Whereas the passage of time may have transformed Stamford Bridge from a rusting shack into an arena more befitting its chic surrounds off the King’s Road, Kenny Dalglish has ostensibly remained the same.
It was in this corner of west London that he captured his first trophy as Liverpool player-manager over 25 years ago, scoring the only goal to beat Chelsea at its then-far-less-salubrious home and snatch the English championship back from rival Everton.
The old adage says that time waits for no man, and many a man’s greatest fear in life is the prospect of being left behind, bewildered and stranded in a world that spins the head and the senses and makes you feel seasick – like the character Brooks Hatlen does after leaving prison in ‘The Shawshank Redemption’.
Some expected a similar effect to take hold on Dalglish, and for one so recently stepped out of the managerial deep freeze, facing up to someone such as Andre Villas-Boas should be the ultimate terror.
The Portuguese is the mark of how much the game has changed since Dalglish left Anfield for the first time in February 1991, or indeed since he was dispatched by Newcastle United in late summer 1998.
That the two are from entirely different cultures is not simply informed by nationality. As the clinching of the 1986 title so eloquently defines, there was a blur between where the player ended and the coaching mastermind began.
Dalglish is the epitome of the organic ‘Anfield Boot Room’ culture, to which Villas-Boas represents the polar opposite. He may have passed through various strata of technical responsibility at Porto, but Villas-Boas’ rise is one of study, meticulous preparation, ambition and a clear plan.
On the surface, Dalglish’s approach is indeed still defiantly old-school; the near-simultaneous purchase of Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll showed he at least initially intended to use a 4-4-2 formation, and his other signings (Charlie Adam, Jordan Henderson) suggested a desire to return to the Liverpool bedrock of yesteryear, relying on a line-up of players mainly from the British Isles.
Even turning a blind eye to Carroll’s continued social excursions – in marked contrast to England boss Fabio Capello’s stark warnings for the big striker to clean up his act – recalled a halcyon era when boys would be boys and anything went, as long as players turned up to training in one piece the morning after.
Villas-Boas is the most modern of coaches, having by his own admission built on the 4-3-3 system defined by his compatriot and mentor José Mourinho, firstly at Porto and later at Chelsea. His most explicit outlining of his own beliefs on how the game is played was in a 2009 interview with Daniel Sousa uncovered by Duncan White for The Daily Telegraph this year.
Sousa was a Porto university student, who has since become the Chelsea head coach’s head of opposition scouting – just as Villas-Boas had previously been for Mourinho at Stamford Bridge.
The interview revealed a clear take on the English game of the 1980s. “If you take English teams before the arrival of Arsene Wenger,” he said, “they would tell you how to control a match without controlling possession, courtesy of a direct brand of football which concentrates on the second ball.”
This, however, clearly doesn’t apply to Dalglish. The unquestionable pinnacle of his first spell in charge at Anfield was the 5-0 demolition of nearest rivals Nottingham Forest on April 13, 1988. It couldn’t accurately be described as the best of English soccer as it was so far above the rest of it. It proved, emphatically, that this Liverpool side existed in a vacuum. Michel Platini was in the stadium that night, and referred to the Reds as “a continental team, not an English one.”
Yet even if our most vivid memories of Dalglish’s management first time around are of that iconic Liverpool side, we should not be fooled into thinking he could only play one way. This goes back to Dalglish the player, whose nature as a creator as well as goalscorer offered considerable flexibility to Liverpool, way beyond what Villas-Boas described in the Sousa interview as the “basic” English interpretation of 4-4-2.
In Liverpool’s peerless 1987/88 season, Peter Beardsley performed a similar function.
Even in his less-heralded later spell at Newcastle, Dalglish was able to change tack effectively to make things happen. After David Ginola and with Alan Shearer a long-term injury casualty, he led his side to an opening Champions League win against Barcelona.
This time, dominating possession wasn’t what won the match – it was the home side’s speedy transitions that opened up Louis van Gaal’s breathless side, often provoked by the central thrust of captain Robert Lee and the pace of Keith Gillespie.
Newcastle 3-2 Barcelona – Sep 17, 1997
Faustino Asprilla’s hat-trick goal in that match, a near-post header from Gillespie’s pinpoint cross, was made possible by the Northern Ireland international’s lightning burst up the line. The ball hit the net seven seconds after left-back Sergi was jockeying Gillespie 30 meters from the Newcastle goal. If you squint, it’s not so hard to translate the movement to last season’s Porto under Villas-Boas – with a Hulk run, and (another Colombian) a Radamel Falcao headed finish.
Dalglish’s first big result after his return this year was again at Stamford Bridge, of course, and the 1-0 win back in February showed the old master still had a trick or two up his sleeve. He took the unexpected decision to retain a system incorporating three center-backs (on this occasion Jamie Carragher, Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger) that he had premiered the previous week against Stoke, to smother Chelsea.
As it transpired, the plan also gave full-backs Martin Kelly and Glen Johnson more license to break forward.
Villas-Boas may be at the vanguard of modern coaching, but more than a decade out of the game hasn’t dimmed Dalglish’s ingenuity. He will prove a formidable adversary for the new kid on the block.