Sunday, 20 May 2012

Mission Immediate – Crafting a Strategy for Liverpool FC

One of the best things about football as a sport is its incomparable ability to create drama. I would love to challenge Hollywood’s finest to try and script the fiction to beat the truth we’ve seen this season. Manchester City shifting from title losers to title winners in a matter of 60 seconds at their home ground in the final moments of their season. Chelsea’s “anti-football” tactics surpassing superior attacking sides like Benfica, Barcelona and Bayern Munich to culminate in their winning the Champions League. And Liverpool, 3 times winners over Chelsea this season in 2 competitions, parting ways with the man who led them to those wins.

Even more ironic. Had Liverpool finished 4th as the target was set, it wouldn’t have been enough anyway. Chelsea’s victory ensures it. So 3rd and above was the real target to qualify for the Champions League – meaning Liverpool had to be a team that, for 2 thirds of the season at least, was challenging for the title.

I’m not the first to lament the departure of our legendary manager – I won’t be the last. And while it can be a source of total drivel, Twitter was (is) an interesting place this past week with so many contrasting emotions in response to Kenny’s sacking. The brave few suggested it was bound to happen. Many others were outraged, some even going as far to write open letters directed to Ian Ayre, John Henry and other senior figures (what little are left) in the Anfield hierarchy.

And make no mistake, this is a defining moment for FSG. From the moment they took over, they seemed to do a lot of things Liverpool fans were happy with. They got rid of Hodgson. They replaced him with Kenny. They allowed extensive transfer spending. They engaged with fans. So far so good.

But now, the buffer is gone. FSG now face the results of some, as yet, potentially wise or rash decisions. And there is no romance of 2 cup finals, or a Scottish-born trophy magnet to mask them. They are exposed to that dangerous animal in all its varieties – the Liverpool fan (no offence meant by that statement, of course!).

So in other words – time to find out who our new owners really are.

For the record – I am sad to see Kenny go, but it’s clear that his romantic motivational skills during his caretaker spell just didn’t extend to his tactical application in the league this season. I don’t dispute the value of a trophy and 2 cup finals, and I’ll retain my ‘old school’ thinking that Liverpool is about winning trophies, but there are severe shortcomings at this club, and Kenny sadly may just not fit the profile of the man we need to change that. In any case, his contributions as a player, manager and humanitarian in the 80’s are stuff of legend, and Manchester United have him to thank for having such a stiff target against which to motivate themselves.

Nonetheless, the focus now shifts to FSG. Which is very compelling.

So as we stand now – we’ve had some drama. No director of football, communications (I have heard the tweets about Chang, but I’m unsure of the truthfulness), no manager. No stadium plan as well.

Dark days?  Perhaps. But perhaps not.

There’s a theory I have here, and it naturally assumes that FSG are the right owners, and that they are going to work prudently to take the club forward. Obviously if they aren’t, that’s another issue, never mind another blog!  But here’s the theory – Liverpool was in dire need to break some age old structures in order to build new ones from scratch.

Liverpool aren’t a club that are geared to succeed in modern football, because modern football is different now. Few want to hear it or believe it, but it’s the truth. My previous blog skirted the unthinkable idea that a FA Cup final defeat could be a blessing in disguise, and I think that is still true – because if Ian Ayre can suggest Kenny would have been sacked regardless of a cup win, imagine how much harder it would have been to accomplish had we earned another FA Cup in our cabinet.

We have to accept the dynamics of the game have changed. A Carling Cup victory and an FA Cup final are great, but clearly some of Liverpool's illustrious opponents in those competitions (City, United, Arsenal, etc) had priorities elsewhere.  The money is too important nowadays. In many ways, the departure of Torres is a perfect illustration of this. We can chirp all we want – his move was vindicated.  Within 18 months of leaving, he’s played in two consecutive Champions League semi-finals, won a final and won 2 more trophies than he did at Liverpool in all his time there. Money talks, and if you want to compete with the ‘plastic’ clubs, you have to at least meet them in the same playground.

It’s not impossible to do that either. If it was, then Manchester United, lacking their captain and best defender for most the season, and a far less talented squad, wouldn’t have equalled the rich half of their own City on points in the table, losing by mere goal difference.

It’s not just about Kenny's or Comolli’s departure. The closing events of the season highlight potential deficiencies in FSG’s initial strategy with their ‘moneyball’ thinking, not to mention some of Liverpool’s old school structures or lacking leadership (the mishandling of the racism issue comes to mind).

It ironically gives me comfort, because if FSG is thinking seriously about top level structure and making changes, then it implies that they care about addressing the top level structure for first time in ages. This should be important to Liverpool, because the clubs are no longer just about the football anymore – you cannot divorce the business from the stuff on the pitch.

All the recent successful clubs in Europe have some common threads in terms of “larger-than-life” managers who want as much control of everything as possible (Ferguson, Mourinho come to mind) or powerful demands driven at presidential level downwards (say what you want about Abramovich or Mansour, but there was a point to their spending – lavish or otherwise). It also involves (of course)… money!

There may not be an open top bus parade for 3rd or 4th place, but especially in a very competitive league like England, not being in the Champions League is a big deal. And for Liverpool, whose revenues (as an example) have only grown 99% between 2002/3 – 2010/11 (the European elite have grown in excess of 150% upwards), it’s an even bigger deal.

Suppose Ian Ayre’s recent interview is to be believed, and the top level structure changes and Comolli’s old responsibilities do split - it poses interesting opportunities for scouting, transfer negotiations, and the overall footballing philosophy of the club, something sorely lacking consistent direction over the past 20 years.

I, for one, want to give FSG the benefit of the doubt, simply because the philosophy of Liverpool is in dire need of redefinition. Many of us can quote Shankly and what he believed Liverpool should be about – but those philosophies haven’t been respected in the manner that Liverpool have wanted since the end of Kenny’s first spell as manager. So if FSG are thinking of changing things to drive results, and have illustrated a ruthlessness to do so because they are impatient for those results, then I’m certainly interested in what their plans are, because that makes them far more interested owners than we’ve had in a while.

That, of course, then leads to the speculation about the manager, and specifically who the next Liverpool boss will be.

Again, if Ian Ayre is to be believed, the desired idea for the future manager is to focus purely on the team, results, and only the final say on signings. This already rules out several managers who like to have wider control (think people like Wenger, Mourinho, etc).  Liverpool’s steady deterioration as a club suggests that only one of these types of managers would be a realistically obtainable one anyway (Rafael Benitez). So unless Rafa is happy to fit into FSG’s structures, he won’t be back. And it’s worth remembering that even the infamous tenure of Hicks and Gillett supplied Rafa with a fair stock of transfer funds that allowed him to buy the good (e.g Agger, Lucas, Reina, Torres, Mascherano, Alonso) and the expensive and unsuccessful (Babel, Morientes, Pennant, Sissoko, Dossena, Aquilani), to name a few. One doubts FSG giving Rafa the same licence to spend.

What do we want from a new manager?  More than the ability to attract the best players – because Liverpool’s current resources and lack of Champions League football limit that anyway – is the ability to get the best out of the players available, even if less talented. We need a strong motivator, a strong personality, but tactically astute, intelligent and above all – driven by results. Someone who knows the competitive nature of the Premier League and the culture of its football. And someone who knows the players on the continent well, or can at least engage with them – because it’s clear from our recent spending that any level of British based talent is likely to be overpriced. So some of our transfer targets should be non-British in most cases.

I don’t think it’s realistic to expect the likes of Guardiola, Capello or Klopp. I genuinely think Pep wants a break, Capello doesn’t appear to be the right culture fit, and Klopp has unfinished business at Dortmund.

That leaves the other rumoured candidates, like Andre Vilas Boas (AVB), Roberto Martinez, Didier Deschamps. If not permanently appointed by Chelsea, one wonders if even Roberto Di Matteo could be in the frame.

Given the task ahead, I would support the appointment of either AVB or Martinez, although I would lean to the latter, because of some concerns the peculiar manner in which AVB lost the Chelsea dressing room earlier this season.

Martinez may not have had the challenge of a big club yet, but what he brings potentially is tactical application and the ability to turn lower quality players into over-achievers. Not to mention the ability to adapt tactically as opposed to pushing the same plan A over and over again (see ).  Yes, he hasn’t had the chance at a big club – but as usual, you have to start somewhere, and maybe this is our unearthing “Alex Ferguson / Arsene Wenger / Jose Mourinho” moment. At least, that’s what I hope.

Whoever is appointed – whether the manager, scouting, or heading up the whole footballing side of things, one thing is clear. Changes are ahead. And given the severity of Liverpool’s expectations and the challenging place from which they commence this task, I would rather offer FSG a touch of sympathy. Sacking Dalglish may not have been popular – but their bravery could yet prove the right decision, and if it does, then we may look back on the events this week as a key turning point in the future success of the club.

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