Q&A with Guillem Balague
Guillem Balague is a well respected journalist and author from Spain. Best known for his role in Sky Sports' 'Revista de la liga', he is a Spanish football expert, Espanyol fan and passionate Liverpool supporter, having spent many years living in the city.
He has written an account of Liverpool's incredible last few years under Rafa Benitez, charting the Reds' amazing progress to become Champions of Europe in 2005 and the FA Cup win in 2006, for which he was granted exclusive access to the club through his friendship with the manager and staff.
'A season on the brink' was published a year ago as the story of Rafa's success and ESPNsoccernet caught up with the author to discuss the latest update to the book, the Spaniard's impact at Liverpool, and the start of the La Liga season.
Q. Hi Guillem. You know Rafa Benitez better than most, what has he brought to the English game since his arrival at Liverpool?
A. His approach is different to Arsene Wenger or Sir Alex, even Jose Mourinho. It is based on a strong defence and good use of possession, applying a different tempo to the English game than others. It has been fascinating to follow closely his learning of a new competition as well as the impact he has had on the club. He could leave now and 50 years later the city would still stop for him
Q. How did you get to know him and what made you decide to write the book?
A. I had interviewed him few times while at Valencia and we always tended to talk about English football. He always felt interested by it and when he came to Liverpool I was not surprised. Two publishers approached me about writing a book but the confirmation that I was going to do one on Liverpool came at 7am on the 26th of May 2005, while I was sleeping off a long night in Istanbul.
Q. What do you think it will take for Liverpool to challenge for the Premiership title in the near future? And has Rafa heaped the pressure on himself by winning the Champions League in his first season with the club?
A. Winning the Champions League has won him time more than added pressure. After that (and consider the lineup he had on that day), he has had time to build a side that combined style and power. But money has been an issue and the job is still half done. I predict a big clearout next summer while he finds the right combination. Internally, this was the year they thought they would fight for the title, but I still think Liverpool will be closer to the top than last year
Q. Liverpool have struggled recently, with many in the media blaming Rafa's rotation policy. What do you make of his choice to change the team around so much? Is it something he used to do a lot at Valencia?
A. He used to do that at Valencia and received certain criticisms but not as much as here. The main reason for this is that it did work well at Valencia. In a match against Sevilla, where a victory would give him the title, he left Ruben Baraja and Pablo Aimar out of the side! People should forget about 'the best eleven' and rubbish like that. Football has changed and rotation is the new rule! Everybody is doing it.
Q. Is he getting the best out of Steven Gerrard by playing him on the right of midfield instead of through the centre?
A. Without Momo (Sissoko), they will have to make up a defensive midfielder as I don't think there is an automatic replacement for him. But that is not what Gerrard is. People are obsessed about him playing on the right hand side, but I can see him moving everywhere. Players are working for him to be able to roam freely and that is certainly his best asset. Liverpool change tactics a bit to accommodate his talent, but that is nothing new. Ronaldinho, Zidane, Nedved, del Piero, Raul... they have all had to change positions to maintain a certain defensive balance and it has worked fine for them.
Q. It has been said that Liverpool are 'ripe' for a takeover. Would you like to see a foreign investor take over the club and how would you like Rafa to spend the money that that would bring? A. It is such a special club that will require a special investor. It is a delicate issue but one that will have to be properly faced by the owners. Times are moving and new times demand new solutions to keep growing. How you keep the locality of the club at the same time? I don't have an answer for that.
Q. Are they missing a player like Michael Owen? Why do you think Rafa declined the chance to re-sign him?
A. All is revealed in the update of the book! But a clue - Owen was badly advised and he cried when he realized he couldn't go to Liverpool.
Q. As an expert on Spanish football, can you see anyone stopping Barcelona from claiming their third consecutive title in La Liga? Rafa's old club Valencia look to be their nearest challengers, how do rate their young stars- David Villa and Joaquin?
A. Sevilla look very good. Like the Valencia or Deportivo of old. I wonder if they can maintain the level they have showed for 2 years now, but I am convinced they can. Those teams (Depor, Valencia, Atletico) can only win La Liga when Real Madrid and Barcelona are poor. And they are not at their best now, so it is time for Sevilla to succeed. Valencia have a coach, Quique, not particularly wanted by fans, media, players or the club, so I don't think he will succeed against the tide of opposition. Villa and Joaquin have got a lot to learn yet.
Q. Are there any other players in La Liga who you would tip to make it big on the world stage?
A. If Jesus Navas, who just got injured, was of a different mental DNA he would be one of the best. But he is extra shy and suffers anxiety attacks when he is away from home. He is one of the key players of Sevilla. Adriano looks fantastic and probably the next Sevilla player to be sold. Let's see how Kun Aguero develops, he needs to realize he is not Maradona yet. And of course, Barca's Messi has the potential to take over the world.
Q. Over in the Premiership, Cesc Fabregas has been making a name for himself at Arsenal, how do youe his development in England? Is it good for the Spanish national side having young players like him plying their trade abroad?
A. Cesc is one of the cleverest footballers I've ever met, as well as being loyal, talented and many other positive things. We should have more players abroad, but the lifestyle in Spain stops them from moving. We need to build a bridge of understanding to be able to take more talent from England to Spain and vice versa. But to do so you don't have to think only of the money, but also if your skills will help you succeed in that league. Fabregas' certainly do.
Q. The future does look good for Spain, but they've struggled to live up to their potential in the past. What's the problem there?
A. The problem is we don't have enough talent to become a world championship winning team. Great midfielders certainly, but we don't have such good defenders or attackers. Not yet anyway. Everything has to work perfectly for us to do well and in each competition only one or two national teams find that perfect combination of luck, talent and effectiveness. One day we will win it, but it could be another 60 years before we get there.
Q. Finally, what are your hopes for your Espanyol team this season? They've had a tough start so far, will they stay up?
A. I think Ernesto Valverde is not ready to be a top coach yet. He is too nice for starters and needs to develop a better understanding of how the team must defend and a few other things. The squad he has inherited needs a Paco Flores, a Camacho, a disciplinarian, and it may get one soon. We will struggle to the last day again. But I hope we stay up - last season was a real scare!
Visit www.orionbooks.com for more information on how to buy the book.
PLUS: Catch Guillem in person on November the 20th for a book signing at the Sefton Arms pub in Liverpool, L12 7HX, at 7.30pm.