Tuesday October 5th, 2010

Roy Hodgson always was likely to face two problems at Liverpool: that his football was too boring for the fans, and that his training was too boring for the players. A certain stodginess leading to long-term grumbling was perhaps to be expected, but what nobody predicted was that Liverpool would be as bad as it has been so far this season, and that there would be immediate outrage.

Sunday's 2-1 home loss to Blackpool was humiliating not just because the visitors were so unfancied, and not just because it left Liverpool in the bottom three, but because of the pitiful nature of the performance. Liverpool fans have always been noted for their patience, but just seven games into this season, they were chanting for Kenny Dalglish to replace Hodgson.

The great strength of Hodgson's past sides has been their ability to retain their shape. At times they lacked flair, but they were at least solid. And that is what makes Blackpool's second goal so unsettling. Hodgson set out his side with three central midfielders, with Christian Poulsen and Raul Meireles presumably intended to provide a platform for Steven Gerrard. In the buildup to that goal, though, all three were sucked to the left, so when the ball came in-field to Gary Taylor-Fletcher, he had oceans of room to loft a pass through for Luke Varney to score.

That area is what the Switzerland and former Bayern Munich manager Ottmar Hitzfeld calls "the red zone," a place that must be protected at all costs, and Liverpool surrendered it. These are basics, so basic it seems absurd to blame Hodgson for them. Errors like those have nothing to do with motivation or work on the training field; they speak of a club suffering a psychological meltdown (although it's still hard to believe Liverpool would have been left that open had Javier Mascherano not departed for Barcelona).

The common line from players is that what goes on in the boardroom doesn't affect them, but it surely must. If players are being sold, new investment is not forthcoming and there is a sense that the club is going backward, why wouldn't players start to wonder about the future and question their commitment? And when fans -- quite understandably - begin to demonstrate against the owners, how could that sense of anxiety and dissatisfaction not influence a team that must be low on confidence anyway?

The politicking is unhealthy. Dalglish looms like the ghost of Liverpool's glory, the last manager to lead the club to the championship, and somebody who, after being asked to consult on the appointment of Rafa Benitez's successor, put forward his own name. For a manager to work with an obvious and popular alternative constantly scowling from the directors' box is destabilizing.

Hodgson is further undermined by the probability of an imminent change of ownership, for it is long established that new owners replace the manager sooner rather than later -- just as Sheikh Mansour fired Mark Hughes; David Gold and David Sullivan disposed of Gianfranco Zola; Mike Ashley sacked Sam Allardyce; Ellis Short dumped Roy Keane; and Roman Abramovich relieved Claudio Ranieri of his duties. And if Hodgson's training drills are as dull and repetitive as most seem to suggest, the temptation for players expecting a new man at the helm must be to think, Why bother?

There are other, mitigating factors. Fernando Torres has been hampered by injuries and loss of form for at least six months. Having played in the European Championship in 2008, the Confederations Cup in 2009 and the World Cup this summer, he has not had a proper break since 2007. That's bad enough for any player, but particularly for somebody like Torres, who has a history of niggling injuries, and all the more so when he is expected to lead the line game after game.

David Ngog has been better than anticipated but he is inexperienced, and it is unfair to expect him to be the first reserve at a club of Liverpool's stature (if Liverpool is still assumed to be a top-six club). The squad's limitations were further demonstrated Sunday by the fact that, without Paul Konchesky, Hodgson was pretty much compelled to pick two right-footed players on the left -- Jamie Carragher at fullback and Joe Cole in the advanced role . As Michael Cox's analysis on the Guardian Web site shows, that made Liverpool's approach extremely one-sided. Inverted wingers are very much in vogue, but they are at their most threatening with an orthodox fullback overlapping outside them. Carragher, at 32, was never likely to offer much in the way of attacking threat, but the problem was compounded by his right-footedness, ensuring he didn't even offer the option of outswinging crosses from deep positions.

Some blame Benitez for the squad he left behind, and it certainly has weaknesses, but he was hamstrung by the lack of resources available. Again, his critics point out his expensive flops -- most notably Robbie Keane and Ryan Babel, although Glenn Johnson looks worryingly as though he may be entering that category -- but the fact remains that he inherited a club in a far worse position than either Chelsea or Manchester United and was asked to close the gap with far less money than either. Briefly, when Liverpool finished second in 2008-09, he achieved that, but that has been forgotten because of what happened last season, when injuries and the off-field wrangling combined with the rise of Manchester City and Tottenham -- both of whom have spent vastly more than Liverpool over the past three seasons -- led to Liverpool's slide to seventh.

Seventh, though, is a whole lot better than 18th. The Benitez knockers say it's an issue of the squad, but every one of Sunday's starting 11 was part of a World Cup 23 in the summer. None of Blackpool's had that status. That, of course, may be part of the problem. Although Rafael van der Vaart is doing his best to show up the rest, most players who play at a World Cup suffer a slow start to the following season. Nonetheless, the idea that, all else being equal, this Liverpool side should not have won comfortably is absurd.

Just because there are mitigations, though, does not mean Hodgson is not culpable, just as the fact that Benitez can largely be exonerated does not mean Hodgson is to blame. As this analysis from Paul Tomkins suggests, Hodgson's first 14 games have raised specific tactical concerns.

Yet Hodgson has a very good record as a manager, having won titles in Sweden and Denmark, led Internazionale to a UEFA Cup final and Fulham to the Europa League final, the last of which led to his being named Manager of the Year last season. His critics, though, would point out that, with the exception of Inter, he has never before led a club whose fans demand not merely success, but also a certain style.

Worse than that, in his other English job, he left Blackburn 14 games into the 1998-99 season, having won only once. The club went on to be relegated that season, despite having the second-most-expensive squad in the country. What is often forgotten is that, the season before, Hodgson had taken a team that had finished 13th the previous season to sixth, earning qualification for the UEFA Cup, and that in that second season he was beset by injuries and dressing-room unrest. He certainly wasn't a success at Blackburn, but there were reasons for his second-year failure. At Inter, meanwhile, Hodgson's record was impressive. He lifted a struggling side to seventh, and then took it to third the following season.

His record is admirable, and the last 14 games at Blackburn don't change that. The problem is that because his success has largely been with smaller clubs, he arrived at Anfield with the reputation of being a smaller-club manager. Perhaps he does have a small-team mentality, and perhaps that would have been a problem anyway, but at the moment he is seen almost as a self-fulfilling prophecy: When a club is fighting against diminishing status, the last thing it needs is a manager perceived as being of a lower status.

Hodgson, through no great fault of his own, has been cast as a receptionist at mediocrity's door. He may or may not be the right man for the job, but it's hard to avoid the feeling that at the moment managing Liverpool is an impossible task.

Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.

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