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Questioning The King

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Heavy hangs the head that wears the crown. It's one of Shakespeare's most over-used lines, that spot of rumination from Henry IV. But then, there's a reason why certain lines and turns of phrase end up repeated until more are familiar with a single passage than the work it springs from.

Which brings one round to an at times difficult reality: When you're the man in charge, no matter what you've done to deserve respect and how well you've performed in the past and how numerous the mitigating circumstances, when things go wrong people will ask questions. In this case, that man in charge is Kenny Dalglish. And he has most certainly earned his respect.

Yet it is hard to imagine any person with the slightest interest in Liverpool watching last weekend's match against West Bromwich Albion and not having their eyebrows skeptically raise three notches at the sight of a 4-2-2-2 with Raul Meireles pushed out onto the left, like a bad memory of the darkest days of Roy Hodgson brought back just in time for the former manager to hand Liverpool its most embarrassing defeat of the new Dalglish era.

It was a tactical choice that would have seen the former manager's competence drawn and quartered in every paper, on every form, and on every blog. It would have lead to one more round of questioning whether Hodgson in fact had the slightest clue how to deploy his only successful summer signing, as after any number of strong showings in the center of the park Meireles found himself once again shunted wide to accommodate other players after it had clearly, negatively impacted the team's performance on every other occasion.

It was a tactical move that, after the excitement of early appearances by an attacking 4-3-3 under Dalglish and the innovation of a 3-6-1 to negate Chelsea and Stoke, was disappointing to say the least. Those early, fiery displays, built on the back of set-ups that favoured the players Liverpool had on hand and with an overwhelming priority on keeping the ball on the pitch, may have helped set the bar too high for this tired and injured squad to ever live up to in the dying days of the campaign. Still, no matter the reasons or excuses, a return to Roy Hodgson's favoured formation--and with a deep, flat-lying back four no less--couldn't help but leave a sour taste in the wake of a bad loss.

Those feelings of unease didn't start just with a disappointing set of tactics against West Brom, either, or with watching Dani Pacheco tear things up for Norwich after spending months petrifying on the bench behind the likes of Joe Cole. In many ways, that unease began right around the time that Andy Carroll began his return, with a pair of dull and dire matches against Braga in the Europa League that saw Liverpool snooze their way out of continental play. There was a decline in pass and move football, a return to the ball sailing majestically over the heads in midfield, and with it an increasing lack of movement amongst Liverpool's attacking players--at least when Luis Suarez wasn't single-handedly beating a half-dozen opponents.


Of course, it's far easier to question decisions when you're on the outside looking in, and after the fact no less. Moreover, at the end of the day there's no question over how much better the team has looked and the overall results have been since Dalglish took over, or that he, Clarke, and the rest of the coaching staff are the ones best placed to make well informed tactical and personnel decisions.

Then, too, there is the situation the club faces of having a grand total of zero healthy fullbacks, and now the further bad news of Gerrard being ruled out for the remainder of the season.

It's a monumental task that the coaching staff faces, one with a seemingly endless string of problems.

Still, it's hard to get around the fact that if Roy Hodgson had played a 4-2-2-2 with a deep-lying flat back four, questions would have been asked. Questions like why Kuyt and Suarez didn't play as part of a front three to provide at least a hint of width, especially when Suarez took up wider positions as the match moved towards its close and Liverpool's play visibly improved as a result. Questions about playing Meireles as a nominally wide left-sided player when--quibbles over whether he's best suited further up the pitch or in a slightly reserved role aside--he has consistently not only performed better, but had the entire team around him perform better, when deployed in more central positions. Questions as to why Maxi, who has at least looked capable under Dalglish and could have provided more natural width on the left while allowing Meireles to move inside, shoring up a midfield where Spearing appeared overmatched whenever the ball wasn't being sailed over his head, wasn't given a run-out.

It's a bad situation with more problems than answers, and Dalglish has earned a great deal of respect not only for what he's done for the club in the past but also for what he's done since and even by his return. And the situation he found himself in last Saturday as defenders dropped like flies was a fiendishly difficult one. But one still has to be able to question whether a manager has got things right at the end of the day, and it's hard not to look back at what transpired at The Hawthornes and think that the resources that were on hand, however limited, could have been used more effectively.

Perhaps it's all just part of a team struggling to figure out how best to utilise Andy Carroll. Perhaps Dalglish is seeing things in training that would place the decisions made against West Brom beyond reproach. Whatever the case, one can only hope this unsettling stretch will turn out to have been just a bump in the road, and that Liverpool will find a way to a stronger, more cohesive performance against Manchester City.

At least as much as any side with no healthy fullbacks or true natural wide players could be expected to look strong and cohesive against Premier League opposition.

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