Raul Meireles’ exit to blame for jiggered Liverpool
As the hangovers on the red half of Merseyside cleared in the aftermath of last week’s derby victory, it may well have been that they were replaced by the sober realisation that, despite winning a first trophy since 2006 (and since securing passage to Wembley for an FA Cup semi-final), this has not been a season in which Liverpool have covered themselves in glory.
The long and protracted Suárez / Evra imbroglio soured already fractious relations with Manchester United and drew incredible interpretative contortions and opportunistic exaggerations from either side of a chasm – very little of it borne of reason, the vast majority a simple reflex of blind and intractable loyalties that already subtly and unconsciously pre-form the ‘objective’ evidence (one can only wonder how the supporters’ accounts of the ‘facts’ would alter in the admittedly unlikely event of the two protagonists, or antagonists, swapping clubs…).
Whether or not it was upstairs pressure from Liverpool’s corporate partners alone that brought The Handshake Affair to resolution before its toxic fallout could spread, it’s safe to say that the whole protracted episode placed Dalglish in an invidious position (another interesting hypothesis: would his support have been quite as unstinting and vehement had it been a player less central to the team’s fortunes?). And, coincidentally, it was the feelings of said corporate partners that were recently cited by Dalglish in order to underline the progress – measured in pounds sterling, presumably – that have been made at the club, where the kit deal with Warrior Sports and a thriving academy are undoubtedly reasons to be cheerful. Even so, one had the impression that the manager was being as elusive as he once had been as a player, all this a diversion from the fact that the club’s most recent headaches have been principally on-field – which, more than fundraising or PR, is undeniably his domain.
Now, one doesn’t need to go quite so far as the preposterous #kennyout hashtag – perhaps the work of an agent provocateur – to assert that the oft-heard and somewhat vague refrain of “we’re better than last year” hasn’t rung entirely true. Indeed, had the league started on New Year’s Day, then the derby win would have had Liverpool clambering to one rung above the relegation spots, having gone into the game with only beleagured Wolves beneath them (on goal difference). As it is, over the whole season they are only those three points better off than this time last year and, while the squad does have more depth, it is still woefully short of regular matchwinners.
The £71m outlay on Carroll, Henderson and Downing still looks (at least) £25m too much. The big Geordie’s woes have been well documented, and the other two have but a single Premier League goal between them, but goallessness is invariably a function of the overall quality and speed of ball circulation, particularly in midfield, as it is about the simple making and taking of chances (not all of which are equal, of course, regardless of Liverpool having had more shots per game than all bar three teams). For all the woodwork-banging and inspired opposing keepers, only Stoke and Wigan have fewer goals from open play this season.
The midfield dysfunctions can be partly attributed to the loss of the control brought by last year’s Fans’ Player of the Year, Lucas Leiva, while Adam’s form as a deep-lying playmaker has been patchy, to say the least, and if he is not playing incisive passes then his lack of mobility can be a problem. Then there’s last week’s hat-trick hero. For all Gerrard’s final third thrust, he lacks the sang-froid of a true playmaker and, actually, when he plays in the centre often confuses those of more sober temperament and lesser physical gifts around him. Better to have him purvey his unpredictable and slightly frenetic brand of making-things-happen in more advanced positions.
All this may be true, yet much of the midfield muddle and toothlessness can be traced back to the deadline day exit of Raul Meireles, ostensibly over demands that his £30,000 weekly salary be doubled, as reported to have been verbally agreed with Hicks and Gillett when he signed. From an idealist’s perspective, Dalglish was surely right to jettison someone he felt wasn’t sufficiently committed to the cause (although, if the evidence for such a view is his attitude after his pay wasn’t reviewed, this is somewhat chicken-and-egg). From a pragmatic perspective, however, letting go a player who was voted last season’s PFA Fans’ Player of the Year (that is, by all fans) looks to be a serious mistake. Whether Lucas and Gerrard are available or not, the playing staff simply didn’t have another player with Meireles’ qualities.
Following their New Year revival, Liverpool finished last season in rampant form, using a 4-2-3-1 system beloved of Rafa in which the most advanced player, Suárez, had licence to drop deep and the advanced midfield trident – Maxi, Kuyt and Meireles – were free to interchange positions when in possession. Not only did Kuyt and Maxi suddenly start scoring freely (23 goals between them, 17 after Hodgson’s exit), the whole team played with a discernible flourish, a style that seemed to be the living, breathing embodiment of that Boot Room pass-and-move tradition in which Dalglish was steeped, and one that appeared to foreshadow how the team would play this season.
However, if that blueprint wasn’t already seriously problematized by having a large, Carroll-shaped peg to fit into these shifting holes, then it was effectively binned with the departure of the midfield sophistication and guile of Meireles, a latter-day Terry McDermott who, after a five-goals-in-six burst, thrived when Gerrard was sidelined with a thigh strain and knitted the play together so intelligently. It was to the surprise of few on the Kop that the Portuguese went promptly into compatriot André Villas-Boas’ first-choice midfield at Chelsea, taking with him 50 international caps and that Iberian gift for subtle positioning and rapid ball circulation that means a partially unlocked defence is not allowed to recover due to ponderous or careless touches, the sort of quick-witted link-play that makes those around him more effective and that consequently enabled Suárez, in particular, to take up more dangerous positions in which to receive the ball.
As Liverpool huff and puff away in the league, further now from the leaders than they were twelve months ago, rarely finding the solutions to win games at Anfield and yet evolving in a cross-based stylistic direction that makes such an event increasingly unlikely, it would appear that – for all their recent cup successes – the wrong one of their midfield surplus was sacrificed in August. Even the most ardent Koppite would struggle to imagine that, twelve months from today, Kenny’s trio of North-Eastern signings will have improved enough to propel Liverpool to challenging for Champions League qualification. And with the emergence of Spurs and Man City, treading water is no longer enough.
Follow Scott Oliver on Twitter.