Fernando who? With a certain £50 million Spaniard well and truly nullified on his Chelsea debut and a fourth consecutive win for Liverpool, things are finally on the up on Merseyside. On Monday Anfield veteran Jamie Carragher spearheaded calls for the apparent architect of the revival, the messianic Kenny Dalglish, to be given the managerial job full-time. At the moment his clean-up as caretaker seems to be unstoppably accelerating, but is he really the right man to orchestrate Liverpool’s return to the top four in the long run and perhaps in the future once again push for the Premier League title?
What’s fairly certain is that you won’t get an argument based on pure reason from a Liverpool fan. King Kenny rules the Kop and as far as they’re concerned current results are mere confirmation of his status as a divine saviour. Incidentally it was reassuring to hear Liverpool’s American owner champion the atmosphere of the Kop as something unrivalled and irreplaceable last week, as he announced he would reconsider the club’s plans for a new stadium in favour of an expansion of Anfield. One thing Dalglish’s rebirth as manager undoubtedly proves is the galvanising power of tradition and distant American owners would do well not to disregard the heritage that could still play a pivotal rule in luring the talent needed for Liverpool to get back to the heights they once scaled.
Carragher was wise on Monday not to tear into the methods and tactical nous of previous manager Roy Hodgson. In my opinion Hodgson remains a shrewd manager capable of great success, who was given an unfair hearing from the start at Anfield and not enough time to turn a dire inheritance around. Substantial blame for Liverpool’s failings this season must rest both with the players and disruptive behind the scenes shenanigans. But Carragher was also spot-on when he said Dalglish had got everyone “onside”. Will the problems come however, when unity and renewed hope cease to be enough?
Looking on as Dalglish took over there appeared to be some worrying signs. After a better performance against Manchester United in the FA Cup, which nevertheless lacked attacking punch, they succumbed to a loss against Blackpool. But then Blackpool almost outplayed and defeated United not long ago at home. It would definitely have been unfair to judge Dalglish so prematurely.
However then there was the captivating comings and goings in the transfer market on the final day of the deadline. Endless column inches have lambasted the out of control decadence and excess of football today, but ultimately there is no way back to the “good old days”. The best the fans and the public can hope for is that the big money filters through to the grass roots and puts something back.
Talking of the “good old days” though, I couldn’t help but think of the time Dalglish has spent out of football and then look at his key new signings to fill the hole left by the outgoing Torres. Despite the new dimension of crazy money, Dalglish appeared to be paying over the odds, unavoidably due to the rush, for a traditional target man in Andy Carroll. And Uruguayan Luis Suarez from Ajax seemed to be the tricky little goal-scorer to partner him. In the past Dalglish created and subsequently relied upon classic strike partnerships like Sutton and Shearer at Blackburn to propel his teams to success. Clubs no longer seem to have these attacking pairings. Has the age of the target man, of the little and large partnership, passed for a reason? Does it no longer work? Or would a new back to basics focus on team chemistry and complimentary traits work wonders for Liverpool?
Obviously until the unproven talents of Suarez and Carroll play together, the jury is still out. Undeniably both players have potential, but they were also overpriced. But then Liverpool simply had to gamble and replace the disaffected Torres because their season needs saving right now. They couldn’t wait till the summer and watch their prestige diminish still further. Ultimately there are more immediate concerns surrounding the possible appointment of Dalglish as permanent boss.
Mike Ashley tried it at Newcastle with Kevin Keegan. Times are hard so let’s bring in the one man the fans can’t possibly criticise me for, even when things go wrong. With a bit of luck his sheer presence will energise the players and gee up the fans. Are Liverpool simply experiencing the short-term Kenny Dalglish effect right now? When it disperses, does he have the vision and modern coaching ability to lead Liverpool into the future?
Despite the worries, overall the outlook is good. Alan Shearer is forever praising Dalglish’s “man management” abilities on Match of the Day and I’d have to agree, simply from the evidence, that he seems to have the difficult knack of motivation and inspiration nailed. Dalglish tried to insist no mention of Torres’ treachery was made in the dressing room prior to Sunday’s Stamford Bridge clash, but my word somehow he kicked some urgency into his players, instilled some fire and passion in their bellies. Chelsea rarely forced Reina into action.
More importantly perhaps, Dalglish got the game against Chelsea tactically perfect. Three central defenders, lead by a reborn Carragher, coped almost effortlessly with the hopelessly narrow attack of Chelsea. Dirk Kuyt was given the chance to play as a striker for a change, and relished the opportunity to apply his phenomenal work rate on his own down the middle, a constant nuisance to the Chelsea defence. If Dalglish can continue to raise the confidence of his squad, in tandem with the excellent coaching of number two Steve Clarke, Liverpool should end this season strongly and start the next with a far better platform for success.
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Tagged 1-0, 35, Ajax, American, Andy, Anelka, Anfield, Ashley, atmosphere, attack, £50 million, Big, Blackburn, Blackpool, blog, Blues, boss, bridge, Britain, buy, Carragher, Carroll, CaughtOffside, Cech, Chelsea, choice, Clarke, Community, contributor, correct, crazy, Dalglish, day, deadline, defender, Dirk, Drogba, effect, England, Everton, Ewood Park, FC, fee, Fernando, football, four, future, Gerrard, goals, grass, Henry, heritage, history, Hodgson, Jamie, Johnson, Keegan, Kenny, Kevin, King, Kop, Kuyt, leader, leadership, Liam, Liverpool, long-term, longevity, Luis, Man City, Man Utd, Manager, Match of the Day, Meireles, Merseyside, Mike, million, monarch, Money, Newcastle, nil, One, outdated, partnership, players, pounds, price, Question, Raul, Red Sox, Reds, Reina, right, roots, Roy, sell, Shearer, short-term, skipper, soccer, sport, stadium, Stamford, sterling, Steve, Steven, Stevie G, striker, Suarez, success, Sunderland, Sutton, Tactics, Terry, timeless, top, Torres, Tottenham, transfers, Trim, UK, vision, writer, writing
It seems fitting that Manchester United’s new kit has a retro style this season, given their reliance on the resurgence of their old guard, the likes of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, for a much needed breath of life and class during a stuttering start to the campaign. With few new signings to speak of United fans have been forced to hope that established stars in the squad recapture their best form to give this year’s title charge renewed vigour and yesterday in the ultimate clash of rivals Bulgarian forward Dimitar Berbatov stepped up to make a much needed, more significant contribution and spark premature talk of becoming player of the season.
All the early season talk has been of the ginger maestro Paul Scholes, spraying the ball effortlessly and accurately around the pitch from midfield, at the heart of everything good United do going forward. However whilst the shy professional stole the headlines for a change through the sheer dominance of his performances on the pitch, several of his usually derided teammates have quietly improved their consistency. Nani looks as if he is finally emerging from the shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo to become a tricky winger with plenty of end product, in both shots and crosses. He is tearing apart teams down United’s flanks and will be needed even more with no Valencia to steer crosses straight onto the head of Wayne Rooney for the bulk of this season. Berbatov too had, until yesterday, been progressing unnoticed into a reliable source of goals as opposed to an occasional scorer of wonder strikes full of delightful, artful strokes of flair and football genius. Yesterday’s hat-trick ensured his new season transformation took centre stage and became the subject of endless discussion. The test for him now will be whether or not he can continue all the qualities demonstrated against Liverpool’s demoralised defence and genuinely ease the burden on Wayne Rooney upfront for United by becoming their next big match winner, their next title winning goal machine.
For yesterday that it was what Dimitar Berbatov hinted he is capable of. He has always oozed flair and natural ability on the ball. As Mark Lawrenson remarked on Match of the Day 2, he is the type of player who can play football at walking pace. However yesterday Berbatov showed a whole host of other qualities that would make him the complete player should he be able to replicate them week in, week out. Much debate has centred on the lack of understanding between Rooney and Berbatov but yesterday they displayed intricate, interlinked build-up play. Berbatov showed plenty of movement and eagerness to work for the team. Most tellingly and positively for United he got himself in the box, in dangerous positions far more often than usual. Then once in these positions he produced classic, clinical centre forward headers that he made look easy, as well as a world class, instinctive second goal that will be one of the best of the season. In reality even the simple finishes required timed jumps, thoughtful movement and strength. I have previously argued that Fergie should ditch Berbatov if he proves to be nothing more than a costly luxury, but now the veteran United manager knows he has a player around which a successful season can be built should he maintain his form.
Worryingly for Fergie his side almost threw away a comfortable lead again against opponents they had easily outplayed though. Dropping points away at Fulham and Everton may already prove costly in the title race, but to allow arch rivals Liverpool back into the game so casually at the invincible fortress that is Old Trafford would have been unbearable and perhaps irreparably damaged United’s march to reclaim the title. Berbatov may symbolise all that was good about United’s attacking play and have had the effect of a new signing by discovering such inspired form, but the holes (literal ones in the wall for Liverpool’s equaliser) and lack of concentration in United’s defence may have the fans hoping for similar inspiration at the back. The return of Rio Ferdinand may help steady the ship should he find fitness and even the long awaited emergence from exile of Owen Hargreaves could give United’s title charge new impetus. Fergie must be hoping that the £17 million paid for Hargreaves finally reaps some rewards. He has undoubtedly only been a costly crock thus far in his Old Trafford career, but his return could prove timely and give the United defence a focused, hard working defensive shield in midfield that inspires concentration in the rest of the team. If United do not iron out defensive slip ups they will quickly lose touch with Carlo Ancelotti’s juggernaut of Chelsea consistency.
Meanwhile on Merseyside Liverpool fans will have to wait sometime before Hodgson’s new team gels and produces anything like the sort of consistency necessary for a title charge. Kenny Dalglish’s optimistic assertion this week that his old club could win the league contradicted the realistic assessment of the new manager and the expectations of all onlookers. The turmoil off the pitch means that Roy will be given time by the fans to rebuild upon sustainable foundations and a successful first season is only likely to yield silverware via a typically passionate and rollercoaster cup run with a few hard fought victories won in front of an always loyal Anfield faithful. Yesterday at Old Trafford it seemed for a while that Liverpool may have snatched a draw and such a result would have felt like a victory. In reality it would have been unfair on a dominant United side who easily stifled the likes of Torres and new boys Joe Cole and Raul Meireles. Liverpool’s new faces will eventually take the club forward but this season looks set to belong to the old heads at Old Trafford, with only the Chelsea steamroller capable of crushing their last hurrah.
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I could not bring myself to write directly about England’s World Cup exit and this is despite the fact I did not expect our national side to progress. The manner of defeat though was so utterly deflating that all previous hopes of progress and improvement over the qualification campaign were dashed. Rightly questions were immediately asked about Capello’s future as manager in the fierce post-mortem examination of England’s World Cup and wrongly in my view the FA have hastily confirmed his continuation as coach.
This is not to say that I don’t recognise the arguments in favour of Capello or indeed any foreign coach. Personally the most persuasive argument is the lack of high calibre home grown coaches. The English choices touted as potential managers the last time the job was vacant were uninspiring to say the least, with the list headed by Sam Allardyce, a man who missed his big chance with Newcastle and whose primary strengths, for example shrewd transfer dealings, would appear useless away from the everyday grind of club football in the leagues. Harry Redknapp has similar drawbacks, despite admittedly having a more proven track record and others mentioned all had their own fatal flaws, such as Stuart Pearce’s inexperience. With such limited options the FA’s decision to look abroad for greater pedigree to ensure results can be understood, although in both the cases of Eriksson and Capello it has baffled me that they should opt for managers successful primarily in club football, when England’s problems have always been related to the unique performances required at the tournament itself. Both foreign coaches have fallen at this final hurdle thus far, as English coaches before them always did.
Another argument supporting the utilisation of foreign coaching talent in general is the fact that the English game has a problem when it comes to technical quality. The World Cup finalists this year, Holland and Spain, have shown that technical ability can enable teams to achieve the ultimate prize without playing to their full potential. It has been extremely frustrating for me to watch the Dutch, a team I have publicly backed to do well at each recent tournament besides the South African World Cup, march to the final. However it has been equally infuriating to hear pundits continuously talk of below par Dutch performances, when in every match I have seen them their ball retention has been effortless. They also have several players with a creative cutting edge and a steady, experienced defence, shielded by an immovable Van Bommel in the heart of midfield. The men in orange have rarely played poorly at this World Cup, it is merely a sign of their quality that it is evident they could play so much better to many watching them. The Spanish too, perhaps even more so, have underperformed but still find themselves in the final courtesy of complete mastery of possession.
So if foreign coaches can bring with them a vital essence of technique from their country of origin they might be worthwhile. Capello for example was expected to improve England’s passing ability and defensive strength as an Italian. However against Germany England were undone by a lack of professionalism and a neglect of some of the basics of the game, areas Capello had supposedly sorted with his approach to management. Indeed at times England matched the Germans and there was a moment the momentum seemed to have swung our way, but such hope all too easily disintegrated. I believe England’s exit exposed a fundamental truth about the actual ability of our footballers and the futility of quick fix solutions; technical deficiencies in our players can only be eradicated at a grass roots level and if they are to be dealt with at the top then an English manager could do just as good a job.
The key argument for Capello himself carrying on in the role is harder to dismiss than the broader issue of foreign managers though. Prior to the tournament itself and its immediate build-up, Capello had successfully rebuilt national belief in the team and instilled a winning mentality with an effortless qualifying campaign. He also missed opportunities to experiment and therefore go to South Africa with a stronger hand as I have previously pointed out, but nonetheless he achieved qualification, something his English predecessor did not manage. To axe Capello too swiftly following the defeat to Germany would have broken a continuity that had been hard to re-establish. Decision makers at the FA would have wanted to avoid a knee jerk reaction to events resulting in the wrong appointment and another failed Euro qualification campaign.
However those urging to play it safe and stick with the expensive failure may live to regret their caution. The inaction and delay meant that Roy Hodgson, in many ways the perfect blend of culture, proven management in a tournament environment with limited resources and a truly English view of the game, slipped through the net to Liverpool. The argument for continuity is in my view blown apart by both the age of the squad and the failure necessitating something new; fresh legs and ideas. Ultimately employing a foreign coach for our national side can only be justified by success and there is no doubt that the achievements of Eriksson and Capello cannot be rated as such, even if they better the attempts of recent Englishman. Any top flight English manager is capable of achieving the same tournament finish notched by Capello and would do so with pride and passion representing his country, striving for the absolute best. For all Fabio’s touchline gesticulations he could not feel our national anguish. If the FA do continue to employ foreign coaches they may as well pursue those Premier League players that express a desire to play for England and apply for citizenship, despite having no English family link. They may as well surrender control of the national side to the Premier League and concede it is all about profit and that club football really does exceed international ties in terms of importance. They have missed an opportunity to lay the foundations for long term international success that plays to our strengths and can be proudly boasted of as an English accomplishment, not mocked by our opponents as the brainchild of an icy continental tinkerer.
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Tagged 2010, Capello, Cup, England, English, FA, Fabio, failure, football, Hodgson, Holland, Italian, Manager, Robben, Roy, soccer, Tactics, technique, World