"A fear of leaving oneself open to the speed and guile of Cristiano Ronaldo and company is one thing, while backing off in trepidation at Newcastle or Bolton is quite another."
Not everyone likes travelling. Those endless hours spent behind the wheel, or hunched up on some barely inadequately sized seat with leg room designed for a snake. And then there’s the risk of sickness, and that rising queasiness in the gut which convinces the afflicted that an urgent stop is imminently necessary.
Some, many or all of these symptoms could be part of the reason why Liverpool had such an inept record away from home in the Premiership last season. John Arne Riise often looks like he has spent his journey clutching the sick bag, while it seems certain that Peter Crouch struggles to find enough room on the coach for his gangly, everlasting frame. Yet more than this, there is an ailment that is spreading right through the Liverpool squad when they hit the road. And it has nothing to do with motion sickness.
The Reds won just six games on the road in the league last season, and had to wait until December for their first away triumph. It was this, more than anything else, which ultimately cost them the opportunity to mount a serious title charge. Once again Rafa Benitez’s men trailed in an embarrassing 20+ points behind Manchester United and Chelsea. Their season was saved only by a run to a second Champions League final in three seasons, and even then defeat left them empty-handed in 2006/07.
So now as they embark on yet another tilt at breaking the stranglehold of the big two, Benitez’s men must show more away from home. Too often last season Reds fans were left scratching their heads at another inept performance outside Anfield. The confident, slick passing unit on show on Merseyside were seemingly kidnapped for away dates, and replaced with a tactically terrified mob of safety-first merchants.
A 2-0 loss to Manchester United in mid-October was a particular low, with Liverpool adopting a policy at Old Trafford that was the very definition of negativity. Yet a fear of leaving oneself open to the speed and guile of Cristiano Ronaldo and company is one thing, while backing off in trepidation at Newcastle or Bolton is quite another. If Benitez would only let his troops believe it, they have a depth of talent and skill that is the envy of at least 75% of Premiership sides. With a little more ambition, they would no doubt swathe through the majority of their opponents with the minimum of fuss.
Benitez’s summer signings hint at a more adventurous approach overall, but will that necessarily be the case? Fernando Torres and Ryan Babel are £35million+ worth of talent which one would reasonably expect to boost the creative options in the side, but even they are powerless if Benitez holds them on the tight leash which often paralysed their striking predecessors. Without a regular flow of clear-cut scoring opportunities being created by an attack-minded support cast, Jesus Christ would struggle to score goals in the Premiership. Unlike the Champions League, the Premiership is not a place where low scoring draws represent a good day’s work.
The first test of Benitez’s tactical adaptability comes when the Reds visit Aston Villa for the season opener on August 11. The Spaniard has proven almost unmatched at designing a game-plan for Europe, but now must prove to the title-hungry kopites that he has the tactical nous to take the club to the next level domestically. Villa are not a side renowned for slinging all-out assaults on their opponents even at home, and will welcome any attempt by Liverpool to turn the match into a tight game of few chances at either end. If he doesn’t already have it, Benitez must find the key to unlocking the rearguards of mid-level Premiership sides consistently if he is going to alter perceptions about his record in England.
In days of yore the Liverpool manager would shrug his shoulders and tell you to wait and see whenever asked about league results before Christmas. That was at a time when a few early slip-ups were easily afforded, so long as an unbeaten run of 10-15 matches could be achieved later in the season. This decade has seen the bar raised in that respect, as first Arsenal’s Invincibles of 2004 and then Chelsea and Manchester United set about re-defining consistency. To date Liverpool have failed to move with their main rivals, and their ability to do so now is still under massive scrutiny.
If you’re going to conquer your travel sickness you need to be comfortable with your coach.
By Stephen Orford
6 August 2007