EighteenAndFive

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

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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.

Left Backs for Liverpool: Problem Position Up For Grabs


Deadline day, January 2011. Liverpool complete the signings of Ajax and Uruguay forward Luis Suarez and Newcastle and one-time England cap Andy Carroll. In addition, Fernando Torres departed for the plastic-themed surroundings of West London.

And there was one other outgoing transfer, albeit on loan, which – understandably – didn’t cause quite as much excitement around the club. In fact it was more one of relief in some quarters, while in others an ironic and muted lack of surprise.

Over the past couple of weeks, despite the January transfer window for the Premier League closing, the number of “exclusives” surrounding new-comers to Liverpool FC has barely diminished at all. In fact, perhaps borne of the large sums spent on Suarez and Carroll on deadline day, the rumour mills have furiously cranked up their valuations of all players being linked with the club, taking FSG’s willingness to splash the cash as a sign that every transfer will be of a similar scale in the summer.

It won’t be that way, of course. In the summer Liverpool may indeed make a signing or two for big money. But lets not forget the net outlay of the club in January, despite breaking their own transfer record twice in a matter of hours, was around the £2 million mark. The sales of Ryan Babel and Torres almost totally paid for their replacements, and senior figures within the club effectively admitted that the asking price for Carroll would determine that of Torres, to ensure Liverpool were as close to breaking even as possible.

The other factor to consider, in terms of team re-building and probable targets, is that the permanent position of manager has not yet been filled. Of course, most fans now will want ‘King’ Kenny Dalglish to stay at the helm, which is the danger the owners knew they faced when they asked him to step up last month, but if results and performances continue improving as they have done thus far, it would be on merit that Dalglish was a contender, not merely because of fans’ wishes – but that is a debate for another place.

Besides, to some extent the appointment of Damien Comolli as Director of Football Strategy will alleviate those transition periods, as the club will already have been targeting potential signings and will be able to hand over a list to choose from to any new first team coach.

And so back to that other outgoing transfer on deadline day.

Paul Konchesky, the man who became the unwitting figurehead of the Roy Hodgson era at Liverpool, left on loan to Championship side Nottingham Forest. The former Fulham, Spurs and West Ham full back was brought in by the former boss and – like the man who signed him – very rarely looked comfortable or capable of stepping up to the required level.

His departure means Liverpool are left with just one recognised left sided defender in the senior squad, Fabio Aurelio, and even he has been playing in the centre of midfield of late. Glen Johnson and Danny Wilson have played (well) at left back over the past six weeks for the Reds, while young prospect Jack Robinson continues to impress at reserve level and was included in the travelling party for the first leg of Liverpool’s Europa League game in Prague.

But it is an area where, quite clearly, Liverpool still need to find a player with the ability and consistency to play regularly and contribute to both attacking and defensive sides of the team. It is an area of the team where, arguably, the Reds have been looking to find the right man for for over a decade.

John Arne Riise made the position his own for several seasons and for the first three years of his time on Anfield was irreplaceable, but his form declined rapidly towards the end of his stint at the club. His last meaningful contribution in Red, an own goal against Chelsea in the Champions League, was symptomatic of that.

A year and a month ago, Liverpool had no less than three left backs, all of which had their own qualities but none of which had that extra something special which made them stand out. Emiliano Insua, loaned out to Turkish side Galatasary this season, seemed to have made the position his own for much of the campaign but, as is normal with young defenders, was caught out of position after his regular forays forward too often to be regarded as the immediate answer. Andrea Dossena shortly afterwards departed for Napoli where his defensive proficiencies are somewhat negated and his physical abilities stand out in his preferred wing-back role – ironically a system Liverpool recently implemented to great effect – while Fabio Aurelio missed most of last season, again, with a succession of frustrating injuries.

Before them came a line of tried and untrusted players: European Cup winner and perpetual scapegoat Djimi Traore; the great nearly-man Gregory Vignal; the shoe-in for greatness Christian Ziege; and Stephen Warnock, linked with a loan move back to the club in January and who is to date, until Martin Kelly surely overtakes him at least, the man with the most appearances to his name (67) after graduating from the club’s academy since Steven Gerrard’s breakthrough.

Speaking of Kelly, there is of course now an argument for keeping him on the right side and England’s international right back, Glen Johnson, on the left side of our defence – but even in that case, Liverpool require a recognised left sided defender who can put pressure on Johnson, or any other team mate, to claim that position as his own and really offer Liverpool something special in attack and rock-solid in defence.

This week alone, Liverpool have been linked in various newspaper columns with Newcastle United’s Jose Enrique, a talented and calm-headed player who is yet to be recognised at full International level by Spain, and Celtic’s Honduran Emilio Izaguirre – the Mirror stated that Dalglish had specifically travelled to the Old Firm game on Sunday to watch him in action. If that was the case, Izaguirre certainly did his cause no harm, keeping a clean sheet and setting up the second of Celtic’s three goals with a typical raid down the left side and early low cross to the back post.

Though I rate Enrique as a good player, there are certainly others I would love the club to be looking at as possible additions for the role. Here are a few of them:

Aly Cissokho. The Lyon and one-time France left back; Cissokho combines huge athleticism with a natural inclination to get forward and provide attacking width. A good crosser of the ball and sure with the ball at his feet, Cissokho’s age (23) also makes him an attractive investment for a club looking to rebuild somewhat. A potential downside may be his fee; Lyon paid 15 € million for him and he still has three years left on his contract after the current season ends. Also not a goalscorer; has only netted one league goal in his professional career to date.

Benoit Tremoulinas. Another French defender; Tremoulinas is a constant supply of crosses for current club Bordeaux. In the 2009/10 season he was the top assisting defender with an impressive 7 from his 34 appearances, now-Arsenal forward Marouane Chamakh being one of the key beneficiaries of his deliveries. Though he has yet to be capped by France, Tremoulinas has been included in squads for the national side and is perhaps unfortunate that players like Clichy, Evra and Sakho are also vying for similar roles.

Mauricio Isla. The Chilean wing-back is a versatile performer, who can operate on either side – something which would appeal if Johnson was to continue on the left perhaps? – as well as further forward as a wide attacker. His pace and stamina lends itself to his obvious technical gifts; he is comfortable with the ball at either foot and can give good delivery from wide areas. Currently playing for Udinese in Italy; a work permit should not be too much of an issue given he has been a regular in the national side over the past year.

Fabio Coentrao. A name on everybody’s lips since his performances at the World Cup in 2010, but a name which before then probably not many people who don’t get to see too much European football knew of. His attacking instincts are obvious and, aside from his crossing and passing ability, he is more than comfortable coming infield and targeting a shot at goal. Another who is capable of playing in a more advanced position; Coentrao is perhaps the least solid in defence on this list, but the most spectacular in attack. A player made for a three-man defence, perhaps?

Jeremy Mathieu. A third Frenchman on the list; and another one rarely seen in International squads. The burly Valencia full back does not look as though he should be possessed of blistering pace and an ability to get past opposing defenders with ease, but he is and he does. At 27 years of age he is older than others on this list, but with young Jack Robinson in the wings perhaps that might be what is required? Often targets the byline to reach before pulling back crosses into the near post, and is as strong as an ox in the tackle. Rarely lets crosses beat him when at his best.

Other names such as Atletico Madrid’s Felipe – if he could stay injury free – would be welcomed as targets; Real Madrid’s Marcelo may become available if Los Merengues are indeed targeting a new left back of their own as has been reported, while Sampdoria’s Reto Ziegler has long been linked with a move to Liverpool.

While no definitive answer is likely to be forthcoming until, at the earliest, June or July and once the permanent manager has been appointed, Liverpool’s plethora of scouts around the globe will almost certainly have “find a new left back” somewhere near the top of their to-do lists.

Of course, it may just be that Jack Robinson makes the breakthrough to the first team during the second half of the season, Dalglish is appointed boss and believes him good enough to stay in the team from then on, in which case Liverpool can happily divert several million from the transfer kitty in other directions!

But until, and indeed even if, he does, an absolute necessity for the Reds is to find a player who can do the job in the meantime – and I would say they could do much worse than starting with any one of the five names on the list above.

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.