Sam Wallace: What's up at Anfield?
Liverpool have lost four league games this campaign and are finding life hard in Europe. Sam Wallace assesses what's troubling Rafael Benitez's club as they embark on a week that will define their season
In the last days of his Liverpool regime, Gérard Houllier would cite shots on goal and possession percentages as his team's form petered out with defeats to the likes of Southampton and Fulham. Like an old general recounting the scenes of his most famous battles, there was something defeated about Houllier – an inevitability about his sacking that came in 2004.
Rafael Benitez is a long way off that moment yet but no one would deny that Liverpool have problems. They have already lost four Premier League games and face a week of reckoning starting with Lyons in the Champions League tonight and Manchester United at Anfield on Sunday.
Benitez always turns it around, right?
He is the master of plotting his way out of a tight situation, especially in the Champions League. Liverpool's greatest European nights under Benitez have owed a lot to the manager's stunning tactical coups, like the one he pulled off in the 4-0 defeat of Real Madrid in March.
Lyons will be no pushover tonight, although even without Fernando Torres you would fancy Liverpool to win the game. Two years ago Liverpool only had one point after three group games, losing at home to Marseilles and away to Besiktas before they got their act together and reached the semi-finals.
The Lyons game is not the major problem for Benitez, even though his team have already lost in the competition to Fiorentina. It is just the timing after Saturday's defeat that makes it worse. Even if Liverpool lose they would still expect to qualify for the knockout stages.
So what is up with the team itself?
Benitez's sides have always had an odd, thrown-together look to them, starting with the team that won in Istanbul in 2005. Even since Benitez has brought in his own players, the difference in quality between certain individuals in the team has been marked. Yet by and large it has worked.
The problem more recently has been the suggestion of cliques evolving within the side. Liverpool's best times under Benitez have come when their collective spirit has been decisive against opponents with arguably better individual players – the Champions League victories over Chelsea spring to mind.
Against Sunderland on Saturday, when Liverpool were outplayed, there was little evidence to dispel the rumours that this is not a united dressing room. After the local boys of Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher, Liverpool are not currently blessed with many characters capable of galvanising or leading a team.
Isn't it all the fault of the American owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks?
The management of the club's £290m debt is a constant battle and Liverpool went dangerously close when it came to persuading the Royal Bank of Scotland and Wachovia, their two main creditors, to refinance over the summer.
Meanwhile, Gillett and Hicks' search for a dream investor – someone who will invest money but take a back seat to the Americans – has not turned up any takers. With the potentially catastrophic consequences of failure to qualify for the Champions League next season, the pressure is cranked up.
Even so, when Gillett pointed out to a fans' group recently that he and Hicks had invested £128m of money on top of everything earned in sales on transfers, he had a point. Benitez is not entirely blameless. Not every one of his signings has been golden, starting with the £11m Ryan Babel who may start tonight.
Has this manager, and this team, reached the end of their cycle?
Benitez, and his record over the last five years, is a uniquely contentious subject in English football. Generally, Liverpool supporters are admirably loyal in public while admitting to misgivings about their manager in private. On the one hand you wonder why Benitez spent £20m on the midfielder Alberto Aquilani, when the player was injured. On the other you pity him for losing out on Lee Cattermole when he left Wigan.
Looking beyond Torres and Gerrard it can be difficult to get excited about Liverpool's attacking players. Dirk Kuyt is the best of the lot but after that – in order of effectiveness - Yossi Benayoun, Albert Riera, Babel, Andrei Voronin and David Ngog do not inspire that much confidence.
Are Liverpool missing their chance?
That is the most infuriating aspect of the start they have had to the Premier League season: a great opportunity has opened up in English football for Liverpool, without a league title since 1990, and they are not taking it.
Without Cristiano Ronaldo, Manchester United are undeniably worse off and have stumbled already. Chelsea have lost two games in a row and are at the beginning of a year-long transfer ban. At Arsenal, as ever, progress is uncertain.
But most of all Manchester City are not as good as they undoubtedly will be in one year's time. For this season at least, there is a chance that Liverpool, having finished second last time, needed just to improve by the finest of margins to win the league. They do not look like doing so.