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.