The 200% Pre-Season Previews: Liverpool

Paul Grech Sunday, August 12, 2012 , ,
For the third year running, Liverpool start a new season with a new manager in charge.  After the misguided appointment of Roy Hodgson and then the return of Kenny Dalglish, it is now up to Brendan Rodgers to try and deliver the progress that has failed to materialise under his predecessors. Even so, those that he has been asked to fill are pretty big shoes.  Dalglish’s dismissal was messy to say the least.  Having seen the club’s owners getting rid of Technical Director Damien Comolli on the eve of an FA Cup semi-final, Dalglish limped on till the end of the season under a cloud of uncertainty until he was called over to America and told that the manager’s job was no longer his.

Not that the dismissal was unexpected. Having spent an excessive amount of money on the likes of Andy Carroll, Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson and Jose Enrique, Liverpool were expected to deliver a far better result than the eventual dismal eight place finish. Then again, Dalglish can point to some attractive football played during the season where results didn’t exactly reward the performance. He can also point to a League Cup won (the club’s first trophy in seven years) and an FA Cup final appearance that could have been turned had an Andy Carroll header not been incorrectly adjudged not to have crossed the line. Yet FSG had seen enough to decide that Dalglish wasn’t the man to deliver their vision. So much that main owner John W. Henry later insisted that not even an FA Cup final win would have kept Dalglish in a job.

In truth, there was never the feeling that Dalglish was Fenway Sports Group’s ideal candidate. Only the spectre of relegation forced them to turn to him in the first instance and when he oversaw an upturn in fortune, they found themselves without any choice apart from appointing him. Put in that light, it is encouraging that they opted to act decisively by removing Dalglish and went for the kind of young manager that they had wanted in the first place. Yet, at the same time it is difficult to read into the subsequent decision against appointing a director of football, something that has always been considered as being central to their philosophy.  Rodgers – and apparently a good number of the managers they did speak to for the post – made it clear that they couldn’t work in such a structure and the owners were talked out of it.

Hearing Rodgers talk, it is easy to see why the people at FSG were impressed.  He is respectful, charismatic, intelligent and with an attractive vision of how his teams should play football. Of course, there’s more to Rodgers than talk. His Swansea side was a revelation last season, comfortably staying in the division thanks to an attractive brand of football based on ball possession and heavy pressing.  His side outplayed Liverpool both at the Liberty Stadium and at Anfield – tellingly, in front of a watching John W Henry – as they did against a number of top sides. The development of players under his charge was equally impressive, something that will also have been noticed.

Early impressions have continued to build on that positive image and calmed, at least temporarily, those who either saw Dalglish’s dismissal as being too harsh or wanted to see the return of Rafa Benitez.  One of Rodgers’ first acts as a Liverpool manager was to change the ‘This is Anfield’ sign that hangs above the tunnel leading out to the pitch, whereby he put back the sign that stood in place until 1998 and which had first been installed by Bill Shankly.  It might in many ways be a trivial act but that kind of focus on details and nod at tradition resonates with the fans. It is also the kind that raises expectations, something that both Rodgers and Henry have been trying to diminish them. Qualification for the Champions League, which was described as the minimum requirement for Dalglish, is not being expected and there seems to be an acceptance that it will take time for him to deliver that.

The club’s recruitment has also reflected that change. Whereas last summer Liverpool spent big early on, this time round they’ve been much more measured.  Gylfi Siggursdon, immediately identified as one of Rodgers’ targets, went to Tottenham after Liverpool  failed to match his wage demands whereas Fabio Borini, at 21 and costing £11 million, is just the type of transfer Liverpool seem to want to target. In paying £15 million – and taking so long to do so – to get Joe Allen it would appear that Liverpool spent more than they wanted but he was a player that Rodgers knew well and will be confident that he can mature into a player who will more than justify that fee.

Rodgers has hinted that Liverpool will be bringing in more players before the end of August and they are needed especially with experienced players like Maxi Rodriguez, Dirk Kuyt and Craig Bellamy leaving.  Who those players might be is unclear especially since the people identified to head to remodelled scouting team – David Fallows and Barry Hunter – have been placed on gardening leave by their previous club Manchester City and will only be in a position to start their job later in the year. How much money is available is just as big a question. The clumsy attempt at pushing Andy Carroll out of the club has been followed by huge hints that Daniel Agger might be allowed to leave if a big enough offer came in.  The rumours of that latter deal have raised the first signs of friction since Rodgers took over with most fans being against it happening regardless of the size of the offer.

If that transfer does come true, however, it will be the first real adoption of the ‘Moneyball’ approach that has been mentioned so frequently since FSG took over.  Having appeared pretty regularly last season for the first time in years and done extremely well in the European Championships, it might be felt that Agger’s value might never be as high as it is now especially if one of the injuries that has plagued his career were to flare up again. That much is evident in the way that Liverpool handled the news that another player – Luis Suarez – was the target of a sizeable bid. Contrary to Agger, selling Suarez was never contemplated and instead he was offered a new improved contract.

It was a significant deal as Liverpool try to ensure that their best players are tied to long term deals.  This core of players – Pepe Reina, Martin Skrtel, Glen Johnson, Stephen Gerrard, Lucas Leiva and Luis Suarez – are good enough to do much better than they have in recent seasons and with the level of supporting cast being raised then they can hope to finish the season closer to fourth place than they have of late. The problem at Liverpool is the lack of quality throughout the squad.  Typical was the situation that cropped up last season when Lucas was forced to miss out half a season through injury.  Dalglish was forced to turn to Jay Spearing, a player who loves the club and always tries his hardest but who struggled terribly to show the quality needed at this level.  It is the same in other key areas.

It will be such shortcomings that will hold Liverpool back.  Cups will continue to be their best shot at glory although how much importance will be devoted to them is doubtful given that Dalglish was dismissed despite getting to two cup finals.  The league, and progressing there, is undoubtedly infinitely more important and that is the metric against which Rodgers’ season will eventually be measured.

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Learning from the Kenyans

Paul Grech Wednesday, August 1, 2012 , , ,
There are few instances in sport where one nation has so consistently produced champion athletes at all levels as Kenya have done. Inevitably, such sustained success leads to questions as to what is at the heart of it.  Key in the words "Kenyan Long Distance Running" into a search engine and you will be faced by tens of articles trying to answer that question.

Adharanand Finn is one of those who have made such an attempt, spending a year in Kenya which he subsequently chronicled in the excellent book Running with Kenyans.

For Finn and for many others those queries are borne of the desire to replicate such success in the field of athletics.  Yet it would be foolhardy to believe that a system that has produced so much talent doesn't have traits that could be replicated by other sports.

And, although what parallels exist aren't always immediately obvious, there is plenty to learn for football.

Read the full discussion with Adhanarand Finn over at Blueprint for Football.
Copyright 2010 Paul Grech: Writer