By Marco Lopes
I recall the evening of the 28th August 2011, and the end of a rather challenging week for Arsene Wenger. Following acrimonious departures of Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas, an injury ridden team low on confidence were beaten 8-2 by a rampant Manchester United. The response from some Arsenal fans was immediate – “sack Wenger!” “Wenger’s lost it!” “His stubbornness with transfers has cost us!” They were 17th in the table at the end of that day.
Fast forward to 24th March 2012 – 7 wins in a row, and a team strengthened somewhat at the last minute by deals for several good players on deadline day, culminating in yet another win over Villa to consolidate a healthy lead for 3rd place in the table. The response? No comments to suggest Wenger was past it, or that the heavy defeat in August had finally forced his spending hand. No – instead, plaudits were abundant for the Frenchman. Strange – Wenger, while an excellent manager, is still stubborn, and make no mistake, it is too coincidental that his transfer activity picked up not long after the Old Trafford turf finished clearing his senses.
I bring this up because many Liverpool fans are being blamed for displaying the same fickle nature on a weekly basis (predominantly because the results seem to flow to each extreme 7 days at a time)! Most of this centres around the sense that Kenny Dalglish is not to be criticised.
So let me qualify upfront – I adore Kenny. I’ll always credit him with assisting the club from a very bad low last season. That was far worse than current times, no matter how much lower we sink in the table. There were substantial doubts over Liverpool’s future competitiveness as a club, and he did much to restore pride and identity back to this team. Not to mention his actions as a player, and a manager the first time round. And more than his footballing contributions; just his actions to assist the 96 are worth indefinite respect and admiration, far more than we can provide.
But we always come back to the football. And as far as his current management, I can’t help but judge Kenny by the same simple yardstick that I judge Evans, Houllier, Rafa and Roy, in my life as a Liverpool fan – results. To give you an example, my position on Rafa has always been controversial in that while I certainly consider him an excellent tactical thinker, his teams did not bring in all the results we wanted. You can judge it was not his fault and blame resources (or lack thereof) available, but 4 trophies in 6 years with the best assembled Liverpool teams of the past 20 years (arguably) just wasn’t enough in my opinion. Ironically, Kenny is 1 cup final away from achieving half of Rafa’s trophy tally in just 18 months in the job.
It’s clear from Liverpool’s own version of “the Apprentice” a couple of weeks back (at least, as far as we know) that there are some interesting opinions as it relates to Kenny within the echelons of the club itself.
With the sacking of Comolli – and it looks very much like he was sacked, to a large extent – come varying theories about the reasons. The most common ones suggest Comolli was blamed for Liverpool’s recent spending spree, and specifically its rather unspectacular end result – poor performing players, contributing to a poor league performance.
I personally think that Comolli was likely told to favour British based signings over foreign ones. Perhaps his choice of British players was poor (although Liverpool did enter the race for Ashley Young and Phil Jones) and he also did some poor negotiating in terms of prices.
Yet, Kenny was quick to suggest in the media that the under-performing signings were his decision, not Comolli’s. So, rather ironic that it was Kenny who received the vote of confidence. If Kenny was responsible, then Comolli’s sacking still doesn’t vindicate Kenny. The players we signed aren’t good enough, that’s why the team is underperforming. Or, as Kenny is pained to repeat (and duly did so after our defeat to West Brom), we’ve just been unlucky quite a few times.
Except 30 shots against the woodwork isn’t unlucky – a couple, yes, but not 30. To score only 40 goals in 34 matches is not unlucky either. Maybe your players are poor at shooting. Maybe you need a finishing coach. Maybe you need to change tactics to create easier-to-finish chances. Maybe all three.
In football, to be a success – you should be making your own luck.
Many are blaming the players for the slump, particularly the new signings. But is it really all their fault? 9 new players – Suarez being arguably our most technically gifted and clearly someone we need to retain. Coates and Doni barely play. Bellamy and Enrique have been largely good.
Charlie Adam wasn’t that overpriced, and has contributed several assists. He hasn’t been overly effective – but he was played incorrectly in defensive midfield several times this season. Surely Kenny could have recognised he’s a square peg in a round hole? And why was he allowed to take so many set-pieces when his delivery was consistently poor? If he was ineffective – then he should have been dropped a couple of times. At least, that’s how it should work.
Same for Henderson, who has also been played out of position several times (especially on the wing) and while he was overpriced, has shown flashes of being a good player – but a squad player at best.
Whoever chose to scout Downing and pay so much for a winger who can’t beat his marker chose the wrong player – simple as that. If he’s not effective – he shouldn’t be playing either.
I don’t understand how we have spent a season nursing the confidence of Carroll, our overpriced #9, who I feel sympathy for since he didn’t choose his transfer fee. Instead, I would like to ask why we didn’t spend it on a proven #9 who can link up well with Suarez. Are we to believe that even Liverpool outside of Europe can’t find someone with less than a £35 million price tag who can already score the goals we need? The goalscorers are out there – buying the “latest English sensation” at the time was lazy. And Liverpool need one – badly.
We can blame the existing players as well, but Johnson, Kelly, Skrtel, Lucas, Maxi and Agger have played well – and in Maxi’s case, far too little. Reina, Kuyt, Gerrard, Spearing, and Carra haven’t been consistent – but only Reina and Spearing play often as it is. Gerrard is a shadow of his former self. Spearing may not be everyone’s favourite – but considering he’s had to “replace” Lucas, I think he’s played beyond himself.
While we’re talking about Lucas – I also don’t want to undermine the his importance! If he was still fit, he would be our best player this season – and his presence in breaking up opposing attacking playmakers gives the rest of his teammates huge confidence to go forward.
Let’s also not forget the players who departed recently. Many were players that just aren’t the Liverpool standard. But I am a loss to explain why Meireles, Aquilani, and to a lesser extent Joe Cole (all better than some of our signings) have been allowed to go – especially given all three have far more technical skills than most of the current crop. I for one would love to see Aquilani back – but I’m expecting him to be sold – a great pity.
Comolli claimed early into the season that the squad was complete – whether that was his feeling, or Kenny’s, or both – it was wrong. Clearly the signings weren’t enough, the departures were incorrect, and the existing team hasn’t been well managed tactically.
Is it really about players, though? Is it really about them not trying hard enough? Or do we need more matches where there have been dominant statistics in possession and shots (especially off target) to suggest they don’t care enough? There are very few fixtures that come to mind where their application was lacking – Spurs (0-4), Bolton(1-3), Sunderland (0-1)… not much more than that. Then I think of Manchester City (1-1), Arsenal (1-2), West Brom (0-1)… where this slightly above average squad worked very hard to little reward in those matches.
I’d say the current squad depth is better than it was under Benitez. We have more options in certain positions, absolutely. But our first choice team (bar our back 4) doesn’t hold up with any of the teams in the top 6. (Before someone suggests that we have a better first choice XI than Newcastle, go check the table – results don’t lie very well).
If the players aren’t good enough, or aren’t configured on the field correctly – both those elements lie squarely with the manager.
I think the tactical discussion is relevant for this. I don’t buy the argument that Kenny is out of touch with the modern game – the team wouldn’t dominate possession the way it does in most matches if he didn’t understand some of the principles needed to compete. We also have a very good defensive unit, which often only concedes goals due to being forced out of position for attacking impetus, not because of a lack of defensive ability.
And Kenny has masterminded some outstanding tactical victories – the back to back wins against Chelsea in November and the Carling Cup semi-final win over Manchester City (both legs) come to mind as the recent demonstrations of that.
The table below illustrates Liverpool’s league record to date (midtable = Everton down to Stoke, relegation zone – Aston Villa down to Wolves):
Liverpool has taken 64% of available points in the relegation zone. 3 of their defeats have come here, but 2 of them by one goal. The 3 draws were down to our “bad luck”. 6 wins arguably come from Liverpool’s superior players – or some very poor opponents. Only once did Liverpool fail to score, away at Wigan.
Against midtable sides, Liverpool have secured a mere 36% of available points. Here is where Liverpool’s goalscoring issues are most evident. Their 4 defeats were all by 1 goal – and arguably only the Sunderland and Fulham games were deserved defeats where the opposition where demonstrably better (although at Fulham, we were down to 10 men for much of the game). Teams in midtable have generally displayed a determination to play for the point against Liverpool – and succeeded. So this is another case where the points dropped are down to “bad luck” – as opposed to our inability to create easy-to-convert chances when opposition “park the bus”. Liverpool failed to score in 6 fixtures here – 3 of them at Anfield.
Against the top 6, the record is weak. Not exactly supportive of the idea that the team needs “big matches” to perform.
But in cup matches, all this turns on its head.
One can argue there’s no point in parking the bus in a cup game unless you defend a lead. Liverpool did that admirably against Manchester City in the Carling Cup semifinal. I think Liverpool’s form in the cups comes down to opposition being more adventurous – leading to gaps in defences – and Liverpool’s natural style of play creates great counterattacking chances in matches like these, but not when teams park the bus. Few teams play cup games to avoid / minimise defeat – but in the league, that is certainly a viable objective. So we shouldn’t be surprised by West Brom putting 7 defenders in the 6 yard box. Liverpool, like the teams above them in the table, need to figure out ways of beating them.
True – the top 6 don’t play so negatively against Liverpool – but they are the top 6 for a reason – they have great players (most of them), so their quality invariably gets past an weaker Liverpool side. I’d argue only the home matches against Manchester City and Arsenal were “lucky” results for the visitors.
What’s the point? Tactics. Manchester United have made a point of learning how to get points against midtable and relegation threatened teams that park the bus. It’s not just about the right players – it’s also about tactical application.
There are some easy places to start – Liverpool, in 34 league matches, have been the dominant team in possession in 24+ of those matches. They’ve also attempted over 500 shots, hitting the target with far too few of those. They’ve attempted over 500 crosses. They’ve also received a massive stack of corners – the most in the league I’m sure – yet their goals from this source isn’t in double figures. All these statistics indicate a clear ability and consistency to take games to the opposition – but we’re not creating the right kinds of chances, nor do we have the right finishers. So ultimately, that’s why I think it becomes a case of looking at tactics as well as players. If the players we signed can’t execute the chosen tactics properly – then I would prefer Kenny to stop calling it luck – and call it what it really is – poor.
I’ll give Kenny the benefit of the doubt to an extent though – and time, because I do think we need to be prudent. Assuming FSG don’t have grand plans about the hierarchy in the summer (in terms of moving / removing Kenny), I think he wants that opportunity to finish what he started way back in the late 1980’s. We cannot underestimate how low the club was (and still could be) when he took over. I certainly don’t suspect people at the club are feeling comfortable after the dismissal of staff the other week, so we cannot be too presumptuous about the mood at the club.
And then of course we have the major positives. As much as people want to diminish our Carling Cup victory and our place in the FA Cup final, I see it as meaningful progress for Liverpool. The purpose of Liverpool Football Club is to win trophies. I do appreciate the importance of the Champions League (I wrote a blog some weeks back all about the money!). But I’m sure Spurs, Chelsea, Arsenal, Newcastle – whoever finishes 3rd and 4th – will be very slow to order that open-top bus to celebrate qualifying. We’ve not qualified, and it is a pity, but I think the currency of the club is trophies, and for a while, we didn’t even get close to competing for silver on more than one front at most.
If Kenny is introspective, and admits to himself that he’s made a few bad decisions, there is hope. Even if we don’t win the FA Cup, I think it’s quite likely that Kenny will stay for at least one more year.
And if he does – let’s hope his tactics improve, his signings are better, and his players improve their quality on the pitch.
If not – let’s wish FSG courage, because removing Kenny from his post will be difficult for Liverpool fans to accept. And let’s hope if that is the case – that someone outstanding comes in.