EighteenAndFive

In-depth and Intelligent Views on Liverpool FC & Football in General

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Henderson, Adam & Downing – How Right are They for the Reds?


Alright, so I haven’t written anything on 18and5 for a while because, frankly, there hasn’t been anything compelling enough to write about. The signing by Liverpool of Jordan Henderson caused a fair bit of debate, mainly over the price tag I suppose, but all in all the completion of a transfer so early in the Summer was enough to assuage anybody’s doubts that it was the right thing to do, and things looked rosy. Then we had a quiet spell before the Charlie Adam deal was finally wrapped up, and again the odd voice was heard over whether he was the right signing for the club. Again though, things quietened down fairly quickly and it seemed most people agreed that the price (presumed around £8 million) was pretty good, considering Blackpool wanted £10 million or more just six months ago.

But now the Reds are on the verge of adding a third British player in Stewart Downing, for a fee rumoured to be between £18 – 20 million, and there seems to be a bit of a divide as to whether this approach to players is the right way to go.

edit – Alexander Doni has been signed by Liverpool since I started writing this, but as a second choice goalkeeper he doesn’t really affect any part of this argument!

There are several angles I want to answer this question from; or at least give my answer to it.

Firstly – the perceived ‘unspectacularness’ of the signings. Secondly – why these players have been targeted. And thirdly – how can they fit in and be the right signings for Liverpool?

Let’s go back to the beginning. Late into the transfer window in January, the Reds sell two forwards (Babel and Torres) and sign two forwards (Carroll and Suarez). Much rejoicing was to follow when Torres looked like Sean Dundee playing for Chelsea, and Suarez proved every bit as good as any newcomer we have seen over the past few seasons – probably since Torres himself came in and smacked 24 league goals in his debut season, in fact.

From then on, people seemed to think that all the new signings for Liverpool were going to be equally spectacular, equally mind-blowing in their impact, equally expensive as well probably. It was (rightly) pointed out that NESV/FSG had roughly broken even in January, with the two outgoing sales compensating for the two signings, and the management went right ahead and told us there would be spending in the summer, as long as the right deals were there.

So many names were thrown around – Phil Jones, Blackburn’s new kid on the block ‘destined’ for great things (so were Jamie Cassidy and Anthony Le Tallec I will add); Juan Mata, Valencia’s Spanish creative forward; Ashley Young of Aston Villa, Ezequiel Lavezzi, a hundred different others – that it seemed the home-based and household names of Downing and Adam held little interest for some supporters any more, especially as they were ‘old news’ as the club was linked with a move for both in the January window.

Now those two (well Downing hasn’t officially signed at the time of writing but it seems a mere formality given Aston Villa have accepted LFC’s bid) and Henderson have joined the club it seems that there is a slight feeling of anti-climax about Liverpool’s transfer dealings, despite the fact (or perhaps, for some people, because of it?) that Liverpool have spent somewhere between £42 million and £50 million this summer, recouping only around £1.5 million in return for the sale of Paul Konchesky to Leicester City.

Let’s stop and take stock there for a second. Fifty million quid spent, next to nothing brought back in.

Think back a year; the Reds brought in two Bosman signings (Cole and Jovanovic), a back-up ‘keeper (Jones), re-signed Aurelio for free, brought in Shelvey and Wilson on pre-arranged deals which though could rise significantly only initially laid out around £3 million in total for both, splashed out ten million on Raul Meireles and wasted about ten million and two youth players on Poulsen and Konchesky.

A total outlay of about £25 million… recouped in large part by the single sale of Javier Mascherano to Barcelona.

Oh, and Liverpool also sold Damien Plessis, Diego Cavalieri, Yossi Benayoun, Miki San Jose, Albert Riera, Krisztian Nemeth and Nikolay Mihaylov, all of whom brought in transfer fees. Aquilani, Degen, Insua and El Zhar were also loaned out to remove them (at least partly) from the wage bill.

This was nothing new – several transfer windows in a row Liverpool brought in more money than they spent. Is it any wonder we spiralled down the table? Now look back at our current spend: £50 million – so far. Is that not reason enough to be happy? Is it not better to have spent this money within six weeks on Premier League players rather than servicing two years’ worth of debt interest with it? Regardless of every single Liverpool fans’ opinion on these three players, should we not simply be pleased that we are once again in a position to do business rather than be forced to sell to cover the mismanagement of the club?

Henderson, Adam, Downing.

Not spectacular names. But names nonetheless, names who have or will agree to come to Liverpool to try their hardest, to play for Kenny Dalglish, to win trophies. That’s good enough for me for starters.

The second and third parts of my argument – why these three players and also how will they fit in to the squad? – link together somewhat, but let’s see first why the trio were targeted.

The Reds have a large number of midfielders now; Gerrard, Lucas, Meireles, Spearing, Maxi, Poulsen, Shelvey, Cole and Jovanovic (if you include him as a wide midfielder, though not his actual position he did play there mostly for the Reds) from last season and now the return of Aquilani plus Downing, Henderson and Adam. Lots of players for three or four positions, but we’ll get there in a moment.

I won’t go into the statistics too much at this point; they have been covered in many articles already by many blogs or writers and I’m sure most people reading this will probably have heard them already, especially the one about the three new boys combined having created enough chances between them last season at their old clubs to account for 56% of the total chances Liverpool as a whole created during 2010-11. If you didn’t know that one already, now you do!

But what precisely is it that they bring to the club? Henderson signed first, so let’s consider him. He can play out on the flank on the right as well as in his more favoured central role; he can play very much a box-to-box type of role or be much more the focal point of attack through the middle; he can pass well, has a very good cross on him and has pace and stamina to spare. Above all, it is perhaps the potential of the player that Liverpool have signed; at 21 years of age he is the youngest player to be signed for the first team for some time and he has yet the capability to get better at everything.

He already though offers an attacking presence, endless running and no shortage of creativity and flair in the centre. Saying that, I envisage that he will find more playing time, at the beginning of this season at least, out on the right flank – I’ll explain why a bit more in part three, though of course his crossing ability and pace stand out as immediate advantages.

Charlie Adam, well we can already see what he will bring to the club. The first thing is his set piece delivery, which Liverpool have been less-than-excellent at for some time. With Carroll, Kyrgiakos, Agger and Kuyt (and Gerrard, if he is not taking them now) awaiting set piece deliveries we should be a much more potent side than we have been from corners and free kicks. Suddenly we have gone from perhaps two alternately good and poor takers in Gerrard and Aurelio to both those two, plus all three new signings took various types of set pieces at their former clubs. Jonjo Shelvey, should he play more of a part in the first team this season, will also want to get a look in.

Other than that, Adam brings a certain balance to the midfield by being left footed. It might not sound like a big deal, but it can have an effect on game situations – how many times have we seen the ball move from the left side across the centre, then across again, and again, and again until it reaches the right flank, merely because Maxi-to-Lucas-to-Meireles-to-Gerrard-to-Kuyt involves all predominantly right footed players who prefer to shift the ball across themselves before making the pass, giving the opposition defence an extra half a second to narrow the angle, close a player down or mark a free runner. Mixing a left footed player in there gives the option of an inside-of-the-foot first time pass while the ball is travelling left to right, as well as a cross from deep without needing to check back inside first. I don’t know how long it will be before Adam puts a cross on the head of Carroll from a similar sort of distance and area of the pitch to that of Meireles for Carroll’s second goal against Man City last season, but I bet it’s not long – a chance which otherwise might not have been taken while one of the other midfielders switched the ball to their right foot.

Adam can also feature when needed further wide as a left midfielder, and presumably will have no trouble playing as either a deep lying player ahead of the back line (though I don’t expect him to need to play that role often) or in the ‘Steven Gerrard’ role behind one forward. However, I am fairly sure he will be the ‘second’ midfielder, the on-the-ball midfielder who gets our attacks going and probes the opposition midfield and defence with alternating long and short passes. That is the other thing Adam brings; a range of passing which the likes of Suarez, Gerrard and Downing eventually will thrive on with their excellent movement.

And so on to Stewart Downing. Why Downing is needed is fairly obvious; we have no left footed, left sided midfielder and haven’t had since Albert Riera effectively threw himself overboard mid 2009-10 season with his Rafa Benitez comments. Before that, a succession of failed Sebastian Leto’s, Mark Gonzalez’s and Harry Kewell’s have failed to consistently deliver from that side.

Left footed crossing from the left seems to be fading out somewhat in the Premiership as teams more and more often try the ole’ “switch the flanks” routine, having right footed players cut in from the left and vice versa. Great, and effective at times, but variation is the key to a successful attack and even as someone who does not, generally speaking, like wingers I can accept and indeed encourage the fact we need someone in the squad who is going to hug the flank at times, stretch the play, beat a defender and get a cross over.

I’ve heard the arguments about Mata over Downing and yes, he is undoubtedly a better player but he is also not the same type of player. Nor is Santi Cazorla, for whoever it was saying we should have signed him instead of Downing. He’s also not left footed.

I also read a complaint of sorts that Downing “just pushes the ball past the defender” to beat him and cross, presumably being a moan that he doesn’t do several step-overs first or some kind of Brazilian skill move which ends in -o. Erm, so what? Surely the whole point of having a wide player in the team – and the reason I don’t like them much – is receiving end product? If Downing has a way of providing that then that is what we need, no matter how it is delivered.

He can, of course, play right the way across the midfield having spent a spell in the centre of the park after James Milner’s departure, and frequently featured on the right flank for both club and country last term and before.

Downing is a good crosser, has a fair shot on him from around the edge of the area and does carry a set piece threat, though perhaps not on par with Adam. His right foot is not exceptionally strong but he isn’t afraid to use it, which is more than can be said for a lot of players on the Liverpool squad list. We know he will work hard, put in a shift and get through a lot of selfless running and will, in my opinion, be an asset to the club.

Could we have got a faster winger? Yes. Could we have got a cheaper winger? Definitely. Could we have got one who was faster, cheaper and provided the same number of chances that Downing will create next season? We’ll never know, but I would argue probably not. As for the people who think the transfers have been geared towards throwing the ball up towards Andy Carroll’s disturbingly hairy head, either have a word with yourself – this is a Kenny Dalglish side we’re talking about – or else just rest easily in the knowledge you are happily wrong.

Not that we’ll never do that; if you have a Rory Delap throw in, you use it; and if you have a hairy cannon-ball header of the ball, you use it.

And one other important offering from all three players. For far too long, Liverpool have been reliant on a few match-winners who, when missing, the team struggles to replace. I’m not just talking about goalscoring, but all areas of winning matches. Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard, obviously. Dirk Kuyt, Daniel Agger and previously Xabi Alonso, Javier Mascherano, Luis Garcia and Yossi Benayoun. Aside from Mascherano’s final (full) season and Alonso’s second season, all of those ‘match winners’ who have left the club suffered significant injury problems and missed at times fair chunks of almost each season. Gerrard last season only played slightly more than half the league games, while the normally reliable Kuyt also missed half a dozen games through injury. In fact, aside from Martin Skrtel, no outfield player managed more than 32 starts for Liverpool in last season’s Premier League. Go back even further – Kewell, Smicer, Berger, Owen, Fowler – all match winners who battled injury time and time again for the Reds until they were replaced.

I am not suggesting that the three new lads will immediately (or ever, if compared to Gerrard and Fowler) have a match-winning ability on the scale of these other names, but they do have their talents which can help the Reds win games. And last season Adam played 35 of Blackpool’s 38 league games. The season before, 43 from 46. Jordan Henderson played 37 of 38 last year and in his first full season played 33. Downing last season played all 38 games. He suffered an injury in 2009-10 but in 08-09 played 37 of 38. The year before, the full 38 again. The year before, 34. These three new signings have a track record of being fit and available for their teams, and that amongst all their other traits is also something to be admired; something which will benefit Liverpool a thousand times more than Kewell being injured even if you liked how he beat a man better than Downing; more than Berger being injured even if he had a harder left footed shot than Adam and more than Jamie Redknapp being injured for two and a half years even if he was club captain and Jordan Henderson never will be.

And so now to how these players can fit in to the squad, and why are they right for Liverpool.

This last part is a bit more tricky and involves a certain few assumptions on my part, but hopefully fairly safe ones.

My first assumption is that Dalglish is focussing on playing some variation of a 4:3:3 system at most times this season. It’s the only formation which makes sense to me really; whether that be a 4:2:3:1 or a 4:5:1 or a true 4:3:3. They are all very small variations of the same essential system. One striker, 2 supporting players in differing positions, 3 central players. We also saw a 3:4:3 (3:6:1, whatever you want to call it) a few times last season which is also adaptable from the 4:3:3 I propose that we will play.

Based on this, let us discount for now from the squad list all goalkeepers, defenders and the holding midfielders, which is a very specialised position and for which we have Lucas Leiva, Jay Spearing and if he stays Christian Poulsen. Conor Coady as a prospect looks like he may get game time in this position in a cup competition this season perhaps.

That leaves us with five positions to fill (two central midfield and the front three) from currently the remaining 10 midfielders – Gerrard, Meireles, Maxi, Shelvey, Cole, Jovanovic, Aquilani, Downing, Henderson and Adam – plus Kuyt, Suarez, Carroll, Pacheco and Ngog – fifteen players. Three per position is obviously too many in a season where we will play between 40 and 51 matches, compared to our usual 50 or more in a European campaign with at least moderate success in the domestic cups.

Milan Jovanovic is almost certain to leave shortly, while it seems likely that at least one of Maxi Rodriguez and Joe Cole will depart. It seemed sure after last season that Maxi would go after claiming he wanted to return to Argentina but his new squad number (11) seems to indicate that he will stay. The latest rumours for Cole have Aston Villa chasing him, though I am still tempted to keep hold of him for now. Ngog can leave if a team offers the right money for him, while Pacheco is likely to have another loan spell.

With Jovanovic, Pacheco and Ngog taken out of the equation we have 12 players for five positions. This is probably about the number we need to have – the argument will be whether the 12 players are the right 12 we need.

For me, Gerrard and Adam offer good compatibility with each other while Meireles and Aquilani, two more of who it has been argued that one could/should leave, offer great depth as alternatives for or alongside either player. That leaves Shelvey as a fifth, who has already shown his versatility playing both at right midfield and left back – though clearly has a future as a central player.

A front three of Suarez-Carroll-Kuyt is intriguing but simplistic; Downing and Henderson offer excellent potential on either side of that triumvirate for varying the method of attack. Quite clearly we want Suarez to start as many games as possible and he can play right the way across that 3 as well as being a ‘second’ striker if we alter the plan. Kuyt is similarly versatile, if entirely different in style.

Downing as mentioned already can play both sides of that system, offering regular delivery and width in an otherwise possibly predictable line-up. Please note, I say predictable, not stoppable. We know Luis will love to pick the ball up in the left channel and drive in towards the goal; which is not to say that defenders will be able to stop him. Downing however will offer an alternative option and allows Suarez to play more centrally at times, or else he will offer a direct goal threat cutting in off the right side onto his left foot, a la Adam Johnson for Manchester City.

Henderson on the right side of a three is an option which really interests me. I know Kuyt is the main man, and will likely continue to be so, but he can also play centrally and Henderson will certainly get plenty of chances, even if it is off the bench to begin with. But with his drive and pace and willingness to run at defenders I truly think he can be a massive part of the Liverpool attack this season. His crossing is very intelligent; not just curling a high ball in or flashing a driven effort across the box but actively searching out runners, high and low, something which both our January deadline-day buys will appreciate.

The former Sunderland man is also exceedingly capable of scoring a good few goals for the Reds from that position in my opinion; he can get in the box to provide great support very quickly and has a decent shot on him. I am particularly looking forward to seeing him in this kind of role for the Reds, even if long-term he might be being thought about within the club as a central player.

That leaves us with Maxi and Cole. Two different kinds of players, both who play from out wide on either side, neither of which are a ‘winger’. Maxi relies on movement and quick passing to be effective; Cole on technique and trying the unexpected. It didn’t work out for Cole last season but, and I fully appreciate I stand to be shot down somewhat here, I still would give him another chance, at least until January. I understand the wages could be prohibitive and if there is a buyer who will offer him first team action he might want to go, but I have always admired how Cole came back from criticism in the past (see as a young captain at West Ham, and later his work rate issues under Mourinho) and would like to see him do it at Anfield and deliver what he is really capable of.

And, I might add, this system with wide runners, good off-the-ball movement from any of them, cutting inside or staying wide, is another big reason for the signing of Charlie Adam, and why I think we will play a 4:3:3. His long range passes have been well highlighted, sometimes for good arguments (great passer) and sometimes for bad (comparatively poor pass completion rate), but with runners such as Downing, Suarez, Maxi or Henderson I think we will see the best of Adam from this second central position, right in the middle of the park with one (e.g. Lucas or Spearing) behind him tidying up and one (e.g. Gerrard or Meireles) taking up more aggressive positions in the final third. He can pick out the runners and the players at Liverpool are generally speaking more technically and tactically savvy.

Maxi I can take or leave; seven goals in three games was great but for eighteen months he has been alternatively good and anonymous and I would not look on with an enormous amount of regret – though with fondness, don’t get me wrong – if he was to eventually depart the club this summer.

Something else I’d like to bring up at this point; I have mentioned the duos of Meireles-Aquilani and Downing-Henderson ‘second’ when talking about players for each position. This doesn’t mean I see any of them playing a back up role. Fans need to understand now that there is not a ‘first eleven’ any more; there is not a first teamer and a back up for each position. There are back ups, no doubt about it, Poulsen will be proof of one if he doesn’t move on this summer and the recently arrived Doni will be one for Reina, but in key areas of the outfield team we need more first teamers than there are positions – and this is something which has held Liverpool back for far too long.

In central midfield, for example, teams don’t need two (4:4:2) or three (4:3:3) first teamers and two or three back ups, a top side playing three in the middle need four or arguably even five first pick central midfielders, as well as another one or two floating about spare.

There’s no list of “Centre mids: Lucas and Gerrard, then Meireles and Adam; right side, Kuyt then Henderson; up front, Carroll and Suarez, then Ngog.” No. Henderson will play right, and centre, and possibly left. Downing the same. Gerrard possibly even the same. Dirk will play right and up front, and in behind. Luis will play all over the show.

Dalglish is building a side capable of playing from one set formation, many systems – that’s the way it must be done. And therefore, players need to be able to play several positions if necessary; the more they can, the more chance of getting game time they have. Downing and Henderson in particular offer Kenny that.

Of course, if Kenny is going for a 4:4:2 then this ‘list’ goes out the window somewhat and we can expect another attacker to be on the way, along with at least one of the named central midfielders departing, but somehow I just don’t see it at this stage.

The eleven players who take the pitch on any given match day don’t alter the fact that it is a squad game now and we need so many more than 12, 13 or 14 players who can play well and often, which is what we’ve had before. I have to admit, though I still want a left back to come in, if we sign no other player after that I will be more than satisfied with the summer’s work by the club.

Were Henderson, Adam and Downing my first choice signings at the beginning of summer for the Reds? No. Do I think therefore that they are bad signings, or wrong signings now? Only time will tell, but I am confident they won’t be. They have been signed with a plan in mind, and if Kenny is the designer then we can’t go too far wrong. Players can get better playing with better team mates and all three players have stepped up a level in moving to Anfield. It is also a fact, long proven over time, that Kenny Dalglish improves players and can get better performances out of them over a season.

Maybe not spectacular signings, maybe not earth-shattering signings, maybe even one or two overpriced signings – but if they are the right signings for Liverpool Football Club, that is perfectly fine with me.

Victory Over City Gives Glimpse of Liverpool’s Youth Culture Future


For the first time in what seems like an age, Liverpool’s conveyor belt of young talent, somewhat rusty and creaky in recent years with disuse, is finally back in motion.

Last night’s victory for the Reds over Manchester City was a point of celebration for many reasons, not least of all the comprehensive manner in which Kenny Dalglish’s patched-together team disposed of Roberto Mancini’s expensively-assembled legion of international stars, nor the occasion of Andy Carroll’s first goals for the club as our new number nine, but also because of the noticeable effect on a good first team performance from a number of locally-produced players.

Vice captain Jamie Carragher, central midfielder Jay Spearing and teenage full-back debutant John Flanagan made up almost a third of Liverpool’s outfield players who came directly through the club’s academy programme, local graduates who have made it to the biggest of all stages, playing in the Premier League at Anfield.

Add to that list left back Jack Robinson, still only 17, who was on the bench for the game as an unused substitute and the missing club captain Steven Gerrard and defender Martin Kelly, both ruled out through injury, and the local-bred influence in first team affairs is once again beginning to rear its head, with four local-born ‘regulars’ and two very promising full backs in the squad.

Not since Gerrard himself broke through to establish himself as a first team regular have Reds fans had someone local to back as they bid to make the grade; at least, not for any significant period of time.

Plenty of players have come and gone of course, some making a dozen or more appearances before succumbing to being released, sold on or deemed not good enough and replaced by imports from the continent and beyond.

Stephen Warnock, with 67 appearances, heads the list of those who ran a hard race but ultimately failed to make it as a regular, while the likes of Neil Mellor (22 games, 6 goals), Stephen Wright (21, 1) and Darren Potter (17) all had their moments in the first team before moving on. The list of players who graduated from the academy to make a handful of appearances is even longer – Lee Peltier (4), Danny Guthrie (7), John Welsh (10), Jon Newby (4), Jon Otsemobor (6), David Raven (4), Richie Partridge (3), Zak Whitbread (7), James Smith (1) and Layton Maxwell (1) are just some of them – while the likes of Paul Harrison, a goalkeeper who was on the club’s books during Rafa Benitez’s reign, made the bench over a dozen times for the first team without actually playing. New Wolves recruit Adam Hammill was another youth player who after several loan moves found himself transferred permanently without having worn the Red of Liverpool in a competitive game. Current full back Stephen Darby, on loan at present to Notts County, has also made 6 appearances and looks set to be another offloaded without quite proving good enough.

Add to that the list of players who were signed as youngsters, either at Academy or reserve team level, and had brief spells in the first team and the picture begins to take shape that perhaps things were not quite being done as they should have been somewhere along the line; whether in the scouting department or that of the coaching, perhaps we will never know. Sebastian Leto (4), Lauri Dalla Valle (1), Antonio Barragan (1), Miki Roque (1), Jack Hobbs (5), Frode Kippe (2), Gabriel Paletta (8, 1), Damien Plessis (8, 1) all came and went, while the likes of Paul Anderson, Haukur Gudnason, Miki San Jose, Alex Kacaniklic, Godwin Antwi and of course Krisztian Nemeth all left without a single minute of first team action to their name.

But now a new clutch of youngsters are at the club; both locally-born and signed from afar.

And perhaps a new era of Liverpool Football Club is upon us; not just in terms of the owners and the manager – which will surely be officially Kenny Dalglish, sooner or later – but also in terms of the effectiveness of producing our own new crop of first team players.

Martin Kelly, so excellent during the middle part of this season until his injury sidelined him, has now made 27 appearances for the club, more than any other academy graduate since Stephen Warnock left for Blackburn Rovers in January 2007.

Jay Spearing, repaying the faith shown in him by Dalglish of late and completely dominating the midfield last night alongside Lucas Leiva against £12 million Gareth Barry and £24 million Yaya Toure, has now played 21 times for the Reds, and recently penned a new contract as he continues his development. At 22 years of age, his push into the first team has come slightly later than some might say is the right age, but Spearing is now showing ample proof that he can be a part of the rebuilding of the Liverpool squad – certainly is some distance ahead of the vastly more experienced Christian Poulsen, who failed to even make the bench last night.

Flanagan and Robinson have each now made their Reds bows, while Thomas Ince also made his debut earlier this season, Andre Wisdom has figured on the bench and on-loan forward Nathan Eccleston has made 9 Reds appearances. Add to that Conor Coady who was recently handed a squad number and has been involved in first team travelling and training, as well as free-scoring striker Adam Morgan in the under 18’s (17 goals in his last 12 games at the time of writing) and it is clear that the young contingent at the club, brought up through the Academy at Kirkby from a variety of ages, are now reaping the benefits of both the faith in them by the main man at the helm, Dalglish – who of course oversaw their development as part of his Academy ambassador role – and also their string of coaches on the way up the Liverpool Youth teams’ ladders, culminating most recently in Rodolfo Borrell with the under 18’s and (latterly) John McMahon and Pep Segura in the Reserves.

At first team level this season, Danny Wilson and Jonjo Shelvey have also had some limited impact – neither bought to the club as ‘youth players’ as such, but at just 18 years old each certainly signings with more than half an eye on the future of the club. Current back up to Pepe Reina, Peter Gulacsi, joined the club as a 17 year old, initially on loan and later permanently.

Other youngsters plying their trade in both the under 18’s and reserves this season who have been brought to the club from other teams include the likes of much-talked about Raheem Sterling, a pacey and tricky wide man; Suso, a creative left-footed attacking midfielder from Spain, Kristjan Emilsson, an Icelandic forward with a knack of scoring goals and Toni Silva, a fleet footed and skilful Portuguese winger – all have impressed at various stages this season and look like they could make the next step, which would be to perform regularly at Reserve team level.

Of course, nothing is to say that any of these players are going to go on and have the kind of impact at the business end of the club as Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher have had. Those two combined have played over 1200 games for Liverpool and have won countless trophies and will go down in history as two of the finest players to grace the Anfield turf.

Indeed, it is even probable that despite the promise shown by many of these players, not all of them will make the grade at Anfield. Young Gerardo Bruna, still a reserve at the club, was highly thought of and a ‘sure-bet’ to make the left side of midfield his own but has even yet to make the bench for the first team and in all honesty does not look close to it now.

But it takes all kinds of players to make a club work and if we get even three or four of the very best of these youngsters into the team on a regular basis over the next couple of years, and the under 18’s coming up behind them can offer a similar output, then the long-term future of the club will certainly be secure – both in terms of quality and in having a good core of local-based talent playing their part in the revival of the club.

West Ham Defeat Shows How Much Work Remains To Do For Liverpool


Liverpool suffered their first defeat in nine matches at Upton Park yesterday as the Reds’ faint hopes of snatching a top-four spot were surely extinguished.

Having seen Spurs lose to Blackpool midweek, and with Chelsea not in league action until Tuesday evening, Liverpool had a chance to put pressure on the two sides immediately above them against a bottom-of-the-league West Ham outfit, who had won just once in their past six league fixtures.

However, Liverpool were second best for the majority of the game and the home side deservedly took the three points; goals from Scott Parker, Demba Ba and Carlton Cole proving enough despite a Glen Johnson tap-in with five minutes left on the clock which brought the possibility of snatching a point.

In truth, Liverpool looked sluggish and devoid of ideas for too much of this game. The passing and movement at the club has improved considerably over the past month or so, paving the way for many of the victories during this period which Liverpool have amassed, but yesterday it was in scant evidence. Too many players, especially in midfield, wanted to take too many touches on the ball and did not look to move it on quickly. With little or no movement up front for large portions of the game, the midfield battle was all too easily won by the Hammers, with Hitzelsberger and Parker overrunning Lucas Leiva at times, not helped by the obvious lack of match practice from Steven Gerrard.

Gerrard was beyond poor; his passing and set pieces were well below the high standard expected of him. His shot from twenty yards in the second half, which was tipped over by ‘keeper Rob Green, was one of the few positive contributions the skipper managed during this match as he struggled to find the rhythm of his play and resorted to trying to do too much himself. It has been remarked in many places that Gerrard’s most effective position is not in the centre of midfield but in a more advanced role behind the forward; not only is it his most effective area but it is, it must be said, also the area where he affects Liverpool’s defensive wall the least.

Liverpool’s captain is a great player, but his awareness at times when his team is without the ball is poor. For the first goal, he could certainly have done more to protect a large area behind him, which an opponent utilised to set up the goal for Parker. It’s not the first time Gerrard’s lack of tracking back has come at the expense of a goal, and playing in a central midfield “2” he cannot afford to do this.

Dirk Kuyt and Martin Skrtel are two first team players for Liverpool, but both had poor games against the Hammers, which follows a pattern set over much of the past season and even before.

While Kuyt’s ability to pop up with an important goal at times, as well as his often-cited work-rate, tactical responsibility and professionalism, makes him a likely figure to remain at the club beyond the end of the season, his technique and decision making can leave a lot to be desired at times.

Martin Skrtel has no such redeeming qualities in the goalscoring department, which you might expect from a defender. However, his constant and unerring ability to give away pointless free-kicks by jumping in front of attackers to win ‘nothing’ balls, his sub-standard aerial ability and his surprising lack of strength at times – showcased by Carlton Cole, of all people – mean that while he is a ‘good’ defender, he will never be a great one. And to become a great team again, Liverpool need to re-build a great defence.

Further forward, Luis Suarez was a bright spot in an otherwise murky Liverpool display yesterday. This is not coincidence. On Thursday evening, Liverpool fielded nine players from the start who played a large part in the game against West Ham. Of the others, Gerrard was returning from injury, Suarez was ineligible for the Europa League game, while Agger missed out versus West Ham through injury sustained in the Sparta match. With Martin Kelly and Raul Meireles picking up injuries at Upton Park as well, fatigue and tiredness will be taking its toll on the team around this time of year. Another factor towards that was the lack of rotation of the first team under the previous manager Roy Hodgson, who fielded a “full strength” eleven almost every league game.

While this defeat in no way should undo all the hard work put in by the team over the past month or so, it is important Liverpool get back to winning ways as quickly as possible. Of course this will not be easy, given the next match is at home against league leaders Manchester United – but then again, what better game to do it in?

For all the negatives to take out of yesterday’s game, and there were unfortunately quite a few, it is worth acknowledging that the understandings being built up all over the pitch between Meireles and Suarez, or Kuyt and Kelly, were still in evidence at times and are still very much in their infancy. Suarez played only his third game for the Reds and already he has scored once, set up one goal and struck the woodwork twice; his footwork and swift changes of direction make him a real handful for defenders and he has shown enough in this short time to suggest that once his team-mates get to know his runs, Luis will be a great supply of goals for the Reds.

In addition, record signing Andy Carroll is yet to figure for his new club and will be another option for the team which is still trying to find its way in attack.

I suppose overall this has been rather a negative article – though not exactly my intention, it does certainly show that while Liverpool are improving – and they still are, regardless of one defeat – there is still a lot of work to do. From the moments that Rafa was replaced by Roy, Aquilani and Insua were loaned out and replaced by the likes of Konchesky and Poulsen, this was always going to be a season of recovery and patching up. The important thing is to build as many positive relationships on the pitch throughout the club as possible, and carry these over into next season.

If Liverpool finish the season in sixth place in the league – where they currently sit – it will have been an improvement on last season’s placing and a huge improvement on when Dalglish took over in January. Though the Europa League is not the target for the Anfield club, qualifying for it again next season (which is not, by the way, guaranteed with a sixth place finish) will provide the chance of competing for a trophy, one which we must lay a claim to winning this year too, the chance of blooding further the promising youngsters at the club in the atmosphere and environment of Continental football, and will still lure quality players to the club in the summer transfer window.

The decline of the club over the past twenty months has been halted. One defeat does not alter that. It will take some time, a lot of hard work and dedication and some very smart and brave decisions to reverse it entirely.

But the club is back on the rise now, everyone is pulling in the same direction, and good times are surely still ahead.

Hodgson: Why Roy Was Never The Right Man For Liverpool FC


When Roy Hodgson was appointed boss of Liverpool Football Club back in July, his arrival was met with little in the way of fanfare or ringing endorsements from the supporters of this famous club.

His predecessor, Rafa Benitez, was a great fan favourite. By the end of his tenure he may have divided opinion somewhat, but the Spanish tactician had led Liverpool to seven semi-finals, five finals and four trophies in his six years in charge and brought Liverpool back into the footballing mainstream in terms of huge, successful European clubs.

Whoever took over the reins was always going to have a big job on their hands; not just in terms of following Benitez’s initial popularity on the terraces but also because the club was in the midst of a huge split between the boardroom and the fans.

So why was Hodgson appointed?

A dreadful 2009/10 season saw Liverpool finish in a lowly seventh position, after a year of poor results and inconsistent performances. Roy Hodgson was seen as the man who could bring stability to the club; to arrest the slump on the field and help the club through a difficult period off it with the impending board takeover.

Hodgson had just won the League Managers’ Association award and led Fulham to the Europa League Final in the previous season and was perceived – at least by most in the media and one or two in the temporary Liverpool boardroom – as the steady hand the club needed on its tiller; a man who could take the rough with the smooth and could work within a budget in the transfer market, as well as getting the very best out of the players already at the club, something which Benitez had failed to achieve the previous season with a group who had finished second in the Premiership the previous year.

So why were Liverpool fans so unimpressed?

The answers were to become very apparent in the following six months which led to Hodgson’s swift departure from the club.

First and foremost for a large number of supporters would be the results. After all, as we are so often told, management is a results-based business. But Liverpool’s results were nothing short of unacceptable. Defeats at Anfield to Blackpool and Northampton and away from home to the likes of Stoke City, Newcastle United and of course, Liverpool’s closest rivals Everton, saw players who had won major finals and taken on the finest teams in Europe with a swagger only eighteen months previously, struggle to impose themselves and keep any sort of attacking momentum going against teams such as Wigan and Wolves.

Hodgson amassed an extremely poor 25 points out of a possible 60 from his league matches in charge of Liverpool, in addition to 10 from 18 in the Europa League and a third round defeat to Northampton in the League Cup. Hardly inspiring stuff, any way you look at it. And this was nothing new – Hodgson’s 35% Premiership win rate at Liverpool compared almost exactly with his 33% rate at Fulham and 34% at Blackburn. Liverpool supporters knew what was coming.

So what of the performances? Defeats can perhaps be accepted, if not liked, were the performances to be brave and committed. If luck isn’t on your side – if a beach-ball interferes, for example – then what can you do?

But no.

The performances were not inspiring, were not committed and were not full of self-belief and a unified dedication to improve the team’s league standing.

They were limp, tepid, defensive and cautious. The tactics were wrong, the player selections were arguably wrong – though who is to say which players would have performed better given the jobs asked of them – and the astonishing lack of any kind of alternative match plan to turn to when results were going against Liverpool belied a man out of his depth with the level of expectation that comes with managing this Football Club.

Hodgson himself alluded to the fact that he had no intentions to change the way he worked to suit the players at Liverpool FC – his methods, he said, had translated from the clubs he had managed in Sweden, Switzerland and beyond, and he had firm belief that they would do the same at Liverpool.

Now, in fairness to Roy, a manager must have an absolutely iron-clad belief that what he is doing is right; if a manager doubts himself and his methods, how can any other coach or player buy into them? But a sign of a good manager is also one who takes note when his approach is not working and is able to change accordingly to make the best use of the players at his disposal.

Hodgson’s archaic and ill-fitting 4:4:2 system may have worked a treat at Fulham, where defensive organisation and forwards who hold the ball up were the name of the game, but the players at Liverpool are rather more inclined to take the initiative in any given match; to press their advantage of being superior players and, in the best instance, to pass the opposition into submission. To winning matches.

The narrowness of Liverpool’s attack, especially away from home, only served to enhance the view that this was not the approach the Reds should be taking to win games, while the continual line of deep defenders stopped both the team’s ability to break out of their own third for any regular length of time and, just as importantly, prevented Pepe Reina from performing his natural role of dominating his penalty area and cutting out opposition chances before they became fully formed.

Hodgson also appeared to be unable to coax the very best out of his players. Fernando Torres has had the finger pointed at him all season – but he is not the only one who hasn’t shown his true ability. Dirk Kuyt, Glen Johnson, Milan Jovanovic and Joe Cole have all struggled to find any kind of regular form and there can be little doubt that, aside from the prohibitive tactics employed by their then-boss, Roy’s man management skills left something to be desired.

Torres was not defended by his own manager when Manchester United boss Alex Ferguson accused him of diving at Old Trafford – a foolish comment in itself given that his own defender O’Shea was lucky not to be sent off for fouling Torres – while Cole and Johnson both suffered public accusations of poor form from Hodgson.

Then we have Hodgson’s substitutions – or lack of them. Quite aside from waiting far too long to make the changes themselves, Roy’s like-for-like switches failed to change the game in Liverpool’s favour and, even more bewilderingly, on occasions he failed to even utilise his quota of three subs, despite Liverpool not leading and attacking substitutes being available on the bench. Case in point: versus Birmingam at St. Andrews, 0-0, Pacheco, Babel and Ngog all on the bench. Roy’s two changes were made after 76 and 78 minutes, and none of the three attackers were brought on.

Hodgson’s entire match attitude reeked of mediocrity and acceptance of avoiding defeat.

The transfer dealings of Roy Hodgson were also poor pieces of business. Though it is difficult to truly know how much of a hand he had in them all – ex-MD Christian Purslow is widely ‘credited’ with the signing of Joe Cole for example – there can be no doubts that Paul Konchesky and Christian Poulsen, two of Liverpool’s biggest failures since the infamous summer transfers of 2002, came in under the instruction and request of Hodgson. Brad Jones was necessary cover so can be discounted, while Raul Meireles, surely the club’s best signing during the Hodgson period, was so frequently played out of position in a bemusing right midfield role that it must be questioned just how much Roy knew about him before he joined the club – and if he did know that Meireles was a central midfielder, why he purchased him with little intention of playing him there.

But perhaps the most damning indictment of all that Hodgson was patently unsuited to being manager of Liverpool FC came in his press conferences and media interviews.

Previously seen as something of a media darling, Hodgson’s quotes – after, admittedly, several convincing and encouraging initial statements during pre-season – quickly became something rather horrifying to fans. A series of mystifying at best and downright ludicrous at worst statements would follow each game, which somehow always failed to reflect what everybody had seen during the match and inevitably tried to dampen down expectations at the club – not something that supporters want to hear.

From the post-derby interview, surely Liverpool’s most desperate performance of the season at the time, during which Hodgson tried to claim that it was the best performance of the team in his tenure and that we had matches our cross-city rivals and were unlucky in defeat; to the misguided attempt to placate fans after the horrendous loss in December to Wolves at Anfield; suggesting that expecting to beat teams bottom of the league was unrealistic and disrespectful.

Suggesting, of all things, that the fans might have to get used to such defeats.

Liverpool FC fans do not want to hear that defeat might be a necessary outcome. They want to hear, and rightly so, that their team will produce improved performances so that the risk of defeat will be minimised. And that their manager is a leader who offers a vision to make Liverpool a side which is not just hard to beat, but difficult to not lose against.

Up until that point, Hodgson had not won over the Liverpool supporters. But his comments afterwards ensured that he never would. He referred to the famous Kop support, and stated how he had never been afforded it.

But there are things that Roy never understood about Liverpool, and never will. Goodwill and unswerving support aren’t just given, they are earned. Though the team might not win every game, fighting the club’s corner, working hard, believing in the cause and respecting the knowledge of the supporters goes a long way to proving a manager to the club’s fans.

It is hard to see just where Hodgson ever immersed himself in the traditions of this football club, on or off the pitch.

Roy Hodgson was never the man for Liverpool Football Club. And most supporters knew that from the very beginning.

This article was originally published in Well Red magazine issue 6. The magazine by Liverpool fans, for Liverpool fans.

Three Centre Backs: A Long Term Possibility for Liverpool?


Over the past two league fixtures, Liverpool boss Kenny Dalglish has sent his team out to play in a formation rarely seen in the Premier League since the mid nineties – with a three-man central defensive line-up. Those who have known me for some time will know this is a system I have – often forlornly and wistfully! – advocated for many seasons. Needless to say, I was intrigued as well as delighted when the Reds took to the field with such a system in mind.

Statistically – including the most important statistic – it has been a success for the Reds as they won 2-0 at home to Stoke City, a team who caused Liverpool no end of problems in the reverse fixture only ten weeks previously, before nullifying the three-pronged attack of Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, winning by one goal to nil.

In both of those games, the opposition was restricted to a single shot on target apiece; fine work considering the (albeit with very different styles and abilities) artillery available to each side.

Against Stoke, Greek giant Soto Kyrgiakos manned the central role and was back to his dominating best as he out-muscled, out-jumped and out-manoeuvred the Potters’ latest addition to their exclusive 6’2″ and over club, John Carew. Either side of him was the adventurous Daniel Agger (left side) and Martin Skrtel, who though has not been anywhere near his best this season has, in this system, put in two highly accomplished displays.

While Kyrgiakos controlled the Stoke aerial threat, Skrtel and Agger maintained shape and a controlled pressure on the Stoke players trying to support the attack. Back in November, Liverpool time and time again failed to deal with the second ball against Stoke, or to pressurise effectively the runners from midfield who pressed the Reds back inside and around their own penalty area for large spells of the game.

Last week, the midfield of the home side was far more effective in this respect and with Lucas Leiva in particular getting through an enormous amount of work shielding the back three, Skrtel, Kyrgiakos and Agger were able to perform their defensive duties both comfortably and admirably.

One of the great strengths of the 3-man central defensive system is – given the right players – its tactical flexibility. In an instant and according to necessity, the three can become four or even five; add to this the likes of Gerrard and Lucas to form a shield in front of them and it is easy to see why it can be such an effective defensive system.

To examine just how this has effectively worked for Liverpool, let’s take a closer look at how the Reds set up.

Playing Daniel Agger on the left side is a bit of a no-brainer; he’s the only one of Liverpool’s centre backs who is left footed and does have experience playing in the full back role; essential for those times when the three does indeed need to become four. For example, in a counter attack situation where Liverpool have lost the ball when attacking down their left; as the opposition attack down their right flank, behind the left wing-back of Liverpool (Glen Johnson in these two fixtures mentioned) who would have pushed up during the attack, Agger can move across to an orthodox left full back position comfortably. The other two central players move across accordingly, leaving the right wing-back (Martin Kelly) to drop in on the right side, making a ‘normal’ back four – something which all modern Premiership defenders are both familiar and comfortable with, and which provides Liverpool with sufficient cover across the entire back line.

Likewise, down the opposite flank, Skrtel would have filled in at right back (he has appeared there before, albeit fleetingly, for Liverpool) and Johnson, Kyrgiakos and Agger would have tilted to the right accordingly. Against Chelsea, Jamie Carragher, who of course has played several seasons at full back through his career, came in on the right side and Skrtel moved to the centre.

For more sustained periods of pressure, such as Liverpool found themselves facing against Premier League champions Chelsea on Sunday, having both wing-backs tucked in narrower and slightly deeper offers a sturdy and impenetrable back five, difficult to find spaces between or play behind. In addition, this makes it possible for one defender to step up and apply pressure slightly higher than usual, knowing that he is covered behind by more than just one team mate.

And what about the flip side? Obviously, allowing for an extra central defender in the team means that one player from further up the pitch must make way. Does it then affect the attacking ability of a team?

In short, no, it doesn’t  – as long as the system is implemented well, tactically speaking, and the team has the right type of players to perform specific roles.

This is not a formation which any old team can play, or any old players can slot into seamlessly. Two of the biggest problems with teams playing this way in the mid-90’s was that a) defensive coaches were clearly not well versed in how to correctly utilise the system, or the wrong types of players were asked to carry out important roles (especially the wing backs) and b) coaches and managers seemed unable to see past the two-man forward line, resulting in somewhat predictable and at times unbalanced 5-3-2 or 3-5-2 formations. I would love nothing more at this point than to follow my brain into more detail on the possible alignments of the attackers, but that is for another blog, another time – for now lets concentrate on the defence.

One of the most important facets of modern day football is the attacking full back. Gone are the days of solid, dependable, halfway-line-sitting tacklers and hoofers, or at least from teams with aspirations of winning major trophies, anyway.

The wing back system allows a naturally attack minded full back to carry out exactly the type of job he prefers to do – attack at pace, carry the play, offer width high up the pitch and, hopefully, supply a stream of balls to the attackers. In a conventional four man defence, the very best full backs do this anyway of course – think Dani Alves, Ashley Cole, Maicon – but there is always a hugely demanding amount of pressure, both tactically and physically, on these players to be constantly alert and ready to dart back down the pitch at a moment’s notice in the event of losing the ball.

While no system should exonerate a defender from defending entirely, an extra man at the back always offers that increased cover in the event of a quick break from the opposition, spread over the entire width of the pitch if need be, and the rewards from the wide defenders being able to press higher up the pitch more often are easily spotted with the displays of Johnson and Kelly in the games since Dalglish took over.

There is another piece which adds to the attacking dimension of the team: the ball-playing central defender.

A defender who can bring the ball out comfortably is worth his weight in gold in the right team. In Daniel Agger, Liverpool have precisely that kind of player. Against Stoke Agger completed a fantastic 82 percent of his passes, and 78 percent against Chelsea. Not only is he capable of excellent distribution but the Dane also has the ability to run with the ball out of defence, a big plus point for two reasons.

Firstly, his running speed with the ball can see the Reds progress thirty metres up the pitch very quickly before the defending side has a chance to react – usually when a team plays the ball out of defence, the opposition will be clear on which player takes each man, which midfielder marks their opposite number etc – and not many players have the inclination or ability to deviate from such tactical instructions to close Agger down before he can pick out a team mate or make space for someone else to run into. As we all know, he also possesses a terrific shot with his left foot; I wouldn’t bet against him netting another long range effort before the season is out if this system is persevered with.

Secondly, once Agger has passed on the ball, he regularly continues his run up to the edge of the opposition penalty area, offering an option for a pass or cross. An extra man in an attack can make all the difference, and frequently the runner from the defensive line will not be marked, for the same reasons as given previously – the opposition already all have their men targeted, defender with forward, full back with wide player etc, and the sudden presence of a centre back in the penalty area can frequently go unnoticed.

Martin Skrtel also gave a great example of this against Chelsea as he made a run from deep, completely untracked in the Blues’ penalty area and could have had a chance at goal had the ball in not been cut out.

So two questions remain:

With all these great advantages, why don’t more sides utilise this system? And more importantly, is it a realistic option for Liverpool in the long term?

For the first question, to be honest, I don’t know, and I don’t care. Thoroughly unsatisfactory answer I know but the truth is I don’t pay attention to any club anywhere near as much as Liverpool, though I do love to watch as much football as possible. But I know Liverpool’s reserves and academy players and therefore know there are players who would, long term, fit in this system (Mavinga, Coady, Mendy, anyone?) and I know that many teams simply don’t possess coaches with enough know-how or invention to dream of doing it. The (tactical) coaching standard throughout the Premier League, in general, does not strike me as being extremely high beyond a magnificent grasp of organisation and percentage plays, compared to for example Italy or Spain. Udinese and Napoli have both been users of the three man defence, though Napoli for instance play a far narrower three man line than Liverpool have used (or that I would like to see used) but beyond the occasional Sam Allardyce three-at-the-back system (which barely counts, since it would likely be because Chris Samba was thrown up front, leaving three defenders covering his sizeable hole) not many Premier League teams have given it a try.

At this point I would like to point out that new coach Steve Clarke is likely to have had a huge influence on the excellent displays from Carra, Soto, Agger and Skrtel over the past two games in this formation and if so deserves just as much of the credit as Kenny Dalglish.

Under Rafa Benitez Liverpool did, the odd time, try to implement it – one time which sticks in the memory was a very good team performance against Newcastle, where Jan Kromkamp and Stephen Warnock were the wing-backs, of all people. The consensus appeared to be that playing three in central defence meant one was wasted when teams only played with one striker – three on one is unnecessary and can leave you overrun in midfield. Again, and here is the key point, the right personnel is what makes this system such a good one. Somebody like Agger, who is so comfortable in possession and tactically aware, is able to push up either through the centre or down one of the flanks, to make up the numbers in the middle of the park and swing the balance back in favour of your side.

And so to Liverpool; is it a possibility in the long term? Yes and no.

It is, because we’ve already shown it can work. And it is, because we have the players to do it with and, importantly, it allows us to utilise the remaining players in the squad to the best of their abilities. We don’t have real wingers at Liverpool, and I don’t like them anyway. In this system, true wingers become obsolete; the wing-backs fill their void in attack and the attacking midfielder and forward(s) are able to play with and around them, creating attacks in a variety of methods instead of just endless crosses, hoping one of them lands on or near an attacker.

But it is both unlikely and unrealistic to expect a team to keep one formation for every game of a season, especially a manager like Dalglish who has proven before that he will switch a team or a formation to suit each game – whatever gives his side the best chance of winning.

Another reason I think it could be: Micah Richards. I have him down on my “list” of signings for Liverpool – deride me if you will – and according to reports he was one of the players we looked at during the January transfer window. For me, Richards would be an absolute monster of a player for us in this system. On the right side of a three or in the middle (assuming Carragher on the right for constant shouted positional guidance!) Richards would offer the ability going forward that Agger gives on the opposite side, the comfort on the ball and the goal threat in attack, a great aerial ability at both ends of the pitch – and with Kyrgiakos out of contract in the summer that is a skill which will have to be filled, Andy Carroll or no Andy Carroll – and, crucially because no other Liverpool defender really has it, an abundance of pace. Until now Richards has been switched between right-back and centre-back at Man City, crucified because of his ‘poor’ positional sense and revered because of his physical prowess. Again, the extra man cover in defence will aid significantly in this regard until such time as his positional maturity increases, as it does with all talented young defenders. Our own Martin Kelly – another destined for greatness in the centre of defence in my eyes – seems to be the exception to this rule, rarely caught out of position in his 24 games for the Reds to date.

Not that the next name is likely to be a transfer target for Liverpool in summer but Jack Rodwell is another who would, long term, excel in this kind of role.

Liverpool’s next game is against Wigan Athletic at Anfield and it will certainly be interesting to see if Dalglish sticks with the three man defence or resumes with a ‘conventional’ back four. Either way, it will likely neither signify a preference nor a reluctance of King Kenny for one system or another; at this point he is likely to be largely picking teams based on what he has available to use.

But I for one am delighted to have witnessed two very good Liverpool performances utilising the three man defence, and hope to see much more of it in the future.

A Golden Sky: What Constitutes a Successful Season for Liverpool?


16th of August 2009, some time in the morning.

Myself, as with probably every other Liverpool fan, looking forward to the start of Liverpool’s Premier League campaign; the opening fixture of the 2009/10 season which was due to kick off in just a few hours.

Liverpool were supposed to win the league that season. It didn’t go as planned.

The season before, the Reds were absolutely flying. They came close to the Premier League title; as close as they had done (position-wise) since 2002 and their second-half-of-season form suggested that it was simply a matter of strengthening in one or two key areas and keeping the same form going.

Liverpool lost that opening game of the season, 2-1 at Spurs, and never really recovered. From then on it was a definite downward spiral, on and off the pitch. Crashing out in the Champions League group stage, losing in the F.A. Cup third round to lower-league opposition, defeats to the likes of West Ham, Aston Villa and Darren Bent’s beach ball, even losing the semi final of the Europa League to eventual worthy winners Atletico Madrid – it was all background noise in a story which had gone badly wrong for Liverpool.

Fast forward fourteen months and things had, incredibly, gotten even worse for Liverpool. Rafa Benitez was gone, leaving behind a tale of what-might-have-been after six years, five finals and four trophies; and Roy Hodgson had been appointed the new manager of the club. Defeats against the likes of Northampton and Blackpool, as well as against bitter rivals Manchester United, had ensured it was hardly the happiest of starts for the Englishman, despite an unbeaten run in the Europa League.

But then, something positive happened for the Anfield side. The club owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, were ousted from the club after an unsavoury series of courtroom episodes, the end result of which was the takeover of the club by Tom Werner and John W. Henry through their company New England Sports Ventures (now Fenway Sports Group).

It was a big moment for Liverpool; gone were the crippling debts and extravagant interest repayments – one estimate putting the fees owed to RBS at over £100,000 per day – along with the threat of having to sell the club’s best players. Gone were the lies and back-stabbings, the media-fuelled outbursts and in-fighting which had dogged the last two years under the American duo’s stewardship.

A particularly poignant line from the club’s anthem came to mind: “at the end of the storm, there’s a golden sky”.

Perhaps this was just the new beginning the club had been searching for.

Now as we all know, the team’s results did not improve straight away; nor indeed over an extended period. Hodgson was removed from office, voluntarily or not, but rightly so in either case.

And in came Kenny Dalglish. The wave of optimism, of relief, of happiness, which surrounded the club in the following days was incredible.

I can honestly say I cannot remember such a show of unity amongst fans like it, dating back to probably the run towards the 2005 Champions League final. It was amazing – even after the defeat to Manchester United in the F.A. Cup a day later, it almost didn’t matter: Kenny was back, ergo the club was safe.

And now we’re three weeks further down the line. A defeat to Blackpool, a draw with the Blue Shite, and then back-to-back victories and clean sheets against Wolves and Fulham – the first time in almost exactly a year that Liverpool have managed such a combination, since the wins over Bolton and Everton in January and February 2010.

So what next for Liverpool? What lies in store for the remainder of this season? The mandate back in July when Hodgson was appointed was to “steady the ship” – something that I would argue neither Hodgson nor his then-employers managed to do. Wednesday’s win over Fulham, however, left Liverpool in seventh position in the league: exactly the same place the Reds finished the 2009/10 season in, and a full five places above where we were when Dalglish took over.

Steadying the ship then, perhaps, has been achieved.

Now lets look ahead: Liverpool face a home game against Stoke City next week. Despite the dire performance against the same opposition at the Brittania Stadium only a few months ago, this Liverpool side looks a different proposition and we should be hopeful of a positive outcome in the shape of another home victory.

The day before the Liverpool-Stoke fixture, Sunderland (currently 6th, 5 points ahead of Liverpool) will host Chelsea (4th, nine points ahead of the Reds).

Sunderland have been in fine form of late, especially at home where they have lost just once all season, and it is not beyond the realms of fantasy to think that they could take something off the Blues at home – after all, they played them off the park at Stamford Bridge earlier in the season, winning 3-0 in the process.

Should the Black Cats manage to take something off Chelsea and the Reds do the business against Stoke the following day, Liverpool will be going into their clash against the London club at Stamford Bridge four days later only 6 or 7 (Sunderland win or draw) points behind them. Does a top four league spot suddenly become a possibility for Liverpool?

The Reds know how to beat Chelsea – have done so already at Anfield this season in one of the few bright spots of the Roy Hodgson reign – but knowing and doing are two different things. But consider: two more wins for Liverpool in the next two games, and the club could be just one victory off a Champions League place.

That would be some turnaround for the club in just over a month under the watchful and shrewd eye of ‘King’ Kenny.

By the time those next two games roll around for Liverpool, we will already know one thing for certain: which, if any, transfer opportunities end up being successfully targeted in this window. Bids have already been rebuffed for Ajax forward Luis Suarez and Blackpool schemer Charlie Adam, while the proposed loan of Aston Villa left back and Anfield old-boy Stephen Warnock has dragged on for some time and must be questioned now whether it is likely to happen; he is not in favour at his current club so nothing should effectively be holding up a loan deal for this amount of time.

Ryan Babel has left the club permanently, while youngsters such as Steve Irwin, Victor Palsson and Sean Highdale have left on a variety of temporary deals.

Whether any incoming deals materialise or not, Dalglish is already getting much more out of those already at the club than his predecessor managed. One or two new faces could perk the current players up and would certainly provide some welcome depth in key areas of the playing squad, but there is nothing to say, of course, that a £20 million player would hit the ground running, especially coming into a new league at the mid-way stage. On the other hand, a few good performances or even lucky moments in average performances could provide a real impetus for the team over the remainder of the league season.

Liverpool are also fighting on another front; the Europa League gets back underway midway through February with a double header against Sparta Prague of the Czech Republic. Liverpool will be favourites to progress and should they do so, either Lech Poznan or Sporting Braga should also present beatable opposition for a full strength Reds team.

There are several good sides left in the competition; aside from big-spending Manchester City, Spanish duo Sevilla and Villarreal, Dutch league leaders PSV Eindhoven and perhaps most interestingly from a Liverpool point of view, FC Porto – managed by linked manager Andre Villas-Boas – all remain in the hunt for a European trophy and will offer stern opposition should the Reds seek to go one better than last season in the competition.

Liverpool need, as a minimum, continental football next season. Whether Dalglish (together with his important back-room colleagues Sammy Lee and Steve Clarke) and the team really are capable of putting together such a massively improved second half of the season to clinch a top four spot remains to be seen – certainly the odds are against it and Chelsea’s recent poor form may have been put behind them with a convincing victory over Bolton.

But at least the prospect of it is within the realms of possibility and dreaming now – something inconceivable even only a month ago when the Reds were just four points off the relegation zone, and worse, back in October when languishing in nineteenth position. And at the very least, it seems the chances of a Europa League spot – almost always secured with a top six finish in the league – are vastly increased and could be enhanced further by one or two key signings this month.

The mantra of the very existence of the club is to win trophies – and the Europa League, both this and potentially next season, offers Liverpool a good chance to do just that.

Against Sparta and (should we go through) probably in the next round, it is conceivable that the squad could continue to be rotated, until (if and when) Liverpool reach the latter stages and a trophy seems a tantalisingly close prospect.

Only time will tell just how far Dalglish is capable of leading the club, both in the short and possibly long term.

Some fans would maybe even argue that the position of the team come the end of the season is almost irrelevant now; more important the facts that the club, both on and off the field, are back in good hands.

Such a reaction is understandable after the instability of the past couple of seasons, but is unrealistic in the modern football world – stars such as Fernando Torres need to be playing on the biggest stages of all and, questions of loyalty aside, at least a big step towards keeping the likes of him at the club would be qualification for the Champions League, or showing that we can be capable of doing so given stability and strengthening.

For what it’s worth, for me personally the season is certainly no write-off at this stage and a top four spot is not out of reach yet; nor is the Europa League trophy. Anyone wondering as to the value of this cup need only cast their minds back a year to the disappointment of going out at the semi-final stage, or back ten years to our last exhilarating victory against Alaves.

Liverpool’s season is not over, not by a long shot. A few more wins like we’ve seen in the past week or so and the old confidence could be flowing back through the club in a big way. And who better to lead us through those times than a man who has done it all at this very club?

Remember: Walk on, with hope in your heart.