However, Rafa realized it in short order, and shipped Keane out at the first opportunity. Having paid £19m for the player, Liverpool recouped somewhere between £12-16m, depending on unannounced add-ons that may or may not have been reached. Granted, £3-7m is still a loss, and that the manager wasn't allowed to use those funds to replace the player still frustrates, but Liverpool knew when to cut its losses, and still came the closest to winning the league since the trophy was last lifted in 1990. Since then, Keane's barely featured for Spurs, and was loaned to Celtic last spring, who refused to pony up whatever Tottenham demanded for the player. Now, the former captain is behind Defoe, Crouch, and Paylyuchenko in the pecking order, and Spurs couldn't give him away during the summer transfer window. Had Liverpool kept Keane for the entirety of '08-09, who knows if they would have reaped the same results, and I highly doubt they would have reaped as much in the transfer fee.
Liverpool needs to do the same thing with Roy Hodgson.
I'm as afraid of the Newcastle parallels as anyone. Liverpool has rarely been a firing club. Souness and Evans were sacked mid-season (February and November, respectively), but more often than not, the manager's given multiple chances to come good. Which, of course, is why it was so frustrating to see Benitez sacked after one bad season.
And yes, it's only been seven league games (14 in all competitions), but I fear that Hodgson will never come good. His tactics are embarrassingly outdated, unsuited to the current squad, and he's shown little clue as to what managing Liverpool means.
Let's review the tactical problems first.
Refusal to press high up the pitch. This is one of the biggest changes from Benitez's style, along with the deep backline and man-marking on set plays (we'll get there). And it's hindering Liverpool in attack. Eto'o gave an interesting interview a week ago on the topic:
"With Mourinho we played on the counter-attack, with Benitez we press more and that's better for us forwards because we win back the ball higher up the pitch and create more chances."It's no coincidence that while Eto'o is thriving under Benitez, Torres is struggling under Hodgson, almost completely starved of chances. Yes, he's been injured, but he's been injured off and on for three seasons now, and still scored 17 goals in '08-09 and 22 goals in '09-10. In 38 and 32 appearances respectively. But because Liverpool's not pressing as high up the pitch, Torres is receiving the ball in deeper positions, often with his back to goal. Players like Kuyt, Cole, and Gerrard aren't able to get behind the backline when Torres does hold play up because they're coming from deeper (if Gerrard comes forward at all). Nonetheless, if we're counting set plays won (specifically, the two against United), Torres has created four goals, the most assists in the squad so far this season. But he looks a disgruntled, off-form fish out of water, and that's massively frightening given the rumors that surrounded the player this summer.
The dreadfully deep backline. I've highlighted this on multiple occasions, most notably in the average position comparison of the Sunderland matches. Liverpool's used to a high backline reliant on the offside trap, with attacking fullbacks who provide the width. Now, players like Johnson are being asked to defend at the edge of their penalty area, which leads to moments like the terrible penalty concession against Blackpool. They're basically inviting teams to attack, which Blackpool were glad to do on Sunday. Liverpool's happier hoofing the ball out of defense than playing it to the defensive midfielders and building from the back, and Agger – the most-creative center-back in the squad, has been ostracized for the bullying talents of Carragher, Skrtel, and Kyrgiakos. The Dane's played nine times this season. He's been a center-back twice, against Steaua and Northampton. He's been a left-back in all six of his league appearances, including thrice off the bench because Konchesky got injured.
Lack of width. Yes, width was a problem under Rafa as well. It has been since the days of Barnes and McManaman. But we rarely saw a central midfielder forced out to the right; it's diabolically baffling that Meireles continues to play there, and it's no surprise the Portuguese looked twice the player when moving centrally in the last 30 minutes against Blackpool. At the same time, Kuyt, Cole, and Jovanovic aren't 4-4-2 wingers. Benitez's 4-2-3-1 system (while pressing high up the pitch) played to Kuyt's strengths – as he did with Holland during the World Cup – but asking him to play as a typical out-and-out winger highlights his deficiencies on the ball and on the touchline. If he, or Cole, or Jovanovic come inside, the fullback's completely exposed because there's no one like Mascherano to cover. And Cole's had the same problems when deployed on the left (as has Jovanovic), leading to the incredibly narrow formation. This is the one difference to Hodgson's formation at Fulham, where he used "opposite wingers" like Duff and Davies (left-footers on the right, right-footers on the left, allowing players to cut in and shoot) to good effect.
Man-marking on set plays. Zonal marking was a stick used to unfairly beat Benitez throughout his tenure, but like pressing high up the pitch, it was a tactic suited to the players in the squad. Liverpool's not the tallest team, and aside from Hyypiä and Kyrgiakos, Liverpool hasn't had aerially-dominate center-backs. Zonal marking helped ameliorate that weakness by marking areas instead of creating one-on-one matches where the opposition were at an advantage. At the same time, Reina, at 6'2", isn't incredibly tall as goalkeepers go. Man-marking leads to crowds around the keeper when opponents pile men into the box, making it harder for Pepe to get space and claim balls into the box.
Leaving substitutions until late. Thankfully, this changed against Blackpool, but Hodgson waited until the 75th minute against Birmingham, the 81st against Utrecht, and at the beginning of extra time against Northampton. Liverpool were level in all three. Was Hodgson really happy with the team during those matches? Were ineffective draws the goal? And we thought the last manager was stubborn in his starting XI selections...
Poulsen. This isn't truly tactical. But I'm still flummoxed that Christian Poulsen – who can't jump, can't tackle, and plays even safer, less creative passes than Lucas – has marginalized the Brazilian. Every manager has favorites, but those favorites shouldn't be keeping better, younger players out of the squad.
Shipping out Aquilani and Insua, marginalizing Agger and Lucas. We don't know how much the board (read: Purslow) is to blame for the first two. But Hodgson could have fought those battles if he so desired. Now, Liverpool has a huge hole at left-back (despite buying Konchesky and re-signing Aurelio) and Aquilani's been increasingly excellent for Juventus – paired with the defensive Felipe Melo in central midfield, no less. Not as an out-and-out attacking midfielder as we thought he needed to be. At the same time, the likes of Lucas and Agger – both better than those who have replaced them – are relegated to the second-string. The fear that both will depart in the January window heightens with each match.
And then there are the embarrassing comments, making it that much harder to respect Hodgson, leading to the belief that he just doesn't get this club or its fans. He took five days to defend Torres from Ferguson's drunken rantings after the United match. He threw his "B-team" under the bus after the loss to Northampton. He was seemingly satisfied with underwhelming draws against Birmingham, Sunderland, and Utrecht, with Liverpool arguably outplayed in all three. He ham-handedly critiqued fan's protests against the owners. And there were the recent jaw-dropping quotes in the run-up to Sunday's match, where Hodgson referred to himself as 'one of the most-respected managers in Europe.'
I've become more vehement in my critiques, and in demanding his exit, for two reasons. One, because I'm increasingly convinced Hodgson can't and won't change. Some say he needs time to implement his system, but we're seeing his system. It's the same system he used at Fulham. Defend deep, 'keep the shape', hope to strangle the opposition, and hope to get something against the run of play. It actually worked for Fulham against Liverpool in both meetings last season. But it's a small-club mentality, and it's not working with the players Liverpool has. I doubt that it ever can.
Two, because of the international break, this seems as good an opportunity as any to get a new manager in. Admittedly, the majority of first-team players will be away with their countries, but it's still two more weeks for to get settled and work with those not on international duty. And if the new man is Dalglish, he'll hit the ground running because of his familiarity with the club and players. If Liverpool failing to get a result against Everton on the 17th (God forbid) leads to Hodgson getting the sack, there are only four days before the next match at Napoli. Because of the Europa League, Liverpool has two games a week almost every week until mid-December. That schedule will really hurt a new manager's chances of settling quickly. And by then, it really could be too late.
I don't want to see Dalglish's legacy tarnished by the ownership debacle, but I truly believe we can't wait until they're finally booted out. Multiple RBS deadlines have been mooted, whether it's the 1st, 6th, 11th, or 15th of this month, but that won't be the end of the fight by any means. And because of the situation, I think Dalglish is the best choice – a legitimately safe pair of hands, unlike the manager we got this summer. Other names mooted, like Pelligrini, Rijkaard, etc., actually are untenable until the off-field situation is resolved. Dalglish is different. It's not as if he's been away from the game, living in a cave, since his last managerial position.
To use a phrase our Texan tumor will understand, know when to hold them, and know when to fold them. It's time to fold this hand before the stakes are too high to buy back in.