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Reds end of season report

"WE CAN score goals but we concede too many." This time last year, this was Gerard Houllier's summing up of Liverpool's problems as he analysed a disappointing league campaign.

Fresh blood was needed, departures certain and a promise to solidify and re-structure the side was made.

Twelve months on, the opposite is true.

"We can stop goals but don't score enough" is the assessment now.

Few would have predicted a strikeforce with Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen and Emile Heskey would be the tenth highest goalscorers in the Premiership.

However, squad re-building is at an advanced stage. Solidity has returned and but for a poor end to the campaign, optimism would have been at its highest for a decade.

"We have made progress," says Houllier as he looks back on Liverpool's season.

"New signings have played well, home grown talent has come through the ranks and the target of European qualification has been reached.

"I understand the disappointment of not reaching the Champions' League and it's a shame we didn't get the extra two points.

"But we can measure our progress. We won 67 points. That's 13 more than last year and even more than the year before when the club finished third with 65 points. It's been a good season.

"Before it started we knew one of the problems was our defensive record. We improved that by conceding only 30 goals, the best in the country.

"The four key signings of the goalkeeper, two centre-halves and defensive midfielder were very important to us. My big regret is that Stephane Henchoz was not available at the start of the season. I think if he had, then we would be in the Champions' League.

"The offensive record is not so good but that is explained in the fact we had so many injuries to Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen and Vladimir Smicer. Robbie hardly played while Michael came back late and had some other setbacks."

Houllier studies the pattern of Liverpool's games intensely. Following the recent 2-0 defeat to Leicester at Anfield , he watched the video into the early hours of the morning, analysing where it had gone wrong.

He has heard the cries for "more width" and creativity in attack. However, he doesn't entirely accept this is the problem.

He added: "This is not a fair assessment. If you look at the team you'll see I don't play with four defensive midfielders.

"I prefer wide players to what you call 'wingers'. There aren't many wingers around. Sometimes we just lacked tactical awareness about how to stretch the opposition. It's true often the game demands players go wide to break teams down and we need to do that.

"I have always played with two strikers and sometimes three, but the problem is sometimes we have struggled to break down packed defences.

Concern

"At home we had particular difficulties with this. This is an aspect of the game where we need to improve and work even more. We will be able to do it soon."

Home form is Houllier's biggest concern.

"We didn't lose the Champions' League place at Bradford. That was a one- off, special match," he continued.

"We lost it because we dropped too many points at Anfield. Watford, Middlesbrough, Sunderland, Aston Villa, Leicester and Southampton are examples. Over those games we should have taken at least the two points we needed in the end.

"But I believe the final league table was logical. Leeds were above us in the table most of the season. I always said they, Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea were better than us and I still believe it. That we competed until the end is to our credit. The next stage of progression is for us to reach the top three."

Unlike last summer, fine-tuning rather than wholesale changes are required.

Markus Babbel will arrive, Pegguy Arphexad is set to join him, a left back (Didier Domi is a target) is sought and there is still a yearning for an experienced campaigner to guide some of those younger heads in the squad.

Added Houllier: "We need a squad of 22 players to compete at the top level. To play between 50-60 games, that's what a top club requires. We already have a good base but there will be no revolution required.

"We have Babbel coming and we shall see who else we can bring in. If I have the financial backing I will strengthen the squad more. The reserve team is also giving us a fantastic base having just won their title. Djimi Traore, for example, is not far from the first team.

"It's important that any team that plays with a red shirt gives everything."

This commitment is the bare minimum and, the last few games aside, was present with more obvious regularity this season.

If the balance of scoring goals and not conceding them is discovered next time around, the upward progression will continue.

© Liverpool Daily Post & Echo 19.05.2000

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