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Footballing Revisionism: Why Liverpool's Class of 08 Was Great

Tuesday 19th July 2011
Liverpool's stay in the Premier League has been defined by a combination of under performance, missed opportunities and memories of past glories. The club that dominated the 1980s has struggled in recent decades, to the delight of their red rivals in the north west.
The closest that Liverpool have come to breaking their duck in Premier League history was in the 2008/2009 season, under the stewardship of Rafael Benitez. Registering their highest points finish in twenty years, Liverpool would come second in the league only to a Manchester United side in search of an unprecedented back to back Champions League and Premier League double.

With Manchester United finally securing their 19th domestic crown last season, and with Benitez's squad slowly being disembled, as another Dalgleish era begins at Anfield, we take a look at that side, and revisit their quality, and the merit in losing out on what would have been the most memorable of league titles, to a truly great Manchester United team.
It is a mark of football's unpredictability that it was Benitez's most formidable Liverpool side that went unrewarded. The team he inherited in 2004 would go on to win the Champions League in such dramatic fashion in Instanbul, as a mark of Benitez's tactical ingenuity, rather than his ability to build a dominant, winning team. Two years later, a team in transition would lift the 2006 FA Cup in Cardiff, after another dramatic final and another victory on penalties. So it was suprising that two years later, the team that Benitez had been constructing over the course of his stay at Anfield was unable to claim any silverware.

This may contribute to the lack of attention that this team has recieved. Liverpool's class of 2008 has been dismissed as lacking the depth of quality of their biggest rivals, as unable to finish off the lower placed teams, accumilating far too many draws throughout the season, as being hampered by the disappointing signing of Robbie Keane and of lacking the killer instinct, mainly due to Benitez's defensive conservatism.
But this was a team that outscored Manchester United in a 38 game season. A United side that featured the attacking prowess of the newly aquired Dimitar Berbatov, Carlos Tevez, Wayne Rooney and World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo.

It was also a side that lost only two games over the course of the season. It went throughout the entire season undefeated at Anfield, and lost its only two games away at Middlesbrough and Tottenham Hotspur. This was in competition with a Manchester United side that went on a run of eleven consecutive league games without conceding.

Blighted by frustrating draws at home to sides such as Stoke, West Ham and Fulham, it must be remembered that the 86 points that Liverpool amassed over the 2008/2009 season would have been enough of a total to win ten of the nineteen Premier League seasons in the competitions short history.

With this in mind, we can also analyse the undoubted quality that existed in that side, a quality that has been underlined by the activity of recent seasons, away from Anfiled. It is often forgotten just how talented some of the individuals in that side were.
This was the season in which the combination of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres really came to life. The Spaniard's first season in English football was an undoubted success, but it was in his second campaign that the link between Liverpool's famous number eight and number nine became something truly to behold.

Over the season, the pair directly combined to score or assist eachother in 23 premier league goals. Individually, Gerrard struck sixteen and Torres fourteen league goals. But these figures could have been a lot more, had Torres been available for more than the 24 league games that he appeared in. Troubled by injuries, there is no doubt that Liverpool's season may well have ended in success had Torres completed anything close to a 38 game programme.
This attacking prowess was supported by Dirk Kuyt on the right hand side. Contributing with ten assists over the course of the season, the Dutchman was a stalwart of the team, playing in every single league game. His tireless efforts also saw him cover the most distance of all his team mates in that year, and his total of twelve league goals was invaluable in propelling a Liverpool side that has previously off the pace back in fourth place, up the table into a very competitive second.

The spine of that Liverpool side was what marked it out as special. It had a nucleus that could rival any team in the division. If the Cech, Terry, Lampard and Drogba or Van der Sar, Vidic, Ronaldo and Rooney spines were strong, the Reina, Carragher, Gerrard, Torres line up could match it that year.

But this tried and tested foundation was not only built on four individuals. The team was anchored by two high class defensive midfielders. Evolving his team from the reliable 4-4-2 he had inherited from Gerard Houllier in 2004, Benitez's long term vision would be finalised in his 4-2-3-1 formation that was, at that time, relatively unique to English football.
The Premier League was late to pick up on the value of a specialised deep lying defensive midfielder, and it took the outstanding performances of Claude Makelele at Chelsea to place the idea into the minds of domestic managers, some five or so years after their counterparts in Europe. Nevertheless, Benitez took this model and extended it to include two sitting midfielders. One as an orthodox defensive terrior, to break up the play and screen the defence, and the other as a deep lying play maker. The second of which would be a position wherein the player would help maintain possession, to spray the ball outwide, and it soon become the link between the defence and the midfield, picking the ball up in his own half and progressing the play.

These two positions were filled by Javier Mascherano, the energetic legs on the midfield, and Xabi Alonso, the outstanding craftsmen with great passing vision.

Alonso's influence on that side can be emphasised in numerous ways. Firstly, his importance to the team was immediately underlined by virtue of the fact that he was Benitez's first singing as Liverpool manager in the summer of 2004. He would become, to many, Liverpool's most valuable player through his link up play and ability to get the ball from defence to attack.

Secondly, his role was emphasised once he had left Anfield, in the summer of 2009. His transfer to Real Madrid created a hole that was never truly filled, as Alberto Aquilani struggled for form. It still stands as one of Benitez's great mistakes that he flirted with Gareth Barry, then of Aston Villa, and was subsequently unable to keep the Spaniard.
A third sign of his importance to Liverpool has been through his recent performances for both club and country. To the writers of this blog, he was the outstanding player in the 2010 World Cup, even in a midfield that featured the likes of Xavi and Iniesta. He was the first name on the team sheet, as he is at Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid, and his high quality link up play and passing range make him one of the best midfielders in the world.

Mascherano's career has taken a similar path. He was a vital component to the Liverpool team and protected a defence that lacked the necessary pace to play a high defensive line. The Argentine was thus encouraged to maintain his position just behind Alonso and his tenacity and work rate marked him out as the best player of his kind in the league. His subsequent move to Barcelona, and appearances at centre back for the Catalan side have confirmed that there are brains as well as braun to Mascherano's make up, as his composed performances have earned him praise in Spain.

Another Spanish link in that great Benitez side was found in goal. The full programme of games played by Dirk Kuyt was matched only by Jamie Carragher and Pepe Reina, and it was the latter of these two players that established themselves as one of the best goalkeepers in the world in that year. Reina's twenty league clean sheets was matched only by the award winning Van Der Sar, and it is unsuprising that Reina has been recently coveted by both Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson, who have both considered big money moves for the athletic 28 year old.
The weakest element to that side of 2008 was its defence, but in that season its members contributed to the general feeling of resilience at Anfield. Only two League defeats goes a long way to supporting the view that the centre back partnership of Skrtel and Carragher blossomed. Alvaro Arbeloa, now of Real Madrid, and Fabio Aurelio, who is still at Anfield, also both excelled in their full back berths.

A significant reason why this side ended the season trophyless, lies in the lack of depth at Anfield that year. A first eleven to rival anyone in the league was not supported by the necessary strength on the subsitutes bench.

Robbie Keane's big money move to Tottenham was openly regarded as a mistake, and his susequent return to White Hart Lane in January of 2009 only served to confirm that feeling. The young Frenchman David N'Gog did not have the necessary skills to replace Torres when he was missing, which, over the course of the season, he often was.

Yossi Benayoun was a star turn on the Liverpool bench, and often his quality was required to turn stalemates into winning positions, such as his injury time winners at Fulham and Arsenal. However, the success of the Torres and Gerrard partnership meant that he was never assured of a place in the starting eleven, swapping starts on occasion with Albert Riera on the left hand side of the midfield.

Lucas Leiva, Ryan Babel and Jay Spearing were also fringe players that could not match the quality available down the M62 at Old Trafford. Sir Alex Ferguson was able to turn to the likes of Anderson, Nani, Fletcher, Berbatov and Saha, emphasising the disparity in depth of the two squads.
Although League campaigns these days are reliant as much now on the quality of the squad as they are on the ability of the starting eleven, this blog entry is focused on the Liverpool line up of that year, which had undoubted quality. It had some of the most formidable players in the World in its ranks, and possessed the necessary balance which turned in great performances that year.

Away wins at Chelsea and most memorably at Manchester United would capture the imagination of the Liverpool fans, who had experienced years of disappointing campaigns. The 4-4 home draw with Arsenal, and Arshavin's four goals typified the attacking potential of Benitez's team. It would also go on to beat Martin ' Champions League hopefuls Aston Villa 5-0 at Anfield, and condemn Manchester United, Chelsea and Tottenham to convincing home wins.

Another 4-4 in the Champions League quarter final against Chelsea would see Liverpool eliminated from a competition in which they had reached the final only a year earlier. This came after a 5-0 aggregate thrashing of Real Madrid in the second round.

FA and Carling Cup progression was sacrificed for League glory, and for many months it looked as though Liverpool would have the necessary quality and endurance to defeat their greatest rivals Manchester United.
As well as creating a group of well suited players in a fluid system, it was the system itself that also held significance. Benitez, arriving from Valencia, brought with him a 4-2-3-1 system that had been used in La Liga since the turn of the century. It was a method born out of his experiences in Spain, and his european adventures with Valencia and then initially with Liverpool. Its use in English football came late, and it was Benitez who can be credited with delivering it in its clearest form in 2004.

That Liverpool side, for the first time in English domestic football, exhibited the value of two holding midfielders in providing attack minded players free licence to push forward. Once a striker of real quality, such as Torres, was acquired, Benitez could then follow the European trend in using a playmaker, or Gerrard, as a second striker. The 4-2-3-1 formation was therefore inevitable once this link had been established.

The growing popularity of playing a single striker, such as Drogba at Chelsea, or Nuno Gomes for the Portuguese national side in Euro 2004 saw Benitez quick to act on the pattern emerging within his home country, and across the continent. Initially a holding midfielder would be deployed to pick up the loose playmaker, or false number ten, but as the playmaker moved out wide in order to pick up space, the holding midfielder would follow him, creating space in the middle. Therefore an additional midfielder would perform a deeper role as cover in ‘the hole' in front of the defence.
It was Benitez's management that identified how this second sitting midfielder could also perfrom roles a kin to a quarter back in American football, defending when out of possession, but starting the attack when in possession, all meaning that the tactical awareness behind the side of 2008 should not be underestimated.

In the end it was United who proved too strong for Liverpool, over taking them in March of that year at the summit of the league. But in losing to Ferguson's side, Liverpool had proven that they were once again a team to be reckoned with in the league, not just serving as the leading lights in one off cup occasions.

Second place sides are often forgotten, by nature of their defeat to the greater opponent, but on this occasion, it was a Liverpool side to be admired. Although hurt by poor draws both away from, and, at Anfield, and despite being hampered by a lack of true depth, Benitez had brought in real class, had developed a potent formation and had lifted the shackles on his side from a year earlier, all of which combined to make the Liverpool class of 2008 a great one.
Andrew Greasley

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