Friday, 6 August 2010

2010/11 Premiership Year: some Essaying, some Crude Predictions (Vol. I. Liverpool)



Of all the uncertain futures in the Barclays Premiership, the crystal ball is cloudiest for Liverpool FC. For so many reasons. Some - the fiscal - can be left to the fiscal people in this decisive fortnight.

Here are some on-the-pitch questions. Can Roy Hodgson resuscitate his captain: match-winner and most frequent and faithful badge-kisser this century? Can he convince Mascherano and (contract-bound) Reina, insuperable in their roles on these shores, to stay? And what of the No.9's fitness, or the stale careers of Lucas and Ryan Babel, portraits of stunted player-growth? Another unwritten story is that of Alberto Aquilani. With greater tactical freedom and more playing time, this season could be his, but only if Mascherano or A.N. Other as disciplined, as stamina-spoiled and as hardened, is bulwarking in the centre circle.

Despite the sale of Benayoun, there is a through-ball of hope in the hole. With 53 goals and 26 assists in 423 career appearances, Joe Cole is a footballer who owes his career-statistics - the science of his CV - a jackpot season. An explanation comes in the form of another stat, researched by BBC's Andrew Ornstein:

"Cole made only 28 league starts in his final two seasons at Chelsea, was on the pitch for only 10,613 of the 23,940 Premier League minutes the Blues played in his seven years at Stamford Bridge and has started one England match since 2008."

Fit, and a handful of goals & assists more prolific, then the advanced playmaker could make several points difference come May '11. It is no spectacular if, considering an enviable managerial appointment. A genuine educator in the game, unafraid to quote sports literature or records so that he might explain himself on camera, football is grateful for Roy Hodgson. Putting affection to one side, he has earned his opportunity. Like Japan-conquering Wenger, Hodgson is a travelled footballing intellect, having won the Danish and Swedish leagues, and led a then modest Inter Milan to a Uefa Cup Final. He is proud of what he has achieved. Back in March, 2002, in an article titled 'Art of being a good manager doesn't just disappear', Hodgson told The Independent:

"The football that Bob Houghton and I brought to Sweden between 1974 and 1979 fashioned the whole of Swedish success ever since."

The Wenger in Hodgson ought, chronologically, to be the Hodgson in Wenger, the inevitable fragment in the bigger picture: the evolution of football management. His learning curve is conspicuous, his disappointing time at Blackburn in the nineties not a regret but a necessary puncture. And so another knife edge is prescient, but if we can forget the monetary nightmares for a moment, and the supporters who reacted to Benitez's sack as if this logical decision had beckoned apocalypse, then Anfield could be in for a romantic autumn after all.

Losing one of football's greatest one-off-match managers must never have felt so, if ever before, good. Benitez triumphed famously in Istanbul and Cardiff, guided Liverpool to their highest league finish, of 2nd, in nineteen years, and achieved more in three seasons in the Champions League than Ferguson had in twelve (during one of which Benitez was busy winning the trophy with Valencia). Nonetheless the failures in the transfer market (seventeen right backs in five years), and the unhealthy pastime of drawing matches, simply happened. Expect Hodgson's interviews to be less boringly sardonic, more insightful, less prey to Ferguson's mind games, more graceful and approachable for those in and around the football club employing him. Interviews are not, of course, the material from which we should draw our conclusions about football managers. But interviews can mean more than the snippet-stuff of Sky Sports News and tabloid drop-quotes. Hodgson is in many ways the opposite to his predecessor - under-decorated as a major-club medalist, terse with his resources and even better with his words.

The transition from Fulham to Liverpool could never have been more smooth in the histories of each club: Craven Cottage and Anfield are now comparable - in terms of results - as home ground havens. Last season, Liverpool finished 5th and Fulham 8th in the Home League Table, 8th and 15th Away. And in UEFA competition, the two clubs came within a game from facing each other in last season's Europa League final. Hodgson though, has swapped the banks of the Thames for the Mersey. This, in footballing terms, means that he will have to handle the burden of superiority and significant expectation by unprecedented means. With Liverpool and Everton, as in Manchester and as in North London this coming season, 2010/11 could be the closest the noisy neighbours have come in decades to the bragging rights football bestows during her summers off. While Fabregas's time in red-and-white is finite, Liverpool have had a season to get used to life without their brainy, Spanish passmaster: the artist, Xabi Alonso. However, affecting the game further up the pitch, a cockney could make the scousers sing loudly on Saturdays once more. 8. Gerrard. 9. Torres. 10. Cole. It's make or break year on Merseyside.

Predicted finish: 6th - a domestic cup, Hodgson a Kop hero, but Everton finish on the heels of their Torres-depleted (injuries or Roman Abramovich) rivals

Best signing: Milan Jovanovic - 29, Free from Standard Liege, a lively inverse winger able to turn-give-go, to find pockets of space. Capable of wearing down or cutting open the opposition, is the Serbian international Liverpool's answer to Park Ji-Sung?

Youtubed / Football Manager wonderkid: still, Daniel Pacheco, but the slow tearing off of the prodigy label is something Liverpool supporters know a thing or two about; Anthony Le Tallec, Igor Biscan, Emanuel Insua, Lucas Leiva... sticky shreds of paper under the nails.

Flop: Steven Gerrard

Player of the season: Pepe Reina again - could be his last season at Anfield. Is there a better non-Spanish goalkeeper?

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