Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Can King Kenny stabilise Liverpool?

After a lot of pre-match hype following the sacking of Roy Hodgson and Anfield legend Kenny Dalglish stepping in to the end of the season, anticipation was high for the 3rd round FA Cup tie against North-West rivals Manchester United at Old Trafford, but the end result was nothing unexpected it seemed.

Whilst ‘King Kenny’ took charge of his first match as Liverpool manager since 1991, he could only look on in disbelief as two first-half decisions went against his team. Liverpool fans showed their anger as Howard Webb gave Man United a penalty inside the first minute that was converted by Ryan Giggs, but as much as they argue that it wasn’t a penalty, Daniel Agger shouldn’t be flicking his leg out at Berbatov whilst inside the box and Howard Webb was helpless to award a penalty. The second decision to give a red card to Steven Gerrard for his challenge on Michael Carrick after 31 minutes was duly deserved. You can’t go two footed into challenges in the modern game and whilst Gerrard isn’t the recklessly dangerous type, it isn’t the first two footed tackle he’s put in his career but as a captain he should be setting a better example when his side’s down 1-0, without further extending the handicap.

The second half Liverpool came out better, taking Meireles off for Shelvey who was prepared to work for the ball and proved to be one of the most dynamic players on the pitch along with Martin Kelly at Right Back. Both players put in extremely promising performances with Kelly looking good all down the right wing, overlapping with Dirk Kuyt to whip in a good cross to the near the post only for Babel to pull it wide. Shelvey continuously proved a nuisance to the United players, robbing Anderson in the midfield to start a good counter-attacking move, to then go on and pick Rafael’s pocket on the wing to set up Babel for a disappointing effort on goal.

Looking at Sunday’s performance against United though, it’s clear to see that Dalglish is almost immediately having a positive effect on the team. The switch from Roy Hodgson’s rigid 4-4-2 formation back to the fluid 4-2-3-1 system Liverpool used to play, with Gerrard behind the striker. It gave some much needed freedom to the skipper and some fluidity to the team’s attacking movement that was missing under Hodgson’s system. Some of the other players that hadn’t been given much of an opportunity under Roy seemed to shine with Dalglish at the helm, Ryan Babel in particular looked like a different player, providing a deft first touch on the left wing and constantly cutting inside to attack, only to often find himself dribbling into trouble against the United defence.

Other changes at Anfield, including the appointment of Steve Clarke, Jose Mourinho’s former assistant manager and new Liverpool First Team coach should be seen as encouraging news. During his first spell as Liverpool manager, Dalglish played attractive, attacking football and get the ball firmly on the ground. No one will be happier if Dalglish continues this tradition than Fernando Torres who looked a frustrated figure under Hodgson’s direct, long ball game. It has been a rough season for Torres so far, with poor performances at last year’s World Cup and he’s struggled to find consistent form all season for Liverpool, but hopefully the appointment of Dalglish will give the striker some hope. After all, Gerrard’s red card means he misses the next three league games, and with a lack of real stars in the squad at the moment, Dalglish will be looking to the Spaniard to motivate his squad into winning form.

With Liverpool now having no chance of winning any domestic silverware Dalglish will be looking towards the Premier League and securing a decent finish for next season, with the prospect of Champions League football looking out of the question, it leaves just Europa League to play for, which may not sound like much but not achieving any European football at all will be the biggest disappointment both for club moral and financial status.

If Dalglish is to achieve a decent League position however he must strengthen a woefully inadequate squad left behind by Rafa Benitez, and not sufficiently improved upon by Hodgson. Whilst Fabio Aurelio had a good time against United, the Brazilian’s frailties are well known, a general lack of pace and width however are the squad’s main problems and a striker of sufficient flair to match the ability of Fernando Torres would be a great benefit to Liverpool’s attacking threat. An adequate player to match the contribution that Xabi Alonso made is also still required, with Lucas Leiva’s ability on the ball still in doubt and Christian Poulsen failing to impress the Kop.

However the real question still remaining is who will take over on a permanent basis as the Liverpool manager. Anyone brave enough to take on the job will have to contend with an expectant fan base and boardroom that still remains an unknown quantity as far as financial freedom is concerned. It does seem however that with John W Henry as the new owner and Dalglish at the helm, some stability will return to a once great football club. But the future of Liverpool FC still remains in doubt, but there is hope which brings optimism. It will be Liverpool’s next match away at Blackpool however that may just define how the rest of Liverpool’s season goes.

Let’s just hope that all goes well for Dalglish and that his reputation as a great Anfield legend remains intact after what will most definitely prove to be his toughest job in football yet.

Michael Smith