Thursday, 7 August 2014

Boots To Fill: How To Survive Without Your Superstar

As Liverpool face into 2014/2015 without their best player for the past three years in Luis Suarez, we take a look at how other Premier League teams have coped with losing their talisman in recent years:

Arsenal 2007/08
- Sold Thierry Henry to Barcelona for £19m in 2007

For a period between 2003 and 2006, Thierry Henry was undoubtedly the best player in England, arguably the best in the world. He lead Arsenal to titles in 2002 and 2004 followed by a Champions League final appearance in 2006. He was PFA Player of the Year twice and Football Writers player of the year three times. Add to this four Premier League Golden Boots and two European Golden Boots and it's not hard to see how good this guy really was.

Unlike the other names on this list, Henry was not coming off a particularly majestic season when he moved. His 06/07 campaign was plagued by injury to the point where his last goal for the club (in that spell at least) came in mid-January. This made his departure somewhat less impactful on Arsenal than it would have been had he left in 2004 for instance.

And, impressively, Arsenal did do better the following season without him. Emmanuel Adebayor and Cesc Fabregas among others really stepped up to the plate for them in 2007/08. The supporting act consisted of the likes of Robin van Persie, Eduardo, even Niklas Bendtner made a solid contribution to the cause as Arsenal mounted their first title challenge in four years.

Cesc and Adebayor shone in Henry's absence

Ultimately, they fell short. Having lead the league for most of the season, Arsenal's title challenge was derailed on a February afternoon at Birmingham. This game saw Eduardo suffer a horrific leg break and James McFadden equalise for Birmingham in the 96th minute. Having suffered only one defeat to this point, the Gunners won one of their next seven league games,  a spell which included defeats to title rivals Chelsea and Man United. This period also saw them exit the Champions League to Liverpool and the FA Cup to United and became the first of what now seems to be the annual 'Arsenal Collapse'.

How badly did they miss Henry? Actually pretty badly I would say. His goals and contributions were accounted for mostly by the likes of Adebayor but above all else Arsenal missed leadership that year. The sight of William Gallas, club captain, sitting down sulking on the pitch at St Andrews after Arsenal had thrown away the points is one that will live long in the memory. Would Henry (captain the season before) have behaved the same way? Not in a million years.

It is the leadership qualities that Henry brought, that Bergkamp brought, that Vieira brought, that Arsenal have not had since the mass exodus of the Invincibles team between 2005 and 2007.

Man United 2009/10
- Sold Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid for £80m in 2009

Henry won countless individual awards at Arsenal but the biggest one in the sport eluded him. Cristiano Ronaldo on the other hand was the reigning World Player of the Year when he moved from Manchester United to Real Madrid in the summer of 2009.

Ronaldo was, and still is, an utter phenomenon. He spearheaded United's drive towards a hat-trick of titles from 2007 to 2009 and found the net in Moscow as United were crowned Kings of Europe in 2008. He was PFA Player of the Year in 2007 and 2008, also bagging Young Player of the Year in 2007 and won the Golden Boot in 2008 with a record 31 league goals. Without question, the finest footballer on the planet at this time.

"It's because I'm so good"

Having asked to leave in 2008 amid prolonged interest from Madrid, Ronaldo was persuaded to stay by Sir Alex Ferguson, presumably with a guarantee that he would be allowed to leave at a future date. Ronaldo once again pleaded to be allowed to follow his boyhood dream in 2009 after United were humbled by Barcelona in Rome. Real Madrid, embarking on a second Galactico project, smashed the world transfer record and brought Ronaldo to Spain for a monstrous £80m, just days after they had set the record of £56m to take Kaka from AC Milan.

Aiming for a fourth consecutive title, United were linked with many big names and the fans got excited. But Fergie chose to replace Ronaldo with Antonio Valencia from Wigan. Ronaldo's compatriot Nani was the man many touted to step up and and fill the massive void in the attack. Nani was good in patches during the year, Valencia settled in very well and Wayne Rooney had by far the best year of his life. Despite all this, United took a step back that year. Their stranglehold on the league title was broken by Chelsea and they failed to reclaim the Champions League, losing to Bayern on away goals in the quarter-finals.

They missed Ronaldo. Anyone would. However Wayne Rooney really stepped up to the plate and became the team's leader. He set a personal best goal tally of 34 in all competitions. Unfortunately for United he picked up an injury in April. The fortnight he spent on the sidelines saw them drop 5 points in the league (lost the title by just one) and go out of Europe.

A lack of goals from midfield was a problem. One that still exists to this day. Another inverted winger Ashley Young arrived at the club shortly after but United had no one of anywhere near Ronaldo's calibre providing such flair and attacking prowess for the next couple of seasons. His goal contribution was not replaced until Robin van Persie arrived from Arsenal in 2012. Speaking of which...

Arsenal 2012/13
- Sold Robin van Persie to Man United for £24m in 2012

Having lost key players in Fabregas and Nasri the previous summer, Arsenal fans were forced to endure more misery as Robin van Persie decamped to one of their biggest rivals in August 2012.

2011/12 was the first season that van Persie had managed to play more than 25 Premier League games for Arsenal. In fact he played in all 38. He scored 30 goals (37 in all competitions), securing the Golden Boot. He was also unanimously acclaimed as the best player in the country, winning the Players, Writers and Fans Player of the Year awards.

Van Persie left 'to win trophies'

With his contract expiring in 2013 he had a big decision to make. If he did not sign an extension at Arsenal that summer they would have to sell him and in early July he broke the news. If Arsenal did not sell him that summer, he would simply leave for free at the end of the following season. Wenger cashed in and infuriated many fans by selling him to long-time bitter rival Alex Ferguson and Manchester United.

Arsene Wenger did his business early that summer, splashing the cash on Lukas Podolski before the season had ended and adding Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla to his attacking line, all prior to van Persie's departure. Wenger insisted the Dutchman would not be sold and that these players were signed to play with him rather than replace him but no one was buying a word of that. Van Persie's Arsenal career was over and the replacements were already in.

RVP repeated his Golden Boot heroics in a different red shirt the following season and Arsenal, on the whole, performed at pretty much the same level in 2012/13 as they had the previous season, amassing similar amounts of points and goals scored and finishing one place lower in 4th.

Having been very much a one man team the previous season, Arsenal's overall spread of goals in the post-RVP era was much greater. In 11/12 only Theo Walcott had managed to join van Persie in double figures for all competitions. He managed to achieve this again the following year but was joined by, strangely enough, the Arsenal's three new arrivals that summer; Cazorla, Giroud and Podolski.

Spurs 2013/13
- Sold Gareth Bale to Real Madrid for £86m

The most recent and worst example of how to cope with life after a talisman occured last season when the Gareth Bale shaped hole in the Tottenham side was their most defining feature at times.

The Bale revolution began in the spring of 2010 when he was moved from left-back to left midfield. He duly won PFA Player of the Year in 2011, excelling on the Champions League stage also. He continued to be Spurs' talisman and scooped the big prize again in 2013 as part of a clean sweep. This couldn't help Spurs back into the Champions League however and once Real Madrid came knocking that summer, Bale was always going to move. Spurs did well in forcing Real to break their own world transfer record for him.

Erik Lamela arrived from Roma for £27m, the man tasked with the responsibility of making Spurs fans forget all about Gareth Bale. He made a total of three league starts all season under both Villas-Boas and Sherwood. Roberto Soldado, £26m from Valencia, was the man they would look to in terms of goals. 24 in his final season in Spain, 6 in his first in England. By the end of the year he found himself on the bench.

Bobby Soldado had a mare of a season

Replacing someone like Bale is near impossible but Spurs were so far off the mark it was ridiculous. Villas-Boas signed seven players that summer, all foreign and not one with Premier League experience. Usually it takes time for players from overseas to settle in so hoping seven new players would gel in a side so quickly was a massive ask. Of them, only Christian Eriksen has really proved himself in England.

Spurs endured a horrible year post-Bale. They suffered five heavy losses to City, Liverpool and Chelsea over the course of the season and found themselves well out of the Champions League race for the first time since 2009. Villas-Boas lost his job in December and was replaced with the equally incompetent Tim Sherwood. Things didn't improve much under Sherwood who was equally tactically naive and generally inconsistent in terms of selection, favouring the youth team players he knew rather than the expensive talent that he did not.

Liverpool 2014/15
- Sold Luis Suarez to Barcelona for £75m

The best example above is probably Arsenal in 2008, certainly in terms of immediate results. They improved sans-Henry due to the emergence of new talent, primarily Fabregas and Adebayor. Do Liverpool have some hidden gems in their squad? Absolutely. Raheem Sterling looked unplayable at times towards the end of last season and Phillipe Coutinho, now that he's adjusted to the English game, is another quality player in the making.

Could be a big year for these two...

Ronaldo's departure from United in 2009 paved the way for Rooney to step up and become the team's star. Perhaps this year Daniel Sturridge will build on the superb breakout year he had last season and propel himself to the Suarez echelons of strikers. If Rodgers doesn't buy another top striker between now and the end of the window then he will be banking on this happening.

What it looks like he is doing is spending the cash windfall received on a number of slightly less glamorous attacking names, like what Arsenal did in 2012. Together, Podolski, Giroud and Cazorla scored 34 league goals, marginally eclipsing van Persie's individual tally from the previous season. Not ideal, but an effective substitute. Goals count the same whether they all come from the one player or are spread throughout the team. Replacing one superstar with two or three quality players can work. Suarez got 31 in the league last season. Imagine this season Lallana contributes 12, Lambert 10 and Markovic 10, might be asking a lot considering they can't all play every game but this is how Arsenal maintained performance following van Persie's departure.

What Liverpool desperately need to avoid is falling into the Spurs trap of last season. Spurs relied so heavily on Bale, far heavier than Liverpool relied on Suarez mind you, and once he left they had no one to turn to. The new signings flopped. Soldado the biggest of the bunch, Lamela not far behind (although he will come good I'm positive). Lallana and Lambert were smart bits of business as they won't have much adapting to do having spent their whole careers in England. Markovic is an exciting talent but a little raw. I think they need to spend again and spend big. Falcao looks like he's off to Real Madrid, Benzema has just signed a new deal there. Balotelli wants out of Milan. Di Maria is surely very available and PSG could surely be persuaded to part company with Cavani or Lavezzi to balance their books...

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