Liverpool's manager looks to his videos but the fault lies in the team's spine
Rafael Benítez does not do public outbursts of emotion as a rule, though with Liverpool's campaign anchored in mediocrity and another awkward away match to come, the customary deadpan briefly cracked yesterday. "Look, I have confidence in my squad and in my players," he said, the pace of his delivery almost reflecting exasperation. "We have enough quality to win home and away. If we could do that last season, we can do it this season. We need to improve - all of us, the staff, the players, everybody - but I am sure we will."
The soundbite was rattled off, as close to bristling as Benítez will allow himself to be seen, but the world awaits evidence that his confidence is not misplaced. Liverpool's season has been one of imbalance. Riotous in dismissing inadequate opponents at Anfield, they have collapsed repeatedly on their travels to the tune of a solitary point and one goal from six away games. Humiliated players squabbled among themselves pitifully at Arsenal last weekend. They must travel to Middlesbrough today, where they have won only once since 1998 and have not scored on their last four visits; such is the desperation gripping these parts that the prolongation of that sorry record is unthinkable.
Benítez has confronted various theories for his side's form this week. While the world apparently grumbled as to whether Steven Gerrard's talent was being misused on the right of midfield when he might offer more in the centre, the Spaniard was scrutinising videos of the six away games. On the face of it the shortcomings are obvious. "We create a lot of chances and are not taking them, and we're also making mistakes in defence," said the manager, that unhappy blend having condemned his side to a 14-point deficit at the top.
What Benítez must have been tempted to point out was the indifferent form of key personnel. Down the spine of his side - José Reina, Jamie Carragher, Xabi Alonso and Gerrard - players with lofty reputations have spluttered. The manager would argue the legacy of the World Cup finals is affecting some, with recent international fixtures disrupting rhythm and preparations for others, both justifying his now notorious policy of rotation, but he admitted yesterday that he would rather avoid using such factors as "excuses".
Yet, while the stalwarts have floundered, the players recruited in the summer have sunk without their guidance. Mark Gonzalez and Fabio Aurelio appear ill at ease in the Premiership. Benítez had Craig Bellamy watching re-runs of his performances this week in an attempt to restore dwindling confidence whereas Jermaine Pennant's inconsistencies on the right have had a direct impact upon Gerrard. At Anfield the captain's markers tend to shrink in his presence and he is permitted to rampage regardless of where he starts. Away from home he can be pinned to the periphery and the sight of Gerrard slumping, deflated in defeat, fans the conspiracy theories.
The board surely hoped for more immediate returns for a summer transfer outlay of around £27m, sentiments which, when expressed, cost the director Noel White his position last month. Yet the reality is that, while Benítez would never admit it publicly, the bulk of the arrivals had not been first choice, with an inability to secure the likes of Sevilla's Daniel Alves owing much to ongoing frustration in the pursuit of major new investment.
That search has lurched into a third year, with the chief executive, Rick Parry, hopeful that matters will come to a head in the next fortnight, though few shareholders or supporters will be holding their breath. The consortiums involved in talks include a group led by the Norwegians Oystein Stray Spetalen and Petter Stordalen; another headed by Samir Ansari of Dubai International Capital; and a Switzerland-based consortium put together by Robin Herd, the former owner of Oxford United. Parry and his chairman, David Moores, have also visited George Gillett Jr, the owner of the Montreal ice hockey team and formerly the Harlem Globetrotters, but they are yet to receive the American's proposals in full.
There have been times when the chairman has been intent upon retaining his majority 51% shareholding, though his outlook fluctuates depending on how the side are performing. The team's traumas on their travels may have proved decisive. The concession of the first goal has tended to knock the stuffing out of Benítez's side, with their inability to respond damning. The former Liverpool striker Ian Rush has questioned their attitude. "To go behind so many times away from home and not even look like bouncing back is unacceptable," he said. "Too many players seem to be feeling sorry for themselves." Another former striker, John Aldridge, bemoaned a "lack of character" in the squad.
Benítez would point to last season as evidence that quality remains, even if confidence is horribly fragile. "The first year I was here we played really well at home and had problems away," he said. "The second year we broke a lot of records, with 11 and 12 wins in a row, 33 clean sheets, 82 points. Think about it. Our problems now are not just down to tactics or players. The quality is there."
At the Riverside this afternoon he must coax that pedigree out or risk Liverpool's slump turning into a nosedive.
'There is still a long way to go' How Benítez shrugged off away day blues
Aug 19 Sheffield United 1 Liverpool 1
"We have to analyse why, in the first half, we couldn't control the game. In the second, it was better"
Sept 9 Everton 3 Liverpool 0
"We haven't looked strong defensively this season but then we haven't had time to work much together because of the internationals"
Sept 17 Chelsea 1 Liverpool 0
"We need to keep going. It's a long race. As a manager, I need to see if the team is improving and it's clear to me it is"
Sept 30 Bolton Wanderers 2 Liverpool 0
"I would like to analyse my team after two more months to see whether we need to improve or not"
Oct 22 Manchester United 2 Liverpool 0
"There is still a long way to go in the season. How do you change things in your life? By working better and harder. That is what we will do"
Nov 12 Arsenal 3 Liverpool 0
"We need to improve away from home. We want to improve. We need to show character"
Points won away from home one out of 18
Points won at home 17 out of 18
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