Having been out of the game for a decade, what Kenny Dalglish will do at Liverpool remains to be seen. One of the main arguments against him coming back was that football has changed since the King left Anfield in 1991, which is true, but it nevertheless neglects one of the things we can be certain of Dalglish as a manager: he is pragmatic. Some of his methods might well need updating, but he’s unlikely to be stuck in his ways, instead looking to adapt to his players.
At Liverpool, he opened up the team, bringing in John Barnes, Peter Beardsley, Ray Houghton and John Aldridge into Liverpool’s pass-and-move style, while at Blackburn he played with two target men in Alan Shearer and out-and-out wingers in Jason Wilcox and Stuart Ripley. His failure at Newcastle was in turning them from entertaining to boring to shore up their defence, much like Roy Hodgson at Liverpool.
With this in mind, it’s also worth pointing out that he’s not completely deserted the game, he’s no doubt been observing for the last decade and has worked at Liverpool since 2009.
Seeing Hodgson’s lack of success with his deep and passive style, you would expect Dalglish to adopt a similar approach to the last time he managed Liverpool, pressing high up the pitch and passing short, something the squad is perfectly suited to due to Rafa Benitez’s beliefs.
The bigger headache for Dalglish will be the shape to choose. During his first spell at Liverpool, Dalglish played a 4-4-2 with one pacey out-and-out winger and one tucked-in on the opposite side, while playing a withdrawn forward like himself behind a striker, and he appears to still be a big fan of asymmetric systems.
This could see a return to the system Benitez used in his title-challenging 2008/09 season (fig. 1), as the only real difference between that and a 4-2-3-1 is the player who operates in the hole – midfielder and it’s a 4-2-3-1, forward and it’s a 4-4-2. Albert Riera provided width on the left and former striker Dirk Kuyt tended to come inside while Alvaro Arbeloa provided width on the right. With today’s squad, Riera’s role could be given to one
of two pacy wide players who have struggled to make an impact at Liverpool, Ryan Babel and Milan Jovanovic, Kuyt would fight it out with Maxi Rodriguez and Glen Johnson replaces Arbeloa.
However, should Dalglish want to narrow the midfield further, making possession football easier, he could shift Steven Gerrard to the right midfield role he often operated in during the beginning of Benitez’s reign and bring Joe Cole into the playmaker role, although doubts over his intelligence and the trequartista position itself suggests it might not be a great idea.
Dalglish has stated that he believes Gerrard’s “best position is centre midfield” which could see him continue with Hodgson’s 4-4-2. However, breaking up the miraculously quick-to-click partnership of Raul Meireles and Lucas Leiva for someone who simply doesn’t have the awareness or decision-making to play there (see his positioning for Gareth Barry’s goal in the 3-0 drubbing away to Man City) would most likely be a mistake.
On the other hand, Dalglish says this is on the basis of having “Gareth Barry behind him as cover” and is about picking the system that “will get the best out of him.” Leaving one man against against two or three in midfield, like the screenshot below, isn’t recommended as it’s simpler to pass around, something Dalglish points out in another aticle.
With Lucas and Meireles arguably Liverpool’s best players this season and Gerrard untrustworthy without significant cover, it would make sense for Dalglish to opt for a 4-3-3. It’s a formation that naturally lends itself to possession football and wing-play, both common conventions of Dalglish’s sides, while allowing Gerrard to play in central midfield and link up with Fernando Torres without leaving huge gaps.
Judging by his comments on what Frank Lampard brings to Chelsea’s attack,Â Dalglish sees this kind of dynamic midfielder as very important and should things not go well early on, he may well opt to play him in an advanced position, reuniting Meireles and Lucas as the holding midfielders in a 4-2-3-1.
His comments on Joe Cole would appear to suggest he would like him on the left, although this could just as easily be Maxi Rodriguez or to a lesser extent Kuyt, while he would like Johnson to be able to do “what he does best, getting forward.” It could be that Dalglish does what some Liverpool fans have wanted for a while: playing Johnson on the wing. He is quick, something that Dalglish has noted, and is obviously good going forward. Using him as a winger also lessens the effect of his poor defensive form, although it is often overlooked that Johnson looked good defensively early on in his Liverpool career when Benitez was pressing high up the pitch, as hopefully Dalglish will do.
An outside bet could be that, with Dalglish’s academy experience, we could see an increase in the number of youth players given a chance in the first team. Dani Pacheco is one of the more obvious candidates to take the step up and could make that playmaker position his own, although that doesn’t solve the Gerrard problem.
Regardless of the shape he chooses, as long as Dalglish presses higher up the pitch, he should fare better than Hodgson. Except for Sotirios Kyrgiakos and Jamie Carragher, none of Liverpool’s players suited Hodgson’s style which still makes him such a puzzling appointment, so, in theory, Dalglish should succeed simply by not being like Hodgson. Providing it is only until the end of the season it should be a brilliant appointment – he doesn’t need to be world class, he just needs to be competent for Liverpool to improve, anything else is a bonus. Long live the King.