Tuesday January 4th, 2011

Rightly or wrongly, Roy Hodgson's time at Liverpool seems to be coming to an end. Some will argue that he should be given time, and it is of course true that various managerial greats -- Herbert Chapman, Don Revie, Brian Clough, Sir Alex Ferguson -- struggled in their first seasons at clubs with whom they later achieved significant success. But it is also true that Hodgson, much like Sam Allardyce in his brief stint at Newcastle United, seems to have lost the confidence of just about everybody, with even those fans who urge patience unsettled by the functionality of much of Liverpool's football, even against mediocre opposition.

Liverpool's problems, of course, extend deeper than the way it plays, and Hodgson has been hampered both by the financial restrictions that undermined Rafa Benitez and by the loss of form suffered by Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard -- although, of course, it may be that he bears some responsibility for that. That Hodgson's approach might not be suitable for Liverpool was not unforeseeable, a reminder that managerial skills are not necessarily transferable, and that a coach who excels in driving average players to squeeze every last drop from their talent may not be so effective with more gifted stars.

While all coaches must adapt to their circumstances -- arguably it is in making that alteration that Hodgson has been most remiss -- it is still possible to consider the general outlook of the potential coaches (in no particular order) who could replace him and see how they might fit at Anfield:

Coyle has rapidly emerged as the brightest young British manager (mind you, it's a long list that has in the past included such names as Brian Little, Peter Taylor, Bryan Robson, Peter Reid, George Burley and Phil Brown), producing stylish football that took Burnley to a surprise promotion to the Premier League, and then adding some sparkle to Bolton's traditional rugged virtues. His work at the Reebok shows a pragmatic streak: At Burnley, he would switch between 4-4-2 and 4-3-3, but at Bolton, 4-4-2 has predominated as he has used the strength of the two muscular forwards, Kevin Davies and Johann Elmander. That suggests a flexibility, a willingness to take his basic beliefs and fit them to the players available rather than simply imposing a philosophy. And his cogency in postmatch media dealings suggests somebody with a clear, uncomplicated vision of the game.

Second comings are rarely a good idea, as Kevin Keegan found on his return to Newcastle. Nor is it a good idea to return to football after a long break. The greatest managers sustain themselves by evolution, much of it almost unconscious, the accumulation of minor tweaks made on a day-to-day level eventually making a major difference. Dalglish has been involved in football to the extent of doing some scouting and acting as an ambassador for Liverpool, but without hands-on experience it's very easy to get left behind. At Liverpool, Blackburn and Newcastle, he was a classic 4-4-2 man, usually playing one wide midfielder tucked in and the other as a more orthodox winger. But that was a long time ago.

If it hadn't been for Jose Mourinho, Deschamps might already be regarded as one of the managerial greats. His achievement in taking Monaco to the Champions League final in 2004 was stunning, but there he lost to Mourinho's Porto. The victor went on to lead Chelsea to glory; the loser fell out with the Monaco hierarchy and spent a year unemployed. He resigned after leading Juventus to promotion from Serie B, but has restored his upward trajectory by leading Marseille to the French title and claims to have been approached by Liverpool in the summer. He prefers a 4-3-3, but is flexible and in the Champions League this season has shown an admirable willingness to take specific action to counter the opposition. At Spartak, for instance, he shifted to a 4-2-3-1 so Mathieu Valbuena could occupy deep-lying playmaker Ibson, and was rewarded with a 3-0 win.

The 43-year-old's antics on the touchline might suggest he is primarily a motivational coach, but his work at Mainz, which he established in the Bundesliga playing "concept football" -- that is, football based on high-tempo, collective movement relentlessly practiced on the training field -- suggests a thinker, and nobody who saw his work as a television pundit between 2005 and 2008 could doubt his tactical expertise. He insists his players perform exercises designed to improve coordination and awareness, but essentially his beliefs are typical of the new breed of German coach: rooted in four at the back, high pace and pressing. Leading Dortmund to the top of the Bundesliga shows his ability to work at a major club, but the doubt must be whether principles that seem revolutionary in Germany would be so in England.

In Germany, Rangnick was a tactical rebel. He saw the future in 1984 playing in a friendly for amateur side Victoria Backnang against Valeriy Lobanovskyi's Dynamo Kyiv, and became convinced that the principles of the Colonel could have a devastating impact on the staid German game. "I was convinced they had one more player on the pitch," he told reporters. "This was a whole new way of football." He obsessively watched tapes of Arrigo Sacchi's AC Milan, and spent a family holiday studying Zdenek Zeman at Foggia. Appointed coach of tiny Ulm, he imposed a flat back four, zonal marking and a hard-pressing game and took the club into the Bundesliga, a remarkable feat. His record at Stuttgart, Hannover and Schalke 04 was mixed (although he would finish second in the Bundesliga with Schalke in 2004-05), but Rangnick was then the leader of Hoffenheim's remarkable rise. The 52-year-old deserves another chance at a major club, and his principles are not dissimilar to those of Benitez, but there are two major doubts. First, English opposition is far more familiar with pressing than German sides; and second, his success has been in inspiring small sides with no history of success, not in reinspiring a fallen giant.

At Barcelona, Rijkaard played a classic Dutch-style 4-3-3, following the template laid down in the early 1970s, but it took him time to turn the club around, and he was almost sacked after a defeat to Real Madrid in December 2003, five months after being appointed. When he finally left in 2008 he had won two league titles and a Champions League. That success, though, has not been replicated elsewhere: his Dutch national team suffered a collective loss of nerve against Italy in the Euro 2000 semifinal; he was relegated as Sparta Rotterdam manager and he left Galatasaray, where he tried to switch to 4-2-3-1, after four defeats in the first eight games of the Turkish league season and an early exit from the Europa League. It may be that his easygoing attacking philosophy is a fit at Barcelona and few other places.

Solbakken is perhaps the hardest of the candidates to assess. He has worked wonders with FC Copenhagen, where he was appointed in 2005 a year after being named Norwegian Coach of the Year for leading Hamarkameratene to promotion. In five seasons in Denmark he has lifted four league titles and taken FCK into the last 16 of the Champions League. His record is impressive, even if there are doubts about how he would cope outside of Scandinavia. There is little complex about his tactical approach: He has attempted anything other than 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 in only three of 258 Danish league matches.

As a young coach enjoying success with Porto, the comparison between the 33-year-old Villas Boas and Mourinho is inevitable. Both wrote scouting reports for Bobby Robson and Villas Boas worked with Mourinho for seven years, at Porto and then at Chelsea and Internazionale. He left in October 2009 and reinvigorated an Academica side that looked doomed, before getting his big chance with Porto last summer. Like Mourinho, he prefers a 4-3-3, but his approach -- so far at least -- has been far more attacking than his mentor's. He is stylish and ambitious and his record is remarkable, both with a minnow and a giant, but a lack of experience may count against him, particularly as the Portuguese league is very different, both in style and depth of quality, to the Premier League.

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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