Tuesday, 2 August 2011

The Sweet Silver Song of the Lark

This time last year, Liverpool fans were relishing the start of the 2010-2011 season. Rafa Benitez, after a miserable 2009-2010 season, had been removed and the club had a new idol to worship in the shape of Joe Cole who would bamboozle opposition defences alongside Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres. Under the steadying influence of the hugely experienced Roy Hodgson, one of Europe's most respected coaches (who has managed such clubs as FC Malmo, Neuchatel Xamax and Grasshopper Zurich), Liverpool would surely reclaim their rightful place at the top table of English league football?

Sadly, things didn't quite go according to plan. The high point of last season for LFC was the eventual change in ownership following a bitter court battle. Its new owners, Fenway Sports Group, subsequently spent the remainder of the season positioning the club for a more serious challenge to the top-4 this season. The most important of these was the permanent appointment of Kenny Dalglish as manager, together with the recruitment of respected coach Steve Clarke.

FSG have followed up the January signings of Andy Carroll and the superb Luis Suarez with the highly promising Jordan Henderson, Charlie Adam and Stewart Downing. But will this be enough to close the gap on Manchester United, Chelsea, Man City and Arsenal? FSG's strategy of recruiting young talent with a high re-sale value is admirable, but most observers would agree that there remains a clear need for at least 2 or 3 more 'marquee' signings of technically gifted players in or nearing their prime. Indeed, there is an unmistakable feeling of frustration among many Liverpool fans, expressed through Twitter and message boards, that the club have seemingly missed out on quality players such as Juan Mata, Fabio Coentrau, Gervinho and Sergio Aguero. But were these players ever realistic? The truth is probably not. Some argued was that although Liverpool will not be involved in Europe, the lure of 'King Kenny' would be enough to attract the cream of Europe. This would obviously be the case for hardcore fans of LFC but almost certainly not for a young, ambitious footballer from the streets of Buenos Aires, Anyama or Provincia.

Downing is a solid signing who will certainly improve the delivery from wide areas. Henderson should also prove a shrewd investment given time, although he is likely to play only a limited role this coming season. Charlie Adam is harder to assess. On his day he is an accomplished passer and had an impressive first half of last season as Blackpool swaggered their way to the top half of the table. But his second half of the season tailed off badly as he ultimately captained the Seasiders to relegation. Adam scored 12 premier league goals last season - a fairly impressive haul. However, 8 of those were from the penalty spot and just 2 from open play. With these expensive signings on board, it will interesting to see how Dalglish sets up his first XI. I would guess that, with squad as it is, the back four will line up as Kelly-Carragher-Skrtel-Johnson. Midfield is tricky but is likely to consist of Kuyt-Gerrard-Lucas-Downing with Carroll and Suarez up front.

The unfortunate thing for Liverpool is that their likely main rivals (with the exception so far of Arsenal) have also invested heavily. It will not be easy to reclaim a top-4 finish. And should they fail, where does this leave Kenny Dalglish? Is he untouchable? The suspicion is that FSG were keen to appoint new Chelsea boss Andre Villas Boas, but the Kop's call for King Kenny made that impossible. Whilst I am cautiously optimistic of a good season, I am also far too familiar with that mid-October feeling of dejection to make any bolder claim than that.