With the derisory and ironic chants of "Hodgson for England" from the Anfield crowd ringing fresh in his ears, following Liverpool's stunning and stultifying 1-0 home loss to then bottom-placed Wolves, coach Roy Hodgson committed probably the final fatal two verbal missteps in what has been a tortuous six-month reign.
First, he confirmed what some had already suspected -- that his longtime experience with mid-tier/smaller clubs had left him resoundingly unprepared to manage the expectations and pressure at one of the world's most prestigious clubs -- albeit one in name only these days.
"If fans are going to expect to [beat the bottom-of the league team] that's very dangerous. If they're going to do that they're going to be in for a lot of disappointments," said Hodgson to reporters. "I don't think one should be so disrespectful to [Wolves], to say it's unacceptable to lose to another team in the same league." It's one thing to caution against complacency, it's quite another to downplay failure against a team that not only was bottom of the Premier League, but had the worst road record in all four divisions in England this season before Wednesday.
If that wasn't enough, he then compounded the situation by criticizing Liverpool fans for their lack of support. "Ever since I came here the famous Anfield support hasn't really been there .. I have to hope the fans will become supporters because we need support," said Hodgson. With that statement, Hodgson virtually alienated whatever vestiges of support he had remaining from the masses, regardless of subsequent attempted damage control.
Even so, it's doubtful that owner John W. Henry and NESV will move swiftly to remove Hodgson as coach -- all indications suggest NESV remains reluctant to change coaches midway through the season and Henry himself is said to prefer to wait until the summer. Yet Hodgson's tenure has been so disastrous that leaving him in place would be far more damaging and here's why:
If Hodgson intended to leave a legacy, he's surely done that. The magnitude of his accomplishments will never be forgotten, except it'll be for the wrong reasons. Under his watch, the unenviable has occurred:
• Liverpool has lost 8 matches after 18 match rounds in the league for the first time since 1964/1965.• The last time Liverpool had fewer points at turn of the year was in 1953/54 ... the season it was relegated.• After the first five games of the season, Liverpool recorded its worst start to a season since 1992-93.• Liverpool suffered its first loss to Blackpool at Anfield since 1967.• Liverpool's first loss to Stoke in 26 years.• Liverpool's first-ever loss in its entire history to fourth division opposition (Northampton in September).• Liverpool suffered only its second-ever loss to Wolves at home in 60 years.• For a period this season Liverpool has been mired in bottom-three relegation zone for first time since 1984.• The worst winning percentage (41.38%) for a Liverpool manager since 1959, edging Graeme Souness' 41.4% in 1991-94.• The first Liverpool manager to win fewer than six of his first 18 league games in charge since George Kay only won five back in 1936.
I've written before as to why Hodgson's tactical approach, while well-suited for lower-tier teams such as Fulham, are inadequate for a team such as Liverpool that's expected to carry the play to the opposition. In simplest terms, Hodgson's obsession with defending deep, employing a formation of rigid lines that dissuades his players to get forward and relying solely on the long ball/counter attack to fashion goal-scoring opportunities is simply archaic.
Even Hodgson advocates such as former Norway international Lars Bohinen (who has cited Hodgson as the best coach he's ever worked with) recognize the flaws in this system for "bigger" clubs. "Players such as [Steven] Gerrard and [Fernando] Torres are unable to shine in [Hodgson's] formation and Roy Hodgson is the one to blame for this. ... he focuses too much on the defensive structure of a team," wrote Bohinen in his blog. "He doesn't really have a clear philosophy when it comes to attacking football ... He's the right man for a club that wants to defend and grind out a result, but I'm not sure he's the right man for Liverpool."
As further evidence of Hodgson's obsession with an antiquated route one approach, look no further than the tactical chalkboards which outline the difference in approach of goalkeeper Pepe Reina's distribution in the same corresponding matchup last season compared with Wednesday. Only two of Reina's passes against Wolves at Anfield last season reached or crossed the halfway line -- the majority were short and accurately distributed. Yet Wednesday against Wolves, Reina launched around 35 long passes which crossed halfway, no doubt at Hodgson's behest.
If his general philosophy wasn't already rudimentary enough, Hodgson compounds the problem with a clear lack of tactical sophistication. He often deploys players in unfamiliar positions (Raul Meireles for example is far more comfortable in his natural central midfield spot, yet has been inexplicably stationed on the right wing at times) and has shown inability to devise an offensive game plan when the team is required to chase an equalizing goal. The primary example of this could be seen in the loss to Blackpool in September -- a game which Hodgson ended by inanely utilizing midfielders Steven Gerrard at center back and Raul Meireles at left back and center back Sotiris Kyrgiakos at center forward. After all, it makes perfect sense to use a defender to score a tying goal when Hodgson only has one of the world's most notable clutch scorers of late-game wonder goals at his service.
At this point, some may wonder how Hodgson got the job in the first place. Well, there's no question that his congenial nature and personal relationships with segments of the British media have gained him favorable and excessive plaudits in the past. Take for instance his much-lauded success at Fulham which rather dubiously earned him the League Manager Association's Manager Of The Year award last season.
Under his guidance, Fulham finished seventh his first season and then 12th his second. Was that really all that impressive an achievement? Saving Fulham from relegation and establishing it safely in midtable was commendable but hardly the feat of coaching genius some made it out to be. His predecessor at Fulham, Chris Coleman once took the team to ninth, yet no one deemed him a coaching savant. Then you look at Fulham's away record under Hodgson, a paltry four road wins in the last two seasons combined. In five Premier League seasons with Blackburn and Fulham, Hodgson won a grand total of 12 games on the road. His predecessor at Liverpool, Rafa Benitez, won 13 away games alone in the 2008-09 season with Liverpool. Granted, Hodgson took Fulham on a magical Europa League cup final run last season. However, Steve McClaren also managed that feat with Middlesbrough too in 2006 -- and let's not forget that in last season's new diluted format, Europa League winners Atletico reached the final despite having won only two of its 14 games in Europe.
Add to that the strange reluctance by some English media to question the veracity of his postgame comments. Take for example his disingenuous comments after Liverpool's dour 0-0 draw against Utrecht on Dec. 15 in the Europa League. "Utrecht play really well away from home, keep the ball and cause problems," said Hodgson to reporters. Fair enough you say, yet Utrecht's away form in the Dutch Eredivisie up to that point in the season? Ten games played, two wins, one draw and seven losses.
Furthermore, Hodgson's recent international club record doesn't exactly inspire confidence either. At Norway's Viking, his last club managerial post before Fulham, he took over in 2004 and managed a club that had finished fifth the previous season to a ninth-place finish. Sage? Somehow I think not.
It's also worth remembering that Benitez was fired for finishing seventh with this Liverpool squad -- a result deemed unacceptable by fans, pundits and press alike. There's no question that Liverpool's squad as currently constructed is flawed and almost certainly no longer top-four caliber. However to suggest that the squad is of low quality and deservedly struggling to stay just above the relegation zone is ludicrous.
Eight members of the team that lost to Wolves Wednesday were involved in the famous 4-0 dismantling of Real Madrid in 2009. In the loss to newly-promoted Blackpool, all 10 outfield starters for Liverpool were capped internationals who had received playing time in the most recent World Cup (as were two of the three substitutes used that day). The bulk of the squad (along with several new additions) that finished seventh still remain. There are a lot of managers in the Premier League that would love to suffer with such "paucity" of resources. A Champions League spot this season was always ambitious with the rise of Man City and Spurs as powers, but the current squad is not devoid of talent and should have been easily capable of a top-eight finish (at the minimum) in the right hands.
John W. Henry and Hodgson himself have also pointed to the fact that Hodgson should be absolved of some of the blame since the squad was not of his making. To be fair, the present demeanor and apparent apathy of much of the team on the playing field is also partially to blame (although that's also invariably linked to what the squad thinks of Hodgson's coaching methods and adds credence to rumors he's lost most of the dressing room). However, since when did it become set in stone that a manager had to have all of his own signings in place before he could be judged on his work?
Look no further than Owen Coyle's work in his first full season at currently sixth-placed Bolton. Not only has he transformed the fortunes of a team that previously finished 13th and 16th under Gary Megson, he's done so while completely reshaping the team's playing style beyond all recognition. Moreover, Coyle's done so while making use of largely the same bulk of players Megson had, minus the addition of midfielders Stuart Holden and Martin Petrov.
The transformation of Swedish striker Johan Elmander under Coyle's fluid passing philosophy has been similarly remarkable. Flourishing after being removed from the shackles of Megson's long-ball approach, Elmander has nine league goals this season, more than he scored in his previous two combined where he was largely derided as a failure. You could argue his fortunes are an inverse mirror of Liverpool's formerly prolific Fernando Torres. Torres has dissipated from a goal machine with the highest goal-scoring rate in the Premier League on a per-minute basis under Benitez's high-pressing possession-based system, to floundering in Hodgson's system that calls for endless long punts, something he's obviously ill-suited for.
Clearly NESV is determined to avoid making a rushed ill-informed decision and has also purportedly ruled out any notion of re-installing Benitez at the helm. You could also argue that the caution stems from the fact that many of the top or ideal candidates to replace Hodgson are likely unobtainable in midseason. For instance, Marseille's Didier Deschamps would be unwilling to leave with Marseille in the midst of a promising Champions League campaign, while progressive, gifted young minds such as Dortmund's Juergen Klopp and Porto's Andre Villa Boas both recently signed long-term contract extensions.
One argument would be to appoint fan favorite and club legend Kenny Dalglish in an interim role in a holding pattern till the summer, but one suspects that NESV considers his appointment to be fraught with potential downside. If Dalglish failed to arrest the decline, how would fans react to his removal as coach? If the team commenced an impressive winning streak or season-ending run under Dalglish, the pressure to keep him as permanent coach would rise. Unless NESV considers Dalglish a candidate for a permanent role from the onset, it's likely they view his candidacy as a political land mine. That said, there are other candidates for the interim position -- youth coach and former Barcelona academy guru Rodolfo Borrell for one. Borrell could take the reins until the summer when the real search could begin and the net cast wide to include candidates such as Copenhagen's eccentric-but-talented Staale Solbakken or the Netherlands' Bert Van Marwijk.
On the one hand, NESV's considered stance is to be admired in some respects. Its success with its other sport franchises certainly didn't arise from knee-jerk reactionary moves. However, in this instance, even while under the guise of being novices to the game of soccer and adjusting to the learning curve, there's a point where prudent caution crosses the divide. That time is now, and Hodgson's painful tenure must be ended sooner rather than later before Liverpool's assets depreciate further.