By Mihail Vladimirov.
Kenny Dalglish was not the world’s greatest tactician, so it was only natural to expect Liverpool to struggle tactically under him. But before we explore these problems in detail from 2011/12 – what they were, why they occurred, how they could have been fixed – it would be instructive to look at the first six months of his second spell in charge of the club. What can we see from here that will help us draw useful conclusions about his performance last season?
Dalglish was the only suitable candidate to take over from Hodgson. He rediscovered the mental and moral core of Liverpool Football Club and brought back a sense of pride, as has been discussed at length here and elsewhere. But the tactical side of his tenure is often overlooked (even by me – on the micro level I have analysed each of his games in charge, but have not properly written about his overall tactical style and performance). So let’s do this now.
What did he achieve in early 2011? How did he achieve it? Was it tactically solid, or did he ride the wave of euphoria and optimism following his appointment? Were there major gaps in his tactical plan? To answer these questions we need to analyse this period in depth.
We can safely conclude that January was Dalglish’s bedding-in period. During the five matches he took charge of, the team played a range of different styles, starting line-ups and formations (from 4-4-2, through 4-4-1-1 to 4-1-2-3). It appears that, as one might expect, these 20 days were managed “on the fly” while he set up the administrative and structural arrangement needed off the field. This was a time of flux – Comolli had just been promoted to a new role and FSG had not long been owners of the club. Dalglish had to set up new training regimes and much more besides, and all these changes took the bulk of everyone’s attention. These were followed by the frenzied activity in the final days of the January transfer window. Out went Torres and Babel – in came Suarez and Carroll.
In February the team started to play much better once the dust had settled from the January whirlwind. This was in no small part down to the tactical innovation of the Dalglish-Clarke duet. In quick succession they beat Chelsea and Stoke City. Liverpool first played a proactive 3-4-2-1 to nullify Stoke and provide enough fluidity to distort their defence; they then created an impressive reactive 3-6-1 diamond formation (or 3-3-3-1) which stifled the Chelsea midfield and hit them on the break in the space left behind their narrow formation. This has to be contrasted with poor performances against Wigan Athletic and West Ham United (the game in which Liverpool made their first major tactical miscalculation by playing 3-4-1-2 against a 4-1-2-3). In between there were the mediocre matches in the Europa League against Sparta Prague.
It was in March that Liverpool finally settled on what can be called a tactically cohesive plan. Their attack-minded 4-4-2 was so narrow it might also be described as a 4-2-2-2, but it became the basis for their future tactical direction. The first victim was Manchester United, thrashed 3-1 at Anfield, and then Sunderland were beaten 2-0 on their turf. In between, Liverpool were rather disappointed to be dumped out of the Europa League by Braga.
Once they got settled, the team put in its most impressive displays during the final two months of the season. Manchester City, Birmingham City and Newcastle United were all soundly beaten at Anfield. Fulham were also disposed of in London. The only blip was the less-than-impressive match against Hodgson’s new team (West Bromwich Albion), more than made up for by the performance at the Emirates. Liverpool didn’t win, but in tactical terms it was an excellent display. Dalglish was made permanent manager and the team ran out of gas – the two events are not necessarily causally related – and they lost the final two games of the season.
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