For Kenny Dalglish, Liverpool, The Real Work Begins Now

LIVERPOOL ENGLAND - JANUARY 16: Liverpool Manager Kenny Dalglish issues instructions during the Barclays Premier League match between Liverpool and Everton at Anfield on January 16 2011 in Liverpool England. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

When a hero takes over from a figure of fun, his very presence ensures success. But when the context changes, the pressure returns, and he has to start all over again.

Summertime, and the speculation is easy. The horrible, sticky, dead months between seasons are stretching out in front of us, barren and without hope. Saturdays will be spent in art galleries, or museums, or with friends, or in parks, or any one of a hundred hundred things that, while lovely and fun and improving, simply don't compare with standing near 22 overgrown children shouting "Give it! Give it!".

So the football fan turns his attention to the future, toying with rumours - ninety percent nonsense, but fun glimpses of possible futures nonetheless - and speculating wildly about the season to come. And this summer, the most obvious waves of positivity and optimism are coming from Liverpool fans.

This is not unusual, of course. Liverpool fans are, on the whole, an optimistic bunch - if I had tuppence for every time I've seen "this year = our year", I'd be able to buy a Gareth Bale of my very own. But there is a sense, this time, that the optimism is justified, and that next season will see Liverpool, while perhaps not winning the title, at least doing something in the race. Maybe going deep into one of the cups. Beginning reconstruction on Fortress Anfield. Going toe to toe with the Big Three/Four/Five/whatever. Singing a lot.

There are several sources for this optimism, the most obvious and intuitive being the change in the circumstances of the club. Bad owners out; good owners in. Disliked manager out; liked manager in. Sulky striker out; effervescent Uruguayan in. Disappointing Dutch winger out; tall Geordie man in. But, football being football, you change anything you like: what matters are the results. And the results were impressive. Under Hodgson, Liverpool played 20 league games and accrued 25 points, an average of 1.25 points per game; under Dalglish, they took 33 points from 18, or 1.83 points/game. Stretched over a season, that would mean 69 points, which would tuck them neatly into fourth, one point above Arsenal.

Which is encouraging for Liverpool fans, as well as those sections of the media that insist that a strong Liverpool is good for the national game. However, extrapolating from season to season is always a fraught and tricky business, and there are good reasons to suppose that Dalglish may not find next season quite as straightforward as he did the end of this one.

Indeed, the season ended on something of a sour note. Liverpool went into the last two games in fifth, two points clear of Tottenham and set for the Europa League. They then lost to Spurs, and then again to Aston Villa, failing to score in either game. While sixth, of course, represents a vast improvement on the twelfth they occupied when Hodgson was dumped, it was a strangely vulnerable pair of performances from a team that had notched 13 goals in the preceding three games.

It's worth remembering that Dalglish took over in circumstances that are almost unprecedented in Premier League history. Contrary to the retrospective consensus, Liverpool were not in relegation danger when he took over, and so he had exactly one job: don't be Roy Hodgson. And he had almost uniquely pressure-free circumstances in which to do it. He had owners who were desperate to present themselves to the crowd as custodians of the Liverpool way, which always involves paying homage to the heroes of the past, and he had a crowd who would forgive him practically anything as long as he was something else.

And the players, it was obvious, were not happy under Hodgson. There is an interesting aside in Simon Kuper's new book, The Football Men regarding Pep Guardiola's innate credibility at Barcelona: "Star players obey Guardiola because they know they have no chance of forcing him out." Contrast this with Hodgson who, once the men who appointed him had gone, had absolutely no support at any level of the club, and yet has been given the totality of the blame for the frankly embarrassing performances 'phoned in by a number of Liverpool players during his short, unhappy reign.

This is not a defence of Hodgson - he was clearly the wrong man for the job. His tactics were lumpen and reductive and his handling of the press was bizarre. The point is that Dalglish as manager comes with the same kind of credibility that Guardiola does; the players know that he has the support of both board and fans, and they respond accordingly. It's similar to the attitude of a number of Chelsea players during latter days of Luis Felipe Scolari: if the players sense that a coach they don't particularly like is doomed, why should they bother? Indeed, they might be able to hasten the process. Hodgson's mistakes were amplified by his institutional weakness, which ensured that disquiet became mutinous.

But all that's an aside. The point is that Dalglish was always going to be better than Hodgson, by simple virtue of not being Hodgson. At which simple task he excelled: he got hat-tricks out of Maxi Rodriguez, oversaw an famous win over Manchester United, and generally gave the Anfield faithful a vigorous back-rub. But it's worth nothing that the biggest disappointments of his brief second reign have come in the only games that mattered in the wider scheme of things: the Europa League ties against Braga and the two games at the end of the season, when Europe was back on the table. If there's something riding on it, Dalglish's Liverpool have cocked it up.

There's mitigation, of course. Braga - on the basis of one 6-0 thrashing by Arsenal - were woefully underestimated by pretty much everyone, all the way to the final, while both Tottenham and Villa played as well as they had for weeks. But Dalglish's next season will not be a rescue mission, and will not be conducted in similar pressure-free circumstances. He will retain the affection of the crowd and the backing of the board, particularly since the latter have a vested interest in retaining his patronage. But he will have to do as well again, this time without a handy dipstick to provide a flattering measurement.

And he will have to find a way to reintegrate Steven Gerrard. It has been suggested in some parts of the press that since Liverpool have been playing so well without their captain, his return will only see them improve further. But this is a touch counter-intuitive: bringing Gerrard in requires removing somebody who's been playing well. Essentially, the three positions that Gerrard might take up in what appears to be Dalglish's preferred formation - wide on either flank or just behind the striker in a fluid 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 - are those occupied by Raul Meireles, Dirk Kuyt and Luis Suárez, arguably Dalglish's three most impressive performers.

Alternatively, Dalglish might bring him into the central two, in place of either Lucas Leiva or, more likely, Jay Spearing. But Gerrard, while undoubtedly blessed with exceptional qualities, lacks the necessary modesty to play either of these fundamentally unglamorous roles. This is not intended as abuse, but simply as an observation that Gerrard is one of these curious players that seems to worry that if he's not actually touching the ball, he might not exist. If I do nothing, I am nothing. Therefore I must do something, whether or not it's the right thing to do.

There is, of course, much cause for optimism. Suárez has been intermittently magnificent and clearly terrifies defenders. Carroll has potential, Meireles is an outstanding and committed footballer, and Dirk Kuyt looks as Dirk Kuyt as he ever has, if that's your thing. There are some decent kids, and there is a world-class goalkeeper. But Dalglish took over to heal a club that had gone through trauma off the field and was stumbling on it; his job was part manager, part nurse, and part priest. Now, he enters a season simply as the manager of Liverpool, with all the madness and expectation that entails. The challenges will be greater, the margin for error smaller, and the pressure will be back.

He may succeed; he may not. But trying to predict that on the basis of the season just gone is to ignore the unique context in which he took over. He managed excellently in an environment where he couldn't possibly fail. Now he has to do it all again, only this time for real.

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