Friday, 14 October 2011

WHITHER LIVERPOOL...? (OR: WILL 'EL PISTOLERO' MISS MEIRELES' BULLETS?)

With the summer plans of the majority of Europe’s elite players now decided, attention returns once more to the throb and rumble of domestic football. And at the end of a week in which Premier League-watchers have got their quasi-socialist knickers in a twist (at least twenty years too late, frankly, no matter how sensible their long-term arguments) over the contentious TV rights-selling plans voiced by Liverpool MD Ian Ayre, it is no bad thing that both the league in general and his club’s supporters in particular – its fans in the Far East included – can look forward to arguably their blue riband fixture: the visit of Manchester United to Anfield.

Focussing again on on-field matters – and thus reminding (or congratulating) ourselves of the potential commercial hegemony of the League As A Whole when compared to all other European leagues – provides an opportune juncture for supporters of Liverpool to take stock of where they will be by the time the summer rolls round. Specifically, it is time to ask – before today’s result obscures too much, good or bad – how Kenny Dalglish’s Anfield makeover is coming along now that the honeymoon period is definitively over.

Any statistician would tell you that a seven-match old Premier League season is not a significant enough period to arrive at hard-and-fast conclusions, but it might be sufficient to provide clues as to emerging tendencies. Certainly, this would be implicit in the views aired last week by the latest Kop Idol, Luis Suárez, who, in an interview with Gazzetta dello Sport, has unequivocally written off the club’s title aspirations, about which the red 58% of the city was so bullish back in May: “We have no limit and want to stay in the top four. The main reason why it is so difficult is because the two Manchesters and Chelsea are unreachable. But we can win the cups.”

What to make of Suárez’s remarks? Do they provide a hefty dose of realism to a club not slow, of late, to inflate small grounds for optimism into harbingers of imminent glory (something of which I have been guilty)? Are they an unnecessarily negative pronouncement from someone who has become, very quickly, arguably even more central to Liverpool’s fortunes than was Fernando Torres at his coruscating peak? Are they symptoms of a loss of faith in the Uruguayan regarding Dalglish’s ‘project’ at Anfield?

Without wishing to fence-sit: maybe, maybe not. Either way, these opinions should not really be evaluated on the basis of whether true or false (he could be bluffing, after all), for they are not ‘objective’ scientific statements, made from some loftily neutral perspective beyond what they purport to describe. They need to be understood as actions, ones that can themselves are part of, and can alter, the course of events (much as economists will tell you that consumer confidence has been adversely affected by gloomy forecasts, opinions, coming from Downing Street). As anyone who has played in a sports team will tell you, Suárez might – might – have unwittingly started to undermine the self-belief in the squad, like a slow puncture, imperceptible at first…

Anyway, regardless of such conjecture, it is self-evident that the two Manchester clubs have hit the ground running, just two points apiece dropped and goals aplenty. City’s extended spending spree in Europe’s luxury stores is starting to lose its starchy newness and settle together snugly as an outfit, while Fergie’s youthful additions and re-introductions (Jones, Young, De Gea, Cleverley, Welbeck) are meshing with the whippersnapper deadliness of Nani, Hernández and Rooney to promise much for the foreseeable future. The duopoly looks settled for now, but nothing is guaranteed. Granted, the two clubs have formidable shock absorbers in place for any potentially destabilising events, but you simply never know – this time last year, everyone said double-winning Chelsea were looking unstoppable, that Ancelotti was going to emulate Mourinho with back-to-back titles in his debut seasons. Then they fired Wilkins and off flew the wheels…

So, things can change quickly, but let’s assume that any misfortune befalling these juggernauts (further repercussions of the Tevez affair; the removal of Rooney or Silva through injury) is not substantial enough to derail them. Then, as Suárez says, Liverpool should reasonably surmise that they are competing with Chelsea, Spurs and Arsenal for two Champions League spots, in pursuit of which they have already defeated the latter at the Emirates, in almost identical fashion to the controversial Merseyside derby at Goodison (winning 2-0 after their opponents had been reduced to ten men with the game goalless), giving them excellent away wins in what ought to be two of their more difficult fixtures. Yet Arsenal are already being dismissed as top-four contenders in some quarters (including their Chief Executive, it seems) having lost over half their league games and been humiliated 8-2 at Old Trafford; Chelsea, meanwhile, have started brightly under Vilas-Boas and look strong. So, maybe it is a simple shootout for fourth with Spurs, a team that battered Liverpool 4-0, of course (having themselves been trounced 5-1 at the Lane by Man City and lost at Old Trafford).

Now, however you appraise the significance of all that, it is not so much the results as the manner of Liverpool’s play that suggest to some of the less blindly reverential supporters that the club’s transfer activity in the summer, while adding depth, has not augmented the quality in a manner concomitant with the financial outlay. A nervy victory over Wolves and a home draw (the perennial problem of the Rafa era) with Sunderland, as well as defeat at Stoke when having utterly dominated the game, suggest that Liverpool do not yet have the requisite attacking dimensions at their disposal. The key question is whether this is a problem of the parts or of the whole, of the individuals’ talents or the cohesiveness of the group?


Liverpool's summer shopping still have it all to prove...

Of the three North-eastern lads purchased – at a cost of £75m – by Dalglish to bolster the squad/team, only Stewart Downing can be said to have performed creditably so far. As for the albatross-lugging Carroll, it is now widely accepted that Liverpool had no part to play in his exorbitant fee, merely telling Chelsea that they would have to pay £15m more for Torres than the Geordies wanted for their big Number 9. However, while this arrangement may have balanced the books (Carroll + Suárez = Torres + Babel, give or take), it nevertheless provided ‘information’ about the club’s behaviour in the market and thus continues to have an economic ‘half-life,’ affecting their subsequent dealings. Indeed, there is a feeling Liverpool have paid over the odds for almost all their summer purchases (save Charlie Adam, maybe). Certainly, there is a disparity in the price of Downing when compared to his former Villa teammate, Ashley Young, fast becoming a key man for both club and country. 

It could well be that Liverpool’s stuttering displays are because Dalglish is set on mixing and matching his formations to suit the opponent. On the other hand, it could be that they are caught between styles of play, two in particular (perhaps at the same time): the first, wing-based, is an attempt to adopt a 4-4-1-1 that seeks to maximise the gifts of Carroll with service from the flanks (albeit, in the continued absence of Gerrard, with the hitherto ineffectual Henderson or the slow Kuyt on the right), with Suárez free to roam in the hole. The other is a Dalglishian twist on the 4-2-3-1 system beloved of Rafa, the twist being that the most advanced player, Suárez, has the licence to drop deep and the three could interchange when Liverpool were in possession. With Maxi, Kuyt and Meireles as the advanced midfield trident in the second of these formations, Liverpool finished last season in rampart form (barring the last two games, only one of which had anything at stake). It was the living, breathing embodiment of that Boot Room pass-and-move tradition in which Dalglish was steeped, and seemed to foreshadow how the team would play this season.

"You talkin' to me?"

But no – the midfield sophistication and guile of Raul Meireles, so crucial to the club’s recovery, has been jettisoned, ostensibly over a request for the relative pittance (particularly when you consider what is being spent on Joe Cole to play for Lille, and in the past on Babel, Voronin, et al) of an extra £30k per week, as had been promised him by Roy Hodgson. For many, he was the best midfielder on the staff – including Gerrard – but last year’s PFA Fans’ Player of the Year (yes, they knew) has now gone, walking straight into compatriot Andre Vilas-Boas’ first-choice midfield combination at Chelsea and taking with him 50 caps for Portugal and that Iberian gift for subtle positioning and rapid ball circulation, the sort that means a partially unlocked defence cannot recover through ponderous or careless touches (a trait much in evidence with Henderson, it has to be said). 

With a surplus of midfielders having been accumulated at Anfield, was this the wrong one to sacrifice? For all Adam and Lucas’s strengths, neither is especially adept at the short, quick passing game (although the Brazilian is improving all the time), while Gerrard is no midfield general. Indeed, his presence in that area of the field all too often confuses matters for those around him, people of more sober temperament and lesser physical gifts. Far better to have him purvey his unpredictable and slightly frenetic brand of making-things-happen in the final third. In this light, surely the Portuguese’s talents – especially his link-up play with Suárez – should have been the cornerstone of this campaign’s stratagem. 

Well, all this is now moot, and for many Liverpool supporters Meireles’ departure on the last day of the window remains the great mystery of the recent transfer activity. Have they broken that great truism of sports management: if it ain’t broke… Or are we jumping the gun? Is it blasphemy even to question Dalglish’s vision, given his reputation at the club and the outstanding job in stabilizing a very rocky boat in January? Only time will tell. 

Nevertheless, while Carroll, Gerrard, and Downing will hope next June finds them chasing glory between the Black and Baltic Seas, Liverpool need to ensure that they have late summer Champions League trips of their own on the horizon. In order to try and secure that, Fenway Sports Group probably need to go shopping once more next January, and there are unlikely to be many bargains to be had. 



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