Thursday, 26 April 2012

Kenny, his players, disloyal fans, and being consistently 'unlucky'

I recall the evening of the 28th August 2011, and the end of a rather challenging week for Arsene Wenger.  Following acrimonious departures of Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas, an injury ridden team low on confidence were beaten 8-2 by a rampant Manchester United. The response from some Arsenal fans was immediate – “sack Wenger!” “Wenger’s lost it!” “His stubbornness with transfers has cost us!” They were 17th in the table at the end of that day.
Fast forward to 24th March 2012 – 7 wins in a row, and a team strengthened somewhat at the last minute by deals for several good players on deadline day, culminating in yet another win over Villa to consolidate a healthy lead for 3rd place in the table. The response? No comments to suggest Wenger was past it, or that the heavy defeat in August had finally forced his spending hand. No – instead, plaudits were abundant for the Frenchman. Strange - Wenger, while an excellent manager, is still stubborn, and make no mistake, it is too coincidental that his transfer activity picked up not long after the Old Trafford turf finished clearing his senses.
I bring this up because many Liverpool fans are being blamed for displaying the same fickle nature on a weekly basis (predominantly because the results seem to flow to each extreme 7 days at a time)!  Most of this centres around the sense that Kenny Dalglish is not to be criticised.
So let me qualify upfront – I adore Kenny. I’ll always credit him with assisting the club from a very bad low last season.  That was far worse than current times, no matter how much lower we sink in the table.  There were substantial doubts over Liverpool’s future competitiveness as a club, and he did much to restore pride and identity back to this team. Not to mention his actions as a player, and a manager the first time round. And more than his footballing contributions; just his actions to assist the 96 are worth indefinite respect and admiration, far more than we can provide.
But we always come back to the football. And as far as his current management, I can’t help but judge Kenny by the same simple yardstick that I judge Evans, Houllier, Rafa and Roy, in my life as a Liverpool fan - results. To give you an example, my position on Rafa has always been controversial in that while I certainly consider him an excellent tactical thinker, his teams did not bring in all the results we wanted. You can judge it was not his fault and blame resources (or lack thereof) available, but 4 trophies in 6 years with the best assembled Liverpool teams of the past 20 years (arguably) just wasn’t enough in my opinion. Ironically, Kenny is 1 cup final away from achieving half of Rafa’s trophy tally in just 18 months in the job.
It’s clear from Liverpool’s own version of “the Apprentice” a couple of weeks back (at least, as far as we know) that there are some interesting opinions as it relates to Kenny within the echelons of the club itself.
With the sacking of Comolli – and it looks very much like he was sacked, to a large extent – come varying theories about the reasons. The most common ones suggest Comolli was blamed for Liverpool’s recent spending spree, and specifically its rather unspectacular end result - poor performing players, contributing to a poor league performance.
I personally think that Comolli was likely told to favour British based signings over foreign ones. Perhaps his choice of British players was poor (although Liverpool did enter the race for Ashley Young and Phil Jones) and he also did some poor negotiating in terms of prices.
Yet, Kenny was quick to suggest in the media that the under-performing signings were his decision, not Comolli’s. So, rather ironic that it was Kenny who received the vote of confidence. If Kenny was responsible, then Comolli’s sacking still doesn’t vindicate Kenny. The players we signed aren’t good enough, that’s why the team is underperforming.  Or, as Kenny is pained to repeat (and duly did so after our defeat to West Brom), we’ve just been unlucky quite a few times.
Except 30 shots against the woodwork isn’t unlucky – a couple, yes, but not 30. To score only 40 goals in 34 matches is not unlucky either. Maybe your players are poor at shooting. Maybe you need a finishing coach. Maybe you need to change tactics to create easier-to-finish chances. Maybe all three.
In football, to be a success – you should be making your own luck.
Many are blaming the players for the slump, particularly the new signings. But is it really all their fault? 9 new players – Suarez being arguably our most technically gifted and clearly someone we need to retain. Coates and Doni barely play. Bellamy and Enrique have been largely good.
Charlie Adam wasn’t that overpriced, and has contributed several assists.  He hasn’t been overly effective – but he was played incorrectly in defensive midfield several times this season. Surely Kenny could have recognised he’s a square peg in a round hole? And why was he allowed to take so many set-pieces when his delivery was consistently poor? If he was ineffective – then he should have been dropped a couple of times. At least, that’s how it should work.
Same for Henderson, who has also been played out of position several times (especially on the wing) and while he was overpriced, has shown flashes of being a good player – but a squad player at best.
Whoever chose to scout Downing and pay so much for a winger who can’t beat his marker chose the wrong player – simple as that. If he’s not effective – he shouldn’t be playing either.
I don’t understand how we have spent a season nursing the confidence of Carroll, our overpriced #9, who I feel sympathy for since he didn’t choose his transfer fee. Instead, I would like to ask why we didn’t spend it on a proven #9 who can link up well with Suarez. Are we to believe that even Liverpool outside of Europe can’t find someone with less than a £35 million price tag who can already score the goals we need? The goalscorers are out there – buying the “latest English sensation” at the time was lazy. And Liverpool need one - badly.
We can blame the existing players as well, but Johnson, Kelly, Skrtel, Lucas, Maxi and Agger have played well – and in Maxi’s case, far too little. Reina, Kuyt, Gerrard, Spearing, and Carra haven’t been consistent – but only Reina and Spearing play often as it is. Gerrard is a shadow of his former self. Spearing may not be everyone’s favourite – but considering he’s had to “replace” Lucas, I think he’s played beyond himself.
While we're talking about Lucas - I also don’t want to undermine the his importance! If he was still fit, he would be our best player this season – and his presence in breaking up opposing attacking playmakers gives the rest of his teammates huge confidence to go forward.
Let’s also not forget the players who departed recently. Many were players that just aren’t the Liverpool standard.  But I am a loss to explain why Meireles, Aquilani, and to a lesser extent Joe Cole (all better than some of our signings) have been allowed to go – especially given all three have far more technical skills than most of the current crop. I for one would love to see Aquilani back – but I’m expecting him to be sold – a great pity.
Comolli claimed early into the season that the squad was complete – whether that was his feeling, or Kenny’s, or both – it was wrong. Clearly the signings weren’t enough, the departures were incorrect, and the existing team hasn’t been well managed tactically.
Is it really about players, though? Is it really about them not trying hard enough? Or do we need more matches where there have been dominant statistics in possession and shots (especially off target) to suggest they don’t care enough? There are very few fixtures that come to mind where their application was lacking – Spurs (0-4), Bolton(1-3), Sunderland (0-1)... not much more than that. Then I think of Manchester City (1-1), Arsenal (1-2), West Brom (0-1)... where this slightly above average squad worked very hard to little reward in those matches.
I’d say the current squad depth is better than it was under Benitez.  We have more options in certain positions, absolutely.  But our first choice team (bar our back 4) doesn’t hold up with any of the teams in the top 6. (Before someone suggests that we have a better first choice XI than Newcastle, go check the table – results don’t lie very well).
If the players aren’t good enough, or aren’t configured on the field correctly – both those elements lie squarely with the manager.
I think the tactical discussion is relevant for this.  I don’t buy the argument that Kenny is out of touch with the modern game – the team wouldn’t dominate possession the way it does in most matches if he didn’t understand some of the principles needed to compete. We also have a very good defensive unit, which often only concedes goals due to being forced out of position for attacking impetus, not because of a lack of defensive ability.
And Kenny has masterminded some outstanding tactical victories – the back to back wins against Chelsea in November and the Carling Cup semi-final win over Manchester City (both legs) come to mind as the recent demonstrations of that.
The table below illustrates Liverpool’s league record to date (midtable = Everton down to Stoke, relegation zone – Aston Villa down to Wolves):

Liverpool has taken 64% of available points in the relegation zone. 3 of their defeats have come here, but 2 of them by one goal. The 3 draws were down to our “bad luck”. 6 wins arguably come from Liverpool’s superior players – or some very poor opponents. Only once did Liverpool fail to score, away at Wigan.
Against midtable sides, Liverpool have secured a mere 36% of available points. Here is where Liverpool’s goalscoring issues are most evident. Their 4 defeats were all by 1 goal – and arguably only the Sunderland and Fulham games were deserved defeats where the opposition where demonstrably better (although at Fulham, we were down to 10 men for much of the game). Teams in midtable have generally displayed a determination to play for the point against Liverpool – and succeeded. So this is another case where the points dropped are down to “bad luck” – as opposed to our inability to create easy-to-convert chances when opposition “park the bus”. Liverpool failed to score in 6 fixtures here – 3 of them at Anfield.
Against the top 6, the record is weak. Not exactly supportive of the idea that the team needs “big matches” to perform.
But in cup matches, all this turns on its head.
One can argue there’s no point in parking the bus in a cup game unless you defend a lead. Liverpool did that admirably against Manchester City in the Carling Cup semifinal.  I think Liverpool’s form in the cups comes down to opposition being more adventurous – leading to gaps in defences – and Liverpool’s natural style of play creates great counterattacking chances in matches like these, but not when teams park the bus. Few teams play cup games to avoid / minimise defeat – but in the league, that is certainly a viable objective.  So we shouldn’t be surprised by West Brom putting 7 defenders in the 6 yard box. Liverpool, like the teams above them in the table, need to figure out ways of beating them.
True – the top 6 don’t play so negatively against Liverpool – but they are the top 6 for a reason – they have great players (most of them), so their quality invariably gets past an weaker Liverpool side. I’d argue only the home matches against Manchester City and Arsenal were “lucky” results for the visitors.
What’s the point? Tactics. Manchester United have made a point of learning how to get points against midtable and relegation threatened teams that park the bus.  It’s not just about the right players – it’s also about tactical application.
There are some easy places to start – Liverpool, in 34 league matches, have been the dominant team in possession in 24+ of those matches.  They’ve also attempted over 500 shots, hitting the target with far too few of those. They’ve attempted over 500 crosses. They’ve also received a massive stack of corners – the most in the league I’m sure – yet their goals from this source isn’t in double figures. All these statistics indicate a clear ability and consistency to take games to the opposition – but we’re not creating the right kinds of chances, nor do we have the right finishers. So ultimately, that’s why I think it becomes a case of looking at tactics as well as players. If the players we signed can’t execute the chosen tactics properly – then I would prefer Kenny to stop calling it luck – and call it what it really is – poor.
I’ll give Kenny the benefit of the doubt to an extent though – and time, because I do think we need to be prudent. Assuming FSG don’t have grand plans about the hierarchy in the summer (in terms of moving / removing Kenny), I think he wants that opportunity to finish what he started way back in the late 1980’s. We cannot underestimate how low the club was (and still could be) when he took over. I certainly don’t suspect people at the club are feeling comfortable after the dismissal of staff the other week, so we cannot be too presumptuous about the mood at the club.
And then of course we have the major positives. As much as people want to diminish our Carling Cup victory and our place in the FA Cup final, I see it as meaningful progress for Liverpool. The purpose of Liverpool Football Club is to win trophies. I do appreciate the importance of the Champions League (I wrote a blog some weeks back all about the money!). But I’m sure Spurs, Chelsea, Arsenal, Newcastle – whoever finishes 3rd and 4th – will be very slow to order that open-top bus to celebrate qualifying. We’ve not qualified, and it is a pity, but I think the currency of the club is trophies, and for a while, we didn’t even get close to competing for silver on more than one front at most. 
If Kenny is introspective, and admits to himself that he’s made a few bad decisions, there is hope.  Even if we don’t win the FA Cup, I think it’s quite likely that Kenny will stay for at least one more year.
And if he does – let’s hope his tactics improve, his signings are better, and his players improve their quality on the pitch.
If not – let’s wish FSG courage, because removing Kenny from his post will be difficult for Liverpool fans to accept. And let’s hope if that is the case – that someone outstanding comes in.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

The Importance of a New Stadium for Liverpool

Sobering times for Liverpool fans – a season ago, we were celebrating how Kenny Dalglish, with the mantle of Messiah, seemed to effortlessly restore us back to form, after Woy’s charges suffered 5 defeats in the last 8 league matches. But before you bring out the white robe and sandals for the King, even after the victory at Ewood Park this week, Liverpool’s run of 6 defeats in 9 is comparable to Hodgson’s record, which means for 2 seasons in a row, we’ve been talking – sacrilegiously – about the infamous 1954 season, the last time Liverpool were relegated (and 1 of only 3 occasions it has happened).
I myself am perplexed – and stubbornly trying to believe in Kenny and his squad, but I’m sure I’m not the first Liverpool fan who’s questioned the Anfield legend this season. There is a touch of irony about this – after all, it was Liverpool fans that (vehemently) made it clear they would have preferred Kenny to Woy a season ago from the start. Liverpool fans have got what they wanted… or so we thought, right? FSG were merely responding to the yearnings of fans that place their trust in the last man to take us to the promised land of 1st place.
But perhaps FSG, in retrospect, showed naiveté – and this is not the only decision that I feel they’re lacking direction on.  Another sobering thought. It’s 18 MONTHS since October 2010, when FSG completed “the epic swindle” and purchased Liverpool Football Club from Hicks and Gillett. I emphasise the timeline, because it’s a long time to own a club and not outwardly deal with the elephant in its room.
I am, of course, talking about a new stadium. Anfield. Stanley Park. All three.
Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the logistical issues that may exist, from relevant council or local government approvals, complex deals to arrange building contractors, and all sorts of related things I know little about. To be honest, I’m sure most Liverpool fans will share my attitude that these issues, while important – pale in comparison to the significance of the delay, or lack of action.
Here’s the facts I care about:
A quick glance at Liverpool’s total revenues (check the Deloitte Money League reports for sources) illustrate a bleak picture. Liverpool’s ability to generate footballing revenue – whether fairly compared or not to clubs with large sources of readily available cash (wearing blue, mostly) – are dwarfed dramatically by England’s elite (and yes, I don’t like to describe Manchester United that way).  The graph above compared against other European powerhouses like Barcelona and Real Madrid makes for a worse image.
Why is this important? Simple. Footballing revenue ultimately empowers a club to purchase, employ, retain, reward (etc) its most critical asset – players. And in revenue terms, Liverpool doesn’t stack up well at all.  What is revealing about the graph above is not only where Liverpool ranks, it’s also the extensive growth of Manchester United, the growth of Spurs and City, and the plateau of Arsenal and Chelsea. Only Liverpool is heading in the wrong direction.
Clubs have 3 core sources of revenue – matchday (good old bums on seats), broadcasting (TV coverage – and typically, the more matches, and the more significant the matches, the more money), and lastly commercial (everything from shirt sales to sponsorship deals). 
So let’s consider a comparison – Liverpool to their original traditional rivals Arsenal and Manchester United (an appropriate comparison I feel, in the context that while Chelsea and Manchester City possess financial strength as well, much of it comes from some very wealthy owners who can afford to make extensive injections to progress those clubs very quickly in a short time - and let’s be honest, Hicks & Gillett were, and to a lesser extent, FSG, are not those types of owners).
Have a look at the next couple of graphs, comparing total, commercial, matchday and broadcasting revenues for the old “Big Three”:

I draw a few conclusions. A current gap of nearly £150 million in available financial muscle between us and our largest rivals isn’t going to help us beat them on the pitch in trophy counts.  The gap speaks to – for example – the ability to attract quality players.  Liverpool lost out in signing Phil Jones and Ashley Young (as examples) in the summer.  It could have been about Champions League football, or wages, or both.
Both Liverpool and Manchester United have doubled (just about) their commercial revenue between 2005-2011.  Liverpool’s recent sponsorship deals with Standard Chartered (£20 million per year) and Warrior Sports (£25 million per year) are comparable to Manchester United’s deals with Aon (£20 million per year) and Nike (£23 million per year).
It’s when you start looking at matchday revenue, and consequently broadcasting revenue, that Liverpool’s finances show critical cracks.  In 2006/07, Arsenal moved to the Emirates and 22,000 extra seats effectively permanently doubled their matchday revenue (check the table below for seating capacities in England).  2012/13 will be Manchester United’s 5th year of enjoying £100 million from their stadium alone.  Liverpool’s matchday revenue has yet to break the £50 million mark in its recent history.  So while Anfield may be a special place – it’s going to take a great deal more singers in the Kop to bring the money that would be music to the club’s ears.

The interesting one is broadcasting revenue - ultimately driven by performance on the pitch to some extent.  English clubs don’t negotiate their own TV revenue deals (unlike Spain, for example), so Liverpool’s “big club” reputation (they haven’t performed like it) counts little in negotiating Premier League money. The major issue here is the consistent early exits in domestic cup competitions and the sabbatical from the Champions League.  Consider the performance of these clubs in their domestic and European competitions:

The results speak for themselves; Manchester United have displayed an uncanny consistency of getting into the final 4 in most competitions in recent years.  Arsenal seems to be a perennial quarterfinalist, while Liverpool is less consistent.  If you compare these performances to the broadcasting revenue, there are a couple of interesting observations. The broadcasting revenue gap between Liverpool and Arsenal is negligible, until 2011 – the first full season without the Champions League. Manchester United and Arsenal only failed to reach at least the quarter-finals across all 3 competitions on 17 occasions (combined) – Liverpool have failed to do so 14 times in the same period.
You also need to consider how this impacts matchday revenues as well, because of matches played at home in these competitions.  The Champions League especially, with its two-legged format, offers a double whammy of revenue, because a home game is always involved.
So it tells us something we already know – even though this season’s domestic cup success will (ironically) minimise the gap in Champions League TV revenue loss, it won’t be made up by much. Matchday revenues will also be undermined by our smaller stadium – although bizarrely, we played 1 home game in our Carling Cup run, and 4 home games in our FA Cup run.
Tellingly - Arsenal may have fewer trophies in the cabinet, but they have the right idea about the importance of the top 4. Manchester United’s broadcasting revenue this season will collapse dramatically due to early exists across the board (but they’ve had a decade to build up some fat to absorb this).
In fact, Manchester United’s performance, stadium size and commercial revenues across all fronts have configured the club’s revenues well enough to compete financially even if certain teams in blue do have access to other, “slicker”, sources. Clearly they’ve won the trophies anyway.
So conclusion time.  It’s a simple equation: bigger stadium = more money. More money = better players. Better players = better performance.  Better performance = more money.  More money = better players. And so on!
But it all starts with a stadium.
Which brings us to FSG again. 18 MONTHS. Given the reasons above – is it reasonable to expect that a year and a half has passed since they took ownership with no progress on the stadium issue? Have we all been taken in by the tepid romance of Kenny’s reign that we’ve failed to notice the huge problem that Anfield currently represents? What is FSG’s plan and intention? If they haven’t done anything yet – when will they do something? If this isn’t a priority, why isn’t it?
Because it stands to reason that I certainly don’t expect more £100 million transfer kitties for Kenny to spend. If the “traitors” amongst us are to be believed and we need to oust Kenny in favour of managers of Mourinho or Guardiola’s calibre, I ask you – do they not spend money with their clubs? With our goalscoring problem, wouldn’t it be nice to go after bench warmers like Dzeko or Defoe, or loaned superstars like Adebayor? I doubt we can afford them, let alone go after better.
Again – this is a long term road back to the top – and it starts with a stadium. Anfield. Stanley Park. Whatever it may be.
It begs the question – Hicks & Gillett didn’t give Rafa the full transfer kitty he wanted – but he got to spend money, no question.  FSG have done the same.
Do we have another set of overpromising owners?
John Henry.  Your move...