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Short-termism unkind to Dalglish, Reds

Liverpool's manager Kenny Dalglish looks on
Kenny Dalglish looks on during Sunday's English FA Cup quarterfinal match at Anfield.
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Jonathan Wilson

Jonathan Wilson is the editor of the football quarterly The Blizzard and writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Cricinfo. He is the author of six books on football, including Inverting the Pyramid, which was named Football Book of the Year in both the UK and Italy. His latest book is The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper.

   
 

Nothing in soccer ever happens soon enough. The impatience of fans – egged on by a media all too keen to start pontificating about “crisis clubs” - shouldn’t really come as a surprise, yet the criticism directed at Kenny Dalglish at Liverpool seems a new low in football’s culture of short-termism.

On Sunday, as the Kop, with scarves held aloft in the classic manner, celebrated reaching an FA Cup semi-final with a rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone, there didn’t seem too much wrong, a 3-0 win in the Merseyside derby and victory over Stoke having quelled the dissenters. But they exist and, while it may be the case that they are fewer in number among those who actually go to games than a scan of Twitter or a listen to the phone-ins would suggest, that is not a club’s only constituency any more.

There is even an argument that any other figure than Dalglish would have suffered far harsher criticism. That is almost certainly true. Roy Hodgson, who admittedly didn’t help himself with some clumsy public statements, was never given anything like the same consideration, but there is also a very good reason for it. Quite apart from what he achieved as a player at Liverpool, Dalglish has proved himself an excellent manager in the past, both in terms of trophies won and in the wider sense of respecting a club’s role in the community. He deserves patience.

But the point goes deeper than that. Almost all managers deserve patience. Dalglish inherited a mess, as Hodgson had before him. The reign of Tom Hicks and George Gillett, coming on the back of years of comparative underinvestment, had left an unbalanced squad. That takes time to put right, and not every decision taken in trying to change things will be the correct one. In Brian Clough’s first seasons at Derby County and at Nottingham Forest, he finished in the bottom half of the second flight. Within five years he had won the league with Derby; it took three with Forest. Alex Ferguson was in his seventh year at Manchester United when he won the league for the first time. Herbert Chapman was in his sixth at Arsenal. Don Revie just avoided relegation in his first season at Leeds; it took him three years even to be promoted.

There have been some poor performances from Liverpool this season, and it was abject in losing at Sunderland a week gone Saturday. But overall, as Gabriele Marcotti pointed out on Twitter – to the predictable howls of senseless abuse – Dalglish’s record in this spell as manager is a little better than that of his predecessors after 44 games:

Years Manager W D L Pts
1991-1994 Graeme Souness 18 14 12 68
1994-1998 Roy Evans 19 11 14 68
1998-2004 Gerard Houllier 18 9 17 63
2004-2010 Rafa Benitez 18 11 15 65
2011-present Kenny Dalglish 21 11 12 74


Those figures include Cup matches, so points values are notional, but that does not make them irrelevant as many of the Twitter complainers insisted they were. All the managers played Cup matches. Yes, Dalglish’s figures include a win over Exeter City, but then Hodgson’s include a draw against Northampton Town, Souness’ a defeat to Peterborough United. Has football really reached an age in which the league so dominates that the difference between finishing sixth and seventh matters more than success in the cups?

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If Dalglish is guilty of being a romantic and placing greater store on the glory of silverware than on the accounting details of league placement then that, frankly, is a good thing – not just for Liverpool but for all of football. Having seen access to the upper echelons denied them by the advent of the Champions League and the culture of the rich getting richer, the majority of clubs have also been led into believing the trophies they do still have a chance of winning – the FA Cup and the Carling Cup – don’t matter any more. If Dalglish, or indeed David Moyes, who fielded a weakened Everton team in the derby to focus on the FA Cup quarterfinal against Sunderland, can change that perception, then more power to them. There are few things that highlight the lack of romance in the modern game so depressingly as pedestrian mid-table clubs fielding sub-strength teams in the cups.

There is one area in which criticism of Dalglish, or at least the present regime as a whole, does seem legitimate, and that is transfers. Of the five marquee players brought in under his leadership – Luis Suarez, Andy Carroll, Stewart Downing, Charlie Adam and Jordan Henderson – only Suarez has been a clear success on the pitch, and even that has been diminished to an extent by the controversies that have followed him (and, whatever the rights and wrongs of his dispute with Patrice Evra, there can be little doubt that Liverpool’s handling of the issue damaged their reputation).

Yet even the issue of transfers isn’t as clear-cut as many would make out. In January 2011, Liverpool offloaded Fernando Torres and Ryan Babel and replaced them with Suarez and Carroll while making a small profit. Unless his two goals against Leicester City on Sunday herald a Torres revival that unleashes a torrent of goals, that looks like pretty good business (perhaps two massively inflated fees don’t cancel, but if Newcastle were the big winners in the Torres-Carroll transactions and Chelsea the big losers, Liverpool at least came out fairly neutral). If Carroll can settle and put his knee injury fully behind him, he may yet be an excellent center forward. He may not, and perhaps a gamble of £35 million, even for a club that had just pulled in £50 million for Torres, on a player with only six months of good Premier League form is unjustifiable, but the possibility is still there.

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Downing started poorly, but was man of the match in the Carling Cup final and has looked in better form recently. Henderson is young and was probably overpriced at £16 million, but he is diligent and solid and his rapid improvement at Sunderland suggested a mind quick to learn.

Adam’s form has disintegrated of late, but he cost only £7.25 million. Lump him in with the similarly priced Jose Enrique (dependable at left back) and Sebastian Coates (highly promising at center back) and even that starts to look like reasonable business. Getting Craig Bellamy on a free transfer, meanwhile, was an excellent deal.

In fact rather than specifics, the bigger concern is the more general policy. It seems probable that Adam, Downing and Henderson were signed because they were the most readily available players in the list of the top-ten chance-creators in the Premier League last season. Moneyball principles, though, surely, are more complex than that. Football, not being comprised of discrete actions in the manner of baseball or cricket, has so far proved harder to analyze meaningfully with statistics. That’s not to say it can’t be – and it would be fascinating to see Liverpool try to develop a more sophisticated model – but we’re not there yet.

Again, patience is the key. But even urging that seems bizarre. Liverpool has won its first silverware since 2006. It’s in the semifinal of the FA Cup. This has not been a bad season by any standard, and considering what has gone before, it could end up being an excellent one. Increasingly, you listen to the moaners and think the issue is not with the clubs but with the general culture of wanting everything yesterday.

Jonathan Wilson is editor of the football quarterly The Blizzard and a columnist for World Soccer. He is the author of five books, including a history of tactics, Inverting the Pyramid, and a biography of Brian Clough, Nobody Ever Says Thank You.

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