The rejuvenated Reds travel to their former manager's new team West Brom on Saturday, safe in the knowledge that their club is finally in the right hands and firmly on the up
By Nick Price
This time last season, Liverpool fans the world over were in a bit of a funk, even though John W Henry and Fenway Sports Group (FSG) had arrived with a scalpel to remove the tumorous George Gillett and Tom Hicks from Merseyside before their rising debts plunged the club into a terminal decline, for in Roy Hodgson – a niche coach with a skill set that simply doesn't translate to teams with the financial clout and ambition to challenge for honours – they had one of the most inept managers to ever have sat in the hallowed dugout at Anfield.
His signings were poor, his team's performances were pathetic, his excuses were plentiful, and his dalliances with the media were pitiful and grossly misjudged.
On January 8, the mood at Anfield changed from one of bewilderment and revulsion at a team playing a brand of football alien to the club and being led by a man who appeared to view the side's supporters with disdain, to delight when it was announced that Hodgson was to be replaced with immediate effect by Kenny Dalglish. An icon who understands what makes the fans tick was back in charge – what more could a Kopite want?
But the Scot's humour and sincerity alone is not what made FSG give him the job on a permanent basis, and it is not why Liverpool fans now go into games with optimism.
With the Reds travelling to Hodgson's West Brom on Saturday, a fixture that they lost last season to the mirth of their much maligned former manager, Goal.com explores just how Dalglish has rejuvenated the fallen giants…
Under Hodgson, safety first, kick-and-rush football was the norm, with home tactics at times almost indistinguishable to backs-to-the-wall away set-ups. At times it worked, with a 2-0 win over Chelsea at Anfield the result of midfielders plugging holes in between the defence, forming a red wall that repelled wave after wave of blue attacks.
But all too often you could land a 747 between the midfield and attack, with the team reliant upon strokes of genius or slices of luck for goals while the opposition were allowed time on the ball in Liverpool's half – an insipid combination that resulted in several embarrassingly gutless defeats.
Though they lost 1-0 at Manchester United in the FA Cup in Dalglish's first game in charge, Liverpool were poised in possession, even after Steven Gerrard was sent off for a wild early challenge on Michael Carrick.
Performances quickly improved, with an emphasis on the pass-and-move brand of football that sees full-backs work the overlap, forwards dovetailing with midfielders, and a holding player – typically Lucas Leiva – tasked with ticking things over in possession instead of hovering in front of a static back four.
Two months after the defeat at Old Trafford, Manchester United travelled to Anfield and were swept aside by a free-flowing home team, who followed that up with scintillating displays against Manchester City, Birmingham, Newcastle and Fulham, games that saw the Reds strike 16 times.
Liverpool were suddenly exciting again, and continue to be this season.
While Hodgson's hands were certainly restricted, there can be little doubt that the then LMA Manager of the Year used what cash he did have available to him quite terribly. Paul Konchesky, Joe Cole (though the former Inter boss has suggested that this was a signing prompted at the behest of then managing director Christian Purslow), and Christian Poulsen were all brought in on big wages and all flopped harder than Grant Holt taking a running jump off the high diving board, while Alberto Aquilani was sent packing on loan to Juventus despite ending the previous season with promise, with only Raul Meireles' arrival constituting a successful bit of business in the summer of 2010.
Hodgson had also sounded out the likes of Luke Young and Carlton Cole, hardly displaying that he knew how to spot talent – giving credence to FSG's decision to bring in Damien Comolli to work on recruitment – and was not trusted to spend in January.
Dalglish, of course, did get to splash the cash. Luis Suarez was wrapped up on deadline day after paperwork delayed his arrival, with the Uruguayan having expected to partner Fernando Torres, who dropped a bombshell as he confirmed his disillusionment by handing in a transfer request and forcing through a £50 million move to Chelsea.
That and the sale of Ryan Babel meant Liverpool were in profit even after they broke the record for a British player with a jaw-dropping £35m swoop for Andy Carroll – a fee that seems set to hang over the giant striker's hulking shoulders until he starts performing on a regular basis.
This summer, the club benefited from the generosity and ambition of its new owners, who gave Comolli and Dalglish free rein to spend more than £50m, with much of that spent on injecting imagination into a staid squad.
Jordan Henderson and Charlie Adam, both prolific chance creators in 2010/11, were brought in to liven up an occasionally lacklustre central midfield, while Stewart Downing was recruited to stretch the play and provide service from out wide. The three have yet to fully convince, but the rationale behind their signings is sound, with each possessing the skills to slot into the slick set-up preferred by Dalglish, and all offsetting the losses of Meireles to Chelsea and Alberto Aquilani on another Serie A sojourn.
Meanwhile, the problematic left-back slot has been solved with the purchase of Jose Enrique. The sight of the Spaniard hurtling down the wing, one-two-ing his way up the pitch and dribbling beyond right-backs, provides the starkest example of the differences in philosophy between Dalglish and his predecessor, who championed the clumsy and cowardly Konchesky.
Elsewhere, David Ngog has been upgraded for Craig Bellamy, and Sebastian Coates – fresh off the back of being named the best youngster at the Copa America – was bought after Sotirios Kyrgiakos was sent packing.
While Liverpool's summer may not have seen a fantasy arrival (and the decision to swoop for Downing is somewhat baffling when the equally versatile, younger, and undeniably better Juan Mata was open to a move to Merseyside), the emphasis on attacking players still to hit their peak has given further cause for confidence on the Kop.
Of course, none of the above would matter if Liverpool were scrapping down at the bottom of the table as they were a year ago, and Dalglish has certainly turned things around in that regard – although there is still much to be done.
Liverpool were 12th and just four points above the drop zone when FSG decided that Hodgson was simply not the visionary motivator they needed for their ambitious project. By the end of the season they were sixth, and were it not for Tottenham spoiling Dalglish's permanent contract party, they would have pinched fifth spot and a place in the Europa League.
This season, after 12 games in all competitions, the red machine has malfunctioned just twice, as the club sit in sixth again, just four points from a Champions League place – and were it not for an inability to hold onto a lead on three occasions at Anfield, Liverpool would be in that spot.
When Dalglish's men have stuttered it has largely been their own fault, be it through profligacy in front of goal, ill-discipline or defensive slips, all of which have been rife in the five league games in which they have not gained maximum points.
But those are issues to be expected of a side that has undergone major restoration works over the past 10 months and still has not seen the best of its record signing.
Fortunately for Liverpool fans, their team have shown that they have the swagger and panache to start putting teams to the sword. If they can do that on Saturday it would go some way towards wiping the Hodgson horror show from the club's memory, and would once again give supporters reason to sing of their undying love for the king.
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