In an interview with Spanish journalist Guillem Balague for The Times, Liverpool forward Fernando Torres has spoken about how there have been two sides to the team this season. The version of the Reds that started the season so well is a side that could perhaps be capable of challenging for the title, as opposed to the current one stuttering along and only able to aim for cup glory. As of now, the Champions League is the only cup the club can win, and to do that they’ve got to first of all get past the Italian league leaders.
“The real Liverpool is the one that impressed earlier on,” said Torres. “We have to keep that level for longer. Those who do that fight for the league title and the ones who can’t have to fight for the knockout competitions. We are a very uncomfortable team to play against, but we have dropped too many points.”
So who’s to blame for all those dropped points? Torres has his view: “We didn’t win a league match in January. We could find a thousand excuses, but that would be an easy exercise. The players could have done it better.” Torres even admits that some performances have been so poor that avoiding defeat was perhaps not deserved: “There are matches where we had the impression that we have dropped points and others where we thought we had got something out of it by a pure miracle. We were lucky against Derby, but not so much against Wigan, for instance. Generally, we have dropped points where the top three haven’t.”
Rafa Benítez cautioned from the off this season that despite being pleased with the additions he’d made to his squad, challenging for the title should not be an expectation, because last season’s champions had added even more quality to their squad, in effect widening the gap. An exaggerated fee for Torres, he cost nothing like the £26.5m quoted, along with a good start to the season, meant all of a sudden Rafa’s words were forgotten and a league challenge was now demanded. Certainly nobody expected the Reds to be as far off the pace as they are now, but demanding them to win the league was a little excessive, even though it was still something they wanted to try and do. Unfortunately, Torres feels, some games saw the players feeling that the job was done almost as soon as they were on the pitch: “Sometimes we felt superior and did not kill the games, but if you look at the stats, this season is better than last season. The problem is that people asked us to win the Premier League this year. There is a progression; I don’t think it’s a bad season. We started wanting to win everything, but, as it progresses, you are forced to change your targets.”
The list of suggested causes for the growing gap between Liverpool and the top is a long list, and almost every item on that list will be at least partially valid. The world is full of experts who now know the answers to all our problems. We hear failed managers of other clubs telling us what’s wrong or ex-Liverpool players who tell us that we should go back to the way we did things forty years ago. Ex-players of other clubs as well as our own constantly drone on about how “players want to play”. They do, of course they do. But the players of today are different to the players of the past.
Players want to play. But they also want to go out and get a few drinks down them at the nightclub, even before a game. But on the whole, they accept that in return for big wages, a luxurious lifestyle, decent hours and living the dream they had as a child, they can’t have all that they want. With the exception of one legendary German midfielder and very few others, drinking can lead to poor performances so most will avoid it. Late nights are out if it will impact training or their next match – if they care about the next match. And being told they’ll be sitting out the next game despite a top performance in the last game is part of that way of life. Players are notorious for lying to their managers about fitness just to ensure they get to play in a game – even current players do that, as you may read in their biographies, so it’s no secret that a player feels disappointment to be watching from the sidelines or even from home. But a level-headed professional should still be able to accept it. And many of Rafa’s men are – including Torres: “When things don’t go the way one wishes, people look for things to blame. We have a manager with a philosophy that people knew before he came and one that has succeeded. It is very opportunistic to blame rotation for everything that goes wrong. It is not a problem for us. Liverpool have won a Champions League, FA Cup and so on with rotation. It is normal to rest. We players never want to, but if the manager says so, you have to. If everybody accepts that is the way forward, the atmosphere doesn’t suffer.”
That last point from Torres is a key one. Very few players at the club today can say that were unaware of Rafa’s rotation policy when they signed their latest deals. Most players in the squad are either Rafa signings, or have signed extended deals since Rafa arrived. Those that haven’t been offered new deals since Rafa arrived can perhaps work out for themselves that they aren’t first choice and that if Rafa did end his rotation policy they’d never get a game.
A number of players signed new deals last summer. One of them was Momo Sissoko, but he soon saw that rotation wasn’t for him. Lucas had raced ahead of him in the pecking order after settling in more quickly than had perhaps been anticipated, and despite the continuing hype about rotation, Rafa had actually stuck with Gerrard and Mascherano in midfield for most games. He asked for a move, was allowed to leave, and actually sent an open letter to fans thanking them for his time here. No sour grapes, no hard feelings, he accepted that staying here wasn’t what he felt he needed, and off he went.
Every time Steven Gerrard is off the field we hear about how upset he’ll be. Like we used to hear how upset he’d be when played on the right. But Gerrard knew when he signed his last extension that Rafa would rotate him when he felt he needed to save him, or felt he was getting tired. He knew he might have to play on the right. If he’s sulking now – which is debatable – then he’s his own worst enemy because he knew last summer when he had that pen in his hand just what he was doing. Of course he also thought at the time, like Rafa, that the owners would be funding the increased transfer budget they’d been brought in to do. He knew that in other areas of the field Rafa would still rotate, but must have expected better quality players to come in whenever Rafa did rotate. Gerrard will be unhappy at another season slipping away, at team-mates either not up to scratch or not performing as well as they can (although as captain it’s part of his job to motivate them too) and that’s natural. He wants to win. He wants to score hat-tricks, screamers, winning penalties. He wants to get assists for great goals or to make match-saving tackles. He wants to lift trophies. And he’ll hate being unable to do that because he’s sitting on the bench. But as a professional, playing under a manager using that policy since his first season at the club, he can’t complain, nor can he use it as an excuse for a poor performance.
The difference between this season and last season is that a player unhappy at being left out or left on the bench has nobody other than Rafa to talk to. There’s no assistant there to act as go-between, to act as a sounding-board or to help justify the reasons Rafa picked one game over another to leave a player out. The influence of an assistant manager is as important in the game today as it always has been, and when Rafa was allegedly blocked from taking Sammy Lee on board for that role the chance of someone helping Rafa keep his troops happy was lost. There’s still time for the owners to see sense and allow the appointment of the former Liverpool midfielder, a very well-qualified coach who’s worked at Anfield before as a coach as well as being a player here, as he also did with England. After leaving Liverpool at the end of his playing career he went to play in Spain where he became fluent in Spanish. As manager of Bolton it was perhaps too big a task to convert a side renowned for playing a physical game into a side playing the game in the way most agree it should be played. But as an assistant, as a fitness expert, as a confidante to players who need it and as a motivator he’s idea. It’s only a matter of time before another club comes in and offers him that kind of role, and our chance has gone.
Sammy doesn’t just speak Spanish of course, he’s also a scouser, and so would have little trouble conversing with Torres. Before his interview Balague was quick to notice a scouse accent from the number nine when he spoke English to a scouse staff member, and was impressed at the speed with which he’d been able to pick up enough English to communicate. Balague says he asked Torres to say, “Work”, and got the reply, “Werk”.
If there are players at Anfield disillusioned with life at the club perhaps it’s time for them to move on, regardless of who is in charge for the next campaign. There are no guarantees in football, and any new manager may well still be working for Hicks and Gillett, under the same tight constraints in the transfer market. He may decide to offload some squad players and create a smaller squad of higher-quality players. It might surprise a few complaining now to find they’re no longer needed, or are considered too far down the pecking order to get any games outside the reserves. If Rafa stays on, as he really should be allowed to given the interference he’s had to work under this season, he also ought to have a clear-out of players unwilling all of a sudden to accept the rotation policy, or unwilling to help out by playing out of position here and there. Not all Rafa’s decisions are bad, as some would try to claim, and perhaps with an assistant to help explain them or to even help moderate them in some way, most players will accept them.
Perhaps the rumours about player unrest have been blown out of proportion; perhaps unhappiness is being confused for revolt. Let’s hope so – and at least Torres is happy at Anfield, and has no problems with his team-mates: “The big effort has come from people at the club. They welcomed me with open arms, helped make everything much easier so I only have to think about playing football. I didn’t have to worry much about getting a house, a car or a language teacher, those little but important details. My team-mates, the ones I knew already and the new ones, made me feel as I have been here all my life. I have enjoyed myself so much since I arrived; nothing seems to be an effort.”
One player Torres singled out as playing a part in his enjoyment is the captain: “The striker feeds from players who decide to make passes that most of us do not try. Gerrard is one of those guys. He has an eye to see the line of pass and my run at the same time. And, certainly, I benefit from the direct football played here. There is not so much passing, the excessive control you find in Spain. You don’t need 30 touches to get to the box. Here, after four or five, you put your cross in or your shot.”
Some felt Torres would find it hard in England, but he’s settled into the game quickly, and the player says that it’s down to Rafa. The manager has shown him where he might not have been quite getting it right at Atlético: “Here, the boss asks me for one thing only and I have to do that. Sometimes at Atlético, I wanted to do too much. Each one of us has his role on the pitch and no more. I used to play too far from the box and that is not where my game can harm the opposition.”
Torres say that the players are all set for tonight’s match, a game he predicts will be tight. A game that will be difficult for Liverpool: “Even in training, everybody seems very switched on. The Inter match is going to be very hard, but very watchable. I don’t think there will be many goals and it will all be decided in the return leg. The key is how effective the strikers are. They used to say that Zlatan Ibrahimovic was not a regular goalscorer. This season, he is silencing his critics. He is one of the most in-form players in Europe.”
It won’t be the job of Torres to keep an eye on Ibrahimovic, but if the squad are on their game and play to the best of their abilities they are capable of keeping Inter’s attackers very quiet. The difficulty is getting them to play to the best of their abilities, but this competition often brings out the best in Rafa’s men. It’s only the first leg but Liverpool really need to do well and get that confidence back. It’s three weeks until the return game in Italy, and that’s a long time to be dwelling on a poor performance.