Henry's long-term plan looks bleak for Hodgson
Manager left vulnerable by Comolli's arrival and poor displays from his signings as new owner unimpressed by first match at Anfield
Saturday 06 November 2010
The only contact between Damien Comolli, Liverpool's new director of performance, and the world beyond Melwood this week was the text message which wished him the best of luck in bringing the next Gareth Bale to Anfield. "No pressure," was his reply.
There are actually mixed views on whether it was Comolli who, as Tottenham's director of football, delivered Bale to White Hart Lane in 2007, or his chairman Daniel Levy – and many say it was Levy. But the pressure would certainly have been unmistakable when Comolli left Anfield after watching his new club's 3-1 win over Napoli on Thursday. Steven Gerrard might have saved the day but the overall impression was the one which has pervaded the club all season: that Liverpool bought injudiciously this summer and are a very poor imitation of the Rafael Benitez side who dealt tomorrow's visitors, Chelsea, two seasons of Champions League semi-final agonies.
Comolli's appointment was announced on Wednesday, midway through a week that John W Henry, principal owner of New England Sports Ventures, has spent on Merseyside, taking detailed soundings from those who observe and expound on Liverpool. Yesterday he made his second appointment, installing Tom Werner as chairman in place of Martin Broughton, who had always planned to stand aside. Werner has a similar role with the Boston Red Sox.
The listening approach is very different from that taken during the Tom Hicks and George Gillett era, though for all the information he carries back to Boston, Henry brought some crystal-clear ideas about the transfer market of his own – including his belief that it is folly to pay out high fees and wages on players in their late 20s and 30s, who offer no resale value.
Comolli has arrived to help make the vision a reality. The 38-year-old Frenchman and Henry share a deep appreciation of the part statistical data can play in spending wisely on the best young players – the science of sabermetrics. Comolli has developed a personal friendship with the Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane, who transformed his own sport with the method. Henry once tried to hire Beane for the Red Sox.
Hence some of the telling body language in the directors' box on Thursday night. Henry shook his head when Raul Meireles swivelled into a right-foot effort against Napoli and put a golden opportunity wide and though Graham Taylor, from his commentator's position, observed drily that proprietors always think they might do better on the field of play, the owner had his reasons. Meireles' struggles to adapt to the Premier League may have contributed to the new owner wondering precisely why Hodgson spent £11.5m on him this summer.
Liverpool's medical staff discovered that Meireles needed building up physically when he arrived at Liverpool from Porto and the club have also struggled to establish where he operates best. But he still has a lot to prove – almost as much as Christian Poulsen (£4.5m) and Paul Konchesky (£5m), the latter whom Hodgson brought from Fulham. Poulsen's most significant contribution to Thursday's match was the misdirected header which set up the lead Napoli held for nearly an hour.
The brutal truth to date is that Poulsen and Konchesky are the kind of comfort-blanket players a new manager will sometimes turn to in the knowledge that they have done a job elsewhere before. The impression given by Joe Cole and by Fabio Aurelio, re-signed this summer when Liverpool had shipped out nearly all of their serviceable left-backs, is little better. The average age of the new lot is 30.
Henry clearly did not consult with Hodgson before deciding to bring in Comolli. "I really didn't talk that much with Roy over the week or so before we made the decision," he said yesterday. "I think he may have been surprised when I brought it up a couple of days before we brought in Damien. But he was fully supportive." Hodgson seems to feel that Henry will grant him the second striker he needs, though his managerial future appears heavily dependent on Gerrard regularly reaching the heights of Thursday.
Henry already knows Gerrard quite well. He sat with the captain at an informal lunch with the players on their first day at Anfield last month. But though the 61-year-old and his wife, Linda Pizzuti, stood and punched the Liverpool night air as the captain's 88th-minute penalty drove Liverpool into the lead against Napoli, Hodgson knows no amount of statistical work can buy you a younger version of that passion.
"More and more we bring players into our teams who are gifted individuals, but they don't always have that fight in them as well," Hodgson observed. "Football has changed, and in [Jamie] Carragher and Gerrard we do have two of a dying breed. They are Liverpool through and through, and not only that but they have the quality, guts and desire to play for Liverpool. Most managers would say they are the type of player we really want, but they are much harder to find these days.
"United have their share with [Paul] Scholes and [Ryan] Giggs, but if you go through the Premier League these days, it's not so easy to name many of them. We recruit talent from abroad, but they might not have that burning heart which refuses to accept defeat, as Steven did against Napoli."
There is of course nothing to say that Meireles won't prosper and be taken to Anfield hearts. The story Maxi Rodriguez tells reveals that 29-year-olds, whatever their re-sale value, can deliver after a rocky start. Rodriguez speaks of the need for Liverpool to play with "tranquility" against Chelsea. It is part of the current demands for instant results that both he and his manager have been granted so little of it in their respective Anfield careers. Should Liverpool win tomorrow, incidentally, they will be only three points worse off than they were after 11 games last season.
Yet Hodgson, whose only memory of coming up against Carlo Ancelotti's management in Italy was a game he lost, as Internazionale manager, at Parma in the late 1990s, badly needs others to follow where Rodriquez has led in the past fortnight. Glen Johnson, who made his Chelsea debut against Liverpool at Anfield in 2003, has still to prove that the £80,000-a-week wages he picks up – a figure even Benitez later admitted was only paid because of the need for more English players to meet Uefa quotas – are remotely good value. Liverpool's £120m wage bill is something else which will have had Henry shaking his head. Cole, the £90,000-a-week man who is 29 on Monday, will miss tomorrow's game with a hamstring injury.
Hodgson has grounds to believe that Fernando Torres will rise to this occasion more than others this season, having scored five goals in seven games against Chelsea in all competitions. You suspect it will be Gerrard who will be the talisman once again, though. Only this time it will not be a suspect Napoli goalkeeper he is encountering but a side against whom he has managed only one goal for Liverpool in 30 appearances – and even that one in a 4-1 Anfield defeat.
Ms Pizutti revealed on her Twitter feed yesterday that the strains of "you're not singing any more", delivered to the Napoli fans, were a personal highlight of Thursday evening. With the size of the task her husband is facing, she may not be hearing that kind of triumphalism too often.
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