James Lawton: Kenny Dalglish needs right ingredients to find the recipe for reviving Anfield
Liverpool's returning hero cannot work miracles unless owner Henry commits himself to strengthening playing resources
Monday 17 January 2011
There is a well known saying in American sport, often offered in support of coaches far more embattled than Kenny Dalglish at this stage of his second honeymoon.
It says that you can't make chicken salad out of chicken ... well, you know what.
It is certainly easy to believe Dalglish may well consider his situation desperate enough to employ this coarse but vivid phrase when he sits down with owner John W Henry.
Mr Henry is very proud of his restoration of the Boston Red Sox to the point of winning two World Series. But he didn't do it with lightweight playing resources, certainly nothing as flimsy as that now at the disposal of Dalglish as he seeks to prod his old club back to within shouting distance of the top flight of English football.
So now Henry has to get serious about the Anfield project. It's all very well appointing a director of football to draw up a master plan but he should know that a lot of people in English football – and quite a number of them in relatively successful places like Arsenal and Tottenham – are unconvinced that Damien Comolli is quite the sure-fire messiah his publicity sometimes suggests.
In the meantime, Henry has to realise that if Dalglish has been appointed as anything more than a big-league window dresser he has to be given the means to do a job, however long or short his tenure.
Yesterday the challenge of merely making Liverpool look reasonably competitive again as something more than relegation scramblers still looked pretty mountainous. Not, it is true, quite as Himalayan as it appeared at Blackpool in midweek, when Ian Holloway's cut-priced warriors merely had to throw a few well-aimed blows to create the foundation of complete mastery.
At least Liverpool came back from Everton's heavy one-two combination early in the second half – and when they equalised it was interesting to see that Dalglish's instructions came straight from football's oldest playbook; move, pass the ball, take the game to your opponents, he exhorted.
But then Dalglish knows well enough that however much you try to spruce up the football salad, you are rather dependent on the ingredients. They are not good enough, not nearly, and the extent of the problem deepens the moment you move beyond the holy trinity of Pepe Reina, Fernando Torres and the suspended Steven Gerrard.
Dirk Kuyt is, of course, a player of vast commitment. It must also help Dalglish's peace of mind that he seems to have helped provoke something like the old, brilliant furies in Torres. He came within an inch of scoring another superb goal and generally looked as if he had indeed returned from another planet.
That's fine as far as it goes but whatever new horizons, and old standards, Dalglish is able to evoke, they will remain as unattainable as they have seemed the past few years without a substantial increase in superior manpower.
One word now is that Dalglish is placing some hopes on signing the Beast of the World Cup – Mark van Bommel. It makes a degree of sense.
In South Africa last summer Van Bommel seemed hell-bent on becoming the football Antichrist. Not only he did he commit a rash of fouls, he did it with an absolute sense of impunity. It was also true that he was one of the reasons why a stop-start Netherlands reached the final and might have won it if they had set their minds to playing a little football in the final.
Van Bommel can also pass the ball and read a game. For these reasons alone you could weigh the Dutchman in gold at Anfield right now and at around £3m Dalglish could fairly claim a bargain that could at least go some way to repairing erosion of a first-team squad completely ill-equipped to ride such losses as those of Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano.
What is self-evident is that Liverpool have problems beyond the inspiration of a Dalglish if the new ownership do not abandon the pretty but impractical notion that the aura of King Kenny is in itself a powerful enough antidote to recent disasters, enough at least to keep the old caravan rolling until some grand reappraisals in the summer.
Unlike baseball, football has a trapdoor. It's called relegation and the new owners might be intrigued to know that it is an experience not unknown to clubs like Manchester United and Chelsea, and that before their desert windfall Manchester City regarded it as a recurring feature of the football life.
City are currently throwing vast resources into not only banishing that now distant spectre but proving that if you have enough of them you can win anything you desire.
However, Mr Henry has made it plain he has no ambition to outspend Sheikh Mansour. He wants to be businesslike, to build a new Liverpool on the memory of the old one, but at his own pace – and price.
He may have thought he saw a flicker of such a possibility when Torres smacked the woodwork so beautifully and then Raul Meireles perfectly exploited the pressure exerted by the dogged Kuyt. But if Meireles was a hero then, he was wearing more familiar clothes when he lacked the strength to contain Jermaine Beckford when he put Everton in front from close range.
What followed only underlined the folly in believing that the Dalglish appointment might prove merely a smart piece of public relations without intruding on the business plan dreamt up across the Atlantic. Like it or not, when Henry appointed Dalglish, at a time when the club showed every indication of tearing itself apart, he invested in something more than a handy foil for the most violent of the criticism flowing down from the terraces.
He said that, yes, he did understand the meaning of Liverpool's past and he was involved in something more than stabilising a business project. That he has to prove it now, and quickly, surely yelled to him from every corner of Anfield – and especially the pitch.
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