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Red Race - Paul Tomkins' latest book

Red Race: A New Bastion is Paul Tomkins' latest book and includes:

• An in-depth analysis of the 2008/09 season, with both anecdotal and original statistical analysis of the entire Liverpool squad. How did the team perform with certain players in the side? Whose absence was most keenly felt? who contributed most in the big games? and many more relevant questions are answered;

• A unique analysis of the wherewithal it takes to win the title in the Premiership era, with evaluations of all major title challengers, and the money they've spent, using the Relative Transfer System™ devised for Dynasty. Who has got the most league points in relation to the money they spent? –– looking at the entire Premiership in the 2008/09 season, and in particular at those challenging for honours over the past 17 years;

• A look at the controversial youth structure at Liverpool, combined with an examination of the average ages of every successful team in the modern era, to see if you really can win league titles with 'kids', and how the current squad fares by comparison;

• Ferguson vs Benítez: a look at the rivalry that intensified over the course of the season, as well as the similarities in the situations each faced in the early years of the job; leading to the inevitable look at Ferguson vs Dalglish, from when the United manager was in pretty much the same situation to his current Liverpool counterpart;

And much more. Beyond anything else, it is an examination of what the Reds have to do to land a 19th title in the near future.

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The Juggernaut Effect: Dalglish vs Ferguson / Ferguson vs Benítez

Perhaps the perfect way to describe the challenge facing Rafa Benítez in recent times is by comparing it to the task Alex Ferguson faced between 1986 and 1991, when he tried to overtake Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool.

Or, in other words, how do you stop a full-throttle juggernaut?

It’s easy to say that times have changed, but the parallels are clear: Benítez is roughly the age Ferguson was then, having taken over a club that had fallen far behind its greatest rivals. Ferguson then, like Benítez now, inherited the massive burden of more than 15 years without a league title; in his case, it was 19 seasons since last United lifted the trophy. It’s fair to say that in every way you look at it –– league results, league positions, cup success –– Benítez has done a far better job than Ferguson did in those early years.

This is not to say that Ferguson did a bad job, or was a poor manager; his record at Aberdeen, and his subsequent success, indisputably prove otherwise. Only Bob Paisley’s record can stand up to Ferguson’s in English football. But it shows how even the best managers can struggle to overcome the odds, if they are stacked too firmly against them. After all, if it was easy, and if he was a genius beyond all compare (whose touch made Midas’s look like a copper-plated party trick), Ferguson would have breezed in and dethroned Liverpool within a year or two. United had a rich heritage, and their fans felt they should be winning the league. But it doesn’t work like that, despite a relatively large spend by the manager.

There are of course a number of differences, too. You cannot compare eras with perfect accuracy; tactics, fitness, style of play –– all of these things change and develop over time. But there are a stunning amount of similarities in the situations each faced. It’s about how a manager overcomes the problems that remain relevant whatever the era –– such as psychology, pressure, expectation, relative wealth, and being kept from a title by a team who are a bit beyond the ‘average’ champions. If Benítez is finding it hard to usurp Ferguson, it is proving no more difficult than Ferguson found it to dislodge Dalglish, who was a younger man with far less experience as a manager.

Benítez and Ferguson were 44 when they arrived fresh from success in another league. Both inherited teams that had averaged 4th place across the previous four league seasons. Ferguson took charge a few months into the 1986/87 season with United, full of internationals, struggling for form. He encountered a drinking culture in need of eradicating, and that meant eventually selling some very good players, such as Paul McGrath, whose reputation improved at Aston Villa, and Norman Whiteside, whose didn’t at Everton. Also sold was Gordon Strachan, who a few years later would prove influential in Leeds’ 1992 league success. Perhaps lesser men would have persevered with players of such lofty reputation, but Ferguson knew that the collective was flawed; he kept Bryan Robson, another player known for his alcoholic excesses, because of his talismanic qualities, but others were sacrificed in order to break up the drinking brotherhood.

Benítez also inherited a squad with problems –– albeit of a different kind –– exacerbated by the decision of Michael Owen to try his hand in Madrid. It’s still not entirely clear whether or not he was a Benítez-type player –– subsequent campaigns have suggested the Spaniard wants far more from his forwards than just goals –– but there can be no doubting that he’d have liked to have sold the player (if that was his wish) on his own terms. To have little choice but to accept £8-10m for a player of international repute was not a good starting point for rebuilding the squad. To his credit, Gérard Houllier had eradicated the kind of unprofessional, drink-obsessed culture at the club that blighted Ferguson’s early years at United, but equally he had bequeathed a squad low on quality beyond a few key stalwarts, and had contributed to the failure to tie Owen down to a longer deal. Beyond a few exceptions, the professionalism was there; the ability wasn’t.

So despite the myriad changes to English football over the intervening two decades, the overall challenges were much the same. Perhaps most pertinently, Ferguson had to try and dethrone arch-rivals Liverpool, who had been dominating the league for 15 years: the reverse of the current scenario. There were other strong teams in those early years, most notably Everton and Arsenal, but Liverpool were the team who, to paraphrase Ferguson, needed “knocking off their fucking perch.”

But did he actually do that?

While you cannot argue with Ferguson’s record since 1992, which is nothing short of first-rate (domestically, at least), it’s clear that Hillsborough played the biggest part in Liverpool’s demise, not Ferguson. By the time United were champions, Kenny Dalglish, suffering from stress following the awful events of April 15th, 1989, had resigned, and as a result of the changeover process, by 1993 the Reds had fallen behind a number of teams, not just United; if anything, it was George Graham’s Arsenal who exerted the most pressure.

Between 1989 and 1996, Liverpool also exacerbated their own problems with the appointment of two managers who fell below the required standard. Ferguson definitely benefited from a weak Liverpool in the early to mid-‘90s –– but he was hardly going to complain about that fortune; nor can it be held against him that the team who should have been an important threat were little more than an impotent one. When Liverpool had Dalglish at the helm, before the pressure of an off-the-pitch disaster took its toll, Ferguson couldn’t even get close to the Reds. As stated earlier, that didn’t make the United boss any less of a manager, but it does show how a situation often dictates the level of success possible.

Why did it take Ferguson so long to achieve success? After all, he did lead United to runners-up in his second full season, albeit a long way behind the most exciting Liverpool side ever seen, who had dominated the league from start to finish; the final nine point gap was deceptive, with the title wrapped up in April, and Liverpool only winning one of their final five games thereafter.

It was only then that Ferguson got to serious work in the transfer market, and it took time for those early signings to make an impact. Paul Ince, Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister and Brian McClair were all key men for United when ending their 26-year wait for the title, but they were bought in 1987 and 1988, meaning it took four or five years for them to really excel. Indeed, Pallister was seen as a serious flop initially, with stories abounding of him being homesick and sitting alone in pubs solemnly supping pints.

While there’s less patience now, there is no evidence that it is easier to win the league quickly. Arsène Wenger did so (eleven years ago), but he was the first man to introduce modern continental techniques to English football; techniques that are no longer a great advantage, but which at the time were incredibly powerful. And José Mourinho did so at Chelsea, but with unprecedented riches, allied to a team that was already on the up before he arrived. Money gave him the luxury to buy without waiting, or without trading; anyone he didn’t like he could loan out or write off without needing to recoup and reinvest –– the normal process, which in itself can take a long time, often meaning targets move elsewhere, and the transfer window closes.

The one advantage Benítez has over ‘80s Ferguson is that the Champions League has made it easier for Liverpool to cement their position in the top four. Of course, Liverpool have only been Champions League regulars since the Spaniard arrived; when he took over, the Reds, who’d just scraped 4th, weren’t that far ahead of teams like Newcastle in terms of the ability to secure that last spot, and had qualified only twice in the previous 12 years.

But even this bonus has a flip side. Liverpool need to do well in Europe to raise money (given that Anfield holds 30,000 fewer fans than Old Trafford) and also to attract better players –– which, so far, has been the case. (Would Torres have joined a UEFA Cup side? No. He wanted, and deserved, Champions League football.) But it also means more games, which means more effort, more injuries and less preparation time for league matches. It’s Catch-22. The money raised through Europe, necessary in order to strengthen the squad, comes at the cost of that squad’s durability across a league campaign. That’s why progress is slow, often involving one backwards step in order to take two forward.

The same kind of progression can be seen with Everton in recent seasons. At first, participation in the UEFA Cup seriously inhibited their league performances. But it also served as both a learning experience, and a means to attract better players to Goodison Park. As a result, they’ve got further than before in Europe (without ever threatening to win something) and have built up a certain strength in the Premiership.

Part of Liverpool’s problem has been coming back from a midweek game on the continent to face inferior but fresher opposition who have had a full week to plan their negating tactics, or whose extra energy can win the day. With a squad that cost far less than Chelsea’s and United’s, more strain is put on the resources at Liverpool. If the manager doesn’t rotate, he risks injuries and some battle-weariness; if he does rotate, and his squad isn’t 100% perfect, he risks fielding weaker players whose extra freshness is unable to compensate for their lesser abilities.

Bankrolled

There can be little doubt that Alex Ferguson took United to their first modern title on the back of some serious bankrolling. He spent more money between 1986 and February 1991 (£12.8m gross, £9.87m net, from the point he took charge to the point Dalglish resigned) than his rival managed in his entire tenure, which came to an end after almost six seasons (£12.5m gross, but only £5.77m net). Clearly Ferguson got nowhere near to toppling the Reds in that time, despite his net spend being almost twice as great.

Was Ferguson a bad manager, or one who failed to understand English football?

No.

Was he therefore destined to never win the league?

No.

But it’s harder to usurp an established power.

So why did Ferguson spend so much more net than Dalglish? Both men handed over roughly £12.5m on players, but Liverpool recouped a far greater amount.

It’s actually pretty much the exact same situation that Benítez has faced since 2004; Ferguson, like Dalglish in the ‘80s, had a lot of his squad already in place. Bruce Grobbelaar, Alan Hansen, Steve McMahon, Ronnie Whelan and Steve Nicol all spanned the entire period when Dalglish and Ferguson managed the two English superpowers, and Ian Rush was absent for just one season.

Those men formed the heart of Dalglish’s Liverpool. They were five players who didn’t need to be signed between 1986 and 1991; the kind of quality that could cost a king’s ransom, but who, once on the books, obviate the need to find anyone else in their positions. Also, Rush had such a strong Liverpool connection that meant that although he needed to be re-signed, it was a relatively easy deal because of his time at Anfield.

Of course, Rush’s initial departure led to the greatest influx of talent under Dalglish: John Aldridge, Peter Beardsley, John Barnes and Ray Houghton all signed in 1987. So Dalglish was partly ‘blessed’ in that Rush, whom he inherited, at least raised enough money to rebuild the attack upon his transfer, before returning and slipping back into his old groove by 1989/90.

Ferguson has enjoyed similar bonuses more recently: selling his best players for big fees as they approached their 30s (such as Jaap Stam, David Beckham and Ruud van Nistelrooy). More time in the job, particularly at a successful side, brings about a long-term momentum, whereby players who win titles can be cashed in on at the right time; Arsène Wenger is another master at this.

Benítez never had such a luxury. Michael Owen’s value wasn’t great due to his contract situation. The only seriously saleable asset was Steven Gerrard, but a move to Chelsea thankfully never came to pass. Benítez had to build a side with little money to spend in relation to his closest rivals, but also little scope to raise his own money by offloading players. Most of those he sold were the duds, who raised precious little cash.

Similarly, when Ferguson looked to rebuild in the ‘80s, he couldn’t raise lots of money from the mixed bag of players he inherited. So his net spend was adversely affected by his inability to offload squad members for fees that made it easy to trade up. That’s why inheriting a failing side is so difficult. Buying clubs know that you are desperate to offload the dead wood, and it can take a number of years to weed them out.

The biggest profits Rafa has made have been on players he himself bought: Crouch, Bellamy, Sissoko, and the club’s record sale is the £12-19m recoupable on Robbie Keane. Of course, Benítez hasn’t been in the job long enough to sell his real gems, in the way Ferguson and Wenger (with Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira) have picked the perfect time to cash in on players aged 29/30/31. If Benítez wanted to sell Fernando Torres he could make a massive profit, but the young striker still has five years before he even reaches 30. So it’s not relevant.

One problem that has come with the upturn in form is that wealthy clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester City are circling, looking to pick off players like Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano. But Liverpool need to keep the core of this squad together for a few years yet; perhaps one big player might leave, but a return to the drawing board adds years to reaching the desired targets. Successful teams are rebuilt because the manager has earned some respite, even if patience doesn’t stretch that far (there were no rumblings about Arsène Wenger after three years without the title, but by last season, when it became five, the Gunners’ fans weren’t quite as ‘faithful’).

By year six, Alex Ferguson’s side began to come into its own. With a couple of cup successes under its belt (1990, 1991), it made its first genuine title challenge in 1991/92. It ultimately faltered right at the death, at Anfield of all places, and Leeds took the final trophy before the league was rebranded. But United were set ripe for the new era. Leeds imploded after their unexpected success. Arsenal had lost their league form under George Graham, who was soon to depart over the ‘bung’ scandal. Liverpool were a total mess under Souness. The path was relatively clear, although United were by some distance the best side in the country over the next couple of years, winning the title by ten points each time with an exciting, well-balanced side, albeit with Aston Villa and Norwich the next-best teams when they finally clinched that longed-for title in 1993. What Benítez would give for two such weak contenders now.

All in all, you cannot ignore the way Ferguson ended his club’s 26-year nightmare. There is a lesson there. Arsenal had dropped to tenth in the league, Liverpool, having looked like entering a relegation battle, scraped up to sixth with just three more points than the Gunners, and although the league was generally more of a meritocracy, there simply weren’t any challengers worthy of the name. It was the same the last time Liverpool won the league, in 1990: a far-from vintage Aston Villa team had run them close, with nothing like the noteworthiness of the side that succeeded the Reds in winning the League in 1981 and then repeated the feat with the European Cup a year later. At least by 1993/94 a genuine title threat had emerged, in Blackburn, whilst Newcastle, recently promoted under Kevin Keegan, were bona fide contenders in the making, if ultimately flawed. The Premiership was starting to make teams wealthy enough to challenge United, but the money only filtered through only once the title had finally gone to Old Trafford.

It’s clear to see that Benítez has done many things along the same lines as Ferguson did, but doing things right hasn’t been enough. The path just hasn’t cleared. Even perfection might not have been enough, and that might not change.

After all, United themselves are back-to-back(-to-back) Premiership Champions and back-to-back Champions League finalists. Admittedly Arsenal, while still managing to make the Champions League semi-final, are in transition (for about the fifth season running). Chelsea, however, were supposedly crumbling and in crisis throughout much of 2008/09, and yet were literally seconds away from their second consecutive Champions League Final, and as with Liverpool, had a league record that would have won the title in many previous years. The Londoners finished 3rd on 83 points, a figure matched in that position in the Premiership only by Arsenal a year earlier, while Liverpool’s 82 points in 2006 was the only other comparable total for a team finishing outside the top two; otherwise, the 14-year high for 3rd (starting when the league changed to 38 games) was 77 points, and in many seasons the 3rd-placed team racked up only 60-69-point tallies.

Liverpool have clearly benefited from getting into those Champions League positions and staying there. The top four is now virtually a closed shop. But over the same period of time, the other members of the ‘big four’ have strengthened in notable ways. Chelsea went into overdrive in 2004, at the very moment Benítez pitched up. Arsenal built a new stadium that absolutely dwarfs the revenue generated by Anfield, and although the credit crunch has affected their plans, particularly in trying to sell luxury flats at Highbury, at least they were able to construct it at the right time, before steel costs rocketed and borrowing the money in the first place became virtually impossible. And Manchester United began to enjoy the most successful period in their history.

It could be argued that, with improvements each and every year, Benítez has now ‘seen off’ first Arsenal and now Chelsea –– the two strongest sides at the point when he arrived in English football, both seemingly light years ahead of Liverpool. Of course, no-one can trust that anything or anyone has been seen off, such is the strength and resourcefulness of the top four. The problem was that United, while weaker between 2003 and 2006, were struggling because Ferguson was rebuilding, and not, as one Guardian writer observed in a blog, because he’d lost the plot. Under the heading Shredding His Legacy At Every Turn, United fan Rob Smyth ranted: “Almost everything about the club reeks of disarray … The problems are so obvious, so fundamental, as to beggar belief that they have not been addressed. Just as the glory years of 1992 to 2001 will only fully be appreciated in 20 years’ time, so will Ferguson’s subsequent failure … United fans think this season is going to be bad. It hasn’t even started.”

Nine months later, they were crowned champions.

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