Sunday, 4 September 2011

Early impressions of Dalglish’s new Liverpool give reason for optimism

Not so long ago, I was a schoolboy. There are many stories from those mischievous years not worthy of a space on this website, but you should know that we were assessed by way of report card every half-term. The first report of the new year would come a matter of weeks after returning to school after the summer break. We all knew that it was too early to make any firm judgements about our prospects, but it had to be done.

As we sit through an international break (or a footballing half-term, as I am viewing it), the time feels right to make some initial observations on the new-look Liverpool.

New Signings

Unless substantial damage had been caused in a science lab mishap, every school report for a new arrival would be positive, usually welcoming the new pupil and setting out positive guidelines for the rest of the year. For Kenny Dalglish's summer signings, the assessment is very much the same. We are only four games into the new campaign, but the early impressions of the new boys have been positive.

Starting in defence, José Enrique has impressed immediately following his arrival from Newcastle United. The Spaniard is solid defensively and blessed with great pace, as well as great strength, which allows him to recover from any errors he may make. Enrique is wonderfully confident on the football, willing to beat a man and able to deliver high-quality balls into the area. When Liverpool's front men learn to read the left-back's crosses, goals are certain to follow. Enrique gets his head up early and varies his delivery into the box, from pull-backs to whipped balls into 'the corridor of uncertainty'. The left-back slot has been a problem position for Liverpool, but Enrique looks to be one of the bargains of the summer. Considering some of the prices quoted for underwhelming defenders, the fee of approximately £6 million represents fine value for money. Enrique's arrival took a long time to come fruition, but could prove to be one of Liverpool's best pieces of business.

Another protracted transfer was that of Charlie Adam. The Scottish midfielder looked set to join in January, but Comolli and Dalglish remained patient to gain his signature for a reduced price this summer following Blackpool's relegation from the Premier League. Known for being the big fish in the Seasider's pond, Adam is now surrounded by players of a higher quality. The nagging doubt was whether Adam would adapt to his new surroundings at a large club, but he has shown few signs of being intimidated. Although occasionally wasteful in possession, Adam has continued to exhibit an ability to play passes to stretch the play. Luis Suarez, in particular, appears to be forming a strong partnership with Adam as he learns that his runs, however far away from the ball, will often be found. The nature of Blackpool's football under Ian Holloway is not entirely dissimilar to Dalglish's pass and move style and could explain why Adam appears to be enjoying his role in Liverpool's midfield. Adam also appears far more adept defensively in a Liverpool shirt, no doubt aided by the shape Liverpool maintain when attacking, something woefully absent at Blackpool. Furthermore, his high-quality delivery from set-pieces could prove crucial in tight games where defences are providing stubborn resistance from open play. With a goal and two assists already to his name, Adam has settled well.

Alongside Adam in Liverpool's midfield is Jordan Henderson. Although his initial contribution was more tidy than spectacular, a strong performance against Bolton shows what Henderson is all about. Always a willing runner ahead of the ball, the England Under 21 captain will have plenty of opportunities in and around the box this season. He makes excellent late runs into the area and will be waiting for the pull-back whenever the likes of Suarez, Downing and Enrique get to the byline. Out of Liverpool's summer signings, Henderson is the one who will take the longest time to fulfil his potential, in no small part due to his age. However, he will grow in confidence over the course of the season and Liverpool fans can expect his contribution to grow week on week. Henderson has been hampered slightly by constant incorrect reports of the fee paid by Liverpool for his services, but there are plenty of signs for encouragement. The youngster possesses a wicked delivery into the box from the flanks, a good range of passing and importantly, a very good football brain. Over the course of the season, I expect Henderson to come into his own and Liverpool fans to learn what he is all about.

Finally, Stuart Downing has hit the ground running (as ever, very quickly) following his arrival from Aston Villa. By his own admission, Downing has failed to perform consistently at international level, but his club form has rarely been questioned. All the statistics suggest that Downing's contribution in the Premier League is impressive, but many have preconceived ideas due to his performances on the international stage. Aston Villa fans were thoroughly disappointed to lose Downing and backed him to be a success at Liverpool. On early evidence, how right they were. The winger shows no signs of being daunted by the challenge of providing the first genuine width seen at Anfield in years. He is direct, energetic and able to deliver with quality from wide. His performances thus far have shown consistency and he is effective on either flank, going down the line or cutting inside. When Liverpool were without Luis Suarez last season, the team clearly lacked pace. Alongside Enrique and the returning Craig Bellamy, this is no longer the case. Downing's individual contribution has shown signs of great promise, but an understanding with Andy Carroll is still lacking. If this can be added over the course of the season, Downing will be a vital player for Dalglish.

It is important to stress that we are only four games into a long season, but each of the summer arrivals has shown why Liverpool were willing to fight for their signature.

The Team

The start to the season has been extremely promising, with two dropped points against Sunderland the only blemish. Victory over Arsenal was important in terms of capitalising on their misfortunes to open up an early gap in the race for Champions League football and the home win against Bolton showed that improvements had been made from the opening fixture. Liverpool turned in a high-tempo, pressing performance throughout the game, with the atmosphere following the third goal and penultimate waves of attack reflecting the realisation among the fans that this side can play. More formidable tests await, but there is great benefit in creating early momentum.

There is also plenty of evidence that this Liverpool team know how to play together. Dalglish wants Liverpool to play quick football on the floor, recreating the pass and move mantra from years gone by. Daniel Agger is the catalyst for this, encouraged to play his natural game, striding out into the midfield. Both full-backs are encouraged to overlap, with Enrique in particular thriving with the license to roam. When Glen Johnson returns from injury, the attacking style of play is also likely to bring the best out of him. However, a fit Martin Kelly provides a formidable barrier in the contest for the right-back shirt.

In midfield, Lucas has picked up from where he left off last season, shielding the back four and allowing others to press forward. He has already formed an understanding with Charlie Adam, who works in similar areas to Xabi Alonso, during his time at the club. Adam often picks the ball up from deep to start attacks, before sweeping up any loose balls thirty yards from goal as these attacks are repelled, driving forward when possible.

Meanwhile, Stuart Downing has shown that he has a good understanding of the game, to accompany his pace and quality delivery. He is willing to move off his wing, dragging the full-back with him. When on the left, this leaves room for José Enrique to gallop forward, or Luis Suarez to peel into his favourite position in the channel, isolating his centre-half one on one in the absence of a full-back. Liverpool's football may appear very fluid, but there is great intelligence to much of the movement, with one player knowing exactly when to move into the space another player has vacated. Barcelona are masters of this art and it is refreshing to see a Liverpool side doing it well.

The only source of confusion at the moment is Andy Carroll. Put simply, Liverpool look a more effective unit when the big-money signing isn't involved. Although Carroll suffered a little against Bolton, replacing Suarez and, therefore, being part of a side without the Uruguayan's flair, he can contribute more to the side. Dalglish has built a side that can produce great quality from wide areas, but Carroll can work harder to make sure he is on the end of their deliveries. Too often, balls have flashed across the face of the goal, begging for a 6'3 Geordie to get his head on it. Carroll should benefit from the arrival of former team-mate Enrique on the left, but must have the belief that the balls into the box will be better than those from last season. If Carroll can get his movement right, there are goals to be had for him.

Furthermore, Liverpool need to be careful to judge their delivery to the big number nine. On occasions, youngsters such as John Flanagan and Jack Robinson have been too eager to cross from deep. Although these balls are intended to serve Carroll, in reality they are asking a lot from him. Liverpool's build-up play has been superb, so the issue is not getting into the final third. The key is for Liverpool's midfield and full-backs to remain patient, playing through the opposition's midfield and then putting quality balls in to trouble the defenders. Carroll appears disillusioned by balls from deep and will surely show a greater appetite to get on the end of crosses if they are delivered from the right areas. Carroll's header against Arsenal is the perfect example of how Liverpool should play with him in the team. Downing picked the ball up near the byline, delivered a quality cross and Carroll was only denied by a fine save. Carroll's tough spell is a situation that needs help from both sides. Carroll needs help from his team-mates, but in return they need a striker who is alive to opportunities when they are presented.

The key to Carroll's future in a Liverpool shirt is patience by all. Dalglish will be patient with Carroll, his players need to be patient in their approach play and Carroll needs to be patient with his team-mates, before coming alive when the opportunity is presented. Carroll's price-tag naturally means that he is under greater pressure to perform than most, but whilst Liverpool are winning games, there will be no hysteria. Dalglish has got the vast majority of his decisions correct since returning and fans should have every faith that along with Steve Clarke and Kevin Keen, he can bring the best out of his striker. Carroll's height may result in his selection against Stoke and if picked, it will be a chance for the striker to impress alongside Suarez. Carroll is clearly frustrated by his contribution at times, but will not be hung out to dry by his manager.

This Liverpool squad – and it is a squad now, each of whom feel part of the club – are enjoying the football they are being asked to play and are playing with a smile on their faces.

Transfer Window

This summer has seen an incredible turnaround in terms of the playing staff at Anfield. Damien Comolli asked the club's owners to trust him with bringing players in early, in the knowledge that large numbers of players would be removed from the wage bill at the last minute. This was a large investment of faith by the ownership, who admit they know little about football transfers, but they have been rewarded for their stance and deserve great praise.

In addition to those who have made débuts, Alexander Doni, Sebastian Coates and Craig Bellamy have joined the club. Whilst Doni arrives to provide cover for the ever-present Pepe Reina, Coates and Bellamy are signed for contrasting reasons. Bellamy's return is a short-term move, to provide squad depth and versatility in the form of a self-confessed Liverpool fan. Returning with what he perceives as unfinished business, Bellamy is not a signing for the next five years, but one who is a useful weapon for the next two seasons, initially. Bellamy still possesses frightening pace, which when paired with his intelligent movement, is a threat to Premier League defences. He is well known to both Keen and Clarke, whilst his admiration for Dalglish should see the pair form a strong bond.

Meanwhile, Coates is a relatively unknown prospect. The young Uruguayan centre-half is already a Copa America winner and was hailed as the best young player in the tournament, but doesn't carry the same price-tag as English defenders such as Gary Cahill and Scott Dann. Having spoken to a local 'South American football expert' (if such a thing exists), I have been assured that Coates is the real deal. He is a no-nonsense defender when needed, but is calm and comfortable on the ball. He also reads the game well, covering for a lack of burning pace and is a dominant force in the air. Coates will be given time to settle and is sure to be aided by the presence of compatriot Suarez. There is no finer mentor for defending in the English game than Jamie Carragher and with Clarke's coaching expertise, Coates will be taught how to adapt his game to the Premier League. The signing of an unknown South American defender may encourage concerned flashbacks to Gabriel Paletta, but Coates has already achieved far more in the game. A few errors should be expected as he adjusts, but in the long-term, this could be a shrewd signing.

The entrance to the Melwood foyer has been a revolving door this summer, with Comolli earning his money by finding new clubs for players deemed surplus to requirements at Anfield. Jovanovic, N'Gog, Poulsen, El Zahr, Aquilani, Cole, Kyrgiakos and Konchesky are among those to have found new clubs for this season, at the very least and Degen has terminated his contact by mutual consent. Liverpool's wage bill has been weighed down by players who are not in the manager's plans for too long and whilst a percentage of Cole's wage remains, plenty of deadwood has been shifted. As well as the financial benefits, there are significant gains to having a squad featuring only players who are in the manager's plans. Everybody at training will feel as if the they have a chance of getting games for Dalglish, creating a competitive but vibrant group. The sale of an unhappy Raul Meireles for £12 million must also be seen as a positive, simply because it maintains the fact that no player in Liverpool's squad is there against their wishes. Although a talented player, the Portuguese international was not a key part of Dalglish's plans this season and whilst not being forced out, was always available should the right offer come in.

The Future

The approach of focussing on one game at a time whilst only worrying about matters at this club is a method that is suiting Dalglish's Liverpool well. The squad is in place to have a successful season, but Dalglish does an excellent job of managing the expectations of fans in his press conferences. Many fans from other clubs had written Liverpool off as an also-ran before the season kicked off, but the impressive start has turned a few heads. Dalglish constantly reminds us that his side are taking each game as it comes and seeing where their performances can take them. The supporters appear to be buying into this attitude, enjoying the return to exciting football and not worrying about what is happening elsewhere.

This is very much that report card for the first half of term, leaving plenty of time for fluctuation before the true judgements at the end of the year. However, this has been an encouraging start to the season and Liverpool fans have every reason to believe that their team has the ability to do well.

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