Dalglish struggling to justify costly gap year
Last season Newcastle trailed Liverpool; now they are ahead despite selling them their best players. Steve Tongue on today's eagerly awaited clash
Great expectations; what a curse they can be for football teams. Last May a Liverpool side whose form had been bad enough for five months to get Roy Hodgson the sack finished 12 points ahead of Newcastle United. Spending another £35m net in the close-season as opposed to Newcastle's £2m net might reasonably have been expected to push the clubs further apart. Yet going into today's meeting on Tyneside, and even after beating them 3-1 at Anfield just after Christmas, Kenny Dalglish's team trail Alan Pardew's by eight points.
Dalglish suggested recently that anyone judging his beloved club on League positions alone required "an intelligence check". Perhaps a belief that there is more to it than that stemmed from his one full season in charge of Newcastle, when he finished 13th in the Premier League, preferring to remember reaching the FA Cup final and beating Barcelona in the Champions' League.
This time it is again to the cups that he is looking, although even with the Carling Cup tucked away – a real struggle in the final but after some good away wins in earlier rounds – the season will look underwhelming if the FA Cup does not join it in the once overcrowded Anfield trophy room.
Dalglish has made much of bad luck – although Manchester City have now struck the bar or post more often – affecting the home form, although away from Anfield they have lost eight times and still have fewer away points than anyone above them, including Newcastle.
A more significant factor is surely the quality of signings made in what he calls "a huge turnaround of players" and how they have performed. As our panel shows, Newcastle's have done markedly better for less than one quarter the cost.
"If someone comes in, they have to be a lot better than what we've got," Dalglish reiterated on Friday. His purchases, on the face of it, should have been, but have not turned out so, as even members of the extended Liverpool family admit.
Phil Thompson, a former club captain and then assistant manager under Gérard Houllier, stills calls the club "we" but admits: "The team is average, a lot of players have not done it. When we signed Andy Carroll, never mind the fee, I and other fans thought 'what a great signing'. I'd have been gutted if he went to another club. I'm hoping it's a transitional season but you can't hide behind the fact that it's not really worked. If you look at all the signings, so many of them haven't hit the ground running."
John Barnes, who joined the club in 1987 just as Thompson was finishing, makes a perceptive point about the newcomers: "When I went to Liverpool I'd had six years at Watford and 30 England caps, consistently playing well for six years to get a move to a big club. Peter Beardsley had five years at Newcastle, 15 or 20 caps; John Aldridge, Ray Houghton similarly.
"But because of the demands now, Andy Carroll had one year at Newcastle, Jordan Henderson one year at Sunderland, then they get big-money moves through no fault of their own and Liverpool have to pay the going rate. And even when Peter and I went there, it's in the lap of the gods whether it works straightaway."
It certainly did for those two. Liverpool won the League by a street, somehow contrived to lose the Cup final to Wimbledon, and the following year should have done the Double for the second time in four seasons. That was the level the club operated at for the best part of 25 years and the sort of standard that subsequent teams have been judged against.
Both Barnes and Thompson, who were speaking after appearing at the SoccerEx European Forum in Manchester, agree that expectations play a part in all that and while Liverpool have failed to live up to theirs, Newcastle have done the opposite.
Barnes nevertheless expected less than some people: "I never thought with the squad Liverpool had that they would challenge for the title. I feel they have a distinct lack of quality. They relied on [Steven] Gerrard and [Fernando] Torres too heavily and now they're relying on Gerrard and Suarez. Kenny wanted it to have worked in the first year but he is looking for the long term, hoping these are going to be Liverpool's heroes for the next 10 years.
"While Liverpool have been disappointing, Newcastle are a surprise," Barnes added. "They've done it differently. What they've done is bought good players from abroad like [Yohan] Cabaye and [Cheick] Tioté, knowing they're not going to be at Newcastle for ever, but to get immediate success. Maybe to sell them next year for a profit and then they'll bring some more in for four or five million. So the two clubs' philosophy has been different."
Having played under Dalglish at both clubs, Barnes still believes in him and suggests that, crucially, the Liverpool players do. Thompson will not have many words said against the manager either, and he sums up: "Everybody [at Newcastle] has played to their potential, whereas ours haven't. But Liverpool's vastly different because of all the expectations."
Ah, those great expectations. And at what some of us still call St James' Park, Liverpool will expect again this afternoon.
Transfer hits and misses
Hit Hatem Ben Arfa, Jan 2011 (£4m after loan): Gifted midfielder who has proved inspirational despite missing several months with a broken leg.
Hit Demba Ba, June 2011 (free): 16 goals in 24 starts, one of bargains of summer after relegation at West Ham.
Hit Yohan Cabaye, July 2011 (£4.8m): The steel to match his compatriot Ben Arfa's silk in midfield.
Hit Papiss Cissé, Jan 2012 (£9m): The fee showed the club's increasing confidence – already looks justified.
Miss Gabriel Obertan, Aug 2011 (£3m): Initial good impression by the Manchester United signing faded.
Miss Davide Santon, Aug 2011 (£5m): More was expected from an Italian defender who has now lost his place.
Hit Luis Suarez, Jan 2011 (£22.8m): On pure footballing grounds, proved the main attacker Anfield hoped for.
Hit Jose Enrique, Aug 2011 (£5m): Has made left-back position his own, Newcastle failed to replace him.
Miss Andy Carroll, Jan 2011 (£35m): Fee wasn't his fault but would have looked expensive at half the price.
Miss Jordan Henderson, June 2011 (£20m): Struggled from his first game against former club Sunderland.
Miss Charlie Adam, July 2011 (£9m): Has had his moments but mainly from set pieces. Looks much smaller fish in a bigger pond.
Miss Stewart Downing, July 2011 (£20m): Man of match in League Cup final but frequently exasperating and without a League goal.
Newcastle United v Liverpool is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 1.30pm
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