Houllier backed into a corner
David Beckham specialises in taking corners. Gerard Houllier prefers turning them. In a three-month slump, Liverpool - according to their manager anyway - have turned numerous.
As defeat to Crystal Palace shows, these corners rarely lead the Liverpool manager to an open road. And with his side still under-performing, Houllier is under more pressure than at any time during his reign at Anfield.
Besides results, the most common gripe is Liverpool's style of play which, if less one-dimensional than some critics suggest, is not likely to suddenly mutate into as expansive and attacking a gameplan as that of Arsenal or Manchester United.
Received wisdom has it that Liverpool's manager undermines his team with his squad system. That, however, is simply wrong. Take away enforced changes due to suspensions, injuries or players becoming available again, and Houllier makes as many changes as Arsene Wenger and Alex Ferguson - and far fewer than Claudio 'Tinkerman' Ranieri, whose Chelsea team are in one of the Champions League places Liverpool covet.
And Liverpool have greater continuity of team selection than in Houllier's halcyon days of the 2000-1 season. Phrases like '14-man game' appear to have dropped out of his vocabulary, but served him well when Liverpool achieved a hat-trick of cup wins with far less consistent team selection.
Then, despite missing Jamie Redknapp for the whole season and Patrik Berger for most of it, Danny Murphy and Robbie Fowler made 19 appearances each as a substitute, Gary McAllister and Vladmir Smicer came off the bench 18 times, Nick Barmby 15 times, Christian Ziege 12 times and Michael Owen - dodgy hamstrings notwithstanding - on 11 occasions.
And it worked. Substitute Fowler scored in the UEFA Cup final, McAllister and Berger came off the bench to change the FA Cup final and replacement Emile Heskey scored the decisive goal away at Leeds to help them get there.
In contrast, Liverpool's substitutes boast a solitary Premiership goal - a Milan Baros strike at Fulham - between them this season. Owen and Murphy have just five substitute appearances between them. Where Houllier used to change a game with his replacements, now he struggles to make an impact if his starting 11 do not score early (recent wins against Sheffield United, Southampton and West Ham all include an early goal), with substitute Salif Diao's assist for Heskey's equaliser against Arsenal a rarity. So has the Liverpool manager lost faith in substitutions and his squad system?
The answer may be more painful. Unlike in 2000-1, Houllier lacks the players to change a game; quite simply, his £100 million squad is not good enough.
Liverpool do possess top quality players. But, with Chris Kirkland sadly out for the season, Houllier only has 12 at his disposal (Dudek; Carragher, Henchoz, Hyypia, Riise; Murphy, Gerrard, Hamann, Diao; Heskey, Owen and Baros). When that hardcore is depleted by injuries, suspensions or loss of form, he has to turn to lesser players, especially on the flanks.
Vladimir Smicer remains too inconsistent and is rarely at his best on the left wing, Bruno Cheyrou is yet to make an impact and El-Hadji Diouf specialises in locating blind alleys and charging straight down them; Markus Babbel and Berger have been hit by injuries; the unproven Neil Mellor may become a force but Igor Biscan and Djimi Traore never will be and the departed Bernard Diomede and Abel Xavier never were.
Despite a huge outlay, the likes of Fowler, McAllister and Jari Litmanen have not been adequately replaced, though Houllier maintains his imports will come good. That Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires and Juninho all fared far better in their second season in England than their first may encourage Cheyrou and Diouf, but the latter still needs to acquire a top player's ability to pick the right option.
And Houllier, deprived of too many options on his bench, may look enviously at Liverpool's supposed rivals, Arsenal and Manchester United. Francis Jeffers came off the bench to turn Arsenal's game against Fulham from a draw in to a win; Diego Forlan has done likewise for United this season and the doyen of substitutes, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, is often alongside him on the bench.
The Premiership's top two teams - and to, a lesser extent Chelsea - don't just have 12 quality players; they have 18 or 20. So Mr. Ferguson could afford to rest an out-of-form Ryan Giggs, while an over-protective Arsene Wenger was able to wait two months before giving Pires a full 90 minutes in the Premiership. Liverpool's key players come straight back into the team.
Once upon a time, Houllier could afford to treat Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard with similar kid gloves; instead he lacks the replacements. Instead of turning the corner, Houllier must wish he could turn the clock back.
Interesting article. Quite right on the fact that we are actually 'weaker' than where we were when we won the treble. We have not adequately replaced McAllister(gone), Fowler(gone) and Berger(not likely to be back to his best). And we indeed missed experienced contributors like Babbel, Barmby and Litmanen.
Our additions since then except for Dudek, Kirkland, Riise and Baros, have not been up to expectations. We need reinforcement for next season and this time around we should go for proven players who can make a difference. They don't have to be expensive. They just need to complement the projected stars that we have in our stable. How I wish Gary Mac is 5 years younger ...