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Tuesday, 27 April 2004

748: PREMIERSHIP: How Liverpool sho

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by : Antony Melvin

Modern titles should be won from midfield. Obviously if you have an incredible forward who makes more goals than most players score, and scores more than he makes it damages the argument. But there are so few players of that ilk available. For Liverpool it seems clear that Gerard Houllier will get another year in charge, and it is clear that he needs to strengthen the midfield if he is to break into the top three – which is an essential ambition for any Liverpool manager.

Liverpool have two good goalkeepers, plus effective full-backs. The centre-half partnership of Henchoz and Hyypia is showing signs of decay but if Liverpool get fourth spot they should be in a position to get Phillippe Mexes which will give them a solid base.

Up front mix up Cisse (the leading scorer in France) with any one of Owen, Baros, Pongolle and Heskey and there will be goals scored – even if one of them is released. But only if the midfield can supply the ammunition.

And there lies the major problem with the way Houllier sets out his sides. All the main teams play with three or four players who are prepared to gamble and put in runs past the forwards. Arsenal have Pires, Ljungberg, Vieira and even Ashley Cole constantly looking to break past the forwards. United have Giggs, Scholes, Ronaldo and Fletcher. Chelsea have half the English speaking world available in their midfield. And Liverpool have Steven Gerrard, and when he can be bothered Harry Kewell.

Without Gerrard Liverpool would probably be closer to the relegation zone than European qualification such is his massive ability and influence on the team. Such is his composure and drive most Liverpool fans would rather every other first team player were sold – including Owen – if it meant that Gerrard would stay. The plaudits have this season been lavished on Thierry Henry who is an entire battalion of attacking options, but Gerrard has been the outstanding midfielder without whom Liverpool would be languishing in the lower half of the table.

The real question is where are the three players who are fit to play alongside Gerrard?

Of the available options Dietmar Hamann is too defensive and his pace and presence is on the wane. El Hadji-Diouf has shown good form in patches, but he isn’t a match winner – he’s aggressive and direct but not especially talented. Vladimir Smicer is a clever player but unsuited to the cut and thrust of the Premiership. Danny Murphy may have been the fans player of the year last term, but he has gone backwards this year and isn’t even a fringe England player. He’s busy and tough but fails to look up too often. Salif Diao is fast becoming the new Bernard Diomede. Anthony Le Tallec has time on his side but is not ready. Harry Kewell is great on the highlights – but often lazy when the camera isn’t pointed at him. And Bruno Cheyrou, Chelsea heroics aside, is simply not good enough. This glut of mediocrity is stopping youngsters like John Welsh from being given a chance. Too often Houllier gives yet another chance to a Biscan or a Cheyrou whereas the kids are rarely given a first chance.

The widely reported £30m available for transfers at Anfield is unlikely to be a nett figure. In reality Mexes and Cisse will cost around £20m so to recruit three international quality midfielders on top probably means that £20m will need to be recouped by sales to reduce the deficit to ‘just’ £15m to £20m.

To recoup £20m Houllier should sell a defender, a forward and any of the midfielders (apart from Gerrard) that can command a fee. If that means selling ten average players to bring in five good ones then the club will benefit. Also by reducing the squad size the youth players will get a chance to step forward and stake their claim.

Tinkering at the edges can only get you so far, its time for Liverpool to get radical. Sell half the first team squad, give them away if they can’t be sold and if someone wants Igor Biscan offer to drive him round yourself. And with the money get in some players who both want to play for the Anfield club and are fit to wear the shirt. If Houllier is prepared to make these kind of changes perhaps he is the right man after all to lead Liverpool forward after a couple of rocky seasons. But if he’s not ready for this then he really should step aside. No more mediocrity.

Antony Melvin

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Antony Melvin

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