It wasn’t supposed to end this way for Robbie Keane at Anfield. The Irishman spent barely six months at Liverpool Football Club before he was shipped back to his former club Tottenham Hotspur on loan. A summer signing for 19 million pounds, Keane was bought to beef up the attack as the Reds went in search of the Premier League title. Yet what was seemed to be a dream move initially quickly turned to a nightmare.
However, despite all the talk of Keane’s so called failure at Liverpool it was certainly a more complicated story than that. For years I simply assumed that he was signed against the true wishes of Rafa Benitez and therefore never really stood a chance. This may of course still be true but the situation snowballed to the point where Rafa felt it was best to offload the striker.
In principle the signing made a lot of sense. Fernando Torres had hit the ground running the previous season but Liverpool lacked a bonafide secondary striking option after the departure of Peter Crouch. Dirk Kuyt was now playing effectively on the right and Steven Gerrard was of course banging in goals from midfield.
Keane appeared to be the perfect fit. He was a proven Premier League goalscorer coming into the prime of his career. And despite his many questionable claims to have some sort of childhood connection with teams he had previously signed for, his love of Liverpool appeared legitimate. So where exactly did it all go wrong?
The start to his Anfield career was sluggish in front of goal to say the least. Despite good performances overall including a memorable assist for Torres against Everton at Goodison, Keane took until his 12th appearance to finally net for the Reds. The goal did spark him into life as he scored 5 goals in his last 8 league outings for Liverpool but it wasn’t to be enough.
One of those goals though was unquestionably Keane’s finest hour in Red when he scored an absolute screamer of a half volley against Arsenal at the Emirates when he latched on to a long pass from Daniel Agger. It was a moment of world class technique and unquestionably demonstrated what a top player he was.
Keane also performed well in the Champions League scoring a key goal away to Atletico Madrid as well as his debut goal at Anfield against PSV Eindhoven.
It seemed though that behind the scenes that the improved form mattered little. The fact of the matter was that Benitez, while he admired Keane as a player, wanted to turn him into something he wasn’t. Sometimes this is an effective strategy but it never appeared to be an option for a player like Keane who had spent his entire career becoming a master at a very specific type of role.
Steven Gerrard who later formed a solid partnership with Keane in their twilight years at LA Galaxy always spoke highly of his teammate:
”Robbie came and worked hard on the training pitch and scored some important goals for us.
I think there was a bit of clash with Rafa Benitez maybe, but I certainly wanted him to stay around for a long time. Hee’s a very talented player and I like playing with him so I was sad to see him go.
It was more down to Rafa trying to change the way Robbie played and, for me, the reason we bought Robbie was for him to play off a front man and cause damage between defence and midfield.
Rafa was trying to change that and change his game and I don’t think Robbie was too happy with that, I think that’s where the clash came.”
Steven Gerrard (SportsJoe.ie 2016)
It is of course fairly likely that the presence of Gerrard was one of the main reasons that Benitez felt that he needed to find an alternative role for Keane. Gerrard was forming a telepathic partnership with Torres which Rafa was understandably reluctant to break up. Therefore Keane was tasked with often playing further left of the attack than he was used to due to Ryan Babel’s struggles for consistency.
Keane recently came out with a quote which was certainly surprising to me in that he claimed that Benitez initially had a different plan to the one that ended up taking place:
”When I went there, I was told myself and Torres [would start] and Stevie would drop into the midfield but obviously as it went on I think Rafa liked Stevie playing that no.10.”
Robbie Keane, April 2020 (Liverpool Echo)
As you can imagine, Keane would have good reason to be upset if this indeed was the case. It is quite possible that Rafa was simply saying the above to help Keane settle in but who knows what the whole truth really was.
Keane still clearly holds Benitez in high regard as elsewhere in the same interview he stated that he is a “top manager” and that he was simply “the wrong manager at the wrong time for me” which is a real shame in so many ways.
After all, the Liverpool of 2008-2009 really should have won the title. They only lost two games all season in the league and thrashed the eventual champions Manchester United 1-4 at Old Trafford. What cost them was the staggering 11 draws over the course of the campaign. Converting just two of those into victories would have been enough to pip United to the post.
Upon deeper analysis it is hard to come to a convincing conclusion on what impact an extra few months of Keane would have been. Liverpool only dropped points on three occasions after he left with the majority coming in the first half of the season.
There were however three consecutive draws in January (Stoke, Everton, and Wigan) where the trust in Keane had clearly already dissipated. He only played 74 minutes combined in those fixtures including not leaving the bench at all against Stoke. This could have been a fatal case of Rafa’s stubbornness coming to to fore.
Was this a massive case of what could have been?
Despite contrary belief, Keane was far from a flop at Liverpool. He ended up netting 7 goals in 28 appearances (22 starts). In the scoring charts that season he still ended up fifth in Red behind Gerrard, Torres, Kuyt and Yossi Benayoun. Crucially he still ended up scoring more goals than both Albert Riera and Ryan Babel who were the typical left sided players that year.
Therefore, there is no doubt that Keane clearly provided some value for the Reds. Out of position or not, he was still an effective player. He scored 251 career club goals including over 100 in the Premier League and also an astonishing 68 goals for the Republic of Ireland. He certainly was no flash in the pan.
I of course have a slight bias towards Keane. Alongside Robbie Fowler he was my favourite players growing up and it was admittedly a dream come true to see him sign for Liverpool. I only wish it had lasted a little longer and be more fondly remembered by more. It was a still a pretty special season despite the disappointment and Keane certainly played his part. It was just a shame his time in Red didn’t last a bit longer…