Anatoly Karlin, who writes one of the most interesting and thought provoking blogs about Russia, has just launched a new forum for people wishing to indulge in 'Russia related discussions'.
It's called The Russia Debate and I'm sure it'll soon be a first stop for anyone interested in debating Russian politics and current affairs regularly. The house rules are 'earnest and mutually civil'. Pop over and have a look.
Wednesday, 17 April 2013
I picked up a book over the weekend called Smashed in the USSR and felt obliged to write a short review, simply because it is very good but appears to have been largely ignored, if the lack of mentions on Google and its non-inclusion on Goodreads is a fair gauge. Subtitled ‘Fear, Loathing and Vodka on the Steppes’ it tells the story of Ivan Petrov, a Russian tramp, as told to co-author, Caroline Walton.
Some research reveals that the book was previously published as Russia Through a Shot Glass and perhaps that title was better. Smashed in the USSR is a little trite and it suggests a booze-fuelled, gonzo-style romp, whereas Petrov’s tale is actually a sad and thoughtful account of alcoholism, personal and national, against a broad sweep of the USSR’s history and an even broader sweep of Soviet geography.
His voice is captured particularly elegantly by Walton and it reveals a great deal of humour and a surprising lack of self-pity. Petrov describes the crushing poverty of a wartime childhood in the industrial, Volga city of Chabaevsk, life as a vagrant – hopping trains across the Soviet empire – and the grim existence of a prisoner in a succession of lock-ups and work camps.
His life is varied and remarkable enough to read like a novel, but the memoir is also a considerable account of a seamy underbelly of the USSR. There are failed collective farms, where everyone is too drunk to bother to take in the harvest, mental institutions filled with alcoholics undergoing courses of brutal drugs and a cast of drifters, conmen and criminals, living on the edge of society.
Petrov argues that, in the USSR, there are few differences between ‘those behind the wire and those looking in’. Although he is an alcoholic he says he is no ‘white raven’. The disease disfigures Soviet society, but while a majority pretends to work and have a family life in grim tenements, the ‘alkashi’ travel across the Union, eking out a few roubles to buy ‘a hair of the dog’. Their lives are certainly bleak, violent and often brief, but the author also portrays glimpses of generosity, comradeship and even dignity.
Ultimately Petrov seeks asylum in the United Kingdom, after coming to these shores with a Georgian theatre company. He is not impressed by the ‘freedom’ offered in ‘the West’, where he thinks people have become trapped by an endless pursuit of possessions. In an epilogue written in her own voice Walton wonders doubtfully whether he could have pursued a similar existence in post-Soviet Russia, without coming to a premature end.
Smashed in the USSR is a fascinating story, gracefully told. I’m at a loss as to why it is has not captured more attention. The memoir is an impressive personal account of alcoholism, as well as an important historical description of life in the Soviet Union.
Hopefully many more people will read this republished version.
Friday, 8 February 2013
Wednesday was another dark day for international football in Northern Ireland. Michael O’Neill’s side drew 0-0 with lowly Malta, a team made up of part-time players, meaning that the manager has yet to achieve a win, after 18 months in charge.
That’s not the reason, though, that it was a dark day for Northern Ireland football. Managers come and go, players are capped and retire, lose form or fall out of favour; matches are played and sometimes the result is good while more often, particularly in friendly matches, it is bad.
The only thing that should be constant is the honour of playing for one’s country. The Irish Football Association can change the international coach, revitalise the playing panel, modify tactics, but the prestige attached to the award of an international cap, if it is diminished, cannot be recovered.
That’s why by far the most significant event on Wednesday evening was the selection of Alex Bruce and his participation in 70 minutes of a grim, lacklustre international challenge match. Bruce was first asked to play for Northern Ireland a number of years ago, but declined, saying that his ‘lifelong’ ambition was to play for the Republic.
He achieved this goal twice, representing the FAI’s senior side in two international challenge matches.
If a player has not competed in at least one full competitive match he can change his international allegiance once, if he is eligible to represent another association. So, as it became clear that Alex Bruce would not establish himself permanently with the Republic, Nigel Worthington asked him to reconsider playing for Northern Ireland. Which is how we arrive at the extraordinary situation of the player debuting for a second international team.
Although this was within the rules it sets a deplorable precedent.
Likewise, back in 2010 Adam Barton was selected for the international team and awarded a ‘trial’ cap in a challenge match, after refusing to commit himself to Northern Ireland. He subsequently defected to the southern, breakaway association. That example meant a player could represent Northern Ireland in a friendly game without any expectation that they were committing themselves to play for the IFA in the future.
Now, thanks to a combination of the Association, Nigel Worthington and Michael O’Neill, Alex Bruce has established the precedent that, if a player is eligible for both Irish teams, he is free to turn Northern Ireland down, pursue his ambitions with the Republic and assume that, if he still satisfies the criteria, the IFA will select him when his southern adventure is a failure.
Can the IFA drag the prestige of a Northern Ireland cap any lower? It will be a challenge, but I suspect they will find a way. Selecting Alex Bruce was a disgraceful decision, which showed no pride and very little principle.
Friday, 1 February 2013
As an occasional newspaper columnist I understand the pressures of coming up with an instant opinion on something .... anything. Still, an article in The Times today by Ben Macintyre is a particularly lame affair. The premise is that Mussolini, Stalin and Hitler were very bad men and that Italy and Russia aren’t contrite enough about it, while Germany is.
In the round that’s a fairly un-startling observation, although it’s less clear what purpose this national self-flagellation that Macintyre wants to see would serve. He hangs his argument on some fairly flimsy facts.
Take this piece of evidence that ‘the rehabilitation of Stalin is also gathering pace’.
“Under Vladimir Putin’s government, a revised school curriculum describes him as a ‘competent manager’ whose actions were ‘entirely rational’”.
Some of the best historians of Russia in the English language have already gone to quite some length to emphasise that Stalin’s purges were not the actions of a paranoid lunatic. It’s perfectly reasonable to describe his actions as ‘rational’, without excusing their purpose or brutality. The aim being to assert personal power, rapidly industrialise the USSR and catch up with the development of ‘western’ countries, most of Stalin’s crimes were perfectly logical, albeit ruthless, bloodthirsty and sociopathic.
And although Macintyre’s contention that ‘anyone who [regrets the passing of the USSR] has no memory’ might seem fair in Latvia or Lithuania, it’s hardly the case in Kyrgyzstan, Pridnestrovie or Nagorno Karabakh. Lamenting the destruction of the USSR as a multi-national state is not the same as condoning communism or any of the atrocities committed in its name.
The Soviet Union’s break-up resulted in much greater violence, ethnic strife and poverty in many of its former republics. To accuse the people who live there, or Vladimir Putin, of ‘rewriting history’ by regretting that fact is unjustified and arrogant.
Thursday, 17 January 2013
There is a perverse article in The Times today by Stefan Syzmanski, which argues that UEFA’s Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules are elitist. I’m afraid I can’t link the article, because the newspaper expects people to pay for journalism.
FFP requires football clubs to stay solvent and dictates that their spending must be covered by income generated through football activities. The aim is to ensure competition and prevent wealthy owners from bankrolling star-studded teams without any regard for sustainability. The Premier League is still having a discussion about whether to adopt UEFA’s code, but four clubs, Liverpool, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal, are lobbying to ensure that it comes into force.
Syzmanski’s piece says that ‘big clubs’ are attempting to prevent smaller teams from challenging their ascendency. It’s a truly depressing thought that the only way to challenge football’s elite is to spend astronomical sums of money.
The tendency for clubs to become the playthings of rich owners is severely damaging the sport. Older elements of ‘football mobility’, like building a strong youth system, attracting more fans, developing a stadium and appointing an astute manager, are being replaced by cheque-book chairmen, who pay astronomical sums to recruit journeymen players.
It is actually very refreshing that Pep Guardiola, the former Barcelona manager, has decided to take charge of Bayern Munich, a proper football club, rather than Chelsea or Manchester City. English sides could learn a great deal from their German counterparts, whose spending is restricted, who charge fans a sensible price for admission to games and create a steady stream of home-grown talent for their national team.
Smaller clubs, like Greuther Furth or FC Augsburg, have certainly not been prevented from reaching the top tier of football in Germany. If the Premier League adopts the FFP it will ensure that teams which reach the top in England concentrate on player development, rather than spending money they don’t have on overpaid professionals from overseas.
Before a club’s bank balance became the main criterion for its success the likes of Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa were able to win league titles and European Cups, while Man Utd and Arsenal often struggled to challenge. It’s simply nonsense to suggest that more money has created more mobility in English football.
It is right for UEFA to ask clubs in its member associations to operate as going concerns. It is right that it acts to restrict outrageous salaries which have put some teams out of business. If the owner of Dogsnot Athletic is prevented from propelling his toy to the top of the Premier League by spending ill-gotten billions on pampered mercenaries from Bolivia, then all the better.
Posted by Chekov at 18:22
Tuesday, 6 November 2012
Tuesday, 11 September 2012
Just a very quick pre-match comment on the progress of Michael O’Neill’s Northern Ireland.
The trip to Russia ended in disappointment, but not disgrace. There were tentative signs that O’Neill is beginning to drill some organisation into his side defensively.
The team kept its shape quite effectively while the Russians played their fluid passing game and the best chances were created because of individual errors. That said, Northern Ireland gave the ball away much too easily, and there were few signs of the clever, mobile offensive tactics which O’Neill wants to introduce.
2-0 was as good a result as the fans had a right to expect, especially since Russia’s second goal was a contentious penalty (although Cathcart’s challenge on Kokorin was clumsy). They will demand more against Luxembourg tonight.
Under Nigel Worthington Northern Ireland failed to change their defensive game when they played weaker opponents, or to dominate possession. O’Neill’s task this evening is to show that his side knows how to play against minnows, as well as sides like Russia.
On a tangent, the trip to Moscow, via Kazan and Nizhny Novgorod was amazing. But that's for another day.
Posted by Chekov at 18:30
Thursday, 16 August 2012
Northern Ireland’s home friendly matches are notoriously boring. Therefore last night’s 3-3 draw against Finland, which not only saw plenty of goalmouth action but was also played at a reasonable tempo, is attracting descriptions like ‘thriller’ and ‘classic’.
Hardly - but in new manager Michael O’Neill’s 3rd game, it was nice to see his players finally score some goals. Their previous two outings were 3-0 and 6-0 defeats against Norway and Holland.
Michael’s positive approach to the game, his openness with the press and his easy manner with players, are a refreshing change from his negative predecessor, Nigel Worthington. Although O’Neill must already be acutely aware that he faces a difficult task to produce respectable results. The Northern Ireland team he has inherited is rather short on quality, morale or ideas.
The new young manager wants to implement a fashionable, flexible tactical system nonetheless. To dip into technical jargon, it is best described as 4-3-3, although, when the team is being forced to defend, it can look more like a 4-5-1.
The key aspects are that it doesn’t include conventional wingers or a traditional pairing of centre-forwards up front. It does require the players to remain in a compact formation rather than being strung out loosely across the pitch, and it depends upon swift, accurate passing and quick, instinctive movement to break down opposition defences.
It would be wonderful to think that O’Neill can coach Northern Ireland to play this way, and it may even be fun watching him try (as it was for the first 20 minutes last night when his players gave it a darned good attempt). I wonder, though, whether there are not already signs that he’ll eventually be forced to abandon his favoured tactics.
For a start, the shape the team is currently adopting is anything but compact. Three crooked, incoherent lines of defenders, midfielders and attackers are ungracefully splayed out, with yawning gaps in between them.
Secondly, if a team is to maintain any width at all playing this system it needs its full-backs to be willing to push on up past the midfield on occasion. Last night Lee Hodson looked desperately reluctant to adopt this style, even though one foray saw him create a good opportunity for Kyle Lafferty to score, and Ryan McGivern was simply not prepared to give it a try at all.
Despite a good opening period for Northern Ireland, the football was not particularly pretty.
Any possession which was retained went sideways across the three unlovely lines (particularly the defence) and tended to break down when an attempt was made to advance, or interplay the ball between them. The team didn’t look like a tight unit. Yet there was also very little width, because the midfield and forward players were unwilling to go too far out unto the wings and Hodson and McGivern were reluctant to overlap and provide their midfielders with an extra option.
The outcome? Possession was often lost with some very hopeful and unrealistic straight balls over Kyle Lafferty’s head, which he was supposed to chase, but had no realistic chance of retrieving.
Perhaps the most alarming aspect of this lack of shape for Northern Ireland was that the defence was desperately exposed. Hence Finland, an average side, managed to add three goals to Holland’s 6 and Norway’s 3.
That defensive record is extremely worrying as Northern Ireland prepares to face Russia in Moscow in the first World Cup qualifier. Although we eventually claimed a draw last night, after a doubtful penalty, if Finland had won 6-2 it would not have been an unfair reflection of the balance of play.
The team simply has to be set up in a more compact fashion, if it is to avoid an embarrassing scoreline at Lokomotiv stadium. Then, of course, an away tie looms with Portugal. Terrifying.
Michael O’Neill did perform miracles at Shamrock Rovers, getting a limited set of players playing a tricky technical system and achieving excellent results. Who’s to say he can’t do the same at international level?
Unfortunately he won’t have the luxury of working daily with Northern Ireland, or even selecting the same personnel for each squad, so his opportunities to coach players in the intricacies of his strategy will be more limited.
Whoever was appointed Northern Ireland’s manager quickly had to come to terms with the limited available resources. Many of the players who contributed to memorable results during the Lawrie Sanchez era have retired, struggled with injuries or simply didn’t reach their full potential.
The international team is moving into one of those natural slumps which all countries as small as Northern Ireland are forced to suffer from time to time. Michael O’Neill’s job is either to manage that decline or deliver creditable results in spite of it.
He’ll need to be hard headed and pragmatic to do either. I wonder whether the first compromise may be to change his team’s tactics.
Posted by Chekov at 19:16
Monday, 13 August 2012
Am awful lot has changed since my last post about developments at Anfield.
Kenny Dalglish joined Daniel Comolli and others in being given the sack by Liverpool’s owners. It was an unpopular decision with supporters, who were loyal to ‘King Kenny’ to the end. A tortuous period of rumour and speculation followed, before Brendan Rodgers was prised away from Swansea City, becoming the 2nd youngest manager in Liverpool’s history.
The Carnlough man has impressed with his forthright press statements, and now that the season has officially started, he will get an opportunity to make improvements on the pitch.
It could be a slow process, but Liverpool fans (and the club's owners) must be patient. Rodgers needs to be given a number of years to implement his system, barring all but the most unforeseeable disasters.
The manager has made two signings over the close season. First to arrive was the young Italian striker, Fabio Borini. He marked his competitive debut at Anfield by scoring with an adept volley, after clever play from Luis Suarez.
Last week he was joined by Joe Allen, captured from Swansea, after a £15 million release clause in his contract was triggered. At that price his signing is a gamble. I suspect that the fee was inflated by the fact that Allen is a British player.
Still, Rodgers has a high regard for the midfielder’s ability and the system which he intends to implement does require mobile players who are comfortable on the ball in the centre of the pitch.
The manager’s preferred tactics have been described variously as 4-3-3, 4-5-1 and ‘tikka takka’. As I noted previously, it is a strategy which is likely to suit Luis Suarez in particular.
So it’s an exciting time for Liverpool supporters, but a note of caution. The manager can make some improvements straight away, but the current squad is still in need of renovation. Allen and Borini have arrived, but the likes of Charlie Adam, Jay Spearing and Stuart Downing remain. They have also, rather worryingly, played a notable role in pre-season matches.
The hunt for a wide player continues. The Uruguayan, Gaston Ramirez, has been mentioned, while Portugal’s Ricardo Queresma is viewed as a possible alternative. Though Liverpool has a notoriously patchy record in the transfer market, where it comes to wingers.
As ever, the manager’s season will be considered a success if the club is in next season’s champions’ league. Cup success is regarded as an optional extra these days.
A top 4 finish is achievable, but if it is not attained, it will be time for the owners to demonstrate some patience.
Friday, 10 August 2012
The British press, as a rule, covers Russia badly and the Pussy Riot trial is no exception. In many of the articles which I’ve read, there is precious little distinction between reporting and comment.
Now, I would not for a minute suggest that the three young defendants should receive the three year prison sentence which prosecution lawyers are seeking, but the notions that the proceedings constitute a ‘show trial’, represent a return to Stalinism or are purely politically motivated don’t stand up to scrutiny.
Read Mercouris’s carefully researched post which looks at the legal issues and some of the lazy assumptions which have been reported persistently by newspapers in the UK.
The law in a particular country reflects quite properly the values of the society in which it operates. If a protest were to desecrate a mosque in a devout Muslim country the punishment would most likely be severe. International opinion would not be appalled. If an anarchist collective performed a profane song at the altar of St Peter’s, and if its members had a history of other provocative and criminal actions in the Vatican, it would not be surprising if they were tried, convicted or even imprisoned. Any outcry would be muted.
The difficulty with much coverage of Russia in British newspapers is that every story is used to build a case against Vladimir Putin and is not, therefore, treated on its own merits. There is very little attempt to provide context, balance or even full disclosure of the facts. Reporting is often bent into a shape which suits comment writers and the newspaper or broadcaster’s editorial line.
It would be wrong to pre-empt the outcome of the Pussy Riot case. The defendants may well be acquitted or dealt a less than draconian punishment. However the fact that the case has come to trial is certainly not as absurd as it has frequently been portrayed.
Friday, 8 June 2012
Dr Phil Larkin returns to provide a thoughtful post on the rise of Sinn Fein in the Republic.
A RETURN TO SENSE AND SANITY: THE “RISE” OF SINN FEIN IN THE IRISH REPUBLIC
Every so often certain sections of the media, Irish and British, seem to “lose the run of themselves” in relation to a particular issue. For a sector of the Irish media (north and south of the border), the current cause for hysteria is the seemingly unstoppable rise of Sinn Fein within the body politic of the Irish Republic, a frenzy fuelled by the recent referendum campaign on the EU Fiscal Reform Treaty. If one were to believe all that has been written over the last few weeks, we would see Gerry Adams as alternatively the next Taoiseach or Irish President, Sinn Fein forming a majority in the Dail at the next election, holding all the cards to Ireland’s political future in their hands. Every utterance that a party figure makes is hailed by some as a piece of profound political wisdom, and there appears to be no limits to their ability as political strategists. The young and educated are supposed to be rallying to the party banner in shoals and legions, sweeping all before them. None of this is entirely new: SF’s advances in the Irish General Election of last year were greeted with similar fanfare in the same quarters.
Happily, out of the general hysteria came a voice of reason, in the form of a Belfast Telegraph article by Henry McDonald, which appeared in the Belfast Telegraph on 30 May. McDonald brought a good dose of insipid common sense to commentary on SF’s position in the Irish Republic, and helps burst the balloon which has continually been inflated by other journalists over the past year or so. It is the aim of this article to take up and expand upon some of the themes alluded to in his newspaper piece, and make some parallels with an issue of concern on this side of the Irish Sea.
McDonald uses the EU referendum campaign in the Republic as a point of focus, and notes how Sinn Fein was undoubtedly the largest single player in the “No” campaign. Even if (as appears likely at the time of writing) the Irish electorate returns a narrow “yes” in the vote, he concedes that the party will have further made in-roads into parts of Middle Ireland they have never reached before. However, he proceeds to make the following important qualifying statement:
Much of Middle Ireland is turned off by the northern-based leadership, tainted as it still is by the Provisionals' blood-soaked paramilitary past. A new leadership of southern based politicians would undoubtedly make the party much more attractive to middle class, economically conservative Irish voters. That in turn would require Sinn Fein to dilute its leftist, autarkic policies on southern economic issues and at the same time risk alienating its older, poorer base.
This succinctly summarizes the upcoming trouble ahead for Sinn Fein in the Republic. It has long been acknowledged that the biggest single task facing any political party in mature Western democracies is to capture enough support of the “squeezed middle” of the electorate (which, after all, comprises the bulk of the population) to gain an overall majority, or form a coalition government, which is the usual situation in the Republic. Sinn Fein, however, is effectively trying to be all things to all men, and it is likely that Middle Ireland (highly literate, informed, and interested) will recognise the sheer hollowness of their economic policies before too long, if they ever bought it in the first place. This is evident from some of the comments made by Irish voters preceding the referendum: one retired accountant from Tipperary made the extremely pertinent observation on the BBC News website that while Gerry Adams said that funds would be available for Ireland even if it rejected the new fiscal compact, he did not state where such funds would come from. It is true that younger SF TDs such as Pearse Doherty and Mary Lou McDonald may have a greater superficial grasp of the language of political economy, and a southern SF leadership almost certainly will wish to modify somewhat the party’s left-wing and autarkic policies in order to appeal to Middle Ireland, but this is likely to alienate the niche areas of the Irish electorate where they have spent so much time and effort seeking to capture. In addition, if the party does go down the path of moving to the centre ground in terms of economic policy, how will it then be able to claim that it is so very different from Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, and Labour, the mainstream parties which SF professes to detest? The middle ground of Irish politics is already a crowded field, and SF are very much newcomers: yes, they come across at present as something new, flash, and exciting, but how long can the fireworks and fun last for? A diet of rhetorical candyfloss and quasi-Poujadism becomes very sickly after a while.
Perhaps this is a naïve view to adopt, but I simply did not buy the hullabaloo prevalent last year about the permanent demise of Fianna Fail as a force in Irish politics, and their eclipse by a rampant Sinn Fein. I simply do not believe that over 80 years of history can just be obliterated by the results of one (admittedly disastrous) election. The reality, as it appears to me, is that SF is currently riding high the wave of dissatisfaction with established political parties which is prevalent in the Republic: the draw of their outdated and threadbare economic policies are emphatically not the cause of this dissatisfaction. Many of the gains made by SF in the south are based on protest vote against the political establishment, hardly a solid basis on which to build a road to government.
This has provoked the question in some quarters about why Fianna Fail is not carrying on a more vocal and active role in opposition. One leading commentator has described SF as the cock which rules the opposition roost at present in the Dail. He goes on state that like the cock, SF does plenty of crowing, but lays no economic eggs. Having grown up on a farm, however, I know that even the most virulent and aggressive rooster will exhaust himself after crowing for an excessive amount of time. Quite apart from needing some time for regrouping and healing the wounds of defeat, I suspect that Fianna Fail have been in the political game long enough to know that their rehabilitation will be a long term project, to be achieved over the next decade or so. Michael Martin has made a quiet, but significant beginning to this process by supporting the Fine Gael/Labour Government on the EU fiscal referendum, and by facing down Eamonn O’Cuiv within the party. The next general election does not have to take place until 2015, and it is possible that by that stage the Irish economy may be on the road to some form of recovery. In addition, by that date the SF roadshow of bluster and empty economic promises will be beginning to look tired out and shop soiled – and the mainstream parties will hopefully be ruthless about subjecting their policies to an unrelenting glare of hard light.
I also have a hunch that for much the same reasons the anti-Scottish Independence campaign has been quiet in comparison to the bluster which we have come to expect from the Nationalists. By 2014 the hope is that, the anniversary of Bannockburn aside, the pro-Independence campaign and rhetoric will have run out of steam, and then be vulnerable to attacks from the much greater intellectual and financial reserves of the unionist camp.
For those who are worried by the triumphalism of Sinn Fein in Ireland, and by the Independence campaign in Scotland, the above are just some things to bear in mind.
Monday, 23 April 2012
Another weekend, another home defeat for Liverpool Football Club. This time Kenny Dalglish’s side managed to lose to West Bromwich Albion at Anfield - for the first time in 45 years.
Just weeks ago I had the misfortune to witness a similar capitulation to Wigan Athletic, but the WBA defeat stings a little more, because former manager, Roy Hodgson, is now in charge of the Baggies.
Liverpool’s owners, FSG, showed their unhappiness at the club’s progress over Easter week when a spate of sackings were announced. The highest profile departure was Damien Comolli, the ‘director of football strategy’ who was charged with overseeing transfer policy.
It’s true that the Frenchman did a terrible job by any standards. When Liverpool cashed in to the tune of £50 million, by selling Fernando Torres to Chelsea during last season’s transfer window, Comolli set about spending the loot with all the restraint and foresight of a drunken sailor.
Officials from Newcastle United were privately astonished when Liverpool tabled a £30 million opening bid for Andy Carroll. In the end the Geordies were able to hold out for a mammoth £35 million.
In recent weeks Carroll has begun to look like a worthwhile option, scoring late winners against Blackburn and Everton. Had the big striker cost closer to Newcastle’s valuation of £12 million, he might yet have a chance of being regarded a good buy. However with the pressure of a hugely inflated price-tag, he has suffered a torrid opening season and a half at Anfield.
For that misjudgement and others – Jordan Henderson, Stuart Downing and the woeful Charlie Adam – all of which involved hefty fees, Comolli got the sack. Kenny Dalglish, though, was quick to emphasise that he had had the final say on all transfer deals. There is a suspicion that the next time FSG show their impatience with Liverpool’s progress, the buck could stop with the manager, who still enjoys enthusiastic backing from the club’s fans.
Dalglish’s dreadful league results have been redeemed somewhat by a successful season in cup competitions. Liverpool beat Everton at Wembley last weekend, to secure a second cup final in 3 months.
In February the Carling Cup was added to the club’s considerable trophy cabinet, albeit that penalty kicks were required against second tier Cardiff City.
Should Liverpool overcome Chelsea in the FA Cup final, Dalglish will have won two major prizes in his first full season back in management. It would be difficult to portray that achievement as anything less than success, however persistent poor form in the league suggests that there are still underlying problems with strategy and personnel.
The most glaring weakness of the current Liverpool team is its inability to turn possession into goals. Although the midfield is incomparably weaker than the Mescherano / Gerrard / Alonso combination which Rafa Benitez had the luxury of selecting, the chief problem, as I see it, is that Carroll and Suarez are mismatched up front.
It would be easy, and unfair, to blame this incompatibility on the Englishman. The truth is that Luis Suarez is not a conventional strike partner. He does not like to play off Carroll and rarely drops a little deeper to benefit from the big man’s knock downs. He prefers to operate further forward, off the shoulder of defenders, or drifting wide, before plunging back infield on another slaloming dribble.
It’s wonderful to watch, but it doesn’t exploit Carroll’s aerial ability, nor does it provide ammunition for Suarez’s strike partner.
For his country, the little Uruguayan spearheads a three pronged attack. The system suits him, because he is flanked by similarly mobile forwards. On the rare occasions that Dalglish has started Suarez alongside Craig Bellamy, the pair look like they could establish a similar dynamic.
Indeed the manager does have the option of changing his preferred system to accommodate Liverpool’s star striker. He could line-up in a 4-3-3 formation, with Suarez at the head of an attacking trio which includes Bellamy and Maxi. It is likely that the result would be an improvement in the goals scored column.
Of course the difficulty there is that Comolli’s £35 million would’ve been invested in the world’s most expensive bench warmer.
Dalglish might alternatively opt to play more to Andy Carroll’s strengths. Liverpool currently set-up quite narrowly, with even the supposed wide players preferring to cut inside and play tricksy passes, rather than act as conventional wingers.
With Carroll in the team this strategy makes no sense, particularly when the worst offender is Stuart Downing, the former Aston Villa wide-man, who’s only discernible talent is the ability to deliver a cross with his only operational foot. It is infuriating to see Downing persistently deployed on the right flank, when he is so debilitatingly one footed.
If he is to be included in the team, pin him to the left flank and tell him to hit the by-line and hit Carroll’s head.
Better yet, Liverpool has a bright, young winger, Raheem Sterling, whom Dalglish has chosen not to blood. The youngster had a few minutes at the end of the Wigan defeat and provided the one bright spot of a depressing afternoon for the reds.
There are other frailties in the team which Dalglish must address urgently, if Liverpool is to mount a challenge for a Champions League position next season. Lucas Leiva should return from a lengthy break due to injury and his comeback won’t be too soon for Liverpool fans.
Jay Spearing has unfortunately proven that he isn’t of the standard expected at Anfield. He does not command the midfield from deep positions or adequately protect his defence. Indeed, other than Steven Gerrard, who is now well in his thirties, Liverpool could do with completely renovating its midfield over the summer.
The painfully slow, ploddingly average presence of Charlie Adam should be chalked down to experience. The Scot should be sold to any if any realistic bids are received. Downing’s sale wouldn’t occasion many protests either and the likes of Dirk Kuyt have already been informed that their contracts will not be renewed.
Worringly, Liverpool’s previously impermeable defence has also been creaking since Christmas. Despite his many years of heroic service, the team now looks sounder at the back when Jamie Carragher is excluded. However Martin Skrtel’s rugged skills are not matched by his positional sense and, in Carragher’s absence, he sometimes looks a little lost.
Either Sebastien Coates will develop into the extra option which Liverpool needs at the back, or the club will have to go shopping for another centre-half.
In fact, Dalglish will need to do rather a lot of rebuilding in the summer, which is disappointing, given the investment which FSG have put in. Otherwise the new season which starts in August could see more underachievement at Anfield.