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.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Liverpool’s FA Cup final reflects on season 2011-12

A picture speaks a thousand words, as they say…

If John Henry is as serious about Liverpool being successful as we want him to be, he needs to be stark raving mad by now.

During yesterday’s match, I was in the middle of a conversation with a friend who asked what happened to the Liverpool that ended last season (2010-11).  You remember, the one admirably improved under the caretaking of Dalglish?  The one that played quick, snappy passes, most of them on the ground, with relentless accuracy and finesse, producing fine wins like the 5-2 demolition against Fulham?

I responded by suggesting the team was different – that team that ended the season well included a far more experienced and capable midfield of Maxi, Lucas and Meireles.  Strange that.

No question – the absence of Lucas is significant.  It surprises me all the more that Liverpool managed to produce the performances they did in the Carling Cup against Manchester City, the FA Cup against Manchester United, and that league game against Arsenal, without him. His impact to this team can be likened to the manner in which Yaya Toure has become the rock upon which City’s title challenge has been constructed.  Rather stupid then, that Liverpool didn’t recruit adequately to cover for him, especially in the January transfer window.

Yet experience was on the bench – especially Maxi, who was integral in the victories over Chelsea earlier in the season.  Liverpool instead chose to ignore this.

In my opinion, Spearing and Henderson were out of their depth yesterday. Yes, Henderson showed attacking shades towards the end, but by then, Liverpool had been galvanised by Carroll’s energy and it’s clear that belief is not going to be inspired by Henderson, much less Spearing.

I’m not keen to crucify either player though.  Liverpool have been crying out for academy talent to come through, and I think Spearing is a capable squad player, who in other lesser important fixtures, can shine in his own way. Henderson is a victim of a transfer fee he didn’t choose, and being played beyond his years.  They will learn and develop – but they shouldn’t be doing so at the cost of a cup final. And both certainly put up a major effort.

I also don’t excuse the ineffectiveness of some of the experienced players, like Gerrard, who has been inconsistent, and Reina, who seems to have forgotten how to make those magnificent saves he is known for. Enrique has also become very inconsistent, making me think a fullback combination of Kelly and Johnson may have been better.

But if Liverpool was poorly prepared and configured on the pitch, blame starts and ends where the entire season should – with the manager, Kenny Dalglish.

My previous blog should clarify (and I re-iterate) that my feelings on Kenny are ones of deep respect and gratitude for the club.  I wasn’t even born yet when Kenny was delivering trophies as a player for the club, but his efforts for the 96 alone justify enough for me to say he has deserved another shot at the job. And there is no doubt his influence made a difference in the latter half of last season.

But this season, mistakes have been made aplenty, and sadly he may well pay for it with his job, especially if FSG illustrates the ruthlessness they did with Comolli and other staff last month.

Yesterday’s tactics were inept. Playing Luis Suarez as a lone striker with ambitious through balls (high or low) may work to catch defences like those of Norwich off guard, and produce some great results, but they won’t work against a side in form that managed to survive 3 hours against the side who plays the finest football on the planet.  If Lionel Messi can be kept quiet, with the quality service he’s used to delivering, you can bet that Suarez will be even less effective while chasing high balls against Ivanovic and Terry who are better equipped to deal with nonsense passes like that anyway.

I too expected much more of the players yesterday.  And for some strange reason, Liverpool only seemed to register after the 2nd goal that “Hey!  We’re in a final!  Shouldn’t we play a little better than this?!?” The team started far too slowly, and build-up play felt at times like revving an engine with the handbrake applied.  But that was as much tactical as it was motivational.

Carroll should have started – simple as that. I’ve seen many times that Andy’s presence takes defenders off Suarez, allowing the Uruguayan to work his magic, and that is enough to justify his inclusion. Add Andy’s endearing display of energy and blatant passion to get Liverpool back in the game as the cherry on top that would have won him many admirers (a pity, because despite that, I still think Liverpool need another #9 – one that at least produces the goals to match the effort).

Perhaps Andy wasn’t needed against Norwich, but he was definitely needed against Chelsea, 55 minutes earlier than his eventual entry in the game, especially if Suarez was going to play so high up the pitch.  So tactically, again – incorrect.

The warning signs were there surely. It was a cup final, against a form side that has lost twice under their caretaker manager. It took a superior side in Manchester City, and two wonder strikes from Papiss Cisse to give Di Matteo his only 2 defeats as Chelsea boss.  Outside of that, they are difficult to beat.  Chelsea is back to the direct, counter-attacking football that won them titles in the past century.  It ironically reminds of the brief Hiddink “era” (ironically, also as caretaker) where an over-confident Liverpool got caught by pacy counter attacks time and time again in a thrilling, but frustrating Champions League quarterfinal tie in 2009. Liverpool did the league double over Scolari’s Chelsea that season. Historical tactical lessons not observed or remembered...

The line-up was wrong. If you’re going to isolate a front man, start with Carroll. Don’t have 2 inexperienced midfielders trying to work the ball off Mikel, Lampard and Mata. Don’t leave sluggish defenders too far up the pitch, or at least keep a couple of defenders in deep lying positions to pick up the breaks. That inexperience and tactical ineptitude cost Liverpool. By the time Carroll’s entry increased the tempo, Chelsea was exactly where it wanted to be – re-enacting its performances against the Spanish giants, albeit less convincingly, defending a 2 goal lead.

Of course, there will be arguments about the disallowed goal – but while I wish desperately that controversy had avoided rearing its head in this game (especially after the dodgy call for Chelsea’s 2nd goal in their semi-final), to be honest, it was immaterial.  Chelsea was far and away the better team for the first 60 minutes.  For Liverpool to only wake up by then and realise they were playing a cup final against a serious team in the last half an hour, was far too late to make any difference.

So the question now finally comes – what next?  How do Liverpool, players, staff and fans alike, move from this?

That’s where I wonder if yesterday’s defeat does not hold a blessing in disguise, to impart some much needed urgency upon the club.  I have to think that the emotions of a victory would have been quite dangerous, if not distracting from problems that must be solved.

The pre-match discussions put into context the debates about the desired yardstick for Liverpool’s season. Is it league position? Is it trophies? Is it Champions League qualification? Is it all three?

I maintain – Liverpool is about trophies – that’s why ultimately yesterday hurts a little more because it was a rich opportunity lost to continue the winning tradition.

But I also believe that that shouldn’t be used to paper over the cracks. Had we won, would the club still consider how they were to drive a potentially significant summer? I for one, sincerely hope that the club leverages this disappointment to do exactly that – but it seemed the messages from the players and Dalglish differed slightly from the big picture. 2 trophies would have been a success, but that wouldn’t have defined the season as successful. Progressive, but not successful.

Trophies are important, they always will be, but Liverpool has to be a club that challenges on ALL fronts.  And if key financial issues linked to the stadium are foreseen to be likely to exist for a few years, then it means Liverpool have to learn from clubs like Newcastle and punch well above their weight class (that’s not to be disrespectful to Newcastle, but I’m sure most Geordies wouldn’t have expected Champions League qualification this season, and that is still a possibility).

A victory would have played into the pre-match propaganda that the league campaign was merely extended periods of bad luck - a false perception that offers nothing but barriers to progress.

Arsenal improved their squad dramatically after that 8-2 defeat to Manchester United. No trophies – but they’re close to achieving their targets, and impressively so.  If the Red Devils end the season trophyless (which in itself in unheard of), there surely will be a response to improve the squad far beyond recalling old retired players.  Wake up calls. Liverpool has to respond in kind, simple as that.

Season 2011-12 has been a disappointment then.  Yes, a trophy in the bag, but if Dalglish does keep his job, hopefully he recognises a few things. Liverpool’s squad still lacks depth in certain positions (defensive midfield, attacking midfield – for the latter, read Aquilani, hopefully).  Serious competition is needed in goal, at left back, centre back, and central midfield.  World class talent is need on the flanks and up front (only Suarez meets this requirement – no-one else).

Dalglish also needs to recognise that tactically, the team needs to improve significantly.  Not only when to apply certain lineups / tactics, as the FA Cup final illustrated, but to address the problems over the course of the season.  30+ shots against the woodwork isn’t unlucky. It’s poor finishing, poor training or ineffective chance-creation.  Not to mention a shocker of a conversion rate, and far too few goals from set-pieces (and we get plenty of those!).

Perhaps then, this is a defeat to offer important reflection.  I doubt we would have reflected as we need to, had we won.  The poor league campaign would have been dismissed by 2 trophies, but Liverpool’s squad quality and display of tactical ineptitude and application throughout the season, needs to be addressed. If John Henry is the kind of owner we want him to be, then the manager – Dalglish or otherwise – has some serious work to do.