Saturday, January 22, 2011
Dalglish reign begins in earnest
Richard Jolly, Molineux
"It is a massive team," the newest convert to Kenny Dalglish's cause said. Managers invariably appear defensive on the subject of their own signings and Rafa Benitez is no exception. While conceding there were "some mistakes" in his later recruitment, Liverpool's last-but-one leader conformed to type, suggesting he left an enviable legacy.
• Wolves 0-3 Liverpool
As Dalglish recorded his first win in charge of Liverpool since 1991, credit could be distributed equally among three occupants of the Anfield dugout. Another interpretation is to argue that regime change has brought an overdue improvement. While arguably Benitez's and Roy Hodgson's finest purchases respectively, Fernando Torres and Raul Meireles, produced the goals, this was Dalglish's triumph.
His side have a tactical coherence that Liverpool have lacked of late. They sprung quick, clever counter-attacks with intelligent distribution. Their midfield showed a willingness to support the sole striker, Torres, rather than focusing on square passes. Limited opponents, in Wolves, were limited to few clear-cut chances while Liverpool offered sufficient creativity to score three times and to have easily enough opportunities to score three more.
Liverpool's recent past has been an exercise in the blame game between the differing factions. Revisionist and remarkable thinking can pervade in the battle of claim and counter-claim. While Benitez's worst season was still significantly superior to Hodgson's half a campaign, the notion he left "a massive team" is dubious at best, even if it deteriorated after his departure. Many of his more inspired acquisitions, whether Luis Garcia or Xabi Alonso, Yossi Benayoun or Javier Mascherano, are now gone. Torres, the costliest and classiest, remains and retains his importance.
His brace at Molineux was a comparatively simple affair, aided by predatory positioning and a goal-scorer's instinct. He was on hand to finish when Meireles sprung the offside trap and again when Dirk Kuyt's injury-time run brought a fortunate ricochet. There are legitimate questions if he retains the scintillating speed that rendered him devastating but his persistence, as much as his pace, earned him praise.
"I thought Fernando was fantastic," Dalglish said. "It's the best since I've come in. It wasn't just his goals, it was the work-rate he put in. That performance will do for us every day of the week."
Torres' goals bookended a marvellous strike from Meireles. The Portuguese was crowned Hodgson's best buy, but largely by default: he wasn't Christian Poulsen, Paul Konchesky or Joe Cole. On this occasion, a lovely volley left Wayne Hennessey helpless. "A wonder strike," Mick McCarthy said. "Two goalkeepers wouldn't have saved it." Just as impressively, Meireles adopted the role of creator-in-chief. An early pass released Torres; a late one should have brought substitute Jonjo Shelvey a first goal for Liverpool.
"Since we have come in, Raul has been really impressive," Dalglish added. After going 21 games without a goal for Liverpool, the Portuguese now has two in as many games. "He's going for the Golden Boot," Dalglish said. Steven Gerrard's suspension has brought liberation for Meireles, selected as the central figure in the trio who supported Torres. The captain's availability for Fulham's visit on Wednesday poses the right sort of problem for Dalglish.
While another of Hodgson's additions, Konchesky, again failed to make the bench (Glen Johnson performed with almost uncharacteristic reliability at left-back), a third was summoned to start. It almost amounted to a rehabilitative display from the much-maligned Poulsen: a man who seemed incapable of directing the ball forwards provided the defence-splitting pass that preceded Torres' first goal, and one who put the defensive into defensive midfielder materialised in the penalty area for an attempt at a shot. Positive intent is a new phenomenon for Poulsen, raising the question if nature or nurture was responsible for his underwhelming start at Anfield.
Given Liverpool's abject record on their travels - 2010 brought a mere two wins on the road in the Premier League - any victory stands out. For Dalglish, their teamwork was outstanding. "I don't think it was a flattering result," he said. "The players got what they deserved. It may have been comprehensive in the end but only because of the hard work and effort they put. The harder you work, the luckier you will get."
If Liverpool's luck is changing, however, that can obscure the importance of managerial decision-making. Wolves, who faced Liverpool at the right time last month, encountered them at the wrong time now. McCarthy's sympathies, however, rest with the Anfield pariah. "Roy's such a great guy and a top coach and a good manager but it's Kenny Dalglish coming out of the stands," he said. "He's enjoying a support and a warmth that Roy didn't. They are certainly on a better roll than they were because of it." Hodgson and Benitez's players they may be, but it is Dalglish's team now.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Raul Meireles. He only seems to score special goals, but the Portuguese playmaker fashioned a series of chances.
WOLVES VERDICT: McCarthy's team are full of honest endeavour but there is a sense that they need to play at their optimum to get results. That said, this is not a team assembled on the cheap: few other sides in the lower half of the table have a £12 million strike force as Wolves, in Steven Fletcher and Kevin Doyle, do. The first 20 minutes were even, but Liverpool looked the classier side thereafter.
LIVERPOOL VERDICT: A welcome clean sheet suggested Dalglish has found his preferred back four, at least until Jamie Carragher is fit again. Jose Reina saved well from Nenad Milijas but far more Wolves attacks foundered as they reached Johnson, Daniel Agger, Martin Skrtel and Martin Kelly. The caretaker manager's fondness for youth was apparent again when Shelvey was brought off the bench; Cole, perhaps significantly, was not.