By Chris Davie at Upton Park
Liverpool's blossoming development under Kenny Dalglish was brought swiftly to a halt at Upton Park on Sunday.
Heading into their match against a struggling West Ham team, Dalglish had steered his side to eight games without defeat in all competitions. But the manner of their 3-1 loss against Avram Grant’s reignited charges, particularly in the first half, carried all the hallmarks of a squad heading towards a disappointing mid-table finish.
Arguably, that was expected during Roy Hodgson’s lacklustre reign. But since Dalglish’s arrival in January, performances and a reintroduction of self-belief in the Liverpool squad appeared to steer the ship in the right direction.
But their problems lie far deeper than what a few weeks of improved results can mask. Dalglish has inherited a squad whose summer signings have vastly failed to make an impact, which has left the club in a current situation where they are seriously struggling for squad depth.
Hodgson was vocal in his contempt regarding the squad left by Rafael Benitez. The Spaniard can be credited for the signing of Fernando Torres, which, as well as providing a constant supply of goals, reaped £50 million in transfer funds four years after the striker’s arrival from Atletico Madrid. But Benitez’s failure to bring in adequate, long-term squad players has ultimately harmed the club’s progress.
In Benitez's defence, eight of the signings during his six-year spell still remain strong at Liverpool. Pepe Reina, Daniel Agger, Dirk Kuyt, Lucas, David Ngog, Martin Skrtel, Glen Johnson and Sotirios Kyrgiakos all feature prominently in the first-team at Anfield. But that's eight out of 53 signed by the Spaniard who are still involved - hardly astute business in terms of squad development.
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Hodgson had one transfer window in which he could breathe a new lease of life into a stagnant side. The acquisitions of Christian Poulsen, Joe Cole, Paul Konchesky and Raul Meireles were designed for immediate impact, although only the latter can be considered to have had a prolonged positive effect on Liverpool, and even that happened after Hodgson departed.
Dalglish had January in which he could salvage a squad which has been ravaged by a series of mediocre signings from previous tenants. The arrivals of Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez were a strong statement of intent from the Scot in more ways than one.
Liverpool are still aiming for Champions League-quality acquisitions while playing in Europe’s second-rate competition, the Europa League. Suarez and Carroll should be an adequate match for the defensive ranks of Inter, Real Madrid and Barcelona.
But only two arrivals at Anfield last month suggest Dalglish was relatively happy with the squad he inherited. So much so, he even allowed Ryan Babel and Torres to leave on permanent deals, and this has been one of the Scot’s biggest decisions since returning to the club.
Dalglish’s 3-4-2-1 formation has been quite a radical move considering the potential dangers of overhauling a club’s current system in favour of an unfamiliar one midway through a campaign. But the manager, who is currently without a healthy left-back, was forced into this decision.
Martin Skrtel, Jamie Carragher and Danny Wilson were the centre-back trio fighting for two spots. It made sense to try the three together and have Glen Johnson and Martin Kelly acting as cover on the flanks. And up until Kelly’s injury at Upton Park, it worked.
Joe Cole was brought on for the hamstrung Kelly and Dalglish opted to switch formations, which exposed Liverpool’s incapability to field a conventional 4-4-2 system and highlighted the lack of squad depth in which the Anfield manager has to operate with.
Liverpool looked disjointed for the majority of their performance and Dalglish’s inability to switch personnel during the game in order to make a telling impact on its outcome is what could dent their progress this season.
In his post-match press conference, Dalglish was predictably downbeat considering his squad’s recent run of form. But even he had an air of the result being inevitable after pointing to their previous fixture – a lumbering 1-0 victory at home to Sparta Prague. Previous games against Wigan and Sparta had brought similarly laboured performances.
The Liverpool manager now has the task of facing Manchester United, potentially without Kelly, which will mean another change in formation, and still consistent uncertainty remains at Anfield as their squad depth threatens their progress once again.
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