SUCCESS in football is more about players than managers. Managers are judged by many criteria (such as tactical acumen, man-management, media friendliness or fan communication) but successful managers, without exception, are always known for bringing in quality players.
They may make mistakes (Fergie with Veron, Wenger with Jeffers) but they are remembered for their successful signings massively outweighing their failures.
One of the big disagreements between Rafa lovers and haters was, and is, his transfer activity – whether he was a canny manager for bringing quality players like Torres, Alonso and Mascherano, or a failure due to the likes of Nunez, Keane or Aquilani.
We all like to think we know a ‘Liverpool quality’ player when we see one, we certainly don’t seem to have too many of them in our squad right now, but what makes a player ‘Liverpool quality’?
When Xabi Alonso, on his debut, sent his first sweeping cross field pass, we all nodded to ourselves knowingly. When Stevie G, making his debut at right-back, thundered into challenges and played quick, accurate passes to feet we all knew we had found a talent. When Daniel Agger joined in January 2006 it was with his first confident stride into midfield, ball sticking to his feet, that we knew he was ‘Liverpool quality’.
It’s true that some first impressions don’t last. Titi Camara took Anfield and the league by storm but couldn’t maintain his standards. Josemi was commended for being an ‘animal’ by Jamie Carragher, only for us to discover he was more Chihuahua than Lion. And, let’s be honest, most of us got it wrong with Lucas.
As Liverpool fans we are always reassessing players game by game (and we were far ahead of the media in acknowledging Lucas’s improvement), but what does it actually take to be recognised as ‘Liverpool quality’?
Let’s first take out the differing requirements of various positions, as clearly a winger needs a different balance of capabilities to a centre-half. Let’s also remove age from the equation as we all acknowledge that a younger player (e.g. Shelvey) has time for improvement while an elder one (e.g. Cole) is unlikely to improve significantly. Finally, let’s put statistics to one side for the sake of this article. These can of course be very useful, particular in team analysis, but we can’t say Joe Allen is a better player than Iniesta just because he has a higher pass completion rate. Let’s leave a discussion on key stats for another time.
Give 100% all the time.
We love an honest worker, but Erik Meijer aside, if all that was needed was to give 100% then we’d all be turning up in Brendan Rodgers’ starting XI. Unfortunately there are players who become lazy (Balotelli), uncommitted (Tevez of last season) or complacent (Brendan Rodgers himself accused Downing of this earlier in the season) and if that’s the case then you really don’t have a hope at this club.
Physical Attributes – Can they compete?
Pace, power, height, build, stamina are all aspects that we look for in a player (Andre Wisdom has all of these). A player doesn’t need all these characteristics, Messi certainly hasn’t, but they need a combination that allows them to compete. A player may, for example, be fast, strong, tall and built like a brick shit-house but if he has to be perpetually substituted after 60 minutes due to exhaustion he’ll be no good. Young Sterling and Suso aren’t powerful and don’t look strong, but anyone who saw them fight their way through the game against Stoke at Anfield earlier in the season couldn’t doubt their ability to compete.
Overall we need players who can compete week in week out at the highest physical level. Football players need to be athletes, Micky Quinn type players won’t cut it in today’s Premier League.
Touch, control and passing ability are the bedrock of a good footballer. When we’re really young it is often the bigger kids who boss the games, but when you get to a certain age it’s always the players with technique that are most prized. Practise can improve technique but it can only improve it so much.
Jamie Carragher has probably worked harder than anyone on his technique but it still needs a lot of work. Young Suso probably had more technique when he was 12 than Jamie ever will. There are exceptions. Alan Hansen, already a wonderful ballplayer as a youngster, practised so hard on his left foot that he says that by the time he retired his left was better than his right! We want our players to have better finishing: “be more clinical” we say. Well, history shows that a player needs many years to make such improvements and usually if they don’t have it when they arrive…they’ll struggle.
Game Intelligence: Can they read the game?
When you’re playing 5-aside with your mates, few things are more irritating than when a player who has lots of skill dribbles incessantly with the ball and never passes. Many times he’ll score, but many more times he won’t, the only certainty is he’ll piss off his mates. Vision is perhaps the rarest of the 3 intermediate requirements of ‘Liverpool quality’.
For me, one of the key reasons Raheem Sterling is a more exciting prospect than Theo Walcott or Aaron Lennon were at his age (or indeed are now), is young Raheem’s ability to play with his head up and make the right pass more often than not. It is this game intelligence that makes the Barcelona midfielders stand out. They aren’t the strongest or the quickest, but added to their excellent technique they know when to delay a pass, when to hold a run, how to find space and where their team mates are.
I lived in Barcelona for a couple of years (when Ronaldinho ruled the roost and Messi was just coming through), but when I first watched Xavi I was amazed that he didn’t have a sore neck after every game as he was constantly looking around, whether he had the ball or not. Compare that to young Jordan Henderson whose awareness of what’s around him, especially when he’s facing away from goal, is still poor, and this constantly leads to him playing conservative passes or turning into trouble and making mistakes.
I won’t be specific here. In fact, I can’t be specific here. I think Advanced Requirements are what make a very good player into a great player, or a great player into a world class player. It may be flair, the ability to do the extraordinary (Suarez’s goal against Newcastle), or invention; a level of creativity that others struggle to reach (Suarez’s repeatedly effective nutmegs). But flair and invention aren’t the only stand out characteristics of the very best players.
Perhaps a player has an incredible ability to organise his team (e.g. Franco Baresi), to dictate the tempo of a game (e.g. Guardiola) or carry the weight of expectation of a whole club on your shoulders (e.g. Billy Liddell). This ineffable quality is what makes the very best, but consistency does too. Even mediocre players are capable of world class moments (e.g. a shot from 35 yards, or dribbling past a few players and scoring), but only world class players are capable of repeatedly world class performances. Unfortunately, at the moment many of our players are still trying to work on intermediate requirements – no wonder we’re a shadow of our great teams of the past.
If you can excel at the Minimum and Intermediate Requirements I think you are a ‘Liverpool quality’ player. If you add to that some of the almost intangible Advanced Requirements then you’re a Steve Heighway, Emlyn Hughes, Elisha Scott or Kenny Dalglish. If you excel above everyone at everything, then you’re the next Pele and please, please call Brendan Rodgers now!
What do you think makes a ‘Liverpool Quality’ player? Where do you think our biggest weaknesses lie, and do you think the players are capable of improving? Please let me know in the comments below.
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