What is now starting to become a familiar hush fell over Anfield on Saturday afternoon as Liverpool huffed and puffed their way to another home defeat, this time at the hands of Wigan Athletic. Whilst this result didn’t necessarily qualify as the shock of the season, it was another sign that a club that has been in the headlines more than most since last August is continuing to derail, with only the inconsistency of those below them in the table keeping them in seventh place in the table. Moreover, some – perhaps many – of the clubs supporters are now having to do what they may previously have considered the unthinkable: question Kenny Dalglish.
There have been distractions and fig leaves that have allowed Dalglish an easy ride to this point. A win in the League Cup – albeit a far from convincing one on penalty kicks against a team a division below them – brought the club its first trophy since the 2006 FA Cup and a guarantee of European football next season. They remain in this years FA Cup too, with a semi-final to come against Everton or Sunderland. In the Premier League, however, this years Liverpool team is again falling well short of expectations, and this is before we even factor in the vast amounts of money spent by Dalglish and director of football Damien Comolli on players that have singularly failed to set the first team alight. And the Premier League and Champions League, as the clubs accountants may well be keen to point out to owner John W Henry, is where the significant money is these days.
Saturday’s result was no freak. Liverpool’s league form has been spiraling in a downward direction since the start of the year. And neither was losing to Wigan Athletic a notably worse result than the team has managed elsewhere this season. Last Wednesday night, for example, they pitifully threw away a two goal lead at Queens Park Rangers, another club that is fighting tooth and nail to avoid relegation to the Championship. Had the Premier League started on the first of January, Liverpool would now be in second from bottom place in the Premier League, with only the dismal Wolverhampton Wanderers below them and, with so much money having been spent on misfiring players over the last fourteen months or so, the question of whether widespread changes to the squad again is either affordable or safe to be left in the hands of those that brought the likes of Andy Carroll and Jordan Henderson to the club is a valid one.
This is a question that is worth asking, because some have pointed out that Dalglish has been offered an almost indescribably easy ride since his return to Anfield than his predecessor Roy Hodgson ever was. That Hodgson arrived at the club at just about the worst time that any manager could have done is a detail that seems to have passed some by, and we will never know just where Liverpool would have ended up in anything like the long term, because Hodgson was gone from Anfield not long after the buyout of the club by John W Henry’s Fenway Sports Group. Dalglish’s return in a care-taker capacity was far from an unwise decision. A club that might have been torn limb from limb needed somebody with the gravitational pull to be able to bring it together, and Liverpool’s stabilisation over the course of the second half of last season is a demonstration of just how much this was required. The decision to offer him the job on a full-time basis, however, has for a long time looked a miscalculation based more on sentimentality and a new ownership that was playing to a gallery than a pragmatic decision made with the long-term future of the club at its core.
This season started with a renewed confidence, but distractions and instability have plagued Liverpools season. To drag up the Suarez-Evra affair again seems bothersome, but Dalglish’s reaction to the FA committee’s verdict on the matter can only now be regarded as having dragged something out that the club could easily have extinguished earlier, and the manager’s increasingly chippy manner in press conferences and interviews has hardly assisted any perception that Dalglish has been consistently doing the right thing by the club of late either. Meanwhile, we can argue all day and night about finer details of the “net spend” of Dalglish’s time in charge of the club, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that FSG should surely have expected a better return on the money that they have made available than the limited progress that the team has made this season. They placed Champions League qualification at – or near – the top of their wish list at the start of this season, and such hopes seem like a pipe dream at this precise moment in time.
And for Liverpool supporters, perhaps the greatest frustration will be that there was a clear window of opportunity this season. Manchester United and Manchester City may be increasingly coming to resemble specks in the distance at the top of the table, but Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea have all had bumpy phases as the season has progressed, while Newcastle United have challenged in the top five or six all season with a squad that few would have predicted at the start of the season. Had the money spent on players been spent more prudently, Liverpool could comfortably have been looking at a return to the Champions League come the end of this season. But as things are, whilst European football is already guaranteed thanks to the fig leaf offered by the League Cup win, the team’s recent form means that supporters may be starting to look over their shoulders at the sides just below them in the Premier League table than up at those that they may seek to catch above them.
During the darkest moments of Roy Hodgson’s time in charge of Liverpool Football Club a little over a year ago, we noted that supporters of this particular club may be uniquely ill-equipped to deal with anything resembling failure. At the end of this season, it will be fifty-eight years since the club last lost more league matches in a season than it won, meaning that a Liverpool supporter would have to be a pensioner now in order to be able to remember having finished below the half-way point in a league table. At the time of writing, Liverpool have won eleven and lost ten of their thirty Premier League matches so far this season, but there has been little evidence to suggest that this team’s form will improve in the future.
Yet for all of this, it seems inconceivable that Liverpool will simply jettison Kenny Dalglish before the end of this season. A domestic trophy – perhaps even two – will be some consolation for a wasted year in the the Premier League, and it is difficult to see what the club would gain, with the possible exception of a considerable amount of internal strife, by replacing him now. In this respect, it would be considerably tidier to shuffle Dalglish upstairs during the summer, reputation still largely intact, allow a new manager to salvage and discard the bits of the current squad that he wishes to and write this season off as a transitional year. Supporters of the club may, however, already be wondering how progress can be measured after twenty-two “transitional” years.
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