Watching their struggles from the press box at Wembley, a horrible truth finally dawned on me. Liverpool are actually really, really bad at football. There’s no hiding it, they’re absolutely rubbish. This is terrible news for me because I’ve been defending Kenny Dalglish in print all season, constantly reminding people of the state of Liverpool under Roy Hodgson, of the time it takes to change a team’s mentality and of the difficulties experienced by new players at big clubs.
Nevertheless, this was a real ‘dear diary’ moment. In every department, in every area of the pitch, Liverpool were crap. Even their second half near-comeback was the result, not of shrewd tactics, but of a stream of ‘hail mary’ passes that stunned a team who had actually gone to sleep at some point around the hour mark. So why does Dalglish deserve a second season?
Somewhere, deep down, in the midst of all that ineptitude, is a football team trying to pass its way out. Confidence is shot, self-belief has evaporated, tactical discipline has dropped its rifle and gone screaming over the hill-top, but over the course of a good pre-season, that can be fixed. Three things will change this summer.
Firstly, Lucas will return to the team. Never has one player’s reputation improved so much in absentia. The Brazilian was much maligned for over-cautious sideways passing (pay attention Jordan Henderson) but when he found the courage to stamp his mark on a game, he finally found favour in the stands. Jay Spearing has worked doggedly to fill the gap, but is too young and inexperienced to offer the same kind of composure and control. Lucas will make Liverpool a better team.
Secondly, Pepe Reina cannot have a worse campaign than this one. The brightest light of the Hodgson/Dalglish season, by which I mean the only light, has been a disappointingly dim bulb in the new era. His performance against Chelsea was desperately poor, but he’s still an outstanding goalkeeper. A long break from playing competitive football will do him good and, assuming that Iker Casillas and Victor Valdes don’t fall down a well in the next few weeks, that’s exactly what he’ll get.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, Dalglish should be retained because all of my original points still stand. It does take time to reprogram a team for a short-passing style. It takes months for the players to trust themselves and their team-mates. When Liverpool click, as they have done several times this season, their movement and poise has been genuinely impressive. When they clunk, when they convince themselves that their team-mates couldn’t trap a beanbag, they are borderline unwatchable. Jordan Henderson will eventually adjust to his status and showcase the range of passing that we’ve only seen glimpses of so far. Andy Carroll has reminded everyone that he is actually quite effective when he fancies it.
Stewart Downing is…well…no, it’s no good. I can’t do it. I don’t want to exaggerate matters, but I’m beginning to think that Downing isn’t just the worst piece of business in football, but the worst piece of business in all sports, in all genres, in all of humanity since the dawn of time itself. Buying him for £20m was basically the worst deal since one caveman swapped his sharp rock for a handful of shiny pebbles and was promptly bludgeoned to death and had his shiny pebbles snatched back from his cold, stiffening fingers. But that aside, I really do think things are looking up.
Even with Manchester City’s unlimited resources, it’s still taken them four years to reach a title-winning position. Suggestions that Liverpool were going to challenge them this year were always laughable. If Dalglish is allowed the time to stabilise, if he’s given the chance to build on strong foundations that have been obscured by abject recent form, there’s no reason why Liverpool can’t eventually return to the Champions League.