of other top players and a canny manager, but these two are as sharp as any cutting edge gets.
Torres still has an ankle problem, but unlike a hamstring, it doesn't affect his pace, and is less psychologically damaging. But even with a strapping holding the joint in place, he tortured the league's best defender this season. Vidic on toast, anyone?
A key factor regarding Torres' fitness has been how in both games it took just a long punt to open the scoring.
Liverpool can, and do, play pretty intricate football to work openings, but if you have genuine pace up front, allied to skill and strength, you can terrify defenders as renowned as Cannavaro, Ferdinand and Vidic with any kind of pass.
Gerrard, like Torres, is also a quick thinker, and when the no.9 wasn't running in behind United's knot-tied defenders, the captain was.
Despite this, and despite the pair helping put four past Madrid, Andy Gray was still talking about Benítez being negative in the absence of Alonso (whose injury was another major blow – he and Benayoun have been two of the form players) by not dropping Gerrard back into midfield. Gray made some fair observations, but this wasn't one of them.
When will people get – or maybe just accept – just how good Gerrard is right up alongside Torres?
When will people see the Liverpool captain as a quicksilver version of Kenny Dalglish? – not quite as brilliant as the great Scot in some respects (who could be?), but arguably just as devastating playing off the main striker. Gerrard now has more goals than any United striker this term, by playing this role.
Yes, he's great in central midfield, too. But please, let's not accuse the manager of negativity when this formation has helped thump the double Spanish, English and European champions in the space of four days, with eight goals to just one in reply!
It's true that Alonso and Mascherano aren't prolific, but it's not like United are getting 25 goals a season from this position. United's pair of Anderson and Carrick have two league goals between them, the same as Liverpool's.
Giggs and Scholes, who also play there a lot, are undeniably ageing well, but are no longer goalscorers; they have one league goal each this season. It's like judging them on their abilities of five years ago.
Ditto Gerrard, who was averaging six goals a season in midfield in 2004, before Benítez turned him into a 20-a-season man playing in the hole.
Until last season, Gerrard didn't look totally convincing in the role, particularly against the best sides. Now he's excelled there against Chelsea, Madrid and United in the past month or so.
Part of this is due to his own improvement due to gaining experience in the position, and part of it is down to the introduction of Torres and Mascherano in front and behind him, and the much improved form of Alonso. In other words, the team is getting better, to provide him with a stronger platform.
United also tend to play Park or Fletcher on one side and Ronaldo on the other; the same wide-midfielder/winger combination as the Reds.
While Liverpool have no-one to match Ronaldo's remarkable record of goals from the flank, Kuyt has easily outscored Park and Fletcher put together, while Riera, Babel or Benayoun can also notch goals.
(And any Kuyt doubters, look at his run to help Gerrard win the penalty. Top class movement.)
I won't deny that Liverpool still lack a little of the all-encompassing depth of United's squad, and that's a reason why, over the long haul, it's proved hard to win the league.
But even some of the less-heralded squad members have shown their qualities this week, not least Andrea Dossena, who has picked a great time to show the attacking instincts he was bought for (even if the non-stop, lung-busting gruel of getting up-and-back in the Premiership from left-back has been a big culture shock), and Lucas, who showed great heart on Saturday, and despite the odd mistake was generally excellent.
So why not play like this every week?
As I've been saying for a few weeks, Benítez has had to sell his own signings in order to buy better, more expensive ones; trading his way up with a lot of transfer activity (making for a big, distorting gross spend), but rather than shelling out almost £200m, the reality is that he's been recycling funds, leaving a low net spend. United's current squad is roughly £80m more expensive than the Reds'.
The gap in squad funding is immense, in no small part due to United's success on the pitch at the precise point the English game became a cash cow (while Liverpool's own great success was in a far less profitable era), and from being able to develop their stadium while Anfield remained largely land-locked.
Look at it like this: even if you include every single player Benítez has bought, the total still doesn't add up to what United's current squad cost to assemble.
Now, if in times of injury and fatigue, Liverpool had been able to also call upon Peter Crouch, Craig Bellamy, Luis Garcia, Momo Sissoko and various other players bought and sold by the boss, then would the squad be a lot stronger? Undoubtedly.
But those players were sold as part of a process of improvement; without selling Bellamy and Garcia, Torres probably does not arrive; without selling Sissoko, Mascherano probably does not arrive. And the wages are a problem, too; it's not cheap to keep a big squad together.
Just look at the two teams at Old Trafford.
United's starting XI cost £45m more than Liverpool's, and their 18-man squad cost £176m to the Reds' £105m. That's a chasm.
United have every right to spend more money on their squad, if they generate such amounts; but let's not enter into this mythological world created by United fans and myopic media mouthpieces to make out Benítez has had equal spending power. He hasn't.
I also keep hearing that when teams like Everton fail to finish above Liverpool, or even get close, it's because of their lesser resources; David Moyes is still lauded as a genius, though.
Meanwhile, Rafa Benítez is often lambasted even though he has worked miracles in Europe, and, domestically, has Liverpool currently punching at the same weight as a £200m+ über-squad (that of Chelsea, with a similar squad cost to United), despite a collection of players that only cost around 60% as much.
Isn't this hypocritical? Can't people see this?
Moyes has taken seven years to make Everton a very good side; Benítez has taken five to turn what was a decidedly average Liverpool team into a very, very good side indeed, bordering on excellent (if still not perfect), with only the 5th-most expensive squad currently in the Premiership.
Hypocrisy abounds. Rafa is seen as someone who doesn't understand or prioritise English football, even though he's racked up his first 100 league wins in 50 fewer games than Alex Ferguson. Again, I'm not arguing that Liverpool are now better than United, merely that Benítez be judged fairly, based on facts.
As another example of misconceptions, a lot of people appear to be criticising Benítez's substitutions this season, simply because he doesn't go for broke at half-time with bravado switches. And yet Liverpool have scored more second-half goals than any other Premiership team, and a whopping 24 in the last 15 minutes of games!
Look at vital goals against both Madrid sides in the last ten minutes of Champions League games, or Kuyt's winner in the last minute of extra-time against Liege. Look at all the last-gasp winners in the league.
Does this not suggest that, more often than not, the manager has been proved right? Does this not suggest positive changes were made, either with personnel or tactics, or that in some instances, no changes were right, too?
The fact is, Liverpool have never been this well placed at this stage of a season since the league was re-branded in 1992; when I saw the figures a couple of games ago the Reds were five points better off than at any point in the past 18 years (going back to 1991, when the Reds trailed off in the spring following Dalglish's shock departure), and since then it's been six points from six.
To go from a reasonably distant 4th to winning the title in one season is a big ask, particularly when the holders are also European champions. Even if the dream of the title ultimately proves a step too far, the Reds can go to Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge with extra confidence from now on.
There is still work to be done, improvements to be made. But that's why I've always trusted Benítez; I've never felt that anyone could guarantee Liverpool the league title (given the odds stacked against the Reds these days), but I have felt that at least he has the unerring perfectionism that will drive him, and the team, on.
Yes, he persists with some players out of form, but simply because he knows what they are capable of (as seen this week), and trusts that his belief in them can help them succeed; but anyone who doesn't do what he needs them to is quickly sold, as better replacements are sought.
Without the ability to spend £30m a time on a number of players, it becomes a slower process – sorting the wheat from the chaff; keeping the good signings and moving on those who don't cut it. Unfortunately, every time he does this, a club like United, who were already more advanced in their evolution, can go and spend £32m on a single player, while the league as a whole strengthens (see Aston Villa as an example).
So if Liverpool are not yet at that level we so crave, anyone who cannot see a marked improvement this season is missing the overall picture and choosing to just fixate on the negatives.
The progress may not be in giant steps, but it's not in baby steps either. And that's good enough for me.