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Missing The X-Factor?: Why a lack of tactical evolution has cost Liverpool

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By Phil Dickinson.

As a Liverpool fan, it absolutely pains me to occasionally have to give Alex Ferguson credit. The sight of his blotchy, weather beaten face, as he furiously gnaws a whole packet of Wrigleys Extra and taps his watch suggestively at the referee, usually has me reaching for the nearest item of furniture to hurl at the TV. The man’s arrogance, mind games and, at times, sheer good fortune have driven rival fans to despair for over a decade. But one thing’s for sure; after all these years in the job, Alex Ferguson knows what he’s doing.

When Manchester United lost goal machine Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid last summer, the rest of the top four rubbed their hands with glee. Not only had this kid grabbed 68 goals in two seasons, but he had built such a reputation in his 6 years in Manchester that his much travelled, World Cup golden boot winning, Brazilian name sake was now uniformly being referred to as “The Fat Ronaldo”. Even with 80 million in the bank, how would United ever replace such an established superstar of Ronaldo’s quality?

Meanwhile, over at Anfield, Rafa Benitez had a similar dilemma. So the story goes, Benitez’s attempts to flog Xabi Alonso during the previous close season to fund a deal for Villa captain, Gareth Barry, slightly upset the Spanish midfielder. When Real Madrid came knocking 12 months later Alonso’s mind was made up. He felt it was time for pastures new. The same questions that were asked about Ronaldo’s departure from United were posed about Alonso and Liverpool. How would Liverpool cope with such a loss?

The ways in which both managers went about managing their respective losses to me says everything about the two men in question. It also partly explains the differing fortunes of the two clubs this campaign.

Towards the end of his United career, Ronaldo had been used much more often, and to great effect, in more central areas, while teammate Wayne Ronney was forced out onto the left flank. Although, Ferguson has never been afraid of changing his system to suit the opposition, he had come to favour a 3 pronged attack that exploited Ronaldo’s speed and direct style of play.

Ferguson knew as soon as he lost Ronaldo that he had to change the tactical system that the Portuguese star had been the centre of. As a result he moved Rooney back into a central position as the main attacking threat and brought in Valencia, not as a direct replacement for Ronaldo, but as a way of reintroducing width to the Manchester United side. It was a series of moves that showed an appreciation for the uniqueness of Ronaldo as a talent and the impossibility of bringing in a like-for-like replacement.

Benitez on the other hand was in no mood for change. It is true that Gerrard and Torres had built up a great understanding over the course of the 2008-2009 season and one can certainly see why Benitez would want his two best players as high up the pitch as possible. For a long time it has been argued that it is a system that plays to the strengths of captain, Steven Gerrard, like Ferguson’s system played to the strengths of Ronaldo.

But it was Xabi Alonso behind Gerrard and Torres who made that system run. With Mascherano buzzing around, winning the ball back at every opportunity, it was Alonso who dictated the pace of play, allowed Liverpool to keep possession and, when the counter-attack was on, spring Gerrard and Torres into the flanks with sweeping 40-yard balls. It was a negative system, a cautious system, arguably not even the best system for the players at Benitez’s disposal, but Alonso gave it the best possible chance of succeeding. And finishing 2nd in the Premier League, it almost did.

With Alonso gone, instead of changing the system, Benitez just attempted to replace the player. Aquilani came in for 20 million, but with the Italian sat on the treatment table, young Lucas Leiva came in alongside Mascherano.

Much has been said about Lucas Leiva. He is surely one of Liverpool’s most consistently criticised players. Unfortunately, much of the criticism he has faced this year has not been about what he does, but what he can’t do. The reality is, he is not an Alonso. But the encouraging fact for Lucas is, there is only one Xabi Alonso.

Alonso was, and still is, a unique player. Nobody quite plays in the same way Xabi does. The tempo, the grace, the precision, the composure. Alonso’s pinpoint passing, which is probably second only to Barcelona’s Xavi in world football, as well as his positional sense, make him the perfect fulcrum for a predominantly counter-attacking team. If Benitez’s 4-4-1-1 system (or 4-2-3-1, if you prefer) played to anyone’s strengths it was to those of the man from the Basque Country and not to the strengths of the man Benitez thought he was playing, Steven Gerrard.

Torres and Gerrard are obviously good enough to play in Benitez’s system, but if the men behind them cannot replicate the passing and counter-attacking precision of Alonso then that fact matters little. Even Gerrard in the middle of the park plays in a different way to Alonso. Gerrard plays with more dynamism and is more box-to-box. But with Alonso gone, Gerrard is the player most capable of doing the important things Mascherano and Lucas struggle with.

With Lucas playing in Alonso’s role, Liverpool look one-dimensional and lacking fluidity, the passing robotic and predicable. Counter-attacks are often that little bit more clumsy and laboured. And when Lucas and Mascherano fail to dictate the pace of play with any real conviction, you can see the frustration building up in Gerrard as he and Torres stand isolated and helpless in their more advanced roles.

I have been a constant critic of Benitez’s defensive style of play in domestic games, both during and after the Alonso era. I have never truly believed, even when we were on United’s tail at the end of last season, that it would yield a Premier League title. But, for me, the departure of Alonso was the clearest and most obvious juncture at which Benitez should have considered change.

Benitez surely had to consider moving Gerrard back alongside Mascherano and either play with an extra striker or, like Ferguson did, invest in some orthodox wingers to play with more width. Unlike Ferguson, Benitez did not truly acknowledge the loss of a key asset. I think the thought that probably crossed Rafa’s mind was, “Oh, we’ll be alright”. Things most definitely haven’t been.

Now, it has to be said that a lack of tactical evolution has not been Liverpool’s only problem this season. A bad start to the season, injuries and player unrest have all played their part too.

In addition, people will be quick to point out that Manchester United have themselves struggled at times and are yet to reclaim their title. Some would argue that Fergie hasn’t fully coped with the loss of Ronaldo.

But the fact is, by making whatever changes were necessary, by bringing Rooney to the centre of his attack, Ferguson has kept his side challenging. Manchester United still reached the quarter finals of the Champions League, they already have a League Cup in the trophy cabinet and, even if they don’t win the title, they will have pushed Chelsea every inch of the way. The loss of Ronaldo’s goals could have been so much more disastrous for United.

Liverpool by contrast exited the Champions League at the group stage and, despite the distant hope of fourth that remains, could still finish as low as eighth in the Premier League. Regardless of the remaining potential for success in the Europa League, if any season Liverpool don’t win the title is judged in terms of how much progress has been made towards winning it in the future, then this season has be regarded as a disaster.

If Rafa Benitez stays into next season, which is likely considering the uncertain broad room situation, the chances of Liverpool bouncing back and putting this campaign completely behind them surely rests on the manager’s desire and ability to bring about some tactical evolution. It is no good making wholesale changes in personnel if we are going to persist with tactics that don’t necessarily suit all the players we have.

But, Liverpool’s financial position means they cannot make wholesale changes in personnel. More to the point, even if Rafa had 100 million to spend, there isn’t another ready-made Alonso out there to be snapped up. If Benitez wants to avoid footballing déjà vu then the changes will have to come in other areas.

Benitez needs to start getting creative. Or maybe, like Jose Mourinho, he could do with sharing notes with Alex Ferguson over a glass of wine.

So how badly do Liverpool fans think The Reds have missed Alonso? Is it time for a change of tactics? Please leave your comments below….

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