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WHAT WILL IT TAKE TO MAKE REDS CHAMPIONS?
Paul Tomkins 03 June 2007
All may be relevant to varying degrees, but to my mind it concerns two bigger concepts.
It can all be boiled down to this: time and money, allied to managerial talent. Either of those first two elements, or the two combined, are what it now takes a top manager to win the league in England.
This isn't a make-or-break summer for Liverpool, but it's certainly an important one, and an exciting one, with the new owners determined to make the Reds more competitive across the board, and with Rafa clearly stoked up following defeat in Athens. I've been impressed with how fired up he seems, as if defeat has driven him to new levels of determination.
There have been some frank discussions, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. It is all aimed at better equipping the team for a tilt at the league title.
Win or lose in Athens, everyone acknowledged prior to the match that, despite so many crucial elements in place, there was still plenty of work that needed to be done. We always knew there would be changes; while the squad is considerably better than in 2005, there is still the need for new faces. Things have evolved well year-on-year, and will continue to do so. But that evolution needs a bit of speeding up if the league title is to arrive sooner rather than later.
I've said it before, but contrary to the 'first is first, second is nowhere' mentality, simply making the final was in itself a significant achievement: proof of an ability to consistently vanquish the top sides in Europe, as the Reds have since Benítez arrived. And not in one-leg games, like you see in the domestic cups, but in league stages and two-legged ties, where any luck of the draw is always evened out with a testing away leg.
But most of all, making it all the way to the final was a significant achievement because Rafa has yet to write any really big cheques along the way.
Expectations at Liverpool remain astronomically high, but phenomenal history and unrivalled support – while they benefit the team in a number of ways (see the semi-final against Chelsea, perhaps as proof of both) – only go so far when it comes to signing the very best players, particularly if those players are already under contract at their existing club, and that club will only sell at a premium.
Bargains are always there to be had. But sometimes you unearth a gem, and other times you get what you pay for. It can lead to success, but it's a damn sight harder, and takes a lot longer, than the method Chelsea used in 2003 and 2004, where they paid whatever it took to procure a dozen or so big names, and where it didn't really matter if a few, like £10m Scott Parker and £16.8m Hernan Crespo, failed to deliver, because there were so many others on hand to slot in, and more money to replace them.
If you are looking to source the best untapped young talent in the world, and waiting for your top experienced targets to fall out of contract (or be out of favour, such as Mascherano at West Ham), you can build a great side without spending fortunes; but what you sacrifice is the ability to succeed sooner rather than later. You have to wait for the youngsters to mature, and you have to bide your time for those experienced players' values to drop or become available at a discount price.
Of course, Liverpool's history helps attracts top players, as does Anfield and the unrivalled Kop. And top players want to play for Benítez, and play alongside Gerrard, Carragher, Alonso, Mascherano, et al. And while the north-west of England doesn't have as much cosmopolitan appeal as London, or the weather of Barcelona or Milan, the Premiership is where quality players wish to test themselves, and Liverpool is as good a destination as anywhere. So they are all positive factors.
Everyone accepts that the Reds need to put up a stronger fight in the league. But it all comes back to money: the thing that can prise that coveted player from the grasp of his owners. As the saying goes, every player has a price.
And unlike super-rich clubs like Chelsea and Manchester United, Liverpool haven't been able to be persuasive enough in that score in recent years. The cheques the club has been able to write haven't been as big as those signed by the chiefs at the only two English clubs to better Benítez's league record since he arrived in England in 2004. And Liverpool's two biggest signings remain Emile Heskey at £11m and Djibril Cissé at £14.2m, both signed by Gérard Houllier.
Budget is perhaps the only true way to judge managers these days; the 'weighting' used to even out increasingly disparate achievements. So much comes back to spending power.
But as an argument it can be abused, as Jonathan Northcroft noted in the Sunday Times on May 27th. "The idea he [Benítez] has already spent £100m is creative accounting by his critics," Northcroft suggested, adding that "Since Rafa Benitez joined Liverpool in June 2004 he has signed 29 players. He has also unloaded 36, thereby cutting his net outlay to around £44m."
(Or, one Shevchenko and half a Shaun Wright-Phillips.)
Part of my desire to write this piece was down to the bracketing of Liverpool with the two ultra-big spenders in England. Why are other managers respected for what they achieve on more limited budgets than their rivals, but not Benítez? The reason Steve Coppell was voted Manager of the Year was for what he achieved – namely finishing 8th – on a miniscule budget. Coppell's financial clout was taken into consideration when awarding him the ultimate managerial gong. But they still finished below Bolton.
If Coppell has spent a lot less than Benítez, then Benítez has spent a lot less than Ferguson and Mourinho.
Money isn't the be-all and end-all, and it never will be – time and talent can eventually counter it – but such has been the spending of the top two in recent years that perhaps, as a rival, you can get only so far without it?
Perhaps the limit 'normal' finances place on a club is in the strength of the squad, and in lacking those extra couple of players who can ally real class with consistency over nine months? Not much of a difference, but enough to tell a little in certain games, in order to win a few more points here and there along the way.
Perhaps, with this in mind, cups become the most realistic avenue to silverware, as seen with the Reds reaching four finals in just three seasons, winning two and losing two.
Arsenal, whose spending is much closer to Liverpool's than to that of Chelsea and Manchester United, have gone from being a top-two side for eight consecutive seasons between 1997/98 and 2004/05, with three league titles and five finishes as runners-up, to being well off the pace in 4th in 2006 and 2007. And yet in both those seasons they reached cup finals: the Champions League in 2006 and the League Cup in 2007.
Wenger is obviously a supreme expert in what it takes to succeed in this country, with four FA Cups in addition to those three league titles, and yet, as both managers rebuild, his record in domestic football is markedly inferior to Benítez's in the last two years.
Liverpool finished above Arsenal both times, and also won an FA Cup, while Wenger has ended up empty handed. It's also interesting that England's three most recent representatives in the European Cup final have come in the form of the two less-expensively assembled teams. Wenger, without anything like the spending power of the top two, is going down the route of 'time', in building a side that will mature together over the coming years. Benítez, whose main squad is even younger than Arsenal's, has little choice but to do the same.
So while Liverpool retain a name as revered and respected as any in football, it's wrong to unquestionably expect the club to achieve as much as rivals with far greater resources based simply on historical success. It's easy to say Liverpool should be challenging for the league title, and I know I thought it was possible after 2005/06, but it has been such an uneven playing field.
I have no doubts that in terms of talent Benítez is at least on a par with Wenger, Ferguson and Mourinho, three men who've achieved so much.
But how much better than the latter two would he need to be to overtake them while spending far less? The whole reason David Moores sold the club to Tom Hicks and George Gillett was because the financial demands in competing at the top level have spiralled in recent seasons.
A decade ago Liverpool were able to compete at the very top end in the transfer market, and as recently as 1995 held the British transfer record, with the £8.5m paid to Nottingham Forest for Stan Collymore. The £11m paid to Leicester for Emile Heskey in 2000 was only £4m short of what had become the British record when Alan Shearer moved to Newcastle for £15m in 1996. However, when Liverpool paid what remains the club's record fee – £14.2m on Djibril Cissé in 2004 – it was less than half the fee Manchester United had paid Leeds for Rio Ferdinand in 2002.
English football has changed even more dramatically in the last four years. And it all comes back to one man.
Prior to Roman Abramovich arriving in this country, a 'normal' big club like Arsenal could win the league with its highly prudent approach to buying and selling players, but even they, with their three-times league-winning manager, have been blown out of the water by the new financial explosion. In order to compete they've moved to a new 60,000 seater stadium, for a long-term generation of income. But it's more about keeping pace than setting it. And no club can self-generate the kind of money Abramovich has in his bank account.
We all know money makes a difference. But how much? In order to look at the correlation between budget and Premiership points, I worked out the average cost of a player in six of the big clubs' squads.
I looked at what I believed to be each of those clubs' squads of their 20 main players, based on the season that has just ended; the players whom I felt, over the course of a season, would feature the most, if everyone was fit.
(I kept it to 20 because, beyond that, it's hard to tell who are the important players at any given club, and making calculations becomes more tricky given varying squad sizes, and the number of youngsters handed squad numbers but who may never go on to play league games for their club.)
Having cost a total of £86.5m, the average transfer fee of Liverpool's 'top 20' squad for 2006/07 was £4.3m per player.
A reasonable amount, and a lot of good players have been bought and sold in English football for less. But it's not something that in itself suggests any team should be league champions. After all, if you asked a manager to buy 20 £4m players he'd have his work cut out trying to win the league.
Compare that with Manchester United's £7.1m per player, and you can see that, on average, United paid approaching twice as much for its main squad, which cost £141.4m in total. This, despite having the most youth academy graduates in their ranks. And this before apparently spending £50m on just three players this summer, which could take their average up to around the £10m mark for 2007/08, if they replace three inexpensive fringe players.
Of course, if you hadn't already guessed, Chelsea are by far and away the biggest spenders, with its 20 main players costing a staggering combined total of £249.5m.
There is no better way to put into context the challenge facing Rafa Benítez than noting the average cost of a player in Chelsea's squad is a phenomenal £12.5m. So, basically, Benítez, whose record signing remains Xabi Alonso at £10.5m, has yet to even spend within £2m of the Chelsea average. If that doesn't highlight the disparity, nothing will.
Perhaps the biggest surprises involve teams who finished below Liverpool. And, especially, the spending at Arsenal.
Because of the young players the Gunners procure on nominal fees, it's easy to forget the bigger fees they've paid. The average cost of their main 20 is £4.8m, half a million pounds more than Liverpool's.
Now, of course Arsene Wenger has generated some significant fees from selling players over the years.
However, irrespective of how well any manager has balanced the books, this is about current players – after all, they're the ones contesting the title – and what a side cost to assemble in relation to how many league points it attained.
While a manager's net spend is relevant in a number of ways (and as seen earlier, Benítez's remains relatively low), it can distract from the task of evaluating the current squads competing for honours. You don't win titles with players sold to other clubs; you can only win it with who you have now.
But winning the title is not just about money. Time clearly plays a role, too.
If no manager in this impatient day and age can ever receive the time Ferguson was allowed to get things right after a shocking first few seasons, it's also not fair to expect Benítez to work miracles.
Both Ferguson and Benítez inherited sides that had just finished 4th, with Ferguson doing so way back in 1986. And yet at this exact stage of his United career Ferguson saw a banner unveiled by fans at Old Trafford: "Three years of excuses and it's still crap. Ta ra Fergie." Compare that with the witty and supportive banners seen in Greece last week and you can get an idea of how supremely better the Spaniard has done in his first 36 months.
In 1989 Alex Ferguson had yet to win even a single trophy at United, and rather than improve the situation had actually taken them down to an 11th-place finish. United would spend big that summer, splashing the cash on Paul Ince, Neil Webb and breaking the British transfer record for Gary Pallister, and, rather than spark a resurgence, it saw them finish way down in 14th in 1990.
Of course, Ferguson, as a Scot, would not have been accused of "not understanding British football". And eventually those big signings, like Paul Ince and Gary Pallister, would succeed in helping United land the title, but fours years later, in 1993. As with so many other examples, you cannot write off any player after one single season at a club.
So while large transfer budgets are important, it's a unique advantage to be a manager for such an incredible length of time that you are able to use your judgement to get rid of hundreds of youth team players and dozens of failed signings, but keep the great youngsters who pop up only rarely and retain the rare unqualified successes in the transfer market.
How can Benítez be expected to quickly overtake a man who has spent 21 years shaping his club from the very top to the very bottom, and whose squad cost a lot more per-player to assemble? Or quickly overtake Chelsea, whose manager Jose Mourinho, unprecedentedly, won the title in his first and second seasons, but who also had a totally unprecedented mega-budget?
Indeed, the last man to win the Premiership title without either time or money on his side was Arsene Wenger in 1997/98, in his second season. As you can see, that was almost a decade ago now, and it took another four years to reclaim the title. And so much has changed in the interim.
In 1997/98 only Manchester United were a genuine force to be reckoned with. In contrast, Benítez has faced three real forces over the past three years: United, Chelsea and Arsenal, each with a world-class manager.
But despite all of the arguments listed above – about the need for money and time – misconceptions are rife. And mainly about what Liverpool have already spent.
People are too quick to base their arguments on perceptions, not facts. You only have to take a proper look at what some other teams have spent, and the far lesser expectations they have to measure up to, to see the disparity. The pressure on a Liverpool manager is not related to what he spends as much as what happened between 1965 and 1990. We want those high expectations, but they have to be put in the context of the current football climate.
Two teams who finished below Liverpool highlight how true this is.
Spurs and Newcastle have pretensions to be 'big' clubs, and in many ways are just that. Both have a lot of supporters (locally, if not globally), and can boast significant achievements in their history, albeit dating back a few years now. And both have spent a fair amount of money over the years.
So, why aren't they expected to be champions? Or, if that's stretching things a bit, to even get close? Is it merely a case of history, where they do not traditionally compare with Liverpool's title-winning credentials? Newcastle spend big, but it's almost universally accepted that their hopes of any silverware will be dashed before August is even finished.
The point of mentioning Spurs and Newcastle, who are not seen as part of the current big four, is that the average cost of a player in their squad is £4m and £3.8m respectively. Or in other words, just a few hundred thousand pounds less than Liverpool's. Now go back and look at the league tables and cup successes from the last three seasons.
With the price of all these squads in mind, I thought it would be interesting to devise a table to take into account the cost per squad player, to see which club, pound for pound, has got the most from its spending.
This is how many league points each 'big club' got for every million pounds spent on its 20 main players.
Now of course this is just an indication, but it's still interesting to see Liverpool come out on top, and closest to getting one league point for every million pounds. And this, unlike 2005/06, in a season that did not have the Reds firing on all cylinders in the league. (In 2005/06 Liverpool would have been even further out in front.)
So not only did Liverpool get the greatest value for money (amongst the big clubs) in terms of Premiership points-per-million pounds spent, but the club also made it to the Champions League final at the same time. (And the three clubs the Reds faced in the final rounds – Barcelona, Chelsea and AC Milan – all cost far more to assemble.)
Liverpool got more twice as many league points as Chelsea for every million pound spent. Of course, that doesn't mean that if Liverpool had spent twice as much they would therefore have ended up with twice as many points; for a start, that's actually impossible, as 114 points is the most available, and doubling 68 leaves you with 136.
The higher up the table you go the more you have to pay for just a few extra points. And of course, simply spending the money doesn't guarantee anything: you get the impression that Newcastle could have spent £500m in recent years and still not got it right in the way Chelsea did. But all the same, it shows the disparity between the top two and Liverpool and Arsenal.
So, in many ways Benítez, after a summer of rebuilding, should be looking towards next season as having had a fair amount of time and a fair amount of money.
But he will never have the most time (Ferguson has 21 years, Wenger 11) or the most money. After all, there's no way Hicks and Gillett could double, let alone treble the average cost of a Liverpool squad player in a year or two, to make it in keeping with Chelsea's. (And this before Chelsea spend big again, as they no doubt will.)
In finishing above Chelsea, United proved you don't have to possess the most expensive squad to win the league, but they only had to finish above one club who had spent more money; Benítez has to do it with two. And Ferguson, who spends big, didn't have to overtake a man with more time and experience in perfecting his job at one club, whereas none of the top clubs has a manager more recently appointed than Benítez.
In other words, Benítez stands 4th in terms of squad cost, and 4th in terms of time spent at his club. That doesn't make getting to 1st an easy proposition.
Optimism can spring from the fact that Rafa's record in the transfer market has mostly been excellent – at least when it comes to spending more than a couple of million on stop-gaps.
When Benítez has spent between £5m-£10m on a player he has generally hauled in some real winners: no one can doubt the quality and value for money of Alonso, Agger, Reina, Luis Garcia, Crouch, Sissoko, Bellamy and Kuyt.
Not all of them are perfect (even £30m players aren't necessarily that), and not all of them will spend the rest of their careers at Liverpool – although each arrived with plenty of time ahead of them in the game, and most have already significantly enhanced their values. And then there is the income Benítez's signings have generated with two visits to the Champions League final.
The majority of Benítez's major signings offer exceptional quality in one form or another, and most are in their mid-20s or younger. To date, only Morientes in that price bracket has been a significant disappointment.
So Benítez has been battling time and money. And he will continue to do so, albeit to a lessening degree the longer he spends in the job, and more money is paid out. When signing players he will need to continue to get the most points for every million pounds spent. And if he continues to do just that, following a new round of investment in the team, he stands a great chance of significant success.
And, with all this in mind, if he does land the title it will be up there with the biggest achievements imaginable.
Such have been his monumental achievements at Valencia and Liverpool with relatively small budgets, you can't help but think that, within a couple of years, and with the funds to spend on the right players, he'll have ended our long wait for a 19th title.