27 May 2011

It's Over, It's Over, Thank God It's Over

How do you sum up that season? To the end of the universe and back. It turns out there's no restaurant there.

This everlasting gobstopper season really was two or three different campaigns rolled into one.

For the first 10 weeks or so, absolutely everything was on life support. Players instantly looked jaded, many after a long World Cup summer and immediately back in the fray with Europa League qualifiers in July. Hodgson couldn't win a game for love or money (not that he had either) – taking six points from the first eight league matches – while Hicks and Gillett's financial shenanigans truly threatened to kill the club. Fans protested the owners, the manager complained about the fans, players loped incoherently through games, and civil war seemed inevitable, at best.

But when FSG rode in astride white horses, with help from Broughton, Ayre, and (gag) Purslow, Liverpool dodged the most-fatal bullet. And from the end of October through January, we got Hodgson "at his best." Results slightly improved, Liverpool leapt out of the relegation zone all the way up to 12th, and the team averaged around 1.46 points per game – which isn't far off Hodgson's career record in England. On the whole, it was still Liverpool's worst start to a season in 57 years, and on the pitch, it was still ugly, still frustratingly pedestrian, and still clearly not good enough. But at least it wasn't oblivion.

And then, thankfully, Dalglish took the reins, while Steve Clarke also merits a special mention. Losing the last two matches without scoring in either takes the lust off certain statistics, but however you're measuring, Liverpool were miles better under the new manager.

Under the King, Liverpool averaged 1.94 goals per game compared to 1.20 under Hodgson, conceding 0.94 compared to 1.35. Reina kept eight clean sheets in Dalglish's 18 league games versus six in Hodgson's 20. Liverpool won by two goals or more in just three of Hodgson's league games; they won by that margin in eight of Dalglish's. From 19th in October to 12th in January to 6th in May, which maintains Liverpool's streak of finishing 8th or better for 49 consecutive seasons. The next closest rival is United, who've done it for the last 21 seasons.

But no matter the statistics, the massive, much-needed metamorphoses were evident with just a quick glance at almost any match. Liverpool pressed, Liverpool hassled, Liverpool fought. Instead of three static bands of attack, midfield and defense, players were fluid and inventive. Instead of playing a conservative, "defensive" 4-4-2/4-2-2-2 every time out, Dalglish tried three at the back, 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, and 4-2-2-2 dependent on who was available and who were the opponents. Liverpool didn't complain about injuries, Liverpool coped. We saw tactics, blessed tactics.

And in January, we saw FSG's willingness to renovate. The loss of F••••••• T••••• could have been another cement block tied to Liverpool's ankles, a third or fourth millstone draped over the shoulders, but the new custodians used it as an opportunity for improvement. The incandescent Luis Suarez was already on his way, and would prove even more prodigious than the most wide-eyed optimist could have expected, but FSG was prepared to use the Torres money right away, paying a steep January premium for the undoubtedly talented Andy Carroll. Including the exit of Ryan Babel, Liverpool paid next to nothing to swap two forwards for two forwards, but it still made a clarion statement of intent. Carroll continues to be one for the future thanks to recurring injuries, but Suarez was often the epicenter of everything positive in the opposition's half and had an awful lot to do with Kuyt and Maxi's subsequent scorching scoring streaks.

Another positive was the reestablishment of the youth production line, which will be one of Benitez' longest lasting legacies. Spearing, Shelvey, Kelly, Flanagan, and Robinson all started at least one game – the first three with considerably more pitch time and all improving and impressing on the whole. Wilson, Wisdom, Sterling, Suso, and Coady, among others, lurk menacingly under the surface. The new backroom staff, albeit forced by injuries in most cases, has shown little hesitation in giving youth a chance. Cole could have taken Shelvey's appearances, Poulsen could have taken Spearing's, and Kyrgiakos could have played instead of Flanagan or Robinson (shifting Carra to fullback), but Dalglish went with potential and development instead of a reliably mediocre veteran. That sort of faith could prove priceless when recruiting Britain's best and brightest in the future, let alone what one player's leap to the first team could save in transfer fees. Zidanes y Pavónes, but not run by a pig-headed Florentino Perez.

Granted, not everything was hugs and kisses once the door hit Hodgson on the way out. Both managers managed to drop points to relegated sides more than once: Blackpool won both home and away, West Ham comprehensively beat Liverpool at Upton Park in February, and Birmingham were unlucky to come away with just a point from August's match at St. Andrews (a win would have kept them up, no less). Both also managed to give away far too many points from winning positions: nine by Hodgson, ten by Dalglish, each in four games where Liverpool led only to finish with a draw at best.

The last two matches of the season laid the many frailties bare. The squad was simply too shallow to sustain a last-ditch push for Europe, let alone any semblance of a title challenge. Come April and Liverpool were down to the third-choice right back and fourth choice left-back, both under 20 years of age. Liverpool's captain played in fewer than half of Liverpool's 54 games, the best center-back in slightly more than a third. At one point, Gerrard, Carroll, Agger, Johnson, Kelly, and Aurelio were all injured – at least five of whom would start in Liverpool's best XI. David Ngog played as many games as Carragher, tied with the sixth-most appearances.

Liverpool still doesn't have a player who looks capable of bringing the best out of Carroll, and if Suarez is absent or off-form, the side seems lost in the final third. Supposed depth in the form of Poulsen, Jovanovic, and Joe Cole proved to be throwing worse money after bad, adding absolutely nothing to the team; all three (and others) will need to be re-replaced in the off-season. This squad has major, glaring flaws, flaws which are remediable but expensive – and Liverpool's wages are already the fourth-highest in the league. For a team which finished seventh and sixth in the last two seasons, 23 and 22 points behind the champions respectively.

Nonetheless, the overriding narrative is that we've seen predominantly horrific moments become predominantly beatific moments. From the sun nearly setting on the club to the brightest dawn since 2008-09. Back in those dreary October days, I'd have never imagined a renaissance quite like this.

And for the first time since 2008-09, it doesn't feel like false braggadocio to state that the Reds are coming up the hill, boys.

In other news, go visit Liverpool Offside for the final results post from last week's Blog Carnival polls: Player of the Season.

And with the overly-purple end of season narrative out of the way, it's time for the slow transition to summer mode. I'll aim for some weekly nonsense at the least, and if there's anything worth writing about, chances are I'll write about it. But before that, next week is infographic week. Everybody likes pretty pictures.


Tom Foolery said...

Great review Nate. The turnaround we've has been magnificent, and we can finally feel as if there's something positive to look forward to. However, (as you point out) we've got to keep everything in perspective and realize that its not all pie from here on.

We're climbing that hill, but the hardest push is the one at the end, to reach the top.

Pan said...

Same here great review and thanks for the constant clever heart felt write ups Nate.. keep up the great.. um.. I was going to say work but this probably isn't work for you!