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The Twohundredpercent Premier League Previews

Paul Grech Monday, August 1, 2011 , ,
When Paul Konchesky was sold to join Leicester, one of the strangest and most distressful periods of the last two decades in Liverpool's history came to a close.  Seen as the emodyment of the mediocrity that had somehow become the norm at the club, Konchesky's departure seen as confirmation that the standards that had been allowed to drop were now being pushed upwards again.

For all the criticism that was directed his way - a lot of which, let's be clear, was deserved - the dignity that the player himself displayed was laudable.  He was man enought to admit that he hadn't been good enough when Liverpool lost to a last minute goal at Tottenham, never reacted to the criticism (something that, sadly, his mother failed to emulate) and agreed to go down a division rather than stick around in Liverpool's reserves.

Yet, likeable and honourable as he was, it is undeniable that Konchesky just wasn't a good enough player for Liverpool.  Much like the man who had brought him there.

The basis that apparently underpinned Hodgson's appointment - the nonsensical perceived need to go for an English manager - made him the best person for the job.  Which is rather different than saying that he was the right man.  Despite some exceptional achievements - taking Switzerland to the World Cup and leading Fulham to the Europa League final in particular - there was little in a career of over four decades that indicated that he was good enough.  His successes in Nordic countries were achieved thanks to the exploitation of those country's lack of tactical development whilst his time at Inter was seen significantly less favourably in Italy than it was in England.  Most worrying was his failure at Blackburn, a club that where he wasted a fortune and set on their way to relegation.

And that seemed to be Liverpool's fate with him.  Hodgson can point to a number of justifiable alibis for his failure: owners who were bleeding the club dry, players who wanted to leave and a botched transfer policy where the Managing Director seemed to have as much say (if not more) than the manager.  Yet he was the man who set out his teams to play defensively at home, who deferred to Alex Ferguson when he criticised Torres, who considered anything more than a point away from home as 'a bonus' and who judged a defeat at Everton - when Liverpool were played off the park - as the best game his team had played.

As his team's performances worsened and he became more defensive, Hodgson came out with a famous remark that whoever replaced him couldn't do a better job and that there wasn't a magic wand.

Only that it turned out that there was.  Using largely the same squad, Kenny Dalglish managed to revive the club's fortunes and produce some excellent football along the way.  On his side he had not only the fans - who rightly rever the man - but also the club's new owners who.  .Still to take the club from depressing talking of possible relegation to the verge of European qualification whilst trashing both Manchester sides and ruining Fernando Torres' Chelsea debut was nothing sort of exceptional.

Inevitably, Dalglish was given the job and now it could get tricky.  Last season there was very little to lose and, consequently, little pressure.  That will change this time round especially after having spent some £43 million on three players this summer where a top four spot will be the minimal target for the club.

There is also a degree of skepticsm over the players on whom that money has been spent.  Already, there was a degree of perplexity at the £35 million that Liverpool spent on Andy Carroll last January, especially given his off the pitch problems, but John W. Henry had already explained that as being down to Chelsea's late bid to sign Fernando Torres.  Yet Liverpool have apparently paid excessively for Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing which puts both players in the firing line for criticism should either one of them fail to settle in immediately.

The amounts spent on those players has somewhat ridiculed the notion that Liverpool would going predominantly for players who representd good value for money; that they would be adopting what has lazily been tagged as the Moneyball approach.  Yet, whilst it has been quoted often enough, little is yet understood about how this works.  Sure enough, not overpaying for a player is a tenent but so is paying what is needed to fill the gaps, which is what Liverpool have done with the left-footed Downing.  Equally it isn't incidental that all of these players are British, something that ensures that Liverpool will recover a good part of the fees paid should any one of these fail to live up to the hype.  And that too is a 'Moneyball' consideration.

What is more interesting than the money paid is how Dalglish decides to line up his players.  With so many central midfielders available - excluding the departing Alberto Aquilani and the immobile Cristian Poulsen, Liverpool have five who can justifiably expect to play fairly regularly - it seems improbable that they will adopt the 4-4-2 that he has traditionally employed.  Much more likely is the 4-2-3-1 that mirrors they system that Liverpool began adopting at an academy level for the past two years and which Dalglish knows fully well due to his involvement in the academy before he got his promotion.

This system should allow him to play Lucas alongside Charlie Adam in a withdrawn midfield position with the first primarily looking to defend and the other to create.  It would also see Downing, Gerrard and Suarez working behind Carroll who will be the focus of attack.  With Dirk Kuyt, Maxi Rodriguez, Jordan Henderson and Jay Spearing also available, Dalgish seems to have built a midfield where every player has an alternative.

If this is truly is the system to be adopted, then it will be an interesting experiment to watch.  Even if it isn't, Dalglish has ability to innovate tactically to mould the team into playing as he wants it, something that he showed at times last year when Liverpool switched to three players at the back to deal with certain teams.

Part of that innovation could be down to Stuart Clarke.  Ever since he joined Dalglish last January, the profile of Mourinho's former assistant has been steadily growing as has his influence.  There's nothing to indicate that he had anything to do with the removal of Sammy Lee from first team coach but it is telling that the man chosen to replace him was Kevin Keen, someone who Clarke clearly recommended having played and worked with him at West Ham.  With another of Mourinho's former aides now in charge at Chelsea, it could be that Clarke is working his way into eventually being given the job at Anfield.

That, however, is something that at the moment seems to lie far ahead in the future.  And, after a bleak couple of years, Liverpool's future does indeed seem bright.  Not least because the academy - which Rafa Benitez revolutionised in what could turn out to be his most important act as Liverpool manager - is suddenly churning out a number of talents.  There were six Liverpool players in the England squad that took on the U17 World Cup in Mexico (plus another - Tom King - in the Australian team) and seven were called up for England's U19 European Championship squad.  More importantly, Dalglish has show faith in Martin Kelly, John Flanagan, Jack Robinson and Jay Spearing with each one showing that they deserve it.

All of these positives raise expectations but, even so, going from sixth to fourth will require a significant effort.  Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City should take three spots meaning that there's one available for Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham.  Even if Dalglish does manage to get the players that consolidate a defence which is lacking a left back and needs a commanding central defender, there still seems to be a work in progress feel about a squad that lacks the depth of quality of others.

What could favour Liverpool is the absence of European football - that's assuming that Tottenham pay any attention to the Europa League - whilst the Premiership experience of all of their major additions is another plus point.

Publicly, Dalglish has been very cautious not to put pressure on his players by setting any targets but this is not to mean that others won't do so for him.  Nor should it be read that he himself is lowering the standards because Dalglish knows more than anyone that the fans are acheing for a league title and that is what, ultimately, he will be working towards.  Not this season, though.

This article originally appeared on 200%


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Copyright 2010 Paul Grech: Writer