With Fernando Torres set to make a surprise early return from injury tonight against Besiktas, Rafa Benitez will be hoping the Spaniard can take some of the heat off the two Dutch forwards at the club.
Ryan Babel – signed for £11m in the summer – and Dirk Kuyt – signed for £9m the season before – are coming under fire for different reasons. Kuyt seems to be struggling to put away chances or to make the correct decision in open play, meaning his contribution in the derby of a few weeks ago is getting forgotten. Babel’s fee meant a lot of observers expected him to arrive hitting the ground running.
Babel was supposedly signed as a winger who can play up front, but seems to be struggling to play in either role. In Holland he played in a different formation to Liverpool’s usual 4-4-2, and according to Rafa he needs more time to settle in: “We must not forget that Ryan is 20-years-old, he has come from another country and another style of football. In Holland he was playing as a winger in a 4-3-3 and with the Dutch national team he was a striker, so for him it is difficult to understand everything, but he is working hard and trying to learn.”
Injuries have interrupted Liverpool’s momentum this season, and a lack of confidence from many of the players in the squad has seen the Reds fail to make any ground on those above them in the league. In the Champions League they are now bottom of the group after getting just one point from nine.
Some say that Rafa’s rotation is stopping the players from building up any understanding, and in turn is taking away their confidence. But Rafa felt that making changes and playing Babel up front in the Carling Cup last week would help the confidence of the Dutchman: “Against Cardiff I decided to use him as a striker because I thought it could be good for his confidence and he did okay with Peter Crouch. It is the same with Lucas Leiva and Sebastian Leto, they are young players and they need time.”
Liverpool’s flying start to the early part of the season meant a lot of fans’ expectations were raised dramatically. But Rafa had not been given any extra cash by the owners in the summer, and only the increased revenue from the TV deal, plus some good prices on player sales, made it seem that he’d spent big. With a limited budget some feel Rafa should have been spending it buying players who are ready now, not players for the future. But Rafa has a long-term plan, and players for the future are part of that. And Babel is one of those it seems: “Ryan’s ability to beat players was what impressed me most – he is very good at that. He likes to dribble and he likes to shoot. He has pace and power and he knows how to use his strengths and he will be important for us in the future.”
Kuyt was guilty of missing chances or making the wrong decisions when in a position to either shoot or lay it off for a team-mate. But Rafa was quick to point out that as a forward you’ve got to be a good player to be in the positions to get those chances. He said: “When you miss chances and you have two or three, it means you are there. If you are not there, you cannot miss the chance. I will not criticise Kuyt because he plays a lot of games and over 90 minutes his work rate is fantastic. He is creating chances. When you have a player who can create three or four chances for himself, normally sometimes he will score so I think I must be pleased and positive with Kuyt.”
Nobody in their right mind would dispute the work-rate of the former Feyenoord player, but he’s certainly more of a number seven than a number nine in Liverpool’s old-fashioned numbering systems. The decision to play him as a lone striker on Saturday is what seemed to draw the criticism for Rafa. Despite the denials there do seem to be problems between Rafa and Peter Crouch, who surely would have been better suited for the lone-striker’s role on Saturday. Rafa seems to recognise Kuyt is more creator than finisher, but if that’s the case it seems odd to use him alone in that way. Rafa said: “We need to profit from the work he is doing up front and it will be easier for him to score if his team-mates can score the first goal.”
Andriy Voronin wasn’t fit enough to play on Saturday, and with Torres still out at the time Rafa had a straight choice between Kuyt and Crouch for the lone striker’s role. Torres is hopefully going to be back tonight, and Harry Kewell could also start, but unless Rafa and Crouch settle what seem to be differences Liverpool will continue to suffer.