The Options Open To NESV

The Options Open To NESV
November 18, 2010 Paul Tomkins

The calls to sack Roy Hodgson are reaching fever pitch. While I won’t add to them in this particular piece (beyond pointing out what the complaints are), I will look at the options open to the new owners.

I suspect that they have three options:

1 Sack him soon; even though Hodgson is not ‘their’ man, the longer they keep him, the more they are seen to approve.

2 Replace him with ‘their man’ in the summer, using the time to find the perfect man for the job.

3 Judge his performance and suitability at the end of the season; take it from there, when they have a clearer idea of the state of the club and its potential.

Unpopular

Just before the mini-winning run, polls on Liverpool forums were running at about 90% in favour of removing Hodgson. Following the mini-run and back into what was the slump, it now seems to be around 95%.

The consensus seems to be that the style of play is more of a problem than the results. Fans hate losing, but can forgive it if effort and style are present.

So, it’s crystal clear that Hodgson is hugely unpopular right now.

But what can be done about it? NESV are clearly in a difficult situation, through no fault of their own; although how they deal with it will be considered their first major test.

Give Hodgson Time

Managers tend to need time to get their ideas across, although in my experience, they almost always have to offer at least something for the fans and players to cling to in their honeymoon period.

Equally, giving time to the wrong man is counter-productive. Why would you persist with a failure?

The problem is, how do you know for certain that he’s the wrong man and not just a slow starter?

Unfortunately, you don’t. In terms of style, approach and results, on the evidence so far Hodgson is the wrong man. Others may say he’s not yet fully up and running.

You can look at records, of course. Hodgson started slowly at Fulham and got better, to the point where they were a very good mid-table side capable of an exciting cup run.

He started fairly well at Blackburn – fine first season – but it went horribly pear-shaped in his second, to the point where they were relegated with the second-most expensive squad in the league, much of which was money spent under his watch.

(He managed to win just two games and nine points in the first 14 fixtures, with a team that included a lot of his own expensive signings; Brian Kidd, who is widely – and wrongly – credited with the relegation, took over and won 26 points from the next 24 games, which was actually better than relegation standard, and a big improvement, but not good enough to dig them out of a mighty hole. Hodgson is clearly the man at fault. So when Damien Comolli, perhaps out of politeness, said Hodgson did a good job at Blackburn, he was wrong.)

Equally, Hodgson’s win percentage at major clubs (39%) does not quell fears about a man promoted beyond his ability. It’s only marginally better than what he does at small clubs (for whom it’s a good win %).

The main problems with giving Hodgson time are: a) further disenchanting players until they leave, especially if a top-four finish isn’t attained; and b) the fact that he will be involved in the transfer process in the January window, which means players could be bought and sold to fit his template, and if he’s simply seeing out the season until a ‘safer’ time to change boss (option 2), that could prove problematic.

Why not get the next man in ASAP and let him bed in now, and begin next season’s planning? (The problem being, are the best men available now, or could they ‘be made’ available now with a tempting offer? Perhaps not.)

The counter argument is that Hodgson cannot achieve what he wants until he has the players he wants. This is almost certainly true, especially as his style was not suited to the talents he inherited.

The flip side of which is: will what he wants to achieve be what Liverpool fans want to see, and be good enough for even relative success? And if he wants something very different to what he inherited in order to perform in his style, why was the job given to him, and not someone who could work with what was present, in the first place?

Sack Hodgson

There are problems with getting rid of Hodgson right now, even if they know he’s already wobbled off the tightrope he’s been walking. NESV may be understandably nervous about a mid-season sacking, and we all know that changing the manager isn’t always the answer.

Having said that, possibly the two biggest clubs to have done so mid-season in recent times are Spurs and Chelsea, both to very good effect, as I pointed out here.

Of course, it needs to be thought through. Change for change’s sake is not strategic thinking.

Newcastle are quite famous for this kind of thing. Some of their most bizarre sackings, however, came after just two games of the season; 1/18th, when right now, we’re past the 1/3rd stage.

(And if you’re going to replace the manager with a dinosaur like Joe Kinnear – who never won anything, or even managed a big club, first time around – or a total novice like Alan Shearer, you’re likely to do more harm than good. That’s just plain loopy.)

I’d imagine that NESV also don’t want to get into a cycle of sacking. Liverpool have never had a high turnover of bosses (Hodgson is just the ninth in 51 years), and a sacking culture is not the way forward. By bowing to apparent fan pressure, if the next boss starts poorly, a precedent will have been set.

Of course, a precedent was set (not by NESV) upon sacking Benítez after what was deemed a poor season, despite previous achievements; therefore, if those standards for dismissal are not met, fans will ask why.

Equally, with their own first appointment, my feeling is that NESV should be able to stick to their guns, believing him to be integral to their vision, rather than a leftover of a failed regime. My advice would be to give the next man time, but do homework first. Back your manager to the hilt, but don’t be forced to back a dud.

Player Influence

Of course, it’s long been an open secret that the unhappiness of some players was part of the decision process when it came to sacking the last manager. So, if the same – or now other – players are unhappy with Roy, another dangerous precedent could be set: giving in to player power.

The opposite of this is keeping a load of unhappy players who will never be able to give their best for someone they have no faith in. That’s just human nature. You can be willing to give your all for a boss you respect, whether you like him or not. But if you don’t respect him, or what it is he is asking of you, it will show in your work.

For example, Reina wants to play short balls where possible, rather than punt. Agger wants to play out from the back, rather than look long. Torres wants midfield support and clever passes close to goal, not to be a target-man dealing with high balls from the sky. Johnson wants to be taking the game to the opposition, not waiting for the opposition to take it to him, where he’s more vulnerable. Pacheco wants to dribble and try to bamboozle defenders in the final third; or, indeed, just get a game. (Gerrard, meanwhile, at the age of 30, is aware that time is running out, and surely knows he can’t be wasting it with mid-table football.)

None of these are happy, for obvious reasons: they’re being asked to work against their strengths, rather than with them, in order to fit into a pre-ordained template that has only really worked with lesser players (who are more likely to buy into it if it achieves moderate success).

That affects their confidence and their happiness. Players may sacrifice their own needs for the greater good, but if it’s affecting their own form, and results are not making the manager’s case for his very specific approach, they will quickly lose faith. Remember, almost all of these will have worked under some of the best managers in the business, including top international bosses. (How many Fulham players can say the same? A handful at most.)

It’s perhaps no accident that at Blackburn, where some players had won the league just a couple of years earlier, and at Inter Milan, where the legendary Roberto Carlos was misused and misunderstood, player unhappiness and unrest (and downright revolution at Blackburn) was a big issue. It was behind Hodgson’s decision to leave Italy – he said he wouldn’t stay where he knew he was unwanted – and his dismissal from Ewood Park.

It’s perhaps no accident that Hodgson’s relative success has come with lesser players who, by their very nature, expect less.

Is the manager really to blame?

If player power is insidious, then team spirit is far more complex. It is based on the natural harmony of a group of individuals (often with big egos) who have to interact together under intense pressure and scrutiny.

While players need to take more of the blame, the problem is one of collective spirit more than individuals.

You can’t fake team spirit. You can’t fake togetherness. If there are rifts, it will cause damage. If a small number of players are the cause of the rifts, they need to removed, or at least be put in their place. But if it’s the manager who is the cause – making many of his charges unhappy and demoralised, and seen to be unfair or unsuitable – he needs to go. It’s a fact of life that a manager is easier to replace than a large number of players.

If there is a lack of faith and respect from the squad, then with all the will in the world, it’s hard to see how you can get consistent results.

Again, team spirit ebbs and flows with both performances and results, and it cannot be perfect all of the time. The balance of confidence within the unit is constantly shifting; at any time, some will be enjoying better form than others.

But if players aren’t enjoying training, and indeed playing, then the buck stops with the manager. It is his job to try and engender spirit, earn respect and instil belief. We’ve all seen good managers fail to do just that at certain clubs. It doesn’t require Churchillian speeches to motivate players; just an air of being in control, and providing them with the platform to perform.

Brian Clough failed at Leeds upon seriously upsetting the players; famously, he was gone within 44 days, and they were never going to be on his side if he stayed for another 444. Look at the difference in the French national side since they got rid of Raymond Domenech, under whom the players were disillusioned to the point of mutiny at a quite disastrous World Cup. In very little time, they now look a totally different outfit.

World Cup-winner Phil Scolari failed at Chelsea because his methods were seen as inappropriate by several players. (The fact that Hiddink, instantly, and Ancelotti, following later, did much better with the same group suggests that, for all the loathsome associations that come with player power, they were right. Of course, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, if they try harder for the new man. But you try harder for those you believe in.)

Each group of players has its own unique mentality. Within that group, each individual has his own idiosyncrasies, and somehow it has to all mesh into one cohesive whole. It’s an art, and a different art depending on the quality of the players and their expectations.

Unlike baseball, in which NESV made their name, football is almost always an 11 vs 11 ebb-and-flow game. It is not pitcher versus batter; the only vaguely valid comparison in football is a penalty shootout.

To me (and I speak as no expert), baseball seems like a sport where the coach works one-on-one with individuals, governing a series of set-pieces. Football, on the other hand, is one organic mass of movement – a shape contracting and expanding out on the field of play, as each and every one of them comes into contact with 11 individuals seeking to stop them, by fair means or foul. Mentally, the equation between the unit needs to be right.

A manager sets the tone with his tactics, his team-talks (plus his general attitude and demeanour towards the players) and his signings. It’s not an accident that teams mirror their manager’s style: Man United fiery, passionate and not slow to go on the attack; Arsenal cerebral and sophisticated; Benítez’s sides hard-working and cunning; Mourinho’s sides confident, brash and confrontational, them against the world; and so on.

Overall, is any given manager too cautious, too cavalier or just right for the task at hand? Does he allow the players freedom to express themselves without the fear of mistakes – a fear which kills ‘attractive’ football – or is it all about safety first? Certain frameworks help skill to flourish, other frameworks hem it in or squeeze it out.

Of course, different approaches relate better to different levels of ability. At smaller clubs, you work on eliminating mistakes, whereas at bigger clubs, where more natural talent is on hand, you must find ways to harness that ability. Smaller clubs need to be hard to beat; bigger clubs have to win games. (Although Liverpool beat Chelsea with men behind the ball to protect the lead – see this image – the same approach patently failed in the next two games, as it did earlier in the season.)

No manager, at any level, wants stupid mistakes, carelessness or casualness, but better players need more than just defensive drills and safety first. Better players have to work out how to beat teams, not how to to stop the opposition winning.

These are the football truths that NESV need to become aware of.

Panic?

It’s clear to me that John W. Henry is not a man to panic. He and his partners have inherited a difficult situation. The difficulties in sacking Hodgson have been discussed, as have the difficulties that could arise from keeping him.

I suspect that they will wait and do things at their speed, but in football, results can hasten any such process. We shouldn’t panic either, but as fans, that’s easier said than done.

Where does that leave Kenny Dalglish?

While I can understand why NESV might not want to appoint Kenny Dalglish as a caretaker – it could be seen as bowing to fan pressure, a retrograde step or a difficult appointment to ‘undo’ at a later date – I actually think there are some pretty good reasons why it could work, at what is admittedly something of a crossroads for the club.

To use American parlance, he could be our crossing guard.

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