Improvements, but still plenty for Dalglish to do – opposition focus
Wednesday, 21st Mar 2012 00:38 by Clive Whittingham
Kenny Dalglish has quickly rebuilt the Liverpool team and ended a six year trophy drought but it hasn't all been plain sailing in a difficult campaign on and off the field.
Congratulations Liverpool , League Cup winners 2012.
It’s a measure of how the stock of our domestic cup competitions, and that one in particular, has fallen that you probably think I’m being sarcastic with that introduction. I’m not. When the Reds just about managed to see off Championship side Cardiff at Wembley recently there was much snide laughter and comment about how much they were celebrating despite the increasingly low prestige of the tournament and the fairly dreadful performance in the final. The plaudits went to Cardiff who many, rightly, believed deserved to win and Liverpool were sniggered about behind hands.
But why shouldn’t they be absolutely ecstatic? Football is about trophies and medals. You don’t sit your grandchildren down and tell them about the time you fielded a weakened team in the FA Cup and lost to Ipswich Town in round three but preserved your Premiership status with a sixteenth place finish thereafter do you? You sit them down and get your medals out. War, football or preferably both – kids love medals.
Liverpool are still in the FA Cup as well, facing an eminently winnable Wembley semi final with either Everton or Sunderland – three Wembley trips and two trophies is certainly not beyond the realms of possibility. Given the shambolic mess they were in just over 12 months ago, when a demoralised team with Christian Poulsen in midfield and Paul Konchesky at left back badly failed Roy Hodgson who had put it together under severe constraints imposed by a toxic boardroom situation, plummeted down the table. Kenny Dalglish’s stock continues to rise on the red half of Merseyside.
Or does it?
You see I think Liverpool have had a successful season, but then if you offered me relegation from the Premier League but an FA Cup win I’d take it. I like the idea of my team winning an actual piece of silverware and with the Champions League and dodgy foreign investment cash washing around the top of the Premiership QPR, and possibly Liverpool these days aswell, are never going to win that as long as I have a hole in my arse, so go for the stuff you can lift. Conventional wisdom though says if you’re not in the Champions League you’re nowhere. That top four is the be all and end all in modern day football – if Liverpool finish fifth with two cups there will be those that still believe the season to be a disappointment. They’re wrong, but they will exist.
As far as Champions League qualification goes Liverpool are no better under Dalglish than they were under Hodgson. Despite spending a colossal amount of money on the team, compared to the meagre budget Hodgson had to work with, they are currently seventh and ten points off the depressingly important fourth position. Prior to last week only Wolves and our own rag tag bunch of mentalists and under performers boasted worse league form post Christmas. The team is vastly improved, the football is a million times better, the boardroom situation has been rectified and trophies are starting to roll in again – progress has undoubtedly been made. But Champions League football, we're told, is what it's all about.
The finances that come with top four finishes are especially important to Liverpool with its old Anfield ground more of a tourist destination and financial millstone these days rather than any serious home advantage or fortress – nine teams have taken at least a point from there this season as the scores of fans, many from abroad, at their one match a season have sat in silent wonder and taken photographs.
Dalglish no doubt sat behind Hodgson in the main stand gnawing his finger nails down to the bone believing he could do the job a hell of a lot better than the former Fulham man. Not only has he found that picking a Liverpool team that can finish fourth or above isn’t all that easy any more, the modern day all-encompassing obsessive nature of the sport also seems to have caught him napping at times. The way the club, and Dalglish in particular, handled the Luis Suarez race incident was shameful and a huge embarrassment to the Liverpool name. Although Liverpool ’s board belatedly got a hold of the situation and started making the right noises Dalglish still needs little invitation to say that Suarez didn’t deserve his lengthy ban for repeatedly racially abusing Manchester United’s Patrice Evra. Clearly the Scot remains torn between what is right for the team and what is right, and he still keeps coming down on the wrong side of that line.
Liverpool are winning trophies again, but in many other respects this season they’ve lost – in the league, in the transfer market, in the media and in the public eye. None of that will have been lost on new American owner John W. Henry.
At short notice we coerced Liverpool fan Brian Durand into giving us a Liverpool perspective on his club. Thanks as always to Brian for helping out.
With the League Cup in the bag but Champions League qualification doubtful, has this season been a success for Liverpool ?
Not entirely. Obviously the first target was to secure Champions League football via a top four finish. However, the days of the big four have gone, and with City's money and Spurs' revival it was always going to be a challenge. Pleased that Kenny has taken the cups seriously though, as winning trophies should be the main focus of any football club.
Kenny Dalglish's signings seem a real mixed bag so far, with some very expensive players not living up to their price tags. How would you rate the manager's performance on the field and in the transfer market so far?
Kenny has made undoubted progress - it is important to remember where we were when he took over. The football we were playing was woeful. Sitting off teams and looking to play on the counter attack. Not the Liverpool way. It was strangling the club, and the players clearly did not believe in Roy Hodgson's methods. LFC was in serious danger of going into administration at one point and no club is immune from sliding down the leagues (Leeds, Nottm Forest etc ). We are just thankful to be back on an even keel and looking upwards rather than into an abyss.
Everybody harps on about big money 'flops', yet in this weekend's win over Stoke we had Spearing, Kelly, Carra, Gerrard (homegrown) and Maxi (free) in the side. Add to these Skrtel, Pepe Reina, Jose Enrique who were real bargains and you will see that it is wrong to keep mentioning the big fees for Carroll, Downing and Henderson. Also good to note that those three are all showing signs of bedding in recently.
Can Liverpool ever hope to compete for the league title again, bearing in mind the financial power and size of the two Manchester clubs and Chelsea, or are you essentially a cup team now?
Of course.The club was damaged by the previous owners. For four consecutive transfer windows we accrued negative spend and lost players such as Alonso and Mascherano. Worth noting that Man City were richest club in world (in terms of disposable income) for over three years before they even qualified for Champions League. Money is obviously a huge factor, but Swansea and Athletic Bilbao have shown that good teams can be assembled on much smaller budgets. By the way, Man United have not got any more spending power than LFC. They are treading a dangerous path, similar to one we headed down, amassing huge interest charges.
As far as being a cup side, the absence of European football this term has meant we could play strong teams in both cups. Kenny is a winner and he wants to win every competition he enters. There were only three competitions up for grabs for us this season, so with one in the bag and a semi in the FA Cup it has given the fans some great memories already. CL qualification is all well and good, but you won’t find many grandads in years to come telling their grandkids about the great seasons back in the day 'when we finished fourth'. The Carling Cup, although much maligned by some, gave us fans a brilliant weekend with memories to treasure for many a long year.
When you look at the respective matchday incomes of the top clubs it seems that Anfield holds Liverpool back rather. Where do you stand on the question of relocating from the club's spiritual home?
Tough call.Pleased that the new owners (FSG) are taking their time on this, and not making rushed PR-driven promises. FSG are keen to renovate/expand the existing site, but difficulties in planning and compulsory purchase look like forcing us into Stanley Park . Both options have advantages and disadvantages, but hopefully we move forward and increase matchday revenue.
What is your opinion of the Luis Suarez v Patrice Evra incident? To an outside looking in Liverpool really didn't seem to come out of that with much credit. Is Suarez worth the hassle he brings?
Probably best not to dwell on this one too much. Suffice to say, it was one man's word against another's. LFC representatives who were at the hearing and heard the evidence could not believe that Luis was found guilty 'on the balance of probabilities'. There was also the suspicion that Suarez was set up in the 'handshake incident'. Undoubtedly, mistakes were made in the way it was handled. However,as I say, hopefully it is all water under the bridge now. He's had his ban, he'll get the abuse, our fans will be tarnished as racists. Accept it and move on.
Is Luis worth the trouble he brings? Don't believe the media campaign, Luis is a great to have around the club. Fantastic player.
Who have been the stand out performers and weak links in the team this year?
Results may have been a bit hit and miss, but the performances have generally been good. With a few exceptions, notably at Bolton, Spurs and Sunderland , we have played well often without reward. The recent game against Arsenal was a prime example. In fact against Man City , United, Spurs and Arsenal at home we were clearly the better side, but failed to win any of those matches. So the biggest disappointment has not been any individual, more our inability to put the ball into the net. Missing penalties on a regular basis has not helped.
As far as stand out performers, Martin Skrtel has been a revelation in recent months. It seems he grew in confidence whilst Carra was out of the side and Agger and him forged a great CB pairing. Lucas Leiva was our best player until his season was cut short in November. Enrique has done very well, and wee Jay Spearing is an excellent foil for Stevie G. Jay closes things down so quickly and keeps the ball moving, allowing the skipper to do what he does best.
What are the club's aims for the short, medium and long term?
Short term = win the next match. Medium term goal is to chase as many points as we can and see where that takes us, along with trying to secure another trip to Wembley for the FA Cup Final. Two cups would be a great fillip for everyone, especially the younger fans who have to listen to us old timers telling tales of cup finals across the decades.
In the long term, we obviously must aim to win the Premier League. Shrewd business and patience from the fans and owners can take us towards that goal. It may take a year or two (or ten!) but that is the ultimate target for Liverpool Football Club and every LFC supporter.
On a final note, it is great to have QPR back in the top flight. Similar to us, I don’t think Rangers have got just rewards for their performances. The game at Anfield was a tight affair. Expecting a tough game at Loftus Road this week, it's always a difficult place to go. It will be nice to see Djib Cisse (The Lord of Frodsham) back in action, as he was one of our heroes of Istanbul , after fighting back from a horrific broken leg. Hopefully, we get the breaks on the night and can come away with a win. Looking at your remaining fixtures, it is going to be a hard slog for Rangers - you've certainly got some sticky games coming up! Good luck anyway (especially on April 8!)
Like Alan Shearer at Newcastle and, arguably, John Terry and Frank Lampard at Chelsea , Kenny Dalglish had to be given the Liverpool manager’s job again following Hodgson’s demise. Having made it plain that he wanted it, no other manager would ever have been given a fair crack of the whip by supporters or players until he’d had a go.
At Newcastle Shearer got his chance, the team was relegated anyway and since then Chris Hughton and Alan Pardew have done excellent jobs free from the very large elephant that previously wandered around the room holding a sign saying “Things would be better if Shearer was in charge” in its trunk. At Stamford Bridge I think we’re rapidly approaching a point where Terry and Lampard should just manage the team themselves, since they’re pretty much doing so already and will continue to undermine anybody who comes in and dares not to pick them for games.
At Liverpool the situation was slightly different because Dalglish had done the job before, with great success, but resigned in 1991 because of the stress of it all and had not worked successfully as a manager for more than a decade prior to last season. Nevertheless Liverpool fans besieged radio phone ins during Hodgson’s difficult eight months in charge, beginning phone calls by insisting that Liverpool fans were not known for calling for managerial sackings at the drop of a hat, and then calling for a managerial sacking and saying Dalglish must be appointed. Watching the slow and grizzly demise of a football manager is difficult enough at the best of times - a human being standing out there on the touchline alone with his thoughts in the rain while his players let him down and 38,000 people noisily blame him and question his parentage – but when it’s happening to somebody as decent as Roy Hodgson it’s especially uncomfortable.
Liverpool fans got their way. Hodgson was ousted, Dalglish moved down from his seat in the director’s box to the one in the dugout he’d voluntarily walked away from previously and has already delivered a first trophy since 2006.
You can perhaps tell that I’m slightly sympathetic to Roy Hodgson after the way he was treated by Liverpool . Appointed to follow Rafael Benitez whose popularity in this part of the world is totally excessive when compared to his achievements in the latter part of his reign, Hodgson was in the unhappy position of not being Kenny Dalglish right from the start. If that wasn’t tough enough he was lumbered with the worst boardroom situation of any club in the country and left to cobble together a squad that fans expected to compete with Man City, Man Utd and Chelsea but was assembled on a budget not dissimilar to the one QPR are working with this term. What exactly was the man supposed to do?
Just as every Newcastle manager had to put up with club legend Shearer sitting in waiting for their job while passing judgement on their performance on Match of the Day, so Hodgson had to work under the shadow of Dalglish.
As a player he was a two club man – Celtic and Liverpool . He averaged a goal every other game for the former over more than 200 appearances and eight years during which he won four Scottish league titles when they were worth winning, four Scottish cups and one Scottish League Cup. At Liverpool he averaged a goal every three games over 350-odd appearances and won six titles, four League Cups, an FA Cup, five Charity Shields, three European Cups and a Super Cup. He took up a player manager position with Liverpool in 1985 and won three titles, two FA Cup and four Charity Shields. You can see why the fans in this part of the world idolise him, despite his resignation through stress post Hillsborough in 1991.
He won a league title, at Anfield after a defeat ironically, with Blackburn at a time when they were the big spending club in English football. But unhappy spells at Newcastle and Celtic subsequently followed and it seemed that Dalglish had had his day. Only Liverpool would have given him a job in the modern era, and it remains to be seen whether sentiment has overruled common sense here. Results on and off the field so far are much more mixed than supporters of the club, who revere Dalglish, would dare to admit. The team is undoubtedly better, and already has a trophy in the bag, but Dalglish has contributed to a tarnishing of the club’s image this season, has spent a ridiculous amount of money on some very average players, and looks set to miss out on the Champions League again.
However he does he was undoubtedly the right appointment. Liverpool was a club that was tearing itself apart, with a dreadful team and turbulent boardroom situation. New owner John Henry has shown with his management of the Boston Red Sox in the US that he knows the power of tradition and history within a sporting club and quickly recognised that by appointing Dalglish he would transform the entire atmosphere at the club in one fell swoop – an outsider may have taken months or years to achieve the mood shift his appointment managed in a single instant. Henry knows that Dalglish will be given five times as long (at least) by the supporters as any other manager to get things right because of his history at Anfield.
You don’t have to be much of a tactician to see what Dalglish had in mind when he was assembling his Liverpool team at the end of last season and beginning of this. He wanted the big, angry, aggressive, unplayable Andy Carroll that had exploded into Premiership life with Newcastle alongside niggly, technically gifted, often unplayable Luis Suarez in a classic big man little man strike partnership. He wanted Stuart Downing on one wing swinging over crosses and scoring goals as he had done for Aston Villa last season (seven goals and nine assists in 2010/11) to feed them with deep lying attacking support from Steven Gerrard, vision and incisive passing from Charlie Adam and hard yards and work covered by Jordan Henderson.
The problem, as QPR have found, is that things rarely look as good on grass as they do on paper. Carroll was vastly overrated at £35m anyway and the price tag and his insistence on behaving, and drinking, like somebody who lays brick for a living have weighed heavy on him. Downing has been poor and sported a scored none, assisted none statistic until recent goals in the FA Cup against Oldham and Stoke added some respectability – not much mind. Henderson has gone altogether, another perhaps weighed down by his price tag but certainly a shadow of the all conquering bright young thing who tore Chelsea apart in a 3-0 Sunderland win at Stamford Bridge last season. Gerrard has struggled for most of the season with injury while Adam, along with a revised back four that increasingly has no room for Jamie Carragher, have been success stories.
With this mixed bag of success and failure in mind it’s no surprise to see Liverpool splutter and stall in the league. Against Man City at home earlier this season, where Carroll started on the bench, I was sad enough to sit and note the number of players they had in the penalty area awaiting each cross in open play – it was never more than three, and on six occasions it was Suarez by himself. Carroll came on late in that game and suddenly it was never less than two and usually three or more. But only recently has he started to play well enough to justify inclusion.
Carroll did start last week against Everton when I sat down to watch them again and, although he was still a shadow of his former Newcastle self, Suarez looked more dangerous alongside him than he does without and the defenders were so occupied with the pair of them it created space and chances for Gerrard who scored the first home hat trick for Liverpool in a Merseyside derby in 76 years. The first of those goals came amidst confusion created by an ambitious overlapping run from right full back Martin Kelly – the youngster could have scored twice in that game and judged both the timing of the runs and the occasions when they could be effective to perfection all evening.
That was a difficult game to scout Liverpool in because Everton rested six players with an eye on the FA Cup, but David Moyes did choose to go very direct and physical in a way that Mark Hughes could easily do with QPR and ended up with a 3-0 defeat which should serve as a warning – Liverpool can be got at, but not through brute strength.
Obviously Luis Suarez, if he plays, is threat in chief and while his chronic lack of composure in front of goal means he doesn’t score as many as he should I’m not convinced QPR have a centre back at the club capable of dealing with his movement and intelligence.
Perhaps our best hope on that front is that this is Liverpool ’s fourth match of five in two weeks and Suarez, who picked up a knock at the end of the Stoke game at the weekend, may not play a full game. That and the space that Fulham managed to find, and win in, between their defence and midfield which could play into the hands of people like Taarabt and Buzsaky. That was caused by the season ending injury to mediocre-player-come-good Lucas whose role has been filled more recently by young Jay Spearing.
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