Dalglish's Dilemma - 'The Four Flops'
Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson, Charlie Adam and Andy Carroll have cost Liverpool around £80m. Not one has had a successful full début season at Anfield. The idea of merely writing them off as a collective group of failures and moving them all on for huge financial loss would obviously be folly and will not happen but crucial decisions have to be made on all of them individually this summer. If all four players are still part of the Liverpool squad going in to next Premier League campaign it will be a surprise and a disappointment to most supporters.
Of the four big money signings, Henderson is probably the safest bet to still be plying his trade at Anfield next season. He is still just 21 years old and has obvious technical ability. He has however, seemed to suffer from a chronic lack of confidence and people have questioned whether he has the mentality to make it on such a big stage as Liverpool. The confidence issue seems to have been compounded from being played on the right hand side of midfield, a role where he has looked at best uncomfortable and at worst totally lost. This is backed up by the fact that he has performed far better and looked far more at ease during the games where he has been moved into a more central position.
The problem that Henderson faces when it comes to winning over the supporters is that he simply doesn't stand out. 'What does he do?' is the oft asked question. He is neither a dominant ball winning defensive midfielder nor an attacking midfielder who looks like he will produce goals or assists on a regular basis. When you throw in the caveat that he is playing in a team that has severely lacked both of these qualities for much of the season his short comings have been made even more noticeable. In all fairness to Henderson though, he has never been and probably never will be a player that will prosper in such roles. His Liverpool career thus far seems to lend credence to the notion that he is a player who would thrive on being the middle man in a three man midfield. His energy and effective short passing would allow him to get up and down the pitch and link Liverpool's play together. Rather than being a player who will obviously excel to the masses, he seems destined to be one of the unsung midfielders that rarely receive praise in this country due to the understated role that they fill. It is a position that was perfected by Tiago at Chelsea during Jose Mourinho's first season in England. It is not a headline grabbing position, but in any variation of a 433 formation that all round midfielder is crucial and Henderson does seem to posses the required attributes and ability to do that job.
The question that Liverpool's manager must answer is whether he wants to play a system with 3 central midfielders because if that isn't the case then Henderson just doesn't serve much of a purpose to the side at the moment. If Dalglish wants his Liverpool team to play predominantly with just two players in central midfield then Henderson would have to try and alter his playing style and basically learn to play in a manner that does not come naturally to him. He can play centrally in a two man midfield right now but not effectively enough for a club like Liverpool. As suggested earlier, if Liverpool decide to play with just two central midfielders then Henderson would have to become either the overtly defensive or the more threatening attacking central midfielder that he has not yet looked like being. He could still play on the right of midfield as he has done predominantly this season of course, but he offers little attacking threat there also, due to his lack of any explosive pace or skill to beat opposing full backs. Sure, he'll keep the ball for you and maintain possession but he wont be looking to beat his man with any regularity and he doesn't posses the instincts of a player like Maxi Rodriguez who will start his runs from deep and end up in goals scoring positions.
Henderson has been somewhat of a victim of Liverpool's inconsistent tactical approach this season but that does not exempt him from criticism entirely. Whatever role Dalglish has asked him to fill, Henderson has rarely looked to impose himself on a game. He too often takes the easy option of a safe, short pass and rarely attempts to take the game by the scruff of the neck and drive his team forward. Perhaps this is down to his age and a lack of confidence on the big stage but it is a side to his game that badly needs to be improved upon. In comparison to Liverpool's other young midfielder Jonjo Shelvey (who has far less Premier League experience), Henderson is badly lacking an arrogant swagger in his game. Shelvey has much to prove still and may never make it at Anfield but he tries things and plays with a confidence and belief that belies his lack of top level footballing experience. When things don't come off for him he doesn't go into his shell, he simply tries again and again and this approach has impressed the Anfield faithful. If Henderson is to succeed it at Liverpool it will not simply be a case of being played in a role or position that suits him but also because he eventually starts taking more responsibility.
The main saving grace for Henderson is that in today's cautious tactical climate the vast majority of teams play a variation of 433 these days (which often means that Liverpool must do the same, at least against high quality opposition and especially away from Anfield) and if a natural right sided player joins the club in the summer then Henderson will have more opportunities to play infield rather than out on the wing. Also, the fact is that despite the criticism of Henderson, Dalglish has more often than not found a place for him in his side regardless of the shape of the team or his form and that shows the huge confidence that his manager has in him. Henderson has the potential to forge out a successful career at Liverpool regardless of what his critics say but the next 12 months will be crucial for him. He needs to take more risks, become more assertive and step up to the plate. He has a lovely first touch, can see a pass and has a great engine but he needs regular games in a position and system that suits him in order to flourish. Only then will people to able to decide whether he has been an expensive flop or a shrewd investment.
Charlie Adam signed for £6m from Blackpool and after a bright start to his Liverpool career he faded badly before injury cut his season short several weeks ago. It is notable that early in the season when he was performing well he had the experienced and tactically astute Lucas alongside him in midfield. Following Lucas' enforced absence through injury, Adam suffered more than most and went off the boil dramatically. Without Lucas carrying out his defensive duties in his exemplary manner alongside the Scot, Adam's negative aspects came to the fore. He was unable to cover sufficient ground in midfield to compensate for the Brazilians absence (Jay Spearing essentially took Lucas' place and just isn't on the same level as the Brazilian which means more work was required from Adam) and he seemed incapable of simply having a steady game which is often what is required of a central midfielder.
Contrary to popular belief, when Xabi Alonso filled a similar role during his time at Anfield he wasn't scoring from the half way line or producing breath taking moments every five minutes. Of course, he did do a lot of amazing things in a red shirt but one of Alonso's main qualities was the ability to simply make the right decisions and do what was required during matches even if it wasn't particularly noticeable or eye catching. Sure, his exemplary technique and passing ability still made him stand out but it is Alonso's tactical nous and intelligence that Adam lacks most. Alonso would seldom have a poor game. He would do the things he was good at; maintain possession, make the right decisions when on the ball and anchor the midfield from a deep position. Adam seems incapable of this and his lack of intelligence is the most disappointing part of his game.
He rarely has a consistent half hour let alone a consistent run of 9 or 10 games. He makes the wrong decisions when in possession of the ball far too often. He shoots when he should release the ball to a team mate, dribbles when he should shoot and attempts Hollywood balls when a simple pass will do. The raised arm of apology in acknowledgement of making a poor decision has been more of a common occurrence from Adam this season than anything else and he has frustrated the life out of the supporters.
Making comparisons with Xabi Alonso is slightly unfair on Adam of course. Alonso was (and remains) a world class operator and probably the best exponent of the deep lying play maker role in world football but Liverpool require players of comparable ability if they are to get back to where the were 4 years ago. They need consistent players and in midfield they need intelligence. Charlie Adam just doesn't appear to have the smarts to be a mainstay in a team aspiring to Champions League football.
It would be completely wrong to focus solely on Adam's short comings and it must be acknowledged that for a brief period of time he did have some relatively good games early in his Liverpool career. He has shown flashes of the ability that made him such a star for Blackpool and he does posses an extraordinary left foot that can pick out some sublime passes. The problem is that he doesn't do it on a regular basis. Adam is a mixed bag. Even when he plays well he will do 3 or 4 things in a match that will leave people shaking their heads and wondering what the hell he was attempting. Put simply, he is not a player that Liverpool can rely on at present. The return of Lucas and hopefully having Gerrard and Henderson available at the beginning of next season doesn't offer much hope for Adam's chances of cementing a regular birth in Dalglish's team and that is before you factor in the anticipated signing of another midfielder. If Adam is still a Liverpool player come the end of the summer transfer window then he is a likely to be a squad player at best. Whether he stays or goes probably depends on the player himself. If he is satisfied being a bit part player then he will stay and be a useful option for Dalglish when rotation of the squad is required, otherwise he will be quite easy for Liverpool to move on and the most likely of the four players to recoup their outlay on. It seems to me that unlike Henderson, Downing or Carroll, Charlie Adam must decide what his future holds rather than Liverpool FC or Kenny Dalglish.
Stewart Downing, however you dress it up, has had an extremely disappointing season. It is hard for me to escape the notion that he needs to be moved on as he clearly does not have the temperament to play for a club like Liverpool. Approaching his 28th birthday you would imagine that he should be in his prime and yet for most of the season he has resembled a teenager hiding on the margins of matches who doesn't quite yet have the courage of his convictions. It appears similar to the crisis of confidence that Jordan Henderson has suffered, the belief isn't there. Such a lack of confidence is understandable in Henderson, he's a young man who has been asked to play out of position an awful lot and is being asked to perform on the biggest stage he has ever encountered in his career. For Downing however, there can be no such concessions made and patience is wearing increasingly thin with him at Anfield.
Downing is an established England international who has amassed over a decades worth of experience in the Premier League. Having watched him over the course of his career and obviously particularly closely this season, it is clear that the talent is there but the personality is unmistakably lacking. He has had a lot of average to decent games but for a £20m winger playing for Liverpool Football Club that is not close to being good enough. He has effectively produced a much more expensive left footed re-enactment of Jermaine Pennant's Liverpool career.
He was likely signed to supply Andy Carroll with service from wide areas and while acknowledging that he has put in some excellent service at times he has failed to do so on a consistent basis. Also, in the big games against the best full backs in the country can any Liverpool fan really say with any confidence that they expect Downing to be effective? He just doesn't seem to have it in his locker to try and beat a full back regularly which, for a winger, is criminal. In big games he is far more likely to hide away out on the touchline laying the ball inside and playing five yard passes to his left back every time he gets it rather than attempting to beat his marker. His display at Old Trafford this season summed up his Liverpool career. He didn't make any glaring errors but until he was substituted you barely realised he was on the pitch.
In their need to progress, Liverpool require players with bottle and talent, not just one of those commodities. They can perhaps afford to show patience with younger players as they develop these qualities but surely they can not do so with experienced campaigners like Downing. Not having enough confidence or belief is understandable when you are a player making your way in the game but when you are an seasoned international footballer displaying such mental fragility then it leaves you in big trouble. Unfortunately it appears that Downing just doesn't fit the bill and Liverpool must be seriously considering taking the financial hit on the winger and selling him on while they still can. Perhaps it would be better to have a few million pounds in the bank than waiting and hoping for a winger approaching 30 to suddenly find a level of performance that has thus far eluded him throughout his career.
Andy Carroll. Ah, Andy Carroll. For the first half of this season he looked like a donkey dragging the weight of every pound coin of his price tag behind him in a carriage. His fitness, touch and application were all in question. In recent months however, his attitude and general improvement means that he must be given some credit.
He has shown a stomach for the fight that players like Downing and Henderson have not offered. It would have been easy for him to give up after all the stick that he has taken and the stories that Liverpool reportedly tried to offload him in January yet he has stuck to his task and upped his work rate noticeably. His link up play and fitness have both improved and while he will never be worth the absurd £35m fee that Liverpool so recklessly spent on him , he has at least resembled a decent football player of late.
The problem Liverpool have is that Carroll needs to be playing in a team built to suit his style. He needs to play week in week out to maintain his sharpness and confidence and he requires the kind of service from out wide that Liverpool simply do not posses in their ranks. Stewart Downing is the only out and out winger at the club and has failed to given Carroll high quality service on a regular basis. Steven Gerrard is the only player in Liverpool's squad who has the ability to consistently pick Carroll out with crosses but he is used in a central role therefore for much of the season Carroll has had to make do with the inconsistent crosses that the likes of Dirk Kuyt, Jose Enrique and Craig Bellamy have been providing. It has not been to his advantage that Liverpool seemingly signed a specialist target man while often attempting to play football that totally negates his style of play.
The monetary loss if Liverpool were to sell Carroll would be huge but if he is not to be the focal point of their team then his value will only diminish further as the months and years roll on. It's a tough decision to make and I honestly wouldn't like to have to make it. Carroll is young and has shown admirable determination to give himself the best opportunity of succeeding at Anfield but if Liverpool want to go in an opposite tactical direction then what purpose does it serve to keep Carroll at the club? Surely you cannot justify keeping a man who cost £35m as a squad player or a plan B option.
If Carroll is in the team it appears that he needs a striker alongside him to be at his most effective. He can't play as a lone striker who will often be isolated because he does not posses the pace and power or energy of someone like a Didier Drogba or a peak Fernando Torres. Essentially he is a forward who needs to be playing in a system with 2 wingers and a strike partner alongside him. The problematic point regarding this is that if he is playing, his strike partner is going to be Luis Suarez and while the two have developed a decent understanding of late, Suarez is at his best when he has forward players around him who posses intelligent movement, pace and technique. For Uruguay Suarez will often play as a wide forward with Edison Cavani and Diego Forlan in the team but all three will naturally move in to more central areas when they attack. While Carroll would much prefer to have two wingers keeping the play stretched and whipping balls into an area that he can profit from, Suarez excels in having supporting players close to him in the centre of the pitch. The partnership with Suarez and Carroll is not natural and it is to their credit that they have become a relatively decent combination when played together but neither compliments the other like the best strike partnerships do.
To strike a balance with Suarez and Carroll in the team is not impossible and they have proved that they can play well together to a certain extent but it will be difficult to regularly incorporate them both into a system that will extract the best from both players especially when Steven Gerrard is thrown into the equation. When Gerrard, Suarez and Carroll all started against Everton in the league game at Anfield they played exceptionally well but the opposition's tactics were accommodating to Liverpool that night. Everton played an open style of football, often with just two central midfielders that prevented them from outnumbering Liverpool in the middle of the park and thus negating Gerrard's forward runs. Most teams would not set up in such a tactically naive manner if Liverpool played with all 3 players. The majority of teams come to Anfield and look to outnumber Liverpool in midfield and restrict the space that Gerrard has to work his magic in attacking areas and then you are left with Carroll and Suarez becoming more isolated which is particularly detrimental to the Uruguayan's style of play. Playing two out and out forwards like Suarez and Carroll is also very risky when you go away from home or play against a top level side which is the reason that Dalglish has varied the teams formation so often this season and thus relegated Carroll to the bench in games against better sides regardless of how well he has performed in the preceding matches.
Getting the absolute best out of Carroll is something Liverpool have failed to do this season and if they can't find a way of doing so without compromising the teams style of play and the effectiveness of their best two players (Gerrard and Suarez ) then next season may prove equally as stop start and frustrating for Carroll as this term has. He is a good player who is useful to Liverpool but Dalglish must decide whether he could use any funds from the sale of Carroll to get more out his Liverpool team next season.
In conclusion, the most important factor that will determine the future of these four players is Liverpool's need to settle on a primary formation and style of play. As the season has progressed it has become increasingly difficult to predict the line up and formation that Dalglish will pick. Liverpool switch from a short passing style with Suarez as the false 9 spearhead to a conventional and more direct 442 with Carroll partnering their number 7 up front. Dalglish chooses different systems based on the opposition's strength and whether Liverpool are playing at Anfield or not. It has contributed to a lack of coherence in the side's play in my opinion.
Under Rafa Benitez Liverpool seldom deviated from their 4231 formation. They had Torres playing the lone strikers role to perfection up front, Steven Gerrard supporting him from a position at the top of a midfield three, a defensive midfielder and a play maker in the centre of the park looking to control the tempo of the match and two wide midfielders, one who would often maintain width (like Jermaine Pennant or Albert Riera) while the other looked to come inside and link up for the front two (like Yossi Benayoun or Luis Garcia). This year there has been no such obvious game plan.
There is no set pattern or rhythm to Liverpool's play and it is obvious that the players are suffering from it. Having options and the ability to surprise the opposition with the shape of your team is to be commended (Dalglish and Benitez have both used 3 and 5 at the back to great effect in the past for example) but the side must have a regular method to their play in order to form partnerships and gain a proper understanding of what is required from them on the pitch on a game by game basis.
Under Benitez the side changed almost every game in terms of personnel but the players who were on the pitch always knew their duty. Mascherano knew his role as the workhorse screening the back four, Alonso knew he was expected to keep the ball moving and supply the forwards with quick incisive passes, Riera knew he was in the team to maintain width and Kuyt knew he was expected to get up and down the opposite flank every game as well as get into the box where ever possible. Liverpool were a cohesive outfit and that is lacking now and when Dalglish and the owners sit down and discuss whether the four afore mentioned signings are to stay or go come the summer I hope it is done with a clear plan of how the team and its players are expected to play next season. Clarity is needed and big decisions have to be taken.