Dalglish should use league games to prepare for next season

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Alex Hess discusses Kenny Dalglish’s priorities for the remainder of the season.

DESPITE – and indeed because of – the occasional excellent performance against the division’s heavyweights, Liverpool’s showing in the league this season has, on the whole, been largely underwhelming. That said, most Liverpool fans would agree that Kenny Dalglish has, despite his erratic record in the transfer market, transformed the side’s style and ambition enough to earn himself another season at the club’s helm.

With the mythical land of fourth place now largely unattainable, and – like it or not – a place in next season’s Europa League clinched through the Carling Cup triumph, Liverpool’s 11 remaining league games already have the feel of late-April dead rubbers about them. What Dalglish should be aiming to do, then, is to take advantage of this absence of pressure and expectation to mould a still disparate set of attacking personnel into a cohesive unit that better reflects his long-term vision.

As well as simply pleasing the sizable portion of Kopite aesthetes, Liverpool’s most effective performances under Dalglish have been positive, attacking ones that placed an emphasis on quick thinking, high pressing and positional interplay. At various stages over the past 15 months, the likes of Dirk Kuyt, Luis Suarez, Raul Meireles, Craig Bellamy and Maxi Rodriguez have been the approach’s most successful exponents, and this philosophy is clearly the one to be cultivated and refined. Using the remainder of the season to put together a settled unit of attackers that can adopt this style, and relax into an understanding worth carrying into next season, should, FA Cup aside, be Dalglish’s priority.

It is also imperative to build a side that maximizes the potency of their most effective attacker – Luis Suarez. It’s undeniable that the Uruguayan has been (even) rasher than usual in front of goal this season, but he has also been too often attempting to play the dual role of deep-lying creative forward and penalty box finisher – as much, admittedly, due to the deficiencies of his fellow attackers as anything else. Suarez needs to be encouraged to remain at the pinnacle of the attack, with others employed to feed him with the tidy link-up play that he thrives on.

Stewart Downing, Liverpool
Stewart Downing, Liverpool

With Maxi and Bellamy unlikely to figure prominently as long-term torch-bearers, a system which utilises Suarez’s incision, Kuyt’s intelligent industry, and the underrated Jordan Henderson’s dexterity and vision – while laying minimal defensive responsibility at the feet of Steven Gerrard – is one that should be forged across the next two months. There may yet be a place for Stewart Downing in such a setup – he can, on his day, display the necessary maturity and creativity – but he would need to markedly up his performance level to prove himself worthy of such faith. Some decent game-time for the likes of Jonjo Shelvey and Sebastian Coates, and perhaps even Raheem Sterling, would also be welcome.

This is admittedly far easier said than done when it’s considered that an inescapable part of this process is to make a decision regarding the future of a certain £35million elephant in the room. Andy Carroll has proven that he can be an effective number 9, but fundamentally lacks the physical mobility, technical proficiency and positional versatility to be integrated into the above-described system. Like a much less ruthless incarnation of Michael Madsen’s Mr Blonde, Carroll is painfully ill-suited to the team around him, and is encroaching on their route to prosperity. This obvious fact needs to be acknowledged by the management – and by having still not found a regular place for him, the implication is that the doubts are there.

Dalglish’s choice, then, would appear to be between selling Carroll on (with John Henry accepting a heavy sting to his wallet in the process), or keeping him as a backup striker, and inviting continuing pressure towards a limited player who has so far, quite understandably, seemed only inhibited by his ridiculous price tag. It is no fault of his own, but Carroll is a problem that needs solving, quickly.

Kenny Dalglish can no longer live off the fine attacking performances of last season, which have been reproduced only sporadically this term. It’s clear that he has been trying admirably to get his side to continue this approach, but he has been hindered largely by the incapacity of his own signings. An admission of this, in the form of forging a team from players who are wholly capable of exerting his philosophy, could help his side get a headstart at the beginning of next season – a campaign that is shaping up to be a massive one for the manager.

Alex Hess

This article was originally published on Life’s a Pitch.

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