In the world of profesional football the difference between being labeled a managerial buffoon or a tactical genius can span the paltry sum of ninety minutes.
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And if you don’t believe that, just ask Liverpool manager Roy Hodgson who has been villified in the opening months of this campaign.
After humbling, morale-shattering losses at Anfield to the likes of Northampton Town, Blackpool and more recently on the road at Everton, patience — a virture widely praised on the Red half of Merseyside — was in short supply.
Obviously the ownership issues were a major catalyst in the rounds of finger pointing after a series of poor performances — and rightly so. It can’t be easy to focus on the playing side of things when you’re not even sure if the club will avoid administration and bankruptcy, however it was the manner of defeats that had the knives sharpened for Hodgson.
These attacks on the new man felt very un-Liverpool like. Yes, Hodgson may not have been the number one choice, especially with the legendary Kenny Dalglish sitting in the stands, but what he does have is patience and the understanding that the season is long and complicated.
Knee jerk decisions are not part of his makeup and he has adopted the Liverpool credo of belief in the essence of the team playing together, keeping the dirty laundry from public eyes, and thinking long term. Hodgson is not the quick-fix expert which most clubs turn to in this kind of position. This is almost the exact opposite to any other club bar Manchester United or Arsenal.
Of course any victory over the Chelsea juggernaut is going to send expectations through the roof, but before we hop on the Hodgson express, let’s review the match.
The first thing that jumps out is the return to form of Fernando Torres.
Goals, the currency of confidence, had been in short supply for the Spaniard, however a look at the history books would have informed us that ‘El Nino’ always scores against the Blues. With six goals in his last five matches, it’s no wonder that Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich and manager Carlo Ancelotti were making noise about a possible move for the World Cup winner.
It’s on days like this when you realize what an unstoppable force of nature he is when in the mood. His body language cut a completely different figure to the man who could barely muster a jog during August and September. Playing alongside Dirk Kuyt must be such a pleasure as opposed to foraging around up front on his lonesome which he has been forced to endure.
As always though it’s in midfield where matches are usually won and lost. With Chelsea missing Michael Essien, Lucas, had one of his best days in a Liverpool shirt. The Brazilian bossed much of the contest with and without the ball as his positioning, passing and tackling were immaculate.
If, and it’s a big ‘if,’ he can cope with the responsibility of being the ‘next’ Xabi Alonso or Javier Mascherano, the Reds will have the midfield engine that will allow Steven Gerrard the freedom to florish.
I suppose one could argue that after Liverpool had taken the lead through Torres, the decision to stick eleven players behind the ball was a ’tad’ negative, however when you’re mired in the bottom half of the table and have taken the lead aginst the reigning champions, it ‘felt’ like the right tactical play. With Hodgson’s knowledge of Italian football and Italian coaches, it was the ‘right’ tactical play.
Secretly, I’m sure Ancelotti admired the way Liverpool first took the match to his side before nulifying any of their attacking options. With no Didier Drogba to bully the Reds back line until half time, the Chelsea boss gambled and lost. I can’t help but wonder what type of fever laid the Ivorian low — he’s only the hardest, biggest beast in Premiership football.
Ultimately for Chelsea, their reputation as the school yard bully has faded slightly over the last two months. Of course on their day they are still an unstoppable force but they’ve been made to work a lot harder in the last few weeks than in the beginning stanzas of the season.
The return of Frank Lampard cannot come soon enough for Ancelotti.
Roy Hodgson doesn’t have the luxury of having a world class player ready to return to his squad, but what he does have is patience and a new ownership group that appears to be backing him for now.
Winning three games on the bounce isn’t going to get him that kind of 100% backing from the Kop yet, but it might just buy him enough time to convince them that he is the right man for the job.
After all, he was a genius for ninety minutes on Sunday.
Nick Webster is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the Barclay’s Premier League.