Since Kenny Dalglish has taken over Liverpool I’ve held off making any comments about how the club has progressed. I’ve consciously done this as I believed that time was needed before we could get anything approaching an accurate picture of how the club has moved on since his appointment. There is definitely more positivity around the club and from the fans, but I’m not convinced (or surprised) that some of the old problems for Liverpool have gone away, as some fans say.
After the positive results and performances the club has made recently, the past few games have been a reminder that Liverpool are still very much a team in transition. The initial euphoria and bump in results that happens whenever a new manager is appointed, let alone a legend like Kenny Dalglish; has now subsided and some of the problems that were so evident under Roy Hodgson have now surfaced again.
The lack of effort and willingness to do some of the grunt work that has led to some of the more embarrassing results of the season reared its ugly head again at West Ham.
There was one team that clearly deserved to win today’s game. One team put more effort in, fought to win every challenge and worked better as a team. There was one team that simply wanted it more. That team was not Liverpool. The same could be said of the game with Wigan. This lack of passion and desire has happened too many times this season and is totally unacceptable.
The scrappy play and the team’s tendency to retreat back into their shells when things aren’t going right has crept back into the team, as has the tendency to start hitting long balls in the hope something happens. There is a lack of creativity in the midfield and players are starting to make elementary mistakes again.
There are plenty of excuses and mitigating factors we could use to explain the West Ham result away, and those against Sparta Prague (twice) and Wigan, but it would not be helpful to the long-term development of the team to do so. I think Dalglish made his first big mistake since taking over in the formation he chose for this game. West Ham have a strong midfield, so it was surprising that we didn’t deploy the two holding midfielders that we have used to some success. The way we were set up played into West Ham’s hands by giving them an advantage in the middle, which they capitalised on, while not going after their weak point, the defence. If Roy Hodgson had picked that team, in that formation, he’d have been slaughtered for it.
One of the opinions that emerged after Liverpool’s good run of results after Dalglish took charge, was that it is ‘proof' that Rafa Benitez left behind a strong squad, rather than the weak one his detractors (including me) insist is the case.
I still maintain that that the squad we have needs a major overhaul. There was (and is) a nucleus of good players left behind that are in the first team, but it’s the supporting cast that are the problem. The squad left behind by Benitez was horribly unbalanced as we were stacked in some positions whilst totally lacking in others. While some of these issues have been addressed, there is still a lack of depth in attack, even though Andy Carroll is close to fitness. David N’Gog is just not progressing, in fact, I think he’s gone backwards and just doesn’t look like he’ll ever be good enough.
The time is coming where a decision has to be taken on Dirk Kuyt. While his effort and work rate are exceptional, he doesn’t produce enough on the pitch. He was signed as a striker and he didn’t cut it. A position was found for him on the right but he’s not as good as a proper right-winger. With his contract due for renewal, it is time to decide if sheer effort alone is enough to justify his position in the team.
There have been many occasions this season where Lucas looks like he has become the player we all hope he will be. Unfortunately these performances have more often than not been interspersed with performances that make him look an extremely ordinary player at best. Lucas is just too inconsistent to be a first-team regular in a title-contending team. Christian Poulsen has done a good job when he’s played, but was never intended to be a long-term solution. Milan Jovanovic isn’t good enough and Maxi and Joe Cole have repeatedly under-performed.
The defence is a problem. Glen Johnson was signed for a large transfer fee and is on a huge contract. He has been a liability at right-back. Recently, he’s done quite well playing left-back, but surely that’s not his long-term position? With Martin Kelly playing so well that he’s making a really strong case to be first choice at that position, it’s hard to see what the long-term plan is for Johnson, as I’m not convinced he’d be as successful further up the pitch as people believe.
Centre back is also a problem position, as a successor to Jamie Carragher is needed and there isn’t an obvious choice. Martin Skrtel’s form has nosedived as the season has progressed and he’s making more and more elemental mistakes. Despite his size, Skrtel has never been a particularly good player in the air and he has been exposed time and again this season. He also has developed the habit of trying to play the man rather than the ball, which has led to goals being scored against us. This is what happened for West Ham’s third goal where he fixated on Carlton Cole instead of the ball.
Daniel Agger is, in my opinion, easily Liverpool’s best defender and one of my favourite players. He also has a terrible injury record. Agger has been at Liverpool for 5 years now and has only played 134 games. In comparison Lucas has been here 3-and-a-half years and has played 25 games more than Agger, despite not being a regular in his first season. Sotirios Kyrgiakos can come in and perform, but is not the long-term answer and Danny Wilson and Daniel Ayala are still not first-team ready.
There is a lot of work to be done on the squad to transform us back into title contenders. A lot of these players that need to be moved on at the end of the season are on huge contracts so selling them will not be easy. It’s also true that you can’t just drop a load of new players into a team and expect it to work instantly, so replacements will take time to transform the team’s fortunes.
What is positive is that it looks as though FSV are willing to provide money for transfers, as our January spending shows. I also like the fact the club is trying to invest in younger players, which is a policy that will pay dividends in years to come.
So what have we learned so far under Dalglish? I think the biggest thing is that the problems of the club aren’t anything that can be solved instantly. Solving them wasn’t as easy as some fans thought, removing Roy Hodgson hasn’t suddenly meant everything’s now okay. Reports are that Dalglish has been given a two-year contract as permanent manager, so hopefully he'll get the time and resources to make the required changes that will lead to success.
Real change is needed and that takes time (and money). Liverpool are a team in transition, that will hover around the fringes of the top 4 without challenging for the title for a couple of years at least. We also need to get rid of some of the dead wood in the squad. If we do this properly, there is no reason why Liverpool can’t be challenging for major honours soon and regain our position at the top of English football.