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 Posted by ESPN Staff
Jan 15, 2007

The illusion of squad depth

It was team spirit that Steve Archibald, no stranger to fractious dressing rooms, said was an illusion glimpsed in victory. Liverpool may feel that his comment is equally applicable to strength in depth, certainly if last week's Carling Cup exit is considered.

Rafael Benitez has quantity at his disposal but quality, as the manager himself has admitted, is limited. Given the funds they granted their manager, the Liverpool board were presumably surprised to find themselves held accountable for the failure of the fringe players against Arsenal.

If they were unable to provide the extra resources required to add Daniel Alves, Simao Sabrosa and David Villa, the Spaniard's preferred signings, they still supplied a budget that would be the envy of many, and the hapless Gabriel Paletta was not their choice.

But much as the FA Cup defeat at Burnley two years ago revealed mediocrity in depth, so did Liverpool's stylish demolition at Arsenal's hands. January 2005's humiliation featured David Raven, Zak Whitbread and John Welsh, who have been offloaded to lower-division clubs, and Darren Potter, who soon will be. The homegrown pair of Lee Peltier and Danny Guthrie must fear the precedents. And while Liverpool's Academy has not made a significant discovery since Steven Gerrard, Leighton Baines, Joey Barton, Kevin Nolan and David Nugent, Scousers all, prospering elsewhere; it helps explain why Benitez is so jealous of Arsenal.

An embarrassment almost unprecedented at Anfield should prompt a clearout - a sheikh-up, if you prefer - perhaps enabled by the likely investment from the Dubai International Capital. Departures may be as significant as arrivals in the summer trading in Liverpool's lengthy search for a Premiership title.

Having spent £25 million last summer, Benitez may find himself disposing of his recent recruits, of whom only Dirk Kuyt can be convinced of his future. And now there are plenty of contenders for the list of the unwanted.

Starting with the most obvious, Jerzy Dudek's Anfield career was surely ended in undignified manner by Arsenal's six goals. He was promised the domestic cup competitions by Benitez, but conceding 12 goals in his final three games provided ample evidence of an unfortunate decline. And as the most impressive goalkeeper owned by Liverpool this season has been Scott Carson, it will be intriguing if Benitez listens to the advances from his native Spain for Jose Reina. Ten clean sheets from his last 11 Premiership games would suggest he is untouchable, yet nervous moments have betrayed his flaws and frailties.

There are no shortage of full-backs at Anfield; too few, however, are of the required standard. Lucas Neill, after interminable wranglings with Blackburn, is expected to finally provide an alternative to Steve Finnan but John Arne Riise, despite falling below his best this season, is almost unchallenged on the left. Stephen Warnock, whose career has stagnated, and Fabio Aurelio, who has been exposed defensively, are following in the undistinguished trail blazed by Djimi Traore.

The Brazilian, reunited with Benitez after their days at Valencia, may require longer to adjust to English football. But how much acclimatisation is necessary? Central defender Paletta, for instance, looks no more ready than he did in a pre-season that first raised concerns about the £2 million Argentine. At the other end of the age spectrum, Sami Hyypia has been invaluable, but his lack of pace is increasingly apparent. Daniel Agger will supplant him as a first choice, so it depends on whether the rather static Finn is prepared to stay; certainly his aerial ability means he is one of the imports who is suited to the Premiership's physical battles.

Amid myriad midfield permutations, the only players to present unanswerable cases for selection all favour the centre: Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso and Momo Sissoko. If Benitez's resident wildcard Luis Garcia's enigmatic brilliance should guarantee his presence at Anfield next season, the same cannot be said for Liverpool's band of wingers. Consistency has eluded all and it is pertinent that, while Benitez embarked on a lengthy pursuit of Mark Gonzalez, Jermaine Pennant was far from his first choice.

Presumably Harry Kewell would not meet Benitez's definition of an ideal winger either, despite a rapprochement last season that resulted in the Australian's finest form since he left Leeds. But as it stands, his lamentable showing in the FA Cup final looks like his Liverpool farewell. Only the unlikelihood of selling an injured player, despite his depreciating value, could keep Kewell at Anfield.

He is not a Benitez signing, but others are. Boudewijn Zenden offers remarkable versatility but his lightweight displays in the centre of midfield explain the enthusiasm for Javier Mascherano.

And in attack, Peter Crouch continues to baffle Benitez. Often at his most ineffective in the most significant games, yet capable of scoring whenever he appears on the brink of demotion, he polarises opinion. A lack of pace is impossible to rectify, however, and while Craig Bellamy has been linked with Aston Villa, the taller striker may be the man more likely to leave.

After Benitez began his tenure at Liverpool by clearing out Gerard Houllier's signings, it may now fall on him to ensure a cull of his own. Even if some could not be held accountable for Arsenal's excellence, it surely hastened their departure by highlighting the weaknesses in Benitez's squad.

Of Jose Reina, Jerzy Dudek, Gabriel Paletta, Fabio Aurelio, Stephen Warnock, Boudewijn Zenden, Harry Kewell, Jermaine Pennant and Peter Crouch, a question can be asked: how many, if any, would Manchester United, Chelsea or Arsenal really want? That is the crux of the matter. Because, while Benitez's fondness for squad rotation remains, it is impossible if strength in depth is just an illusion.


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