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.