Neil Blackmon examines why the skeptics about Dalglish’s tactics and managerial ability are likely wrong.
A year ago, as Liverpool stumbled out of the gate to a mid-table Christmas position, dark clouds swirled around Anfield and more than one commentator uttered the frightening “end of an era” cliché about England’s “other” most storied club. Roy Hodgson was sacked before he unpacked, and an American owner, the most cynically-viewed type of outsider in a parochial league gone global, John Henry, took control of the club. Henry promised the faithful in the mother country he would be “committed to winning” and “restoring Liverpool’s historic place” of competitive excellence, but such promises had been made before. Still, the man he backed to lead the Reds, Kenny Dalglish, was as fine a gesture of goodwill as any he could give to the wary faithful.
If anyone was to lead Liverpool quickly out of the coming darkness, surely it would, or should be, a former legend like Dalglish. Hiring an old legend or leader from the storied past is a time-honored show of good faith in sport. It doesn’t always work of course, but it buys you time. And when it does work, it’s all the more satisfying- in any sport. Johan Cruyff, in glorious fashion, led Ajax and Barcelona back to the promised land after arriving in troubled times. In 1958, Alabama football had won four games in three seasons and was lost in the wilderness. A championship coach and former Crimson Tide player, Bear Bryant, was hired to lead them. When asked why he left powerhouse Texas A & M to go to Alabama, Bryant responded, “Momma called. And when Momma calls, you have to come runnin.’” Mike Ditka, a former Bears player, returned Chicago to the mountaintop as its head coach in 1985. And former Florida Heisman Trophy winner Steve Spurrier returned home to Florida in 1990, taking over a program that had won zero championships in 80 years of football and winning seven in twelve years. There’s a certain passion that accompanies allegiance that makes a hire like Dalglish’s seem safe, or more likely to succeed.
Yet there were cynics, and there were (and are) fair questions. The most prominent of these involves criticism of Dalglish’s 4-4-2 system, with his beloved tucked-in winger. Indeed, even in 1990, the last time Liverpool won a title, there were questions to greats like the late Sir Bobby Robson as to whether that formation was dying, and the answers weren’t positive. Among the first to ask, and smartly diagram, this criticism was the great Jonathan Wilson, who while conceding the obvious—that King Kenny loved Liverpool, and there were few who questioned his ability to motivate and inspire—wondered if Dalglish’s hire would turn out to be a cautionary tale about the failure of conservative tactics in the Premier League’s gone global age where winning often involves being the best at a tactical chess match over 38 fixtures.
These questions remain, and judgment, as a whole, should be reserved. But a recent impressive run of form, a display on Dalglish’s part this campaign of tactical flexibility, and some film study suggests there is certainly reason for less than guarded optimism. Any discussion of Liverpool generates large-scale debate—such is life at one of sport’s most storied franchises. In my view, much of the debate around Dalglish’s tactical ability to lead Liverpool back to the promised land of the top four, however, ultimately turns on the answer to two questions.
First, as Wilson asked, Can the 4-4-2 still be successful today- or better put—the Bolton Test. Can the 4-4-2 be relied upon to grind out the necessary results against the Boltons of the world you absolutely must have to play the Benfica’s in the Champions League Group stages next autumn?
Opinions on this question are mixed. Wilson’s article was (oddly) inconclusive- but it did suggest (correctly) various limitations with the formation in today’s English football. Former Liverpool player Gary Gillespie is even more negative in his view, having gone as far as suggesting that Dalglish’s 4-4-2 is really not a tactical idea at all—and that in fact, when he was at Liverpool under King Kenny, players were told simply to “go out and play.” That sounds a bit like sour grapes from a former player who at best was a top-end backup, but it is a stern criticism nonetheless. And film study, at least in an isolated instance, validates that concern. Here we briefly look at Liverpool’s mind numbing 0-0 draw with Swansea City.
The Swansea draw is precisely the type of game from which you must garner three points if you hope to play Champions League football—so it is an ideal place to ground Dalglish criticism. In that match, Liverpool opened strong and with intent, but as Swansea City adjusted and began attacking Liverpool on the right flank, the Reds’ manager’s reaction was essentially a choice “not” to react. The flatness of Liverpool’s back four, coupled with dual holders absorbing pressure, created a situation where the Reds simply weren’t playing high enough up the pitch after the interval. Dalglish’s substitutions, while certainly not making matters worse, weren’t proactive changes that signaled a manager who was looking for a winner. Instead of replacing Lucas, he brought on Dirk Kuyt for Jordan Henderson- a change that really didn’t change anything at all. Lucas still dropped too deep to help absorb pressure on the right—and Liverpool were left with only Charlie Adam capable of moving the ball forward from the center of the pitch. While the lack of a central midfield distribution point outside of Adam didn’t necessarily doom Liverpool on this day (after all, Andy Carroll missed a sitter that will go down as one of the worst misses of the year in this match- and tactics can’t be blamed for that), a proactive change would have done the side good.
The Swansea match was a troubling example of how tactical rigidity can get you into trouble when you are seeking European football. The good news for Liverpool fans, and the bad news for Gillespie-type cynics, is that there are at least two notable examples of situations where Dalglish has shown himself to not be tactically rigid, and in fact, to be the superior manager on the day. The best thing? Those matches occurred against two elite sides of the Premier League –Manchester United and Chelsea—and in each fixture, Liverpool were tactically superior despite being technically outgunned.
First, the Manchester United match. In this game, a 1-1 draw that is one of Liverpool’s still unbeaten results against the likes of United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City, Dalglish outmaneuvered none other than Sir Alex Ferguson. Deploying a 4–5-1, rather than the 4-4-2. Dalglish mirrored his opponent into a frustrating, long ball style game that eliminated United’s superior playmaking and creativity. Some have written that this was not a 4-5-1, but a refined version of the classic 4-4-2, and that Dirk Kuyt was simply instructed to drift deep instead of closely supporting Suarez. This claim ignores Gerrard’s role.
Instead of Dirk Kuyt supporting a deep-lying Suarez, Dalglish handed Steven Gerrard his first start of the season in a withdrawn role. There is a difference between a hard-working front man (Kuyt, Peter Beardsley in Dalglish’s younger days) and a withdrawn Gerrard—it allows a safer defensive posture while relying on tremendous distribution to a pacy, deep-lying Suarez. The other elements of Dalglish’s line-up looked familiar: traditional winger Downing on the left flank, Kuyt still-starting but tucked in on the right—but the deeper lying Gerrard forced Sir Alex Ferguson’s hand (and the match) into a functional stalemate.
Gerrard, helping Lucas, ensured that Giggs could not influence the game from the center. Giggs drifted left to seek help from Ashley Young, only to find a deep and conservative Martin Kelly denying dangerous areas of space and through balls. Sir Alex countered a bit—fielding a team that was match-up oriented (Ji-Sung Park probably could smell Enrique’s deodorant, so close did he watch him; and Phil Jones played higher than usual to prevent Charlie Adam from harassing United from his deep central position)—but in the end, Dalglish’s decision to field a side mirroring United meant that space was minimal and scoring chances were few—and in the end, dynamic, unlock the defensive players like Park were frustrated with their own defensive duties. One telling stat: Park attempted only ten passes in his 69 minute stint. The 1-1 result then was fair—and it was precisely the result Dalglish was looking for when he chose side and formation. It was, this writer believes, proof that Dalglish can be flexible with tactics to grind out essential results, even when technically outmanned.
There have been two wins over Chelsea demonstrating Dalglish’s tactical mastery as well, but the 2-1 league victory at Stamford Bridge was the most impressive. There, Dalglish abandoned his beloved tucked-in winger in favor of Craig Bellamy, who was more than up for the occasion. While the back four remained flat—Dalglish elected to play a trio in the midfield, closing down space via formation against Chelsea’s Mikel-Ramires-Lampard triangle. Lucas was the anchor, but interestingly, Adam was slotted a bit further back, with liberty to get forward along with Bellamy, who was slotted just in front of the anchor pair.
The selection of Bellamy was an eyebrow raiser, given his limited playing time to that point in the year, and any of the Kop faithful that tell you otherwise are being deceptive. In practice, however, it was a genius move, one that allowed Liverpool, playing on the road, a much more dangerous counterattack that consistently harassed the Chelsea back line, who, playing at home, were naturally holding a very high line. Coupled with the industry of Dirk Kuyt and the pace of Luis Suarez, Liverpool allowed Chelsea to enjoy the lion’s share of possession all while wearing out the aging Chelsea backline (in particular John Terry, who had a miserable match) on the counterattack. While Andres Villas Boas did make the correct substitutions to counter this tactical ploy by Dalglish, bringing on Sturridge for the defensive Mikel (and thus allowing Mata to play more centrally)—he made the substitution without much tactical change. It was an interesting game precisely because Villas Boas was tactically rigid—the “criticism in a vacuum” so often leveled at Dalglish—and in the end, this rigid approach was outclassed by Liverpool’s flexibility, a strategic flexibility that exploited via the counter its opponents largest weakness: its age.
These matches demonstrate a willingness on Dalglsih’s part to be flexible depending on the opposition. The truth is, however, that Dalglish still would prefer to win with a traditional 4-4-2. The good news? In Luis Suarez, he has the star he needs to make this preferred choice effective. And really, that’s question two: Are Liverpool, in the 4-4-2, too reliant on Luis Suarez to generate offense?
The answer, I think, is absolutely…and so what? If you’ve got a player as splendid as the Uruguayan Copa American champion, you may as well ride him as far as he takes you. Suarez, who wears Dalglish’s old number seven shirt, has certainly put up numbers that back up this bold claim since arriving from Ajax in a 23 million pound deal last January. In 30 appearances for the Reds—he’s netted twelve goals. That’s a pace a touch better than Dalglish’s lifetime pace (118 in 355). What’s more important—he makes the 4-4-2 viable in an era it isn’t supposed to be—a “best of” Ian Rush/Shearer/Dalglish hybrid who can exploit the high lines elite sides play with his pace and trickery, and who is so master class that he can eventually, nearly by himself, wear down the more conservative yet foul-prone back lines lesser Premier League sides offer.
There was talk when Fernando Torres left that an “era was ending” and that Liverpool may never again be one of the most dominant sides in England. It’s hard to replace a hero of the Kop. Yet Suarez has not only outshone his predecessor, he’s played so well (and Torres has played so poorly)—that Liverpool look like geniuses for the switch. And it isn’t just the heart of sportswriters or the Kop he’s won. As Liverpool star Mark Lawrenson told the BBC: “Suarez could play for any team in the world and be outstanding,” adding later that Suarez is what American owner John Henry might call a “franchise player—you can sign him then build your franchise around him.” In the end, much of the concern about Liverpool’s reliance on Suarez seems to be cynicism for the sake of cynicism—or, beckoning back to another famous Englishmen—much ado about nothing.
It is true that at the transfer window, Liverpool could use depth. Summer sales of Aquilani, Joe Cole and Raul Meireles left Liverpool thin in the midfield, and Jordan Henderson seems to be the one player (despite a nice effort against Fulham Monday) who is playing consistently out of his most comfortable position in Dalglish’s system. An athletic winger, or even another grinder to spell Dirk Kuyt (Tim Cahill?) would seem to be a good addition. Beyond that, Andy Carroll has been miserable, Merseyside Derby heroics aside—and as good as Bellamy has been of late—an injury seems inevitable or too large a risk to ride the three horse carousel of Suarez-Bellamy-Carroll for too long. Suarez will be Suarez, to be sure—but a bit of help—even if it isn’t Diego Forlan quality—would certainly go a long way in the grind-it-out-for-fourth fixtures I fully expect Liverpool to be playing in come March. Saturday’s win over QPR, a 1-0 grind it out affair, further demonstrated that Liverpool need depth at the January window. But it also demonstrated they can gut out the types of wins you need to make a legitimate run at fourth.
And while it is true that defeats like Monday’s at Fulham will frustrate the Kop faithful—those types of fixtures happen. And the recent run of form, as well as the nature of that game (playing with ten men, Dempsey channeling Ruud Van Nistelrooy with a garbage man goal, a Reina howler to set it up), all point at Craven Cottage being an aberration. If we’ve learned anything in the age of experimental tactics, it is that a 4-4-2, while not sexy, is old reliable. And with enough tinkering, Dalglish’s reliance on it may be enough to get Liverpool back in an old place: The Champions League.