Why Reds are now Chelsea's main rivals

Saturday January 21, 2006
The Guardian

1 New signings

It is rare for a group of signings to slip seamlessly into a club but Rafael Benítez achieved as much last summer. Peter Crouch, Mohamed Sissoko, Boudewijn Zenden and José Reina have all suffered minor blips in personal form but their impact on the side has been beneficial: Crouch's presence has unsettled opponents, Sissoko's energy has liberated Xabi Alonso and Steven Gerrard, Reina has conceded in only five Premiership matches and Zenden, now injured, provided industry and experience.

"They all gave us something extra, particularly away from home," said Benítez. "They have either experience or are suited to life in the Premiership." Add to that the recent rebirth of Harry Kewell and the invention of Alonso and Luis García and Benítez has worked wonders. Should Fernando Morientes live up to his reputation the jigsaw might be complete.

2 Tactics

At Valencia Benítez created a side capable of ripping opponents to shreds on the break, their system based on wingers in Rufete and Vicente who tormented, a rugged centre-forward in John Carew, creativity in Pablo Aimar and a miserly defence marshalled by the goalkeeper Santiago Cañizares and the centre-half Roberto Ayala. That set-up is mirrored at Anfield, though Benítez's Liverpool are also capable of offering a more "British-style" aggression.

Sissoko's energy opens space in which Alonso orchestrates, with any combination of Kewell, John Arne Riise, García and Gerrard providing width. Gerrard would prefer to operate inside but has revelled on the right. Defenders who struggled to cope with the manager's zonal marking system - not least at Old Trafford, where Mikaël Silvestre scored twice from set plays - have learnt to adapt. "I would have changed that system if it hadn't worked," said Benítez.

The Spaniard received a letter from Sir Alex Ferguson after the Champions League final complimenting him on his tactics. "He had an idea of how he wanted us to play and where he wanted us positioned, but it just took a long time for us to learn it," said Stephen Warnock.

3 Learning from his mistakes

Liverpool were humbled 11 times on their Premiership travels last season but mistakes made a year ago have been eradicated. Only Fulham, with a 2-0 win in October, have improved upon their corresponding result from last season; six sides whom Liverpool failed to beat last season have been overcome this time around to leave the Anfield club 20 points better off to date.

Benítez rarely brings up specific failings from last year's performances but he scrutinises those ineffective displays, together with videos of his opponents, around the clock. "He tries to locate weaknesses in their play," said Warnock. "He knows them inside out, every position, so we know what we're going at every time we go out there. Every team has a weakness. A lot of the improvement has been down to the manager learning more about our opponents in the Premiership than he did last year."

4 Dressing room

Every club has its cliques but there is a feel-good factor about Liverpool these days which appears to have eased any tension within the set-up. The manager's English is improving, as is that of his signings from Spain. Antonio Núñez and Josemi, who were struggling to adapt, have since been sold back to La Liga, with the resolution of Gerrard's future and, arguably, Jamie Carragher's contractual reward last summer adding to the sense of harmony.

"We've got the best blend of youth, experience and quality the club's seen in a while," said Gerrard. "We have a gang of very hungry players. Everyone wants medals. When you've got that desire in a dressing room, and when the punters in the stands and the people in the boardroom match it, then you've got a winning mixture. I look around the dressing room pre-kick-off now and you can see the will to win in people's eyes."

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