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Some of Rafa Benitez’s decisions this summer I can understand, and some I can’t. Let’s start with the obviously beneficial:
Bringing in Robbie Keane is terrific – it gives them another source of goals, another dribbler (which they could do with), and he’s tailor-made for an effective combination with Torres, freeing Gerrard up to play wherever he’s most effective. The three of them will be a very dangerous and difficult-to-stop combination, offering shooting power from distance, dribbling ability, clever movement and pace in behind defences. Keane likes to come deeper than Torres, and his presence should mean that the Spaniard can spend all game on the last defender looking for the killer pass without getting completely isolated. Adding two full-backs is useful too, because Finnan and Arbeloa have only ever been alright. Benitez won the European Cup with comedy stooge Djimi Traore playing left-back, so they were getting by, but if Dossena or Degen are on or close to the elite Ashley Cole/Patrice Evra/Gael Clichy/Micah Richards level then Liverpool will be a better side and have more options.
The arguable: Peter Crouch is under-rated; he scored goals in limited opportunities last season and I think he’s a great option for a manager because what he offers is very difficult to stop. If my side was losing with ten minutes to go against a team determined to sit deep and defend, there are few players I’d rather see come on than Crouch – it’s basic, but there really isn’t a lot you can do to stop crosses in to a big target man. European sides especially had no idea what to do with him. Probably Crouchaldinho had to go to fund the Keane deal though, and on that rationale it’s understandable, but Voronin and Kuyt are both less of a goal threat than the big man and I think Portsmouth have got the better of that deal. Then there’s the Gareth Barry saga. Barry's a classy passer with good awareness, his left-footedness gives him different angles, he's disciplined, he can tackle a bit and he was impressively committed and resolute as a tough-minded captain in a poor side at O’Leary’s Villa, but I don’t see what he’s got over Xabi Alonso. I rate both players very highly indeed, and both have the same disadvantage, which is lack of pace (not that it’s a massive problem the way they play their position). Clearly Benitez likes something about Barry, and I have no doubt he’d be an asset to Liverpool, but I don’t see him making them a significantly better side (as things stand, everyone seems to think this deal's off now, anyway).
Added: Dirk Kuyt is a really interesting player for Liverpool and Holland, because he scored loads of goals in the Dutch league, but since arriving in England has shown himself to have NO big goalscoring assets at all. Expensive strikers normally have at least one of: pace (Henry/Eto'o/Torres/Rooney), physical power and aerial strength (Shearer/Drogba/Torres/C Ronaldo/Kenwyne Jones), dribbling ability (Ronaldo, C Ronaldo, Rooney) or exceptional predatory movement (Lineker/Owen/Klinsmann). Besides being average in all these respects, Kuyt has mediocre touch and doesn't finish well. Yet he's rarely left out of big games - why is this? It's because he's INCREDIBLY disciplined and hard-working. If I was a full-back, there are plenty of players I'd fear defending more than Kuyt - he's not going to beat you for pace, or with tricks, and his movement is nothing special. But when I was in possession, I'd rather be facing almost anyone, because he closes down aggressively, early and hard. It's amazingly common for Liverpool to get chances from Kuyt winning the ball for them in good areas high up the pitch, and he's almost more dangerous out of possession than in it. And whatever the manager's tactical plan demands of him, he'll do, however much running or curbing his attacking instincts that involves. The glassy-eyed, sweat-drenched state he's normally in when he's substituted in the 75th minute is testament to his work-rate.
So the upshot of all this is what? Will Liverpool finally challenge for the league title? I think that will depend on just how much more goal power results from these changes. Liverpool drew a lot of games last year, and Keane will likely help turn some of those draws into wins. If Babel continues to improve then he could have a big role too (he reminds me a lot of Henry, and his ceiling is as high as that), so I can see them being a more attacking, attractive side this season, and think they’ll get more points than last time, but Arsenal and Man Utd (assuming Ronaldo stays) are both likely to improve too.