Paco: Liverpool should be close to title every season

Paco Ayesteran, Liverpool’s first team coach and right-hand-man to Rafael Benitez, says that Liverpool are now getting to the level that a club of their stature should be at. Paco rarely speaks in public, leaving that to his friend and boss, but with the sad news that Rafa’s father had passed away earlier in the week perhaps Paco felt it was appropriate that he talk about the progress the Reds have made since they arrived.

First of all, Paco says that Liverpool’s Champions League win didn’t hide the fact that they were not up to scratch overall: “I wasn’t happy with our level at the end of last season, even though we won the Champions League. This year the improvement has been really big. We are close to arriving at the level a team like Liverpool should be. At minimum, we should be close to winning the Premiership and the Champions League every season. That should be expected from us.”

Paco also pointed out that the club can’t afford at any stage to think “we’ve done it,” – they’ve got to keep working, keep improving: “We still need to develop to go further. There is a combination of factors which will decide how far we go in the coming months and years. It’s a continuous process which, in football, never ends. There is always something to learn and areas to work on. We still need to improve the quality of our squad, for example. It’s not enough for us to move up a level and then stop, because the other teams will continue to get better.”

Paco was Rafa’s number two at Valencia too, where they took the Spanish side to new heights, and he says this took time. “It took three years in Valencia for Rafa and I to feel we had the right connection with the players. Only then did we know the players felt exactly as we did about the game. You must remember we’ve only been at Liverpool for eighteen months, so we feel we still have a long way to go before we’re at that stage.”

He says the recent improvement has been much faster than they ever thought it could be: “The improvement this season has come a lot quicker than we imagined. Over the last six months I thought the improvement would be gradual, rising steadily. Instead, it seems to have catapulted to a higher level at good speed. The aims of the team are changing and becoming more ambitious all the time depending on the level they are showing us. At this time we think we could have a much better season than we expected six months ago.”

So what does Paco think has made the biggest difference to the Reds this season? A mixture of determination and careful coaching, he says: “For me, the most important difference between the team this year and last is their determination. Also I think the team is fitter, particularly at the end of games. This is partly because the players are more clever in their movements. They now understand how to find and exploit space in the closing stages of a match. Fitness is in the mind as much as the legs. Last season, some players wasted energy with movements which were unnecessary.”

Then there’s teamwork, which has clearly improved at the club: “The synchronisation between the players in each of their roles wasn’t good enough. That was an area Rafa and I knew we had to change, and now the players understand our ideas better.”

Another person that may have been surprised at the progress is skipper Steven Gerrard. He came close to leaving the Reds in the summer of course, but now says that the current team is the best he’s played in since he started out as a trainee at the club. He now wants this team to bring home the cup: “Playing for Liverpool is all about trophies and playing finals. We don’t want to get on the plane home empty-handed. It’s the best side I’ve played in in the years I’ve been with the club.”

It was before Gerrard joined the club that Liverpool were winning league title after league title, and the first four of their five European Cups, but Gerrard has been a part of a Liverpool side that has broken a club record for consecutive clean sheets. The previous record belonged to a Kenny Dalglish title-winning side, so the Reds are certainly heading back to the sort of form they produced on the way to becoming England’s most successful club side in history. This season will probably break the record for the most games played in a season too, but that’s not something that worries the captain: “It’s definitely more exciting than it is daunting. There are a lot of games but I’m a fit young lad and I shouldn’t be worried.”

Once they’ve finished in Japan, it’s back to the Premiership and a heavy Christmas programme. Stevie hopes they’ll enter that period still brimming with confidence: “Hopefully we will go back feeling confident and can get a result against Newcastle. We’ve been playing really well of late. There’s a great team spirit.”