One of the trademarks of Liverpool and its loyal fanbase is the willingness to give new managers time to settle in and to be patient when things are not going so well. Unfortunately, in recent years, this patience has been stretched to breaking point. The club has just rid itself of incompetent owners who saddled their investment with heavy debt and left a trail of bad feeling in their wake. Rafa Benitez was let go after a hugely disappointing season, which saw the club drop to 7th place and finish without a trophy fourth season running. Change was needed.
The problem is Roy Hodgson does not seem like the change that was needed. In fact, if anything, Liverpool have regressed considerably. With one unconvincing win in eight games and four very convincing defeats, the club lie in its worst position in decades – second from bottom and with little positives to glean from the start of the season. Change is needed again, and it is needed swiftly.
It is important to consider that Rafa probably was at the end of the line. He seemed to have lost the dressing room and he, along with the team he had assembled, cut an increasingly dejected figure for most of last season. Many of his signings had not worked out and there seemed to be a severe lack of enthusiasm at the club. Rafa enjoyed a great relationship with the fans, a strained relationship with the owners and he helped make Liverpool a major force again in Europe.
Hodgson, on the other hand, had just enjoyed a momentous season with Fulham. He took over in 2008 and, having narrowly avoided relegation, transformed them into a very capable, difficult-to-beat Football team. They were so effective that beating teams like Liverpool and Man Utd was not unusual and mid-table finishes were comfortably achieved. Indeed, Hodgson remarkably led them to a Europa League final in 2010, where they counted more fancied teams like Juventus, Wolfsburg and holders Shakhtar Donetsk among their scalps. In short, Hodgson had performed a minor miracle at Fulham and was understandably lauded as flavour of the month.
The problem with being flavour of the month is that it can cause people to lose perspective. It’s why Steve McLaren landed the England job and why Hodgson was continually linked with the position. It gives a false sense of someone’s ability. It is one thing to overachieve with a smaller club, but quite another to live with the lofty expectations of a more demanding position. Being manager of Liverpool is such a position, and it takes a special sort of a manager to live up to the role. Regrettably, Roy Hodgson is not the man for the task.
This is not an attack on Hodgson. He seems an incredibly decent and affable man. He is clearly extremely passionate and knowledgeable about football, even if he takes a more low-key approach. He also seems to be the “arm around the shoulder” kind of manager that was supposed to be just what Liverpool’s underperforming players needed. And maybe that lack of warmth was one of Rafa’s big failings, but Hodgson’s approach thus far has not seen any discernible improvement in the team’s style of play or the morale of key players.
Fernando Torres, whose services Hodgson managed to retain in the summer, has come back from the World Cup a completely different player. Like Rooney, he did have a poor World Cup, so maybe that accounts for some of it. Rooney cannot even be motivated by Ferguson, so the World Cup might still be lingering in some players’ heads. Torres’ case is not unique, though. With the notable exception of Pepe Reina, every Liverpool player has underperformed this season. Joe Cole has never been so ineffectual and looks lost. Poulsen looks to be a poor signing and Konchesky is simply not a Liverpool standard player.
All managers make mistakes in the transfer market or even the way they set out their teams. However, there are no positives to be taken from the start of Hodgson’s reign. It is as bad a situation as Liverpool has had in living memory. The team is playing a terribly stale style of Football. It is negative and overly defensive. There is no zip to the play and players do not seem to know what they should be done. “Confused” would accurately sum up the situation.
There is no doubt that Hodgson had an exceptionally difficult start to his Liverpool career. He had to persuade his star duo to stay, had to face a lack of transfer funds, had to pick up a demoralized squad and had to contend with Mascherano’s unprofessional departure from the club. He should be commended for dealing with these issues with minimal complaint.
The problem is, football remains a results-based business, and Hodgson’s results on the pitch so far have been calamitous. Perhaps the players do deserve their share of the blame. They are well paid and most of them are talented enough to play better. The excuses from both the players and the manager about being given time and how things will improve are becoming tired and somewhat farcical. Sure, we may be only eight league games into his reign, but it says a lot when the Premier League’s most patient fans are already opposed to their new manager. This is not a case of being underwhelming. It is uncharted territory. It is a crisis.
It was said that Liverpool needed a British manager, but what they really needed was a brilliant manager. It takes a manager with a certain aura, the type that Guus Hiddink displayed when he took over at a flagging Chelsea and weaved some considerable magic to turn them around. That was needed at Liverpool very desperately. They also needed a manager who would not be condescendingly praised by Alex Ferguson. That is effectively the death knell, as it invariably means he does not see you as a threat. It was said that Benitez was too belligerent to other managers. Some may see that as a negative attribute, but many fans love to see blood-boiling passion in their manager. Rafa had it, Dalglish had it and Hodgson seems more prosaic.
There was a perfect opportunity in the summer to allow Kenny Dalglish to return to the helm. He wanted to return and was employed by the club, so no compensation needed to be paid to former employers. It was a naturally feelgood story. All the pieces fit. Many fans wanted him back, too. After all, Liverpool’s last league trophy was won under Dalglish, who arguably remains the biggest legend in the club’s history.
History has not been kind to perceptions of Dalglish as a manager. It is puzzling, to say the least, but many people seem to overlook the impact he had as a manager. His Liverpool side played with amazing skill and confidence, and his ability to get the most out of his players was outstanding. Combine a great gift for spotting talent with a flourish for harnessing said talent and you have the attributes of a great manager. He had also won a Premier League trophy with Blackburn in 1995 and led Newcastle to second place in 1997 and the FA Cup final in 1998. Coupled with his success as Liverpool manager, these remain fantastic and often overlooked achievements. Hodgson, by contrast, has never won a big prize in England. He has had a long career, but it lacks the success that Dalglish enjoyed.
Much is made of how long Dalglish has been out of the game, but class is permanent. Kenny Dalglish has not managed for ten years, but he has been involved in Football since then. He understands football, understands players and understands Liverpool. That is the most important thing, really. There is no way “King Kenny” would chastise the fans for having a well-intentioned protest. There is no way he would let Alex Ferguson take unnecessary verbal potshots at one of his star players. There is simply no way he would describe Liverpool’s inept display against Everton as anything close to positive.
Hodgson is simply not in the Liverpool mould. For, while he may make the right noises about the scale of his task and what an honour it is to manage the club, many of his actions so far have lacked the passion and skill Liverpool fans demand. Hodgson may have been a political appointment, drafted in during a particularly difficult time to steady the ship. Perhaps he was seen as being easier to ship out should new owners want their own manager or have different ideas. It was maybe considered a bad PR move to dismiss a Kop hero like Dalglish. Be that as it may, the club has new owners now and the owners said they will listen to the fans. Many fans want Dalglish back. That is a big statement that ought to be addressed and not written off as a kneejerk reaction.
More patient people will claim that it is far too early to make rash decisions like drafting in a new manager, but these are extraordinary circumstances. Stability does not come from failure. NESV made a tactical faux pas by publically backing Hodgson so resoundingly. It has put them in awkward position, where they are probably going to have to renege on their word at some point. There were more sophisticated ways to support the manager without painting yourself into a corner. This is one time, however, where most Liverpool fans would not begrudge the owners going back on their word. But Liverpool’s chances of success this season are looking extremely unlikely and NESV must act swiftly to negotiate the club out of the mess in which it finds itself. That has to start with the manager. It has to start soon.