Monday 20 May 2019

Shackles are off at Anfield, so abandon hope all who enter

The hopeless optimism of Liverpool's supporters vanished after defeat to Manchester City last Monday night. This was a good thing. Liverpool is no place for hopeless optimism. Or even hopeful optimism.

Every time Joe Cole plays he gives another example of why only the deluded could see him as the signing of the summer. Liverpool is no place for the deluded.

There should have been no optimism among Liverpool fans this summer, no Newcastle United-style rejoicing at a summer signing. Not when the club is in peril. The chairman Martin Broughton said at the beginning of July that the club was on course for "where we would have expected to be" which involved a sale by the end of August. August is at an end and Liverpool aren't where they expected to be. They're not even where it's at.

Liverpool now have a football team to match the reduced ambitions of the boardroom.

The club which once existed solely to be a source of pride to their supporters and had no other purpose is now a source of pride to Andy Gray, Jamie Redknapp and Sky Sports, and a headache for the banks. The club is being managed as Sky Sports always felt it should be. It has an English manager who is playing England's captain in his favourite position. Liverpool are doomed.

On Monday night, Andy Gray's pre-match tactical analysis on Sky anticipated with relish Steven Gerrard's selection in midfield. The reluctance of nearly every manager Gerrard has worked under to select him in midfield was raised. Gray seemed bewildered by this collective wisdom as if trying to work out why a woman would dump a cat in a wheelie bin.

Some managers have certainly acted as if English players are dumb animals as they surround them with players who can do their thinking for them.

Under Hodgson, Liverpool are taking a different approach and the defeat to Manchester City demonstrated how it's going to work out.

At Liverpool, they have embraced the quota system as the means to shape a more English personality to their team. Liverpool have never had an English personality, even when the team was mainly made up of Englishmen.

Gerrard, in his unconscious way, has retreated from the humiliation of the summer and decided that the solution to this humiliation is to surround himself with Englishmen and feel safe.

Rafa Benitez tried to challenge him and, for a time, he was successful. But Gerrard wasn't happy, as if happiness has anything to do with anything. Gerrard has run from hard choices his whole career and resented those who tried to make them for him.

He should have left Liverpool rather than be the arrested and malfunctioning heart of the team. Instead he ducked those challenges and now, helped by his supporters on Sky, he has changed the rules again. He will be happy, and Liverpool will be happy, if Gerrard plays in central midfield, a position of importance to match his ego.

Hodgson seems inclined to give these powerful forces within the dressing room responsibility. He has handed Joe Cole a central role, ignoring the lessons of this summer, and every summer, that no Englishman anywhere should ever be given a central role or the responsibility that comes with it.

By the end of last Monday night, Gray should have been chastened. Instead he didn't seem to grasp the significance of his post-match comments as they showed a clip of Gerrard hitting the post. It was, Gray said, "Steven Gerrard at his best". Liverpool were 2-0 down and Gerrard, freed from the restrictions of having to think and create, was trying his Superman routine. "The shackles were off," Richard Keys said beside Gray, unable to grasp that central midfield play is about recognising when to shackle and to unshackle. Steven Gerrard's problem is that he has no idea how he does the things he can do, let alone how to do the things he can't.

The self-destructiveness at the heart of this desire for Gerrard is its most interesting factor.

Under Benitez, Gerrard was finally allowed to play without responsibility as a partner for Torres. His legs may or may not be up to this role at this stage of his career but it will take an astonishing mental adjustment for him to do anything else.

Hodgson is a man well-respected in UEFA circles or, in other words, a nonentity, a corporate line manager who can make everybody feel at home. Sky feel at home at Liverpool now.

Javier Mascherano's refusal to play created a convenient scapegoat (there always seems to be one nearby when Gerrard is exposed) as Hodgson had to abandon his plan to play Gerrard behind Torres at the last minute. Mascherano had stated his desire to leave for a year so intending to play him in the last few days of the transfer window could be seen as bad planning rather than planning.

Hodgson used the fall-out from the Mascherano strike to criticise Benitez's attempts to sign Dirk Kuyt. Benitez had given a written undertaking that he would not return to sign his former players, Hodgson claimed.

Some said Hodgson had made a similar promise when he left Fulham, that he would leave the talent at Craven Cottage alone. By signing Paul Konchesky, he can be said to be observing the spirit of this agreement.

"We don't need the money," Hodgson said when discussing Inter's interest in Kuyt, words that should have tripped a few alarms when Liverpool need every penny they can get.

Hodgson was the appointment of a board that has failed in its primary duty. He was the low maintenance man they could do business with while they failed in their main objective.

It is time for Liverpool supporters to start boycotting matches, to take direct action against the owners and the board that sustains them still.

Hodgson, it was said, brought stability. Liverpool does not need stability, it needs radicalism. Bill Shankly did not bring stability; if he had, the club would have remained stable in the second division. Hodgson needs to challenge Gerrard. When Cole returns from suspension, the manager will have to confront their failings and play them where they are most dangerous, not where they think they belong.

Benitez had to go because the dressing room atmosphere had soured. So far this season, Liverpool are playing with the abandon of free men.

Sunday Independent

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