Tuesday January 11th, 2011

On Sunday, Kenny Dalglish's wife, Marina, tweeted that for the first time in 20 years, she had woken up next to the Liverpool manager. Later that afternoon, at Old Trafford, for the first time in 20 years, Sir Alex Ferguson walked out for a game against Liverpool alongside a manager who had won the League.

A few minutes earlier, Ferguson had given a television interview of magnificently reserved disdain, saying he was sure Liverpool had done what it thought was for the best, while making clear that he was deeply unconvinced about the return of the King. After all, Ferguson may feel, he has already knocked Liverpool off its perch once, and that was before Manchester United leaped ahead of Liverpool financially, before Dalglish's decade-long break from football.

Symbolically, of course, Dalglish's return lifts everybody at Anfield, players and fans, and if that surge of good feeling propels the club to Europa League success this term or qualification for next season, then his job is done. If he had managed to bloody the nose of United in his first game, so much the better, and who knows what might have happened but for a controversial penalty call after 31 seconds? Even if Liverpool had won, though, it would have said little: That Dalglish's arrival would provide an emotional boost -- on top of the rush of adrenaline always induced by games against United -- was obvious. Far more significant -- to where Liverpool finish, to whether Dalglish has realistic hopes of keeping the job long-term -- is what happens over the next four-and-a-half months, and that's where his tactical acumen comes into play.

In the margins of history great truths are written. During the 1990 World Cup, when England, after its usual miserable start, switched formation from 4-4-2 to 5-3-2 and began suddenly to play well, there was a groundswell against the old formation, the shape that had served England as a base system since the World Cup win of 1966. The two wide men in the squad, Liverpool's John Barnes and Chris Waddle of Marseille, both spoke of how at the club level they had more freedom, that with England they felt confined to particular duties in a particular part of the pitch; 5-3-2, they said, with the additional defensive solidity it offered, liberated them.

England manager Bobby Robson was asked by novelist Pete Davies whether the success of the new formation meant that 4-4-2 had had its day. Robson -- hardly surprisingly given he was seeing the world view that had sustained him through eight years of international management -- was unimpressed, claiming that Barnes and Waddle only got away with their freer roles with Liverpool and Marseille because the quality in the English and French leagues was lower than it was at international level -- a debatable claim even then.

According to Davies, Robson spoke "with his mouth tight and angry" as he refuted the suggestion that 4-4-2 was old-fashioned. "Is Liverpool Football Club outdated?" he said. "In Europe next season, how would they play? Some clever concoction? When people talk to me [and say] it's outdated -- are they talking about Liverpool?"

Probably not, but then Barnes' whole point had been that Liverpool's 4-4-2 was more flexible than England's. And, anyway, maybe they should have been talking about Liverpool, which was about to endure an unexpected and lengthy drought and has not won the league since. Of course, the team's decline had more to do with off-pitch issues -- with the emotional exhaustion that followed Hillsborough, with the misguided appointment of Graeme Souness to replace a shattered Dalglish and with a failure to adapt as rapidly as others to the financial possibilities of the Premiership -- as with anything inherently old-fashioned in its tactical makeup.

But the fact remains that Liverpool, with its solid 4-4-2, was representative of the old ways of English football, which post-1990 changed forever. After Hillsborough came all-seater stadiums, after the World Cup came Gazzamania and a new middle-class involvement with football. After the Premier League began in 1992, there came more money and new markets. It was a radical new world offering opportunities that United seized. Liverpool, traumatized by Hillsborough, sought solace in the old certainties.

Consider three games in Liverpool's period of greatness: the 1977 European Cup final victory over Borussia Monchengladbach, the 1984 European Cup final victory over Roma and the 1989 FA Cup final victory over Everton. The tactical system is the same in each: the hybrid 4-4-2/4-3-3 that had dominated English football since the mid-1960s, with one wide midfielder advanced (Ian Callaghan, Craig Johnston then John Barnes) and one tucked in (Ray Kennedy, Ronnie Whelan, Ray Houghton), and a deep-lying forward (Kevin Keegan, Dalglish himself, Peter Beardsley) playing off a frontman (John Toshack, Ian Rush, John Aldridge). In a sense, when Dalglish took charge, his job was simply to keep things steady.

In 1987-88, his side produced some stunningly fluent football, scoring 87 goals in 40 league games, but thereafter Dalglish became increasingly cautious, sending out a team featuring six defenders and Whelan for a game at Arsenal in 1990. The coming of the Premier League and an increasingly sophisticated tactical approach was the end of a number of managers, Brian Clough and Howard Kendall most notable among them, but Dalglish adapted to win a league title at Blackburn. There he played two mobile and aggressive center forwards in Chris Sutton and Alan Shearer, supported by two attacking wide men in Stuart Ripley and Jason Wilcox and balanced by a pair of holding midfielders in Mark Atkins and Tim Sherwood. Some said the football was overly direct, reductive in the sense of requiring few risks, but it produced goals and results and at least suggested a flexibility and a pragmatism on the part of Dalglish.

At Newcastle, and to a lesser extent in his brief spell at Celtic, though, it was back to crabby Dalglish. For a St James' Park crowd still giddy on the cavalier football of Keegan, Dalglish's predecessor, to see its side start the opening game of the 1998-99 season at home against Charlton with Dietmar Hamann and Nikos Dabizas paired in central midfield was anathema, and was partly behind his dismissal a week later. At Celtic, when he stepped in for half a season to replace Barnes, it wasn't much better, his iconic game being the Scottish League Cup final of 2000. Barnes' side had already scored 18 against Aberdeen without reply in three meetings that season; Dalglish played a right back, Vidar Riseth, on the right side of midfield and protected playmaker Lubomir Moravcik by hiding him on the left. Celtic won 2-0, but it was anticlimactic.

The suspicion was of a manager grown cautious by experience, a British version of Helenio Herrera, eaten by his own paranoia. Of course, in those circumstances, the best thing somebody can do is probably to take an extended break, and that is precisely what Dalglish has done.

The uncomfortable pauses are still there in news conferences and interviews, the moments when he lets an icy silence do the work of 1,000 words, but they are almost colored by nostalgia these days; that's what football used to be like before the days of 24-hour rolling news. Besides, Dalglish's emergence on Twitter -- a frankly startling union -- has revealed something of the wry humor his teammates always said he possessed; the public dourness now has a knowing, mildly comic edge.

But what of the soccer? Will this be the grim caution of what might be called late first-period Dalglish, or something refreshing, the work of a man at ease with himself and with little to lose? The evidence of Sunday, inasmuch as anything can be judged in the context of a United-Liverpool scrap when one side already seething about an early penalty has a man sent off after 32 minutes, was of a crispness and a sense of purpose, the 4-2-3-1 suggesting a willingness to adapt to the modern game.

Even more encouraging for Liverpool was the appointment of Steve Clarke as first-team coach. Dalglish's many supporters have spent the last few days insisting that he's never really been away from soccer, but watching a lot of games is not the same as day-to-day involvement on the training pitch. Clarke has that, and moreover worked alongside Jose Mourinho, whose coaching methods are arguably the most innovative in the world. That is an acknowledgment by Dalglish of the sort of support he needs, and the decision to turn to somebody with no prior connection to the club suggests an openness to new ideas.

The deficiencies of the squad will limit Dalglish, of course, and only time will tell whether he really is capable of re-immersing himself in football's unforgiving world, but at least on Sunday there was a cohesiveness, a willingness to pass the ball out from the back rather than look always for simple long option as had become the case toward the end of Roy Hodgson's reign. The doubts are sufficient that any conclusions must be tentative but, despite the defeat, the early signs are encouraging.

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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