AS a Liverpool fan, the return of Kenny Dalglish to the top job, coupled with the new owners, and their seemingly sound sporting background and philosophy, came as huge relief following the final dark days of Hicks, Gillette and Hodgson. The plethora of new signings made last January and in the summer, although the fees paid in some cases may have raised a few eyebrows, nonetheless signalled intent and stirred hope of a new dawn for a club steeped in the history and tradition of greatness.
Despite a Premier League campaign that has provided no small degree of frustration for management, players and fans alike, I think it’s fair to say that the club has made significant progress in Kenny Dalglish’s first season in charge, compared to Rafa’s final season, and, of course, the desperate Hodgson era. Whilst we haven’t picked up as many points in the league as we would have liked to, or hoped for, it is worth remembering that we haven’t had the rub of the green in front of goal this season, hitting the woodwork on no fewer than 22 occasions in Premier League matches – but for the frame of the goal we’d be sitting pretty in the Champions’ League spots.
Most of the signings that have come in have done well; Suarez, Enrique, Bellamy, for example. Others have and are showing potential – Adam and Downing, with Henderson and Carroll needing a little more time. This is to be expected for such young lads, making such a big step up and with the heavy burden of large transfer fees on their shoulders, the chances are that with the benefit of more playing time under their belts, they too will come good.
One area in the side that hasn’t been addressed adequately though, is the right side of midfield. There are those who say that Liverpool haven’t had a proper right-sided attacking midfielder since Steve McManaman left the club. Whilst I don’t subscribe whole-heartedly to this view, I can see where it has its basis, as those brought in to play in that position, have seldom made the grade – Jermaine Pennant springs to mind. Yes, the right side has been a riddle for many Liverpool managers for a long time, and Kenny has failed to solve it thus far, in keeping with Houllier, Benitez and Hodgson before him.
This season, Jordan Henderson has been largely used on the right-hand side of a midfield four. Signed, in my view, as a long term replacement for Steven Gerrard, the young midfielder clearly has great potential, with a keen eye for a through-ball, a bright footballing mind and good defensive awareness, however, he looks all at sea when asked to patrol the flank. He isn’t the best dribbler of the ball, nor a wonderful crosser, these are not his key attributes, and though I understand that Kenny wants to give him experience and game-time, playing him there unbalances the midfield and curbs our attacking prowess at times.
Dirk Kuyt the workaholic Dutchman, although signed as a striker to help lead the line, soon became Rafa Benitez’s de-facto right winger. Over the years, he has been a key asset, always giving everything for the cause, producing moments of quality, and of course chipping in with all important goals. Kuyt’s form, and as a result, his minutes on the pitch, have diminished somewhat this season and rumours are circulating that he may leave Liverpool in the summer. I sincerely hope that he doesn’t move on, as his class, attitude, work-rate and goals would be sorely missed. However, I certainly don’t think that we can rely on him to be our starting right midfielder in the future. Kuyt’s lack of pace and trickery lets him down in that position, and, for me, his game intelligence and eye for goal make him better suited to playing in behind a frontman.
Stewart Downing has been used on the right on occasion this season, and sometimes to good effect, in the F.A. Cup against Stoke for example. Playing on the right allows the pacey winger to cut inside and shoot on his stronger left foot, however, his tendency to do that means that our play can become too narrow and centralised, therefore easier to defend against. I would like to see Bellamy and Downing play on either flank for a few games. Both are quick and direct, both scare defences and get them back-pedalling, both are decent crossers, and playing them both would allow them to interchange at will as they can operate down either side. The down sides of doing this are, that they both prefer playing on the left, and with Bellamy pushing 33, it’s not a long-term solution.
The development of Martin Kelly into a bona-fide first team player may help with what has become a perennial problem for the Reds. The 21 year old right-back has put in some magnificent performances of late, both defensively and getting forward, particularly against Arsenal and Everton. His progress has led to the suggestion of playing Glen Johnson further forward, with Kelly in behind; this could work as both have the attributes to get up and down the right side, providing an attacking threat, whilst having the defensive wherewithal to ensure that we’d remain strong at the back. There are question marks, however, about converting defenders into midfielders; sometimes it works, Gareth Bale for example. On the other hand, Chelsea had little success when they attempted to play Wayne Bridge with Ashley Cole down the left.
One player that could solve the conundrum in the long-term, is Raheem Sterling. The youngster has had an outstanding season in the reserves; he has pace to burn, trickery, can run at defences and knows where the back of the net is. Sterling may be a season away from breaking into the first team proper, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to get him training with the first team squad, and ease him into the fray gradually over the course of next year.
These are the options open to Kenny Dalglish within the club, there is of course the opportunity to go into the transfer market for a right-sided player in the summer, and we have been linked with quite a few players who could do that job. Scott Sinclair of Swansea, Gaston Ramirez of Bologna, Cristian Erikson of Ajax and Adam Johnson of Manchester City, are all names that we have been linked to, but as of yet, nothing has emerged that is any more than speculation. Whatever happens, the right-hand side is a riddle that needs to be solved if Liverpool Football Club are to reach the heights that the fans demand, and win that all important first Premier League crown.
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