Spurs boss Martin Jol spoke up in defence of his goalkeeper Paul Robinson amidst claims that is was a goalkeeping blunder that had given Liverpool the lead at Anfield yesterday. Robinson parried a deflected Steven Gerrard free-kick, which was pounced on by Andriy Voronin to put the Reds in front. With Robinson about to go off on international duty with England, his every move is under scrutiny, and Jol wanted to make it clear it wasn’t a blunder: “I am not concerned about Paul Robinson’s form and suggestions he made another mistake. If you see the replay you see that it got a deflection off Jermaine Jenas, hitting his knee, it was not a mistake. It hit him and Voronin was first to the rebound. Nobody went with the runner; it was a bad goal from the defence’s point of view.”
Jol wasn’t the only manager unhappy with his defenders after the game. Liverpool had failed to put away chances that would have won them the game before Spurs scored, but Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez felt both the goals they conceded were easily avoidable. After the game he asked the BBC to show him replays of the goals, and after seeing them he was clearly unhappy. He’s prided himself on his defence, and the two goals by Keane were the first two conceded in open play in the league this season, so the softness of the goals astounded him: “Of course we are disappointed. The character was fine, we worked hard but we conceded two very bad goals, the sort we do not normally let in. Those two mistakes cost us. They were so clear, so easy to stop. It is not normal to see us concede goals like that.”
According to Rafa, Liverpool should have been well ahead going into the dressing room at the mid-way point. But instead of putting the score beyond reach, they let Spurs in right on the stroke of half-time: “We were much better than them in the first half,” said Rafa. “We could have scored a few more, but we didn’t and that left us with a difficult second half.”
For once Rafa might be glad of the international break. Liverpool’s form since the last one has been poor. They’ve managed three league draws out of four, and hardly dominated the game they won in the league against Wigan. Also in that time they have dropped five points in the Champions League. The break will give him time to assess where it’s been going wrong. The Reds are still in reach of the top of the table, the season is far from over, but this run of poor form must stop before another season’s hopes of challenging for the top spot are gone.
It may be a coincidence but Pako Ayesteran – still officially listed as Liverpool’s assistant manager – stopped being a part of Rafa’s coaching team shortly before that last international break. After working together for over a decade, as friends as well as colleagues, in Spain as well as in England, a row meant they could no longer get on and so Pako stepped aside. Pako was responsible for a large part of the work done at Melwood, and was always the one explaining tactics to substitutes before they came on in a game. He’s also said to have been the “good cop” to Rafa’s “bad” in the times when Rafa’s professional decisions may have upset some individuals. He was undoubtedly an extremely important member of the coaching staff at the club.
The row was believed to have started over a difference of opinion regarding the balance between working on fitness amongst the players and working on actual football. Rafa was asked last week if he thought Pako’s absence was playing a part in the poor form, but the Spaniard refused to consider this: “We were analysing the data today and the game in which we ran the most this season was the last one. We ran more kilometres and at a higher intensity than any other game. The physical condition of the players was fantastic.”
But Pako’s role wasn’t just about fitness, despite his creation of “Pako Hill” at Melwood. But Rafa refused also to accept that Pako’s coaching skills were being missed: “In terms of coaching, I was coaching, as always. I am not a traditional English manager always in my office. I like to be on the pitch. I was always on the pitch before, I was on the pitch today and I will be on the pitch tomorrow.”
Rafa also spoke last week of the funds he’s going to have available to buy new players in the January transfer window, and it’s clear he does still need to buy more. He certainly needs more cover at centre-half, because although Sami Hyypia is probably no slower than he ever was, he’s not geared up for playing ever few days these days. Daniel Agger will be back again soon, and his return may help the Reds get back on track, but should either Agger or Carragher suffer any long-term injury again this season it’s just a little too much to ask Sami to step in for every game during an intense period. Babel isn’t yet ready, it seems, for first-team football full-time meaning Liverpool still don’t really have a left-winger. Harry Kewell’s injury problems mean Rafa is using John Arne Riise wide left, but good as he is, Riise is not an out-and-out winger.
However it’s not just on the field where Rafa needs to look for a new signing. He desperately needs to replace Pako Ayesteran, because he needs someone to share the load with. He made it clear to the new owners that he wanted more control and involvement in more of the club than before, including the Academy. He got that, but with Pako now gone he may just have a little too much on his plate.