"What do you mean you've hurt 'your' knee, it's Liverpool's knee" - Bill Shankly.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Dirk Kuyt: Unlikely Hero

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dirk kuyt2 Dirk Kuyt: Unlikely Hero

When Dirk Kuyt tries to collect a long pass out of the air it’s like the the scene in the nature channel documentary when the gazelle eludes the mountain lion. The cat gets a paw on his prey, but cannot take the thing down. The ball scoots out of Kuyt’s reach and he helplessly chases after it. A swifter carnivore pounces on the ball, and Liverpool lose possession.

Half his first touches are awful. He’s missed out on a fair amount of chances, only bagging 10 goals in 34 appearances. He is sometimes clumsy. He is often awkward.

And he’s one of Liverpool’s most important players.

If you don’t watch him often or closely you might wonder why
he’s a top choice starter for Liverpool and why he keeps garnering caps with the Dutch. He’s certainly nowhere near as fluid or prolific as Fernando Torres. While his low goal tally can be attributed to the fact that Rafa Benitez employs him more as a winger than as a forward, he doesn’t have the speed to burn past a full back and his long cross isn’t particularly deadly.

If you don’t watch him often or closely his blunders might overshadow his effectiveness. Somehow they stick out more for Kuyt, perhaps because his choppy style is screaming for him to be dispossessed. Torres makes blunders too—but they seem more forgivable because they are so damn graceful. Kuyk looks awkward even when he’s making a brilliant play that results in a goal. So we deem him a bungler even though he’s diligently rescued some key points for Liverpool this season.

What Kuyt lacks in dribbling and finesse, he makes up for in his knack for stripping the ball of opposition players, a shinning example was when he dispossessed Cristiano Ronaldo in one of Manchester United’s few serious attacks when they hosted Liverpool in March. His on-the-pitch diligence means even though his first touch fails him at times, he directly contributes to Liverpool’s ability to hold onto the ball.

While his goal scoring won’t break any records this season, his moments of glory have been pivotal, however infrequent. In consecutive matches against Wigan Athletic and Manchester City, Kuyt scored the late winner after Liverpool had been behind. Against Portsmouth he scored an 84th minute equalizer (Torres later nabbed the winner.) He also equalized in Liverpool’s other match against Manchester City, scoring in the 78th to secure a point.

Despite not being the paciest player in the world, Kuyt somehow seems to be in all places at all times. He’ll pop up in the back corner to dig out the ball from an attackers grasp. Then he’ll appear in the box to lay the ball off to another attacker. Though he doesn’t have the traditional qualities of a winger, he succeeds there simply out of sheer determination. He burrows in toward the box, searching for that short pass to Torres or Gerrard or he kicks the ball back out to Arbeloa for the cross.

In an upcoming transfer window I could certainly see Liverpool going after a talented outright right winger. If this is the case, Kuyt’s usefulness will not have expired. His versatility means he can play in midfield or up front. He’ll be a brilliant squad player, coming on for a tired striker or winger, and his work ethic means he won’t let being a sub deter him or wound his ego.

When we think of great football attackers we think of players with flair and ability like Torres, Ronaldo or Messi. But the Dirk Kuyts of the sport have their undeniable place too: the inexhaustable workhorses. Their contribution is not always as obvious, but it exists in abundance. And though Torres and Gerrard will continue to be regarded as Liverpool’s key hitmen, Kuyt will be there, stripping, assisting, turning and scoring. Whatever it takes: that’s his job.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A tale of two gaffers

April 27, 2009

Pep Guardiola and Juande Ramos represent two different paths to become a top level gaffer: the former elite player who puts into practice what he learned during his playing career, and the self-made coach that builds his own career growing with each new job.

GettyImages

Guardiola was part of Johan Cruyff's "Dream Team", which won four titles and one European Cup. Though they lost the 1994 European Cup Final.

The articulate and fashionable Pep, born in a small town 70km away from Barcelona, looked like a top footballer since he was a kid and came through the Barcelona ranks, joining the first team in 1990. Between that year and 2001 he got to share shower, trips and hotel rooms with several of the most influential players of the nineties, such as Romário de Souza, Hristo Stoitchkov and Luis Figo, and learnt the gaffer job by watching Johan Cruyff, Sir Bobby Robson and Louis Van Gaal ply their trade for Barcelona.

"Why don't I give orders to my players during matches? Guardiola is closer to them and does it better than I do" said Cruyff after one Barcelona - Espanyol derby in 1993. At that early stage it was already clear that Pep would become a coach sooner or later.

His spectacular career as a player (6 Ligas, 2 Copas del Rey, the last European Cup in 1992, 1 Cup Winners' Cup) had a lacklustre ending, with stints at Italy's Brescia, Qatar's Al-Ahli and Mexico's Dorados. Guardiola, always an idol for the Barcelona faithful, decided to start his coaching career managing the B team of his beloved club in 2007.

Juande Ramos was born in the tiny Pedro Muñoz (Ciudad Real), but moved with his family to Elche (Alicante) at age 8, always far away from the main football centres. His mediocre career as a player for various teams in the Spanish lower divisions was cut short by a serious knee injury, which made him retire at the early age of 28.

His coaching career started shortly thereafter, managing the youth team of his first club as a player, Elche CF. Juande's early years in coaching show a trend that stayed with him until today: he never stayed longer than a couple of years in any of the thirteen clubs he coached, even though he was seldom fired. These pilgrimages from club to club saw Juande lead the Barcelona B team as well, back in 1996.

Like many other gaffers, Juande and Pep got their current jobs with a classic mission: save their respective presidents' bottom. Joan Laporta, Barcelona's supremo, needed a local icon to calm the socios and put order and discipline in a team that had gone from heaven to hell in just a couple of years. Guardiola, although allegedly inexperienced, seemed like the perfect fit.

Ramón Calderón was in a very similar position when decided to fire Bernd Schuster and bring Ruthless Juande back from his forced vacation in London. Whatever the outcome of this season is, both Pep and Juande have done a tremendous job applying very different styles.

Thousands of words have been written about Guardiola's coaching method and the original Dream Team's influence on him. So far, it appears as if Pep has taken Cruyff's approach one step further. The unquestionable achievements of that Barcelona team, winning four leagues in a row and Barça's first European Cup, and their offensive style, undoubtedly Guardiola's inspiration, should not let us forget that they were an average defensive side, and that their domination of the Spanish Liga was not as comprehensive as some may think.

They suffered in the "goals against" category every season, and experienced severe beatings against more limited teams on paper, such as Atlético, Zaragoza or Valencia. It is hard to forget a 6-3 defeat at Zaragoza, which triggered an amazing reaction that saw Barcelona come back to win the league in 1994. Their 4-0 humiliation in the Champions League Final against Milan is also worth mentioning.

The original Dream Team only dominated clearly the Liga table when they won the 1991 title with a ten-point advantage. The following three seasons they triumphed in the very last match, and simply because their rivals (Real Madrid twice and Deportivo once) were unable to win their last encounter (white cases flying around, or so they say). Hardly what you would call uncontested domination.

It is still too early to compare the current Barcelona to those winning Cruyff teams, we will need more time with Pep at the helm. However, judging by what we have seen so far, Guardiola's approach seems superior. Even though the back four is also the weak link of this Barcelona, the team as a whole defends much better than those 90-94 sides.

Their pressure starts up front, with Eto'o, Messi and Henry working much harder than Romário, Michael Laudrup and Stoitchkov used to. Keita and Busquets cover far more pitch than Guillermo Amor and Eusebio Sacristán did back in their time. As a result, Víctor Valdés had spent 675 minutes unbeaten until his hesitant performance in Valencia, an outworldly number for Andoni Zubizarreta.

If that was not enough, Guardiola has bettered the original Dream Team's attacking efficacy: the current Barcelona side scores more than any of those Barcelonas, therefore Guardiola is in pace to beat Johan "Lollipop" Cruyff at his own game. Pep has everything to deliver: a young team, plenty of homegrown talent, top-class foreigners and support from the club.

However, Juande is already doing the seemingly impossible to prevent that from happening. Mr Ramos' style, like that of self-made gaffers, lacks a clear influence from a previous coach or club. His early managing experiences, all of them for small, budget-constrained teams, taught him to work with what he had, defining a pragmatic approach that he implements on each team he coaches.

GettyImages

Juande Ramos twice lifted the UEFA Cup while with Sevilla. Yet his leaving of the club has made him a target for their fans.

Juande always starts by building a consistent defence and preparing his teams to suffer as much as any other from the physical standpoint. Offence comes later. Only when he got to Sevilla in 2005 we were able to see a full blown Juande team playing offensively at amazing pace.

His pragmatism was clear once more when he left the sevillistas, the side that made him famous, for Tottenham in week eight of the 2007-08 season. Money had spoken higher, something that was bitterly remembered on Sunday by the Sevilla faithful. Mr. Ramos got a very harsh reception, including hundreds of fake one-dollar notes with his face and the inscription "Juande Dollar".

His team was coming from a nail-bitter win over Getafe in midweek, in a match that could be included in the Fabio Capello memorial of heart-attack endings. However, the merengues looked as good as they have all season against a free-falling Sevilla side. Juande's side came back from 1-0 down, and the additions to the team, especially Metzelder covering for Mr. Pepe Hyde, played superbly. Raúl, who strongly supported Ramos' hiring, deserves his own mention, as he finally delivered in a do-or-die match this season with a sensational hat-trick.

Coming from such different backgrounds, Pep and Juande have taken their teams to an unprecedented level in La Liga. Guardiola leads the best Barcelona ever, while Ramos has been able to steer the white ship under institutional chaos and fully recovered their winning spirit. Only four points separate both teams and their gaffers now. Get ready for a nerve-wrecking, passionate, mouth-watering derby between Real Madrid and Barcelona, between the self-made Juande and the talented Pep.

Guardiola's guiding hand

BBC Sport website


Pep Guardiola

By Chris Bevan

Loved by his players, adored by Barcelona's fans and renowned across Europe for his side's breathtaking style of play, Pep Guardiola has made quite an impression in his first season in charge at the Nou Camp.

Chasing an unprecedented treble for a Spanish side, Barca are top of La Liga, in the final of the Copa del Rey and the last four of the Champions League - where they meet Chelsea in the first leg on Tuesday - and have scored 142 goals in 55 competitive games in the process.

Not bad for a managerial novice, whose only coaching experience before being taking charge of the Catalonian giants in May 2008 was a year running their reserves team.

The decision by Barca president Joan Laporta to appoint the then 37-year-old as Frank Rijkaard's successor came as a shock, even when you consider that the club is in Guardiola's blood.

As a player, Pep was always 100% motivated in games and training. The most important thing about the current Barca side is that they are the same 

Former Barcelona defender Frank de Boer

But even more of a surprise has been the manner - and the speed - in which Guardiola has transformed Rijkaard's underachieving and ill-disciplined team into a cohesive and hardworking unit, without losing any of the flair which is a necessity for any Barca side.

Combining his passion for the club with tactical acumen and supreme man-management, Guardiola has brought the buzz back to Barcelona.

As a Nou Camp ballboy turned midfield general, Guardiola was already a Barca legend - the local lad who rose through the youth system to win the European Cup as part of Johan Cruyff's celebrated "Dream Team" and capture six league titles during 17 years with the club as a player.

Now he is realising a long-held ambition to try to repeat that success as a manager.

Former team-mate Frank de Boer, who played alongside Guardiola for Barca from 1998 to 2001, says even over a decade ago it was clear that the former Spanish international was destined for a career in the dugout.

Pep Guardiola
Guardiola was part of the Barca side that won the European Cup at Wembley in 1992

"Pep was one of the most experienced and influential players at the club when I went there," the former Dutch international told BBC Sport.

"He is a Catalan player who won the European Cup under Cruyff and the way he conducted himself was an example to every Catalan player for Barca.

"He was the main man at the club, the captain and a real leader of the team. He was our manager on the pitch - I know him well and he is an intelligent person, just like he was an intelligent footballer.

"As a player, Pep was always 100% motivated in games and training - he never gave 40 or 50%. The most important thing about the current Barca side is that they are the same.

"Since he came back you can see how he has had an effect on how the team plays.

"As well as discipline, there is a lot of good possessional play and a lot of individual skill - you can see the hand of Guardiola."

Last summer, right at the beginning of his reign, the words of Guardiola, who speaks Catalan, Spanish and English, were undoubtedly more important. He needed to make a statement of intent about his plans for a club that had lost its way.

Under Rijkaard, Barca had won the 2006 Champions League but they failed to win a trophy in the two subsequent seasons and had the ignominy of finishing their last La Liga campaign in third place, 18 points behind champions and fierce rivals Real Madrid.

Worse still, Guardiola inherited a dispirited and dysfunctional dressing room that seemingly had more ego - principally in the shape of Ronaldinho, Deco and Samuel Eto'o - than desire, so his first act as boss was a significant one, he told the world those three superstars were up for sale.

"That was key," said Spanish football expert Graham Hunter. "Pep was always going to coach the way he has done and bring in the work ethic that he has but he does not walk on water - even he would have found it much more difficult if he had sulky and self-indulgent players in his squad."

Ronaldinho, out of sorts mentally and physically, was shipped off to AC Milan and Deco joined Chelsea for £8m.

Samuel Eto'o and Lionel Messi
Samuel Eto'o has scored 27 league goals, while Messi has netted 21 times

That left Eto'o, to whom Guardiola soon showed a less common managerial quality - humility.

Hunter explained: "As soon as the other two were gone, Pep was a big enough man to take Eto'o at his word when he said 'I don't want to go, I am going to prove you wrong, you need me'.

"Not only did Pep accept that but he came out publicly a few weeks later and said 'I was wrong, Eto'o is staying - he is a brilliant footballer and is totally committed'. That was a good step too."

Having put right what was wrong in the dressing room, Guardiola's next task was to do the same on the pitch. Towards the end of Rijkaard's reign, Barca had a reputation for being pretty to watch but weak defensively - that quickly changed.

Pep thinks he has a squad of geniuses 

Spanish football expert Graham Hunter

While they remain a fluid force going forward, Guardiola has underlined to all his players that they must work to retrieve the ball when they lose it and they have conceded just 40 goals this term as a result.

"The team believes in his system," De Boer explained.

"They believe that if they lose the ball that everybody has to work very hard to get it back and I've seen them in games - in three or four seconds they already have possession again.

"I think if you can convince players like Leo Messi, Thierry Henry, Eto'o, Xavi or Andres Iniesta that approach works then Barca become a very hard team to beat because they are so good attacking anyway.

"You can see from Barca's results that it works. And he knew that Ronaldinho, for example, was not the right player for him because he does not want to do that kind of job in a game."

Guardiola has not only won the hearts and minds of his players - he has also transformed them physically.

Since his return, Barca have embraced sports science for the first time - following the likes of AC Milan in introducing injury prevention treatment - and are also paying more attention than ever to their players' dietary needs.

"The fitness work in training is now much better organised," added Hunter. "Pep thinks he has a squad of geniuses and his rule has been that if they work physically then, as a team, they will beat everybody.

"To add to the talent he had, they now have the stamina to play the pressing game he wants. He's got them fit enough to play that way. It is obviously very draining but, because they are super-fit, they can do it and they continuously harass other teams."

Pep Guardiola
Ballboy, captain, coach - from the Barca cradle to the grave

Guardiola's search for the perfect preparation has seen other, more subtle, changes too.

In a bid to keep players as fresh as possible, his side never travel to domestic away matches before the day of the game while, for home matches, he brings them in for morning training before releasing them until kick-off.

Perhaps more revolutionary was his decision to hold training sessions at the club's new Joan Gamper complex in Sant Joan Despi behind closed doors in an attempt to keep the media at bay and improve the focus of his players.

Tales of life under Guardiola still surface, however, and it is clear he has not lost his famed authoritarian streak.

Hunter explained: "Training starts at 11am but that doesn't mean players coming on to the pitch at 11 - everyone has to be out there and ready or everyone will be fined.

"There was a famous incident in October where one player came out at a minute past, with his laces undone. He bent down and tied his laces and was probably ready by 11.02. Pep stopped everybody and said 'he's fined and you're all fined'."

He may be strict, and demanding, but Guardiola has also gained respect.

Although he did steer Barca's B side to promotion from Spain's third division last year, his appointment to the top job at the Nou Camp had more to do with the endorsement of his old boss Cruyff than anything else on his coaching CV.

Others were less convinced than the old Dutch master but Guardiola has proved during his 11 months in the hot-seat that he is the right man for one of the biggest jobs in football.

606: DEBATE

"I knew he stood for hard work and discipline but I didn't have any understanding that he would be so good on the man-management front and be able to handle the dressing room stars," Hunter said.

"Or that he was able to read a game so well or how obsessive about success he was."

Crushing wins over Lyon and Bayern Munich in Europe have underlined how effective Guardiola's methods are and victory over Chelsea will leave him only one step from the glory he craves.


Sunday, April 26, 2009

England’s stranglehold on Europe’s youth

Whilst Manchester United fans were jumping out their seat in the third minute of injury time against Aston Villa, Lazio fans will have been cursing their television screens as Federico ‘Kiko’ Macheda turned neatly and curled the ball into the net to relight Manchester United’s chance of winning the Premiership.

Macheda, a product of the Lazio youth academy, is yet another example of how Italian and Spanish clubs are struggling to keep their top youth players and are losing out to English teams.

In England, once a player turns 17 he can sign a professional contract, however the age is 18 for Italian and Spanish teams. That year make a huge difference.

A professional contract means a bigger wage, an earlier start and quite possibly a bigger chance of success – it also means stability for the player and his family. Macheda was offered a reported £70,000 a year to sign – a decision of which he and his family were unlikely to turn down.

Most people hadn’t heard of Federico Macheda - and why would they? Six more months until he even turns 18, the impact he has made already is bigger than some players make in their first three or four years at a club. But whilst Lazio fans are angry, Roma fans will be outraged - robbed of the heir to the Totti dynasty, Davide Petrucci will be another introduced into the Manchester United team within the next year. It’s a kick in the teeth for Rome and Italy – comparable to Manchester United getting deprived for their next Ryan Giggs or David Beckham – there’s undoubtedly an element of unfairness.

Marcello Trotta of Napoli has voices his concerns over losing a bunch of players to Manchester City.

“There are rules that don’t safeguard clubs”

And he’s right, the current rules in place don’t.

Italian clubs aren’t the only ones losing out. Even top youth academies such as Barcelona’s fail to hold onto their youth as big contracts come in from across the channel. Cesc Fabregas is the obvious one, but there are a lot more and Spanish clubs will be totalling the damage done.

All that the clubs are entitled to financially is a ‘training fee’ – a nominal amount. It won’t, however, be the money that is driving these clubs crazy – it’s the fact that they’re losing out on their brightest starts – they’re losing the future of their clubs.

Is this just a case of what goes around comes around though?

Italian and Spanish clubs have unrivalled access to the South American players of which they can nurture into their team easily with smaller language and cultural barriers – the players are born to play in Italy and Spain. English clubs however face this culture barrier coupled with the struggle to gain a work permit - the problem stretches beyond football and is evidence of an ever-increasing political aspect to the modern game.

This situation does no good however for England producing their own talent, and the national team will suffer, but as the focus shifts more and more towards the club teams it’s English teams and the Premier League who will prosper.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Tomkins on the return of the King

The Return of the King: Dalglish Coming Back?

The news that Kenny Dalglish may return, in some capacity, to Liverpool is almost too good to be true. Quite simply, the timing could not be better.


Dalglish’s presence may have undermined previous managers, but Rafa Benítez now has the strength of position to have someone like the legendary no.7 onboard without it causing an imbalance of power. It is an appointment to make when on the rise, not when in disarray.

I think it’s clear that Kenny’s management days are behind him. In my first book, Golden Past, Red Future, I was a little critical of Dalglish as a boss; not necessarily from his time at Liverpool, but how he, along with managers like George Graham, Graham Taylor and Howard Wilkinson, struggled after the influx of continental players and managers, from the mid-’90s onwards. He seemed a bit of a yesterday’s man in the new era.

Looking back, I’m not sure I agree with those assertions; at least regarding Dalglish. (For Taylor, Graham and Wilkinson, it still rings true.) 

When writing Dynasty, I looked into Kenny’s career after leaving Liverpool, and realised just how many good players he bought as Newcastle manager –– such as Shay Given, Nolberto Solano, Gary Speed and Didi Hamann –– as he looked to put some steel into the exciting but fragile side Keegan had assembled. He also came close to winning a trophy, losing the 1998 FA Cup Final to Arsenal, albeit after a 13th-placed league finish (having guided Newcastle to 2nd in his first half-a-season on Tyneside).

Indeed, his tactics at Newcastle were actually very modern: trying to create an organised side that could defend, from which to spring forward. The problem was as much to do with Newcastle fans’ impatience, and their desire for ‘sexy’ football; problems that haunt them to this day, as they lurch from one appointment to another, craving winning football with style, when to start with, any kind of winning football should be enough. 

Dalglish was seen as dour, when in truth he was merely setting some foundations, at a club where Kevin Keegan had abandoned such principles (including abolishing the reserves, which now seems like a dereliction of duty).   

So I feel I was wrong to use Dalglish’s failure at St James’ Park as an example of the ‘old guard’ having become extinct. The dinosaurs did die out, but he was not necessarily one of them.

I also thought his success at Blackburn was somewhat ‘bought’ (albeit well bought!), and that, allied to the fact that he inherited a world-class side at Liverpool, a few doubts were left in my mind as to whether he was right up there with the very best of the best. 

However, in the detailed analysis I’m undertaking for my new book, Red Race, I’ve reassessed his time at Ewood Park as part of a detailed study of success in the Premiership era; I’ll save the details for the time of release, but suffice to say that it now looks far less like a ‘bought’ title to me, and yet another case of media misconceptions. 

I do think Dalglish left an imbalanced squad when he resigned from Liverpool, and this is a criticism made in Dynasty that I feel abides. In his final season, the average age of his strongest XI was 30, some 2.5 years older than any other managers’ best team. And that didn’t include Alan Hansen, 36, who was about to retire. It was side heading rapidly over the hill.

Of course, Kenny had personally tempted a young Robbie Fowler to Liverpool, while Steve McManaman and Jamie Redknapp were about to make the breakthrough, as was the underrated Mike Marsh. Steve Staunton was also only 22 at the time. 

But the quality of the majority of his signings after Hillsborough were the exact opposite of those made before the tragedy, and that reinforced the notion, backed up by physical symptoms (such as a serious rash), that he needed a break. 

If the pressure to win trophies was immense beforehand, Hillsborough probably added even more weight: the desire to win things for those who perished. If anything, Hillsborough showed the staff just how important the club is to its fans. Rather than show that football wasn’t important, it paradoxically proved that, to the lives of many, it is the thing that gives greatest joy, outside of their families.

So I don’t think Dalglish’s time as a manager was flawless. Having said that, he won a greater percentage of games than any other Liverpool manager, and built the most exciting Liverpool team: the sublime 1987/88 side. While he’d inherited a great side, he certainly put his own stamp on it in that vintage season. And to come back and win the league again, with Blackburn, with very different tactics, shows the quality of the man.

It’s also true that I have objected to the fans who, in recent years, have called for Dalglish to manage the Reds again; I felt that the game had moved on, and that he’d been out of the loop for too long, making it too much of a risk. A decade is a long, long time in football, and in terms of leading a club, it’s important to look to the future, not the past.

That didn’t stop Dalglish being a great football thinker, because that was never in doubt, but it did mean not continually harking back to the past in order to move forward. And I always felt that Benítez was the right man; however, now the time seems right to bring back someone who symbolises success, as an ally. It is the kind of appointment that a manager has to sanction, aware that the two men can work together.

I’ve actually long-since felt that King Kenny should be a figurehead at the club. In truth, I always envisaged an ambassadorial role similar to Bobby Charlton at Manchester United, but it would be better still if Kenny were to act as a sounding board for the current manager, on hand to offer advice; Benítez doesn’t need anyone to tell him what to do, but if someone else can help find an extra couple of percent here and there, it could be priceless.

It was an appointment that almost happened under Roy Evans in 1997, but Evans understandably felt that the first run of bad results would lead to calls for Dalglish to replace him; no manager can work under such pressure. Evans was a great club man for Liverpool, but he didn’t have the managerial cachet that Benítez carries.

Now that Benítez is in a position of strength, it makes sense to get the club’s greatest figure working on his, and its, behalf. 

In recent years my admiration for Dalglish, my boyhood idol, has grown, not least in the way that he has continually preached common sense in defence of Benítez, while other players take the lucre to stick the boot in. 

Some ex-players sicken me (some of the stuff Ronnie Whelan has come out with about Rafa in the past year borders on spite), while others, like Alan Hansen, can wind me up at times, but at least try to be fair, and have my enduring respect.

But Dalglish knows just how hard the manager’s job is. He knows what it’s like when, even though his team was still winning the majority of its games (not to mention trophies), his decisions and tactics were continually called into question, as he moved into his final couple of years. 

“Too defensive”, “pig-headed in not playing Player X (Peter Beardsley)”, “never keeping the same side”, “never names the side until an hour before kick-off”, and so on. 

It only needed zonal marking to sound like a critique of Rafa Benítez. In one game at Highbury, Dalglish fielded three ‘defenders’ in midfield (albeit versatile players). Liverpool won the game. But still he was criticised.

But perhaps the best thing about the appointment, should it happen, relates to a closing of a cycle; things coming full circle. 

Twenty years ago Alex Ferguson wanted to “knock Liverpool of their fucking perch”, and now, as he nears retirement, the Reds are emerging as a real threat, with a young, rapidly improving side. I don’t see any great chinks in United’s armour, but it is they, as reigning champions (and in Ferguson’s case, one obsessed with Liverpool), who have the most to lose. 

Kenny Dalglish is the only man to consistency eclipse Ferguson during his time as a manager. Ferguson didn’t get near Dalglish when he was in charge at Anfield, and when Kenny came back with Blackburn, he eventually got the upper hand again, before moving upstairs at Ewood Park with the title in the bag. 

Psychologically, it would be a big boost to everyone at Liverpool to see him back, with that vast experience to draw upon, and the stature, to project around Melwood and Anfield, of an ultimate winner symbiotically linked to the club. 

Symbolically, it would send out a powerful message: the King is not dead. 

Long live the King.


Scouting Report: Lauri Dalla Valle, Liverpool

It is plain to see why much was made of his capture by Liverpool. The striker has a touch of the Fernando Torres about him

Lauri Dalla Valle

Lauri Dalla Valle impressed against Birmingham as Liverpool raced to a 3-0 lead in the FA Youth Cup semi-final. Photograph: Keith Williams/Action Images

Have Liverpool discovered the new Fernando Torres? I say that partly in jest but Lauri Dalla Valle, although having an awfully long way to go, certainly has many similarities with the dashing Spaniard. Both are centre-forwards, blond, exceptionally sharp mentally to spot a pass, physically quick, do more than their fair share of work without the ball and certainly find goals easy to come by. It is plain to see why so much was made of Liverpool's capture of him.

I had the privilege of watching this young lad play in the second leg of the FA Youth Cup semi-final at St Andrew's where Liverpool took a 3-0 lead after half an hour and never looked in danger of relinquishing it. The damage was done by two players in particular and I would like to give David Amoo a special mention as his partnersship with Dalla Valle was almost unplayable for an overstretched Blues defence. The young Koppites tore into their opponents, creating chances at will and Dalla Valle showed he had that knack of being in the right place at the right time as he finished off a scramble in the box, neatly placing the ball with his weaker left foot in the bottom corner perfectly beyond the keeper's reach, neither snatching at the chance or trying to put too much power on the ball.

After Amoo had danced his way past two defenders to put them 2-0 up, the Finn took centre stage again with a little help from the home keeper who went to throw the ball out, changed his mind and let go of possession. The ball dropped between him and Dalla Valle, who reacted brilliantly by making a difficult opportunity look easy as he lifted the ball over the goalie's despairing dive and side-footed it into an empty net.

At 3-0 the game was effectively over and no one could have blamed him if he thought his work was done, but he chased and closed down, picking when he was best able to win the ball to affect the play which is important as you can't use all your energy trying to win the ball back.

He never gave it away when he had his back to goal, holding the ball up and making sure he retained possession for his team. His first touch and speed of thought meant he was very rarely tackled in tight areas and he always had a picture of what to do when being closed down.

Everything he does comes naturally. Some things can't be taught – qualities that separate ordinary players from very good ones – and even at his age his positioning in build-up play and knowledge of where to stand when the ball comes into the box seems spot-on. Some players have lots of the ball but make very little impression in games, but everything he did seemed to impact on the match in some way.

Little wonder his signaturewas coveted by so many big clubs. As a 15-year-old he chose Internazionale but then moved back home to Finland after only a year in Milan. At 17 sometimes the choices you make off the pitch can be as important as the ones you make on it and his decision to go to Liverpool, which looks a perfect match, means he's got both just about right.

How he rates

Age 17

Born Joensuu, Finland

Position Centre-forward

Height 5ft 11in

Weight 11st 7lb

From Jippo

Pace 8

Heading 8

Shooting 9

Awareness 9

Passing 9

Team responsibility 9

Value £1m

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Quote of the moment

Defying belief however, is a market Benitez has cornered quite well. The moment you think Benitez is clueless, he defies it by pulling off a result of majesty, like the one achieved in Madrid. The moment he is hailed a genius, he masterminds toothless surrender to a team going nowhere. In the ongoing Anfield power struggle, just when he was cornered by the firing squad, the Spaniard's demise at Liverpool looking practically assured with the ominous suspension of betting by the bookmakers, he squeezes out through a narrow trapdoor and eliminates Rick Parry. Rafa Benitez is Keyzer Soze.
- Just Football blog: The Curious Beast that is Football 28 Feb 2009